The spooky month of October is upon us, and to celebrate I’ve begun writing a series of articles focusing on my favorite part of Dungeons & Dragons – the monsters.
Every person who has ever played a campaign of D&D started, at some point, at Level 1. During their time as a Level 1 character, they fought all manner of flavorful fiends such as bandits, goblins, kobolds, orcs, skeletons, and, for whatever reason, packs of wolves.
The problem is, pretty much every campaign that starts at Level 1 features these monsters. It’s bizarre. It’s like it’s coded into GMs on a genetic level to default to these creatures – and I’m including myself here. If you’re a GM reading this and you’re about to run a campaign for first-level adventurers, I’m willing to bet you’ve featured some of these monsters in your upcoming encounters.
Your players, if they’ve played D&D before, are sick of them. And that’s a problem, given that D&D is, at its core, a game about fighting monsters.
Let’s take a look at some alternatives you can use – specifically, by figuring out exactly what mechanical and narrative role these common monsters fill, and finding stylistically distinct alternatives to replace them with. We’re also going to look at how to tactically and narratively use these monsters. That way, your players will actually remember the first three levels of your campaign, as opposed to a blur of dead goblins and driftglobes.
Seeing as we are in the month of Halloween, when the veil between the living and the dead draws thin, what better monster to start this series with than the humble skeleton?
Skeletons are great. They’re so goofy. They always seem to be grinning and they rattle like xylophones. So it hurts me a lot to say this, but it’s time for skeletons to go.
Mechanically, there’s not much going on with skeletons. They’ve got swords for melee and bows for range, so we’re not worried about something too spicy in terms of tactical gameplay.
In that case, what’s the narrative purpose of a skeleton? They’re meant to be scary – they’re a horror-dungeon enemy. What’s more, they’re not a naturally occurring phenomenon. The presence of skeletons is a sign that something is deeply wrong with the laws of nature. The dead have risen. That which was buried has clawed itself free from the earth. A group of skeletons is basically a giant flashing neon sign saying NECROMANCER HERE.
They’re also a reminder of our own mortality. There’s a skeleton in all of us.
These traits also apply to zombies, but without any of the charm. A skeleton smiles at you and is smart enough to use actual weapons. Zombies just sort of…lurch. They’re boring, tactically – their only interesting traits is that they take a long time to kill, and readers of my Initiative articles will know my opinion on things that take too long.
So in order to meaningfully replace skeletons, we want a monster that feels like an unnatural mirror of ourselves, something that exists in a supernatural setting, and something that could not have appeared without the intervention of someone up to no good.
Have you ever actually looked at the artwork for the lemure in the 5th edition Monster Manual? I mean really, really looked at it. It’s horrifying. The way those doughy lips peel back from the distended gums, and those beady, mad-looking eyes…
The humble, Challenge-Rating-Zero lemure is, when you think about it, a terrifying thing. It essentially resembles a mound of melting wax with a distorted, tortured human face. Lemures are the souls of evildoers consigned to Hell, doomed to perpetually reform to serve as playthings for their demonic torturers. They’re a warning for adventurers as to the fate that awaits them should they indulge their greed and bloodlust too far.
Lemures occupy the lowest rank on the infernal totem pole – which makes them perfect summons for an amateur diabolist. Remember how we pointed out that skeletons are a sure sign of a necromancer in the area? Lemures serve the same function for evil cultists.
Only, lemures are pretty boring, mechanically speaking. All they can do is punch, which is even less than what a skeleton can do. But while the lemure can cover the existential horror of our encounter, we can use other lesser demons, such as the dretch, for further tactical combat purposes.
Dretches and lemures work quite well together. Dretches can emit a poisonous green smoke which obscures the area near them – lemures, having Devil’s Sight, are presumably unaffected by this, and can’t be poisoned. Add some cultists, and a cult fanatic or a priest to lead them, and you’ve created a horror dungeon reminiscent of the Satanic Panic.
Fanatics and priests also allow you access to magic for your villains to help mechanically spice up an encounter. These leaders might have some low-level magic items thematically appropriate to their cult to further spice up combat and give them a unique vibe (I’m personally a big fan of Dark Shard Amulets, Dread Helms, and Staffs of the Adder). You should also feel free to change up the cult leader’s spell list to more closely represent their cult’s patrons, be they evil gods or powerful fiends. These spellcasters are necessary to give the encounter some ranged combat options.
The first thing to remember is that a cult summoning lemures and dretches is working low on the food chain. They’re not yet ready to actually fight anything, or they’d be summoning more powerful demonic lackeys – they’re more focused on practice-makes-perfect for the time being. Low-level cultists mastering their own abilities out also acts as a nice mirror of your own party of Level 1 characters discovering their new features during their adventures. The first priority for a low-level cult that the adventurers have bungled will be to flee, leaving their minions behind to slow down their pursuers.
The cult probably keeps their bound demons stationed near the doors of the cultists’ lair to bog down incoming attackers, but they stay deep enough inside the lair so that there’s no risk of them being accidentally discovered, especially if the cultists are using a legitimate establishment as a front. Lemures engage first, attacking the front line of adventurers to stop them from making further progress into the lair. Dretches move into midrange, popping their clouds to obscure the area between the cultists and the players in order to cover the cultists’ retreats, and then move in to support the lemures in melee. Once the clawed dretches are tying up any dedicated melee fighters, the lemures can disengage and prioritize trying to trap ranged combatants in melee.
The cultists will beeline for the nearest exit, using their actions to Dash. The Cult Fanatic, if one is present, can open up by casting Shield of Faith on himself as a Bonus Action, and then casting Hold person on the frontmost adventurer to stymie them from pursuing. He will then move as far away as he can and will spend subsequent rounds Dashing until he’s escaped with the rest of the cultists. This presents players with a more interesting fight as they must weigh the options of chasing after the fleeing cultists, or supporting the rest of their trapped party.
Hopefully you’ll take this advice and use it as a starting point to building your own unique, memorable encounters. Next month, we examine another generic baddie: the bandit.