Sunday, 23 March 2014

D&D Next has crappy monster design

Dominic Matte
I had an argument a conversation on reddit today that really helped me solidify what I don't like about
Next / 5e's monster design. In one word, it's boring. It lays the work of building interesting combats solely on the DM when the monster stats should be doing at least half the work. There's some potential, but it's not being used properly.

Let's use black dragons as an example. I'll compare a 4th edition black dragon with a 5th edition dragon. Before I get started, I'll point out that yes, Next is still only in playtest; the point was to get the rules down and then focus on the extras. If monster stats end up being improved, just take this article as an examination of what makes a good monster stat block and what doesn't.

Here's a somewhat recent 4th edition black dragon. Click the image to read all those tiny words. Keep in mind that level 18 is mid-level for 4e, since the system goes up to 30.

This stat block tells a story without any flavour text. Of course the flavour text is there on another page, but you can see exactly how this black dragon fights without needing to look at that text. Let's do a quick walkthrough, shall we?

Before even getting into the combat abilities, you can see "swamp walk" as a movement modifier - the dragon can move freely in swamps, ignoring difficult terrain like mud or vines. Already you know that the dragon has an advantage on its home turf. But you also have that Aquatic trait - the dragon is at home in the water, gaining a noticeable combat advantage over nonaquatic creatures. 

The black dragon is a powerhouse at close range. Acidic Blood is the first example: even if you can hit it, you're going to get hit back. But if you miss, it gets to tail sweep you and your allies. Instinctive Devouring lets the dragon make off-turn melee attacks, and its bite attack is charged with acid. The close burst power Shroud of Gloom makes it even harder to hit the dragon and makes victims weaker to acid damage. And finally, even though the dragon is nasty at close range, Acid Gob is a good way to take ranged attackers out of play temporarily.

Another important note: Acidic Blood, Instinctive Devouring, Acid Gob, Shroud of Gloom, and Tail Sweep are all tailored to this specific dragon and don't appear on other dragons. Of course you expect the breath weapon to be different on every dragon, but even the bite has been customized with acid damage.

Add that up and what do we have? A clever, vicious combatant that wants to mess with its enemies' vision to shut down ranged attacks and bring the fight in close, preferring battles in sticky, watery swamps where it has an agility advantage.

Now let's take a look at 5e's legendary black dragon and compare. As a level 10 dragon in 5e, this matches up with 4e's as a mid-level monster.

This dragon has a few movement modes, but no swamp walk. It can breathe underwater and suffers no penalties for being there, which fulfills the same purpose as the 4e dragon's Aquatic trait, but there's an important difference in language: the 4e stat block explicitly tells you that the dragon has the advantage in the water, but the 5e one takes a more sidelong approach, sounding more passive and less relevant to combat.

Frightful Presence is a classic dragon ability that's missing from the 4e version. This black dragon is a scary motherfucker - it terrifies people simply by being seen. This is a combat ability that clearly tells the players that you shouldn't mess with a dragon and you should take the fight seriously. On the other hand, I kind of like that the 4e dragon doesn't have it, because to me whether my character is scared or not is a roleplay decision: fear shouldn't be mechanically forced down my throat if I don't think my character would be scared by the dragon. Points for flavourful mechanics, but it comes out a wash because it messes with my roleplay.

Legendary Resistance and Legendary Actions kind of go together. These are part of the legendary monster system and are tacked onto the "regular" black dragon. In other words, these abilities are rather generic - not tailored to the dragon, but something that many or all legendary monsters would have in common.

With that covered, we now have bite, claw, tail, or some combination thereof. No acid damage on the bite like 4e's dragon, but the tail can be used similarly to 4e's as a legendary action.

So let's sum up what we have in the 5e "legendary" black dragon. We've got a terrifying creature that can make a lot of attacks at close range, sometimes shoots acid, and can breathe underwater.

The 5e mechanics don't suggest any particular strategy or tactics beyond "it has to be close to its enemies". The 4e dragon's stats communicate that it wants to force its enemies to fight where the dragon has the advantage, and then pressures them into fighting close where it's strongest, and even its wounds are a form of attack. The 5e dragon has no cunning, no real strategy that presents itself. The fact that the breath weapon takes the shape of a line suggests that it's better to have enemies set up in a line, but the dragon has no way to make that happen. The only real suggested strategy is presented in the flavour text. 4e's dragon suggests tactics and strategy with its combat mechanics; 5e's dragon drops a bunch of numbers on you and says "attack weak enemies first", meanwhile providing no particular means to isolate them or break away from stronger enemies.

