Why These Tactics?

Some basic premises I’ll be starting from:

  • Every creature wants, first and foremost, to survive. If it’s seriously wounded (by my definition, reduced to 40 percent of its maximum hit points or fewer—you may prefer a different threshold), it will try to flee. Exceptions are (a) fanatics or (b) intelligent beings who believe they’ll be hunted down and killed if they do flee.

  • A creature with Intelligence of 7 or less operates purely from instinct. That doesn’t mean it uses its features ineffectively, only that it has one preferred modus operandi and isn’t going to be able to adjust if it stops working. A creature with Intelligence of 8 to 11 is unsophisticated in its tactics and largely lacking in strategy, but it can tell when things are going wrong and adjust to some degree. A creature with Intelligence of 12 or higher can come up with a good plan and coordinate with others; it probably also has multiple ways of attacking and/or defending and knows which is better in which situation. A creature with Intelligence of 14 or higher can not only plan but also accurately assess its enemies’ weaknesses and target accordingly.
  • A creature with Wisdom of 7 or less has an underdeveloped survival instinct and may wait too long to flee. A creature with Wisdom of 8 to 11 knows when to flee but is indiscriminate in choosing targets. A creature with Wisdom of 12 or higher will choose targets carefully and may even refrain from combat in favor of parley if it recognizes that it’s outmatched. A creature with Wisdom of 14 or higher chooses its battles carefully and fights only when it’s sure it will win (or will be killed if it doesn’t fight).
  • Physical abilities influence fighting styles. Low-Strength creatures, whatever their Dexterity and Constitution, will always try to compensate with numbers; if their numbers are reduced enough, they’ll scatter. Low-Constitution creatures, whatever their Strength or Dexterity, will prefer to attack from hiding. Low-Dexterity creatures, whatever their Strength or Constitution, will need to choose their battles carefully: since their ability to avoid damage is poor, they’ll want some sort of compensatory advantage. High-Strength, high-Constitution, low-Dexterity creatures are brutes that will welcome a close-quarters slugfest. High-Strength, low-Constitution, high-Dexterity creatures will use stealth and go for big-damage sneak attacks. Low-Strength, high-Dexterity, high-Constitution creatures are scrappy. Low-Strength, high-Dexterity, low-Constitution creatures will snipe at range. If all three physical abilities are low, a creature will seek to avoid fighting altogether unless it has some sort of advantage; if it’s intelligent, it may lay traps.
  • Creatures that rely on numbers have an instinctive sense of how many of them are needed to take down a foe. Usually this will be at least 3 to 1. This sense is not perfect, but it’s accurate given certain base assumptions (which player characters may defy). The smarter a creature is, the more it will account for such things as its target’s armor, weaponry and behavior; the stupider it is, the more it will base its estimate solely on size.
  • A creature with a feature that gives it an advantage (or gives its enemy a disadvantage) will always prefer to use that feature. If it can’t, it may even shun a battle altogether. On average, an advantage or disadvantage is worth approximately ±4 on a d20 roll; with midrange target numbers, it can be worth as much as ±5. It can turn a 50/50 chance into 3-to-1 odds, or 3-to-1 odds into 15-to-1 odds . . . or the reverse. Advantage and disadvantage are a big deal.
  • A creature with a feature that requires a saving throw to avoid will generally favor this feature over a simple attack, even if the expected damage may not be as great. This is because the presumption of an attack action is failure, and the burden is on the attacker to prove success; the presumption of a feature that requires a saving throw is success, and the burden is on the defender to prove failure. Moreover, attacks that miss do no damage at all, ever; features that require saving throws often have damaging effects even if the targets make their saves.
  • In Dungeons and Dragons, fifth edition, unless otherwise specified, any creature gets one action and up to one bonus action in a combat round, plus movement and up to one reaction. Any creature that exists in the D&D 5E game world will have evolved in accordance with this rule: it will seek to obtain the best possible result from whatever movement, actions, bonus actions and reactions are available to it. If it can combine two of them for a superior outcome, it will. I’ll refer to this principle as “action economy.”
  • Alignment matters. Good creatures will tend to be friendly by default, neutral creatures indifferent, and evil creatures hostile—but lawful creatures, even lawful good creatures, will be hostile toward chaotic creatures causing ruckus, and nearly all creatures, regardless of alignment, are territorial to some degree or another. Intelligent lawful monsters may try to capture and either imprison or enslave characters whom intelligent chaotic monsters would simply kill.

