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Even the Playing Field: Monster Tactics

by | Oct 17, 2018 | GM Tips, Uncategorized

Challenging a party in Fifth Edition can be one of the more difficult tasks a Dungeon Master can face. Unfortunately, little official guidance is given beyond how to choose roughly appropriate monsters for a particular encounter. As DMs, however, we do have tools at our disposal. One of those tools that I see sometimes overlooked is the application of tactics by the monsters under our control.

We often refer to characters designed to absorb punishment as “tanks”. Unlike in MMOs, from which the term is derived, there is no mechanical support for “drawing aggro” or otherwise unreasonably commanding a particular monster’s attention. In fact, there’s little reason for any monster to fall blindly for MMO or CRPG tactics like kiting or tanking. Don’t cede the field to the party just because they drop their best defender in front of our monsters. Make them work for it.

It is up to the party to force and funnel their opponents into their defenses. Whatever space there is, use it. No backline combatant should feel safe if there is ample room for enemies to bypass the frontline. If the party has to compress their formation to protect their flanks, they become more vulnerable to area effect attacks. If they become spread too thin trying to control large swaths of real estate, gaps open up and individual characters may be left unsupported and vulnerable.

Use the environment. Cover isn’t just for the party’s benefit. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Whether it’s for hiding or sneaking or simply taking defensive protection, creatures will use the environment as much as they can. If the environment doesn’t favor them, they need not needlessly march out to meet the party at their disadvantage. They might maneuver to a better vantage or lock down their defensive position. If the environment does favor them, press that advantage. Use speed and positioning to try to push the party and contain them where they are most at risk. Don’t just charge at the party because. Take a moment to decide if it’s in the monsters’ best interest. What suits their situation and abilities better? Do that.

When it comes to tactical discussions, there is an oft cited line drawn between unintelligent and intelligent enemies. Unless we’re talking oozes and slimes— literally intelligent-less creatures— the gulf in practical play may not be as wide as we think. Consider lions, tigers, wolves, spiders, sharks, or those velociraptors from Jurassic Park— they all use tactics of some kind, whether it’s operating as a pack and driving, isolating prey, or working alone as an ambush predator. They all have a method, a technique, to their attacks. As any cursory glance at a nature show will reveal, they do not target the strongest, healthiest, most able of their prey. They almost always target the very young or old, the weak, the infirm. In other words, there’s no reason they wouldn’t bypass the party’s big beefy defender for more vulnerable targets unless their was no other choice.

What technique a particular monster would use is something you decide, based upon the type of monster and their abilities. Whether intelligent or unintelligent, a creature will try to use every advantage it has for maximum effect and minimize its exposure as much as possible. Masters & Minions dedicates a chapter to describing such techniques for a host of creatures, both unintelligent and intelligent, that you can leverage. A creature’s stat block and description may also provide inspiration. Creatures with area attacks will try to maximize the effect and target as many victims as possible. Creatures working alone will target a single, isolated victim with their strongest attack. Creatures in groups will try to flank, surround, and encircle opponents.

Let’s pull out an example: the Chuul. Putting aside the lore for the moment, take a look at its stat block and see what we have to work with. A Chuul can breath both air and water and it can sense magic. It’s got two pincer attacks which can grapple and it can use a paralyzing poison tentacle attack on creatures that it’s grabbed with the pincers. Taking these characteristics into account, let’s think about how a Chuul might act during an encounter.

Without knowing anything of the number of Chuuls that might appear, I’m going to consider it a solitary creature. I think it would stick to deep waters that provide safety and cover. I think it would stalk a victim, attempt to grab it and, if successful, paralyze it and drag it into the water. It’s got a good armor class but, alone, it’ll easily get overwhelmed by the concerted efforts of a party so it’ll hit and run, maybe using its magic sense to sniff out a juicy magic-user to target.

So the Chuul, lurking in some deep water pool or river will try to make one poor character a to- go meal. But wait, it’s got good armor, a decent bag of hit points, why not go after everyone? The reason is something called the action economy. A party of four player-characters will have four turns per round of at least one potential attack per turn. A Chuul only has one turn and three potential attacks, though that third one depends on the success of the other two, so it’s more like two attacks and one turn. So it’s vulnerable to sheer attrition. Additionally, if any one of those characters can drop some deleterious status effects on the Chuul, it’s game over.

