Should Monsters Employ Smart Tactics?

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on June 17, 2011

As the DM it’s my job to control all of the monsters during a fight. Each player runs his own character but everyone else involved in the battle is my responsibility. In some cases the Monster Manual provides tactics (albeit very basic tactics), but in the vast majority of situations it’s completely up to me to decide which monster attacks which PC and what power they use.

As the DM I have to decide if the monsters are going to do what’s most tacitly sound (basically, what’s best for the monsters), or are they going to do what seems most fair to the players at my gaming table? For a long time I’ve been doing what’s fair and paid little attention to tactics. But the more I’ve been thinking about this approach the more I think that it’s hurting my game.

D&D isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the DM vs. the players. It’s a cooperative, story-telling experience with a lot of thrilling combat thrown in. Although we often joke about winning D&D when the PCs defeat all the monsters during an encounter, this is obviously not the case. Yet if a PC dies during combat the player certainly feels like he’s lost the game. For this reason I generally try not to pick on one PC and have the monsters gang up on him. After all, no one like it when their PC dies. But am I really doing the players any favours by not having the monsters employ sound tactics?

During my time behind the DM screen there have been occasions when I’ve taken some heat for picking on one PC too often. My desire to keep things at the gaming table civil and positive has really changed the way I DM. Regardless of how intelligent or resourceful some monsters may be, I usually determine which PC to attack by rolling a die and letting fate decide.

Of course there will be times when one PC is the obvious target. In these circumstances it’s usually because the PC put himself in this position. When this situation happens I have no issues making the obvious move and unloading on this PC. The same goes for a defender that’s marked an opponent. Generally I have the monsters attack the defender. It certainly makes things easier for me and it makes the defender feel like he’s doing his job properly (which he is).

Recently I’ve been thinking more and more about my tendency to let the dice decide who gets attacked. Although it gives the players some comfort knowing that I’m not going to just gang up on one guy, it seems like I’m giving them a false sense of what the monsters are truly capable of. It also allows the players to achieve a lot of easy victories without employing good tactics (or any tactics at all in some cases) themselves.

In a few games I’ve run over the past couple of months (many of which were during D&D Encounters) the monsters had powers that inflicted a lot more damage against bloodied opponents. In some cases these attacks also applied other harmful conditions on successful attacks against bloodied foes. In these cases I had the monsters focus their attacks on one or two opponents. Once those PCs were bloodied everyone ganged up on them. After all, if the monster’s best powers can only be used against bloodied target, why wouldn’t they focus their efforts to drop a bloodied enemy as fast as possible rather than try to soften up healthier members of the party still above their bloodied value?

Although the players didn’t like that their PCs were getting mobbed, it forced the rest of the party to come to their aid, especially when they realized just how bad the situation was becoming. When I started to have the monster use smarter tactics, the players really seemed to be caught off guard.

The more I’ve considered using better tactics with my monsters the more I believe that it’s the right decision. After all, if a monster is adjacent to multiple PCs why would he even consider attacking the heavily armored Cleric when there’s a Rogue wearing nothing but leather armor right beside him. Rolling a die to have the monster choose is actually silly. If the creature has an ounce of intelligence he’d naturally attack the softer-looking enemy.

If I applying a little bit of logic to monsters capable of such insights they would be more likely to seek out the PCs that they perceive as most vulnerable or most threatening. A vulnerable opponent would be one that’s the least armored, isolated, or unable to inflict damage (a ranged PC unable to fire his bow safely, for example). The most dangerous opponent would likely be the one dealing the most damage (strikers) or targeting multiple foes simultaneously (controllers). A monster with a really good sense of the battlefield might even seek out the party’s healer or try to corner a ranged attacker forcing him to draw opportunity attacks if he continues using ranged weapons.

I’m sure most of the tactics described above seem pretty obvious and straight forward but I’ve intentionally not used most of them when I’m the DM. The other one that I’ve taken great steps to avoid is attacking a wounded foe to the point of killing him. As I mentioned at the beginning, no one enjoys it when a PC is killed, least of all the player. But if I’m going to have smarter monsters employ smart tactics then why should this one be any more taboo than the rest of the ones I’ve described.