30 thoughts on “Why These Tactics?

  1. Dude well done!

    This is a great summary of how to run monsters in D&D,and should be considered required reading for any new DM.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. It makes everything else fall into place. Well done framing your ideas in such a clearly well thought out structure.

  3. I love these ideas and the blog in general!

    I’m unsure about the specific INT and WIS numbers here, as they seem in stark conflict with player characters actions for similar numbers. Any thoughts on this? I wonder if low INT or WIS characters would still be able to recognize those enemies with heavy armor and larger, more intimidating weapons.

      1. By “scrappy,” I mean they don’t do as much damage, but they can still last a while. They can harass an enemy with nuisance attacks. Skirmishers, basically.

      1. while definitely late, i have to agree those thresholds do run into some degrees of issues.

        primarily, `A creature with Intelligence of 8 to 11 is unsophisticated in its tactics and largely lacking in strategy, but it can tell when things are going wrong and adjust to some degree.` This happens to cover the average person according to 5th edition standards, with 10 being the flat average and 9-11 being a bit more lenient in variations for average intelligence.

        `A creature with Wisdom of 8 to 11 knows when to flee but is indiscriminate in choosing targets.` runs into the same issues.

        one other thing i didn’t bother to mention in the earlier lines, for the sake of only pasting it once. a trained soldier, by these standards, would attack indiscriminately and with a large lack of strategy, and only some degree of variation in their strategy mid-fight.

        this isn’t even going from a pc standpoint, which as you did care to mention there is an uncontrollable variable there. however, to presume that the likes of Sildar (LMoP NPC) have limited strategy and attack indiscriminately, despite their training is ridiculous. the monster manual makes it clear that he is still technically a monster, at least by the definition they use to define one.

        while looking at much of your work i can agree with it to a fair degree, this exact set of ground rules for scaling intelligence and wisdom runs into some serious issues when looking at some of the things it classifies as such.

        while sure they won’t be a mastermind, they are still at the average level of intelligence/wisdom, and I’m sure any soldier will find it more effective to break the moral of the kobolds rather than hack and slash indiscriminately at them if the numbers won’t overwhelm them.

          1. Let’s assume I am for a moment. That still puts trained soldiers in the same boat as commoners, given they too are often stated at that same intelligence level. A main point In that entire response, that happened to be ignored.

            Now, reading over your actual reviews I can usually agree with them, and to a fair extent in the ones I have my disagreements, and usually you do a fair job at accounting for lore. But the fact your explanation of how you judge these literally puts a veteran soldier and a commoner in the same boat for combat tactics and selection of targets is well.

            Now the over estimation point, may have some merit to it if my town is more in that 12 kind of range, but unless that is the case there does seem to be some issues with the lines drawn.

          2. Remember though, most soldiers would not have a whole lot of training (especially town guards and levies), and would mostly just do what their commander asks of them. In the case of the trained soldiers (knight’s, gladiators and veterans, as well as a few others), They should, when it comes to combat, be considered roughly 1 tier higher than what their actually score suggests, since the D&D attribute system does not take such gradients (i.e, someone who is a fair tactician but a terrible scholar).

        1. Another way to think of this like a passive ability check, and add a suitable bonus to Int for those who you’d consider proficient in combat tactics, such as those who routinely earn their living through violent encounters. That bumps our Int 10 soldier up into the moderately tactical range, provided he has some meaningful training and is not just a farm boy with a polearm.

          Alternately, or in combination with this, you could apply advantage/disadvantage, which is +/- 5 for a passive check, for a situation which the creature is well accustomed to, (our Int 8 soldier when facing the sort of threats they are trained for, or an animal hunting it’s normal prey in its normal environment), compared to a creature with no experience with violence of any kind (our Int 14 scholar, an animal not accustomed to hunting humanoids).

          A creature whose training is not especially applicable, doesn’t get a bonus. If our Int 8 soldier’s training was as part of a shield wall, their training will not help them in an a roadside ambush surrounded by civilians. If the training never involved spellcasters, even if they are aware that fireball is a thing, they are likely to clump up anyway. If they survive the fist fireball, they will struggle to adjust their tactics.

          Our scholar with Int 14+, on the other hand, if they have proficiency in Arcana, will be very likely to identify a spellcaster, and almost certainly assume a hostile spellcaster will cast AOE. And even without any prior exposure to spellcasting, they will recognize the threat of AOE after the first time they see it or are told about it.

