Tactical Roles and Creature Niches. Want to play your D&D 5e creatures and characters more tactically? Ever wonder what creature archetypes haven’t been filled yet? Look no further. While I continue to work on my series on roleplaying intelligent creatures, I let my Patrons vote on what to cover in the meantime. This week I introduce a system for mapping physical combat roles, and a handy chart of associated creatures. Theory and practice. Check it out!
What Do The Monsters Know?
One of my favorite D&D blogs, Keith Ammann’s The Monsters Know, articulates a lot of the core assumptions one must understand in order to run creatures and characters tactically. Among them, he explains:
1. “Low-Strength creatures, whatever their Dexterity and Constitution, will always try to compensate with numbers; if their numbers are reduced enough, they’ll scatter.”
2. “Low-Constitution creatures, whatever their Strength or Dexterity, will prefer to attack from hiding.”
3. “Low-Dexterity creatures, whatever their Strength or Constitution, will need to choose their battles carefully: since their ability to avoid damage is poor, they’ll want some sort of compensatory advantage.”
4. “High-Strength, high-Constitution, low-Dexterity creatures are brutes that will welcome a close-quarters slugfest.”
5. “High-Strength, low-Constitution, high-Dexterity creatures will use stealth and go for big-damage sneak attacks.”
6. “Low-Strength, high-Dexterity, high-Constitution creatures are scrappy.”
7. “Low-Strength, high-Dexterity, low-Constitution creatures will snipe at range.”
8. “If all three physical abilities are low, a creature will seek to avoid fighting altogether unless it has some sort of advantage; if it’s intelligent, it may lay traps.”
In addition to that, Ammann lists in his e-book Live To Tell The Tale: An Introduction to Combat Tactics For Dungeons & Dragons Players, the following six combat roles for creatures and characters:
1. The Front Line: Strength + Constitution
2. The Shock Attacker: Strength + Dexterity
3. The Skirmisher: Dexterity + Constitution
4. The Marksman: Dexterity + Wisdom
5. The Supporter: Mental Ability + Constitution
6. The Spellslinger: Intelligence/Charisma + Dexterity
This formulation inspired u/VinceK42 in his “One Class at a Time” series to identify the following eight roles: Archer, Board Control, Brute, Face, Problem Solver, Spell Slinger, Speedster, and Support. In contrast, Giffyglyph uses seven: Controller, Defender, Lurker, Scout, Sniper, Striker, and Supporter.
For my purposes, I will draw upon Ammann’s work too, sketching a system of physical combat roles, a non-magical archetype system using just Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution, focusing more on raw attributes (which prove easier to analyze), but including both Melee and Ranged roles in each. And I’ll use all this as the foundation of a more elaborate system once I continue this series, eventually tying it into my work on, for example, Intelligence and on going beyond Challenge Rating. But for now…
Theory: 14 Raw Physical Combat Archetypes
Scuffler & Striker
Let’s start out with creatures and characters who function physically by merit of their high Strength alone. The Melee Scuffler uses close-quarters swings for short-lived burst assaults, essentially scuffles, and sometimes technical attacks like shoves, maybe grappling if the numbers support it. Whereas the backlines Striker uses maneuvers like the distant hurling of projectiles for heavy hits, perhaps to cleave formations, or to stun.
Sneak & Sniper
Next, those creatures who put just their Dexterity to good use. In Melee, the Sneak role uses stalking, stealth, and surprise for quick surgical or burst attacks, functioning as a forward reconnaissance and assassination unit. Likewise, its Ranged sibling, the backlines Sniper role uses scanning, secrecy, and surprise for dramatic targeted removal attacks and to sew disorientation, such as by striking from above.
Stalwart & Suppressor
How about for Constitution? For Melee, the frontline Stalwart uses their endurance for defense and distraction. For the Ranged option, the Suppessor provide suppressive fire, allowing allies to move or get to cover, and after spending their ammunition, perhaps coordinates supply runs and communications.
Shocktroop & Slinger
Ok, now what about combinations? For those creatures blessed with both Strength and Dexterity, we have the Melee Shocktroop, who may use speed, stealth, and surprise for infiltrating and nova attacks, or else act as an open vanguard, with penetrating assaults that dodge along the way while aiming for the flanks and rear of enemy formations. The Ranged Slinger role functions similarly to the Sniper, but maybe hurls a few heavy projectiles with slings at key targets, supporting that with hit-and-run tactics.
Slugger & Shatterer
Next we have the Strength plus Constitution combo, where we have the Slugger, the Melee brute favoring the close-quarters slugfest, unafraid of exchanging blows or taking a blow while grappling. And its parallel: the Shatterer, a Ranged hurler who barrages and scatters enemy formations continuously.
