During the design and development stage of the Next Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, the designers have gone to great lengths to capture the iconic characteristics of the game’s classic monsters. The developers write a weekly article about it (Wandering Monsters) and the guy in charge of Art even has a column (Dragon’s Eye View), complete with voting on sketches. Clearly, the team is devoted to getting it right, and they are seeking the wisdom of the wider fan base to help craft the final product.
While fan input is important, maybe even the most important to getting this version right, the monsters that make up the game are iconic for the simple fact that they are an unbroken thread running through every encounter, every campaign world, every EDITION of the game for nigh on forty years now. It would not be iconic to ignore the lore of the past, or the present, when deciding on the future of these creatures. Oftentimes being “innovative” can turn into grabbing for the next new fad. True innovation should help define the edition it is created for, as well as to inform any future editions. In this case the innovative monster design of fourth edition, including minions, multiple roles, a beautiful and legible stat block, and cool special attack powers, among other things, should help light the way forward for the Next Edition. I do not want previous innovations to be retired to the back room as “Fads of the times” but instead want a greater game specifically because it does incorporate all the greatness that has come before.
Since public playtesting began in May of 2012, two “bestiaries” have been released. The first contained small stat blocks and paragraphs of history, ecology, and other facts about each entry. The second dispensed with narrative entirely (for purposes of not bogging down the playtest while it is still being written) and instead presents each monster in a uniform stat block. Ultimately one assumes the final monster manual will contain a synthesis of these two styles, with an easy to read — and play — stat block, followed by ecologies, descriptions, and details.
What follows is a list of the 35 or so monsters contained in the bestiary, and how iconic they really are, or should be…
Fire Beetle - The days-long glowing sacs of the fire beetle has always been this low level dungeon dweller’s spotlight of fame. At 1d6 days apiece, a certain dwarven defender from my first playtest, Dr House was festooned with the red-glowing beetle butts. He eventually coerced a high level wizard to cast permanence on the glow-sacs, and a legend was born…
If I could change one thing – and this is something I would change with MANY of the monsters of Next Edition – is that it needs an “encounter power” like the close burst of fire with a recharge rate of 1 in 6 from fourth edition’s fire beetle. Monsters should each have a “schtick” in combat, something to make them unique. Monsters were one of the best designed aspect of fourth edition, and the unique powers were one of the best features of them. Everyone loves to discover a monster’s “special attack.” Otherwise, a fine iconic glowing beetle of unusual size.
Bugbear - The base creature is adequate, but common humanoid races should have multiple entries. In much the same way that an unusual monster should have a special attack, a common humanoid monster should come in occaisional varieties. I would like to see a strangler and big dumb brute version. Also, please stop screwing around with the definition of hit dice and let HD = level = number of dice rolled for hit points. This is true of most monsters in the bestiary, and an easy work-around is using different dice for the HD, and breaking it down into elite, or solo creatures even. I like how “large” weapons seem to be 2x the damage dice. The same mechanic could be used for hit dice when needed. Having half a die worth of hit points per level is just not always feasible, or a competitive match against player characters of equal level. Give the monsters full HP at least.
Centipede, Giant - These 3 hit point minions are great, especially with their mob tactics trait, and the fact that the mild poison bites are cumulative. Being so low in hit points is a good thing for creatures like this,which practically make them practical 1 hit minions except for the puniest dagger or magic missile. As it should be.
Dark Acolyte, Adept, Priest - We have our evil priest line up complete. The spells are equal to the player spells, which is a sticking point with me. Evil Classes are essential to good NPC creation, which means spells need to be able to work for or against a character or party. I think the Dark Family represents a mostly complete core cleric spell list, allowing them to develop these evil cleric-NPC-monsters. This type of multiple entry NPC-as-monster is just the kind of innovation that needs to continue to bind our editions together. Now some evil wizards plz.
Drow - Level 3 elite, yet 6d8 hit dice, yet only 27 hp? Just like first edition – give all monsters max HP! Or at least more than the chintzy 50 percent shown here. Rant over, the drow are superb, including racial powers and keen sword/crossbow dual wield. Having magic resistance represented as advantage on all magical saving throws is brilliant. While playtesting a brother/sister drow team, they were overmatched, but due to darkness, were able to escape. For awhile… Needs more variations. Drow wizard, yet another cleric, an assassin, etc. Drow poison is similar to giant centipede poison, in that they have cumulative affects on multiple failed saves. Heh heh heh, evil laugh.
Gelatinous Cube – This level 2 solo ooze is epic in every way possible, from its massive amount of hit points (7d10+35=73) to its passive slam, whence it gets a free attack against anyone next to it, or reaching into it. They appear out of nowhere, engulf and destroy. Notably missing from the entry is any description noting they are nearly invisible, or that players might be attracted to shiny things floating in the air in the hallway ahead. I plan on using one soon and will report my findings.
Gnoll, Gnoll leader – The gnoll is pretty iconic, and these savage brethren are good at what they do: tearing an unwary party apart with savage longbow and battle-axe ambushes while cackling madly. The leader is a good start, but the entry needs more variety: Shaman, sorceror, soldier, demonic possessed. The gnoll is one of the most iconic of the evil humanoid races after the goblinoids. These beast-men, often depicted as hyena-like, should have a solid core of 4-7 entries in the level 2-5 hit dice range in the final monster manual. Epic gnoll demonic warmaster solo would be pretty cool.