I know that I’m not alone when it comes to pulling punches and intentionally avoiding smart tactics. Many DMs I’ve played with also use dice when deciding which PC to attack. In a game where dice are so important it seems like the right way to decide. But I think this needs to stop. I think DMs need to run the monsters using the tactics that they’re capable of knowing. Whether it’s attacking the least armored PC first or pouring on the damage to one PC until he’s toast, using smart tactics does improve the overall combat experience.

By raising the level of sophistication of your monsters and having them bring their A-game every time, you force the players to do the same. If they realize that the Rogue is always getting attacked because he looks the weakest then they can adjust their own tactics to account for that. It may also serve as a wake up call to some players. Once they realize just how vulnerable they are to monsters that fight smart, they may have to think about retraining a few feats, skills and powers to be more versatile.

Where do you stand on monster tactics? Do you have intelligent monsters fight smart and use sound tactics even if it might result in the death of a PC? How often do you just roll a die to determine which PC is going to be the subject of the next attack? Do you think that having the monsters fight using better tactics will result in better combat or just anger players who constantly fall victim to savage thrashings?

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Toldain June 17, 2011 at 9:55 am

In general I’m in agreement. I also take into consideration how smart these particular creatures are, and how aware they are (or aren’t) of the PC’s powers. Things of animal intelligence aren’t going to really know who the mage is, or the healer. Mindless things probably won’t pay much attention to marks, sometimes to their detriment. Intelligent opponents may know who the strikers and defenders are, and so on, but they won’t know what specific powers the PC’s have until they are used.

I sometimes use INT checks for the monsters, or PER checks if I’m in doubt about whether they know something or have noticed something.

Highly intelligent enemies will go for all the weak spots, which helps portray them as EVIL!

2 Kenneth McNay June 17, 2011 at 10:52 am

I frequently use reasonable tactics for opponents of the PCs. I am watchful for the intelligence level of the creatures, but I feel that using tactics makes the game more enjoyable for both DM and players. It adds credibility, builds setting, and generates complications for the team to respond to.

Credibility: the creatures are real and have a level of intelligent thought or instinctive intuition. Humanoids will seek out weaknesses to exploit; dragons will rarely fight to the death; devils and demons may attempt to bargain in the midst of combat.

Setting: the creatures understand the environment and terrain. Humanoids will use advantageous teamwork and terrain features to fight one-on-one; opponents have allies that will pursue adventurers; the villain has more than a few minions and thugs to fulfill his/her/its plans.

Complications: some creatures will actively use optimum tactics against a party that force the party to change their tactics. Opponents team-up against a single PC in order to exploit team tactics or that PC’s weakness, to generate a gap in the party’s offensive or defensive skills, or to recover a McGuffin.

Welcome to the level of DMing where your monsters have as much life as the players’ PCs.

3 Francois B. June 17, 2011 at 11:21 am

In agreement with you and on par with Toldain, always have foes use their A game.
But what their A game is, it depends.

I gauge the threat level of each PC and who hurt it most last round. I usually retaliate against that PC when using “normal” intelligence. Gang up and bringing the Slayer down is then a priority. Flanking, readying, charging the healer/ranger and all that jazz is used to it’s fullest. I don’t use metagame knowledge and have them react as i think best.

For beast level, depending on the beast (scavanger, hunter, etc..) well, anything goes but retaliation mostly then evade/run away when hurt.

For high level intelligence, well it’s harder since not being Genius level myself. But i try to give the foe a good run for it’s money. Since most highlevel intelligence monster will have knowledge of the PCs before hand, or can rapidly evaluate a Pc’s abilities, then i use that knowledge against the PC’s. Like staying 6 squares away from the range 5 attack. Or issuing commands to other foes to tangle up annoying/dangerous PCs while bringing down another. But, my players are hard to bring down, and usually defeat very hard foes.

