Why and How I Would Run a D&D Campaign in the Hells

Dungeons & Dragons campaigns rarely begin in realms other than the Material Plane. However, if we Dungeon Masters would like to attempt something unique and daring, we might look to the worlds beyond the mortal to kickstart our D&D campaigns. We might be tempted by the Feywild or the Shadowfell, perhaps the streets of the great city of Sigil, yet in this article, we are exploring what a D&D adventure based in some version of Hell or the Nine Hells would look like. Specifically, how I would run it as a DM.

But why? Why would you run a D&D campaign in the Hells?

Because a D&D campaign in the Hells would be dissimilar to any other campaign you've run before. The characters would be immersed in exotic environments every step of the way, interacting with devils of all types from the opening moment. Evil would be all around them! Think of the characters they could play and get away with. A D&D campaign in the Hells is simmering with interesting characters and places, opportunities for the players to create unique, weird characters.

These devils by Tee Fu Yuan and Phantom mean business, infernal business.

The enemies they might face are countless; the Monster Manual alone houses a great number of devils, from the lowly lemure to the mighty pit fiend. Additionally, plenty of monsters can be reflavored to fit the Nine Hells. A bandit's stat block can easily become a troubled soul stat block, while a rhinoceros stat block can quickly transform into the statistics of an infernal war beast. A D&D campaign in the Hells is easily craftable.

How many groups do you know who've played a D&D campaign in the Hells starting from level one? Even if the campaign only lasted a few sessions, it'd be a story to retell for countless years. A D&D campaign in the Hells is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a wild ride waiting to be had.

This isn't Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus. This is a campaign that starts in an infernal realm, surrounded by vile souls, conniving devils, and dangers unlike any in the Material Plane.

One day, I'm going to run a D&D campaign that begins and is primarily set in the Hells, just for the raw experience. Once that happens, I'll be sure to let you all know!

Okay, now it's time to think like a devilish DM and worldbuilder. How would I run a D&D campaign set in the Hells?

The Initial Hook

To prep for a campaign like this, I'd need to construct a few blocks, modular enough to be swapped around as the campaign progresses. They're big in concept and relatively freeform, broad strokes with plenty of room for interpretation. This initial block, though? It needs to be compelling. Grabbing. Provoking. The players must latch immediately, bite our proverbial campaign hook and swallow it fully.

So, knowing the campaign will be in some sort of Hell (whether the Nine Hells of Baator, a place like Eberron's Shavarath, or my own version of the plane), I'd write out three or four hooks and present them to the players. They get to choose the one they enjoy the most.

Here are four initial hooks:

  1. Escape from the Hells, levels 1-12. Sinister devils commonly fish souls from the many streams into the afterlife and bring them to their domain to act as servants and slaves. You are one of these poor souls, taken from the peaceful end you deserved, now enslaved by a cruel devil. As an opportunity to break free arrives, you might be able to recapture your ultimate prize, though it will spark the adventure of a lifetime.
  2. Demons and Devils, levels 1-20. You bargained your soul to a devil for power in life and now you serve the infernal legions in death, eternally. However, when an invasion unlike any other strikes, the fate of the Hells and the multiverse itself hangs in the balance.
  3. On the Styx, levels 1-9. Life as a sailor on the River Styx is Hell, literally. Yet it's profitable for all involved, as long as you can stay sane, swallow your pride, and slay the most frightening foes imaginable.
  4. Citadel of the Damned, levels 1-20. No mere entity, devil or mortal, finds themselves in the service of the Archduke of the Hells. You, however, connived your way into one of the greatest citadels of the verse in the deepest reaches of the Hells. You won't just need strength to survive, political savviness is the best weapon here, especially as the Archduke's primary rival makes a play for his position.

Not all bearded devils need to be green and armed with a spear, as showcased by boudicca.

Levels 1-4

By far the most structured arc of the campaign, the level 1-4 block or the "starting adventure" is how we begin our D&D campaign. In Hell? Well, there are a few possibilities. For this block we need a villain, a few of their goons, a dungeon or two, and some sort of grand reward (on top of reaching fourth level).

