A group of 1st level characters are attacked by a bunch of goblins. Such an encounter can be an exciting introduction for a new player. But by the time the characters have gained a couple of levels, such encounters become nothing but a nuisance. Goblins simply don’t pose a threat any longer.
Most DMs don’t seem to have any problem with that. Take a moment to thumb through the monster manual (any edition). Count up all the low level humanoid monsters. Now take a pair of scissors and cut them all out. Isn’t that essentially what we are doing?
It has never made sense to me to discard so many wonderfully iconic monsters. So how do we keep them in the game without them simply being a nuisance?
This isn’t exactly a new idea. From at least as far back as 1e, it was suggested that for every x goblins there would be so many “improved” goblins that were more of a threat. The wording changed from edition to edition but the idea was always the same.
Eventually, it was officially suggested to do what many of us had been doing for years: add class levels to monsters. However, it has always been presented in such a way as to imply that this is something you only do to already powerful monsters to give them a little more oomph (at least that’s been my impression).
Regardless as to how it was intended, goblins (and similar creatures) didn’t get much class love from most DMs. They continued to be low-level fodder to be more or less ignored by any adventurer with a few levels under her belt.
A Different Approach
In my usual subtle manner, I’ve probably hinted that I have a different view on the matter. Imo, any race that has the ability (and sense) to wear armor and wield a weapon has the potential to train as a fighter or rogue. Any intelligent race also has the potential to produce wizards and clerics. The women and children, and whatever equivalent of peasants that may exist in their society, will certainly be representatives of the 1 HD creatures described in the monster manual write-up. However, any small groups of those races encountered away from their village (or other societal base) will be trained “adventurers” of that race.
In my world, I completely embrace that philosophy. All of the lower-level humanoid races form large strongholds, consisting primarily of unremarkable representatives of their species (as described in the monster manual). There are a number of improved creatures in charge and even more improved creatures in charge of them. But in addition, there are the monster equivalent of adventurers. When a group of these monsters is encountered in the wild, it is almost always these adventurer class monsters that will be found.
Modifying monsters in this way makes a lot more sense to me and allows these low-level monsters to continue to be a threat (and therefore useful to the campaign) for a much more significant portion of the characters’ career.
Strategy and Tactics
Increasing HD and adding class levels make a monster stronger. But that isn’t the only way to make a monster more dangerous. Kobolds, for instance, have always been a favorite of mine. They are tiny and fragile and are rarely considered to be a threat. But imagine that you were one of these tiny, fragile creatures. The world is a big scary place. How would you survive?
First off, I would avoid hand-to-hand combat at all costs. I’d specialize in archery and use poison arrows. I’d take advantage of my small size by living in small tunnels that larger creatures couldn’t maneuver in and I’d have lots of secret exits so I could quickly get away. I’d set up covered pits, murder holes, scything blades, and use gates to block pursuers. Fire and smoke can also be very effective in small areas.
With superior numbers, surprise, sniper tactics, and a kamikaze attitude, these little guys can be far more dangerous than their stats imply. They can also be a great deal of fun to run!