4 Tourq June 17, 2011 at 11:50 am

If the enemies and monsters are fighting random targets, and not using sound tactics, the players will automatically start metagaming.

“Hey wizard, you’ll be most effective if you do *this*, because the monsters would never single you out…”

“I’m down to one hp, and the DM knows it. He would never have three monsters attack me, so I’ll do *this*.”

5 j0nny_5 June 17, 2011 at 12:00 pm

If I were to play fetch with my dog and tossed a ball of metal or a ball of leather, he would grab the leather every time. That said, I think only the most mindless of creatures (oozes, swarms, etc) would ignore sound tactics. Animals learn from mistakes quickly, humanoids can reason ahead of time, and the truly intelligent are always plotting and formulating their tactics.

6 Lahrs June 17, 2011 at 1:07 pm

After reading Kenneth McNay’s post, I cannot say I have much more to add. He summed up my feelings and the way I use monster tactics within the game.

7 Seb Wiers June 17, 2011 at 1:28 pm

There’s lots of reasons monsters would make non-tactical choices:
-They don’t have the knowledge needed (animals don’t even know what armor is until they bite it a few times)
-They have a values system (such as “brave warriors fight the strongest enemy”) that supersedes tactical thinking
-They simply “choke” in the heat of combat (it is a lot harder to think tactically with sword in your hand than with dice in your hand) or don’t understand the situation (such as not anticipating attacks from the hidden thief they have no idea is even there)

So yeah, while some monsters should act quite tactically, many should not.

8 Kilsek June 17, 2011 at 1:56 pm

I like the immersive and believable gameplay that comes from intelligent monsters using sound tactics and the environment to their advantage – I think that’s critically important to challenge the PCs.

Often, focusing on the lightly armored PC makes pure tactical sense for the monsters and also heightens the dramatic tension – even though some party members may be temporarily ignored.

That said, like some folks have said, there’s also some monsters that aren’t very bright or have different natures or motivations. I think it’s just as important to play these monsters more instinctively or myopically.

In either case, options that aren’t “kill everyone/everything” as part of the encounter goals are just as vital to great and challenging D&D encounters.

9 Lugh June 17, 2011 at 2:03 pm

I’ll largely go with a general “me, too.”

As a note, though, I’m currently playing under a DM who uses the “the dice decide who gets attacked” method. One thing I find interesting is that it actually *hinders* our ability to play tactically. Our defender can’t reliably draw fire. Our very squishy bard can’t just avoid attracting attention. It becomes nearly impossible to lure monsters into a flanking situation. So, as a player, I’d ask you to start playing with better tactics, just so that we can do the same!

10 Dungeon Maestro June 17, 2011 at 3:45 pm

I like to mix it up depending upon circumstance. Obviously the lower INT mob won’t make the sounded of choices. I recently killed a PC because a non-intelligent mob decided to eat an unconscious PC instead of chase the party. Sometimes, if Minions don’t have orders, they go for any target they can get too first and foremost. Secondly they gang up if they can but they are smart enough not to group up for easy fireball disposal. They obviously are aware that they don’t have a ton of HP and they don’t want to all die in one fell swoop!

Sometimes the non-leader types, have decisions to make. Do I charge the fighter or the barbarian? Well in this case I let Fate decide the Mobs actions. As a DM I know their probablities, but in order to avoid bias, I let fate decide. Who says fate always makes the smarter choice?

Obviously the main bad guys can give orders, which I let the PC’s know if they speak the language and can hear or see the instructions, and the main villains (with intelligence) will act based upon what they percieve, or what they know. So if a wizard is dropping area attacks on his cohorts, then the main bad guy would be wise to direct firepower at the wizard in order to make him withrdraw or put him down. Likewise he may order his troops to spread out.

It’s all a mix. A little strategy, a little randomness, and sometimes just playing the mobs lack of intelligence can make for some really memorable battles.

