As a DM is it better to focus fire on defenders or on a weaker target?

As a DM if you wage a fair fight, the defender is something of a spoiler for your monsters. A defender usually has high hitpoints, high defenses, marking abilities, and ally protection abilities, all the things that make the defender hard to fight past. I've experimented with focus firing on the defender, but with 2 leaders healing her it's hard to take the defender down.

I'm wondering if I should just let the defender rip my monsters apart in order to hit the weaker controllers or leaders.

Keep in mind, I'm trying to fight fair and within a few levels of the party.

Is focus fire on a defender with 2 leaders a hopeless strategy?

Should I always be looking to go after the weaker targets?

Which strategy will put the most pressure on the players?

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Ignoring your party setup for a second, I'd say any ranged and area / close attacks are a good idea to put pressure on the party. Artillery has very good attack bonuses and usually targets AC or REF (the latter of which is a weak spot for many defenders and leaders). Further, area / close attacks prevent many defenders from using their punishment ability if it does include them as one of the attack's targets. Of course, these type of attacks also allow the DM to exploit the terrain, attacking from higher areas or from behind portcullises or other areas the [melee] defender cannot easily reach.

Another idea would be to use monsters with damaging aura effects. Since the errata that allows damage from different auras to stack, monsters with big auras got much more dangerous. A similar idea works for swarms that make an automatic attack against each creature starting adjacent.

Example 1:

A simple group of 4 Chillborn Zombies[DDI] can deal an automatic 20 points of cold damage to each creatures within 2 squares, in addition to a basic attack that immobilizes and deals ongoing damage, bonus damage vs. immobilized creatures and a death burst attack that deals even more damage when a zombie finally dies. A melee centric level 6 party without a strong controller or ranged striker (e.g. fighter + melee warlord + melee rogue + melee bard) could have a pretty nasty encounter with this zombie group.

Example 2:

Bonus points are awarded for using some Rot Grub Swarms[DDI] below a trap door or something similar. With the errata to the swarm type that allows a creature to occupy a swarm's square, a creature can have a total of 9 swarms adjacent to it in a 3x3 shaft. This means that at the start of it's turn the creature takes 9 [# of swarms] * (5 [aura's base damage] + 8 [other adjacent swarms] * 2 [additional bonus damage]) = 9 * 21 = 189 damage. From 9 level 4 brutes. Not bad, I'd say. :D

Just joking! I'd hit any DM who actually used such a trap over the head with a DMG! :P

Last but not least I'd like to add a little anecdote. I've encountered a very similar problem in the past, and no matter how I made the monsters act the defender's player was whining. Did I make the monsters all gang up on the fighter, I was told that I was meta-gaming the monsters to deny the defender any chance to use his punishing mechanic. Did I make the monsters spread out and attack the other party members, I was told that I was meta-gaming the monsters to prevent the defender from being useful and soak up damage. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. *shrug*

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I'd say it depends on the intelligence of the monsters and their position in the field. Dumb monsters will tend to fall for it and attack the defender, intelligent critters will prefer to attack the characters that are actually behind the attack.

EDIT You want the best strategy for attacking the party, but that's a bit self-defeating, I think. If you plan every encounter as "let's ignore the defender and e.g. focus on the two healers" it will be just as predictable as "let's pounce on the big guy", and your players will find some other strategy.

Plus, as you said, probably ignoring the defender will cost you as the auras or marks will penalize the attackers. Ranged attacks will probably allow you more room in ignoring defenders, but I'd try to make it vary between fights.

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+1 I'm curious which strategy will put the most pressure on the players, I'll edit the question. – Mark Rogers Feb 6 '11 at 17:17
I don't plan to execute the same strategy every time, of course, but if the players don't feel any pressure the whole exercise is kind of boring. – Mark Rogers Feb 6 '11 at 19:05
@Mark, You're of course right, it's just that your phrasing "find the best strategy" awakened the pedantic nerd in me :) – Adriano Varoli Piazza Feb 6 '11 at 20:52

I've experimented with focus firing on the defender, but with 2 leaders healing her it's hard to take the defender down.

I think you almost answer your own question there. If the defender is proving undroppable, especially with the support of the remainder of the party, then it's almost a tautology that the leaders, controllers and strikers make better targets.

For a while the party that I GMed had two strikers (a glass cannon ranger and a con based warlock), two leaders (a battle cleric and a bard) and a very, very hard to kill defender (a battle rager fighter). I found that I could vary the perceived difficulty of encounters simply by where I concentrated my attacks. By focusing on the ranger and the softer of the two leaders (the bard), the encounter was "hard". By focusing attacks on the warlock, or the fighter, the encounter was "easy".

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In many cases the monsters don't have the time or data to conduct such an analysis. I have a big problem with DMs whose monsters instantly perceive or deduce every detail of a party -- all while a death is fast approaching.

If monsters are busy looking for clues about the party so they can present an optimal defense, they are throwing away most of the limited time available.

It's best to play the roles of the monsters accurately. Most monsters will simply attack those closest to them.

If the monsters DO choose to direct fire at leaders foremost, they must do so by reacting to what they can see. They will often have absolutely no idea which character is 'weaker', and may make incorrect decisions.

If-and-only-if the monsters have the intelligence, experience, and time to analyze the components of their opposition will they make such decisions.

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+1 nice response, but consider that occasionally the party is going to face a group of monsters who are deadly serious and want to do the most damage to the party before they die. Members of an assassin's guild, for instance, specialize in determining and exploiting weakness, in a situation like that it seems reasonable that they would use a complex strategy. – Mark Rogers Feb 6 '11 at 21:08
Absolutely. Ditto if the party has become Infamous ;> and/or if they've been researched (like by the Guild you cite). As I say tho, in most cases that isn't so. With good DMing, the differences in uptake (how fast the monsters assess PC assets) may be an important party clue. – ExTSR Feb 6 '11 at 21:15
I like Frank's answer because the question rubs me the wrong way - it's stated as "what should the <b>DM</b> target." It is not what the DM should target, but what intelligent enemies would do. If suddenly mindless zombies are executing optimal tactics, that's not right. – mxyzplk Feb 7 '11 at 4:23

A strong defender is a hard thing to combat on purpose, they defend the party it's there job. That said this is not as simple as focus fire vs the monsters getting squashed. You could put in some monsters that for lack of better wording don't play fair, Attacks with multiple targets, or a creature with a Reach that makes the fighter hard pressed to get his mark. There are a bunch of monsters out there, and most of them make the players have to think. If all your combats start to fell like a slugging match between monster X and the Defender then you might need to make the monsters smarter, give them a way around the defender, make him work to get his marks on the bad guys every once in a wile.

It makes a better story if the party has to figure out how to deal with each new situation, rather than slog through more of the same.

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What I tend to due is in some how subdue the Defender (not him totally), (may not last long...yes) but give my encounters chances of becoming threatening. Role playing. ++for intelligence comment, of a leader monster which leads the monsters can set the stage for encounter then they could have many ways of separating the party. Avoid the defender, quickly golblins push the rock in place to separate them....

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