More isn’t necessarily always better. While a handful of orcs, goblins or kobolds can provide a substantial threat to a level 1 party, the abilities and resources available to higher-level adventurers make quick work of them fairly soon. Sometimes, though, the rich lore of these widely-known creatures can get worked deeply into a campaign and it just doesn’t make sense that these creatures aren’t known throughout the world as a threat to everyone. Without massively re-writing the stat blocks or adding levels to each individual creature, there’s no way to make these creatures relevant in higher-level encounters, right?
This is a myth that we here at Six Sides of Gaming are eager to refute. The following article will provide several options for using RAW (Rules as Written) low-CR enemies in a way that can energize encounters at later levels to help incorporate low threat monsters to support their role in your story. As always, Six Sides of Gaming hopes to provide insight into this topic that helps our readers come away with interesting ideas of their own rather than dismissing or condemning other approaches or preferences. If you have any questions or comments, please contact us and we will happily receive your feedback!
Using low stats for fun and profit!
A group of mid-level players will grin with smug satisfaction when faced with a single kobold if the object of the encounter is to defeat it. Flipping the script and having that same kobold be the subject of an escort or defense operation will make things exciting and engaging for your players very quickly. Take this example:
The party is looking for a magic item that was taken by a master thief and the only lead they have is a single witness: a kobold who saw the bandit stash it in a large underground complex. The party’s only way to procure the item in question is to explore the lair with the kobold in tow to indicate where they saw the item be buried. The thief’s underlings and pets guard the complex against intruders and have a policy to kill defectors or informants on sight.
This example could easily balloon into an enjoyable session rather than a single encounter, but the point is easily illustrated. Keeping this creature alive, cooperative or not, is the only way to proceed with the objective.
Behold! The “Ticking Clock”!
Low-level creatures often serve as servants for more powerful creatures and villains who view them as a means to an end, if not entirely expendable. It is possible that such villains would use a nearly inexhaustible resource, like an army of goblins, as a component of their plans and can provide an interesting ticking clock situation without having the low-CR creatures being involved as combatants at all.
Imagine a cult leader attempting a summoning of their demonic patron. To provide the necromantic energy to invoke the portal, a ritual sacrifice of 100 humanoids must occur. The cult leader and their followers have convinced a tribe of goblins that the demon they wish to summon is in fact one of the chosen of Maglubiyet and have rounded up 100 of the hapless creatures to sacrifice in order to fuel the ritual. Having a set number of sacrifices dispatched per round before a large, dangerous opponent is summoned will add a sense of urgency to an already intense situation that allows a wide variety of solutions to be effective.
Soak up those resources!
One thing that doesn’t scale rapidly in D&D is the damage output of infinite-use combat actions, such as weapon attacks and cantrip spell attacks, and one of the defining traits of 5e is that the HP pool of both players and creatures is immense when compared to other editions. Widely spread low-CR adversaries can be very effective in wearing down expendable resource pools when used in conjunction with a high level threat. When each round builds in intensity as the party rushes towards a powerful enemy, it is crucial to clear out a path quickly before the opponent can bring its full strength to bear when the party is unable to retaliate.
Consider a RAW (Rules as written) Bugbear (MM 33) — This creature is a CR1 foe that has an AC of 16 and 5d8+5 hp. Even using the average amount of 27 HP, this creature could take multiple rounds to eliminate even at higher levels while using only non-consumable resources. The Bugbear doesn’t pose a serious threat to a 10th level Fighter, but to bypass that obstacle, the fighter may very well have to dump a full attack action plus some Superiority Dice to make it through in a single round. Choosing not to utilize the resources could lead to serious ramifications later on from larger, deadlier opponents. Now consider the time investment required to take down a Bugbear with a max HP of 45.
Another interesting option is an Orcish Claw of Luthic (VGM 183), which is a lowly CR2. RAW, this adversary is given a spell called Warding Bond that can greatly improve the survivability and defensive capabilities of a more powerful adversary (*For an investigation into this and other underrated Cleric and Paladin spells, check out my article for Six Sides of Gaming HERE*). The benefit they provide to your BBEG isn’t insurmountable or unfair, but it will require some thought, quick action and the use of some precious resources to bypass.
Just ignore them — maybe they’ll go away!
While a bunch of Kobolds or Goblins would have an extremely difficult time breaching the defenses of a heavily-armored target, they fare much better against things like rope, doors, and other environmental considerations. If the party is in a bottleneck or a location that is difficult to navigate or defend, low-CR adversaries can make a considerable difference by merely doing simple tasks like triggering a trap or cutting ropes on a precarious bridge over a rushing river or deep chasm. Chasing down a group of orcs across a field can seem like an easy win for high level characters until the field is set on fire by some kobold archers with flaming arrows when the players get half way through.
Use what the gods gave you!
The use of environmental effects such as excessive heat or cold, difficult terrain with lots of cover or restricted space can make seemingly weak creatures really shine and be able to provide a decent challenge to even high level PCs.
Never underestimate the power of even simply-remedied status effects such as Poisoned or Blinded to bring the players back down to the level of low-CR opponents. Having a +13 to hit on multiple attacks is great and all, but if every strike is at disadvantage those bonuses really don’t amount to much against a small target you can’t see that’s attacking you from behind cover.
Did anything in this article spark your creativity? We would love to hear your feedback! If you have a story about a particularly one-sided fight that went unexpectedly (either really well or ridiculously bad) due to quick thinking and clever use of the surrounding environment contact Six Sides of Gaming and share your tale!
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