11 Matt Gallinger June 17, 2011 at 8:09 pm

Great article this week Dungeon’s Master. I feel strongly that monsters should use the tactics appropriate for their intelligence but I too often see DM’s being soft on PC’s in this regard.

As a regular Encounters player and someone who’s DMed many home game sessions (and about to DM my first Encounter session next week) I understand taking it easy when DMing for Encounters, especially with newbies. The point, after all, is to get more folks enjoying the game and nothing spoils that more than character death if you’ve not experienced it before.

But with that said, I also know that most gamers that I play with spend a lot of time tweaking their characters for maximum effect, whether that’s the cleric’s healing or the slayer’s damage potential.

I think it behooves us as DM’s to play our monsters and villians with the same level of committment to maximizing potential. The game mechanic is, after all, built to match the monsters and players by level set by XP values. If you are sure to follow those guidelines, you shouldn’t be unbalancing any encounter by playing the monsters to their fullest. Rather, you end up maximizing the potential for challenge and fun for your players.

And if someone’s character does really die, that’s a manifestation of the risk and sense of urgency that makes D&D compelling. We have to remind our players of this as well… and not just after they lose a character but as part of the dynamic of the game that sets the stage for drama.

12 Rabbit is wise June 17, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Heroic Tier use tactics sparingly (on average), Paragon Tier Use tactics 50/50. Epic Tier everything should be volatile, unless its one of those encounters that show the character how truly powerful they are. In epic tier everything should be intelligent enough to have stayed alive long enough to become a formidable foe. I DM my game one week and play in another game the next, and in both games monsters use the tactics they are capable of using. Which in Heroic tier isnt always the best tactics

13 A3 June 17, 2011 at 10:07 pm

As others have said, you have to adjust your tactics to the intelligence of the monsters for it to be fair. A hungry animal may attack a single target until it’s down, and then try to drag away the body, ignoring the other characters.

You also have to avoid letting your DM knowledge leak through to the monsters. Even an intelligent monster may not recognize a wizard, or distinguish between a ranger and fighter, or have any clue what a monk is all about. If their tactics are too good, you’ve gone too far.

14 Naz June 18, 2011 at 1:04 am

Before I began DMing 4th edition, I can honestly say that my monsters were motivated more by what I felt made a good “Story” to an encounter, and not by any grand tactical plan. Whether the party was fighting 10 goblins, or 2 ogres, I would basically have the monsters blow every special attack or use every environmental advantage right out of the gate, and whoever had the most or least HP after that I would attack depending on what Drama level I was going for.
When I transitioned to 4th, I spent several months, basically working off this same principle. But having a map, and miniatures, and a much more dynamic list of powers, even for the most lowly of monsters, quickly showed me just how broken my former way of running encounters had been. The most obvious thing was how random my side of the battle seemed to feel, even to me, and I was the one that was supposed to be running it! It was especially evident, in the face of the often times wise tactics employed by the PC’s.
As the “Player” of all of the antagonists in our game sessions, I soon came to realize that the tactics of any given encounter had to begin materializing long before the first inititive die was cast. I began thinking about how a given geological feature, environmental effect, or enemy type would effect the tactics that the monster could and would apply when suddenly faced with a fight for their very lives. No sooner had I done this, than I began noticing a change in the way that my players attacked a given situation. Our tactics evolved together. As I started planning out the encounters better, so to did they employ more advanced tactics to counter those which I had come up with.
Soon enough, the encounters were again telling a story. In almost every encounter I run, I have certain THINGS that I want to have happen. Sometimes I get to show off only one or two of these set piece type moments. In other encounters I get to run the entire gamut, dropping strange spells effects, devious traps, and other memory worthy story bits onto my (un?)suspecting party.
With combat being so much more visual, at least for me, in 4th edition, I feel that to NOT grant the monsters the opportunity to intelligently, and creatively, retaliate against the party is doing the system, and the party, an injustice. The party isn’t going to pull any punches knowing that failure likely would mean death. Why would a cornered group of troglodytes react any differently?

