Last week, I posted a blog describing why you should level up your monsters. This week, I continue that thought and discuss how you go about doing it. Scaling your monsters isn’t particularly difficult, but there are a few common mistakes that I want to help you avoid. Also, the DMG* breaks down how you go about making and scaling monsters, but the descriptions can be a little confusing. In this post, we’re going to level up a monster together, step-by-step. Hopefully, this will help.
So let’s open up the workshop and start tinkering with the mechanics. Last week, I use the thug as an example of a monster I leveled up for a campaign. In my game, the adventurers decided to pit themselves against the criminal underworld, and I quickly realized that there just weren’t enough standard criminal builds in the Monster Manual for me to draw from. As a result, I needed to do some monster crafting.
I’m going to use the thug from the monster manual as my example. I’ve personally play tested this build extensively over the course of a campaign, and feel pretty comfortable with my design. He’s a pretty low-level baddie; ranking in at CR ¼. Let’s see if we can bump him up to CR 2.
The first thing we have to do is crack open the Dungeon Masters Guide. If you don’t have one, you should definitely pick one up, but I will also be providing the relevant content here. You’ll be able to follow along just fine. If you do have one, go ahead and turn to page 174. There you’ll find the table titled “Monster Statistics by Challenge Rating” (MSCR). This table is going to be your new best friend. With this, we’ll to be able to level up our thug step-by-step.
Reverse engineering your monster.
First, we need to reverse engineer our thug. To do this, you take the thug’s stats as listed in the monster manual and reformat them to fit into the MSCR. Laying the stats out in this manner allows us to point at the exact category we want to improve. Take a second or two to look over his stats and compare them to the CR ½ line in the MSCR.
A quick note on how I got a couple of these numbers. Armor class, HP, and the CR are easy to find and plug into our MSCR. But where did I get the proficiency bonus, damage/round, save/DC? They aren’t listed in his Monster Manual Stats. And why did I list his attack bonus as a +5 when his stat block says the thug has a +4 to attack?
Let’s go through each of these stat categories one-by-one.
In order to find the proficiency bonus, you need to find any skills that the monster has and subtract the ability modifier that bolsters that skill. The thug has a +2 in intimidation. Intimidation is a charisma skill, but the thug has a +0 in charisma. 2-0 = 2. The only way the thug can have a +2 in intimidation is by having a proficiency bonus of +2.
Alternatively, if the creature doesn’t have any skills, you can use his attack modifier. Creature attack modifiers work the same way as Class Level Adventurer’s modifiers. ability modifier + proficiency bonus. The thug swings a club, so he uses the strength ability modifier in his attack. In order to find his proficiency bonus, you subtract his strength modifier from his attack modifier. What are you left with? Proficiency!
(ATT +4) – (STR +2) = (PB +2)
The attack bonus category listed in the MSCR isn’t actually the same thing as an attack modifier. It takes other factors into consideration, like special abilities. The thug is capable of “Pack Tactics”. On page 280 and 281 of the monster manual, you’ll find a huge table titled monster features. I wasn’t able to find a good link to this table, so for now we’ll just focus on the thug’s ability.
The monster features table shows a list of features and how they adjust your monster’s stats. Pack tactics is a +1 to the attack bonus score. That’s why we add +1 to the thug’s attack modifier.
(ATT +4) + (Pack Tactics +1) = (Attack Bonus +5)
Leveling up any monster brandishing a special ability will require the Monster Features table. Not all abilities have an effect, and some abilities will affect the monster’s overall defensive score. For instance, the “Regeneration” ability increases the troll’s defensive score. Either way, I suggest you either bookmark this table in the DMG.
When looking for a monster’s damage output, you need to find the average role of its damage dice. To find the average score of any dice, you take its maximum number and divide it in half. Then you add 1. It’s a pretty simple math equation. The thug’s damage dice is 1D6. So the math equation is…
(Max number ÷ 2) + 1 = (dice average)
(6÷2 = 3)
(3+1 = 4)
You always add 1 to half the maximum number because a dice roll doesn’t account for 0.
The thug also gets to attach his strengths modifier to his damage roll which is a +2.
(4+2 = 5) so 5 is the thug’s average damage per hit.
But, the thug gets 2 attacks per round, so his average damage output needs to be doubled. (5×2 = 10)
So now we have the thug’s average damage output per round, 10.
Note: the thug is a pretty low-level creature, and some monsters have special abilities that increase their damage output. Dragons, for instance, have the Dragon Breath attack that recharges on a dice roll. When you have a special attack like that, you calculated if it is used within the first three rounds. The Dragon is probably going to lead with his breath attack, because who wouldn’t if they have a breath attack, so you add that into the Damage/Round category.
This one is a little weird because the thug doesn’t have any spells. But he does have a skill, Intimidate. That isn’t a saving throw, exactly. So we’re going to use his average intimidation role to determine his average DC. We will do this the same way we found the average role for his damage output. The dice in this situation just happens to be a D20, so the equation is…
(20÷2 = 10) and then (10+1 = 11)
Now you add his skill modifier. In this case, it’s just a +2.
Average role + skill modifier = DC
11+2 = 13
Moving a CR up and down.
We have the thug’s stats formatted so that they fit into the MSCR, but wait! He looks more like a CR ¼ monster, doesn’t he? But he’s listed in the monster manual as a CR ½.
Generally speaking, there is a “rule of 2”. If the monster’s Defensive Challenge Rating or Offensive Challenge Rating is 2 points higher or lower, then you move the CR in that direction. Now you need to understand what a defensive and offensive challenge rating is.
When it comes to building up the monster, you first need to find its Defensive Challenge Rating. This is easier than building a monster from scratch because you already have the base monster’s CR.
