Recently, I showed you all how to make a cool, new monster variant in 15 minutes or less. And many of you shared that enjoyed it. So thank you so much!
This time, I’d like to dive into how to make an elite version of a monster.
What is an elite monster?
An elite monster is a beefed up version of a normal monster from one of the Fifth Edition monster books. Usually, the monster type is humanoid, but there are plants, undead, and monstrosities that also have elite versions. Examples of elite monsters include goblin bosses, githyanki knights, abdominal yetis, myconids, and mummy lords.
How can we create elite humanoid?
As I’ve said before, if you want to understand the inherent design of Fifth Edition, then the Monster Manual is your Rosetta Stone. All you have to do is read between the lines on some of the entries to see certain patterns the designers put into place.
Then, it’s just a matter of applying those patterns to your own creations.
Common Elite Humanoid Patterns and Differences
Observing the Monster Manual, here are a few of the patterns and differences that I have noticed between elite and non-elite humanoids. Naturally, this list doesn’t mean that this is what you have to do with every single monster out there. But if you are looking to create a quick monster variant, then this cheat sheet will help you along nicely.
Size, Alignment, and Type often stay the same
Humanoids rarely bump up or down in size. Nor do they change alignments. For the most part, their type stays the same, too, however, there are a few exceptions such as the Gnoll Fang of Yeenoghu which becomes a fiend.
Hit dice always go up.
The number of hit dice always increases, usually at least by 2 hit dice, but typically no more than 3 times the original. The only time it stays flat is if the elite variant is “parallel” to another type of elite.
For example, the base creature is a basic “warrior” humanoid. For elites, there is an elite warrior humanoid and a spellcaster humanoid of the same type or sub-type. The elite warrior and spellcaster may have similar hit dice.
Armor Class usually goes up.
Often, elites have access to better arms and armor. Githyanki knights wear plate instead of half plate. Goblin bosses wear chain shirts instead of leather armor. Other creatures may have natural armor boosts, too, such as the Lizard King/Queen.
Speed rarely changes as it is usually a product of the humanoid race’s natural abilities. Some creatures may gain flight or different methods of locomotion, however, such as the parallel winged kobold.
Abilities change in a number of different ways. Here are a few of the noticeable motifs.
Strength. If the creature is primarily a melee fighter relying mostly on Strength and Constitution, then its Strength will jump a minimum of 2 points but no more than 4. Even the goblin boss gets a +2 bonus in Strength, despite goblins being mostly shock attackers.
Dexterity. It’s rare that Dexterity ever increases between elites and non-elites. Even goblins that rely primarily on Dexterity for their attacks stay at a flat 14. However, certain races, especially small ones like kobolds, might get a moderate bump in Dexterity. I believe the reason for this is because Dexterity and Intelligence are the two abilities in the game that are not dictated by relative Challenge Rating.
Constitution. Like Strength, Constitution moves up by a minimum of 2 points and no more than 4 between elites and non-elites. Constitution, for the most part, scales with challenge rating.
Intelligence. Intelligence is like Dexterity in that it doesn’t often move upward with a creature’s overall abilities. There may be some moderate increases–especially if the elite becomes a spellcaster–but for the most part, it stays relatively flat.
For example, the drow elite warrior gets a full 7 CR level bump over the basic drow, but both have Intelligence scores of 11.
Wisdom. Most humanoids show a moderate increase in Wisdom to account for the creature’s experience, perception, and survivability. This increase is usually a minimum of 2 points, but rarely more than that. Some creatures, like goblins, don’t show an increase in Wisdom. They may simply survive thanks to luck more than good decision making.
Charisma. Another area that elites usually get a boost in is Charisma, especially if the elite is a leader of some sort. The increase is often small, typically no more than 2 points. If the elite relies heavily on Charisma-based casting this increase may be higher.
Saving Throws depend on the elite’s purpose.
It’s pretty rare for an elite creature to get new saving throws over its weaker versions. This usually only occurs if the creature is more of a one-off boss level. Examples include the Gnoll Fang of Yeenoghu (which is a fiend, anyways) or hobgoblin warlords and drow elite warriors (which I believe are intended to be low-level boss monsters). Unless you have a specific goal in mind for your elite, err on the side of not giving it new saving throws.