          Likewise for Wisdom, a creature that routinely faces serious threats to their safety could be considered to have advantage or proficiency in assessing threats, compared to a creature that has rarely (if ever) been in serious fear for their life. (Either because they have little experience of violent conflict, or because they rarely encounter anything hostile that is tougher than they are.)

  4. Thank you so much for having your premises out here in the open! This is very useful as it can help people think of strategies for monsters on the fly! You should condense this a bit more and put it on a DM’s screen or something, make some money off it.

  5. I really appreciate the effort you’ve put in to analysing all of this, it has given me, a new DM, a lot of great ideas on spicing up combat!

    I am curious to know how you deal with exp though? Many of your monsters bug out and run. How and when do you reward exp in these cases?
    Apologies if it’s written somewhere else!

    Thanks 🙂

    1. Personally, I usually award full XP for “defeating” a monster, meaning killing it, driving it away permanently, forcing it to surrender or finding a nonviolent solution that neutralizes the threat it poses; and half XP for circumventing it in a way that avoids the threat without dealing with it directly.

  6. Greetings! I would like to know what the benefit of purchasing “The Monsters Know What They Are Doing”? Is there any additional material not covered on your great site? Thanks!

  7. Would you say that these rules (use saving throw abilities before attack rolls, seek advantage, utilize action economy) work in the same way for PC’s too?

  8. I like the concept, though I would change 2 things:
    1. State upfront: training, any kind of training can have a huge superseding effect to the base intelligence & wisdom in the situation, improving awareness, assessment, tactics, and instinctive reactions.

    and
    In any irl game I have played, people always gravitate to attack a perceived weakness. Animals do it too, irl.

    2a. So a difference in description here would be: Any creature with above mindless intelligence (& not under compulsion) will instinctively gravitate to attack a perceived weakness.
    But those untrained or of low intelligence and/or wisdom will often:
    *see the opening too late or react too slowly or cautiously to take advantage of it
    *overestimate the opportunity, putting their self in much higher risk than expected
    *fail to recognize when the “weakness” was actually a trap (to get them to overextend or move to very non-ideal terrain)

    2b. If a creature perceives it is in a weak situation it will react. Very rarely will it just keep on as it was. In some way, it will change it’s actions in either a conscious or subconscious attempt to make the situation different, even if that is a desperate, confused, or foolish action.
    Bear their intelligence & wisdom – and current mental state in mind.
    Example reactions:
    *panic-double-down: keep doing what they were doing – but do it more emphatically, faster, more desperately
    *flee
    *Beg for mercy
    *Try to move position to alter the position (or their perception/feeling of it!)
    *Try to rush or delay the timing of what the enemy is doing
    *in certain people and/or extreme cases that a person can’t mentally can’t bring their self to deal with – lock up/freeze (still a reaction)

    Example: A wise and intelligent commander who expected to win but instead just watched his lines break and people he cared about dying en mass, is in demoralized shock.
    He will probably react numbly (disconnected reflex) instead of tactfully, or he may even flee in overwhelmed dismay or sit and watch the enemy run up and kill him.

    irl example: in a game, 1 person is walking along and notices 2 opponents converging. That person will do something, usually either fleeing outright or trying to maneuver to prevent being trapped or having to fight both at the same time. What they won’t do is just keep walking forward like they were.
    A more analytical person like me will quickly asses and do one of the following:
    *rush and attack 1 person so it is two 1v1 battles instead of a 1v2
    *maneuver them so 1 of them will end up with one of my friendlies flanking them, then we rush together
    *maneuver so one or both of them get trapped by boggy ground/water and they either have to backtrack or try to fight me 1v1 while they have to try to climb and embankment at the same time (so they can’t easily rush-flank me)
    *engage them where I can use a tree or other object to block them from easily flanking me or where 1 of them is crossing difficult footing so I can rush them when they are unable to react easily (eg, amid crossing foot tangling sticks or brambles, or on a log crossing!)

    What factors how I determine those choices and pull it off?
    I have excellent vision and awareness, and I like bouldering and adventuring, so
    Typically I can out jump and out pace most people for a short time and surprise them by doing things they couldn’t (like jumping a stream or bramble patch they wouldn’t think or dare to cross) or do them faster than they expected, and I can plod along forever.
    But they will win if it’s any kind of sustained endurance battle.

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