4e Monster Advancement 101

One of the things I really like about Fourth Edition D&D is just how easy it is to customize monsters. In Third Edition this was something of a black art; it’s not that it was particularly difficult to do, but it sure was time-consuming and not for the casual GM. 4e changes that completely so that it’s even possible to do it right at the gametable.

Here’s how, with a quick primer on 4e’s Monster Advancement rules. Class, turn to page 174 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Pretty much everything you need to know about increasing or decreasing a monster’s level is enshrined in just three paragraphs. Here’s the even shorter version:

  • For each level up or down, +/-1 Attack rolls, AC, Saves
  • +/-HP per level based on Role: if the monster is a Skirmisher, Soldier or Controller +/-8. Lurker or Artillery +/-6. If Brute +/-10
  • For every 2 levels, +/-1 Damage, +/-1 to ability score bonuses (round up)

And that’s it! As the rules suggest (and my own testing bears out) this only really works for 5 levels either way, but that’s plenty. Also, if you cross Tiers (raising a Heroic Tier monster up to Paragon level, for example) I’d give them an extra boost in the form of an additional Power or special ability, or weakening an existing one if they’re dropping a Tier. If you wish, give the critter a magic item if it’s 6th level or above, though remember that it’s likely to end up in the player’s hands at some point in the future! A Gnoll with a Flaming Greatsword is cool, so long as you’re happy with that same Flaming Greatsword in the hands of Bob’s Paladin later. The DMG p174 has some excellent advice when it comes to giving monsters magic items and suggested Magic Thresholds.

Here’s a quick worked example, taking your classic Skeleton as a base. Right out the Monster Manual he’s a Level 3 Soldier equipped with a Longsword, Chainmail and Shield. Ray Harryhausen would be so proud.

Let’s beef him up to Level 6, a difference of 3 levels:

+3 Attack, +3 AC, +3 Saves, +2 Damage, +2 ability score bonuses and +24HP. 250XP.

Whether I was planning ahead or sat at the table mid-game, I would just jot that down as a single line, applying the changes on the fly to the stats from the Monster Manual. Taking it a little further, imagine that this skeleton has retained a little more intelligence than usual and recalls it’s Fighter training. Add the Fighter Template and we get:

+3 Attack, +3 AC, +5 Saves, +2 Fort, +2 Damage, +2 ability score bonuses and +84HP. Elite 500XP.
Trained:Intimidate, Athletics. Combat Challenge, Combat Superiority, Weapon Talent(One  Handed)
Reaping Strike/w, Dance of Steel/e, Crack the Skull/d, Unbreakable/d

Wow. That makes one badass Level 6 Skeleton Fighter, all in under a minute. Apply on the fly to the Skeleton statblock and you’ve got a truly worthy opponent. Buff a Blazing Skeleton up to Level 9 (+4 levels, so that’s +4 Attack, AC & Saves, +2 Damage and ability score bonuses, +24HP.400XP) to use as a Faux Flaming Lich and you’ve got one sweet set-up:

Level 8 Encounter (XP 1,400)

  • 1 Faux Flaming Lich (Level 9 Blazing Skeleton, 400XP)
  • 2 Skeletal Soldiers (Level 6 Skeleton Fighters, 500XP ea.)

One encounter, 2 adjusted monsters. A mere moment’s work. I love you, 4e.

Taking it the other way, sometimes you want to make a monster less powerful. Perhaps there’s a critter who is, as published, just a little too powerful for your heroes to face just yet, or you want to make a younger or weaker variant. No problem!

For example, for one scenario I gave an NPC Gnome Tinker the cutest little Rage Drake puppy. For it’s stats I just wrote (Small, Level 1. -4 Attack, AC & Saves, -2 Damage & bonuses, -40HP. Bite 1d8+2, Claw 1d4+2. 100XP). Simple!

