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04 April 2022

How to Make Snappier D&D Monsters with the Bard Class

Ever wish you could pit a battalion of drum-beating goblin warchanters against the characters? How about a four-headed troll that gurgles a disgusting melody to thrust confusion into his enemies and maddening vigor into his allies? Maybe a crime-fighting copper dragon who understands her bars and the greatest hits of the realm? Or a vampire dictator who weaves words into the minds of thousands, taking their minds as his own?

All and more are deeper in this article! Grab your creative helmet, a Player's Handbook, and a Monster Manual. It's time to make some snappy monsters.

Clint Cearley's bard from the fifth edition Player's Handbook.

Also, if you missed the last article on mixing the Barbarian class with four monsters (the berserk bandit, the bear totem bugbear, the executioner hill giant, and the ballistic beholder) to make meatier encounters, check it out here.

Crossing Classes and Monsters

Dungeon Masters are always on the prowl for new ways to create interesting monsters for the characters to fight or interact with. While it may seem obvious to some, a mountain of content sits on the pages of books primarily aimed at players. Yes, we're using the Player's Handbook in conjunction with the Monster Manual to build a few compelling creatures for use in our Dungeons & Dragons games. In particular, we're looking at the fifth edition variants of these books; other editions may follow.

For this article in particular, let's use the Bard class as our primary point of inspiration. Each creature we create is defined by the following three points:

  • Base: What is our base creature? What is our base class?
  • Class Abilities: What class abilities are used by this creature? Are they revamped?
  • Ripples: What does this creature's class mean for the rest of the game? How about the creature's story?

Using these three blocks as our bases, let's explore four different monsters with the Bard class from the fifth edition D&D PHB as our main resource.

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Goblin Warchanter

At the head of the goblin horde marches a line of proud goblinoids dressed in bone armor, pounding tiny drums and screaming rhythmically. They inspire their usually fearful kin to continue battling and rise again against all odds. They are each a goblin warchanter.

Our base is the goblin, and our class is Bard. Since this is a low-level monster, let's keep it simple and only give it a single ability from the Bard class and allow the bulk of the inspiration to ooze into its special lore and ripples. 

Which ability is best? Well, it's likely that the goblin warchanter will work as a part of a larger group and there will be multiple. With that in mind, perhaps the more there are, the greater their effect. This extra effect must be evident to the characters and players, so they know to focus down the goblin warchanters first. Let's use the Bard's Bardic Inspiration ability as a starting point.

Warchanter's Fury (Action): The goblin warchanter's wildly hits its drum, granting Warchanter's Fury to one allied creature within 60 feet. The allied creature gains a Warchanter's Fury die that may be added to any die roll once before it's expended. The die begins as a d4, but can increase to a d6, d8, d10, and finally a d12 each time Warchanter's Fury is used on it. Warchanter's Fury can be stacked from different sources (two different goblin warchanters, for example).

This is a powerful support ability that enhances a combat in a few ways, especially if the players are inexperienced and learning how to best play their characters individually and as a group. Used in conjunction with a powerful boss, it can grant massive increased damage or chance to hit, incentivizing the characters to focus down at least a few of the goblin warchanters before going nova on the boss. Even used with a group of four goblin warchanters and four regular goblins, the warchanters could radically empower their normal goblin companions, perhaps pounding drums from a strategical vantage point like a wooden watch tower or an ogre-sized boulder. Even a single goblin warchanter could threaten an entire party, as with the powerful drums it could alert its entire horde to the party's presence with a single bang.

Outside of the goblin warchanters potential use in combat, we can think about what special lore and ripple effects it might have. This can be as simple or as complex as we would like. Let's look at a few examples of special lore and ripples these drum-beating goblins might have:

  1. Taught the instrument of the drum by the nearby hobgoblins in preparation for an upcoming assault on human lands, the goblin warchanters might mean war is near.
  2. The lone survivor of an adventuring party was captured and brought to the goblin chief, only kept alive because of the strange instrument he carried: the drum. The goblin chief forced the bard to teach the goblin tribe how to use the drum and ever since it has been a symbol of these little creatures.
  3. Every drum of these goblins is unique, crafted from the skin and bones of the goblin warchanter's ancestor.
  4. Surprisingly, the goblins sing not in Goblin, Common, or even Giant, but in Draconic! The words they sing are frighteningly inspired and there's no way they created the chant themselves.
  5. Drumbeating and screech-singing are the traditions of all the local goblin tribes. Every two summers, they hold a grand competition at the pinnacle of a great hill in which only the wildest, most threatening of warchanters survive.
  6. Somehow, a few goblin warchanters managed to install a mobile set of drums on the back of the giant spiders they ride. Say hello to the eight-legged moving drum set!
  7. The goblin chief is also a goblin warchanter and owns a magical set of drums, created by a legendary bard and lost to a snappy copper dragon long ago. How did the goblin get her hands on the set and what does the set do?
  8. A goblin warchanter entered town a few weeks ago and is trying to establish himself as a reputable musician but got caught up in the wrong crowd. It's only a matter of time before he begins inspiring ruffians with his rhythmic beats, can he be saved?
There we are: the goblin warchanter fleshed out both as a potential foe in a bloody D&D battle and as a new addition to our world's vast lore.

