My Take on Matthew Colville’s 5E Action Oriented Monsters


Soaring into a manifest zone on their airship, the Misty Tide, the party erupts into a pocket of the Elemental Plane of Fire high above a sea of bubbling lava. Surrounding them are hissing fire newts mounted upon burning birds, prepared to hijack the airship and release the fire elementals powering it. The airship’s captain screams, “Hold out! We’ll escape ‘ere in a minute, I’ll get us through!” In response, the fiery raiders attack, lead by a striking fire newt warlock. The combat begins, and she thrusts her molten scimitar into the broiling air. The blade soars between each party member, scorching them with ease before reforming in her hands. Later in the combat, she deftly descends atop her burning bird below the airship, narrowly avoiding a blast of eldritch energy. In the struggle’s final moments, she dismounts from her tiny phoenix in a whirl, leaping thirty feet to gouge one of the party members with her scimitar and deal tremendous damage. Ultimately, she fails; the rest of her fire newts die, and the party escapes the manifest zone — victorious.

Balancing encounters in Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition can be tricky. Sometimes, the party steamrolls our encounters. Other times, the monsters overwhelm the party thanks to lucky die rolls on our part. In rare cases, we throw encounters that are far too difficult at our party and they decide to stand and fight; most of the time, they die. Every so often, we balance them just right with the core rules, resulting in a masterpiece. Of course, many of these encounters are comprised of awesome abilities used by our players’ characters: monks leap across the battlefield using Step on the Wind. Warlocks fling foes into a horrific planescape with Hurl Through Hell. Sorcerers annihilate enemies and protect allies with Metamagic.

What do our creatures do that is awesome, that can make the players cheer with frightful glee? Red dragons breathe fiery infernos, purple worms swallow foes, and beholders barrage enemies with eye rays, yes, but what about other creatures with less options and abilities?

Enter Matthew Colville’s action oriented monsters. The concept is simple yet powerful. Introduced by the primary DM of MCDM himself, action oriented monsters have actions, bonus actions, and reactions just like the characters battling our monsters, in addition to a special type of action called the villain action.

Most of the time, these foes are bosses or solo monsters like bulettes, tarrasques, or remorhazes. When we design them, we delve deeper into the role of game designer, looking at the monsters we use and creating interesting actions for them to take in combat. Ideally, this will make our encounters more engaging and dramatic. Their primary function is to present a sizable challenge to our player characters.

We must be careful, though. Action oriented monsters should not be deployed casually. As our campaign progresses, we must ensure not every encounter is extremely difficult or strenuous for our party. These types of monsters are a great tool for us, but we must remember to utilize regular foes too. If every encounter is graced by an action oriented monster’s presence, encountering such a powerful foe will become less special.

I’ve tested action oriented monsters multiple times since watching Matthew’s video on the subject, from a brutal marilith of Yeenoghu to a maniacal spider-riding goblin, and they’ve worked wonders. They challenge the player characters. They change the flow of combat. They make battle more dramatic.

They tremendously help our encounters, especially if we have trouble balancing them using the basic D&D 5E ruleset.

Let’s build an action oriented monster one step at a time.

The Enraged Grizzly Bear

Let’s say our low-level adventuring party is traveling to a new town, tracking a goblin scouting party, or searching for a mystical beehive in a deep forest. Suddenly, out of the brush charges a massive grizzly bear, frothing at the mouth! It’s initiative — but what can our enraged grizzly bear do? We need to create a set of actions, bonus actions, reactions, and villain actions based on the traits of the bear. Before we do, let’s lay out its hit points and armor class.

Using the brown bear in the Monster Manual as an example, let’s give the enraged grizzly bear double the standard 34 hit points, giving us 68. In addition, let’s add two to the armor class of 11, bringing it to 13. As Matthew says in the video, it’s more important that we up the hit points instead of the armor class; it’s more fun to hit a creature with more hit points than to simply miss. I completely agree with this in most cases, especially here. We’re most likely running this bear against a low-level party; if they never hit it, they’ll become downtrodden. Let them hit the bear, but let it have a mountain of hit points.

