Year of 4E: Leader Monsters

Welcome back to the Year of 4th Edition! For those who are new to this series, I take my love of 4E D&D and use it as an excuse to take a look back at what is the most unique of the editions. This complete left turn included tons of new mechanics and concepts to go with those mechanics. From the lessons learned there is the framework for much of 5E and my hope is that we can assess the good and bad of 4E and where it is today. Is it there? Is it missing? Can we make use of it now?? Today we look at a very specific type of monster: leaders.


Mechanically Categorical

Okay let’s take a brief minute to talk about the framework around which leader monsters exist. Throughout the editions there have been categories in which various monsters are placed in. Often these are alignment based, their habitats, or if they are undead/outsider/plant/etc. In the 4th Edition the designers really wanted to make things easier for everyone and this brought forth a great deal of labels, categories, universal mechanics, and more. Among these was a new categorization of monsters to focus on mechanics.

Sahuagin baron from WotC’s 4th Edition Monster Manual

I will probably go into most of the categories eventually, but for today we can mention that they are broken down into roles, much like player classes. Things like skirmisher, artillery, and brute would help you build a varied and balanced encounter to challenge your group while also informing the DM of how the monster would work tactically. In addition monsters could be minions, elites, or solo which implied that they had powers that were beyond standard creatures. For example dragons were solo monsters, meant to be taken on alone but many monsters also had minion versions with only 1 HP.

The leader was another unique feature that could be tacked onto standard or elite monsters. These monsters did exactly what you expect: lead other monsters in battle. The interesting thing is that any type (brute, artillery, etc.) could be a leader because they were defined by their abilities to influence their allies one way or another, not by their specific tactics. How they did this varies greatly but the implications and uses for this category were incredible.


Examples in 4E

Some of my favorite examples of the 4E leader monster come from the goblins of the first Monster Manual. Without even getting into hobgoblins or bug bears, there are two different leaders for goblin (have I mentioned how awesome 4E was at cramming a LOT of monsters into one book). The goblin underboss is your up front fighter that gets tougher to hit when it is bloodied (below 1/2 HP). What makes it a leader is its ability to maneuver itself and its allies around the battlefield. When missed it and two allies within line of sight can shift one square. That’s three goblins moving 5 feet just because you missed this guy! AND line of sight means the caster or rogue can re-position on the boss’s turn. AND, AND shift means there are no provoked attacks of opportunity. This simple ability not only makes the underboss a good leader type but the whole encounter into a dangerous combat.

Goblins from WotC’s 4th Edition Monster Manual

The other goblin leader is the hexer which takes the role of a classic goblin wizard/witch/shaman type. Aside from some great general abilities, this goblin is capable of improving a goblin’s ability to shift around the field by boosting their speed for that ability and creating a cloud that hinders the party’s ability to hit and grants the goblins concealment. Not only that but the hexer can interrupt a ranged attack made against it and force an adjacent ally take the hit instead. The ability is called lead from the rear!!


Where’d They Go??

Okay so most example of leaders are specific stat blocks for various species (like orcs, drow, or goblins), there are a couple monsters (like lamia) that are meant to lead other creatures. And I could go on and on about the cool abilities they have, but let’s move forward. Let’s consider whether or not this “thing” could even move forward into 5E.

The simple and obvious answer is no, not really. These categories and encounter building methodology was born in and died with 4th Edition. More than that the mechanics of combat took a decidedly turn back towards things that were far less tactics-based. That is to say that abilities are not directly focused on utilizing key words, grid-based combat, and increasing efficiency. So we lose such specific interaction as the underboss had. But, just as 4E didn’t truly leave the underpinnings of heroic fantasy and awesome narratives behind, we don’t need to loose those hard mechanic-based abilities when we leave 4E.

The goblin from WotC’s 5th Edition Monster Manual

Wrapping back into 5th Edition, I chose goblins for a reason. The goblin underboss sees its evolution into the goblin boss in 5E. Clearly we see increased numbers of monster variety within a species compared to 3E. While not as robust as 4E it is an improvement they clearly preferred keeping to the extent they were able. So while we don’t have like six goblins we get two, one of which is a leader! The last ability the goblin boss has is Redirect Attack. Oddly enough this is stolen from the hexer of 4E, but does something very similar. An adjacent goblin becomes the target and the two even switch places. What a good ability for a goblin!


More Leaders Please!

When it comes down to it, the goblin boss is a pretty weak showing. To be fair, the differences in mechanics and action economy make it difficult to let 5E live up to such versatile abilities. For those who think 4E may have had monsters with over powered abilities, well, just remember PCs were VERY powerful in 4E. Could easily be reskinned into a super hero game. We never would get multiple moving goblins not drawing opportunity attacks in 5th Edition. It’s too much for the current paradigm.

But let’s be honest, we could have gotten more. Many of the species gain their effectiveness by being spellcasters and, honestly, that is a great solution. There are only two problems, though. First, let’s just add some special spells to do some specific leader-like things that the basic spells don’t allow for. Second, what about variety?? I want to be clear before people throw examples at me, 5E does things well. Hobgoblins and gnolls both have wonderful, unique abilities to act as leaders.

Gnoll from WotC’s 5th Edition Monster Manual

This gripe kind of partners up with another: templates. There are….two(?) templates in the 5E Monster Manual and then they seem to disappear. I get it, they are difficult to create in an easy and balanced manner and even more difficult to adjudicate in terms of CR influence. But I will be damned if they aren’t useful. Just as generic NPCs can be differentiated by giving them the abilities that all goblins or all gnolls or all elves get, templates allow you to slap on an extra layer to a monster.

Leader abilities could have been developed similarly. And while the DMG provides a list of abilities from monsters and the rules even suggest things like slapping on elf abilities to generic bandit, they never suggest those leader abilities. Why not a piranha-like kuo-toa who are not only mad but blood-thirsy and savage with gnoll abilities and with whips having that pack leader ability incite rampage??? Let’s see more stuff like this and simple recharge abilities to help define a leader as such as well as influence group tactics!!


If you guys have any ideas on how to mix up 5E abilities in this way, or have interest in (perhaps) a small supplement featuring leader abilities let me know in the comments below! What are you favorite 4E leader abilities??

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