King of the customizable critters has to be the Human. No surprises there! Here’s the possible ranges for all the given statblocks in the first Monster Manual, provided we keep within the +/-5 limits:

Rabble    1-7
Lackey    2-12
Bandit    1-7
Guard    1-8
Berserker    1-9
Mage        1-9

Lackeys make darned fine Cultists, and could even dip into Paragon Tier (with a suitable additional Power to represent their devotion, perhaps) so they’re usable on the fly for a large chunk of the game, with Guards and Bandits making excellent fodder through the entire Hero Tier. The Human Mage block is good for everything from a pimply-skinned student of magic who is destined to defeat Lord Voldemort in the last book to…. well, pretty much Lord Voldemort himself. Who, let’s face it, isn’t all that tough.

So Grey, if this is all so easy, who not just have a Monster Manual full of 5th, 15th and 25th level monsters and we can adjust them ourselves?

I’m glad you asked. To my mind, the stats in the Monster Manuals represent the most common power level for each monster in the wild. The Level 5 Rage Drake represents your typical fully grown specimen, for example. Some might be a little weaker or tougher (plus or minus a level, say) with younger ones usually kept in kennels or wherever. Somewhere, there may well be a Level 10 mutated Rage Drake, but such a thing would be exceedingly rare. Similarly, most common Psdudodragons are Level 3, Displacer Beasts Level 9, etc – though as GM you’re free to adjust the level however you want.

Compared to Third Edition where adjusting monsters involved checking their Type, adjusting the saves, recalculating BAB, rerolling Hit Dice, modifying Ability Scores, figuring Challenge Rating and working out final Encounter Level – and that’s before you even think about adding a Class into the mix! 4e is nothing less that bloody brilliant.

10 Comments on “4e Monster Advancement 101”

  1. With such a wide variety of monsters already available in the Monster Manual and Monster Manual 2 I honestly hadn’t given much thought to adjusting the monster already at my disposal. I guess with 4e combat taking longer than 3e (typically) we’ve had fewer fights and faced fewer monsters in a 6-months period than we might have with 3e.

    One thing I did like about 3e’s monster advancement system is that you could give many monsters classes which made them a lot more unique and challenging. This always kept the PCs on their toes because they never knew if the kobold had a few levels in Fighter, Wizards, Cleric or some other class. I find with 4e the PCs don’t face monsters with that king of fear and curiosity any more.

  2. @Nil It’s not difficult – just say it’s a Minion and one hit takes it out, simplify it’s abilities a touch and average the damage.

    That said, I really wish they’d put something into the DMG about how to create Minions from scratch. That was, imho, a very silly oversight.

  3. You mentioned +/- 1 to saves a couple times. It’s actually defenses, isn’t it? A minor point, but some people could take it to mean the critter gets a bonus to save against conditions.

    Good article. I tweak the bad guys a lot, so it’s always good to get new ideas.

    Has anyone seen a function that will let you upgrade a creature like this and then produce a statblock/card for it?

  4. @Wampus Cat I agree, the terminology in 4e between saves and defences is confusing. Maybe I should have been more clear. By saves, I meant Fortitude, Reflex and Will, not “saves” as in the saving throw you make at the end of the round to stave off effects.

    The closest I’ve seen to something which will let you alter monsters and produce an updated statblock is Asmor’s Monster Maker. You’ll need to put the figures in yourself (it does auto-calculate some) but the output is darned pretty.

  5. Re: Minionizing – Greywulf, you’d said “average” damage; all the minion entries in the books are set up as minimum damage, ie assuming the critter rolled 1’s on all its damage dice. Average damage minions would be a little more potent.

  6. @Meej I remember a long (and painful) discussion on the ENWorld boards about building Minions which compared all the minions in the MM (and other adventures) and concluded that some designers used minimum damage, some used average, some just seemed to pick a number out of thin air.

    You’re right – the majority of the MM used minimum damage, though there are exceptions, apparently. I haven’t checked.

    When making your own Minions I guess the best solution is to pick on method and stick to it. Oh that Wizards had though to include Minions in the monster-building section of the DMG, eh?

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