what I learned from drawing the Monster Manual creatures

From drawing all the Monster Manual creatures, I learned that some areas are not well suited for some PCs. For instance, you’re hard pressed to find any civilized opponents above level 10, or feywild creatures below level 6. I think that’s a feature, not a bug.

RPG video games where the encounters auto-level annoy me. I prefer video games with leveled zones, so I can move on to the next challenge when I feel I’m ready. In D&D it’s no different. If I was forced to pick, I’d rather have the world map marked out with levels, like an old-school dungeon map, than always be surrounded by monsters of exactly my level.

While both assumptions strain credibility, I posit that there is a speck of verisimilitude to be found in the “leveled world” hypothesis. Some wildernesses of the world ARE more dangerous than others. The Australian outback, where every animal seems to have the world’s deadliest poison, is more dangerous than Yellowstone. I hate to stone cold disrespect the grizzly bears like that, but there it is. Box jellyfish alone are way more dangerous than bears, never mind Australia’s 20-foot poisonous laser crocodiles.

a leveled world

If I create a level 11 area, does that mean that it’s brimming with level 11 villagers and farmers? No. I propose that the level of an area be the level of its most common PREDATORS. In D&D, villagers are at the bottom of the food chain – they’re PREY. Someone nearby – the king’s guard if they’re lucky, vampires or orc hordes if they’re unlucky – is more powerful than they.

Similarly, a level 11 area may feature a few high-level creatures – a level 20 dragon, for instance. Such creatures usually become unchallenged rulers of their local area.

Simply put, in a level 11 area, invading level-11 PCs (or monsters) have to jostle for their place in the world. Anyone below level 8 had better get used to being someone’s ward, slave, or dinner. Anyone above level 14 is free to set up a little kingdom.

Here are the basic types of land, and the usual level ranges.

Civilization: level 1 to 6: Settled land is generally low-level. Sleepy countrysides overseen by fat sheriffs might be level 1 areas, where the biggest danger is the occasional kobold nest. The highest-level farm areas are guarded by tough frontiersmen and yoemen, or possibly by retired soldiers-turned-farmers, as was common in the Roman Empire.

Indeed, according to the Monster Manual chart, there’s not much to fight once you’re above level 6. Vampires (level 10) often live in urban areas, and above that, there’s nothing but one epic-level dragonborn.

This makes a lot of sense to me. I think that urban adventures are best suited for low-level picaresque games. Paragon- and epic-level street gangs strain credibility.

Wilderness: level 3 to 13 All wilderness is dangerous in D&D. I don’t think there are any level 1 areas. Sure, there are weak wilderness monsters like kobolds and goblins, but they are usually prey – the slaves of dragons or hobgoblins. On the other side, the most dangerous natural-world pests are creatures like trolls, medusae, and hill giants.

Low-level wilderness areas are dominated by hobgoblin, orc, or barbarian tribes. Middle-level areas might be fens containing trolls, ogres, and gnoll packs. In the most dangerous wildlands, medusae and giants are common.

Above level 13, the wilderness runs to dragons and death knights. These are boss monsters, not random encounters.

Seas: level 6-12 The Monster Manual is pretty light on sea creatures, except for sahaguin at around level 6 and kuo-toa at level 12. I think every encounter in the middle is with bloodthirsty pirates.

The Prey under the sea are probably beleguered mermen. The Lords under the sea are some of the most powerful in the world, from aboleth at level 18 up through sea monsters and Lovecraftian monsters which have NEVER BEEN STATTED.

Exotic Wilderness: level 10 to 18 Paragon characters will journey to uncharted jungle continents and trackless mountain peaks, and they’ll fight monsters that most people might believe to be myth. In these far-flung areas, free humans might be scarce. At level 10, the PCs will find jungles crawling with yuan-ti. At higher levels, they’ll face rakshasha and storm giants. At the top of the paragon tier, the heroes will find that no area beneath the sky is too dangerous to explore. It’s time for them to move on to different skies.

Dungeons: level 1 to 30 This is an easy one. Dungeons are level 1 (or the level of the surrounding area) at the shallowest levels, and they get more dangerous the deeper they descend into the earth.

There must be some badass monsters at the center of the earth.

Other Planes: Feywild monsters fit pretty neatly between level 6 and level 20. Epic characters shouldn’t bother visiting, unless they want to scheme with fey lords. The shadowfell is similar, although epic characters can spend a few levels trashing death giants.

The Astral Sea and Elemental Chaos, with their demons and devils, are pretty much the only game in town for upper epic characters.

2 Responses to “what I learned from drawing the Monster Manual creatures”

  1. Rory Rory says:

    Interesting analysis. I wonder how all the other monster manuals affect this breakdown!

  2. A3 says:

    If you carve your fantasy world up into competing “civilizations” and settlements, the level gradients will form in a logical way.

    Civilization is level 1 to 6, because the forces of order have driven dangerous creatures away. Things are safest in the center, more dangerous on the boundary, and very dangerous out in the wilderness. From a monster’s perspective, the exact opposite is true. The deeper they penetrate, the more likely they’re going to run into significant, organized resistance. (After all, if that wasn’t true, civilization would have been overrun long ago.)

    In their own territory, those same monsters would have driven away other creatures that they themselves considered dangerous. An invading group of adventurers will confront the same challenge as above: the deeper they travel into the monster’s territory, the more resistance (and more powerful resistance) they will encounter.

    For example, a valley controlled by a large hill giant clan not too far away from human settlement could provide a nice gradient of challenge levels: the town and countryside (thieves and highway men), the wilderness (animals, occasional outcast monster), near the edges of the hill giant controlled valley (hill giants), and the heart of the valley (powerful hill giant war chiefs and shamans along with their allies).

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