The winding forest road stretches endlessly ahead, darkness creeping in as the sun sinks below the horizon. Your weary party of adventurers scans the thick trees lining the path, searching for a suitable campsite to bed down for the night. Suddenly, your wizard cries out, having spotted movement in the brush. A grungy, unshaven man steps out, a wicked grin spread across his face as he levels his crossbow at your group. More figures emerge from the shadows, their daggers and clubs glinting in the fading light. The bandit ambush has begun!
For many players, this scene will be instantly familiar. Bandits are a classic foe that have accosted travelers in fantasy worlds and history books alike, making them a staple enemy to battle in Dungeons & Dragons. As your party grows in power and renown, you may face progressively more dangerous monsters and diabolical villains. But no matter your level, the promise of easy coin will inevitably draw you into confrontation with these highwaymen.
In this extensive guide, we will delve into everything you need to know about bandits in the world of D&D 5th edition. We’ll explore their history as a trope, provide in-depth analysis of their abilities, and offer tips for both DMs and players on making bandit encounters fun and memorable. From using bandits as dynamic story elements to playing a bandit character, our goal is to provide the most comprehensive guide to bandits yet assembled. So batten down the hatches, keep your purse strings tight, and get ready to become an expert on these rogues of the road!
II. Bandits in the Annals of D&D History
Bandits have been causing trouble in Dungeons & Dragons ever since the early days of the game, reflecting their prominence in medieval folklore and pulp fantasy stories. When you picture a typical D&D world, the image of shady highwaymen waiting to ambush travelers quickly comes to mind. But how did these roguish ne’er-do-wells first arise in D&D canon?
In the original 1974 box set, bandits were grouped under the “Men” entry, a catch-all category for human enemies. The early editions focused heavily on dungeon delving, so random wilderness encounters with bandits provided a change of pace. As the game evolved, bandits took on more distinct stats and abilities.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition gave us stand-alone bandit NPCs. They received an expanded backstory explaining that most bandits were displaced soldiers who turned to crime after wars. AD&D 2nd edition kept bandits in the Monstrous Manual, while adding new variants like bandit lords. This reflected the rise of richer storytelling in D&D modules, with bandit gangs taking center stage in adventures like The Bandit Kingdoms.
D&D 3rd edition continued to develop bandits as a standard low-level foe. One notable addition was the bandit creature class in The Book of Roguish Luck, letting players try life on the other side of the law.
In 4th edition, bandits served their usual role as minions and early enemies to battle. But the highly-structured design of 4e also encouraged DMs to think about bandit motivations and goals. Were they simply stealing for survival, or did they serve a villainous master?
5th edition bandits draw from all these past iterations. The Monster Manual provides both generic bandit and bandit captain stat blocks for DMs to throw at low-level parties. But it also emphasizes that bandits can fill a variety of roles, from oppressed peasants struggling to survive to pirate raiders sanctioned by corrupt crowns.
This brief history shows how D&D’s treatment of bandits has evolved from generic highwaymen to fully-realized NPC groups that can drive adventures. In our next section, we’ll break down everything the 5E Monster Manual provides for these thuggish foes.
III. Scourge of the Highway: Bandit Attributes and Abilities
The Monster Manual forms the foundation for how bandits operate in 5E combat encounters. Let’s analyze the key stats, damage capabilities, and special traits that set bandits apart.
Below are the essential attributes for a standard bandit (challenge rating 1/8):
- Armor Class: 12 (leather armor)
- Hit Points: 11 (2d8 + 2)
- Speed: 30 ft
Ability scores for bandits focus on dexterity and average constitution to reflect their scrappy fighting style:
- STR 11 (+0)
- DEX 12 (+1)
- CON 12 (+1)
- INT 10 (+0)
- WIS 10 (+0)
- CHA 10 (+0)
With these base stats, bandits are competent combatants but remain appropriately weak foes for low-level parties. They have modest hit points and armor class, avoiding one-shot kills while still going down quickly to heroes as they gain levels.
Bandits favor ambush tactics, reflected in their +3 bonus to hit with both melee and ranged attacks. On average, they deal 4 (1d6 + 1) slashing damage with scimitars or 5 (1d8 + 1) piercing damage with light crossbows. Again, enough to harass 1st level characters, but not overwhelm them.
