Legendary Elephant (CR 14). Size: Huge; AC 18; HP 260; Speed 40 ft.; Gore +8 (20 piercing), Stomp +8 (32 Bludgeoning); Trampling Charge: If it moves 20 feet and hits with Gore, DC 18 Str save or knocked prone. If prone, free Stomp as bonus action. Frightening Trumpet: Action. All within 60 ft. make DC 18 Wis save or become frightened for 1 minute. Save at end of turn to negate. Success makes immune for 24 hours.; Legendary: 3 actions. Gore (1), Charge (2): Move 20 feet and Gore.
Okay, now that THAT joke is out of the way…
Let’s talk about legendary creatures, shall we?
One of the hallmarks of 5e monster design is the idea of the LEGENDARY CREATURE!!! A legendary creature, for those unversed, is effectively the 5th edition version of a Solo monster. However, unlike 4th edition, where solo monsters were effectively just jam-packed with hit points, and had a couple action points to spend, legendary creatures are designed around balancing out one aspect of the game: Action Economy.
For some of you, this term might be old hat. You’ve heard it bandied about a thousand times on message boards and blogs, and you effectively know what it means. For some, however, this is going to be brand new. WHAT IS action economy?
The short answer is that it’s the economy of actions in a turn. Womp Womp.
The slightly longer answer is that action economy is a comparison of how many turns one side of a combat gets over the other. For instance, if a party of 4 player characters goes up against four wolves, the action economy could be expressed as a ratio of 4:4, or 1:1. For every action a player gets, a wolf also gets an action. This is a HUGE balancing factor in combat, as actions—more than anything—can decide the course of a battle.
Let’s take that same party of adventurers and pit them against a single dire wolf, rather than four smaller wolves. A dire wolf is CR 1, so this SHOULD be an equivalent challenge, right?
And the reason for this disparity is 100% about action economy. The ratio has shifted, you see, from 1:1 to 4:1. For every action the dire wolf gets, the players get four, and that can end a combat before it even begins.
How? Let’s take this scenario and actually play it out, shall we? When fighting the four wolves, you can see that the wolves have four chances to attack. This means that they have four chances to trip one of the players, and four chances to use their Pack Tactics to gain advantage on their attack rolls. Assuming 7 damage per player character (a rough average), it will take 2 rounds to dispatch the wolves.
Compare that to the dire wolf. While it will still take 2 rounds to fell the beast, it doesn’t have nearly the same chance to fight back. It’s on its own, so it CANNOT use its pack tactics, and it only has the opportunity to attack one time each round, meaning it only has the opportunity to trip a character once each round. You could, of course, argue that it’s fine, because it deals more damage with that one attack! A dire wolf deals 10 damage with a single attack. A wolf deals 7. This means that while a dire wolf is doling out 10 damage each round if it hits, the four wolves are almost tripling that, knocking out 28 damage per round.
I hope that you’ve spotted the problem by now. Action economy isn’t just a deciding factor in the sway and flow of battles, it’s THE deciding factor. I’ve heard stories of parties going up against enemies FAR above their ability, and completely sweeping them because the action economy of the fight is so heavily weighted in their favor.
And THAT is what the legendary creature rules hope to balance.
What Do Legendary Creatures Do?
A legendary creature is defined by its access to special legendary actions. Legendary actions are taken in between other creatures’ turns. Traditionally, a legendary creature has 3 legendary actions each round, meaning that it effectively gets 4 actions per turn (barring Action Surge or similar features). This is intended to balance out the action economy. But does it?
Mostly, yes. It’s not 100% perfect at emulating the feel of fighting four separate enemies. But it does make enemies feel MUCH more dangerous than they otherwise would, even if they’re still only dealing appropriate damage for their CR each round. The fact that they get extra actions definitely increases the tension of the encounter in question.
The problem, of course, is that it’s still one monster. And there’s little you can do to fix that. Some have tried. But the fact of the matter is that when you present a party of PCs with a single target, they’re going to attack that target. Concentrated fire leads to rapidly-depleting hit points and dead monsters. That’s a simple fact of the game.
How to Build a Legendary Creature
There’s really only three steps to creating a legendary creature. It’s pretty damn easy.
