Sunday, February 16, 2014

Monster Tactics

I don't see my DM role as being an adversary of the players.  I see myself as a facilitator of adventures.  In other words, I have to do just enough to know that adventure is possible and keep spinning the wheels so the game continues.  I don't have to worry about story, or big bad finale monsters, or anything but helping players move around in that shared imagined world.  The problem comes when players face opponents, because then I am the brain of the adversaries.  And this is one of the last places that I feel the game is not giving me enough support when I DM, when monsters attack.

I've largely dealt with this by using random rolls to determine which target, from those closest to it, that a monster will go after.  That and morale has been enough, surprisingly, to have some really fun combats, partially, because I have stuck to mostly creatures of animal intelligence.  But I've wanted something more sophisticated for a while.

Traditionally, I think the solution is supposed to be to look up the monster in the monster manual and you find out about its behavior and ecology there.  But that means you have potentially infinite monster behaviors to memorize as DM.  That's not a good option.  I think traditionally the encounter dice are supposed to give the DM valuable info too, but because it just generates a range of numbers it isn't going to solve that memorization problem: high or low numbers will presumably lead to different corresponding actions by different creatures.

In this post by Alexis of the Tao of D&D looks at creatures by intelligence and one of the factors is how they react during encounters.  That has been bubbling in the back of my head for years now as well as an article from the Dragon that talked about intelligent monsters targeting high threat party members like magic users.

I think I have finally come up with a solution that simplifies the idea while keeping much of the flavor.  I can assign all creatures one of a small number of behaviors.  That will give me some consistent behaviors without requiring too much to remember.  I would put them into these six categories:
  1. Mindless
  2. Vermin
  3. Scavenger
  4. Pack hunters
  5. Lone hunter
  6. High Threat
I still need to flesh out the actual behaviors but here are some ideas:

Mindless creatures, like zombies, would function the way I've been handling monsters, they attack whatever's closest with a bit of randomness for equally close targets.

Vermin would only physically attack if they far outnumber the target or are cornered, but they will shadow the party and try and steal small trinkets and food.

Scavengers would behave similar to vermin with a lower outnumbering ratio needed.  They would also become aggressive over any carcasses the party produces fighting other creatures.

Pack hunters would try to encircle the party and, also dependent on the numbers of each group, might start probing attacks by stronger pack members to see if the whole pack should swarm in.

Lone hunters might shadow the party for a while before darting in quickly in an attempt to carry off the smallest party member.

High threats are like mother bears with cubs or elephant bulls in must, unless you show sign of submission and back away quickly, they will attack ferociously.  (hmm, that seems a little too similar to mindless).

What I like about this is that players could learn these behaviors and gain a sense of expertise about the dangers in the wilderness as their characters become veterans.  And all I have to do is decide which behavior type traditional monsters fall under.  Are stirge vermin or pack hunters?  And that gives the cool possibility of having some stirge that act as vermin, the bluish-black ones, and some as pack hunters, the reddish tinged ones.  Parties will learn to pay attention to that small difference.

Are there any other broad behavior types that are left out?  Maybe lie-in-wait type hunters, but those are more like traps that would then attack mindlessly.

(I know this still doesn't deal with sentient foes, but I have an idea that six additional categories might work for them, including guerrilla tactics and such.)


  1. Nice- I like this approach, it's a good table. Maybe 4E style combat roles could provide basic strategies for the intelligent antagonists - they had descriptors like skirmishers, artillery, controllers, brutes, and (probably more I'm forgetting).

  2. The only omission that comes readily to mind is the real apex predator that doesn't especially need to stalk its prey -- non-maternal polar bears/owlbears, unintelligent dragons, Tarrasques, etc. These would simply come lumbering in expecting to take what they want and ignore anything else. The less intelligent might actually be driven off by bluff -- not expecting any foe to stand up to them or deal them a painful blow. On the other hand, they might be territorial or just-plain-ornery enough to take on anything. They might also prove unexpectedly harmless if simply not hungry or otherwise uninterested in a party.

  3. how about masterminds: monsters that control monsters, like vampires controlling ghouls, demons controlling ogres, drow controllling bugbears. They would certainly care nothing for the safety of their servants/slaves.

  4. I've been including behavior in alignment every now and then. My lightnings sometimes include stuff like Chaotic (Greedy), Neutral (Hungry), Neutral (Lush), or Lawful (Zealot). That Chaotic (Greedy) monster will of course be chaotic but will be motivated by greed above virtually anything else and will act to fill that motivation.

  5. I have been mulling over a monster bestiary with some divisions reminescent of yours. I had Nuisance (includes vermin,) Wild Beasts, and Threats, with most of the non-vermin types you describe falling under Wild Beasts. My version of Threats was more like rogue versions serious predators, like tigers that develop a taste for human flesh and start preying on humans in their own village. Humanoids are included under Threat.

