Thanks once again for visiting my weekly feature, Irreverent Reading. It’s where my son Xander and I read every single world of the D&D Monster Manual together…
As my wife wraps up a Zoom meeting in Xander’s bedroom, and Xan FaceTimes with my sister in the kitchen, I size up the last section of the Monster Manual.
Appendix B starts with tips for how to customize your NPCs. It’s solid advice about swapping spells, equipment, etc. It’s what you’d expect to find, but Appendix A could have used some of that same guidance for the creature write-ups. At least you can always fall back on my suggestions.
This is every bit the funny little section at the back of the book. A pocket Rogues Gallery. A lifeline thrown to the DM who realizes the party desperately needs to hire a Scout to get out to that ruin.
The strangest thing about Appendix B is the wildly different NPC power levels. You expect a Commoner to be CR 0, but other choices seem arbitrary. I suppose the Druid and Scout are lower-powered because they’re likely to be party allies; don’t want to overshadow the PCs! In general potential threats are much tougher. The Assassin, for example, is no joke. I love it that the Assassin has Damage Resistance to poison. That’s a nice little touch.
Archmage. As I’ve broadened my gaming palate, I’ve realized that trad fantasy games handle casters in one of two ways: either they’re built like monsters, with abilities that create “spell effects,” or they’re built just like PCs. If you’re reading this, you already know that D&D leans strongly towards the latter.
There’s a certain logic to it. D&D has a magic system that’s been honed, scrubbed, and polished over many iterations. What could be easier on the DM than to use the spells already in the book! For me, it’s never an enjoyable experience. Even people who play casters sometimes lock up under the cognitive load… and usually they’ve leveled up slowly over time, and have developed a tactical feel for their character. For the DM, picking up a high level mage is a big lift. Giving a caster a characterization and a motivation, and then also expecting clever tactical play out of yourself, is a lot. The Archmage here has 20 spells, not including cantrips; that’s a lot of moving parts.
There are many low/no-prep DMing guides out here, but I think the only solution for handling these powerful mages is to do the homework. (If you’ve had tons of exposure to the D&D spell library, you are already way ahead of the game here! But this advice won’t hurt you, either.)
First be sure you have a rock solid understanding of why you’re bringing someone like the Archmage into your game. Is the DM-facing complexity they bring really necessary? If it is, it is, but be sure you understand the character’s agenda and the context they’re showing up in. It’s important because it will 100% influence the spells you focus on, or decide to alter, from the standard list.
Here’s what that looks like…
Let’s say your Archmage is the heavy artillery on a pirate ship. Teleport (default for the Archmage) seems like a funny 7th level spell to chose in that situation. How about switching it out for Prismatic Spray? Not a lot of boarding parties want to face that firehouse of damage! Or maybe the mage is there to help the ship evade detection or pursuit… then Mirage Arcane might be an interesting spell to choose.
Making story-first choices will save you tons of time when you get down to choosing spells. Even if you’re in a hurry and want to take the standard Archmage loadout, knowing what you want out of him will help you focus on that handful of critical spells.
One of the things I really like about the Archmage writeup is the suggestion that they come into combat with a variety of defensive spells up and running. If you want to make PC choices matter here, you might put them on a clock. “You hear the Archmage mumbling as she runs up the tower steps. You know she’s going to be tougher if you give her time to prepare her wards. Her men-at-arms move to cut you off… what do you do?”
To me giving your players that kind of choice is the essence of good gaming. Rollicking tales of heroism seldom include time for a methodical decision-making process. Make ’em shoot from the hip, and let the chips fall where they may.
Gladiator. Wow. This guy is just a beast. Also, I say guy, but folks of all genders can kick plenty of ass. Remember to mix it up.
In any case, I didn’t expect to see a build with 112 Hit in our little Rogues Gallery. With the Spear and Shield Bash attacks, and that really nice Parry reaction, this is a very serviceable all around fighter. Consider re-skinning the Gladiator as a tribal champion or wizard’s thrall. It would also make a good Boss for a particularly tough local gang; just throw in the Bandit Captain as second in command, and a bunch of follower Thugs, and you’ve got a party. If you want to play Spartacus, have your Gladiator lead a group of Veterans in a revolt.
Noble. I think it’s possible, even likely, that the noble’s 9 hit points total is a joke. It’s mighty fun to think of the boss as having a CR of 1/8. What the heck, let’s play along…
The party barbarian, without even trying, manages to offend a palanquin-riding highborn douche. Said titled individual challenges the barbarian to a duel. Whatever the other PCs say, we know our friend from the far reaches is never going to back down now.
Somehow none of the townies tell our heroes that these duels are just performances, certainly nothing worth dying over. Or could it be that lots of people hate this particular Noble and want to see him taken off the board?
When it’s showtime the Noble flexes his rapier, maybe makes his Parry ability work for him once or twice, but Dear Reader, we know how this ends: with that Noble’s blood dripping into the sewer.
There’s a long beat and then it’s pandemonium, perhaps the Svengali that engineered all this snickers from the shadows, but the crowd is cheering and screaming and calling for the town guard. Do your PCs find themselves fleeing The Man, or suddenly leading a revolution?
And that’s it!
Thanks for coming along for the ride. It wasn’t always easy to keep the wheels turning, but somehow we managed to do it. I figured if everyone else out there needed a little diversion as badly as I did, I’d better keep on truckin’.
I’m so pleased that Xander’s energy for this held out until the very end. (I’ll admit it, Appendix B didn’t thrill him.) It’s a special 7-year-old that can maintain his interest for something over 5 months… especially this five months.
There’s a lot I want to say, but I’ll save it. I’ll put in some final observations next week when I do my Post of Posts.
You should join me for the victory lap! If you’ve kept up with these, you certainly deserve it.