- Determine creature style.
- Determine CR
- Build creature
That’s it. But let’s go through it step by step, just to clarify.
Determining the Creature’s Style
There are two major styles of legendary creature. The first is “bigger version of small creature,” and the second is “big bad unique villain.” My examples above of the legendary elephant or the dire wolf are examples of the former, while something like a sphinx or a tarrasque would be an example of the latter.
And this is generally dependent on the sort of adventure that you’re running. If you’re running an encounter or adventure that’s heavily themed off of a single type of creature (such as goblins or owlbears) then the former “big version of small enemy” is probably appropriate. However, if you’re instead running a more dynamic adventure. Perhaps a cult that’s worshiping an avatar of an old god, or a society of criminals under the order of a single leader. In that case, a more unique enemy is probably in order.
This is the easiest step. Based on the rules laid out in the most recent Unearthed Arcana, a solo monster, up to 4th level, should be of a CR equivalent to the party’s level. From 5th level forward, however, the monster should be about 2 CR higher than the party’s level. So, determine your party’s average level, and assign an appropriate CR. Simple as that.
Build the Monster
As we know from my previous articles on monster tinkering, our most trusty friend in the creation of beasties is page 274 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The same rules that we’ve been using apply to the creation of legendary creatures, with one minor tweak. Instead of dividing the damage that a legendary creature deals each round among a number of attacks on its own turn, we divide it among all of its actions, including the three legendary ones.
Therefore, if we have a CR 9 legendary creature that has one attack on its own turn, and the opportunity to make 3 attacks as legendary actions, then it has a total of four attacks each turn. Therefore, its normal 57-62 damage per round needs to be divided by 4 for each attack, meaning that it will likely deal 15 damage per attack.
And…that actually kind of works. Let me demonstrate.
It doesn’t really matter how much damage a unique legendary creature deals on each attack. Because when it’s a unique monster that you don’t encounter anywhere else in the adventure, you don’t have anything to measure it against. If the dark avatar deals 15 damage per tentacle, but the giant brutes you were encountering earlier did 20, it’s not going to be a big deal because any comparison of damage at that point is purely mechanical.
If, however, you are dealing with a “big version of a small enemy,” then you have a direct comparison.
Let’s say that this hypothetical CR 9 legendary creature is some kind of king gorilla, and it has a bevy of gorilla minions. Now, to face a CR 9 legendary creature, our party should be level 7. This means, that in order to maintain the 1:1 action economy ratio, the gorilla minions should be about CR 2.
A CR 2 creature deals 15-20 damage per round. Keeping it on the low end, let’s say 15. This means that the gorilla minions and the gorilla king are dealing the same amount of damage with their slam attacks. Now, that works for me. In this way, the gorilla king is effectively dealing four gorillas-worth of damage each round. He is more active version of his minions.
But let’s make it even better, shall we? Let’s give each gorilla 2 attacks on their turn.
If each CR 2 gorilla has 2 attacks, then they’re dealing 7-8 damage per hit in order to maintain that 15-20 damage. Now, if we give the gorilla king two attacks on his turn, in addition to his three legendary attacks, his damage per hit drops from 15 to 12 (since we’re dividing the 60 damage by 5, instead of 4). Thus, he’s dealing 4-5 more damage per hit than his minions! Suddenly, he’s not just more active. He’s actually stronger.
You see, by dividing their attacks up into multiple hits, I’ve emphasized the power of the legendary gorilla even further. True, he’s still dealing four gorillas-worth of damage each round, but from a player perspective, he is actually much stronger than his minions, dealing 1.5x as much damage per hit. It’s an illusion of power that still maintains our rigid CR boundaries.
Making a Normal Monster Legendary!
Something that’s been suggested on the internets before has been the idea of making a quick legendary monster at the table by taking a regular monster and giving it legendary actions. This…kind of works. Except it also mostly doesn’t.
Your party is facing a group of gargoyles, and you decide that, in order to ramp up the tension, you want to make one of them legendary. You talk about the crags in its stony exterior, the glowing red eyes, the huge wingspan and the red aura around its claws. Now the players know they’re facing something special. And in order to maintain that, you let it make three extra claw attacks as legendary actions, effectively increasing its damage per round from 10 to 25. This actually works pretty well. It boosts the CR of the gargoyle to a high-end 3. Pretty great advice!
