About This Blog


Any creature that has evolved to survive in a given environment instinctively knows how to make the best use of its particular adaptations.

That seems like a straightforward principle, doesn’t it? Yet monsters in Dungeons and Dragons campaigns often fail to follow it.

No doubt, that’s largely because many of us begin playing D&D when we’re teens (or even pre-teens) and don’t yet have much experience with how the world works. Or we come to D&D as adults with little or no background in the military, martial arts, evolutionary biology or even tactical simulation games, and so we don’t consider how relative strengths and weaknesses, the environment, and simple survival sense play into the way a creature fights, hunts or defends itself. Consequently, we think of combat as a situation in which two opponents swing/shoot/claw/bite at each other until one or the other goes down or runs away.

I learned this the hard way by playing the computer game XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Over and over, I kept getting massacred, even on the easiest levels. What was I doing wrong? I had no idea. But thanks to many hard years of learning how to learn, I finally figured out that I was failing because of something I hadn’t known I didn’t know. XCOM taught me what it was that I didn’t know: small-unit tactics. So I started reading up on them. My XCOM game changed overnight.

Primitive societies fight battles by charging out into the open and stabbing at each other. Trained soldiers don’t. They use ranged weapons and shoot from cover. They strive to occupy high ground, where they can see farther and from which it’s easier to shoot or charge. While one soldier or fire team moves from cover to cover, another stays put and watches for danger; then they switch. They’ve learned this from centuries of experience with what wins a battle and what loses it.

Similarly, a lion or a crocodile could ruin any one of us in a head-to-head fight; even so, they don’t charge at us from out in the open. They use cover and stealth, and they strike when they’re close enough that we have little chance of running away. A crocodile isn’t fast enough to give chase, and a lion would tire itself out before it caught us if we had enough of a lead. On the other hand, black and brown bears, which are also deadly up close—and are more than fast enough to chase a human down—use stealth hardly at all. Why? Because, by and large, they don’t hunt. They scavenge, forage and fish. Their environment is different, and their diet is different, so their habits are different.

So what, in a game of D&D, distinguishes goblins from kobolds from orcs from lizardfolk? In many campaigns, hardly anything. They’re all low-level humanoids who go, “Rrrrahhhh, stab stab stab,” then (if the player characters are above level 2) get wiped out. They’re cannon fodder. Only the packaging is different.

The simple fact that they have different names tells us they should behave differently. And one of the great things about the fifth edition of D&D is that not only the ability scores but the skills and features of monsters are specified precisely. Those skills and features, along with the flavor text in the Monster Manual, give us clues as to how these monsters ought to fight.

In the course of a D&D game, however, a dungeon master has to make one decision after another in response to player behavior—and the better the players, the more unpredictable their behavior!—and it doesn’t take long for decision fatigue to set in. It’s easy for even an excellent DM to allow combat to devolve into monsters’ running directly at the PCs and going, “Rrrrahhhh, stab stab stab.”

The way to avoid this is to make as many of these decisions as possible before the session begins, just as a trained soldier—or accomplished athlete or musician—relies on reflexes developed from thousands of hours of training and practice, and just as an animal acts from evolved instinct. A lion doesn’t wait until the moment after it first spots a herd of tasty gazelles to consider how one goes about nabbing one, a soldier doesn’t whip out his field manual for the first time when he’s already under fire, and a DM shouldn’t be deciding how bullywugs move and fight when the PCs have just encountered 12 of them.

This blog is aimed at:

  • Beginning DMs, especially younger DMs and adult DMs with little or no strategy gaming experience.
  • Intermediate DMs who are looking for ways to add more flavor and challenge for their players.
  • Advanced DMs who could figure all this out perfectly well on their own but are too busy to put the time into it.
  • And players. Yes, players! I don’t see anything wrong with your scoping this blog for intel. If your DM is using these tips, it’s going to make your characters’ lives a little tougher, and I don’t want them to get slaughtered like I did my first time playing XCOM. If you know what your characters are up against, you can begin to plan for it yourselves, and that’s part of the fun of D&D.

