5e: Not So Legendary Monsters

Today I want to talk about why legendary monster encounters are often less than epic in practice than they ought to be, and put forward a few thoughts about how that problem might be addressed.

In my opinion the problems facing legendary monsters are fourfold:

  • Inadequate actions when compare to the PCs.
  • Inadequate movement. 
  • Poor Initiative scores. 
  • Everyone knows a legendary is a legendary, so they try to nova it (a problem compounded by the other issues above). 

So let’s address these options and a few possible solutions:

Action Absence

The Problem

Legendary creatures are supposedly a match for a party, but they don’t in anyway account for how big the party is. As written, the legendary monster has the same amount of actions as a party of 4. If you have 6 players, that simply won’t be enough.


The obvious solution is to give the legendary monster a number of legendary actions determined by the following formula:

LEGENDARY ACTIONS = (SUM OF PCs + any NPCs allied with PCs) – 1

The minus one in this formula accounts for the monster’s existing full turn, meaning that including the monster’s normal turn and legendary actions, it gets to take the same number of turns as the players and any allied NPCs they might have brought along.

A nice side effect of this houserule is that when the legendary monster truly is a solo monster, with no other monsters around, you don’t need to decide after which turns it uses its legendary actions. Since it gets one legendary action per PC turn, you can simply slot the legendary actions in after every turn on the player side.

I use this houserule in my own game and there has been no serious consequences so far, so I think it’s a strong contender for the “Most Obvious Immediate Fix for Legendary Creatures” award. But it won’t be enough on its own, so let’s continue.

Blue Dragon by and © Jacob Blackmon

Inadequate Initiative

The Problem

Legendary monsters are no quicker to act than any other creature, and that’s a bit of a problem for a solo monster. A bad initiative roll can lead to them being utterly decimated, because it’s clear to everyone the monster is legendary (see Evident Evil). Consequently, the players will make the best power moves they can, as quickly as they can. In the worst case scenario the legendary monster might get only one or two legendary actions before it’s turned into paste.


I strongly believe that all legendary monsters should have a higher than usual initiative modifier, or some other initiative boost. There are a few possible options here:

  • A simple +5 to Initiative.
  • Add the monster’s Proficiency to their Initiative checks.
  • Advantage on Initiative checks.
  • If you’re using my oscillating initiative houserule, all creatures add their Proficiency to an initiative roll, except for legendary monsters which add double their Proficiency.
  • Legendary monsters take their own turn on Initiative count 20. There is some precedent for static initiative scores in the game already—including lair actions and the revised trap rules Wizards of the Coast presented in Unearthed Arcana (also slated to appear in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything).

Another solution might be to increase the monster’s hit point buffer, but by how much? That’s a difficult call to make until you have experienced how the monster pans out in play a few times. Thirty hit points probably won’t make a lot of difference to the encounter balance, but it might not make a world of difference to the monster’s toughness either, so if so what’s the point?

If you’re using a legendary monster for the second or third time you might have a handle on how many extra hit points it might need to keep the monster viable and fun, but if you don’t have that experience, an initiative boost has the advantage of improving the monster’s chance to be a viable threat without technically altering its CR. Some of the other solutions we’re talking about definitely do alter the monster’s CR, and that’s fine: if you increase the challenge of the encounter, the challenge rating of the monster probably goes up! But we want to avoid stacking too many such serious enhancements on the monster at once, since taking it too far is a real risk.

In any case, I’m of the opinion that making an encounter longer (as would occur with increased hit points) doesn’t necessarily make it more fun. Short battles can be a strength of a game, as long as they are threatening enough to remain relevant rather than tedious. If a legendary encounter is destined to be short, making the creature more deadly in the time it has is probably the better solution than making it longer-lived.

Miserly Movement

The Problem

On the whole existing Legendary Monsters lack adequate movement options. They are valued the same as multiple non-legendary monsters, hence why they are given extra actions. But without extra movement, they are in a tactically unsound position when compared to a full party of PCs. That being said, they also shouldn’t be given the same movement allowance as the player party, because all that concentrated in a single creature would make them impossible to pin down.


Consider giving the monster the ability to Dash or use some other special movement mode as a bonus action, which could include options like:

  • Move half their speed and receive a defensive boost of some kind. 
  • Move half their speed then make an attack (with their most basic attack option).
  • Short range teleport/ability to pass through walls/or similar.

You could also add a small amount of movement as a rider to one or more of the monster’s actions. For instance, if the legendary monster has a multiattack of four attacks, you might give it a secondary option that only uses three attacks but also allows the monster to move half its normal speed.

I’d also recommend adding a special movement mode (which could even be the same bonus action ability you already gave it) to the monster’s list of available legendary actions. That way it has a lot of flexibility to maneuver between turns if it needs to, but doing so comes at the cost of the monster’s attack power.

Tentacle Thing by and © Jacob Blackmon

Evident Evil

The Problem

After their first encounter with a legendary monster, even brand new players know what one is and can tell the next time they’re facing one. Even if it isn’t immediately obvious from context when they’re facing a lone badass, it’ll quickly become apparent the moment a legendary monster takes its first legendary action.

The moment a legendary monster is outed, expect your players to throw the very best they have at it to take it down. On paper, this isn’t necessarily a problem, since the party should at least be using up valuable resources even as they grind your legendary into mincemeat. But in an ideal world, legendary monsters should be legendary. Like final boss battles (which many legendary monsters will in fact be), you really want the fight to be exciting, epic, and memorable. With the rules as the stand, a legendary monster’s statblock is not necessarily going to lead to that epic battle you were hoping.


