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Improvising Colville-style Action Oriented Monsters in D&D

by Mike on 23 August 2021

Back in 2019 Matt Colville posted a YouTube video describing Action Oriented Monsters. The basic concept is that boss monsters typically don't have the tools or action economy to deal with a full party of adventurers. This is often true even for legendary monsters but it mostly offers a framework for a non-legendary monster to threaten a whole group and bring more drama to a combat encounter.

In a Twitch stream on 18 February 2021, Colville described his general philosophy on what made an action oriented monster which I'll summarize here:

First, action-oriented monsters are intended to hold their own against a group of characters.

Second, action oriented monsters have "villain actions" which act like legendary actions except that, on top of their typical array of actions, bonus actions, and reactions; they have additional boss actions. Often these actions can be spell-like abilities but aren't as complicated as spells. The intent is to build a highly usable and effective boss monster that isn't overly complicated to run.

These boss actions are keyed to the rounds of a battle which often mirror the dramatic arc of a story. These beats follow the typically predictable flow of combat and often follow these three steps:

I like to break these down into simpler single-word ideas:

  1. Position
  2. Escape
  3. Explode

Action oriented monsters also often have boosted hit points (think about that monster dial).

In the original video Matt describes a goblin boss that summons goblins, lets them move around the battlefield without provoking, and lets them get a sudden burst of attacks near the end of the fight. For an action-oriented Ankheg he describes it burrowing underground, pulling characters underground, and then spraying acid like a big sprinkler near the end of the battle.

Building Action-Oriented Monsters on the Fly

As a lazy dungeon master I like tools and frameworks I can keep in my head and apply right at the table when I need them. I think we can build such a framework for action-oriented monsters as well; something beyond just bumping up hit points, attacks, and damage like we do with our dials of monster difficulty. What does this improvisational action-oriented template look like?

  1. Double or triple the hit points of the monster as needed. Keep your hand on the HP dial if it's too much.
  2. Give the monster initial mobility. How can this monster get into a good initial position?
  3. Give the monster mid-battle mobility. How can it escape from being pinned down? Can it roar and send everyone flying back? Can it bash its way out? Can it beat its wings and soar into the air? Can it turn into a shadow and zip away? How you flavor this for the monster is the tricky part so get creative.
  4. What is the monster's final burst? Can it attack all creatures in range? Can it explode into fire, ice, poison, or necrotic damage, damaging everyone around it? Does it have one big spell it can cast for free? Again, the flavor of the monster determines how it explodes.
  5. We may want to fall back to standard legendary monster abilities like legendary resistance and legendary actions to avoid getting pinned down with debilitating spells or effects and give it some extra actions in the middle the characters' turns. Adding legendary resistances takes little work and legendary actions can often be either a move that doesn't provoke, a single weapon attack, or a low-level spell.

Building an Action-Oriented Vampire Spawn

I love vampires but there really isn't a great low-level vampire boss in the Monster Manual. The vampire spawn is solid but clearly isn't action oriented. What if we want to quickly make a low-level vampire boss? Here are some quick modifications we can make to a standard vampire spawn to make it a worthy boss for characters of 4th to 6th level.

It takes a little work and a little practice to apply changes like these to a monster on the fly but with a short checklist and some imagination, it isn't impossible.

Frameworks to Tell Dramatic Stories

The more tools we have in our toolbox to quickly and easily change up the mechanics of our game, the easier it is to tune our game to tell dramatic and exciting stories as they unfold. Our goal is never to punish the characters but to bring the right excitement and danger at the right time.

Take some time to imagine how you would quickly build an action-oriented monster. Try it with a big brute like an ogre, a sly lurker like a spy or assassin, and a powerful spellcaster like a mage, archmage, or lich. If you can whip up abilities for those three, you're likely to have what you need to build them at the table.

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