Tobold's Blog
Sunday, April 09, 2017
What 4E taught me about running 5E combat encounters

If you lay all the editions of Dungeons & Dragons from basic D&D to Advanced D&D, 1st to 5th edition side by side, the one edition sticking out as being noticeably different is 4th edition. I tend to refer to it as "D&D Tactics", a game with a heavy focus on combat encounters for long, tactical battles. Which is really fun to play, but not everybody's cup of tea, and requiring a lot of prep work from the DM. Which is why I started to play 5th edition D&D in a local RPG club, and am planning to make a 5E campaign myself for my group.

So to get into the swing of things I'm watching YouTube videos of people playing 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, and I notice one thing: Many of the DMs on YouTube under-utilize their monsters. Yes, a 5th edition monster is a lot simpler than a 4th edition one. But even lowly kobolds and goblins have traits, and I rarely see them used on YouTube. Maybe it is the stress of recording a play session, maybe the DMs aren't all that experienced, but I am thinking that I could do better.

At the most basic level a monster has offensive stats (to hit and damage) and defensive stats (armor class and hit points). You *can* run a monster using just those basic stats. For example a goblin has AC 15, 7 HP, +4 to hit, and deals 5 damage on average. A grimlock has AC 11, 11 HP, +5 to hit, and deals 7 damage on average. The two monsters have the same challenge rating, so you could reasonably have a fight against some goblins and a fight against some grimlocks in the same dungeon shortly one after each other. Are the players going to note the difference? Maybe. The goblins are harder to hit, but have less health and deal less damage. The grimlocks are easier to hit, have a bigger chance to need more than one hit to die, and deal more damage. But that sort of detail can easily be lost on the players, who might perceive both fights to be very similar.

What 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons taught me is that with very little extra work, I can make those monsters a lot more memorable. The goblins have a trait that allows them to disengage or hide as a bonus action. They shouldn't be played staying stationary next to the player character once they attacked him. Especially since 5E rules allow you to move both before and after your action. So they can move next to a character, attack him, disengage, and use their remaining movement to get away at least a bit. If they are somewhere where they have cover, they could shoot from hiding with advantage, and then move and hide again, with the passive perception of the players against the goblin's stealth check determining whether they players know where the goblin is. The grimlocks could be in a dungeon room with a darkness spell cast on it, where their blindsight would give them some serious advantages.

While using those abilities to the fullest clearly make the monsters more dangerous, that can be a bonus if your players are experienced too and would simply slaughter low CR creatures that just run up and hit them. And the players are sure going to remember that fight against the grimlocks in the magical darkness, or those pesky invisible goblins much better. Remember, D&D isn't a MMORPG where you just want to grind mobs to gain xp and loot. The goal is to have fun, and that means making combat encounters a bit more interesting than just using basic stats.


I think that's your experience showing Tobold. :) Most beginning DM's (myself included if I ever DM'ed) would probably only use the base stats and the "brainless" AI for all enemies outside boss or "special enemy" encounters, treating goblins and such like trash mobs aka "a quick fight that's not really important so let's make them stupid and end their turn swarming the fighter who has a greater cleave type ability, or cluster together at range to remove some AoE spells from the wizard". :P
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