Skills might change if the elite functions differently than the base creature.
Any skills that a creature is naturally an expert in will probably stay the same. For example, goblins have double proficiency in Stealth. For some humanoid races, their elites have a particular role in their society. For example, the super-culty kuo-toa get the religion skill with their elites. Like saving throws, err on the side of not giving an elite new skills unless it makes sense for its new role.
Vulnerabilities, Immunities, Resistances, and Senses should stay the same.
Unless the creature changes its type dramatically between elite and non-elite, there should be no reason why to change any of its inherent features. The only exception would be if the creature was immune to being frightened or charmed thanks to its experiences.
Languages should stay the same but the elite creature might learn new languages.
The basic languages of the non-elite creature should stay the same between the elite and non-elite. However, if a creature’s Intelligence goes up or it serves a different function in its society (it’s a merchant or diplomat, etc), then it may gain new languages. It’s pretty rare that a creature has more languages than 1 + its Intelligence modifier (a minimum of 1).
Challenge rating goes up.
With an increase in hit dice, damage, and special features, the elite’s challenge rating will always go up. The only time it might not is in the case of a parallel elite class, such as a heavy-damage dealing warrior class being on-par with an elite mage class. I recommend that an elite humanoid’s challenge rating should be a minimum of 2 ranks above the base creature’s.
Special features stay the same and the elite might gain a new feature.
Most of the special features in the base creature’s stat block are probably innate racial features. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to remove any of those. Examples include Fey Ancestry, Brute, and Nimble Escape. If you’re unsure which are innate, simply reference the table on page 282 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. However, an elite creature might tweak existing features or gain new ones entirely. High-level drows pick up levitate (self only) in their innate spellcasting feature. Bugbear chiefs gain Heart of Hruggek. Note that the new feature is usually more of a result of training and experience rather than racial abilities.
Action economies for elite creatures are almost always improved.
On top of new features, elite creatures almost always get boosts to their action economy. The action economy is the number of actions and/or attacks a creature can take in a round.
For example, a basic hobgoblin is allowed only one attack per turn along with any other basic action. But then a hobgoblin captain gets to make two greatsword attacks. And the hobgoblin warlord gets three attacks with its longsword and can use parry as a reaction.
The best way to decide what sort of actions to add to your creature is measuring its damage output against its expected challenge rating. For example, if your elite humanoid is supposed to be challenge rating 3 over the original’s challenge rating 1/2, that means it needs to deal 13-20 more points of damage per turn on average (assuming that the creature’s defensive capabilities have already scaled accordingly). Of course, the Strength hike the creature receives will account for some of that (typically 1 or 2 points), but it still needs an additional attack or bonus action to account for the remainder.
When in doubt, give your creature Multiattack or boost its current Multiattack. Nearly all elites have Multiattack in some form or another.
You can also give your creatures new types of actions, typically special types that function differently than melee or ranged weapon attacks. Examples include the orc chief’s Battle Cry or the gnoll’s Incite Rampage feature.
Legendary actions are rare and should be reserved only for high-level boss monsters. Use reactions instead (if you must).
It’s possible to give an elite humanoid a bump with legendary actions. However, this is something that should be reserved primarily for creatures with a challenge rating of 11 or more. In addition, these creatures are almost always big bads, either boss monsters or mini-bosses.
Instead of legendary actions to increase an elite’s action economy outside of its normal turn, consider giving it a reaction. For example, the hobgoblin warlord has the Parry reaction and goblin bosses can redirect attacks.
How to Put It All Together
Okay, so now you know some of the common motifs and patterns between elites and non-elites. Of course, these are just common denominators, and in no way should you ever be limited in your options on how to change a creature. Always use your best judgment. In the end, if the creature makes sense and its abilities are balanced with its challenge rating, you will be fine.
Below is an example of a quick elite creature I created for a quaggoth. The quaggoth has yet to get the love of an elite version (unless you count the psychic thonot, but I digress). So let’s make an elite quaggoth. I’ll call him a Quaggoth Mannhaupt.
