Design & Development10/28/2005

D&D Monster Niches

We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

This week, Jesse Decker (along with Jonathan Tweet) examines the niches that monsters occupy.

Monster Niches

Monsters consistently rank as one of my favorite things to work on as a developer. The modular nature of their design and development means that you get to see a lot of cool ideas in a relatively short amount of time; plus, I generate a lot of great ideas for encounters and adventures when working on monsters -- they’re probably the most directly usable material that a DM can receive. As Dave Noonan’s Monster Traction article highlighted, good monster design includes good mechanical execution, interesting flavor, and a very high concentration of ideas in general. On top of all that, they’re one of the most important parts of the game beyond the core rules system.

Why so much importance on monsters? Because they’re the most frequently occurring source of variety in D&D games. Every time the DM uses a new monster there’s big-time potential for that monster’s design to impact the fun you have at the table. Designing and developing a monster well is one of our best tools for helping DMs create interesting encounters, moving play along quickly, and introducing variety into your game.

Because of all that, the design and development teams go to quite a lot of effort to get good monsters on your table. We’ll talk about monsters a lot in this column, but one of the first things I ask when a monster comes my way is: what’s this monster’s role? What mechanical niche does the monster fill? The monster’s niche describes its role in a combat encounter, and once that niche is established, a lot of the later decisions about the monster become easier to answer.

Here are the monster niches that we look at in development:

A mobster has to be worthwhile in a mob of up to twelve creatures, which means it needs to be able to impact an encounter even when fighting characters six or seven levels above its CR. Orc warriors set the standard for the mobster monster -- they have good attack bonuses for their CR and deal considerable damage. Ghouls, on the other hand, make terrible mobsters because their attack bonus is simply too low for them to threaten 7th-level characters. (Undead tend to be bad mobsters in general, because higher-level clerics can smash them with a single turn undead attempt.)

Very few creatures at higher CRs make good mobsters. Most extant creatures beyond CR 7 typically have so many special abilities that it’s hard for the DM to track them (I’ll talk about this point in my next article on monsters). Limited-use special abilities and abilities with random durations are especially bad for mobsters because the DM has to track which monsters have used them. The 1d4 round delay for a dragon’s breath weapon might be pretty easy to keep track of when it’s one bad-ass dragon taking on a group of characters, but it becomes extremely difficult to track when there are a dozen tiny dragons flying around, most of whom have different breath weapon recharge times that need to be individually tracked. Creatures at high levels do need good mobility and perception, though, so that they can threaten invisible and flying characters; this is especially important for mobsters because they often fight PCs above their own level.

I was reminded firsthand of what makes a bad mobster when I recently used a half-dozen vrocks as mobsters in a playtest. Play ground to a halt because of all the abilities and durations that had to be tracked (ick… spores), and they proved little challenge to the adventurers. The encounter wasn’t fun, but it was a great reminder to me that we need to find a way to communicate a monster’s niche to the DM.

This is simply a creature that hurts you even though your AC is really high. While we never want to punish a player for building their character with skill, it can be frustrating for other players (and especially the DM) if a character consistently walks through a fight unscathed. What fun is it if the barbarian is dropped in every fight but the high-Dex fighter never takes damage? Wraiths and other creatures with incorporeal touch attacks make great nutcrackers because they ignore many components of their target’s AC -- plus, they’re cool monsters that often see play. Creatures with area-effect attacks, such as dragons, also make good nutcrackers because they can damage each character regardless of their AC. At higher levels, area-effect, Ref-save attacks don’t work as well because monks and rogues can have very high ACs and evasion. Spells that are Will-save for half damage, such as the nightwalker’s quickened unholy blight, remain effective even at very high levels of play.

A spoiler is a creature with specific defenses. Specific defenses help make one monster different from another. For example, a creature with spell resistance (SR) shifts power balance away from spellcasters, while damage reduction (DR) shifts power balance toward spellcasters. One often finds creatures with both DR and SR, such as outsiders; this combination blunts the effect either special ability would have on its own.

DR is a strange effect, because it can punish melee attackers in general but reward melee attackers who deal lots of damage. Displacement has a more pure effect, hurting attack rolls but leaving area-attacks and spells unaffected. (That’s one reason why the displacer beast shouldn’t have a save bonus against ranged spells.)

Soft Target
A creature with low AC. Usually, it should have a lot of hit points. This balance of stats makes some features relatively better (e.g., Power Attack) and others relatively worse (e.g., magic missile). It’s OK if the creature has other defenses, such as displacement. DR, however, makes spells and energy attacks relatively better, so it works against the low AC angle.

