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The shift from 3.5e to 4e in D&D has meant a big shift towards emphasizing tactics during combat. While I was apprehensive about this at first, it turns out it's quite entertaining, and a good match for my group.

However, it's not clear to me how much players should know about the creature's they're facing. For instance, if they essentially know nothing, beyond the basic visual description, they rapidly learn meta-gaming techniques that seem to break versimilitude.

Obviously, it's a good tactical technique to wipe out a group of minions very quickly, since they're easy to kill, but can deal significant damage if left alive. How much should the players know? It would be strange for them to know everything, right off the bat...but it's equally odd for them to wade into a battle, striking out semi-randomly, then suddenly everyone focuses on a single type of creature, because they've realized it's a "minion".

How is this normally handled?

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Does passive perception come into play here? – user2525 Aug 9 '12 at 14:28
up vote 11 down vote accepted

In the final analysis, it's up to your players to prevent metagaming -- as you've noticed, it's easy for them to figure out what's a minion and what isn't. That said:

I like to keep monster knowledge checks in mind. I know which PCs have high Nature, Arcane, Religion, and Dungeoneering skills, and I make sure the players know the things their PCs should know. For example, I'll say "oh, and Zenja, you've studied those weird Fell Taint things," because she's got a high Arcane. I don't ask for a roll, I just provide the information. This removes a lot of the emphasis on playing metagames to figure out the best tactics.

Further, on the occasions that I don't give information, the players are more likely to accept that it's a mysterious monster. They get a bit more worried, since they know it's something special and funky.

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I find for the kids it helps to have a picture ready to show them. They've fallen in love with Kobolds and Bullywugs as opponents for that very reason. The lore then sits very nicely on top of the picture for them. – anon186 Aug 20 '10 at 16:44
I guess on the opposite end of the spectrum, I wonder about unique creatures like Orcus, Yeenoghu, etc. They have special powers that, if the characters aren't looking out for them, can hurt them severely. But it isn't necessarily obvious what's happening, when it's happening. For instance, Yeenoghu has an ability called Hyena Strike where if he moves at least 3 squares from where he began his turn, he deals an extra 3d6. The players may not realize why they're taking so much damage, and what to do about it. Is the game balanced for them knowing, or not? – Beska Sep 15 '10 at 20:50
I definitely tend to hint at those -- you get that kind of funky thing in some lower level monsters too. I can't recall off the top of my head, but there's a low level monster that gains 1d6 when he moves 4 squares. So I'd say something about how he seems to gain momentum as he runs, which translates into blade speed, and then I roll the extra dice. – Bryant Sep 15 '10 at 20:58
Goblin Spearchunkers get an extra 1d6 damage if they move 4 squares in their turn. "mobile artillery" is the name of the power, I think. Describing the foward movement, much like a olympian javalier captures the flavor. If the movement happens to be lateral to the direction of the throw, I use a spinning throw like a discus thrower. Most, if not all, 4.0 powers translate into a 'flavor' that can be described. – Paraic Mulgrew Jan 23 '12 at 16:46

I think a lot of this should depend on your players characters. A bunch of dull witted characters really would rush into a room and strike out until they found a groove, but intelligent characters might be able to observe that one particular creature/whatever seems to have an authority or influence on weaker minions, or maybe notice that some creatures just generally look more frail than others.

Provide your players with some material so they can roleplay out knowing the better tactics, rather than just dumping combat stats onto them. This should help break away from the metagaming some as well.

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With a semi-good monster knowledge check it should be easy to determine which creatures are the minions, however if the players always focus on the minions first it could be a sign the minions deal too much damage or there's just too many of them. In many games I've played a few minions end up being mostly ignored as we focus on the more powerful enemies. A minion in my opinion is not supposed to be a threat on their own, even over time, but more of an annoyance as they try to get the PCs to fight them, giving their bosses time to land their power attacks while staying relatively unscathed. If they still do nothing but focus on the minions try to come up with a battle that challenges them with 2 or 3 guys or even items (not monsters so the players have to ask about them) that summon minions every round if left alone and a ranged boss type. Try to do this in such a way that it's not completely obvious that they are the source of all the minions that keep flooding in if it's other monsters doing this.

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IMO It's completely up to the DM how much information about his creatures he's comfortable giving out to the players outside of them rolling monster knowledge checks. I don't give my players any info about the creatures outside of visual description; they don't even know the creatures' initiatives until it comes up in combat. However, if you listen to the Penny Arcade/PVP gaming podcasts on Wizards of the Coast's website, the DMs--the same people who wrote 4E--they give the players plenty of information. They even blurt out the monster's AC and whatnot.

Also, it may sound odd for a party to start zeroing in on a specific type of monster, but in real life combat a good group of combatants will learn about their enemies as they fight, and communicate and coordinate their efforts in order to be most effective. It may sound like metagaming but I think it's just OOC talk in place of in-character communication.

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I have no problem with characters ganging up on specific monsters, or doing other things that are tactically intelligent. I'm just trying to solidify my thoughts on how to explain these things "in-game". – Beska Aug 20 '10 at 17:06

My recommendation is monster knowledge cards. Encourage monster knowledge checks and then hand out these cards. While they'll of course keep the interesting attacks and powers secret, by giving the players these cards, you reward them for thinking about the battle and in many ways speed up the battle.

At the same time, I also encourage you to use the remarkably easy to use guidelines to create your own monsters, so that there are always interesting encounter effects, traits, and powers happening in your combat.

If you are interested in experimenting slightly, try allowing players, on the fly to describe monster capabilities (with successful checks, of course.) While you're asking them to describe the capabilities in narrative terms, the description can easily be turned into a power with the default damage rules and allows both player knowledge and involvement in that side of the game.

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My personal take at the problem is "this is a tactical, chess-like game. I play with my cards face up. You not only can clearly distinguish a minion, you can also evaluate its defenses and see its HPs.". Sure, this makes the game a tactical one but there's no risk of metagaming ruining the game.

If you want monster knowledge to be something valuable, my suggestion is to reskin each and every monster they encounter so that they can't say which powers it has just by looking at it. Even in this case I'd tell them what it does explicitly the first time they see it doing something - and tell defenses and HP as before.

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Given time your players will just know how things work. It is the nature of the beasts. While is good manners by the players not to metagame I help them by making their knowledge of the monster incidental to the overall situation. The idea is that even if you could scour the room clean of monsters in a second it doesn't solve the overall problem. Plus because I run my campaigns sandbox style, player knowledge can be used by me to generate genuine fear of a certain area by their knowledge of the type of creatures that inhabit it.

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