I’ve been playing some 5e recently.

And I played 4e before that. (“Before” in the abstract sense.)

4e had some great ideas, like how to differentiate monsters based on their tactical approach to combat. Then you could mix and match monster tactics to create awesome, dynamic battles. Though honestly, 3e did it first.

In case you glossed over it, Dungeonscape for 3e had a section on monster roles. 4e just codified stuff that came out toward the end of 3e. Ah well.

But I don’t know if 5e took up the baton.

I’m curious, but not that curious. To be honest, I just had this idea — that perhaps some of the stuff in 4e was erm, misapplied. There were roles, and then there were like, monster “modes.” Standard, Elite, Minion, and Solo.

Now, dropping “Standard,” which isn’t really a useful designation (what is “average” anyway?), we’re left with three modes — minion, elite, and solo.

I worked with 4e monster design a lot, and one of the more difficult aspects I found with creating new monsters was making these modes (minion, elite, solo) jive with the roles, as they were. I think if we’re being honest with ourselves, a “solo controller” was just a controller with too many hit points.

But what if we treated these modes as roles? It isn’t such a big leap.

Dungeonscape listed these roles: ambusher, archer, blocker, bruiser, buffer, burner, defender, enchanter, flanker, freezer, and hoser.

Complete Mage (also for 3e) offered an interesting array of Arcane roles, which in many ways mirror Dungeonscape’s monster roles: blaster, booster, controller, generalist, necromaster, sniper, spy, strategist, summoner, and warrior.

As we know, 4e trimmed down the list, and made PC and monster roles distinct: striker, leader, controller, defender (PC), skirmisher, brute, soldier, lurker, controller, and artillery (monster). Some monsters were also “leaders.”

Let’s pare down our lists somewhat.

Elite, minion, and solo are important roles which serve narrative and tactical functions. We know exactly how to use them: elites are mini-bosses and PC-killers, minions come in hordes, and solos are bosses.

Blasters (alt. burner, controller, freezer) use close-range bursts and blasts. Snipers (alt. archer, artillery) fight at a distance. Brutes (alt. bruiser, blocker, defender) soak a lot of damage and deal a lot of damage.

Lurkers (alt. ambusher, flanker, skirmisher, spy) fight dirty.

Most of the other roles aren’t useful.

Soldiers and warriors (and generalists) seem like a good role, but in practice they’re boring to fight. You’re better off using minions or brutes.

“Hosers,” as Dungeonscape describes them, are actually a different beast all together. Hack & Slash calls them “trick” monsters, and I tend to agree.

Now, buffers, boosters, enchanters . . . nobody, but nobody likes them. If you’re going to have some stat-boosting thing, you ought to make it an ongoing effect on your monsters, or tie it into the terrain somehow.

Leaders, strategists, summoners, and necromasters aren’t so much roles as they are encounter themes. When a summoner calls in some tough allies, they’re going to be what? elites? A necromaster has a bunch of minions.

But the leader will be some other role. Maybe a controller, or lurker.

So that gives us seven monster roles, which are all interesting and distinct — culled from two editions of the game that focused on tactical combat:

Blasters close quickly and fire off area-of-effect attacks. Sometimes they afflict players with status effects, but mostly they punish fools who rush in.
Brutes are tough, durable monsters that hit hard, but are easy to hit. Players have to beat them up fast or risk heavy losses.
Elites are dyed-in-the-wool player-killers, designed with the intent to challenge and often enough, cheat to put the players on edge.
Lurkers skirt the edges of battle and leap in to deliver devastating attacks before melting back into the shadows. Buyer beware!
Minions are dime-a-dozen monsters that swarm the players and try to inflict death by a thousand cuts. They fall in droves.
Snipers whittle away player health from a distance. Bastards.
Solos take on an entire groups of player characters. Sometimes they’re a puzzle to be solved, and sometimes they’re trouble to be shot.