Friday Favourite: Should Monsters Employ Smart Tactics?

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 5, 2014

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From June 17, 2011, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Should Monsters Employ Smart Tactics?

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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1 Michael Link December 5, 2014 at 9:22 am

I don’t know about most, but I have never really had parties that really thought about tactics. I have killed more character and discouraged players with smarter, more tactical monsters then otherwise.

So this is very situational. We’re all here to have fun and they could surprise you, but I usually err on the side of caution when it comes to really hitting them with tactics.

2 Taed December 5, 2014 at 9:46 am

In our current group, the DM has the monsters do “player knowledge checks” to see what they’d know about us / our classes. They also make decisions based on how the characters look, so a fighter in plate surely looks more threatening than our healer. But the intelligence / experience is also taken somewhat into account. In our normal campaign, the monsters rarely keep attacking after a PC is unconscious, but when we do Lair Assault (and the like), they most certainly do so.

When I was DMing previously, I made an explicit point of taking the monster’s intelligence into account. For example, an ooze would just look for whatever is closest. A wild beast could easily be tricked into attacking the shaman’s companion. However, trained hobgoblin soldiers work very well together, and trapped the party by attacking from both ends of a long corridor with archers behind a portcullis (I was actually surprised that they survived that one).

3 Chris Fowlie December 5, 2014 at 10:19 am

I like the idea presented above using intelligence checks for the monster, or at least accounting for intelligence in how tactics are applied.
Many players are likely programmed by video games where certain classes can increase their threat using abilities or piling on damage, so targeting the wizard or healer in the back might seem unfair to them.
Though if one were to consider something like wolves or another predatory beast, a person could be justified in assuming they would want to latch onto the weakest ‘calf in the herd’ while avoiding the big pointy defender type in order to guarantee some easy food.
It’s an interesting subject to think about, and as was stated above, every group will be different, but creating the tension associated with interesting, tactically varied, and deadly combat makes for more satisfying victories (sorry to go back to your ‘winning’ comment above).

4 Dan December 5, 2014 at 11:41 am

In my main group, my DM plays monsters pretty logically. If they are animals, he plays them as such, employing predatory instinct rather than randomly rolling, though most often they attack whoever is closest first.
For more intelligent creatures, he determines their tactics by how intelligent they are and what their training (if any) dictates. The fact that we are a very tactical party leaves us on top the majority of the time.
The main incident when the opponents managed to outmaneuver us was in an orc camp, where the orc leader was a high level psionic. His intelligence was higher than anyone in the party, and his level of planning was higher than we expected. We had to run, and nobody was unscathed, one (NPC) died in the process. Use of tactics by enemies is more challenging, and provides more enjoyment from the combat.

5 David December 5, 2014 at 7:24 pm

In addition to what Taed said, if we’re aassaulting a dungeon with organized minions and a boss or lieutenant who can scry the fights, then for the later fights the DM will forgo the “player knowledge” checks and actively work against our usual tactics.

6 Mike D December 16, 2014 at 6:04 pm

Excellent topic. My approach is similar to above, albeit less structured, and more gut feel based on the monster’s Int, and the monster’s setup. (guard dogs alarming, understanding of the pc’s based on dress etc). While it’s not about DM vs PCs, it is certainly about using combat to create DRAMA. 🙂 Where there was room for a range of possibilities I would generally ere on tactical play over strictly playing based on monster Int. Smarter creatures will mercilessly exploit exposed weaknesses, or go after the biggest threat. (That caster concentrating on Hold spell etc)

7 Bob December 16, 2014 at 7:05 pm

I have used a mixture of situational knowledge and also randomness. If a player presents their self as a target, they get treated as one. Do a bunch of quick damage or place yourself in front, you will take the brunt of the damage.

I have also used the dice to determine as well. I’ll have to think about this a bit before our next session. I like the idea of forcing players to start working together. In quite a few of our battles, I’ve seen players work as individuals with very little team work or set up being done.

Very good food for thought. Thanks!

8 Taed December 17, 2014 at 10:08 am

Bob says, “Do a bunch of quick damage or place yourself in front, you will take the brunt of the damage.”

I’d love if my DM acted this way with my Warden. The Warden class does little damage, but has the highest HPs and great defenses — it defends by taking the hits instead of the rest of the party. So, my job is to get attacked as much as possible, and marking is a great encouragement. But sometimes I’ll have the Warden wave his arms and call on someone to come attack him, but the DM just ignores that.

9 Steve December 17, 2014 at 2:41 pm

Enjoying the articles here, so keep up the good work.

I’m just back into running 5e after many years away from RPG. My group are all new players with no former experience with any rule set.

I’ve been using giving them a relatively easy time of battles so far, but am starting to up the ante with them by having the monsters use tactics suitable for their intelligence – and it’s making the fights more intersting for all of us.

What I will say is that the level of intelligent tactics you use can have a huge effect on the ‘real’ combat rating of the fight – playing intelligent tactics can equate to more creatures if done right.

10 David December 19, 2014 at 1:33 pm

This article is extremely enlightening and really pulls at something that’s been on my mind of late. In my games the PCs use little to no tactics at the moment even going as far as using bad ones, while i desperately wish to employ smarter tactics. Frequently the wizard will push enemies away from the PCs fighting them, and the rogue will just attack one mob until it’s dead. One of the rare times I focused more on the healer (it was the final battle) no one came to her aid, they just continued attacking the mob they were on and did not break away and buffer the healer.

I’m going to try again and hope that it forces the players to up their game, and when I’m a PC i’m going to hopefully demonstrate the tactics of a controller.

Anyway, great article and lots to think about.

11 Soderbok March 31, 2015 at 8:43 am

Sorry if this is terribly out of date but thanks for sharing such a great article.
I stole an idea from Shaun of the Dead and played the creatures as though they were the heroes of their own stories.
They won’t always know what powers the players have but big strong guys generally feel confident about their ability to handle other big strong guys.
The sneakier guys used to try to run in and flank players who were already in a fight, or throw things into the group to try to break their formation.

The group learned to fear Hobgoblins especially if they had a leader with them, they usually had a few goblin scouts to give them some ranged support and maybe a spell caster or two for backup.
It went from the group slaughtering their way through enemies for fun to taking care to spot ambush sites and work together.

Thought I’d share it, loving the site it’s improving my gaming no end.


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