• Justin Handlin

D&D: How to Build Dynamic Combat with Monster Roles

So you want to design dynamic combat encounters in Dungeons and Dragons? You know, the kind that they will never forget? Well, luckily we’ve got exactly what you need. Today we will delve into giving you exactly the tools you need in a simple and easy-to-use way. Are you ready to learn how to build dynamic combat encounters using monster roles?

There is no arguing the key to designing interesting and varied combat encounters is having just as varied groups of monsters. By further breaking down monsters into roles, we can design even more fantastic and memorable combat encounters.

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What are Monster Roles?

Roles is the term we will be using to describe what the particular monster or NPC’s job is during the encounter. While some monsters can fit into multiple categories. We are going to focus on what we think they do best, over what they might do best in a particular encounter.


Artillery monsters excel at ranged combat. Whether they rain explosive balls of fire, arrows or just chucking javelins. Artillery is focused on keeping a distance during combat. They tend to more often than not focus on areas of effect damage, spreading it between multiple targets. Their distant strategy often means that they lack powerful defensive capabilities and may need help from other monsters to defend them. Without a good line of defense, they will quickly be slain.

Example Monsters: drow mage, flame skull or nothic


Brutes are an interesting lot. They typically have low defenses. This tends to be offset by high hit points and deals superior melee damage. They tend to forgo their own safety to hound a particular foe or block an enemy from reaching one of their allies. This becomes a large threat as artillery can unload on a target while a brute keeps them engaged, or restrained. They tend not to have too much in their arsenal, but what they do have can be brutal.

Example Monsters: owlbear, ogre, troll, berserker, or hook horror


Controller monsters tend to manipulate their enemies or the battlefield to their advantage. This can take many forms, but often restricts movements, alters the terrain, limits actions or even inflicts conditions on their adversaries. Controllers are a large umbrella, but in most cases, their features and skills can change the tide of battle. Keep in mind, that some of the controllers can be a bit complex, so you don’t want to fill out your encounter with more than one or two. Otherwise, you can find yourself overwhelmed with options.

Example Monsters: mage, dryad, harpy, myconids, or ghost

wizard tasha with a spell book casting a ritual spell in her magic tower
Art: Compliments of Wizards of the Coast


Defenders often specialize in drawing the attention of enemies away from their allies. They typically have high defenses, hit points, resistances or all of the above. They typically give up doing excessive damage to ensure the characters are engaged with them. Defenders tend to have features that allow them to work very well with others, often taking up a leadership role.

Example: knight, gladiator, hobgoblin captain, or veteran


Lurker monsters tend to have a variety of abilities that allow them to avoid attacks. This can take the form of attacking from stealth most often, but also using hit and run tactics, melding into a tree or stone, or even shifting to another plane such as the Ethereal plane. Whatever their abilities, they prefer to prowl and stalk their foes and ambush the weakest foe, or the greatest threat to the party before revealing themselves. They tend to spend their time stalking learning the capabilities of their prey. This allows them to enter battle with as much information as possible.

Example Monsters: ankheg, bulette, troglodyte, oozes, roper, or mimics


Skirmisher monsters use mobility to threaten the characters. These mobile strikers are in and about in a flash. This defining feature is a powerful tool for building dynamic encounters. They utilize their speed to quickly dart in and strike vulnerable targets. They are most often found alongside brutes or defenders to draw away attacks that may threaten them. The nature of brutes and defenders to often be less mobile gives the skirmishers the room they need to dance around the battlefield.

Examples: goblin, spy, quickling, centaur, minotaur or spined devil


The support role is one that tends to focus solely on helping keep the rest of its allies out of harm's way. They tend to keep their distance and apply aid, shielding, and healing to their allies. While they tend to be a bit weaker in offensive capabilities, they can significantly boost the resilience of their comrades through support spells such as bane, bless, fairie fire, and aid. Supporters tend to be weaker and avoid the front lines. Their support isn’t limited to spells. Often they will use poisons, traps, and other tools as well.

Examples: drow priest of lolth, sahuagin priestess or cult fanatic

Related Articles: How to Make your D&D Combat more Dynamic with Legendary Actions


Now, there are some monsters that can fill all of these roles at once in a single battle. We consider these elite monsters Leaders. The most common example of this is dragons. They have intelligence, flight, claws, and magical breath. In addition, you can make any monster an elite leader in the group by simply maximizing its damage and hit points. We recommend in an encounter multiple monsters keeping the Elite monster to no more than one. In your games, this is going to be the one that will often have more knowledge the characters can glean if captured.

Examples: dragons, beholders, mummy lords or balor

While this isn't the only way to ensure fun and dynamic encounters, the utilization of these Monster Roles will help you diversify your encounters. Not only cause you're adding a variety of monster types, but because they each have their own solid tactics. Making for solid combat and memorable experiences in your Dungeons and Dragons games.


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Dungeons and Dragons Unearthed Tips and Tricks for DMs and Players

Monster Variant: Frost Maiden

Origin: Succubus/Incubus

Lost Features: Fly, Telepathic Bond, Telepathy, Resist Cold/Fire(changes to immune and vulnerability. Claw (becomes daggers) Charm, Draining Kiss, Etherealness, Swap dexterity & strength

New features:

Immunity to Grappled condition.

Multiattack: The frost maiden can make two attacks with their daggers.

Nimble Escape. The frost maiden can take the Disengage or Hide action as a bonus action on each of its turns.

Pact Tactics. The frost maiden has advantage on an attack roll against a creature if at least one of the frost maiden's allies is within 5 feet of the creature and the ally isn't incapacitated.

