How to Create Unique Encounters for Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons
If you’re a new Dungeon Master and you’ve been doing a lot of internet research to get up to speed, chances are you’ve encountered other DMs talking about re-skinning monsters for their own purposes – perhaps even making their own. When you are just starting out this is probably going to sound interesting but overwhelming. I could barely handle making encounters out of the Monster Manual at first – and there’s no rush moving past those! Making your own monsters is something I recommend you start doing when you are comfortable with the combat system, the rules of Fifth Edition DnD, and advanced monster mechanics.
When you get to that point, knowing how to create your own enemies will add yet another dimension of detail to your world.
Today, I’m going to walk you through the methods I use to do this in my games. As I will continually encourage you to do, I have cobbled together most of these from the techniques of other DMs and a myriad of guides around the internet. You want to be a good Dungeon Master? Research, read forums and articles, watch videos – there’s a lot of content out there from people like me trying to teach their own brand of Dungeon Master-ing. Mine them shamelessly for whatever you might find useful!
So, to the topic at hand: how to customize monsters for your campaign. Let’s get to it, shall we?
I would feel remiss not to mention this possibility in this guide. For new Dungeon Masters, tampering with stat blocks can be a tricky affair. It is difficult to create a monster that is challenging but not overpowered, interesting but not so complex you can’t run them effectively.
There’s another, simpler option if you want to use a different sort of monster than appears in the Monster Manual in your game but don’t feel comfortable designing your own yet.
Search the Monster Manual for stat blocks that you think fit the relative power of your party (think things like goblins, skeletons, and zombies for a low level party). From among those choices, find the one that best fits the flavor you are looking for in your custom monsters.
Simply use that existing stat block, and describe it as looking like your custom monster. You can re-purpose their abilities the same way; the Zombie’s ability to resist deathblows with a successful Constitution save, for instance, could be used for any particularly hard-to-kill monster – just change how you describe the way the ability works to suit your needs. Re-skinning monsters has the added bonus of throwing off players that are a little too familiar with the Monster Manual.
It’s hard to say exactly when you are “ready” to start doing this for yourself. As a general rule, I wouldn’t recommend considering making monsters yourself until you have a very good grasp of how existing monsters work in the official materials. Build encounters and run some games first, and read other people’s homebrew creations for inspiration.
Making your own monsters for campaigns allows you to tailor-make them for your style of play. For instance, I enjoy very tactical combat in games; I like to make monsters that work together well as a group and complement each other.
My encounters lend themselves well to the style game I run, which is very combat-light for the most part. I want the few combats I do run to be difficult and high stakes. Many of the monsters in the Fifth Edition Monster Manual just don’t serve that design philosophy – most encounters are meant to wear down a party. I still run encounters of this nature in dungeons, when resource management is more of a factor, but they fall flat elsewhere in my game. I need encounters that feel dangerous even to a party that can go full nova (using all their limited-use abilities and spells with abandon), so I have to tune the strength of my monsters accordingly. What this largely translates to is higher health pools and larger groups of enemies than might be typical. I don’t tune the damage much higher, that’s a dangerous road to walk down that often ends in a TPK (total party kill).
I don’t want to kill a party member unless they make mistakes. You also can’t fight the dice – fate sometimes conspires against somebody at the worst time. A TPK, on the other hand, is more indicative of poor design on the Dungeon Master’s end than errors from the players.
So how do you make sure you’re not going to kill your party? That’s what makes this first step in my personal process invaluable: the party power assessment.
Assessing the Party
Now, you’re going to need access to your player’s character sheets to do this. Request them nicely sometime you can get a copy; barring the possibility of copying the sheet, you could also take pictures of the sheets with your phone or simply borrow the sheets one session and write down the relevant information.
When I do this assessment, I’m hoping to walk away with a resource I can use moving forward when designing monsters and encounters for that group. As an example, here’s a breakdown I did recently for a party in my campaign:
|Hit||Spell DC||HP||AC||Damage Per Round|
(Cleric 11 / Rogue 3)
Along with this information, I note the high and low saves for each party member, and their passive perception scores. Gathering this information together helps elucidate the strengths and weaknesses of the party. It doesn’t form the whole picture, though! For one thing, it can’t account for how effectively each player uses their character. This breakdown also misses less obvious contributions to a fight, or the unconventional tactics that are often a hallmark of good DnD.
