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Why It’s Time for WotC to Come Clean on Monster Design

Cover for Monsters of the Multiverse, currently sold only with the D&D Rules Expansion Gift Set

Monsters of the Multiverse is out, and it revises monsters printed in the Volo’s and Mordenkainen’s books. WotC has a secret way it creates monsters… and here’s why it may be time for WotC to share the secret.

Before the Multiverse

The Monster Manual, Volo’s, Mordenkainen’s, and monsters in supplements and adventures… they all come from what WotC says is an old design. Except… we can’t see the changed design. Both the old way and the new way WotC designs monsters is a secret formula that they haven’t shared. I’m going to argue that it is both in their interest and ours to share this formula.

Excerpt from the DMG

The DMG’s Formula

Wizards tell us how to create monsters in the Creating a Monster section in Chapter 9 of the DMG. We are provided with a quick method of creating a monster, followed by a more detailed “Creating a Monster Stat Block.” A table guides our progress, laying out for each CR the expected values for hit points, AC, damage, saves, and other monster variables.

Probably the most comprehensive analysis of this has been done by the Blog of Holding, which found the DMG advice differs significantly from what we actually see in the monsters WotC published in the MM, Volo’s, and Mordenkainen’s!

A few examples:

  • The DMG tells us a CR 1/4 monster should have 36-49 Hit Points… WotC’s actual monsters average just 15!
  • Monsters through CR 1/2 deal an average damage equal to the upper bound of the DMG’s recommended damage. They hit harder than a monster you might create by hand.
  • After CR 1/2, the opposite is true: actual monsters deal less damage than the DMG guidance. A CR 10 monster should deal 63-68 damage, says the DMG. The actual average for published monsters? 50. A CR 20 creature? The average is 23-40 damage per round less than the recommended amount.
  • Recommended saving throw DCs are off (A CR 20 should be 19 per the DMG, but is 21 in actual monsters), proficiency bonuses vary, and hit points are usually much lower (A CR 10 monster should have 206-220 HPs, but actually has 150 on average).
  • Attack bonus and AC values vary less significantly, but still differ by 1-2 points from average values.

(I’ve talked about this before. See Why So Many DMs Have Trouble Challenging Players, How to Challenge Players? Just Add Damage!, and Special Reasons Why DMs Have Trouble Challenging Players.)

Why are the numbers different? WotC doesn’t use the DMG method they shared with us! Instead, they have a secret process using internal variables they use to adjust monster design. I have never seen this tool or methodology, but it has been said that an attack imposing a particular condition gains a special boost to its value, as if it did more damage. A special feature may be considered to be the same as having more Hit Points. Blog of Holding actually tried to account for this, but could not reverse engineer this. Meaning, if you take all the monsters that, say, petrify, and you try to add in some damage value for that… it doesn’t produce a reliable result. The WotC math isn’t straightforward. And yet, it’s been clear that WotC believed in it. They stood by it for years. And now they have modified it.

After the Multiverse

In an interview on the D&D YouTube channel, WotC’s lead designer provides several revelations regarding the new Monsters of the Multiverse (a book revising monsters previously appearing in Volo’s and Mordenkainen’s). One of the key changes: they have changed their internal secret monster design formula.

In the interview, the designer says they didn’t change low-CR monsters, as those were already hitting hard. He says higher CR monsters are now hitting, “way harder.” He admits many DMs were saying their high-level encounters were cakewalks… though he also says that other DMs say the same monsters are bulldozing the characters.

Why is this happening? WotC seems to believe the problem is DMs! The monsters may have various possible actions, and if the DM picks the wrong ones, the encounter might be too easy (or, in some cases, too hard). If DMs pick the “right” actions, the combat will be challenging.

Hmm. I am a huge WotC fan, and a huge fan of the WotC staff. That said, I don’t love how often we are being told these days that the problem is us. There are a lot of smart DMs out there. From mathematicians and tactical gamers to brand new DMs, I hear a very consistent message of “these monsters don’t challenge my players.” While some DMs are very comfortable modifying monsters, out of the box they are generally not challenging, regardless of the actions picked.

The New Secret Sauce

So, what is WotC doing to help DMs? The new WotC secret internal system now says a monster must earn its CR across all of the possible action options it has, not just the optimal ones. Presumably, if a monster has spells, a dagger, and some special magical action, all of them must meet the internal justification of the CR. WotC explains that some monsters will still have obviously weak options (casting detect magic is obviously not a great combat move), but they should be obvious. Let’s see if this is all true.

Listen to the way I slay, your crew
Damage, uh, damage, uh
Damage, uh, damage
LL Cool J

Does This Work?

So, are the monsters better? Are they more like the DMG guidance? Are they doing what DMs want? Do they dish out enough damage? The new approach is an improvement, but not enough. Let’s take a look at some examples.