However, let’s take a look at a different monster. Say, a minotaur. Giving it three free gore attacks increases its average damage per round from 18 to 57. Averaging out, this increases the minotaur’s CR to 5. And while that doesn’t sound too bad, you have to realize that by giving it these gore attacks, we’ve given the minotaur CR 9 offenses. 57 damage per round is going to DOMINATE an appropriately-leveled party.
The problem, of course, is that the minotaur lacks a form of multiattack. When a creature has multiattack, its damage per round is divided between two or more hits. This means that when you’re adding legendary actions, you’re only adding half (or less) of the monster’s potential into each attack. However, when they’re already throwing all they’ve got behind a single attack, as the minotaur does, then you’re just quadrupling their damage output, making them far more dangerous than intended.
How do we fix this? My personal quick fix is to take whatever attack you’re going to grant the creature as a legendary action, and divide the damage by half (as if the creature had multiattack). The minotaur’s gore normally does 13 damage, so making every “horn jab” attack granted as a legendary action deal 6-7 damage instead, it drastically changes how much you change the offensive capabilities of the creature. So instead of 57 damage per round, we’re looking at 37. That’s CR 5 offenses, rather than 9, and balances out to a CR 4 creature. Much more manageable.
Going ALL the way back to our dire wolf example from the beginning. Giving it a minor bite that deals 5 damage as a legendary action increases its damage to 25 per round, and puts it solidly in the high end of CR 1, making it the perfect boss fight for our pack of wolves.
But Wait! There’s More!
I said at the beginning of this article that legendary monsters are effectively Solo monsters. I called them that for a reason: that was the denotation given in 4th edition. However, there was another, more common creature type in 4e that has yet to see the light of day in 5th edition: the Elite.
Back in 4e, while solo monsters were worth 5 players and had 2 action points to spend per encounter, Elites were worth just 2 players, and only had 1 action point to spend. They were lieutenants, rather than commanders. A bigger, badder monster that was in charge of other monsters, but not quite the boss fight.
The thing is, we can emulate this in 5th edition, as well. I’ve even done it a few times without realizing it in the past. Check out my monster archive and scroll down to the boss monsters. You’ll note that most of them only get 1 legendary action per turn, rather than 3. THIS is how we build an elite.
Let’s go back to our legendary monster steps.
Determining the Creature’s Style
I’d say that basically every elite is probably a product of the “bigger, badder version” of a smaller monster. However, I can see my way into something like an elite mage overseeing a group of minion fighters.
This is where Elites differentiate themselves from Solo monsters. The general rule is that a solo legendary creature is one monster intended to take on 4 players. An elite, however, should be designed to take on a couple of players, but not an entire party. Therefore, when determining CR, you want the ratio of players to monsters to be 2:1. An easy shorthand for this is simply ½ player level. Round down where necessary.
Build the Monster
This one’s simple, as well. Instead of giving the monster three legendary actions, just give it one. That keeps its action economy in the correct range, making it worth 2 players and giving it 2 actions per round. Obviously, this means dividing the damage per round by one legendary action, rather than three.
Follow the same rules for on-the-fly legendary monsters above, just granting 1 legendary action, rather than 3, and you’ll be a-okay.
Putting it into Practice
Let’s build some basic monsters, shall we?
Goblin (CR ¼): AC 15; HP 7; Scimitar +4 (5 slashing) or Shortbow +4 (5 piercing); Nimble Escape: Disengage or Hide as bonus action.
Goblin Elite (CR ½): AC 15; HP 30; Scimitar +4 (5 slashing) or Shortbow +4 (5 piercing); Nimble Escape: Disengage or Hide as bonus action; Legendary: 1 action. Scimitar (1), Shortbow (1).
Goblin Boss (CR 1): AC 15; HP 45; Scimitar +4 (5 slashing) or Shortbow +4 (5 piercing); Nimble Escape: Disengage or Hide as bonus action. Legendary: 3 actions. Scimitar (1), Shortbow (1), Command (1): 1 goblin within 30’ gains +3 damage until end of Goblin Boss’s next turn.
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