Glancing over each prompt, I think the people I play with the most would choose the first one: Escape from the Hells

In the rest of this article, I'll lay out a general overview of what that campaign might look like from the outset, with the caveat that I always allow the players to change the course of the adventure based on their characters' decisions throughout it.

Even across four campaign ideas, this mighty maleficent drawn by nJoo can make an excellent villain.

Breaking Infernal Chains

The characters begin as downtrodden slaves to a sinister devil, out on an expedition in a remote landscape, perhaps a mine for infernal metal or a voyage across a boiling sea of lava. By their own smarts or the help of a fellow NPC, a revolt against the overseers of the resource excavation mission begins and the characters have the chance to break their chains. 

However, this act pits them against their former master, an archdevil of the layer/realm of the Hells they're currently on. I'd suggest a deeper layer such as Stygia or Malodomini if you're using the classic Nine Hells. Stay away from Avernus! We don't want this to be an "easy" trek out of the most sinister realms in all the verse. Anyways, Archduchess Zariel has seen enough action as of late.

Whoever this archdevil is becomes the primary antagonist of the campaign and they send a maleficent lieutenant to wrangle the characters. This NPC must drive a serious wedge between the archdevil and the characters, pushing the desire to not only escape the Nine Hells, but take out or seriously harm the NPC's archdevil master. For a detailed look at which archdevil's currently preside over each layer on the canonical Nine Hells, check out Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes. If we'd like to be a tad precarious, we could even choose an archdevil not ruling a layer, adding an extra element to the story of our primary villain. They're aftet the characters for escaping their grasp and attempting to topple the current duke or duchess of their region of the Hells.

The characters must defeat or overcome this lieutenant and begin their journey out of the Hells, which concludes the first act.

Levels 5-10

At this point the characters are likely developed and pursuing their own interests in the Hells while advancing the "primary" plot. Remember, we always focus on the story driven by the characters, but they all must be united by one string. Many other strings may sprawl from this, side plots and character-specific goals, but they all weave into one masterpiece.

They're trying to escape the Nine Hells while outsmarting the archdevil antagonist. Generally, they should stick to the layer they're on for most of the act, with a hop or two to a different layer to make a key ally or recover a powerful artifact. If you haven't already, it's a great time to incorporate the River Styx, a waterway of bubbling souls and madness that connects each and every layer of the Nine Hells in typical D&D canon.

Underestimating the villain, especially if it's a devil like this one by nJoo, is usually a poor idea.

Connected to the Hells

While the core narrative moves and grows, each character should also develop their own story or side quest. An excellent way to ensure each character is connected to the events occurring in the Hells is to build them from the ground up with the Hells in mind.

The two characters below are tied inexorably to the Hells in some way. As the big story progresses, their own story will evolve too.

Phalia Morningstruck. When Phalia was forced to serve in the Nine Hells, she thought her life was over and she'd suffer eternally. However, she found comfort in another individual who was taken from their afterlife. In the rare times of silence, they'd stare into each other's eyes and mouth words of unlimited meaning. Even in silence and eternal work, they found strength and compassion in each other. Yet, this individual was taken mere days before Phalia broke her infernal chains. She wants to find this taken individual before she escapes the Hells.

Gordo. Contrary to the situations of the other folk captured and brought to the Nine Hells from their afterlives, it's no mistake Gordo is in the Hells. This giff traveled from beyond this verse on a mission to find and assassinate a being of supreme power, called an archdevil in this particular verse. The "coincidence"? It's the archdevil antagonist of the campaign. While Gordo must escape from the Nine Hells eventually, he cannot do so without the head, soul, talisman, whatever he needs of the archdevil pursuing the entire group.

Levels 11-16

Everything continues to heat up here and many character-specific arcs likely conclude. Ensure the characters confront the archdevil villain multiple times during this arc, whether in the flesh or through some form of long-distance communication. At this point, they'll also be able to escape the Hells through smarts or spells (depending on the party composition), but if you would like to hit sixteenth level with this campaign, you'll need to give them a reason to care about the conflict and characters in the Hells.