Bael, CR 19

AC 18, CR expected value is 19.

HPs 189, should be 341-355 (he does regen 20 each round).

Multiattack with Morningstar: 50 total (should be 117-122/round). With legendary actions, he could add a third Morningstar (+25 dmg) and a spell (wall of fire could deal 22 to several targets). Three Morningstar attacks and hitting three characters with the wall could deal a very impressive 141.

How did Bael change? His AC and HPs are the same. His morninstar damage actually went down by 4 points. He lost several spells, including counterspell, symbol, and inflict wounds at-will at 8th level (10d10=55 dmg… better than his new Morningstar attack).

Does he hit harder? I think he is weaker except for now being able to cast a couple of stronger spells as a legendary action.

Scary? This is Bael, an uber-powerful duke of Hell, who is renowned for having clawed his way up through all the ranks of Hell and besting all challengers. Yeah, no. This stat block does not live up to those expectations. He can’t easily take on a bunch of other devils, let alone high level characters.

Easier to run? Yes, due to a reduced spell list, but I would not call his tactics obvious. He is a duke of hell, so I’m okay with him being complex. His optimal path is not obvious. And if I run out of wall of fire, or if the characters are immune, then all I can do is hope the control spells (suggestion and dominate monster) succeed. Good luck.

Froghemoth, CR 10

It lost 13 Hit Points, which puts it even further under the DMG expected values.

However, it now explicitly allows two tentacles plus a tongue AND a bite. This should more reliably help it deal 60 damage a round, 70 with the acid, which helps it reach the expected 63-68 range for its CR. overall, this is a win – easier to run and more challenging!

Eladrin, CR 10

I think Mike Shea brought these up when he interviewed Jeremy Crawford regarding monster design, asking why they did so little damage. CR 10 creatures, the original 5E Winter Eladrin dealt 4 damage with their longsword or longbow. That’s 59-64 points too low!

In Multiverese we see what WotC is talking about regarding all paths for the monster needing to qualify. The new Winter Eladrin deals 18 damage twice with its longsword or 20 twice with its bow. Add in the Frigid Rebuke reaction, and it deals a total of about 51 damage. This is still 12-17 below the DMG values, but it is a lot better. We lose cone of cold and we get some questionable spells that need a tactical mindset (fog cloud, gust of wind, sleet storm) but this is overall a better monster (and the sorrowful presence will compensate for the low Hit Points).

Deathlock Mastermind, CR 8

This stat block was shared on Twitter by awesome reviewer, designer, and podcaster, Brandes Stoddard. It’s a fascinating stat block change.

As with many monsters, we get a new “Unusual Nature. The deathlock doesn’t require air, food, drink, or sleep.” I find this information infuriatingly repetitive when it could be part of the undead keyword. I similarly don’t need the word “typically” next to an alignment. I had my party face a Lawful Good beholder in 1992. My options were obvious back then and are written in the 5E Monster Manual already. Let’s please avoid repetition in stat blocks.

Spellcasting is cleaned up. We go from spell lists to a per-day and at-will use, and this all goes in the Actions section. I may blog about the spell changes. But, for today, let’s just say that it is an improvement. It still means you need to look up 9 spells to know which to use, though it’s better than the 17 spells you had to look up before!

It still has a Deathly Claw attack, but now can use it twice. This does 26 total damage, which is about half of what a CR 8 creature should do in a round (51-56)!

It can still use Grave Bolts twice, which deals 26 total damage and restrains the targets (DC 16, which is the expected CR 8 DC). A restrained target must spend its action to repeat the saving throw.

Spells of note are all 1/day: darkness, invisibility, and some mobility options. The monster has the Devil’s Sight feature, meaning it can see through magical darkness.

So, yeah, that’s really low damage. Let’s say we send it up as a Hard Challenge against five 5th level PCs. They have an average of 38 HPs, and a total pool of 190 HPs. The Deathlock Mastermind needs 8 rounds (7.3) to TPK the party. With 110 HPs, it will die unless it gets really lucky on restraining and hiding from foes.

Merric Blackman picked apart the stat block to discern the likely intended strategy: The Deathlock Mastermind starts 120 feet away, hidden in its darkness spell, hitting two PCs with Grave Bolt with advantage and perhaps surprise. It continues to attack with advantage until it must move, at which point it can use invisibility or even dimension door or fly to get away and then back to the darkness. If it can be accurate enough, and restrain enough PCs, and avoid obvious counters to its one darkness spell, it might actually get to kill them. It will likely take more than 8 rounds and I doubt it is what the restrained-and-doing-nothing players would call a fun fight. If we make it a very deadly fight for 4th level PCs, the monster still needs 6 rounds to defeat them. Andy Dempz hilariously recreated the fight using Dwarven Forge terrain.

