• Justin Handlin

How to Create Epic D&D Combat Encounters Part 1 Monster Roles

Updated: Jul 10


Do you want to build epic D&D combat encounters? Do you want an easy guide so that you can build them with little effort? Then check out this article on “How to Create Epic D&D Combat Encounters: Part 1: Monster Roles”.


Today I want to talk about how to create Epic D&D combat encounters. As this is a complex topic, this blog will likely take more than one part. At its core, Dungeons and Dragons is a series of encounters. These encounters take various forms, the most notable and rules heavy is the combat encounter. It’s very easy to get caught up in the simple trade blow for blow combat style when building encounters. While there is nothing wrong with this, it is certainly the least entertaining and fun combat encounter. A complex encounter requires a number of layers to be truly epic. For this first part of the series, we are going to discuss giving your monsters roles to fill.


The key to designing interesting and great combat comes in the forms of different monster roles. What do I mean by role? Well, each monster has something it’s good at. A goblin for instance has low hit points, but since it has the nimble escape trait, it can Disengage and Hide as a bonus action. Making this a great skirmisher. A monster that can get in and out of combat quickly to avoid taking a hit. The dryad by comparison can use its fey charm or its entangle spell to manipulate enemies and the battlefield. This makes it a fantastic controller. An encounter that contains a myriad of monsters filling different roles means a far more interesting and engaging encounter. This blog assumes you know how to balance an encounter. If not, see Page 81 in the DMG for guidance.


In order to make sure we can build an epic combat encounter. We will need to break down monsters into six classifications or roles. While we can’t tell you what role EVERY monster fills. We can well define the roles and give you a few examples. It’s worth noting that many monsters can fill multiple roles. But when you build your encounters, the role you assign is what their intended job is for that encounter.


ARTILLERY

Artillery monsters pretty much excel at ranged combat. This can take the form of spellslingers such as barbed devil with its hurl flame and ability to fly. They may also be much simpler such as an elf, drow with their poison-tipped hand crossbows. Combined with their darkness spell, they can be difficult to deal with from a distance. In most cases, Artillery is well protected. Often taking up an advantageous position behind cover.


You’re going to want to use artillery monsters in the proverbial back row of combat. They will do their best to avoid direct confrontation when possible, and allow their more brutish allies to hold off the characters while they rain arrows, magic or anything else onto the characters.


BRUTE

Brute monsters often specialize in soaking up party damage. These are the big bags of hit points with resistances and even regeneration. A great example would be the troll. It’s regeneration allows for it to continue being a meat shield for any allies it may have. Matching a troll with some good artillery monsters will have your characters on the ropes. Much like a tank, they don’t move around. These types of high strength monsters are great for using as grapplers to keep the characters from targeting the brutes allies. In short, brutes are just there to threaten the party and shield their allies.


CONTROLLER

A controller monster manipulates their enemies or the battlefield to create an advantage for themselves or their allies. This takes on many forms, mind control with powers such as charm person or altering the terrain with spike growth. Inflicting conditions, restricting movement and manipulating the characters are at the top of the controller's priority list.


The dryad mentioned previously is a great example of a low-level controller with its entangle spell. While a mage is another great controller. It can alter the battlefield with its sleet storm or mind control characters with suggestion. Much like artillery, you're going to want some good brutes to protect your controllers. Keeping them at a distance away from the characters. Controller monsters can often be quite complex, so keep their numbers limited in your encounters or you can end up slowing the game down with analysis paralysis.


LURKER

The lurker monsters are some of my favorites. Monsters that fill this role are often great and striking from hiding or some other key feature that lets them avoid direct attacks in some way. A great example of this is the spy. They have proficiency in the stealth skill and can use their cunning action to hide during combat. Combined with their sneak attack, they can quickly ambush the characters. A small group of these could be life-threatening to an adventuring party. Some creatures such as the grimlock can blend in with their terrain making them nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding area.


Use lakers as surprise additions to encounters with other monsters. An encounter that starts with just a single creature or small group, instantly can double in size at the start of the following round after the characters have already planned out their strategy. This works best for intelligent lurkers who can study the characters and gage the weakest or greatest threat.


SKIRMISHER

Skirmisher monsters use high mobility to gain the upperhand on the characters. As stated previously, a goblin is a great example of this with their nimble escape feature. Creatures such as the goblin or lion that can move at high speeds and attack vulnerable characters from the sides and rear.


A skirmisher often has features or skills that when used alongside brute monsters. While the characters may perceive the big brute as the greatest threat. The skirmishers can dart in, attack and retreat during their turn. Make sure an area with skirmishers gives them plenty of room to roam.


SUPPORT

The support role can take on a variety of different meanings. It is the most versatile of the roles. In general, monsters that have features or spells that assist their allies or granting them benefits when fighting with allies all fall into this category. A great simple example is a thug. The thug and many other creatures have the pact tactics feature that allows them to gain advantage when fighting with an ally. One of my personal favorites is the knight. It has a relatively unique feature called leadership. This allows it to grant an additional d4 to an allies attack or saving throw. Creatures with healing such as the unicorn also fall under this category. When designing encounters, you can use support monsters to offset a particular weakness or their allies, or a particular strength of the characters.


When it comes to building epic encounters it’s easy to build them in a way that allows the party to single out targets. These easily identifiable leaders make great targets for powerful spells or recharge abilities such as the fighter's action surge. Other encounters consist of creatures of similar stature or features with no obvious leader. When designing your encounters, be sure to include a good variety of both kinds of encounters.


In short, in order to build epic encounters you want a mix of a variety of monsters that fill different jobs during battle. This keeps all your combats fresh and varied for your players.


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