In practice, there are probably three best case uses of a legendary monster in its unmodified state:

  • As a “mini-boss” at the midway point of an adventure to drain party resources before the final encounter, to make that fight more dramatic.
  • As a boss battle, but making sure that the party face enough other challenges that they are appropriately drained before reaching the legendary. Easier said than done, as players can get quite creative in justifying short and long rests and you don’t necessarily want to be that DM who simply denies all rests to make things go your way.
  • Use the legendary monster along with several lesser creatures as its guardians/minions. A workable solution, but hardly an ideal one considering the whole point of the legendary rules is to create a convincing solo enemy.

Beyond acknowledging the roles a legendary can fill in our adventure design, we have to accept that we can’t truly predict how well-rested and resource-ready our players’ characters will be when they reach the legendary monster. All the encounters up to that point will be resolved randomly, and they might find clever ways to justify taking rests. Besides, even if the characters do arrive at the legendary monster fairly battered, we might want to make it just that little bit tougher so that the battle truly feels like a mighty challenge to overcome. Here are a few thoughts on how you might achieve that:

3/4 Hit Dice

This is a fairly straightforward suggestion: increase the monster’s threat by making it more durable. In Fifth Edition, monsters have a hit point value and a number of Hit Dice for DMs who prefer to roll. I would imagine most DMs probably use the set value, which is the average of the dice, especially for “boss” monsters like a legendary which can’t afford to be below average. A quick way to make a legendary monster more threatening is to simply increase that value, but maximising all hit dice might be a little too much. Thus, 3/4 is suggested instead. For simplicity just halve the monster’s current hit points, rounding up, and add that number to the original to get the monster’s new total.

However, before opting for this approach bear in mind the concerns I raised before about how increasing the monster’s hit points may not make that much difference, and artificially increasing the duration of the combat may not  be the most fun solution.


Instead of increasing the monster’s hit dice, you could allow it to regenerate a small amount at the beginning of each turn. Regenerating an amount of hit points equal to the legendary monster’s CR might be a good rule of thumb.

The same concerns apply here as do to increasing the monster’s hit points.

An Escalation Die

I have previously discussed 13th Age’s Escalation Die and how we can embrace its use in D&D. The escalation die is mostly for the players, to speed up combats by reducing the amount of missed attacks. This is almost the opposite of what we want to achieve with the legendary monsters given we’re already concerned that the players can dismantle legendary monsters too quickly. But what if we gave the legendary monsters their own d4 escalation die? On turn 2 the escalation die is placed on the table with the number “1” upward; on each consecutive turn the escalation die turns. The monster’s attack modifiers increase by the number presently on the escalation die. This makes the monster is more threatening with each turn that passes, increasing the tension. It won’t actually make the monster last longer, but it will make it feel like more of a threat, and that’s just as good.

Upright Aboleth by and © Jacob Blackmon

Bloodied Abilities

4th Edition introduced the idea of being “Bloodied”, a condition characters and monsters gained when reduced to half their hit points or less. Various abilities might trigger when a creature became bloodied, or work better against a bloodied target. I still use this term in my own game, and design homebrew monsters with abilities tied to that status. My Signature Powers system also uses “Bloodied Boons” as a way of improving monsters to balance against the players receiving signature powers.

We can use a similar system to ramp up the threat level of a legendary monster, effectively dividing its combat lifespan into two stages.

Come up with one or two new abilities the monster gains access to when it’s bloodied. There are two possible approaches to designing these abilities:

  • Double down on the monster’s existing role and strategies. For instance, if a monster is all about speed and the ability to dart around the battlefield, it should get even more annoying to pin down at the bloodied stage. Similarly, a monster that is all about blocking and enduring attacks should get a defensive boost at this stage.  When you double down, you also have the option of improving existing abilities instead of adding new ones. A good strategy is to improve the rate a recharge power is regained (recharge 6 might become recharge 5-6, for instance) or to add a recharge rate to a power that is normally once per short or long rest. 
  • Give the monster a surprising new role. With this strategy, the monster retains its existing strengths but acquires unexpected new ones: a powerful brute suddenly gains teleportation abilities; a damaged spellcaster suddenly manifests a magical sword and suit of armour out of their own blood and wades into savage melee; an undead warrior suddenly breaks the chains to its corporeal body, becoming an immaterial spirit with the ability to possess. 

There’s no real science to this, other than trying not to go overboard. However, if you’re worried that you might be taking things too far you can use CR calculations to get an approximate idea of how troublesome the legendary monster will be once your bloodied abilities are in play:

  1. Recalculate its CR factoring in its bloodied abilities. Ideally, you want the altered CR to be one or two higher than the original. Three at most.
  2. Then, because bloodied abilities are only available for 50% of the monster’s expected life span, split the difference between its original CR and the bloodied CR to get an approximate idea of its actual CR.

If the monster’s effective CR during its bloodied stage is one to three higher than the monster’s normal CR, you should be good to go. Any higher might be too much, so proceed with caution.

Remember that you’re only figuring out the monster’s effective CR while bloodied as a rough guide to how much its threat has increased during this stage. This is a theoretical number: you are not actually updating the monster’s CR. The point of all these houserules is to resolve weaknesses in the way legendary monsters are currently balanced. If you recalculate the CR of the monsters once the houserules are in place, the attempt to fix them is undone.

Over To You…

What methods have you used to improve or spice up your legendary monster encounters? Leave a comment!