Whether it's by hatred or love, that's up to you.

Of course, you also have the option of running a completely binary campaign. If the group's primary goal is to escape the Hells and they escape, that might be the end of the campaign. That's totally fine! Move on to a new story, maybe a new set of characters, and reminisce about the journey through the fiery fields and blasted peaks of Baator.

Otherwise, draw them back in with some of the plot hooks below.

One More Hit of Hell

Once the characters escape from the Hells, the campaign might be over. However, if there's a compelling enough story remaining...sixteenth level is achievable with this particular campaign choice.

Here are four plot hooks to draw the characters back into the Hells once they've escaped.

  • The archdevil who initially pursued them captured the souls of their loved ones and will only make a bargain for them back in person, in their domain.
  • A power vacuum left behind by the group's actions spurred the rise of a new faction in the Hells that is causing more havoc than any organization in the past. Multiple parties beg the group to return and deal with it.
  • A complication in the verse causes the group to travel back in time to the moment of their initial freedom, with all their memories intact, as soon as they exit the Nine Hells. What happened?
  • Seizing on its rival's weakness, another archdevil tries to kill the group's primary foe, fails, but weakens the foe greatly. The group may have a chance to fully destroy this incarnation of pure evil.

A D&D Campaign in the Hells

That's why I'd run a D&D campaign in the Hells. It'd be unlike any campaign I've run before and challenge the players and their characters in new and interesting ways. They'd be surrounded by evil, the environments could always be absolutely wild & wicked, and it could conclude at any moment at the end of a barbed devil's tail.

Would you want to run a D&D campaign in the Hells? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments below or somewhere on social media. I'm looking forward to hearing from you.

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How to Make Holier D&D Monsters with the Cleric Class

Monsters invigorated with religious fervor are formidable foes to behold and battle in Dungeons & Dragons. A kobold imbued with the avaricious nature of Tiamat, Queen of Dragons? How about a minotaur infused with a belief not in gods, planar beings, or primordials, but his own inner strength and resolve? Dueling a fire giant in D&D who fuels her inner fire with the War Domain of the Cleric class might burn the characters, but a red dragon blessed with the divine strength of a Nature goddess? That's an entirely different story and encounter.

Each of these unique D&D monsters inspired by elements of the Cleric class from D&D 5e's Player's Handbook flourish further within this article. Let's make some holier monsters, one piece of scripture at a time.

This cleric by John Stanko cleanses an ally's wounds and prepares them for terrible purpose.

This RJD20 article is a continuation of a series called Crossing Classes and Monsters. Thus far, we've explored the Barbarian and the Bard. This article, all about the Cleric, is the third in the series. If you've missed the others, be sure to check them out and leave a comment with your thoughts!

Monsters Crossed with D&D Classes

While this isn't a new phenomenon entirely, mixing monsters and classes isn't present in any official D&D 5e rulebook. In past editions, it was commonplace to give monsters character classes. In this series of articles, we're doing something similar: we're using the character classes and subclasses of the 5e PHB to inspire various abilities, actions, and story beats for the monsters we pit against the players.

In particular, we're defining three aspects:

  1. Base: What is our base monster? Our base class?
  2. Class Abilities: Which abilities of our base class inspire us? What are the new actions and abilities of the custom monster?
  3. Ripples: What are the ramifications of the class-inspired monster? How does its story change? How about the lore of the world?

With these three blocks as our foundation, we're prepared to explore four monsters crossed with the Cleric class: the kobold, the minotaur, the fire giant, and the adult red dragon. Remember, we're finicking with the fabric of D&D 5e in this article. The monsters are inspired from their Monster Manual counterparts, character classes from the Player's Handbook, and a healthy dose of homebrew imagination from our own minds. Each base monster stat block is provided via a link to D&D Beyond.

