Why 4th Edition Monster Design was Terrible

There’s been a curious throwback on #dnd Twitter the last few days, praising 4th Edition monster design (and to a lesser extent, 4e encounter design). 

4th Edition was a divisive version of D&D that made numerous changes to how the game was built and played, and one of the most infamous revisions was in regards to monsters. Monsters had a level instead of a Challenge Rating (like in 3e and 5e), each monster had a role, and, most importantly, the stat blocks of monsters included all their abilities. This was done as a direct response to 3rd Edition, where large swaths of each creatures’ abilities were handled via keywords that refer back to discrete blocks of rules located elsewhere (creature type, subtype, feats, and spells). 

The fondness for 4th Edition monster design is an interesting response to playing 5e monsters and is very clearly employing rose coloured glasses. 

Because 4th Edition monster design was really terrible. 

Roles Rebuttal

Monsters in 4th Edition each had a role. This was the purpose they served as a member of a “squad” in combat encounters. The roles were soldier (high defenses, medium hp), brute (high hp and damage), skirmisher (high damage, mobile), lurker (high damage, stealthy), and artillery (high ranged damage). With the sub-roles of minion (1 hp) and leader (buffs allies/ heal). There were several encounter building templates in the Dungeon Master Guide describing different types of combination of the combat roles.

However, roles are problematic. Because they limit an individual monster into serving a very particular and narrow focus.

For example, what role should goblins have? Well, you can imagine a goblin skirmishing dashing about while slashing at the PCs, and a lurker ducking out from behind rocks to throw a dagger, or even artillery that peppers the PCs with shortbow arrows. Goblins filled all three roles in 4th Edition quite easily… but they also do so in the opening chapter of Lost Mine of Phandelver. The goblins in that boxed set are lurkers in the first encounter—where they ambush the PCs — but the guards watching the entrance to the lair are artillery and many of the rest might be skirmishers. And at higher levels, the same goblins become minions that are dropped by a single successful hit. The difference is the 5e goblin only uses a single statblock occupying a quarter-page while the 4th Edition goblins for the same purposes are 4 stat blocks filling a total of a full page. Simply put, adding these variant role-specific monsters means reducing the total number of monsters in the book (because page space is finite).

Combat roles are a great tool for encounter design. But are awkward and limiting for monster design. It forces the designers to make redundant monsters or force monsters into an arbitrary box. Because while creatures like an ogre or bulette are easily assigned a role (brute and soldier respectively), other  monsters—like a lich or a mind flayer—have a less clear role in an encounter and a case could be made for multiple different roles.

Similarly, locking monsters into a particular role limits their usefulness. A monster designed as a lurker doesn’t function as well as an artillery or skirmisher, and try to force the mechanics into that box is awkward and problematic. Even if the story of the monster makes it perfect for the encounter, the mechanics of the game are getting in the way of designing that encounter and telling that story.

Really, monster roles are something that should have been included in the Dungeon Master’s Guide as an encounter building tool, with rules for how to modify monsters to fit a role and effectively employ monsters of each role. Such as adding plate armour to an ogre to shift it from an iconic brute to a soldier or remembering to reduce goblin AC when they act as artillery because they can’t use their shields. Along with the encounter templates from pages 58-59 of the 4th Edition DMG. (But this doesn’t exist in the 5e DMG because, again, finite page space.)

What About Minions?

As a quick aside, there’s often the question of adding minions into 5e. Minions were monsters with a single hit point that were killed after a single successful hit. They were useful for big mobs and set piece encounters, where the heroic PCs might cut through dozens of orcs or kobolds. (Like in Lord of the Rings where the Fellowship mow their way through large numbers of orcs.) Minions were necessary in 4e because the defenses of monsters changed each level to keep pace with the PC’s abilities. Player Characters rapidly outlevelled monsters, so in order to present the illusion of facing a lower level that was now a minor inconvenience, you needed separate monsters. 

But in 5e, bounded accuracy means a level 1 goblin can still theoretically hit a level 10 PC (albeit only a fifth of the time) and said PC can still miss (again, albeit only a fifth of the time), so a separate monster doesn’t exist. Additionally, monsters hp are theoretically rolled and the average presented as a convenience: while boss monsters might have maximum hit points, it’d be quite possible for the “minion” monsters faced in waves to have minimum hit points. Instead of the average of 7, the flunky goblins all have 2 or 3 hp. This isn’t even a house rule; it’s just using the full range of the rules already presented in the game. 

Comprehensive Stat Blocks

One of the changes rolled back from 4th Edition monster design was listing spell names in monster stat blocks rather than the full text of monster abilities. 

3rd Edition monsters were inarguably problematic, with the type of monster imparting immunities and bonuses, monsters accruing feats like PCs at a swift rate, and also the aforementioned spells and spell-like effects that required a DM to flip between pages and have multiple books open. It’s undeniably preferable to have all the abilities of a monster ready on the page in front of you.