Troll Bloodgurgler

A gurgling howl echoes from the decrepit pit, growing in both volume and disgust with each passing second. Accompanying the disturbing groans appear four sets of red eyes and not long after, they depart the darkness of the pit and reveal they rest on four different warty heads. Enter the troll bloodgurgler.

Daniel Ljunggren's troll from the fifth edition Monster Manual.

For this terrifying monster, we use the troll as the base and of course the Bard class from the Player's Handbook. Let's spice this up: the troll bloodgurgler is a solo monster the characters will fight, and it needs multiple abilities of the Bard to showcase it. As we need to try and keep the action economy balanced, the monster must boast a variety of actions; we can even give it a villain action or two as discussed in my take on Matt Colville's action-oriented monsters for fifth edition.

In addition to the troll's standard ability-set, the troll bloodgurgler wields the following weapons:

Trollish Choir (Ability): Most troll bloodgurglers begin with four heads. For each head, the troll bloodgurgler gains +1 to its DC for effects inflicted upon enemies (the Wisdom saving throw for Song of Terror, for example).

Song of Terror (Action): The troll bloodgurgler howls a spine-chilling lyric. All creatures within 120 feet must make a DC 12 base Wisdom saving throw. On a failed save, the creature's movement speed is set to 0 until the end of the troll bloodgurgler's next turn as they are frozen in terror. On a successful save, nothing happens.

Vicious Gurgling (Bonus Action): The troll bloodgurgler spits up a chunk of its thick blood in a 5-foot space within 15 feet. That space becomes difficult terrain.

Insulting Gibberish (Reaction): If a creature misses an attack against the troll bloodgurgler, it spits out a nonsense insult at the attacker. The attack must make a DC 12 base Wisdom saving throw or take 1d4 psychic damage.

Bloodstruck (Villain Action): When the troll bloodgurgler enters combat, all its heads focus on inflicting terrible mental harm upon a single enemy creature, howling at it wildly. The creature must make a DC 12 base Wisdom saving throw or take 4d12 psychic damage, or half on a successful save.

Encore! (Villain Action): When the troll bloodgurgler drops to 0 hit points, it sprouts two new, larger heads, gains 50 hit points, and immediately takes the Song of Terror action and makes three claw attacks against the nearest enemy creature.

A solid set of abilities attached to the troll bloodgurgler, let's ponder what ripples this creature may have on our worlds.

  1. Miraculously, someone managed to teach a troll bloodgurgler how to play multiple instruments after it grew eight different arms. This has led to quite the sight in a few taverns across the realm, as the troll and teacher have established a peculiar (and sometimes violent) partnership.
  2. A troll bloodgurgler and a group of goblin warchanters formed somewhat of a band. They bolster their monstrous friends in every battle and head the post-combat victory parties. They are rumored to be legendary.
  3. Sages say the blood running through the veins of troll bloodgurgler is dissimilar to other troll blood. In fact, it may help enhance the voices of singers and orators across the realm if drank. True or not true?
  4. A while ago, a tribe of trolls captured a traveling bard who taught them how to sing and dance. Now, the troll bloodgurglers of the tribe know the hippest melodies of the time and recite them in battle.

That's it for the troll bloodgurgler. Let's move on to the next creature.

Young Copper Dragon Soothsinger

Without a care in the world, a lovely halfling lass dressed in bright orange struts down the usually dangerous street in song. She bounces with every step, seemingly unaware of the rising alert level of the common ruffians and thieves who frequent the area. As they stalk nearer, her pitch heightens, and song concludes as she transforms into a horse-sized dragon with shimmering copper scales. Her old song ended, she begins anew as she chases each of the criminals and brings them to justice. She is a young copper dragon soothsinger.

As opposed to our other monsters, let's build a real character with this one, someone that the characters may actually ally with or have more than one or two interactions with before they die or fade from the adventure: the typical amount of prep I do for NPCs in my campaigns. Alongside this prep, let's give her a few Bard-inspired abilities.