This is, fundamentally, the issue with single monster encounters in Fifth Edition. Inevitably, the action economy favors the player characters unless you actively take steps to prevent it. The easiest way to do that is to avoid a single monster encounter. Give them a posse of lesser creatures to draw fire and supply extra actions. Due to another feature of 5E, bounded accuracy, low level creatures do not entirely lose their teeth against player-characters above their weight class. Barring that, if a creature must go it alone, like our friend, the Chuul, play it smart. If we’ve determined it will hit and run then have it hit and run. If the creature escapes, it can be a source of tension for the party moving forward. Is that ripple in the water of this underground river that Chuul following us? Who wants to dive into the murk and take a look?

It is often said that the villain is the hero of their own tale. Well, our monsters are the heroes of their own tales and though they are perhaps fated to fall to the fists and swords and spells of the player characters, they need not go gentle into their good nights. Play them like they are the player characters of their own game, play them to win or, if not, to survive. If there are openings, exploit them. If the situation is against them, fall back, flee, regroup, or go on the defensive.

I guarantee that if your players are unaccustomed to such thoughtful monster play, such maneuvers will catch them by surprise. It might even lead to their undoing, if they’re not careful. They will learn to approach encounters more carefully when rote techniques or reliance on ill-fitting moves like kiting and drawing aggro no longer suffice. Consequently, the world will feel more alive and their engagement with it will only grow. It is that sort of life that separates tabletop RPGs from their MMO and CRPG cousins. It may seem daunting at first to achieve but, by looking at the encounter from the monster’s point of view, playing to their strengths, protecting their weaknesses, and using the environment to their advantage, you can take the fight to your players. It will make the party’s victory all the sweeter when they achieve it.

Todd Terwilliger

Gamer, Writer and Talker, Freelance Web Guy

Todd has been running and playing Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games since the early 1980s. When not fiddling with websites, rough-housing with his four year old daughter, or running his play-by-post online game, you may find him hanging about in one of Brooklyn’s finest game shops, getting his game on. He writes at http://hexed.press at talks at http://tube.hexed.press.

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Even the Playing Field: Monster Tactics

by | Oct 17, 2018 | GM Tips, Uncategorized

Challenging a party in Fifth Edition can be one of the more difficult tasks a Dungeon Master can face. Unfortunately, little official guidance is given beyond how to choose roughly appropriate monsters for a particular encounter. As DMs, however, we do have tools at our disposal. One of those tools that I see sometimes overlooked is the application of tactics by the monsters under our control.

We often refer to characters designed to absorb punishment as “tanks”. Unlike in MMOs, from which the term is derived, there is no mechanical support for “drawing aggro” or otherwise unreasonably commanding a particular monster’s attention. In fact, there’s little reason for any monster to fall blindly for MMO or CRPG tactics like kiting or tanking. Don’t cede the field to the party just because they drop their best defender in front of our monsters. Make them work for it.

It is up to the party to force and funnel their opponents into their defenses. Whatever space there is, use it. No backline combatant should feel safe if there is ample room for enemies to bypass the frontline. If the party has to compress their formation to protect their flanks, they become more vulnerable to area effect attacks. If they become spread too thin trying to control large swaths of real estate, gaps open up and individual characters may be left unsupported and vulnerable.

Use the environment. Cover isn’t just for the party’s benefit. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Whether it’s for hiding or sneaking or simply taking defensive protection, creatures will use the environment as much as they can. If the environment doesn’t favor them, they need not needlessly march out to meet the party at their disadvantage. They might maneuver to a better vantage or lock down their defensive position. If the environment does favor them, press that advantage. Use speed and positioning to try to push the party and contain them where they are most at risk. Don’t just charge at the party because. Take a moment to decide if it’s in the monsters’ best interest. What suits their situation and abilities better? Do that.

When it comes to tactical discussions, there is an oft cited line drawn between unintelligent and intelligent enemies. Unless we’re talking oozes and slimes— literally intelligent-less creatures— the gulf in practical play may not be as wide as we think. Consider lions, tigers, wolves, spiders, sharks, or those velociraptors from Jurassic Park— they all use tactics of some kind, whether it’s operating as a pack and driving, isolating prey, or working alone as an ambush predator. They all have a method, a technique, to their attacks. As any cursory glance at a nature show will reveal, they do not target the strongest, healthiest, most able of their prey. They almost always target the very young or old, the weak, the infirm. In other words, there’s no reason they wouldn’t bypass the party’s big beefy defender for more vulnerable targets unless their was no other choice.