Actions

All creatures in D&D have specific actions only they can use; most of them are multi attacks, breath attacks, or spells. Very few monsters have actual actions that allow them to move around the battlefield. We should give our action oriented monster at least an attack action and a movement action, both special to the creature. Do note, as Matt says in his video, we won’t be giving spells to these monsters. They require too much time to perfect for combat situations. Instead, we’ll make actions that can act like spells for monsters who’d use them.

Let’s think about what a grizzly bear can do. In D&D, bears are vicious animals that can bite and claw enemies. In addition, they can climb. This pairing gives our bear a solid attack action and a disengage that can be used with its bonus actions. Two will suffice because we’ll have plenty of other actions to pull from later.

> Multiattack: The enraged grizzly bear makes two attacks: one with its bite and one with its claws.

>> Bite: Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 8 (1d8 + 4) piercing damage.
>> Claws: Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 11 (2d6 + 4) slashing damage.

> Climb: The enraged grizzly bear climbs up to 15 feet up a tree within 15 feet of itself without drawing attacks of opportunity.

Bonus Actions

Monsters rarely have bonus actions in D&D 5E, despite them being one of the greatest parts of this edition’s combat system. When we design bonus actions, we should think about pairing them with our actions. It doesn’t take a ton of work on our part, and it will result in more engaging encounters for our players. We simply need to look over our action oriented monster’s actions and pair a bonus action with each of them. If we’re feeling especially ready-to-design, more bonus actions can always be added!

What pairs well with the bear’s actions? Perhaps if it hits with both of its attacks, it can make another claw attack as a bonus action. This allows the bear to tear apart a melee attacker. How about a climb action? Let’s say the bear climbs up a tree and can leap from it to squash a target, dealing massive damage. Both of these can be used in conjunction with the bear’s regular actions!
  1. Vicious Claw: The enraged grizzly bear makes one additional claw attack if both its bite and claw attack hit.
  2. Bear Slam: The enraged grizzly bear leaps onto a target within 15 feet of it, dealing 2d4 + 4 bludgeoning damage and knocking it prone. If the target succeeds a DC 14 Strength check, they talk half damage and are not knocked prone. The enraged grizzly bear must be at least 15 feet off the ground to use this ability.

Reactions

Reactions are even more rare in D&D 5E for monsters. Luckily for us, they’re rather easy to design. We simply need to create an if-then scenario and we have a reaction. Ideally, we’ll want two reactions for every action oriented monster we create. Any more than that becomes quite cumbersome for us to manage. If we have two, we’ll have the choice of which to use every round of combat — an aspect that makes it more interesting for both us and the players.

Our bear is very susceptible to ranged attacks despite being somewhat manageable in combat. Let’s give it something to counter a purely ranged strategy. Maybe the bear can swat missiles out of the air? In addition, if someone makes an attack of opportunity against it, let’s allow it to kickback and return an attack against the opportunist! Both of these reactions give our players room to strategize during the combat. Do they attack the bear as it rushes by? Do they hold their fire until the end of the round?
  1. Swat: If the enraged grizzly bear is hit by a ranged attack, it can use its reaction to add 2 to its armor class until the beginning of its next turn.
  2. Kickback: If the enraged grizzly bear is targeted by an attack of opportunity, it can use its reaction to make one claw attack against the attacker.

Villain Actions

Now we’re in the new part of monster design: villain actions. The concept of villain actions is simple: villains actions occur on different rounds of combat at different points in time — usually at the end of another creature’s turn (like legendary actions). Take note that during any given round, only one villain action should occur. If more than one takes place, it becomes too much for us and our players to track.

We have complete creative freedom over villain actions. We must think about our creature, our combat, and what cool things can happen during it. Villain actions happen sequentially (round 1, round 2,...round x), so we need to take into account the villain actions from rounds past and how long the combat will last. As Matthew mentions in the video, many combats tend to last three rounds in D&D 5E, so three villain actions should suffice. While that’s a good baseline, we should look at our group and mold this rule to fit us. Usually, I like battles to last five rounds, but maybe villain actions aren’t necessary every turn. Therefore, I place them during round one, round three, and round five. If your group is different, that’s fine, just take it into account! And of course, remember we might need to adjust this mid-combat. If a confrontation we thought would take five rounds only takes three, move the villain actions around.

