Previously, I’ve written about how levels and classes can change a creature; now let’s discuss armaments.
Most monsters in 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons come equipped with a standard weapon package. There are creatures who use only natural attacks, such as teeth or claw, but we’re focusing on those who use physical weapons; swords, shields, armour, etc. While these stats are great for stock creatures, we don’t always want stock creatures. Sometimes we want to add flavor and flair to an encounter.
To me, there are two reasons one would change a creature’s weapon.
The first, to change their damage output. If you want your creature to deal less damage, give it a weapon that deals less damage. Want to hurt the players more? Give them a weapon that deals more damage. That part is very straightforward and easy to mitigate. Just keep in mind that the more damage potential a creature has, the more dangerous the encounter is. Be sure to reward your players accordingly!
The second part falls more onto cinematics and flavor.
Let’s take a look at orcs. In the Monster’s Manual, with the exception of the priest, they all wield great axes. Weapons don’t get much larger than that when it comes to damage output, dealing a whopping 1d12 with each hit.
So what sort of reasons could we have to change what an orc uses?
#1 – Location – Where they are in the world
The part of the world these creatures live in can have an impact on the weapons they use.
Looking at great axes, they are normally made of wood and metal, honed to a sharp edge to slice your enemies into oblivion!
But what if there was a lack of usable metal? Would they still have axes? Not all orcs would, that’s certain. Perhaps these weapons would be reserved for the orc chiefs, or the chief’s bodyguards, or maybe they’re only given to the strongest warriors of the tribe. Maybe the peons would all have wood or stone versions of standard weapons, or are simply using blunt weapons instead of something with an edge. This can give an observant player a hint to how things work in this part of the world, and possibly what items to return with for trade; if that’s a route they want to go.
You can change the metal used as well, which could give players more hints or worries. Say all the orcs were wielding silvered axes. Silver is costlier than steel, so why would they do this? Do they have an abundance of silver? Do they have a were-creature problem? Or is it something else completely?
#2 – Cultural
Perhaps your orcs are very militant and organized. In order to distance themselves away from their battle axe wielding, barbaric cousins, they decide to eschew that weapon in favor of something like a maul or a long sword. You can get creative with cultural differences. Orcs will often have clans that war with each other; perhaps one clan favors a maul over the axe because they enjoy the sound of skulls being crushed. The reason could be completely spiritual as well. Their shaman told them their god wishes them to only use whips. Or it could be as simple as the weapons they use are the ones they loot from traveling caravans. Darned opportunistic orcs.There are many possibilities when it comes to this. Even something as simple as a weapon change on a monster can drive a new story or subplot.
#3 – Position
Positions held within a society often come with perks; more money, nicer houses. Creatures with organized societies can share in this perks and it could come in the form of a weapon.
Still speaking of orcs, the general of the army may always wield a maul and the captains carry two battle axes instead of one great axe. If you wanted to break down rank further, you could give the lowest of the low daggers to fight with and move up from there, assigning each rank of solider a different weapon.
#4 – Appearance
Having a different weapon will make one monster stick out from a group. Depending on the weapon chosen, this may make the creature stick out as a boss, or stronger than the rest.
If you consider an orc encounter and tell the players that a group of 8 orcs ready their battle axes to attack, they know exactly what to expect. But if you tell them that this same group has 1 orc wielding a maul, they might expect more from that creature. It might cause them to focus it to the ground, or they may save it for last while trying to kill the ‘easier’ orcs who are only wielding great axes. You can use this to guide your players to fight a creature, or to misdirect them; like disguising the leader as a rank solider.
It should be noted that while I only speak of weapons in the above text, this applies to armor as well. Culture and position could play an especially large part in what armor a creature wears. What materials they have access to would certainly change what the equipment would be made of, and in turn change the value of the armor worn.
But by adding something as simple as an armament change, you can add a level of mystery or excitement to an encounter, that won’t necessarily be answered by its end. This can, in turn, affect the greater story you have planned. So don’t be afraid to tweak a monster’s weapons and armor; just make sure you keep track of why you’re doing it, in case the players investigate!