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28 responses to “About This Blog”

  1. Christopher Green Avatar

    This resource is fantastic! I hope to see many more entries!

  2. Andrea Carenzi Avatar
    Andrea Carenzi

    Just wanted to leave here somewhere how much I love what you’re doing here. Really makes you think about how NPCs should behave organically on the battlefield. This blog genuinely made me happy (and some of my friends). Thank you ^^

  3. John Mort Avatar
    John Mort

    I wanted to thank you for doing this, it has saved me a lot of work and fits really well into the hexcrawl I am running. I have a player diving into a location that was taken over by myconid, and having something written up where someone else has already thought of this stuff is a real time saver. You’ve clearly put a lot of thought into how these encounters should generally go.

  4. […] da página About This Blog do blog The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, de Keith […]

  5. Jack McDade Avatar

    Just stumbled across this blog and am completely loving it so far. Is there any kind of recommended order in reading through the articles? If there are a number of “foundational” tactical posts, I’d love to have that context as I go deeper.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Not really, although these days I often don’t bother re-defining terms that I use all the time. If you stumble on one that puzzles you, just search for that term and start reading the hits in chronological order.

  6. Phil Avatar

    I stumbled upon this at an opportune time, just as my players are dealing with bullywugs and soon to tackle a green slaad (both profiled here), so thank you for your work.

    While I see you’ve covered a variety of NPCs, I was wondering if you had any suggestions for antagonists made up of what are traditionally seen as “player” races, such as elves, dwarves, dragonborne, etc.?

    One of the recurring villains in my current game are elves, who started a long-running war with the human nations because the elves were angry about the widespread deforestation and mining and general pollution the humans were responsible for. while I’ve been using the occasional elf guerrilla attack with a lot of emphasis on sniping from cover, I’m curious to know if there are other tactics I should be rolling out (bringing in magic-using eladrin to impose environmental cover like fog or hazards like thorns is another idea I’ve used).

    I always figured dwarves would use a lot of traps, like kobolds, and that dragonborn would favor some of the same tactics used by dragons of their color, but not many have wings or lair options, so there are obvious limiting factors to that idea.

    Mainly, I just like the idea of presenting my players with unexpected foes from time to time… Thanks again for all your work – it’s clearly a labor of love.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Take a look at the various articles on NPCs, starting with commoners and nobles. That should give you a few ideas about how to use an NPC’s race to flavor up its template. The idea you’ve described sounds good too. Run with it.

  7. drs Avatar

    “Primitive societies fight battles by charging out into the open and stabbing at each other.”

    AIUI, not true of real “primitive” societies. Open “battles” likely involve a lot of ritual, posturing, and withdrawing after someone gets killed or even hurt. ‘Real’ war centers around ambush raids, preferable with 3 to 1 ratios, and annihilation by attrition. I think the same is true of chimp bands; I read of one that gradually wiped out another.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      In fact, traditional warfare can be remarkably devastating to the societies that engage in it. Read Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? Ambushes are one mode of warfare, but pitched battles are another, and they most definitely do not end after just one or two casualties.

  8. Zack Avatar

    You sir are a genius, I’m willing to start dming d&d, done alot of reading, seen live games and Podcasts, but nothing comes close to what I discovered through your innovative and brilliant articles. I do sincerly hope that you won’t stop making these anytime soon.

    I would like to thank you for this flawless work. Hopefully I’ll get my hand on a pre-paid credit card and purchase your book too, speaking of that, do you believe that I, being in canada, can use a pre-paid CC to make that purchase, since I sadly do not own one ?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      “Flawless.” Heh. Far from it. In fact, when I screw up, I usually leave the erroneous text up, struck out, along with the correction. Nobody’s perfect, and I don’t pretend to be.

      As for prepaid credit cards, beats me. Try it and let us know if it works.

  9. […] original: About This Blog, por Keith […]

  10. Marco Brotto Avatar
    Marco Brotto

    Ah, how I wish there was a similar resource for D&D 3.5e / Pathfinder! Great idea and great job, sir.

  11. Lauren Avatar

    Okay I love your blog.

    I just stumbled upon it today and see that some of the posts are from last year. I hope you’re still writing, because its fantastic!!