I Am a Hero (Action): The young copper dragon soothsinger emboldens themself with a heroic lyric. Until the end of the combat, they gain resistance to slashing, piercing, and bludgeoning damage, an extra 1d6 psychic damage to all weapon attacks, and advantage on all Dexterity saving throws.

Soothing Song (Action): The young copper dragon soothsinger rehearses a beautifully soothing song. They may choose up to five creatures within 60 feet to gain 10 hit points and advantage on their next ability check, saving throw, or attack roll.

Lean On Me (Reaction): The young copper dragon soothsinger assists an ally it can see within 60 feet. If the ally fails an ability check or saving throw or misses an attack, the young copper dragon soothsinger can add 1d6 to the roll.

Extra actions finished, let's glimpse into her story.

Our young copper dragon soothsinger is named Pennalianna, but in her human form she goes by Penny. She was born to a renowned copper dragon, one who shared her knowledge, strength, and even her hoard with the nearby humanoids. This compassion, however, was her downfall. Just after Penny hatched and her mother was weak and tired from her hunting and care, a group of vile humanoid criminals assaulted her lair, eager to grab up all her hoard for themselves. Penny's mother fought as best she could but couldn't overcome their sheer numbers or willful greed. With her final measure of strength, she thrust Penny out into the wild, saving her but dying herself.

Penny roamed the wilds for many months, observing humanoid civilization from the outside, plotting, planning. She learned how to polymorph into humanoids and began walking among them, learning their ways and scoping out the bad apples among them. Her favorite hours were spent in the taverns and inns across the land, wherein illustrious bards would sing brilliant songs and play rousing music. Penny befriended some of them and began to learn their ways, even attending a bardic college for a few months. She was a quick learner.

Eventually, she ran into one of the criminals who slew her mother, one of her most beloved jewels hanging around his neck. Not quick to judge, Penny stalked him for weeks, ensuring he was still the man who killed the dragon who raised her. He was. On a stormy summer night, Penny followed the drunk man to his home, snuck inside, and waited for him to sober up. Upon awaking, the man found not Penny, but Pennalianna waiting for him. She explained who she was, why she was there, and what his fate would be, all in song; the man spit in her face and tried to fight but was no match for the young copper dragon. A smile on her face and a song emerging from her lips, she killed her mother's murderer and experienced euphoria like no other.

Presently, she continues her quest to avenge her mother's death and works to prevent crime wherever she can, with a smile and a song.

There she is: our young copper dragon soothsinger, ready for our games and players. Onward, to the final Bard-crossed monster of the day.

Vampire Orator

Dusk nearly at an end, the long, black-haired man gazed out over the gathered crowd. Hundreds, nay, thousands of his subjects standing in the obscuring darkness, rain pelting their bodies, all transfixed on him. Hanging on his every word. Ready to commit whatever deed pleased him. Loyal without fault, ready to live and die for their dark lord, he ever gave the word. He is a vampire orator.

The vampire from the fifth edition Monster Manual, artist unknown.

Our vampire orator also deserves more background than the goblin or troll from earlier. This isn't Skyrim or Neverwinter Nights in which the characters battle a cabal of vampires encounter after encounter, this is Dungeons & Dragons and an encounter with a vampire, most of the time, is a climactic or pivotal event. Let's take a slightly different approach as well and depart from the need for a musical inclination: this Bard-inspired vampire doesn't sing songs or play an instrument; he is an excellent speaker able to craft compelling tales and easily hold swaths of common folk under his sway with the magic trapped in those stories. 

He is also a vampire, so a battle with him should be extremely challenging. Like the troll bloodgurgler from earlier, he needs a few villain actions to truly empower him in combat. Unlike the troll bloodgurgler, though, he needs allies in combat to thrive; many of his abilities are control-based and require more creatures on his side to actually take effect.

What might these oration actions look like? Let's think of them as enhanced versions of the command spell. In combat, try to say the actual name of the action before using it, to help provide flavor to the vampire orator's Bard abilities!

Note: For any of these abilities to affect their specified targets, the targets must not be deafened. They must be able to hear the vampire orator.

Fall To Your Knees and Pray (Action): The vampire orator bellows, targeting a single creature. The creature must make a DC 16 Wisdom saving throw. On a failure, it drops prone and drops any objects it is carrying (including weapons) to its feet. This effect lasts until the beginning of its next turn.