    But in addition to those categories, I have Fantastic Beasts and Legendary Beasts. The Fantastic variety is often cunning and possibly doesn't need to eat or sleep; it eats humans for *fun*. They often have weird desires, like a dragon with a taste for the flesh of virgins. The Legendary variety includes creatures inflicted on a community because of a curse, or vengeance; they have very specific goals, like "slaughter one villager every night of the full moon and don't let any of them escape to another town", and they may be constrained by taboos.

    1. I really like those Fantastic and Legendary beasts ideas.

    2. The classification seems useful. Lots of packs actually stalk, like lone hunters. This is worth its dramatic weight in treasure: being observed and/or herded is super creepy.
      I never, ever see scavengers actually scavenging in dungeons, this is a great, great idea. And then there are the automated systems: what if blood always attracted Gelatinous Cubes?

      But most of all I am totally stealing these Fantastic and Legendary beasts for my next game. As in asking the question: is this a scavenger, a stalker, or does it have some special thing it's after?

      ...something like a Penanggalan is _only_ interested in certain kinds of targets, so it'll take out threats to itself in order to go after its preferred prey. That's one level of creepy/interesting (and getting your murderhobos interested in some target that is not themselves is another kind of challenge).

      But then there are curse-specific or locally-functional legendaries - the earthquake carp that has to be appeased so it doesn't cause tremors, etc. These things are really not susceptible to programmatic solutions - each is an adventure dressed up as a monster. So actually for my purposes this is turning into an island generator: what lives here? How does its presence activate the landscape? Can it live together with a village or will it drive humans out?

      My own usual solution to the information-overload problem is to limit the variety of monsters in an area. Advantages: I can devote more creative energy to each monster; the PCs can research them and be rewarded with useful info for defeating/using them; repeat interactions reveal more of the monsters' behaviours, enabling the players to make more tactical decisions about them; because there are fewer variables, ecology/reciprocity between monsters can become more of a concern, whereas if you have a d100 random encounter table you're pretty much just going to say "ok, here come 8 hobgoblins."

  6. These look like divisions I was moving towards on an unfinished project to make separate tables for "what is the monster doing?" to accompany random encounters.

  7. the other half of this equation is "what are the PCs doing at the time?"

    invading their home?
    destroying nesting materials, markers, eggs?
    sticking to well-marked trails?
    waving fire around?

    The same creature should have multiple response modes.
    And I know you say these are non-sentients, but to a large extent packs/villages of humans are non-sentient - they mostly respond to threats in predictable ways, while individuals might do a wider variety of things.

  8. Thanks for the comments. And by the number of them, and the amount of thinking some of you've done already, it looks like this might be one of those spots in the rules that could have used some elaboration.

    @John: (I miss Beedo :) Those roles might play an important part in like ant or termite colonies. Maybe for sentient attackers too, I'll have to put that on hold for a while because, to keep it simple, for now I'm thinking as the group as a whole.

    @umbrielx: I think that kind of not attacking but walking right through your camp might actually be handled by the reaction roll. I guess I was always assuming the party is the prey, but I suppose a big monster could ignore them and go after pack animals or something.

    @Darnizhaan: I think this falls under what John mentioned, which will eventually be parties of mixed troop types.

    @JDJarvis: Yeah, what the sentients want is basically the approach I settled on, a bunch of bandits wanting to rob you will act differently than cannibals.

    @Talysman: I think the fantastic and legendary are kind of like Saturday night specials, they are more likely to be something I made myself and be clear and unique in their goals, both reasons I wont have trouble figuring out what they'll do when encountered. I'm mostly trying to deal with why every animal encounter turns into the binary of frontal attack or not.

    @Jon: Here is my attempt to solve that problem:

    @richard: This is where I started (and why I didn't post for a week as I struggled to make a table work) but I realized that there were too many variables to make an easy table. Monster type, the context or situation (like being outnumbered, young present, cornering the creature), and then the tactic the monster would take. I think my solution is basically simplifying a lot of player behavior into "cornering" the creatures. In my mind, if you enter the vermin lair, threaten the scavenger young, approach the lone hunter too close, you're forcing a pretty simple, straight forward attack (and the target is clearly the provoker). So I guess the question this system helps me answer is what will these creatures do when they are encountered but the players are just trying to move through the dungeon and not provoke attacks. Also, I can totally see assigning these categories to sentients too, like street urchins functioning the same as vermin, the band of thugs like a pack of wolves.

    For everyone, I have some ideas of ways to adjust this a bit and even clearer ideas for a set of sentient categories, but I'll make that into a new post.