This party is a prime example: the damage per round appears low for everyone except the fighter, because they are more focused on a control-oriented play-style. The battlefield impact of each character transcends what this breakdown accounts for. Make sure you know your party well, so you know to adjust for these factors when doing your own assessment.
To determine the per round damage for each player, I use three markers. The first, low, is the damage they do on a poor performing turn – such as when a rogue is caught without sneak attack, or few attacks hit. The medium mark is a typical ideal turn for the character, assuming average damage rolls on all dice and no extra abilities. The high accounts for the most damage they might do on a typical turn, with some daily abilities or spells thrown in and high damage rolls. What I don’t take into account here is the most damage each character can do in one round, or their nova potential. This is something you might want to include in your own breakdown, as it can help you avoid embarrassing situations where that great villain you put a ton of work into goes down in a single round.
Laying the Foundation: Monster Base Stats
At this point, you have a good idea of what your party is capable of – both from experience running games for them, and through running the raw numbers on their typical per round damage and other such factors. Armed with these resources, you’re equipped to start building monsters.
When I’m doing this, I like to establish a few base statistics that I will adjust around for the monsters I make. I create these using the statistics I gathered from the party. I mentioned earlier that I enjoy challenging, tactical encounters that are more spaced out throughout my campaign, and the basic statistics I choose will reflect that. My enemies scale up with the party, so even the low level “goons” of operations opposing them can give them a decent fight. You have to do some extra work to make this make sense in your world the more powerful your party becomes, but it’s not like a group of 14th level adventurer’s should be running around beating up street thugs anyway! They should be facing more and more powerful foes in their adventures.
As a rule of thumb, I design encounters with a goal time of 3-5 rounds. As with any rules there are times to break this, but I have found 3-5 rounds to be the sweet spot for a basic encounter- not so short that it feels abrupt, but not so long it becomes a boring dice-rolling slog. Monsters I create keep this time-frame in mind when deciding how much damage they need to be able to take and deal.
Here’s the baseline I decided upon for this party:
- HP: 70
- AC: 17
- Hit Modifier: +8
- Damage per Round: 20
I wanted to set the HP at a number that made each enemy a reasonable threat on their own when facing a party member in single combat – it’s high enough that it would be hard for any one character except the fighter, Rorick, to kill one in a single round. It’s low enough, though, that the focused efforts of the party should easily down one enemy each round.
The armor class is set to a base where the party will hit more often than not. You can, if you choose, instead opt for a higher armor class and lower HP (or the reverse) for a little diversity when deciding on these values. They will also be adjusted for specific enemies you make off this foundation.
I set the hit modifier so that monsters hit the party about half the time. The damage is set such that a group of 4 of these monsters (the same number as the party) would take about 5 rounds of damage to kill all the party members, the high end of how long I would want a combat to last. I’ll probably actually use 5 or 6 of these monsters in a typical encounter, this accounts for a couple dying quickly in the initial onslaught.
Making the Monsters
You’ve been laying a lot of ground work up to this point in the process, and that effort is going to pay off with how smooth this final part becomes as a result. Having all this information at your disposal frees you up to think creatively about your monsters without worrying about the details. Your encounters will be more interesting and well-thought out as a result!
For this party, I was creating a set of Yuan-ti enemies that are agents and foot soldiers of a secretive cult operating in the area. The basic Yuan-ti in the Monster Manual are too weak for my purposes, not posing a significant threat to such a high level party. Using Yuan-ti enemies would serve my narrative, though, so I needed to make some of my own that could give the party a run for their money.
Let’s look at an example of one of the enemies I created using the assembled information, and I’ll explain how I made my decisions in creating them:
- Basic Stats
- HP = 105 / AC = 19 / 30 Spd.
