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?