The custom monsters may require balancing in the moment, but the musings below should inspire us to use them in our games and insert them into our worlds. Let's begin!

Kobold Scion of Tiamat

All things great come in fives! Mushrooms! Tunnels! Victories! She grants them to us as fuel, as weapons, and as inspiration to continue our quest, for we will not rest until her chains are broken. We are her most determined children, her greatest numbers, and her deadliest arms against the people who would see her imprisoned or slaughtered. We are the kobolds of Tiamat! I am her scion! Hear me ROAR!

Usually, the kobold works well as a monster thrown at the characters in a large group of other kobolds. They get D&D 5e's Pack Tactics after all! However, let's try something different with this Cleric-based creation: let's create a kobold that can stand alone as a boss monster to fight and/or interact with the party. Allow me to introduce the kobold scion of Tiamat.

This threatening kobold scion by Bryan Syme yips its way to power and wealth.

As a boss monster in fifth edition D&D, our kobold needs formidability, mobility, and volatility. Warning, this is a substantial foe for a low-level party, meant to be a threatening boss fight to a well-oiled party.

Five-Headed Fervor (Ability): The kobold scion of Tiamat may switch its outgoing damage type between fire, cold, acid, poison, and lightning at-will.

Tiamat's Flight (Action): The kobold scion of Tiamat levitates 10 feet up, avoiding attacks of opportunity, and unleashes 1d4+1 elemental rays at targets it chooses within 60 feet. Each ray deals 1d6 points of elemental damage, chosen by the kobold scion of Tiamat.

Dragon Quake (Action): The kobold scion of Tiamat stomps the ground with godly power, cracking tiny fissures in the ground in a 20-foot radius around it. The affected ground is difficult terrain.

Tiamat's Judgement (Bonus Action): The kobold scion of Tiamat focuses on an allied creature within 30 feet. Roll a d20. If the result is a 10 or higher, that creature gains advantage on its next roll, but must shout out a prayer to the Dragon Queen. The kobold scion of Tiamat may focus on itself.

Tiamat's Snap (Bonus Action): The kobold scion of Tiamat attacks a creature within 10 feet, conjuring an image of the Dragon Queen. If the attack hits, target creature must make a DC 12 Strength saving throw or be knocked prone by the colorful image.

Storm of the Scion (Villain Action): On the first turn of combat, the kobold scion of Tiamat wails a prayer to the Dragon Queen and creatures an elemental tempest around the battlefield. The tempest skirts the battle's edge. At the end of every round, a flash of elemental magic strikes a random creature in the combat, dealing 1d4 points of elemental damage chosen by the kobold scion of Tiamat. The tempest ends when its creator is knocked unconscious or dies.

Five-Headed Finality (Villain Action): When the kobold scion of Tiamat drops to zero hit points, it loses all other abilities but sprouts four more heads, each scaled like one of the chromatic true dragons. It gains a bite "Multiattack" action (+4 to hit, 1d4+2 piercing damage, 2 attacks) and 1/4 of its hit points.

The abilities of our kobold scion of Tiamat complete, let's explore a few ways it might impact the rest of the game and/or world.

  1. Kobold scions of Tiamat who survive their "Five-Headed Finality" action slowly transform into hydras.
  2. A kobold scion of Tiamat unites five different kobold clans beneath a single banner, though their endgame puzzles many. They seek the domination of a close-by gold dragon, who the kobold scion of Tiamat claims may be controlled with the Dragon Queen's will.
  3. Exiled from her clan, a kobold scion of Tiamat joins a thieves' guild in the slums of a big city. Slowly, she's converting its members to worship of the Dragon Queen when the guild master grabs one of Tiamat's legendary wyrmspeaker masks. The scion turns half the guild against the guild master in a power grab for control of the guild and possession of the mask, thrusting the slums into bloody conflict.
  4. If Tiamat doesn't exist in the world, the scion may draw power from a flight of chromatic dragons, a different deity of destruction and greed, or perhaps an archdevil or archfiend.

