NPC Tactics: Guards, Thugs, Veterans and Knights

Take a commoner who’s more physically fit than average, put a spear in his or her hand, give him or her some combat training, and you have a guard, the first line of defense against player characters who might otherwise run amok through the picturesque towns of your campaign setting.

With their above-average (though not exceptionally so) physical ability scores, guards are well suited for the simple, direct combat role of “Go ye forth and poke it, then poke it again.” That being said, they are essentially nothing more than well-trained commoners. Braver than average they are, and more motivated by duty, but this presumes that 99 times out of 100 they’re not facing any foe more challenging than another commoner. Throw a monster at them, and they’re as likely to flee or freeze as they are to stand and fight. They know how to use their weapons, but that’s not the same as understanding strategy and tactics; their sophistication extends only as far as knowing that a surrounded foe is less likely to get away, so if they outnumber their opponents, they’ll flank, and if they don’t, they’ll form a line, circle up with their backs to one another or send one of their number to run and get more guards. When they’re in serious danger—reduced to 4 hp or fewer, or next to another guard who is—their discipline dissolves, but not so much that they’ll run without Disengaging (action) first, unless they themselves are the ones seriously wounded. (The difference between their physical abilities and those of a commoner is significant enough that nonhuman guards will take the direct approach to combat even if commoners of the same race wouldn’t.)

Note that guards don’t even have proficiency in the Intimidation skill. They can yell, “Halt!” but it’s not going to make anyone take them more seriously.

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NPC Tactics: Commoners and Nobles

Not all the enemies player characters encounter in Dungeons & Dragons are monsters. Many of them are simply people: villagers, townsfolk, nomads, vagabonds, hermits. They’re what we refer to as “non-player characters.”

In the fifth-edition Monster Manual, the basic template for an NPC is the commoner. The commoner has all-average attributes, no special skills or features, and no weapon attack except a club, which is interchangeable with any improvised weapon.

The German psychologist Karen Horney (rhymes with “horsefly,” not “corny”) observed three tendencies in people’s behavior: moving toward others, moving against others and moving away from others. She later called these tendencies compliance, aggression and detachment. In any given personality, one of these will probably be stronger than the other two. So a commoner thrown into a conflict situation might react one of three ways:

  • Fight. This character will reflexively attack a perceived enemy. The attack won’t be sophisticated. The NPC will grab the nearest weapon (improvised, if necessary), move toward his or her opponent, and Attack (action) until either the enemy is defeated or the NPC is seriously wounded (reduced to 1 hp) or knocked out. A rare commoner—for instance, a hunter—may know how to use a simple ranged weapon, in which case he or she will Attack without moving toward the opponent, but will give limited pursuit to an opponent that tries to escape.
  • Flee. This character will turn and run. Lacking the training to know to Disengage, he or she will instead Dodge (action) while within an opponent’s reach, Dash (action) otherwise, and in either case move at full speed toward the nearest place of perceived safety.
  • Freeze. In real life, this reaction to danger is surprisingly common. The character will neither fight nor flee but stand rooted, paralyzed with fear. If the NPC can gather his or her wits (say, by making a Wisdom check against a DC equaling 10 plus the enemy’s challenge rating times the appropriate encounter modifier from page 82 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide), he or she will form the words necessary to surrender.

Why are you attacking commoners anyway, you naughty PCs? Well, a dungeon master may have good reasons for including commoners in an encounter other than evil PC behavior. Maybe the commoners are being attacked by a monster and must be rescued. Maybe they’ve been charmed by a more powerful foe. Maybe the PCs have been charmed or magically disguised to appear as a threat. Maybe the commoners are xenophobic, and the PCs are foreigners to them. Maybe they’re embroiled in a feud with some other commoners.

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