However, there are a number of other factors to consider.

The big one is space. Adding the full text of every spell a monster might know occupies a lot of space in the stat block and means reprinting the same redundant information multiple times throughout a monster book. For many monsters, this would greatly increase the length of the monster stat blocks. Even a monster with a few small spells known greatly increases in size. For example, the mind flayer (chosen at random) has four spells known: detect thoughts, levitate, dominate monster, and plane shift. This isn’t a long list. But they’re also not simple spells: including even an abbreviated text for just those four spells would potentially add 20-30 lines to the monster’s stat block, potentially doubling it in length! And that’s without considering spellcasting monsters like the lich. And, again, with finite page space in the book, doubling the size of several monster stat blocks means reducing the total number of monsters in the book. 

The catch is, increasing the size of monster stat blocks doesn’t make them much easier to run. The DM that reads all the spells for the planned monster ahead of the session shouldn’t have many problems running said foes, and can just mark those pages with small post-it notes.

The problem will always be running a monster on the fly. Trying to remember spells you haven’t read in weeks or months. But including the spells in the stat block won’t help in that situation, as reading a full page of text is daunting and slow. Having the text of spells on the page versus on bookmarked pages, screen captures from Roll20, or on spell cards isn’t significantly faster; the DM still has to absorbing the same amount of information in the same amount of time. They’re going to skim, skipping over traits and the later abilities. In the end, it’s always going to be better to read the monster in advance. 

Instead, what ends up happening, is the non-combat abilities get excised. The mind flayer loses its ability to cast detect thoughts, levitate, and plane shift because those spells don’t help them in a fight. And its domination ability becomes limited in scope to fit the available space, instead becoming a simple in-combat mind control ability rather than a psionic ability to control thralls and slaves. Monsters lose flavourful and exploration based abilities. This is what happened in 4th Edition. And trying to do the same thing again won’t result in a significantly different outcome. 

Challenging Encounters

The encounter design system of 4th Edition is also often lauded over the more complex system of 5th Edition. But the 5th Edition system was designed the way it was for a reason.

In both systems, you built encounters in effectively the same way: you had a budget of experience that was spent by adding monsters. The catch was that in 4e, the budget was equal to one monster for each PC of a level matching that of the PCs. Five 7th level PCs would find a fair fight with five 7th level monsters. And if you instead had nine 4th level monsters (roughly the same xp) this might still be a reasonable fight as the monsters suffered a 15% penalty on accuracy while PCs accuracy increased by 15%. 

In theory at least. In practice it worked best when using at-level monsters. If using monsters of mixed levels, the math wasn’t much easier. In practice it was often easier to quickly level up/down monsters than stop and do the encounter math, or rely on an online tool. 

A similar system can somewhat work in 5e. One PC is roughly challenged by a monster of a CR equal to 1/3rd the PC’s level. So the same party of 7th level PCs might be reasonably challenged by a five CR 2 creatures. 

The big difference is throwing nine CR 1/2 creatures at the party will be less fair, because bounded accuracy means less disparity in hit probability. 

But, again, this is also looking at the 4th Edition encounter building rules with fond hindsight. Just like the 5e encounter building and Challenge Rating system breaks down and becomes less accurate at high levels, so did the encounter building of 4th Edition. In that edition you were discouraged from using monsters four or more above the party. But it was often recommended by those who played well into the Epic tier that the PCs fight monsters that were five or six levels higher, if not throwing out the guidelines altogether. Neither system is particularly good outside the early level band.

Potential Fixes

For a currently theoretical 6th Edition or major revision of the Monster Manual, a few of the more simple spells could be included in monster stat blocks. Specifically stuff like offensive cantrips or other at-will attacks. Simple spells like fireball or lightning bolt could also be included without impacting formatting too much. I imagine something like D&D Beyond or Roll20 could also include cheat-sheets of spells with the relevant monsters. However, completely omitting secondary spells is probably undesirable for monsters, needlessly limited their abilities to the immediately offensive at the expense of flavour or utility spells. 

For roles and monster combat, the easiest solution would be a product that focused on advanced combat and encounter design. Such a product could include details of potential roles in combat and some encounter groups, alternate abilities and options to enable monsters to focus on certain roles. Modifying monsters to increase their challenge and/or complexity.

As this is a topic better suited to experienced players who have a firm grasp of basic combat (and are more bored/ less satisfied with traditional combat encounters) this would probably work best on the DMsGuild. Primarily as the “experienced player” audience is less of a focus to Wizards of the Coast at this time, and they are instead focusing on adventures aimed at newer players along with variant Starter Sets. Advanced set-piece encounters and tactical combats are interesting, but much more of a niche topic. But it’s more than focused enough to make for a decent PDF product that would apparently appeal to a decent number of D&D fans.

Shameless Plugs

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