Minotaur Mindpriest

Do not fret if the gods ignore you, little one. All that empowers you is inside you. Sit in silence and retreat within. Allow darkness to overcome you, your deepest fears to mount, every doubt and horrible dream consume your being. Then fight all of them back. Show yourself your strength. True divinity lurks not outside us, but within. Sit, think, and see.

Opposite our goal with the kobold scion of Tiamat, let's craft a minotaur, a foe typically fought alone, as a monster that functions well in a mob of creatures. Specifically, our inspiration derives from the Life Domain of the Cleric class. Say hello to the minotaur mindpriest, a bastion of inner power.

Proudly, this minotaur by mas-r1980 leads a group of vagabonds, hoping to evoke true emotional growth in them all.

Strength of the Herd (Ability): The minotaur mindpriest emits an aura in a 30 feet radius that causes its allies to regain 10 HP at the start of its turn as long as they are above 0 hit points.

Mind Growth (Action): The minotaur mindpriest picks an ally within 30 feet, protecting its mind. It gains advantage on all Charisma, Intelligence, and Wisdom saving throws for the rest of the combat or until the minotaur mindpriest drops to 0 hit points.

Might Growth (Action): The minotaur mindpriest picks an ally within 30 feet, bolstering its strength. It gains an extra 1d6 radiant damage on all its attacks for the rest of the combat or until the minotaur mindpriest drops to 0 hit points.

Mobility Growth (Action): The minotaur mindpriest picks an ally within 30 feet, quickening its movement. Its movement speed is doubled for the rest of the combat or until the minotaur mindpriest drops to 0 hit points.

Spur On (Reaction): If an ally within 30 feet drops to 0 hit points, the minotaur mindpriest may cause it to make a DC 13 Constitution saving throw. If it succeeds, it stays up at 1 hit point. If it fails, it drops to 0 hit points. Either way, the targeted ally may not be affected by this action until the next dawn.

The minotaur mindpriest is a mighty support monster for the characters to battle, but we must use its actions intelligently for it to work wonders and challenge them in combat. Consider positioning it in a strategical vantage point, ensuring other monsters guard it, and calling out its support abilities to the characters if they don't catch on to the massive effect it has on the encounter. Sometimes, the players need to be spurred a tad, especially if encounters don't usually contain supportive foes.

If the minotaur mindpriest is too complex for our liking, we can instead use the Cleric class as inspiration for it in the fiction of our game and the lore of our world.

  1. In the dark corner of the town's tavern, a minotaur mindpriest inspires cowardly adventurers to greatness.
  2. Acting as a motivational speaker, a minotaur mindpriest blesses certain gladiators before their battles in a coliseum. Is the minotaur playing favorites? Someone believes so...
  3. A minotaur mindpriest leads a band of highly successful bandits, thought the minotaur believes it might drive them from the path of villainy in good time.

Fire Giant Axediviner

By flame and steel, we conquered these lands! Their people we enslaved, their treasures we took to greaten. By flame and steel, we shall keep them!

This fire giant by Orangus readies to annihilate her meager foes.

Our other Cleric-inspired monsters specialize in spells and support, but this creature, using the fire giant as a base, focuses on an entirely different tactic in combat: raw melee damage and control. Of course, we use the War and Tempest Domains as our primary Cleric inspiration to build the powerful fire giant axediviner.

Blood for the Fire God (Ability): Every time a creature dies during a combat, the fire giant axediviner gains +1 fire damage to all melee hits, to a maximum of +10. This resets at the end of the combat.

Divine Bellow (Action): The fire giant axediviner lets out a thundering bellow. All enemies within 300 feet who can hear it must make a DC 12 Wisdom saving throw or fall prone.

March of the Divine Legion (Action): The fire giant axediviner commands its allies to march, attack, and die for their deity. All allies within 300' who can hear it may move up to 30 feet and make a single melee attack.

Earthshatter (Bonus Action): The fire giant axediviner strikes the ground, creating a 5-foot-wide, 10-foot-deep fissure in the ground that spreads up to 30 feet away from the fire giant axediviner. Any creature in its path must make a DC 12 Dexterity saving throw or fall into the fissure. The fissure counts as difficult terrain.

