Monster Roles in Combat

Hello and welcome to this week’s installment of “Only On Tuesdays!” This week I will be discussing how using varied enemies in your combats can make for far more tactical combat that will make the game more interesting for your players. Let’s begin!

The Roles in Combat

4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons is widely regarded as the black sheep of the Dnd family. It did many things wrong, but it also did many things right. One of the things that 4th Edition did really well was the inclusion of roles in combat. Since the beginning of Dnd, there have always been some monsters that were better than others at certain things. Goblins have always been sneakier than Orcs, while a Troll was always a hard foe to take down. While these things have always been true, 4th Edition was the first edition to truly codify these monsters and define the roles that they excel at in combat. These roles are an excellent thing for DM’s to know because it allows for the creation of much more tactical and interesting encounters, by simply throwing a few different roles together in any given combat. The 7 roles are as follows:
Brute: Brutes excel at high damage in close quarters while having a lot of HP themselves. They have low defenses to compensate and are simply meant to be used to get in the parties face. Brutes love cover and broken lines of sight so that they are not harassed by ranged attacks. A good example of a Brute would have to be an Ogre. 
Soldier: Soldiers have high defenses with average HP, and attacks. They serve as the tanks for fellow monsters, absorbing blows, and discouraging attacks against their weaker comrades. Soldiers love narrow funnel points, that channel all of the enemies towards them one by one. A good example of a Soldier would have to be an Iron Golem.  
Artillery: Artillery have high damage ranged spells, but very low HP and defenses. These guys stay on the backline and rain fireballs on the party. Artillery loves the high ground and having cover to duck in and out of while they rain attacks from afar. A good example of Artillery would have to be a Mind Flayer. 
Skirmishers: Skirmishers have average stats but above average mobility. They try to weave in and out of combat, and try to aim for the squishies at the back of the party. Skirmishers love open-ended battlefields with lots of cover. This gives them the opportunity to dive into the back line of the party. A good example of a Skirmisher would have to be a Bullete. 
Lurker: Lurkers have below average health and defenses, but have an ability that makes them difficult to target. They wait, hiding in the shadows until they can ambush some poor PC. Lurkers love having places to hide to ambush the party from. A good example of a Lurker would have to be a Cloaker. 
Controllers: Controllers are the monsters who try to force the PCs into disadvantageous situations. They will move the PC’s around, have the party make saving throws, and put the party in a rough spot. Controllers love terrain that has negative aspects to it, such as acid pools so that they can force the party to move towards the dangerous terrain. A good example of a controller would have to be a Beholder.  
Leaders: Leaders are special monsters who give bonuses to the entire group just for simply being there. This trait makes them much more of a target and makes your group a far greater threat. Leaders love terrain that allows them to see the whole battlefield while keeping them safe from any immediate attacks. A good example of a leader would have to be a Hobgoblin Warlord.

These 7 roles have existed for as long as the game itself. But by simply knowing about their existence, it is a lot easier to create encounters that entertain and excite your players. Knowing a monsters role in combat also makes it far easier for you as the DM to decide what you want to do with them, and how your players will face them in combat. Roles give the DM a solid base to work from when building an encounter and allow the DM to express a lot more creativity in how they approach the roles in combat. 
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Utilizing The Roles

Now that you know what these roles are, let’s make an encounter where we throw 3 random roles together and see how the battle would shape out. Let’s go with . . . Lurker, Artillery, and Soldier. 
The battle would start off in a very typical fashion. The Soldier will stand close to either the players or the Artillery. Their job is to not let the party move anywhere near the Artillery. Without the Artillery, the Soldier has almost no chance of defeating the party. The Artillery’s job is simple. Shell out mortars until the party has to run from cover, or die fighting. And lastly, the Lurker is there to be something that will push the party out of their comfort zone. The party may be approaching this encounter as normal, but things will have to change when the rogue almost gets insta-gibbed by some random thing hiding in the shadows. Through these 3 simple roles, we have created a dynamic and tactical fight that requires our players to put together the pieces in order to solve the puzzle. Is it worth it to go after the Artillery while the Soldier is still alive? Do we find the Lurker, so that we can advance without worry? Questions like these make for tactically interesting fights that will keep your players hooked until the resolution of the encounter.
Another way to utilize the Roles in combat is by designing the play space around them. Artillery units are already scary enough, but when they have the chance to fire through arrow slits 30 feet in the air, they are nearly impossible to deal with. If you want to build a really challenging encounter, change the terrain to suit your monsters in a way that amplifies their strengths. A Soldier loves it when all of the enemies have to funnel through a narrow corridor in order to reach anything else. Skirmishers love open-ended battlefields where they are able to duck and weave until they are able to get into the parties back lines. Different Roles enjoy different things, so design your encounters accordingly to what monsters you have available to use.
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One of the greatest strengths of using a role-based system in encounter design is that it forces you to use varied enemies in combat. A combat with 3 Ogres will be nowhere near as tactically interesting as one that uses hobgoblin warlords, defending wizards, while a shield wall advances forward. A combat with 3 Ogres can still be a fun encounter, but it will not challenge your players mentally. However, 3 enemies that behave in different tactical ways can make for an interesting encounter as the players have to decide who to prioritize. A way to make the encounter with the Ogres more interesting is to have each of them follow one of the different roles found up above. One could behave as the typical Brute smashing the party, while another could be throwing rocks from afar, serving as the Artillery. The last Ogre could then be a Controller, that physically picks up the players and moves them to bad situations such as pits of tar. If all of your Ogres behaved as Brutes, however, a lot of depth to the encounter would be lost.
When using roles in your combats, an ideal number to hit for a tactically sound encounter would be 3 different roles in the combat. 3 is the magic number where choices of who to target become more meaningful, without overloading the encounter with information. Of course, it’s totally possible to run an encounter with more or less roles, but that is up to you and how tactical you want to make the encounter. A fight with the Death Knight commanding legions of minions should be far more tactical than one where the mimic stopped being a treasure chest. Another thing to note is that not every single combat has to be a strategic puzzle that requires hours of coordination to solve. Sometimes it can be worth it to throw a few Artillery minions in the way of the players and give them a chance to enjoy their characters strengths. Keeping a balance is important for the health of the game, as too many tactical encounters will wear out your players and may keep them from playing further. 


Roles are something that I would consider a tool in the toolbox. They don’t fit every encounter, and it may not be worth it to pull it out all the time, but when you do pull it out it will get the job done better than any other tool available. The ability to so easily create a tactically interesting encounter by simply throwing some roles together makes it a powerful tool that can completely change the feel of the session. This is also a great thing to have in mind when creating encounters on the spot. A problem I personally have with improvisational DMing is that my encounters can get a bit stale as I run them all the same. As long as I am cognizant of the different roles, I can be sure to throw in a few different roles to spice things up every now and then. Roles in combat are a powerful tool that can make encounter design a lot easier for the DM and a lot more fun for the players. 
I hope that this article was able to inspire you to try out some different monster roles out in your next combat. If you have anything you’d like to share about the article please comment below. And as always, have a great week, and an amazing Tuesday!

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