DM Deep Dive: Monster Design with Jeremy Crawford

by Mike Shea on 29 July 2019

Back in July 2018 I had the great honor to talk with Jeremy Crawford on the DM's Deep Dive. I had neglected to write up the notes for this interview and seek to remedy that problem right now.

You can watch the video below or watch it directly on Youtube.

Here are some notes from the interview.

Jeremy's Top Three Tips to Get the Most Out of D&D Monsters:

A monster is more than a sack of hit points. Monsters are characters. They're a roleplaying opportunities and story building blocks. Jeremy will flip through Volo's Guide to Monsters or Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes and look for a monster that sparks his imagination. Look for a way to make a monster funny or scary. Monsters can dispense story information in the midsts of combat.

Use monsters as the seeds of adventure design.

Monsters imply an environment. Monster choices can have a ripple effect for your adventure design, campaign design, and roleplaying.

Adjust numbers on the fly. Your players don't see what's behind the screen. Hit points are the average and can fall anywhere within a monster's hit dice range. Adjust on the fly to make combats memorable and appropriate for the moment in the story. Adjust the numbers to hit the appropriate emotional beats. If a battle is dragging on too long, drop the hit points and let the monster die sooner. The hit dice number is a tool for DMs to know the range of hit points.

You can do the same thing with damage. The average is listed but so is the range. As a DM you can go anywhere within that range. If you want your monsters to do minimum damage or maximum damage, go for it; although maximum damage is really scary. Imagine fire giants hitting for 86 damage!

The DM is the adjudicator of the threat and can tune the numbers appropriately.

Monsters have bad days too. DMs, be kind to yourself. Sometimes you'll forget an ability of a monster and realize after the game that things would have been much different if you remembered. Don't beat yourself up. It happens to everyone. Use this as an opportunity for a second chance. Perhaps Bob the minotaur's sister, Charlotte, shows up.

D&D has endless opportunities for DMs to get better.

Mike's tip: when running boss monsters, find ways to run a boss monster twice so you can try it out once and then run it for real the second time. Lichs, vampires, and spellcasters with simulacrums have built-in ways to die and come back later.

How Does WOTC Make Monsters?

The process WOTC uses to build monsters varies depending on the book. If they're building monsters for an adventure, they know they'll need monsters of a particular challenge rating. For a monster book, their origins are more vague. They'll start with concepts, then abilities, then the CR calculator, and then reality-check the monster. Where do they fit within the range of existing monsters?

A monster's design says something about the broader world. New monsters impact the world and older monsters define the world in a way that matters in the process of creating new ones.

Wizards of the Coast uses their own internal challenge rating calculator when designing any official D&D monster. The guidelines in the Dungeon Master's Guide are a loose extrapolation of this internal challenge rating calculator. The internal one has much more atomicity than the DMG guidelines. The calculator adjusts challenge on the fly every time a monster gains a new feature.

Sometimes monsters are tweaked based on the art, which explains the Winter Eladrin and its sad bow attack. Man, it's been a year and, looking back, that Winter Eladrin is really really sad.

The DMG monster design rules tend to lead to monsters with higher hit points and more damage than monsters designed with the internal challenge rating calculator Wizards of the Coast uses.

Since the design of the Monster Manual, Wizards of the Coast is willing to let a monster's challenge rating change based on their capabilities other than hit points and damage.

How Do We Run High-End Boss Monsters?

A boss isn't designed to be encountered in a white room. They should be encountered in the battlefield they chose. If you're going into their throne room, you will arrive tuckered out from traps and previous encounters. If you're fighting the boss fresh after a night's rest, that is very different than fighting through eight waves of guards.

There are three ways to tune the difficulty of a boss monster.

When we talk about encounter difficulty, boss battles should be on the "hard" level. It's ok even to make them "deadly".

Bosses have ways to escape. Vampires and lichs have built-in ways to escape defeat.

Jeremy has run vampires for the entire life of fifth edition and has yet had a group defeat one. He plays them as geniuses. They don't stick around in a fight they're not going to win.

Night hags can planeshift. They're not going to stick around if they're getting their asses kicked.

Questions from the Audience

What considerations are made for bosses that aren't legendary?

Monsters without legendary traits are expected to be with other creatures. A really high CR monster might be a threat for a single group. If a single non-legendary monster faces a group of characters with a CR equal to level, it's going to get squashed.

What are some of your most favorite and terrifying monster abilities?

Jeremy is able to terrify within the roleplaying sphere but nothing scares players more than hit point drain or mind control, especially long-term mind control. Mike's tip: make hit point drain require a lesser or greater restoration instead of just a long rest to cure. Now it's REALLY scary.

Mike thinks young kruthiks are very scary. CR 1/8 and it has pack tactics. Jeremy mentions that pack tactics makes low challenge monsters a good threat to high challenge creatures. Thugs are always dangerous.

What are some favorite combat systems in non-D&D RPGs?

Jeremy was fascinated by the combat system in Ryuutama. Jeremy likes the abstract combat system based on zones instead of concrete measurements. Jeremy likes more abstracted combat systems than the measured concrete system in D&D.

Mike likes Numenera's combat system because of the simplicity of its challenge rating. Monsters are just a single number which makes it really easy to build things on the fly. Mike also likes the abstract distances in 13th Age.

None of the Wizards design team uses miniatures anymore. Chris Perkins got rid of his huge vat of miniatures he used to wheel around. He gave them away as gifts.

Jeremy rarely ever builds his own monsters for his own game. He'll just reskin existing NPC stat blocks. There's almost always some stat block he can already use.

Thanks to Jeremy Crawford for taking the time to share his wisdom!

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