Invoke Fervor (Bonus Action): The fire giant axediviner picks an ally within 60 feet, invoking them with divine fervor. The ally gains advantage on its next attack roll.

There we are: a battle-ready fire giant Cleric, but we're not finished. How can we connect this creature to our world?

  1. The usually quiet fire giant stronghold nearby experienced a sudden uprising led by a fire giant axediviner. She demands not only tribute from the surrounding dwarven holds, but the immediate conversion to her deity's worship. To forsake her is to invoke her deity's wrath and the dwarven holds' doom.
  2. A fire giant axediviner promises divine power to whoever can bring her a fiery relic stolen from her people by a feisty frost giant jarl decades ago. The primary issue? The jarl lives atop a glacier on the Elemental Plane of Ice, a realm no fire giant can go.
  3. Two fire giant axediviners of rival deities contest for supremacy over a mixed-race giant citadel. One enlists the party to eliminate the other, but the incoming victory might spur the victor into a campaign of fire and destruction.
  4. A lone fire giant axediviner roams the nearby desert, claiming the heads of travelers it encounters to gift its god of war. If beaten in combat, it becomes a machine of war for whoever dominated it, willing to carry out any violent act against any supposed foe.

Adult Red Dragon Summerbringer

Beauty is best captured not in gold, but in the natural world around us. And it's most spectacular state? The fullness of summer. Wondrous animals frolicking about. Flowers in full bloom. The sky a brilliant blue during day and a speckled starscape at night. Why allow the bitterness of autumn, the grimness of winter, and the dreariness of spring assault the perfect heat of summer? Like others of my kind lash out at those who touch their beloved treasures, I destroy any who would change my pristine land; I wage war on the primal beings of creation, and it is a war I will win.

A red dragon hisses at a cold foe, drawn by an unknown artist, found in the 5e DMG.

As a near-pinnacle foe, this next creature with roots in the adult red dragon monster is meant to be fought as a boss, capable of conducting itself on all the fronts our former creations do. High-level player characters shall tremble when battling it in combat, facing off against it in a social encounter, or exploring its flower-rich lair. 

Meet the adult red dragon summerbringer.

Eversummer Heat (Ability): Any enemy within 60 feet of the adult red dragon summerbringer takes 5 fire damage at the start of their turn. If they begin their turn within 5 feet of the adult red dragon summerbringer, they must make a DC 6 Constitution saving throw or gain a level of exhaustion.

Incineration (Action): The adult red dragon summerbringer targets a single creature within 120 feet, threatening them with the power of blistering heat. The targeted creature must make a DC 17 Constitution saving throw or take 8d10 fire damage. If the creature fails the save by 5 or more, it also gains a level of exhaustion.

Rejuvenating Strength (Bonus Action): The adult red dragon summerbringer draws in the essence of summer and picks an unconscious ally or an ally who dropped to 0 hit points during the current combat. That ally rises at 1 hit point but may not use any spells or special abilities until it takes a long rest.

Wings of Hope (Bonus Action): If the adult red dragon summerbringer is flying, it may use a bonus action to imbue the wind of its wings with healing magic, granting all allies within 120 feet 2d10 hit points.

Fiery Fury (Reaction): When the adult red dragon summerbringer is hit by an attack, it may use a reaction to let out a snort of fatiguing heat, targeting the creature who hit it. The targeted creature must make a DC 17 Dexterity saving throw. On a failure, they become Paralyzed until the beginning of their next turn. 

Even without a villain action or two, our version of a red dragon Cleric is a formidable threat to any experienced adventuring party. However, how might this party interact with the dragon, and how might the dragon impact our world?