What technique a particular monster would use is something you decide, based upon the type of monster and their abilities. Whether intelligent or unintelligent, a creature will try to use every advantage it has for maximum effect and minimize its exposure as much as possible. Masters & Minions dedicates a chapter to describing such techniques for a host of creatures, both unintelligent and intelligent, that you can leverage. A creature’s stat block and description may also provide inspiration. Creatures with area attacks will try to maximize the effect and target as many victims as possible. Creatures working alone will target a single, isolated victim with their strongest attack. Creatures in groups will try to flank, surround, and encircle opponents.

Let’s pull out an example: the Chuul. Putting aside the lore for the moment, take a look at its stat block and see what we have to work with. A Chuul can breath both air and water and it can sense magic. It’s got two pincer attacks which can grapple and it can use a paralyzing poison tentacle attack on creatures that it’s grabbed with the pincers. Taking these characteristics into account, let’s think about how a Chuul might act during an encounter.

Without knowing anything of the number of Chuuls that might appear, I’m going to consider it a solitary creature. I think it would stick to deep waters that provide safety and cover. I think it would stalk a victim, attempt to grab it and, if successful, paralyze it and drag it into the water. It’s got a good armor class but, alone, it’ll easily get overwhelmed by the concerted efforts of a party so it’ll hit and run, maybe using its magic sense to sniff out a juicy magic-user to target.

So the Chuul, lurking in some deep water pool or river will try to make one poor character a to- go meal. But wait, it’s got good armor, a decent bag of hit points, why not go after everyone? The reason is something called the action economy. A party of four player-characters will have four turns per round of at least one potential attack per turn. A Chuul only has one turn and three potential attacks, though that third one depends on the success of the other two, so it’s more like two attacks and one turn. So it’s vulnerable to sheer attrition. Additionally, if any one of those characters can drop some deleterious status effects on the Chuul, it’s game over.

This is, fundamentally, the issue with single monster encounters in Fifth Edition. Inevitably, the action economy favors the player characters unless you actively take steps to prevent it. The easiest way to do that is to avoid a single monster encounter. Give them a posse of lesser creatures to draw fire and supply extra actions. Due to another feature of 5E, bounded accuracy, low level creatures do not entirely lose their teeth against player-characters above their weight class. Barring that, if a creature must go it alone, like our friend, the Chuul, play it smart. If we’ve determined it will hit and run then have it hit and run. If the creature escapes, it can be a source of tension for the party moving forward. Is that ripple in the water of this underground river that Chuul following us? Who wants to dive into the murk and take a look?

It is often said that the villain is the hero of their own tale. Well, our monsters are the heroes of their own tales and though they are perhaps fated to fall to the fists and swords and spells of the player characters, they need not go gentle into their good nights. Play them like they are the player characters of their own game, play them to win or, if not, to survive. If there are openings, exploit them. If the situation is against them, fall back, flee, regroup, or go on the defensive.

I guarantee that if your players are unaccustomed to such thoughtful monster play, such maneuvers will catch them by surprise. It might even lead to their undoing, if they’re not careful. They will learn to approach encounters more carefully when rote techniques or reliance on ill-fitting moves like kiting and drawing aggro no longer suffice. Consequently, the world will feel more alive and their engagement with it will only grow. It is that sort of life that separates tabletop RPGs from their MMO and CRPG cousins. It may seem daunting at first to achieve but, by looking at the encounter from the monster’s point of view, playing to their strengths, protecting their weaknesses, and using the environment to their advantage, you can take the fight to your players. It will make the party’s victory all the sweeter when they achieve it.

Todd Terwilliger

Gamer, Writer and Talker, Freelance Web Guy

Todd has been running and playing Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games since the early 1980s. When not fiddling with websites, rough-housing with his four year old daughter, or running his play-by-post online game, you may find him hanging about in one of Brooklyn’s finest game shops, getting his game on. He writes at http://hexed.press at talks at http://tube.hexed.press.

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