Dream the Darkest Thought Imaginable (Action): The vampire orator speaks with a sinister voice, targeting a single creature. The creature must make a DC 16 Charisma saving throw. On a failure, the most horrific thought imaginable appears in its imagination, wracking it with pain and dealing 6d10 psychic damage. If the creature drops to 0 hit points due to this effect, it begins with 1 failed death saving throw as it continues to convulse and dream.

Grant Your Essence to Me (Bonus Action): The vampire orator whispers, targeting a single allied creature within 5 feet. The vampire orator deals 4d6 necrotic damage to the creature and heals the amount of damage dealt.

Quit Your Cries and Strike (Bonus Action): The vampire orator shouts, targeting up to 4 allied creatures it can see. Each of the targeted creatures immediately make a single melee weapon attack with disadvantage if they can.

Do Your Worst, Now! (Reaction): The vampire orator cries. When a creature hits the vampire orator, roll 1d8 and subtract the result from the attack roll; this is the new result of the creature's attack roll.

Break the Bodies of Your Beloved (Villain Action): The vampire orator spits as combat begins. All enemy creatures within 120 feet must make a DC 16 Wisdom saving throw. On a failure, each creature must make a weapon attack (an unarmed strike works if unarmed) against the nearest allied creature.

Forget Me Not! (Villain Action): The vampire orator screams as it drops to 0 hit points. All enemy creatures within 30 feet must make a DC 16 Wisdom saving throw. On a failure, nothing happens immediately. However, the next time the creature takes a long rest, it experiences terrifying nightmares or thoughts of the vampire orator. As a result, the creature cannot recover hit dice or more than half its hit point maximum while under this effect. In addition to a remove curse or greater restoration spell, there might be a few "story" methods to remove this effect, such as: burning the vampire orator's coffin, seeking help at a temple, or wearing a special holy symbol.

After writing those actions, now I'm super excited to run a vampire orator in my game. In preparation for that, let's craft a compelling story for him.

The name of our vampire orator is Duke Urlo Van Cozen and he rules over an isolated group of mining towns in the far north. Separate before he came along, the settlements now work together as a cohesive unit, providing more goods than ever before to the southern realms, though most of them do not see the profits: Duke Urlo Van Cozen does. He keeps the townsfolk as happy as he needs to, and constantly reminds them of their former lives, living in fear of attacks by yetis, bearfolk, and even worse, creatures of lycanthropy. Since Duke Urlo Van Cozen arrived, none have dared strike the towns.

The towns and the southern realms haven't only seen gains under the vampire orator's leadership, though. They've also lost a key resource: silver. Why? The duke had the towns stop sending it south and instead deliver it directly to his massive manse wherein he stockpiles the valuable resource. Why? Well, no one knows currently. Truly, no one even knows the duke is a vampire! Duke Urlo Van Cozen plans on keeping it that way and with his consistent speeches and appearances across the towns, that mission is unlikely to fail.

Based on our vampire orator's background, here are a few plot hooks for potential adventures:

  1. Driven from the north, werebeasts are appearing further and further south.
  2. With a shortage of silver from the once silver-rich north, the production of silver coins, ornaments, and cutlery is halted. The word from the miners? Oh, it's just gone. A further investigation is warranted.
  3. None who travel north for a visit return the same. They seem docile, almost in a trance, and they speak highly of the leader of the mining towns there: Duke Urlo Van Cozen.
  4. Unsatisfied with his hold on the mining towns alone, Duke Urlo Van Cozen sets his eyes on the south and begins rallying the folk of his domain.

He is finished. That's our Bard-based vampire, use him well.

The Course to Snappier D&D Monsters

Awesome customizations to existing D&D creatures sit on every page of the Player's Handbook. Whether it's a new ability we can give them, a spicy piece of lore we can build on their story with, or just a little extra flavor for the bad guys the characters fight, it's worth the extra effort. After a few times of going through this, we'll be readily able to pull from the PHB and beyond with ease, creating compelling monsters with aspects familiar to the players, but in alien in the sense that they'd usually not be found as NPCs or monsters.

It's a great way to make snappier D&D monsters and a great way to surprise the players. Try it out and let me know what you think in the comments below.

Do you already do this? If so, share a few of your ideas. I'd love to see them! If not, do you think this is a worthy pursuit? In addition to the arsenal in the DMG and Monster Manual, I think it's a truly worthy weapon we can use.

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2 comments:

  1. Wow - very creative to say the least, Troll Bloodgurgler! Got to use that one....

    Very cool concepts and imagination, enjoyed this read very much:)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Many thanks, I thoroughly enjoyed writing this article. Cleric is next :)

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