  1. Immersed in the beauty of the Feywild for many years, a red dragon emerges from the plane and attempts to wrap the mortal world in the same sort of flora and fauna of the mystical realm.
  2. Destined to bring eternal summer to its northern home, a red dragon touched by the god of the sun and raised by a fiery druid rallies an army of fanatical kobolds, Circle of Wildfire druids, and passionate fey beasts to turn the northern snow to steam and bask the frontier in unending sunlight.
  3. A vengeful nature deity whose demigod child was killed by a patron of ice and snow imbues a red dragon with the power of divine flame and summer, commanding it to enact revenge upon the followers of the child-god slaying cold creature.
  4. In a land "cursed" by eternal summer, the red dragon causing this phenomenon is slain and winter threatens the realm. Somehow, eversummer or the dragon who brought it must be returned before the ghouls and aberrations of everwinter strike the unprepared land. 

The Scripture to Holier D&D Monsters

The Player's Handbook provides Dungeon Masters with a shimmering fountain of inspiration. Our holy creations above are but a sample of the true treasures hiding on its pages and the pages of all the other books usually meant for the players to enjoy. Dive in. Let these D&D books inspire your creations and help your game flourish.

This is but the beginning. With the Cleric class crossed with D&D monsters explored, we will investigate the Druid class next and the Fighter class afterward. Of course, this current set of articles merely connects these monsters to the base subclasses of each core D&D 5e character class; Xanathar's Guide to Everything and Tasha's Cauldron of Everything hold many more possibilities to inspire our D&D beasties. And books of the past? They are fair game as well. Lords of Madness, we'll look at you soon enough.

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Don't Regret Running a Basic D&D Game

There's a limitless number of ideas marching around our planet about Dungeons & Dragons. Articles about how to run the game. Videos about crafting compelling nonplayer characters. Entire books dedicated to improving as many people as possible in the craft. Forums of hundreds of thousands detailing ten thousand games and the worlds they're in. Limitless might be too little of a word. Perhaps the content out there is truly unlimited and unfathomable.

A red dragon drawn by Tyler Jacobson flies from a town of judgy Dungeon Masters.

With all of this at our fingertips, we might be pressured into perfecting our craft and running the absolute best D&D game. 

We witness jaw-dropping battle maps built with Dwarven Forge assets and exquisite D&D miniatures. We hear great DMs like Matthew Mercer pull out a plethora of voices for a wide cast of characters. We watch dozens of videos explaining HERE'S THE BEST WAY TO PLAY D&D and all of them seem to conflict with each other and at times our own view of the game. It's a lot.

For those of us active in the online D&D-space, the pressure might build to a breaking point.

Our game might not boast all the bells and whistles viewed at other tables, all the shocking twists and well-crafted pinnacle encounters. It might not create a story remembered for decades after it finishes, passed down to sons & daughters, D&D-fanatics or not. It might not even last more than a few sessions, slipping from our schedules as other duties and hobbies overtake us. But we shouldn't let any of these points break us.

As long as the D&D games we run are fun for us and the other people at the table, virtual or physical, we shouldn't regret running them.

Multiple beholders obliterate a dragon who claims his way of running D&D is best.

Don't regret running a basic D&D game. All we need are a few players, a space to play, some dice, tools to track the game, and a dash of inspiration. That's all. That's basic D&D, the minimum required to have some fun. And if we're having fun, that's all that matters. We should feel empowered to improve or change our game by the tips, tricks, and other tidbits of knowledge and spectacle shared across our wide world, we shouldn't let it hinder us or alter the way we think about our game. It's not lesser because we don't do all these different things, it's good because it's fun to us and the players.

Remember: D&D is a hobby that can last a lifetime. During that lifetime, there's plenty of time to steadily build our game, improve our methods, and change the way we play.

So, as we peruse articles like mine, the great works of Chris Perkins, the content-dense videos of Sly Flourish, the many spectacular ideas and visions found across all of the D&D subreddits, or catch a glimpse of the Critical Role table, we must keep in mind: Our games, no matter how minimally built or played, are good because they're fun for us and the players. Don't regret running a game built on the essentials and the ultimate essential factor: fun. 

We have a lifetime to change our game up or keep it the same; whatever we and our players prefer.

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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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