Andy’s example brings up the option of using the Mastermind as a boss. This is a problem with 5E encounter design. Let’s say we pair the Mastermind with four CR 2 Ghasts. Now it’s ludicrous for a 4th level party. Just the Ghasts alone will TPK them. And it’s twice over the total for Deadly for a 5th level fight. The five characters have to be 8th level in order for this to be a proper deadly fight, and it’s a medium challenge for 9th level characters. 8th level and 9th level characters have so many ways to deal with this scenario while dealing a lot more damage to the Mastermind. This is a monster that acts like a solo, but lacks the punch to be one.

But, also, this is a case where the revised monster is not doing what we were told to expect. The only way to get this monster to live up to its CR is to deeply examine its tactics and there are still many trap options. The whole of it is risky, even if you run it cleverly, because it could end up a very frustrating encounter for everyone. We just paid a lot of money for this book, and yet this monster could benefit from the very revisions we were promised.

Want some more thoughts on this? One of my favorite bloggers, DM David, takes a look at this issue as well!

The Problem with Secret Sauce

In general, Monsters of the Multiverse has monsters which are improved from the versions in Volo’s and Mordenkainen’s. There are good steps towards better damage (sometimes), clearer tactics (sometimes), and simplification (almost all of the time).

However, it is more than a shame that these monsters aren’t meeting the needs of DMs. This is especially true given that WotC has clearly heard the requests loudly and clearly. We hear the designer say what DMs want in several videos. Why does WotC’s fix not actually solve the problems?

I think a big part of it is that WotC believes too strongly in their secret methodology for monster creation. Because it lives behind the wall, it does not benefit from direct use by the many thousands of DMs and players out there. Designers are brilliant – especially WotC designers. However, the actual science is outside the wall. It’s in everyone’s home games, at conventions, and in stores. At those tables, these fixes aren’t enough. And that’s because the overall concept of the secret sauce is flawed.

We’ve had glimpses behind the curtain. For example, WotC staff once shared that a spell or feature will increase the CR of a monster if it deals more damage or has a strong effect. Paralysis can be compared to hold person, which is a second level spell. And that is then the equivalent damage of a different 2nd level spell, scorching ray. Now we can say that paralysis is equivalent to 21(6d6) damage. Except… that’s not what actual play shows. And it isn’t just because DMs aren’t optimal. It’s that the secret process seems to need refinement.

It’s time for that refinement to happen. Multiverse proves this. Monster design needs improvement before we get to D&D 5.5 in 2024, and it would benefit from the same kind of playtesting that so benefitted D&D Next and 5E.

It’s time for WotC to share the actual monster design methodology and open it up for feedback. Let’s test how this works and collectively work towards better monsters. Third party products will benefit, WotC will benefit, 5.5 will benefit, and actual play at tables will benefit. Win, win, win.

19 comments on “Why It’s Time for WotC to Come Clean on Monster Design

  1. Emiliano
    February 4, 2022

    Perhaps thay don’t really have a formula that they apply. They just build monsters that “feel” right to them. I do that all the time, except that I only have to balance them against a specific party in a specific instance.

    • Alphastream
      February 4, 2022

      WotC has said in the past, and in the recent videos, that the have a special method they use. It is a mathematical approach, weighing additional factors beyond what the DMG tells us to do.

  2. Aaron
    February 4, 2022

    I largely agree. I compared Zariel in MotM to her stat block in Descent. Her new block deals 4 pts less per round (187, down from 191), and she has 160 fewer hit points (420, down from 580). The only reason she comes *close* to hitting her intended CR is because her attack bonus is so high compared to what it ought to be according to the DMG (+16, instead of +11). But I’d argue that being able to consistently hit for lower damage does not automatically equal higher threat.

    • Alphastream
      February 4, 2022

      I almost mentioned Zariel. I agree with you. I really wonder about lowering her statistics like that!

    • Jacob
      February 4, 2022

      I think you’re missing that Zariel’s Multiattack got upgraded from 2 attacks to 3 attacks. She now has an Offensive CR of 25 and aDefensive CR of 27 for an average of CR 26, matching her listed CR.

  3. Shawn J Douglas
    February 4, 2022

    I’m really disappointed with what I’ve seen about MotM. I like some of the stat blocks being simpler, but there is a reason I own Creature Codex, Tome of Beasts 1&2, and are planning to get the Monster book from Grim Hollow and other 3rd party options. Their monsters are just more threatening.

    I’m not sure we needed MotM. It doesn’t really solve the problems I have as a DM, and they nerfed my goblin as a playable race! Don’t take my Fury of the Small and make it Slight Fury of the Small! 😀

    • Alphastream
      February 4, 2022

      I ran two polls asking DMs to compare official monsters to third-party monsters. The results weren’t favorable to WotC. I may share that in a follow-up post, because I’m fairly sure I’m not done talking about monsters.