Dagger. Melee or Ranged Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft. or range 20/60 ft., one target. Hit: 5 (1d4) piercing damage plus 2 (1d4) cold damage. If the target's speed is 0 caused by the effects of Tundra Lock, this attack scores a critical hit on an 18-20.

Tundra Lock. As a bonus action, the frost maiden can call on winter's power. It chooses one creature it can see within 60 feet. That creature must make a DC 15 Strength saving throw. On a fail, the creature's speed is reduced to 0 until the start of the frost maiden's next turn. On a success, the creature's speed is reduced by 15 feet instead.


Mighty Grip. When a creature hits the frost maiden with a melee attack while within 5 feet of it, the frost maiden can use its reaction to attempt to grapple the creature.

red haired barbarian women in an icy mountain scene charging with two daggers to attack
Frost Maiden: Patrons get a fully fleshed out stat block and lore.

Encounter: Patron: Missing Person’s Memory Sartrean Penguin

The adventurers wake up at their base/tavern/camp as normal. It is not until they begin to interact with regular NPCs that they are informed a member of their team is missing. Any persistent questioning pertaining to their most recent adventure leads to DC 13 Wisdom saving throw or take 1d6 psychic damage per question.

If the characters continue to pursue the lead, they find a research study hidden in an alcove along the coastline. Upon arrival, they wake up in their regular way, though this time they are aware of having searched the coastline for something. If any kind of questioning pertaining to their party member or their previous quest persists, they experience a mental assault and must succeed on a DC 13 Wisdom saving throw 2d6 psychic damage.

If they persist a second time, they are greeted by the owner of the research study, a flumph. This scholar, Finny, has lost their mate, being the victim of an ancient purge performed long ago.

If they continue to research, it’s revealed that the incident occurred long before the time of the reigning kingdom, before the world broke and was reformed. Each time they progress to the next level, the party receives the benefit of a short rest.

The Flumph has 1 Legendary Lair Action. With it, they can choose to remove any number of occupants of the lair to the place they last took a long rest. This also erases the occupying time and obscures the leading half an hour of memory.

Magic Item: Patron Zambo Sar's Cube of Concentration.

Wondrous item, very rare (requires attunement by a spellcaster)

A small, clear cube that contains dark blue and green swirling arcane energy. The frame of the cube is adamantine, and the sides are clear.

On four of the sides are four unique sigils, and on the other two sides, one is blank and the other is a skull. The cube stores powerful spells. As an action, the character may throw the cube up to 60 feet and release its power. a d6 and then must immediately cast the spell corresponding to the number rolled (no concentration required by you). The spell will be cast using the character's spell save DC and must be at the spell's lowest level. That number cannot be used to cast that spell again until the next dawn.

1: Blindness/Deafness

2: Crown of madness

3: Haste

4: Phantasmal Killer

5: Circle of power

6: The target can cast a stored spell.

When the cube is first attuned, and again each day at dawn, the character attuned to the cube must roll a d20.

On a roll of 16 or higher, the character can choose any spell from their spells list, including ones that they have not prepared or learned, to imbue into the cube onto the blank side, which creates a sigil-based on the spell. This spell will be cast at the highest level the character can cast it, without expending a spell slot. On a roll of 5 or lower, the DM will roll on the wild magic table, and that effect will be stored in the cube. The character does not know the effect stored within the cube.

Dungeon Master Tip: Patron Gilhelm Goblinbane: Exit, Stage Left!

When you put your players in an "impossible to win" fight that they are meant to run from, or when you have an NPC who has just had enough of their crap. Have them throw a bead of force and entrap your player’s character in the resulting sphere. Because that sphere magically weighs only one pound regardless of contents, even characters. This filled object weighing between 1 and 5 pounds, can now be the target of the Catapult spell. Thus launching the party caught inside up to 90 feet away, possibly through a doorway or large window, and potentially dealing damage to all inside.

Player Tip: Werebear!

Sometimes we just want to play a brutal, savage, bestial hunter character. Well, with this combination, your Dungeon Master will find your combo UNBEARABLE! I’ll see myself out…

But in all seriousness, this combo is just crazy strong. So in order to build a brutal werebear character, you’re going to want to start with the Shifter race, specifically the longtooth subclass. This allows us to shift once per short or long rest. Not only do we get access to darkvision, but also proficiency in the Perception skill. Already the animalistic features are coming into play. On top of that, when you shift you gain temporary hit points. This buffs our defenses and the longtooth subrace gives access to an unarmed bite attack that deals 1d6 + strength modifier piercing damage as a bonus action.

Now, this is already pretty brutal. Using a staff you can now do 1d10 + strength mod, on top of the bite. Monk will be a bit jealous. Now we pick the druid class, specifically the circle of the moon at level 2. This allows you to wildshape into a brown bear. While in this form, you gain an average of 34 hit points, and because you already shifted into your wereform, those features carry over to your new form. Both the bite and the temp HP. This, on top of the average of 34 hit points with the wildshape form. Now, you can make two bear attacks as an action, and follow it up with a bite attack from your shifter form. Meaning you can deliver three melee attacks in a single turn, at level 2.

But wait, there is more. If you’re willing to stall the transformation a turn, you can also concentrate on spells while wildshaped. This means we can even delve further into making our brutal form even more terrifying. The brown bear’s AC is only 11. That’s pretty low. An enemy can cut through that pretty quick. Well, if you cast barkskin on yourself, it becomes 16. That’s the same as chain mail! You’re welcome.

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