Saturday, April 18, 2020

People are the Real Monsters

NPC Stat Blocks in the Fifth Edition

"Monsters are real... and they look like people".  Humans are the most compelling opponents in a roleplaying game.  Players may attack a band of orcs as a knee-jerk reaction (grrr, monsters, kill them) but when they run into a rival band of adventurers, most groups stop and think.  Fight, parlay, intimidate, team-up, betray.  If Game of Thrones taught us anything, betrayal at the hands of supposed friends and allies spawns bitter tears, and revenge is a dish best served cold.  Our most memorable villains have been NPCs that the players can't immediately kill - either because of the political situation, or because they're not powerful enough.  I firmly believe games need powerful NPC characters that can challenge the players both inside and outside the dungeon.  In fact, using my my last post as a guide, the Gygaxian demographics of classic locales such as Hommlet or the Keep on the Borderlands indicated that 15-20% of the people living in settlements have character levels, capable of helping or hindering the player characters.

When 5E came out, there weren't too many pre-made NPC stat blocks in the base game - the Monster Manual included 20 or so out of 450+ monsters.  The referee was mostly on their own to use the Dungeon Master's Guide to build additional NPCs as monsters.  Now that there's well over a dozen adventures and soucebooks, the game has accumulated quite a few more pre-made stat blocks for NPCs (90+ in fact).  To make it easier on myself populating the world with people-monsters, I aggregated them in one place - you can check out a copy here ( 5E NPCs by CR *).

As a simple experiment, I took a look at two classic adventuring parties - how easy would it be to quickly assemble them using the 5E NPC stat blocks?  Without further ado here is the gang of Aggro the Ax, who faced off against Gutboy Barrelhouse and company.  (Bonus points if you remember where these guys showed up!)

A few points to call out.  There are not exact matches - Arkayn is listed as a Cleric 4, the Priest NPC statblock is for a level 5 Cleric.  There is no Level 5 Wizard stat block, the Illusionist from Volo's Guide to Monsters is level 7 (but only CR 3).  It'd be easy enough to swap out some spells if you think Abner should be a blasty wizard.  For Blastum, the 'Evil Mage' stat block from Lost Mine of Phandelver is a level 4 caster, so that's a good match.  I didn't see any Fighter/Wizard spell blocks on the list, so I made Barjin a Bard (a 4th level caster stat block).  It took just a few minutes to pull these together, which is good.  I'm pretty confident I could quickly build out a handful of rival adventuring parties for game use from the volume of NPC stat blocks that now exist in the 5E accumulated bestiary.

Here's a watch out though.  The NPC stat blocks top out at CR 12!  Let's put that in perspective.  In 5E terms, a CR X monster is meant to be a hard fight for a 4-person party of X level.  A CR 12 NPC should be a challenging encounter for a 12th level party.  In reality, optimized and competent players punch way above their weight class.  Plus the action economy dictates that a 4 on 1 fight will not go well for the monster side.  A CR 12 NPC is something like an archmage or archdruid (18th level casters).  Your goal as referee is going to be to ensure any one these CR 12 NPCs never faces off solo against a group of powerful opponents - they need to have strongholds, retainers, henchmen, and allies to round out their defenses.  I've run some Tier 3 5th Edition (character levels 11-16) and it's fun trying to challenge over-powered characters.  Looking forward to thinking about high level NPCs hang onto their power in a world with player characters.

* I didn't include NPCs from specific settings like Ravnica or Eberron, but I'll update the doc if/when I add them in there.  Let me know if anyone has an issue accessing it; this is the first time I'm posting a file via Google Drive - if it works I'll do it more.


  1. dude, just use the filters on this thing man

    you can search for the "any humanoid" monsters, but also specifically for humans and other non-monstrous races, many of which absolutely go over CR12. you could put together a perfectly formidable rival adventuring party of Hlam (a human monk dude) from Waterdeep Dragon Heist, a Githzerai Anarch from Mordy's Tome, and Arkhan the Cruel from Descent into Avernus (though you'd maybe want to take away his hand of vecna and change his alignment lol), all of whom are CR16. not to mention all the possibilities if you turned all those high-cr drow enemies into regular elves...

    1. The bestiary tool is great. (Surprised it hasn't been banned, but it is really useful to find stuff).

  2. Gutboy Barrelhouse, combat example in the 1e DMG.

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