Okay, here’s where our fun truly begins. What super-flavorful actions can we add to our villain, the enraged grizzly bear? Perhaps, during the first round of the battle, it lets out a great roar, potentially paralyzing enemies. This allows the bear to tear into any nearby characters. After that first round, there might be a few characters sniping our bear from range. Let it rush them. During round three, generally the final round in D&D 5E combat, the bear should commit a truly awesome act. But what? Think about it as we lay out its first two villain actions.
  1. Mighty Roar: The enraged grizzly bear lets out a mighty roar, paralyzing all creatures within 30 feet until the beginning of the next round if they fail a DC 14 Wisdom saving throw.
  2. Rush: The enraged grizzly bear charges a target within 60 feet and makes a bite and claw attack against it with advantage.
  3. Lasting Maul: The enraged grizzly bear makes a bite attack on one creature within five feet with advantage. If the attack hits, it’s a critical hit and tears off a body part - roll a d4 (1-hand, 2-arm, 3-foot, 4-leg).
Okay, we might think the last villain action is a tad crazy, but this is D&D after all. Overall, the enraged grizzly bear might be completely overpowered! We’d have to test it in combat. Give it a go — we should all try this out and see if it works at our table. Flip to a random page of the Monster Manual and turn that creature into an action oriented monster: a goblin or a mindflayer — a behir or a lich. Anything can be turned into an action oriented monster, we just need to think creatively!

Quick 5E Action Oriented Monster Examples

I’ll take my own advice and flip through my Monster Manual. Here are six quick action oriented monsters I made for us:
  1. A mimic that can burrow, swallow adventurers whole, and spit its adhesive substance
  2. A barbazu (bearded devil) who can blink, impale foes on its spear, and grow its spiky beard up to ten feet long
  3. An abominable yeti that can petrify its foes in ice permanently, burrow in snow, and create an avalanche
  4. A ghost who can form a fog cloud, possess multiple enemies at once, and pull a creature into the Ethereal Plane
  5. A myconid sovereign that can create a storm of hallucination spores, grow to an immense size, and consume other myconids to gain health and damage
  6. A nothic that can see the future and avoid attacks, leap from hero to hero in flurry, and use Rotting Gaze on a group of creatures in a cone
If we want more ideas, browsing https://www.reddit.com/r/mattcolville/ is sure to suffice. In fact, there’s a massive thread containing a plethora of action oriented monsters created by Dungeon Masters like us. Here it is: https://www.reddit.com/r/mattcolville/comments/dkegva/action_oriented_monster_catch_all_thread/

When to Use Action Oriented Monsters

As we discussed earlier, we don’t always need action oriented monsters in our encounters. Sometimes, a battle against a group of goblins and wargs will suffice. Here is a summary of when we might want to utilize this concept:
  1. During boss battles
  2. During encounters against solo creatures like bulettes, liches, tarrasques, and even dragons
  3. When we want to challenge our player characters
  4. When we are having trouble balancing encounters against large amounts of players
In addition, we can take the strategies we learned with action oriented monsters and apply them elsewhere. Feel free to simply add bonus actions and reactions to monsters, forgoing villain actions. Doing so adds flair to our encounters without making them too challenging; villain actions are a piece of the action economy puzzle that truly level the playing field.

In Summary

Action oriented monsters can be a huge help to Dungeon Masters looking to enhance their combat encounters. Remember:
  1. Action oriented monsters make our combat more dynamic, interactive, and interesting.
  2. Actions are necessary for every monster. Usually, they are the basic abilities the creature has, including special movement, attacks, and breath weapons.
  3. Bonus actions should complement our monster’s primary actions. If we’re feeling creative, add extra — but always have enough to be used in conjunction with an action.
  4. Reactions are rare and require triggers. We must think about what our player characters will do in combat, and create interesting reactions to their actions. Try to create at least two to vary up the monster’s possible reactions every round.
  5. Villain actions are a creation of Matthew Colville that give our monsters unique abilities depending on how far into the battle we are. During round one, our enraged grizzly bear uses mighty roar — and so on and so forth.
  6. Don’t go overboard with action oriented monsters. We must sprinkle them throughout our worlds, ensuring they are unique.
Thanks for reading. Huge props to Matthew Colville for his video on action oriented monsters. I hope my expanded take here helps everyone build better combats.

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May your monsters be mighty, creators, farewell!

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