15 Johann June 18, 2011 at 6:31 am

I’m glad you are deciding to run your monsters this way. It seemed honestly like you were being a little too easy-going with your players. I know at least that I, as a player, would always expect my GM to be as smart as he could be. Also, my Game Mastering philosophy is to always be “harsh, but fair”. If the players defeat a challenging enemy, then the victory is all the more sweet.

16 Brandon June 18, 2011 at 8:59 am

Smart monsters using intelligent tactics – Yes.
“Non-smart” monsters using natural survival instincts – Yes.
Non-smart monsters using intelligent tactics – No.

If you want a nice twist for a more advanced group, make sure your smart/intelligent monsters who support an evil villain/leader have a few devious tricks up their sleeve, such as:

-Arrow volleys against one particular deadly foe (i.e. the PC who jumps to the front or is the obvious leader), or
– A well-placed, concealed sniper who plinks at a delaying PC during combat.

Other tricks/tactics for massed combat would be employ the “hammer-and-anvil” tactic:
-A “layered” attack by shieldmen in the first rank with pikemen/swordsmen behind who uniformly attack the PCs/party’s direct front as a “fixing” force (the anvil), when
-Mounted or fast-moving monsters go around — or over — the massed melee and attack a weak side or the party’s rear as a flanking “force” (the hammer).

Simple, but tried-and-true combat tactics work well.

17 Ghost Rider June 18, 2011 at 1:40 pm

I base my monster tactics on their intelligence scores, and occasionally their wisdom scores.

A monster with an intelligence score 3-5 are mindless, and will attack the closest enemy, swarming up to the party members.

An intelligence score of 6-8 will decide to attack a different party member if the closest member is being attacked by a bunch of enemies.

A score of 9-12 has the monster thinking about what weapons the party members are using (a big guy with a huge axe, vs. a thin guy in clothes with a staff), and attacking accordingly. The monsters tend to think of their own lives as well, and will break off when their HP gets too low. They use their weapons and armor well, to a good degree.

A score of 13-18 has the monsters talking to each other quite a bit, helping each other during combat, etc. They can tell fairly well which party members are the strikers, defenders, controllers, etc., and attack the more dangerous members. They will employ tactics that use their weapons and armor to the best abilities. They will use the terrain to their advantage, moving around hidden traps hoping a party member will walk into it.

A score of 19+ are the super smart monsters, and will use all of their powers, weapons, armor, and numbers to the best of their abilities. They may even recognize magic items the party members are wielding/wearing, especially if their wisdom score is high, and attack accordingly. They know the terrain, they know how to bluff, when to talk, when to attack/retreat, etc.

It works pretty good in my games, as I let my players know that the monsters will attack and react based on their intelligence scores, and if a party member is being singled out, they need to do something about, not complain about it.

-GR

18 wolfRam June 23, 2011 at 8:05 am

Tactics is something my group hates me for. They say I’m too smart for them and they can’t keep up. Silly, innit?

As with varying encounter difficulties and monster roles, it’s also good to vary tactics. Minions employ none, standard monsters may sometimes make a wrong decision, but elites and solos have it all figured out. Also, dumb beasts target the vulnerable guys, smart folks go for the healers.
And finally, a Nature check: carnivores are naturally likely to abandon a fight where they might get wounded, while omni- and herbivores don’t really care; after all, grass won’t run away.

19 Seb Wiers June 23, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Last night’s Encounters game had a good example of intelligent enemies – a gang of tieflings led by two arcane types. The gang mooks were quite reckless and disorganized, but the leaders picked thier targets with some care. At one point, the DM called for a bluff check from one of the players, and he rolled fairly low; the result was one of the enemies realized he was a vampire, and blasted him with radiant damage (plus more ongoing radiant). Ouch- dead vampire.