But you need to understand why your monster has that rating. To do that you need to start with the HP. The thug, for example, has 36 HP which makes him a CR ¼ creature. If his AC was 2 points higher, his defensive challenge rating would bump up, but he only has an 11 for his AC. The rule of 2 does not apply.
Defense is not the thug’s strong suit.
This is where things get tricky!
We need to look at his Offensive Challenge Rating in order to understand why the standard thug is a CR ½ creature. To find the Offensive challenge rating, you start with the creature’s damage per round.
The thug’s damage output per round is 10 points. This means his offensive rating starts at CR 1. Then you look at his attack bonus, +5. CR 1 creatures have an attack bonus of +3. Since the thug’s attack bonus is 2 points higher, the rule of 2 applies. We need to bump up his offensive rating because his attack bonus is 2 points higher than where his damage output initially placed his offensive rating.
So now we have a creature with a defensive rating of CR ¼ and an offensive rating of CR 2. To find his overall CR rating, we essentially split the difference. But wait, that would put him right in between CR 1/2 and CR 1. There aren’t any CR ¾, are there?
No, there’s no such thing as a CR ¾ unless you’re doing some crazy homebrew. The DMG tells you to round down. I agree with this in general, but when building or leveling up your own monsters, I think there’s a little flexibility here. My personal rule is round in the direction of the HP. The longer or shorter the monster lasts in a fight should determine any ties between offensive rating and defensive ratings. It’s the defensive rating that is low with the thug, so round down. He just doesn’t have HP to stay in a fight.
Time to level up!
Now that we have a good understanding of how to find a creature’s challenge rating, we can start tinkering with the stats in order to push the creature up a level or 2. There are three numbers we have to keep in mind when altering the stats.
The thug fell right in between CR ½ and CR 1, so I don’t think bumping him up to CR 1 is enough of a boost. I think we need to push him into CR 2. Let’s make another Monster Statistics by Challenge Rating chart and fill it in step-by-step, but this time we are going to do some leveling.
Let’s start with his defensive rating. Let’s go ahead and bump up his HP to 60. This starts him right in the middle of CR½. So we already bumped up his defensive rating 1 level. Thematically, it makes sense for the thug’s threat to come from his offense, so I don’t want to bump up his HP too much. He’s still pretty squishy though, so I’m going to give him an AC of 14. The rule of 2 does not apply because we’re only bumping his AC up by 1. So, the thug’s defensive rating is CR ½.
Let’s Bring the Pain!
Since we just slightly nudged up the defense, we really need to lean into the Offensive Challenge Rating. Remember the huge disparity between the original thug’s Defensive Rating and Offensive Rating? We’re going to do that again. The original thug had a defense CR ¼ and an offense equaling CR 1. His offense was 2 CR levels higher than his defense.
When we split the difference between his low defensive score and his high offensive score, he should land right around CR 2. To do that we’re going to need to start out with a damage output between 21 – 26. I’m going to go with 21.
We’re going to need to play with the rest of the thug’s stats in order to get a damage output of 21. But because of the tinkering we’re doing, the thug’s attack bonus is also going to increase. To keep things balanced, we need to keep the damage output a little bit lower. Otherwise, the stats we manipulate will propel the attack bonus far too high.
Let’s start by giving our new and improved thug a great ax. The big guy moved up in the world. He can afford better weapons. A great ax on its own does 1 D12 damage. Its average damage score is 7.
We’re going to need to punch that up with an improvement to the strength modifier. Of course, improving the strength modifier increases the attack modifier as well. That’s why we’re not going crazy with high damage output.
Let’s take a look at the thug’s original ability modifiers and bump them up.
Thug lv. 2
Only thing we need to change is the strength mod. If we don’t adjust our improved thug’s proficiency bonus, he will have a total of +5 to attack. That’s not bad, but don’t forget about pack tactics. That bumps up his overall attack bonus by +1. As a result, thug level II gets an attack bonus of +6!!!
I can’t see any reason to improve the thug’s intimidate DC, so I’m leaving that where it is.
Our thug’s defensive challenge rating is CR ½, and his offensive rating is CR 5. Thematically, this fits. Just like with the original thug, our tough guy can dish it out, but he can’t take it.
Now, we need to split the difference between our defensive and offensive scores. Let’s use the rule of 2 here again. For every 2 scores higher, you bump up the CR by 1. The offensive score is 5 points higher. It’s an odd number, but it’s the rule of 2. Odd numbers get rounded down.
As a result, his CR goes from ½ up 2 levels. Thug level II is now a CR 2 creature.
We did it!!!
There you go, we just leveled up a monster together. Once you’ve done it a couple of times, it becomes second nature. Just remember to draw yourself a Monster by Statistic Challenge Rating table. This will help you keep track of your scores. Keep the Monster Features table handy as well.
I always put the original monster’s stats into the MSCR table. It just makes it easier for me to look at where the creature currently is before deciding where to improve. For instance, when we looked at the disparity between the original thug’s offensive and defensive scores, we could tell that the thug had a certain style. A big bully that can do a lot of damage but goes down relatively easily. I wanted to keep that theme, so I kept that same disparity in the leveled-up version. The point is, seeing that disparity helped me recognize it for what it is.
I personally enjoy tinkering with the mechanics in all the games I play. Playing with the numbers is just fun. Hell, homebrewing is a lot of fun. It’s what I enjoy. If that’s your thing too, try leveling up your monsters to maintain a thematic lineage. As your adventurers move through your story, they’ll notice the progression of the villains. It isn’t just some wild new creature pulled out of thin air. The party is obviously working its way up through the BBEG’s minions.
I hope this helped, and if anyone out there has ideas or opinions on how to level up their monsters, I would love to hear them. Please leave a comment, or email me.
Until next time, happy homebrewing!
DMG: Dungeon Master’s Guide