      I remain positive on WotC, but I really feel this book falls short and I really want whatever 5.5 ends up being to be better than the current state of monsters.

  4. Krabbe
    February 4, 2022

    “hold person, which is a third level spell. And that is then the equivalent damage of a different 3rd level spell, scorching ray.” – both are 2nd level
    just helping with typos

    good article, i like this series analysing monster problems

    • Alphastream
      February 4, 2022

      Thank you!

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  6. Thiago
    February 4, 2022

    Hey Theos! What’s up?

    Thiago from that Belgian game night here. Great article as always. Only one thing: Hold Person (and Scorching Ray) are 2nd level spells. 😉

    • Alphastream
      February 4, 2022

      Hey Thiago! I wish I could get back to Belgium. I hope you are doing well. Thanks for the correction! Fixed!

  7. JACOB
    February 4, 2022

    You don’t need any special sauce to justify Bael’s CR 19.

    Offensive CR 20.

    Action: Morning Star 25 damage x 2 = 50 damage

    3 Legendaries: Wall of Fire (1 action) against 2 targets 22 x 2 = 44 damage; Morningstar (2 actions) = 25 damage

    50+25+44 = 119, which is CR 19, but we have a +13 to hit and spell save DC of 21, which means we have to bump the Offensive CR to 20 per the DMG.

    Defensive CR = 19

    189hp + 30×3 for 3 Legendary Resistances + 20×3 (for 20hp Regeneration per round) = 339 effective hp or CR 18, but Magic Resistance and 4 saving throw proficiencies each count as +2 AC, so Bael’s effective AC is 22, which pushes his Defensive CR to 19.

    That makes his average CR 19.5 against a listed CR 19.

    See, no need for special sauce.

  8. Another David DM
    February 5, 2022

    Great analysis! I’m beginning to think that the designers have boxed themselves (and the game) into a corner by sticking with principles that help onboard new DMs, but which consequently don’t foster their growth into better DMs. Building monsters solely around defense and damage output works great at the beginning of the learning curve, but completely neglecting tactics and other encounter design aspects can only take you and your game so far.

    Yet, this is the road the game’s designers seem to have taken, in large part because they’ve become terribly averse to giving advice on how to run better games. This means that a DM who’s not running a published adventure or new setting isn’t getting meaningful support from the game’s designers (not withstanding Tasha’s 50 pages of dubious value). Unfortunately, even those are missed opportunities: the adventures rarely illustrate great design, or contain advice on effectively using what they do give you, and most of the rest of the content is too specific to the adventure or setting to be of broader utility (and hard to find when it isn’t).

    I know the fact that this is a business affects priorities more than anything else, but at some point the designers need to recognize that the game’s success relies on DM quality, meaning that there’s value in teaching the best ways to run a dungeon, design & run adventures that give players important choices with consequences, or make combat feel like more than just an optimization exercise in depleting hit points. Right now any setting-agnostic DM support we’re getting mostly amounts to random tables with a paragraph or two of “you could do this, or you could do that”, when many DM’s are asking “how do I make wilderness travel interesting & exciting?”, “how do I make a dungeon crawl into more than grinding combat?”, or “how do I design scenes and encounters that encourage and reward my players’ engagement?” You can’t find the answers to these questions in a 5E WotC product.

    • Alphastream
      February 5, 2022

      I’m still overall very pleased with the quality of D&D, especially compared to previous books across D&D’s history. But, also, to other industry materials. Some companies make great content, but there is a lot of variance. The 5E concept for monsters in the MM tends towards “it hits you with its axe” rather than interesting tactical choices (the way 4E had “It drops a cloud of darkness, pushes everything 2 squares, and teleports”). So, it makes sense that 5E’s monster construction isn’t focused on making things super interesting or tactical. The story and choices are meant to come from the scenario, which the DMG covers.

      I agree that DMs crave more guidance, both on monsters and encounters. I think Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft is probably the 5E gold standard for providing useful guidance. That’s a book that really seems to think of what the DM needs. I would love to see that approach compared to that of Fizban’s or other books.

  9. Shawn J Douglas
    February 9, 2022

    I agree with you. I like WotC content for the most part, but their monster design is weak in 5e compared to 3rd party content.

    I definitely find myself scratching my head at MotM not being the course correction they needed.

  10. Matthew
    February 14, 2022

    I think that it’s kind of insane that WotC haven’t seen what third party publishers and bloggers are doing with their content and adjusted accordingly. If I’m running a new monster for the first time I’ll read the stat block once or twice, adjust things that need tweaking, read its entry in the excellent “The Monsters Know What they’re Doing” blog, and make a decision tree to optimize their actions. The fact that we’re several years in to a very popular system and the continued updates aren’t taking some of these approaches into account is weird to say the least.

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