Scrapper & Skirmisher
Moving on to Dexterity plus Constitution, we have the Melee Scrapper role, a potentially nimble and enduring infiltrator, mobile vanguard, and close-quarters tank. Its counterpart, the Ranged Skirmisher, functions as an agile and enduring scout, a flexible rearguard or flankguard, as well perhaps as a distant harasser of enemy forces.
Slayer & Siegemaster
Finally, we have the mighty trinities, those who bear greatness in Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution all at once. The Melee version, the Slayer, a versatile attacker, defender, or infiltrator, can contend with enemy champions, mobs, and maybe even moderate fortification with battering rams, potentially fulfilling nearly any non-magical, non-command role on the battlefield. Likewise, the Ranged version, the Siegemaster, wields all of the various potentials and functions essentially as artillery, a living siege engine. Uniquely, both such champions as these strongly shape combat morale.
We can digest this a bit:
-Roles Which Favor Attrition: Stalwart, Suppressor, Scrapper, Skirmisher, Slugger, Shatterer.
-Roles Which Favor a Blitz: Sneak, Sniper, Scuffler, Striker, Shocktroop, Slinger
-Roles With Flexibility: Slayer, Siegemaster.
Practice: Examples, and Missing Creature Niches in 5e
Now that we’ve talked some theory, let’s get practical. Which creatures in the 5e Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes fit into these roles? Looking at u/Fontanapink’s amazing 5e Monster List With Ability Scores organizable spreadsheet, we see 691 monster entries. (Note to self: add that to my D&D 5e Resource Compendium.) Well, lunatic that I am, I painstakingly sifted through every single entry in that, and below I’ve included an example creature for each of my fourteen roles where possible, and in each of the following Challenge Rating (CR) tier brackets: 0-4, 5-10, 11-16, 17-20, and 21-30. Now, some gaps exist. And as with many things, the absences prove just as important as the examples. We’ll revisit that point right after the table.
1. M=Melee, R=Ranged. I had to make some sacrifices: some Ranged entries come from creatures with magical attacks, for usability.
2. Ability words like STR, DEX, and CON indicate main physical ability, which I compared against average scores within each creature CR bracket.
3. Donjon’s 5e Monster List has you covered for which monsters come from which books, and all the page number look-ups.
EXAMPLE & MISSING CREATURE NICHES BY CR BRACKET
|CR 0-4||CR 5-10||CR 11-16||CR 17-20||CR 21-30|
|SCUFFLER (M: STR)||Winter Wolf||Annis Hag||Narzugon||Dragon Turtle||Zuggtmoy|
|STRIKER (R: STR)||Ankheg||Aboleth||X||X||X|
|SNEAK (M: DEX)||Doppelganger||Hydroloth||Githzerai Anarch||Demilich||X|
|SNIPER (R: DEX)||Flameskull||Hydroloth||Drow Shadowblade||Drow Favored Consort||X|
|STALWART (M: CON)||Wight||Elder Oblex||Wastrilith||Sibriex||X|
|SUPPRESSOR (R: CON)||X||Elder Oblex||Yagnoloth||Sibriex||X|
|SHOCKTROOP (M: STR+DEX)||Bone Naga||Cambion||X||X||X|
|SLINGER (R: STR+DEX)||X||Guardian Naga||X||X||X|
|SLUGGER (M: STR+CON)||Elephant||Young Red Dragon||Retreiver||Balor||Tarrasque|
|SHATTERER (R: STR+CON)||Ogre||Young Red Dragon||Retriever||Pit Fiend||Ancient Red Dragon|
|SCRAPPER (M: DEX+CON)||X||Adult Oblex||Alkilith||X||X|
|SKIRMISHER (R: DEX+CON)||Archer||Adult Oblex||Marilith||X||X|
|SLAYER (M: STR + DEX + CON)||Babau||Deva||Planetar||Leviathan||Solar|
|SIEGEMASTER (R: STR + DEX + CON)||Manticore||Summer Eladrin||Planetar||Nightwalker||Elder Tempest|
Hopefully this chart can help you start using monsters more tactically, creating interesting combinations of roles in creature squads or character parties.
And remember earlier I mentioned the importance of the gaps? For all you D&D homebrewers out there, those X marks show some excellent open niches for new monsters to develop. The STR+DEX combo, as well as the CR 21-30 column, all seem ripe for experimentation. To get started, you can use Giffyglyph’s Monster Maker Rules or the automatic Monster Maker web app that arose from it, both free resources I would recommend checking out.
I hope you liked this discussion on Tactical Combat Roles & Empty Creature Niches in D&D 5e. Share it if you liked it, and let me know in the comments what you thought. I publish new posts each Tuesday. And in the meantime, I post original D&D memes and writing updates daily over on my site’s Facebook Page. Also, if you want to keep up-to-date on all my posts, check the bottom sign-up widget to receive email notifications when I release new posts. A big thanks as always to my Patrons on Patreon, helping keep this project going: Anthony, Geoff, Kelly, Micah, and Rudy. Thanks for your support!