Goblin, Goblin leader – There are few creatures in D&D more iconic than the goblin. These critters get a bonus to stealth and to damage when fighting in a mob, and the leader boosts them. I like them and the goblins pathetic 1d6-1 damage is hilarious. I would like to see tons more varieties of these little buggers, and maybe a high climb skill.
Gray Ooze – “Impervious to all spells, heat, and cold” should be added to the description, but otherwise a fine ooze. Also, doing no damage to wood or stone should be mentioned. Oozes are trick monsters and finding their weakness before they kill you is half the fun. We can leave out the latent psionic ability bit – or not!
Hobgoblin, leader – Another of the goblinoids, these fellows have some serious soldiery buffs they can lay on each other to work in concert and lay the smack-down. I Like that they use spears with reach. I think I will equip them with 3 spears, 2 for throwing, and the 3rd for closing to melee, instead of the oh-so-common short bow all humanoids seem to have. Having both melee and ranged attacks both is important though.
Human Berserker - These 9 hp gallic warriors are awesome, though I cant imagine any DM ever accepting disadvantage on a roll to get the extra 5 damage. Maybe if there were enough of them… Ya ok I would do it.
Human commonaer – As pathetic as the berserker is awesome. Is mob tactics stackable? If so, then day-um.
Kobolds of many types – Here is a monster with the proper amount of speciation. The pathetic standard kobold has nothing going for it except mob tactics (like the human commoner) but there are craftier kobolds too. Taking cues form the history of kobolds in the game, the trap-lord is the most powerful, hurling alochemical bombs, while the stout dragonshield, with shield of an actual dragon scale, is a worthy if puny foe.
The winged kobold is a surprising addition. Though not “new” as it was in a fairly early adventure (“In search of Unknown…” maybe?) they were never very popular. Nonetheless they look fun. I would like to see a “fly-by” style attack.
Medusa - The medusa is fairly deadly if she surprises the party, but the “avert eyes to negate” only resulting in disadvantage means she will get few second chances to petrify. Save or die is brutal though. Her poisonous snake hair attack is pretty cool too, but there should be mention of using her blood to un-petrify recent victims. Like stoned characters.
Minotaur – This guy is just plain big and deadly with axe or goring horns. Meeting one of these guys in the Caves of Chaos almost resulted in a TPK and did result in a quick retreat. Working as intended.
Ogre - Big, dumb, brute. Disadvantage on intelligence saves, now that is rich. Otherwise he can throw boulders and pound things with his club. Perfect. Now then, where is the ogre magi?
Orc, leader – These are pretty tough cookies, as they ought to be. The leader has what looks to be a daily power (battle cry) otherwise they are fairly generic, having a disadvantage-inducing rage that grants bonus damage. Ho hum. Still, with 11 hp and doing 1d12+2 damage, they are a worthy foe for low level adventurers.
Orog - Another odd choice for “iconic” monster, but these are basically elite orcs, or Uruk-hai from Lord of the Rings. They are stronger, better equipped, and tougher. And nearly indistinguishable. They have 3 more hit points than an orc and their axes do 1d12+3 instead of 1d12+2. Hmmm, not too compelling.
Owlbear – AS iconic as a creature can get, this rendition of the owlbear reduces its myriad abilities down to rending and tearing, or claw-claw-bite in other words. I personally liked the stunning shriek, and other abilities it has gained over the years, but it is deadly enough in its essential form.
Rat, cave and dire – A pair of rats, one small, the one medium, with really no other differences between them except a hit point or two. Does one have spikes?
Skeleton – I like these fearless, mindless, undead. The rules for resistance to slashing and piercing, vulnerable to bludgeoning is just right, at half damage or double damage, respectively.
Stirge – One of my favorite monsters, I still remember a certain high ceiling chapel in the temple of elemental evil, where I first unleashed these deadly mosquito-bats on an unsuspecting party. Or more recently, giant undead bloated stirges who attacked a party boating down the river of blood. Next week, my friends will get a taste of the new and improved stirge. Oops I said too much.
Troll – Fire and acid? Check. Claw-claw-bite? Check. Bad-ass? Check and complete. Get rid of the excess language and just say “a troll can only be killed when it takes fire or acid damage while at or below zero hit points.”
Wight – These undead creatures have classically been the weakest of the “eneergy draining” undead, but here their energy drain power has lost all its teeth, merely doing hit point damage. Boo. Make necrotic damage unhealable by normal means and you might have a good idea. Energy drain, in some form if not level-drain, needs to exist.
Zombie – Yep they are slow, with a movement of twenty feet, and an armor class of 8. I didn’t even know you could go below 10, my brain starts doing flip flops, and just like 1985, AC of 8 seems better than 10, so I unconsciously start making players require a 12 to hit. Whoa. With 9 hit points they aren’t that implacable, and there is no mention of head shots or plague, so these are the most neutered zombies imaginable, rather than the most innovative or iconic. I like how they are mindless with an intelligence of 10, and understand common? All that just so they could utter the word “brains?”