Like I did with “How to Create a Fifth Edition Monster in 15 Minutes or Less” I’ll start off with the concept for my elite quaggoth.
Elite Quaggoth Concept
Quaggoths are brutes, with high Strength and Constitution contours. They’re not terribly bright or attractive, and it shows with their lower-than-average Intelligence and Charisma.
Quaggoths have high athletics abilities. This could mean one or two things: they’re expert climbers (they have a climb speed of 30 ft.) and they’re good at grappling. As the “bagmen” for the more intelligent Underdark races, that makes sense, too. After all, these are the muscle-headed goons that grab people and cart them off to drow-prisons or mind flayer experimentation chambers.
Some quaggoths gain psychic powers from their life in the Underdark. These thonots, as they’re called, get a slight bump in challenge rating and some nifty innate spellcasting, but otherwise are just basic quaggoths.
I think the way I want to go with my elite quaggoth is to make a quaggoth that’s managed to retain some of its Intelligence and is a bit tougher than the normal quaggoth without bumping up a size. These quaggoths aren’t necessarily leaders, but other quaggoths do tend to follow them, seeing these elites as an example of what it could mean to “rise above” one’s station.
Medium humanoid (quaggoth), chaotic neutral
Armor Class 15 (natural armor)
Hit Points 93 (11d8 + 44)
Speed 30 ft., climb 30 ft.
Abilities Str 19 (+4), Dex 12 (+1), Con 18 (+4), Int 8 (-1), Wis 15 (+2), Cha 8 (-1)
Skills Athletics +7
Damage Immunities poison
Condition Immunities poisoned
Senses darkvision 120 ft., passive Perception 12
Challenge 5 (1,800 XP)
Brute. A melee weapon deals one extra die of its damage when the quaggoth hits with it (included in the attack).
Wounded Fury. While it has 10 hit points or fewer, the quaggoth has advantage on attack rolls. In addition, it deals an extra 10 (3d6) damage to any target it hits with a melee attack.
Multiattack. The quaggoth makes three claw attacks. It can replace one of its claw attacks with a toss attack.
Claw. Melee Weapon Attack: +7 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 10 (2d6 + 4) slashing damage. Instead of dealing damage, the quaggoth can grapple the target (escape DC 17).
Toss. The quaggoth tries to toss one Large or smaller creature it is grappling. The target must make a Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check contested by the quaggoth’s Strength (Athletics) check. On a failed check, the creature is thrown 15 feet in a direction of the quaggoth’s choice, takes 11 (2d6 + 4) bludgeoning damage, and lands prone. On a success, the grapple ends for the creature.
Design Notes on the Quaggoth Mannhaupt
Right away you’ll notice a few of the biggest changes, namely its new Brute feature (pulled directly from bugbears) and its ability to toss enemies. Both upgrades work nicely with the elite quaggoth’s increased Strength and the toss gives it a little more crowd control. With an Athletics skill of 17, it should be able to stand toe-to-toe with most strong opponents.
Another change was with its stats which all got minor bumps across the board with the exception of Dex, which stayed the same. I also gave it a bump in its natural armor to account for its “larger” size (note that its actual size category didn’t increase, just its “fluff” size). This helped keep it on par with its higher CR, too.
Finally, I gave it 11 hit dice to play with. Combined with its effective hit point increase thanks to its poison resistance (which I don’t often let affect things too much, mainly because I find it’s rare that PCs use poison-based magic), keeps it nice and clean at CR 5.
If I wanted to take this quaggoth to the next level and make it a first tier boss monster, I might also give it three boosted saving throws, probably Strength, Constitution, and either Intelligence or Wisdom. This would potentially jump its CR up another rank but would make it much more effective when fighting against 4th and 5th level PCs.
Hope you enjoyed this article!
I love making monsters. I’ve probably made an average of 2 per day for the last four months. After a while, it gets to be pretty easy to go from concept to full design.
Of course, always be sure to playtest your creations.
If you have any questions or if there is any other type of creature that you’d like to learn how to make, let me know down in the comments below.
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Art by Wizards of the Coast.