Are your players bored of giants, drow, and mindflayers? Do they attack every piece of furniture to avoid mimics and smothering rugs? Have they memorized the damage types of each chromatic dragon? If you answered yes to these questions, you may be suffering from Stop Remembering Monster Stats you Silly Players Syndrome. SRMSYSPS is a serious condition which afflicts Dungeon Masters everywhere. Many DMs have resorted to using monsters from the newly released Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes but that kind of treatment costs money and is only a temporary solution to your player’s meta-gaming tendencies. Here at deadbrokenerd.com we think its important to provide affordable alternatives wherever possible. So here are three ways you can turn those boring old monsters, into hip and now monsters that are, like, totally with it, bro.
Step a high CR Enemy down to your player’s level.
Most campaigns don’t go past level 10 and many don’t even make it past level 5. Whether that is by design or through group dispersion, there are plenty of experienced D&D players who have never gone up against higher level monsters. Let the group fight a banished Pit Fiend or an adolescent Purple Worm. Simply reduce the hit dice for the creature and step down AC, damage dice, and save DCs to levels that are more appropriate. The degree to which you do this is up to you! When I ran my level 4 party against a CR 10 Aboleth, I left all the stats the same but I reduced the Aboleth’s multiattack from three to two and began the fight with it chained up. To compensate, I also gave it a single target stun similar to the Mind Flayer’s Mind Blast that would stop it from getting wrecked by the beefy fighter in two rounds. During the fight the creature would try dominate the mind of spellcaster and use their magic to loose the arcane manacles that bound it. My most experienced player let out an “ohhhhh shit” when I described the eldtritch creature and everyone began freaking out in a mix of terror and excitement. Later that night, after his character heroically sacrificed himself to save two other player characters from death, he told me how he’d always wanted to see an Aboleth in game but his groups had never made it to that high of a level. He rolled new stats for his character with one of the biggest grins I’d ever seen at D&D.
Give an intelligent enemy levels in a player class.
This is something I frequently do at lower levels to spice up city encounters. You’ll find the stats for a bandit captain or thieves guild agent to be surprisingly boring. Consider giving some of those guys a level or two in fighter or rogue so they can access the same core abilities of the PCs. You’ll find players become much more engaged with lower level fights if they find out that the big bad has some of the same abilities they do. I guarantee that a bandit captain with Action Surge and Heavy Weapon Master will definitely wake up any dozers. I’ve even been known to roll up a full character sheet for an NPC or villain when I really want to impress the PC’s with the character’s abilities. This is especially useful for helping an intelligent enemy retreat as you can select spells or abilities that will help achieve the narrative goal, without giving them full plot armor. The players will often surprise you and a well timed Counterspell can still ruin that villain’s escape plan.
Frankenstein Familiar Monsters.
When all else fails, mash two monsters together. You can write it off as a mad wizard’s experiment, a rift in the Planar energies or whatever fantasy bologna you’re into. The main thing is to twist your players expectations. Be sure to provide visual distinction between the stitched up monster and the original one so players don’t feel like you’re making it up on the spot. A great idea is to combine two monsters that play very differently. Imagine taking a Spectator, (the beholder’s little brother) and plopping it on the shoulders of the physically imposing Umber Hulk. You can make these changes in more subtle ways as with the Aboleth that I mentioned earlier, but the point remains: there is NOTHING in the rules of Dungeons and Dragons that says you have to use the printed stats of a creatures. If your players are prone to meta-gaming, give them a warning at the beginning of a campaign and clearly state that in your game, the stats in the monster manual are merely suggestions.