    I just started playing D&D because my husband is obsessed and I wanted to see what it was all about it. So I’m starting with 5e and I love it!

    I’m in my first campaign ever (as a player, not a DM, obviously) and these are some great resources. Thank you!!

  12. Heresolong Avatar

    Preordered your book. if it is as cool as I expect it to be, I might order a couple more copies for the D&D club that I advise at my high school.

  13. Gregg Avatar

    I love these concepts. I started reading your blog to figure out how I wanted to throw aboleths and chulls at my party, and those articles really helped. One complaint: “primitive” societies typically don’t run in and stab-stab-stab, or the human species would never have lasted long. That behavior is more representative of firearm-weilding European units of the mid-1700s.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      They actually do. Casualty rates in pitched battles between traditional societies are extraordinarily high. See chapters 3 and 4 of Jared Diamond’s The World Before Yesterday.

  14. Marcelo Avatar

    Loved your blog mate… Being DMing for years and started to get annoyed how, besides bosses, i always played my monster as “Charge and attack reckless” units. I was looking for some things to star fresh for a owlbeast and found your blog.

    I will use it for now on. Good stuff

  15. WanderingSwampBeast Avatar

    Out of curiosity, do you plan on tackling any of the monsters in Eberron: Rising from the Last War? It has quite a few interesting enemies in it (I’d love to see your thoughts on Dusk Hags and Radiant Idols in particular). Thanks for making this blog by the way, I’ve used this thing a ton since my friend showed it to me.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Yes, but I want to mop up Volo’s and Mordenkainen’s first.

  16. Greyshade Avatar

    Great site! Love it to this day!

    One note: will you eventually be covering more setting-specific books, like Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron, or Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Eberron is absolutely on the to-do list. I don’t have any plans to do Ravnica at this time, but there has been a lot of demand for Theros, so I’m considering it.

  17. Wesley St Clair Avatar
    Wesley St Clair

    I love that your blog was born out of the crucible that is Xcom gameplay! A great game series but also quite brutal. Great blog and very helpful for me as an inexperienced DM.

  18. Mike Christie Avatar
    Mike Christie

    Hey, I love your work and find it really inspiring when I’m DM’ing. More than once my players have made comments like “I didn’t expect that monster to do THAT!’ 😉

    Do you have a policy for using your ideas in commercial products? Specifically, I write and publish home-brew adventures commercially and am wondering how much (or how little) of your ideas I can use in something I offer for sale? Would be enough for me to cite you (and your books/web page) in the credits, or is commercial (re)use essentially verboten unless we have a signed agreement? Right now I’m spending a lot of time rewording/reworking your ideas but I’d prefer not to have to keep reinventing the wheel if I don’t have to (as well as giving you the credit you so richly deserve).



  19. Tyler Avatar

    Hey so you mention that you “read up on small unit tactics,” do you have any reading recommendations for stuff like that? Doesn’t have to be just d&d, I’m interested in this stuff in general.

  20. Tyler Avatar

    Amazing blog! I am very new to D&D and started playing for my kids, but DMing is quite the mental exercise. The site has motivated me to keep plugging away.

  21. Emma John Avatar

    Really helpful content

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Praise for The Monsters Know What They’re Doing: Combat Tactics for Dungeon Masters

“I’ve always said, the Dungeon Master is the whole world except for his players, and as a result, I spend countless hours prepping for my home group. What Keith gets is that the monsters are the DM’s characters, and his work has been super helpful in adding logic, flavor, and fun in my quest to slaughter my players’ characters and laugh out the window as they cry in their cars afterward.” —Joe Manganiello

“The best movie villains are the ones you fall in love with. Keith’s book grounds villains in specificity, motivation, and tactics—so much so that players will love to hate ’em. This book will enrich your game immeasurably!” —Matthew Lillard

“This book almost instantly made me a better Dungeon Master. If you’re running games, it is a must-have enhancement. I gave copies to the two others in our group who share in the Dungeon Mastering, and both of them came back the next time grinning rather slyly. Keith is a diabolical genius, and I say that with the utmost respect!” —R.A. Salvatore

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