Bugbears are great monsters for the DM. They’re these brutish beast-men that know how to use armor and shields, and they have both ranged (javelin) and melee (morningstar) combat capabilities.
Moreover, the DM doesn’t have to hold back when they fight. As the Monster Manual describes them: “Bugbear attacks are coordinated and their tactics are sound if not brilliant.” That’s a descriptor that makes every DM’s heart pound faster.
In other words, you don’t have to play bugbears as stupid. With an intelligence of 10, they’re fully capable of formulating ambushes and cooperating with one another in a pitched battle. Certainly, they’re not going to stumble into attacks of opportunity, unless it’s a calculated risk on their part.
Moreover, they’re a monster with utility over a range of levels. They have 3 hit die and they’re officially a CR 2 combatant. Though that makes them a little tough for first level, they make a good boss monster at low levels and a gang of them makes for rugged stormtroopers at least up to level 10, if not above.
While the bugbear is eminently scaleable, like so many humanoids in the Monster Manual, they don’t advance by simply increasing their hit die, but rather by adding on NPC or character class levels.
And as soon as we’re talking about adding in class levels, we’re talking about math. For a liberal arts guy like me, math is hard. Templates are a pain, mainly because I have to make notations, either in my game book or in my three-ring binder. Do I have an alternative? Yes.
So, I want a bugbear with a bad attitude. Maybe that 5th level gang leader suggested on the organization line of the Monster Manual entry. What’s the best approach?
Pump up the volume
The beauty of hit points is their abstract nature. They don’t represent anything other than a character or a monster’s relative ability to absorb damage or hang in a fight longer. More hit points doesn’t necessarily mean the monster is bigger. More hit points just means more. So add some.
(In fact, increasing any monster’s hit point total above the average as listed in the Monster Manual is a quick’n’easy way to have a monster hang in a fight longer. That extra round or two may be all you’ll need to convince the players they are fighting a tougher or meaner version of the creature than they are used to, or deplete their resources to a point that makes the adventure more challenging down the line.)
So let’s keep it simple. I want a fifth-level sergeant. OK, we’ll add 5 hit die. Even I can figure out that 5 x 4 = 20 (the average) and 5 x 8 = 40 (the maximum). So, I pick a number between 20 and 40, and tack that on to the bugbear’s already impressive 16 hp, and we’re ready to party.
If you’re really feeling adventuresome, add that same +5 to the creature’s melee and ranged attacks, representing the requisite bump in base attack bonus. Now the morning star hits for two attacks (+10 and +5) and the javelin gets hurled at +8.
Slap those numbers on a sticky note onto the bugbear page in the Monster Manual and you are ready to rock.
The NPC approach
A more precise method is to use the NPC tables available in the DMG. Find the class and level you want (for this example, it would be a 5th level fighter), then apply the racial adjustments in the back of that section. You’ll probably need to make more notes than will fit on a sticky, though.
The advantage is that you’ll also pick up stats for saving throws, skills and gain additional feats, which adds a layer of complexity to the game. But you’ve also added more time to the DM’s prep. Knowing that the Bugbear’s Will save is increased to +6 (instead of the +1 from the base creature) could come in handy, but it’s up to you as DM to judge whether the time spent in making all the class adjustments is worth it.
The key thing is to keep things simple. DMing is hard enough. All you want is a bugbear with a bad attitude. Supply a snear and a growl when you introduce the creature, and you’re halfway home.