Vicious Vagabonds: The Bandit Captain
Serving as leaders of the rank-and-file bandits are the intelligent and ruthless bandit captains. They receive a challenge rating increase to 2, with the following key stat modifications:
- Hit Points: 65 (10d8 + 20)
- AC 15 with studded leather armor
- STR 15 (+2), DEX 16 (+3) for excellent physical prowess
- Multiattack allowing two melee attacks or two ranged dagger throws per turn
- Parry reaction to increase AC vs. melee attacks when wielding a melee weapon
Bandit captains also have above average mental stats, reflecting skills at deception and leadership:
- INT 14 (+2)
- WIS 11 (+0)
- CHA 14 (+2)
These improvements make bandit captains dangerous foes capable of holding their own, while giving parties a satisfying mini-boss encounter.
Motive and Means: Why Bandits Do What They Do
The Monster Manual summarizes bandit motivations as driven by greed and a need to survive. But some groups turn to banditry out of desperation when faced with oppression, famine, or poverty. These nuances allow DMs to craft more compelling bandit encounters.
A gang of ex-soldiers driven to crime after the war ended makes for intriguing foils. Their tactics and discipline could pose a true threat. Or a clan of monstrous humanoids could have understandable motives despite their villainy, creating moral dilemmas.
We'll explore more creative applications of bandit motivations in later sections. But first, let's look at how these classic foes operate in the heat of battle.
IV. Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Bandit's Life For Me: DM Tips for Bandits
Dungeon Masters choosing to pit their party against bandits have ample tools provided by the 5E rules. But these adversaries also present great opportunities to flex your storytelling muscles. In this section, we’ll provide tips to spice up bandit encounters as a DM.
Humanizing the Highwaymen
While functional as early game enemies, bandits can grow stale if treated as generic thugs. Give them motivations beyond greed, or tie them into your campaign story. A bard could sing woeful tales of the bandit king’s tragic past. Displaced peasants might steal just to survive after their hometown was razed in war.
Make players hesitate before drawing steel by hinting at redeeming qualities. Then if combat ensues, their victory will carry emotional weight.
Bandits are cunning foes, not mindless HP bags waiting to be mown down. Have them set up ambushes, using chokepoints and traps to their advantage. Archers pepper the party with suppressing fire as melee combatants move in.
The bandit captain issues orders, coordinating his or her gang to concentrate attacks and focus on priority targets like spellcasters. For added challenge, give bandits potions, scrolls or unique attacks like alchemist's fire or acid bombs. Justified loot for the party!
Hideouts and Schemes
A fully fleshed-out bandit faction has a base of operations players can assault. Use cave complexes, forest encampments, or seized fortresses. Add interesting features like guard beasts, a gambling den, or prison cages. Maybe a spymaster fences their stolen goods in town.
Make bandits more than random roadside muggers by giving them an agenda. They could be stealing caravan goods to supply a nascent rebellion against tyranny. Or murdering clerics to appease a demon patron granting them magic.
Customize your bandits with themes and variant traits. Undead bandits kept “alive” by a necromancer make deadly guardians. Goblin bandits mounted on wolves could harass travelers. Give them unique tactics like releasing trained attack animals or shooting explosives from catapults.
Just be sure to balance creative ideas against your party's level. A dragon leading the bandits may be overkill!
Show Them the Treasure
To avoid repetitive combat, throw in dilemmas. The bandits could capture a friendly NPC, demanding ransom from the party. Or they might mention an even greater threat like a hobgoblin legion on the march, creating an opportunity for unlikely allies.
With possibilities to parley, sneak, or fight, bandit encounters become more dynamic. Just be ready if your party recruits them as unlikely henchmen!
V. One Man's Criminal is Another Man's Hero: Playing a Bandit PC
In past editions, dedicated player options existed for bandits and thieves. While 5E lacks an official bandit class, rogues and fighters both lend themselves well to this archetype. Consider the following tips when playing a bandit character:
Rogues excel at the bandit's brand of deception, larceny, and dirty fighting. Thief rogues make classic treasure-hunting scoundrels. Inquisitive rogues play up investigative skills to case caravan routes and rich marks.
Fighters bring weapon mastery for daring ambushes and highway standoffs. Eldritch knights mix magic and steel for versatility. Cavaliers joust from mountback or lead mounted brigands.