- Str. +2 / Dex. +2 / Con. +4 / Int. +0 / Wis +2 / Cha +1
- Saves: Str. +6 / Con. +8; Advantage vs. Magic Effects
- Attack (2 attacks): Long Spear, Reach 10ft, +6 hit, 1d8+2 damage
- At Will: Animal Friendship (snake only)
- 3/day: Suggestion (DC 13)
- Area Denial: Any area the Yuan-ti Shieldbearer threatens with their spear’s reach is considered difficult terrain (10ft radius, centered on the Shieldbearer). The Disengage action nullifies this.
This is one of the foot soldiers I cooked up, meant to make up the general rank and file of the Cult the party will be fighting. These enemies, specifically, are made to stand at the front of the pack and defend their heavier-hitting comrades in the back – this is supported by their high AC, HP, and their special ability. This comes at the cost of damage; these enemies do significantly less than the others I designed.
You can take this idea in a number of directions. To round out a typical squad of enemies, I try to have: a defender, a damage dealer, a controller, and a supporter. These roles can take a variety of forms, and it is my understanding that the Fourth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons features roles like these in their encounter design though I admittedly haven’t actually read any of that material (I went straight from 3.5e to 5e, I tried 4e and didn’t care for it). A damage dealer would have lower HP and AC, a high hit bonus and damage per round, and an ability that complements their role. Supporter and Controller roles tend to be filled by spell-casters. I usually hand-pick a narrow selection of spells that these monsters can cast, rather than making a full spell list, to keep the encounter from getting overly complicated to run.
When creating monsters this way, it’s helpful to look at existing abilities from classes and other monsters for inspiration. I often rip abilities straight from these sources. Why struggle to come up with flavorful ideas for features for a fiendish warlock villain when a professional team of game designers already made some for you?
You are not bound by the existing material. If you think of an interesting ability that would work well in game, try it out! You might have some flops doing this, as some ideas are better on paper than in action, but that’s how you improve your design.
Similarly, worrying about the details like how you reach an armor class can be a good exercise to make sure your monsters are well made, but it isn’t required. The Shieldbearer I used as an example could plausibly reach that Armor Class with their dexterity score, medium armor, a shield, and the defense fighting style. If I wanted to give them 20 AC for balance reasons, though, I would – even if I can’t replicate that on a player character without special items.
Having basis in the rules for these things can be a good guideline, but at the end of the day you are the Dungeon Master and you can make those kinds of calls. If it serves the overall fun of your game, it’s probably okay if you aren’t strictly by the book.
Powerful Enemies: Elites
The baseline you’ve created for your party can also be employed to make more powerful elite enemies for the party to face. Throwing one foe into the mix that is significantly stronger than the others, like a squad leader, can make your encounters more interesting and exciting.
When creating these enemies, I take the baseline statistics and pump a little extra power into all of them. Higher HP, AC, hit modifier, damage, you name it. I also give them a few additional abilities, often something that interacts with the lesser monsters at their disposal since they tend to be a leader of some kind. An example might be an ability that allows the elite monster to clear a negative effect from one of their allies using a reaction, as they shout sense back into them from across the battlefield.
I also give these monsters a couple legendary actions, though I strive to make the options less powerful than my boss characters and usually only allow them one or two per round. I usually give them one re-positioning ability here, and one offensive or defensive ability. Having these extra actions gives elite enemies a more central presence on the battlefield, and makes them feel like epic foes.
Making your own monsters is often a hit or miss affair. Sometimes abilities you thought would work great just don’t work in practice, or enemies don’t do as much as you hoped, or the encounter ends up just being a slogging slugfest. Don’t get discouraged by these pitfalls while you are learning, and approach encounters with an adaptive mindset. This fight is looking like it might drag on longer than you expected? Reduce the HP of the monsters a little, the party never needs to know.
That said, making monsters for your own games is a fun and rewarding experience that gives you yet another tool to flesh out your campaign setting with your own personal touches. Much of the beauty of Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons lies in the accessibility of it’s design; it isn’t all that hard to create your own content within the system. Take advantage of it and really make your world your own!