Hard Target
Tangent Alert!: Some monsters -- such as golems -- hose a single character, but I always try to develop toward a different goal. Sure the wizard can spend his time in a fight with a golem casting buff spells on the one fighter that has an adamantium greatsword, but the person playing that wizard probably doesn’t have much fun. It’s much better for the play experience to make monsters where every character is effective -- but where that one character (especially an underpowered archetype) gets to really shine.

For example, a soft-target monster with a lot of hit points makes the rogue feel great; she can sneak attack for ten thousand points of damage, have a good chance of hitting even though she has a lower attack bonus than the fighter, and really gets a chance to stand out. The other characters still get to deal damage, but the rogue will have greater-than-normal chance to affect the battle.
Obviously the other side of the coin from soft target monsters. These creatures have a high AC, especially a high hard AC but a low touch AC and no DR. The high AC hurts Power Attack and rogues, but it helps spell attacks, touch attacks and other special attacks. The fewer hit points the monster has, the more it rewards the PC that can get past its AC with damage.

Melee Hurter
A creature that is hard on characters meleeing it. Special attacks that affect adjacent enemies alter power balance and tactics. For example, a barbed devil’s barbed defense ability makes ranged attacks relatively better. A creature that can damage all adjacent enemies simultaneously, such as a Whirlwind Attacker or fire-burster, also makes ganging up on the monster less attractive.

Classes and Strategies
One way to think of a niche is what characters that niche helps and what characters it hurts. For example, if you want a creature that the rogue is happy to fight, the creature could have plenty of hit points or really high DR (so sneak attacking is a big deal), a low AC (so rogues can hit it), and no reach (so rogues can flank it easily). Give it SR and good saves (the rogue doesn’t care). Give it a touch attack (the rogue hardly cares but the fighter sure does). Make sure it’s not an undead, a construct, or an ooze. Now you have a creature that’s going to play differently from other creatures.

These monsters are at their best when they meet characters who are just able to deal with monsters of their CR. The mindflayer is a great mastermind. Not only is it loaded with mastermind-ish flavor, the tentacled menace is also a real threat to 6th-level characters. These characters have to stretch a bit to battle a CR 8 monster, plus their fear of the illithid’s mind-blast DC forces them to use clever tactics and teamwork. Most 8th-level characters, on the other hand, have a relatively easy time dealing with a mindflayer; in fact, it’s pretty common for the mindflayer to get only one round’s worth of actions against an 8th level party.

Mastermind monsters also combine particularly well with other monsters. This usually means that they are spellcasters or have several powerful special abilities and benefit from having a few lower-CR melee-oriented monsters to use as meat-shields and stand between them and the party’s melee fighters.

This is an ever-evolving way to think about monsters, so I encourage you to chime in with your thoughts on the best niches, ideas for monster niches that I’ve overlooked, or even ideas on how we can best communicate a monster’s niche to those DMs who are trying to design an encounter for tomorrow night’s game. Just post your ideas to the message boards or email them my way -- I love talking about monsters.

You Craft the Creature: Vote 2

It's time to continue crafting our brand new creature! First, a look at the creature type results. The votes are in, and "aberration" wins!

Aberration: 14.3%
Dragon: 11.3%
Fey: 10.2%
Magical Beast: 9.4%
Undead: 8.7%
Outsider: 8.5%
Monstrous Humanoid: 7.8%
Construct: 7.3%
Humanoid: 6.7%
Elemental: 4.4%
Plant: 3.3%
Giant: 2.8%
Ooze: 2.6%
Vermin: 1.5%
Animal: 1.3%

What's next? We've determined creature type, now it's time to determine creature niche. Based on this week's descriptions, which niche should our new creature occupy?

What niche should this creature occupy?
Soft Target
Hard Target
Melee Hurter

About the Authors

Design: David Noonan is a designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast. His credits include co-designing Dungeon Master's Guide II, Heroes of Battle, and numerous products for the Eberron campaign setting. He lives in Washington state with his wife, son, and daughter.

Development: Jesse Decker is the development manager for RPGs at Wizards of the Coast. His credits include a two-year stint as editor-in-chief of Dragon magazine; design work on Complete Adventurer, DMG II, and other RPG titles; and development work on numerous D&D products, most of which he can’t talk about yet.


Thoughts or suggestions for this article? Topics for future Design & Development articles you'd like to see covered? By all means, please feel free to write directly to the authors, at:

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