Multiclassing rogue/ranger grants survival skills while ranger/fighter captures veteran soldiers turned mercs.
Background and Skills
The criminal background provides vital proficiencies for thievery and underworld contacts. Charlatan also fits bandits posing as unassuming travelers.
Prioritize Dexterity, followed by Strength or Constitution. Persuasion, Deception, Stealth and Acrobatics cover a bandit's wheelhouse. Sleight of Hand and Thieves' Tools produce sticky fingers.
Equipment and Magic
Studded leather or breastplate combined with a shield boosts AC and survivability. Melee rogues favor rapiers or short swords, while ranged bandits bring shortbows or crossbows. Whips and nets entangle foes.
Special bandit items include caltrops, ball bearings, hunting traps, and healer's kits. Fast hands uses magic items like alchemist's fire and thunderstones. Invisibility potions enable daring escapes!
In combat, bandits rely on ambush tactics, dirty tricks, and guerrilla warfare. Hide in brush alongside roads to surprise travelers. Use chokepoints and traps to limit enemy numbers.
Attempt negotiations first when at a disadvantage, playing on mercy or threatening hostages. Snipe dangerous targets while drawing melee enemies into prepared ground. Escape and evasion is preferable to fighting to the death.
A Life of Adventure
Playing a bandit can add fun roleplaying flavor to a party. Just keep motivations pointed toward completing the main adventure whether you play a noble outlaw or ruthless cutthroat.
And take care not to steal from fellow PCs! Better to keep that bandit's rascally spirit focused on your enemies. Your DM and co-players will thank you.
VI. Bad Company: Bandit Adventure Seeds
Bandits can drive compelling adventures as both enemies and allies. The following hooks give DMs inspiration to bring bandit factions into their campaign:
Raiders of the Lost Caravan
A merchant house hires the party to investigate a lost caravan. Its route took it near bandit-infested territory. Did bandits waylay the shipment, or is something more ominous afoot? If they track down the bandits, will there be any survivors to rescue?
While pursuing hill goblin raiders, the party stumbles upon their camp. The goblins are surprisingly disciplined and organized. They steal only to provide for an oppressed goblin settlement driven from its homeland. Does the party side with the settlers they've sworn to protect, or recognize the plight of the goblins?
Pirates of the Sword Coast
A notorious pirate fleet has seized control of a remote island, using it as a base to raid seaborne trade. Their charismatic dragonborn captain will be a formidable foe on his home turf. And if the party fails, they may find themselves drafted into the pirate crew!
Wanted posters for a bandit lord nicknamed “The Grey Ghost” are spreading like wildfire thanks to a steep bounty on their head. The party races against rivals to be the first to find the bandit's lair and take them down. But besting them in combat is only the first challenge. Can they keep the rogue alive on the journey to collect the reward?
Framed for Crime
After a rowdy tavern night, the party awakens to find a local merchant murdered and their purses full of his gold! The town guard arrests them as prime suspects. To clear their name, the true bandits must be brought to justice. But are they simply brigands, or part of a deeper conspiracy?
VII. Conclusion: Let Our Jolly Roger Fly!
We've covered a treasure trove of bandit knowledge, from history to stats, motivations to adventure seeds. Bandits will likely accost travelers in D&D worlds as long as ale flows and coins jingle. But armed with this guide, your bandit encounters will ascend from tired tropes to memorable stories.
Keeping bandits threatening as characters gain levels demands creativity from DMs. Environments, special abilities, unexpected behavior — the bandit toolbox overflows with options. They can serve as recurring villains, temporary allies, or even replacements if PCs fall.
Even humble bandits can drive adventures forward and spark tough roleplaying choices. D&D thrives when moral quandaries arise, and outlaws blur the lines between hero and villain.
So next time your party hears a whistled signal on the lonely forest road, don't just have a bandit ambush spring from the shrubbery. Add regional flair, unique battle tactics, or introduce moral complexity. Build upon the classic bandit foundation using our tips and your own devious ideas. Soon your players will eagerly anticipate which bandit faction they'll clash with next.
Because the life of adventurers is one of never knowing what waits around the next bend in the road. And more often than not, it's a merry band of troublemakers lying in wait, wanting nothing but gold and glory. What could be more iconic than that?