20 Jared January 9, 2012 at 4:26 pm

See, with me, it depends on the sort of group I’m DMing for… (I tend to DM for multiple groups of my friends, or at least, did back when I was RPing more regularly.) If I’m playing with a group who know such things as the system, and the setting, and also a bit about tactics and the like, then my Monsters act more intelligently. If I’m running a game with inexperienced players, then my monsters base their attacks around ‘random flailing’, ‘hit the closest’, or ‘THAT HURT! NOW YOU DIE!’. Especially the latter.

Anyway, I reckon what I’m saying is, whether one should use intelligent tactics or not depends entirely on a combination of what your party wants, expects, and is capable of handling. I know for a fact if I had used sensible tactics with one party, they wouldn’t have survived the first encounter. On the other hand, another party I was running games for got most annoyed if the enemies were consistently stupid.

21 Chilly March 29, 2013 at 11:50 pm

Interesting subject. My players often complained about me playing the NPCs too clever. I remember having a goblin wake up his mate one round after he’d been put to sleep by a sleep spell. I figured that the goblin leader was smart enough to train his men to do this because after all, sleep spells are quite common. So I had that goblin make an Intelligence check, which he succeeded, and then go to wake up the sleeping dude. It was a very close fight and my players really took this rather badly.

As been said, it depends a lot on who the NPCs are. Who do you consider “well-trained” and applying group tactics. I guess that a bunch of goblins would rather NOT qualify, but I thought, well, this bunch of goblins IS. In contrast, Hobgoblins, for instance, are known to apply group tactics rather well, so they do gang up on the PC they consider the biggest threat, flanking, trying to prevent spell casters from casting, etc. In general, if you decide to play the NPCs very smart, then you should take this into consideration when creating the encounter. If those goblins are well trained and have a clever leader, maybe one or two goblins less will do.

All in all, I softened up, because I want my players to have fun and not take too much time for being so very very careful.

I also play most humans and humanoids caring for their own life more and thus being more willing to negotiate, surrender or flee when down to 5-10 hp or so. Also, they rarely strike dying/unconscious PCs (which is a nasty thing to do) because that also costs an action which they can use to bring the other PCs down. They can also just threaten to kill the unconscious PC and end the fight right there. The PCs don’t win then, but they survive.

But there are also plenty of really EVIL adversaries, and these are often willing to kill, even if it’s not such a big advantage in the given moment. However, I take care that the PCs KNOW who they are dealing with (warning and even scaring them). Sometimes they have nasty enemies and they know that those guys do want them dead (not just defeated). So they should act accordingly, and maybe avoid confrontation. That, however, can be difficult because the adventure might require them to confront these evil foes.

And this is the real challenge: Running adventures that give them options. If you are just running those modules, the PCs expect to meet resistance that they are able to defeat, and if they don’t they might become sour and say that the task was too difficult and the foes too tough. But if they decide that this is too dangerous, the adventure effectively ends and your preparation goes to waste.

In conclusion, a DM must take care that life doesn’t get too dangerous for them. It’s not hard to kill even a high-level PC by 1-2 almost ordinary mid-level NPCs. A 6th/5th level wizard or cleric can cast Hold Person on a character while his companion, a fighter or rogue slits his throat (coup de grace). It’s not certain to succeed (at least if they don’t get the PC alone) but whatever world you’re playing in, there are surely enough power-hungry NPCs clever enough to conceive of this possibility.

So I try to give my PCs the option to make or avoid making enemies that are ready to do this, so that they know that if they want to achieve this or that (treasure/power) they burden quite some future risk on themselves.

22 Ettina October 2, 2014 at 9:25 am

My brother and I base it off their Int score. Below human intelligence, they have pretty simple tactics (eg attack whoever’s closest, make no effort to avoid provoking attacks of opportunity, etc). Human intelligence they’d have as good of tactics as a typical player. Above human, use meta-gaming to choose the best tactic for accomplishing that creature’s goal.

Also, keep in mind that their goal isn’t always ‘kill the PCs’. For example, in one encounter, some random wolves came in, attacked a low-health enemy, and then dragged his body away, ignoring the rest of the fight (goal = acquire food). That little interlude made the fight a lot more interesting.

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