Hobby Blog 006 - D&D low-level monsters - you can make them exciting!

The phrase "roll initiative!" is the beginning of something that is often sadly underwhelming in D&D. Players often go from imagining characters and roles with all their complex inner life and motivations and put all that aside and just roll dice like a sort of medieval terminator until the fight is over.

At best that can be anticlimactic. At worst it is boring! Hacking away until the problem disappears...

I think the challenge often lies with how the DM organises things in their mind for combat. There's a lot to keep track of - stats, who's fighting who, initiative, the list goes on. It's tempting for the DM to simplify things and bring them down to their mechanical basics. Break everything down into numbers and split the bad guys evenly across the party and just keep rolling till one side or the other is dead. Yawn.

It doesn't have to be that way!

Even the lowliest D&D bad guys can be interesting and exciting if you play them right. It just needs the DM to have some fun and put on their role play hat and be the bad guys for the duration of the fight. Let me give you some examples of how even low-level bad guys have been interesting in some of the games I've run.


Kobolds ambush the party at the stone circle. Kobolds are diminutive but smart. They understand what's happening and know how to even the odds. When the paladin strode forward to intimidate them into fighting him... they know the danger. So, the couple of flying kobolds throw rocks at the thinly armoured monk and wizard causing real danger to them while the remaining kobolds gang up on the weaker looking party members and ignore the paladin. This could go wrong quickly...


The halfling rogue pushes their luck and sneak attacks the ogre through the open door. The ogre's dire wolves are fast and aggressive and attack! The rogue runs away (assuming that the wolves will attack the nearest party member like all the bad guys have in their previous games). Dogs like to chase moving things so it stands to reason to me that the dire wolves will be similar. Their movement far outpaces the halfling's little legs and she's brought down in a heap, immediately unconscious. Now the party has a new problem. Those wolves are now attacking an unconscious halfling... this will be fatal unless they intervene but the ogre has something to say about it...

Kobolds and dire wolves are easy monsters to overlook in terms of their utility for drama and narrative. Randomising who they attack or just lining up and dividing them equally between the party would be easy enough. But... just by imagining how they might behave in the situation, what might have been humdrum has been elevated into a life and death struggle with real pressure and jeopardy!

What do you prefer? Monsters that act like real thinking (if appropriate) threats, or just HP sinks to take up time at the table? What's the best example you've got of a realistic monster really adding to the game?

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1 comment

Alex Woodward

Alex Woodward

My favourite low-level combat I’ve ever run was against a single gelatinous cube that had been smuggled into the cargo hold of the party’s ship. They realised quite quickly that they could steer the thing, as it’d predictably go after anyone that hit it; plus they could open up other crates for literal outside-the-box alternatives to just hitting the thing. It was fun seeing the group treat it less like a limited turn-based RPG fight and more like a ‘what would my character’s solution to this be’ puzzle.

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