But this analysis has only looked at the first page of the 5e dragon document. Page 2 talks about the black dragon's lair, and only now do the interesting customized effects show up. While in its lair, the dragon can send a surge of waves to pull enemies into water, violently churn up a pool of water to hurt creatures inside, shroud the entire lair in darkness that doesn't affect the dragon, heal, or recharge its breath weapon. The terrain surrounding the lair is difficult to move through, corrupts water supplies, and obscures vision with mist.

This is great! These are the kinds of flavourful mechanics I want built into my monster stat blocks. The lair powers do exactly what 4e's dragon does: they tell you that the dragon is powerful around water and swamps, and that it messes with its enemies' vision. The trouble is that these powers aren't built into the dragon's stats - they're tied solely to the dragon's lair, and are only present with this sample legendary dragon (ie, not on normal ones). This suggests a sedentary dragon, or possibly even a lazy or cowardly one. If the dragon gains such a massive advantage fighting on its home turf, why would it ever want to fight anywhere else? What kind of terrifying legendary monster is reluctant to leave the house because it's comparatively frail when it goes outside? Is this "legendary" dragon agoraphobic or something?

You could just use the lair powers as part of the dragon's normal stats, but that raises the question of if or how the lair powers are accounted for in the dragon's XP budget. The stat block says it's a level 10 dragon worth 3,920 XP. Does that XP value include the lair powers? If I use the lair powers, am I expected to bump up the XP value? If I don't use them, should I lower it? I'm happy that 5e stat blocks have become more self-contained since the first playtest - no longer referring to spells and instead telling you what you need to know on the monster page - but the black dragon information here doesn't give me a clear picture of how to build an appropriate-level dragon encounter. 4e was much simpler: level 18 solo means it's a normal encounter for a level 18 party of five, or a challenging encounter for a lower level or smaller party.

Without the legendary powers or page two, the 5e black dragon is mechanically just a scary acid-breathing lizard. It has nothing else going for it - those are its only differentiating features. 

Unfortunately, with 5e set to release this summer, I doubt that there's much time or consideration to step up monster mechanics. As a DM I'm worried that this is going to lengthen and obfuscate my prep time. I guess I'll have to wait and see how the final presentation turns out.


  1. I think it's important to remember that 5th Edition hasn't been released yet, and what we saw was a fairly bare-bones playtest. The Bestiary hadn't been updated beyond changes to fit the latest rules for a year when the playtest ended, and devs have stated that the focus was on the rules, not on monster balance and feel. Mike Mearls posted an article in the Legends and Lore column responding to criticism of the monsters (which do have pretty plain stat-boxes right now and I would be equally disappointed as you are now, if the monster manual contained the same amount of info for each entry as the playtest bestiary) and mentioned some things they are doing to make powerful "solo" monsters feel awesome. Here's a link, if you want to check it out:

  2. Having seen the playtests really narrow down and focus on the mechanics it's easy to forget that what we saw in the last playtest isn't necessarily what we'll see in print. There's still room for expansion on the monsters, but release is set for a few months from now, so I doubt that the final version will deviate too strongly from the last playtest.

    I've edited a bit to account for that article on legendary monsters, which I somehow missed. I'm a big fan of that system, but on the other hand, the default black dragon now sounds REALLY bad without the legendary powers and the entire second page.

    1. Well, the devs have stated that the monster math and monsters wasn't an area of focus during the public playtest, so I think those will change a lot more than the basic rules.

  3. I don't see how you got this "shut down ranged attacks and bring the fight in close".

    Yeah it has a single target ranged attack which gives blindness? So what? That's just -5 to hit AFAIK and save ends. If you happen to have a party which can deal damage well at range then you'd be mad to close in. That's generally true in D&D in all editions though, melee is what players generally want to do but rarely what is smart to do.

    1. It's not JUST blindness, it's blindness and ongoing 30 damage, which is pretty huge. Ongoing 30 plus a major penalty to the most important stat in 4e will ruin a controller's day pretty quick (since they tend to be very squishy).

      But the dragon takes opportunity attacks for making ranged attacks out of melee. Disincentivizing the dragon from making one of its strongest attacks is a pretty good reason to close in.

  4. Ok, now it has been released. Given that your critique was only 2 months old, were there any real changes that addressed your concerns?

    1. Sure the basic rules and some adventures are out, but the Monster Manual isn't. Without the full MM it's impossible to tell if the monsters in the early adventures have been tailored to fit the adventures or if they're representative samples.

  5. The MM should be coming out with the Players Handbook at least you would run a game and see using Gm common sence! Anyway Players Handook on order now ! WHOOP WHOOP! I dont know about you but as a GM some rules can be bent like you i would add to the monster if i felt it needed it. Also for me saving throws for fear can be a tricky one by the time char's are facing a dragon they are tough so i again will power down the effects if needed.

  6. What do you think of it now that the MM has come out, then? By the way, I bought the PHB a while ago, do you have anything to say on the stat blocks there?