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Fairly straight-forward question: How good should you make your monsters' combat tactics?

I recently came across a situation similar to this...

  • Party attacked by monsters.
  • Party is taken off guard, and as such the only healer is in melee combat.
  • Monster has parry.
  • I choose not to use parry and instead held the reaction for when the healer attempted to run away.
  • Player (rightfully) chose to disengage, and I was left to use my parry on a later attack during the round.

My players complained that monsters would not likely have the understanding of tactics at this level, to play the meta game properly. I settled into a couple of solid arguments of my own, but am not sure if the proper conclusion has been reached:

  1. Regardless of the monsters intellect, they would always have decent knowledge of the weapons/features available to them. As such arguments regarding the proper use of these (even very low intellect creatures) is void.

  2. Since the "meta" game is only attempting to bring clarity to situation and provide proper guidance, using it to the fullest (as a monster) should not be against the rules. Especially considering most players will attempt to do the same typically.

  3. Since the players overall skill level is generally quite high (all 10+ year veteran players, with a few exceptions) having more difficult encounters keeps the campaign from being boring and easy to win.

Is there a correct way to play NPC/monsters in D&D according to RAW? I am specifically looking for instances where tactics are detailed from an official source, regarding generic rules which can be applied to any encounter (such as the affect of intelligence on combat).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Whose level, the PCs or the Monster's CR? If the latter... two words for them "Tucker's Kobolds". \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Mar 26 '18 at 17:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Sh4d0wsPlyr You might have some luck by focusing the question specifically on the situation you experienced. "Was what I did against the rules/ written advice for GM's" gives us a solid standard to compare answers to and is therefore less based on opinion. \$\endgroup\$ – Weaveworker89 Mar 26 '18 at 17:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Sh4dowsPlyr Nothing seems to come to mind. Most of this revolves around a difference of opinion of challenges and tactics which could be table dynamics, you could focus on that aspect. As far as how monsters are played that varies quite a bit. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Mar 26 '18 at 17:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Alternately, you might be able to rework this question into a state where it's open if you shift the focus instead entirely on published guidance for running monsters. That is, something like: "is there any official guidance on how monster's intelligence impacts their choice of tactics?" With that being said, that might be too broad if it isn't opinion based just because of the sheer number of monsters in the game and the number of instances each one of them might have been fleshed out. \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Mar 26 '18 at 17:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you ever heard of Son Goku? \$\endgroup\$ – Konstantine Mar 27 '18 at 9:27
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RAW, tactics are broadly determined by monster type.

There are no generic rules for how a monster behaves in combat. However, the monster manual does detail specific tactics for specific types of monsters. For example, the Hobgoblin (MM 185):

Hobgoblins have a strong grasp of tactics and discipline, and can carry out sophisticated battle plans under the direction of a strategically minded leader. However, they hate elves and attack them first in battle over any other opponents, even if doing so would be a tactical error.

or the Marilith (MM 53):

These demons possess keen minds and a finely honed sense of tactics, and they are able to lead and unite other demons in common cause. Mariliths are often encountered as captains at the head of a demonic horde, where they embrace any opportunity to rush headlong into battle.

On the other hand, some monsters have no tactics whatsoever, such as Oozes (MM40):

Most of the time, oozes have no sense of tactics or self-preservation. They are direct and predictable, attacking and eating without cunning.

or minotaurs (MM 223):

Apart from ambushing creatures that wander into its labyrinth, a minotaur cares little for strategy or tactics.

Thus, you will have to look at the specific monster in order to determine its usage of tactics in any given encounter. However, tactics will obviously vary from encounter to encounter depending on specific circumstances. For example, an enemy that knows the party's abilities and weaknesses will use that knowledge to his or her advantage, resulting in a different (and likely more difficult) encounter.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is an excellent answer to the first question stated by OP: "How good should you make your monsters' combat tactics?" - in short, it depends on the monsters. Good examples! \$\endgroup\$ – Dan J Mar 27 '18 at 4:13
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Effective does not require Intelligence (and vice versa)

Creatures can use effective, even devastating tactics without relying on intellect. A simple example is Wolves, which have an Intelligence of 3 but also have the feature:

Pack Tactics. The wolf has advantage on attack rolls against a creature if at least one of the wolf’s allies is within 5 feet of the creature and isn't incapacitated. (PHB, p. 311)

This is a shorthand for the tactically sound and vicious way that wolves can act as a unit. They do so via instinct. The wolves may not "have the understanding of tactics at this level", and might not know why their tactics are effective (or be able to alter them if the situation made them counterproductive, or predict the actions of their opponents), but they can use such tactics all the same.

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Is there a correct way to play NPC/monsters in D&D according to RAW?

Yes there is.

At its most basic its on page 6 of the Player's Handbook: 1. The DM describes the environment, 2. The players describe what they want to do, 3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions.

Further, monster descriptions in the Monster Manual will sometimes detail a monster's favorite tactics or strategy.

Neither the PCs nor the Monsters have any understanding of game mechanics, however, they do understand what these mechanics are simulating

For your example, a monster (or a PC for that matter) does not understand the concept of a "reaction". However, you (and the players) do and you both need to use that understanding in order to play the game. Similarly, the PC has no way of choosing to "disengage"; in-universe they are simply fighting and carefully changing their position.

The mechanics are simulating something in the fantasy world and the monsters and PCs understand whatever that is. To illustrate, the PCs have no concept of levels yet a 12th level PC "knows" that they have more capability and endurance than they did when they were 1st level. The out-of-universe mechanics of "level" has an in-universe effect that is "known" to the PC.

What's good for the goose ...

If my player's were upset that I used a monster's abilities to the best of my ability, I would have no problem with not doing so in the future provided the player's agreed to not optimally utilize their PCs abilities as well. I mean, the Battle Master Fighter does not have an in universe understanding of "superiority die" nor does a spellcaster understand the concept of a "5th level spell", therefore, by the player's own arguments they should only be able to use these in a non-deliberative way.

My 2¢

Monsters know what they are capable of in-universe. This is represented by their statistics and actions in the game mechanics that you know about. Anything and everything that you can think of in how to employ these abilities that they know they have is fair game.

See How can I play monsters and NPCs up to their potential?

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The rules are silent, so it's up to the DM

The core rules (PH/DMG) doesn't say much about this. Supplementary books like Volo's Guide to Monsters have more details about monsters' behavior, at least some of them:

Simple Tactics. A death kiss lacks the combat finesse and intelligence of a beholder. It might attempt an unusual maneuver to control its prey (such as flying up while grappling), but in most cases, it attaches one or more of its tentacles to a creature and drains blood until its prey collapses.

However, these books still don't provide you with instructions to battle tactics. The thing is, tactics is the tool, not the goal. A random monster's tactics depends on what does the monster want in this particular situation. So if there is such a description, you should look it up in the adventure, not in the rules. Here's an example from the Starter Set adventure:

When the tome comes for the goblins to act, two of them rush forward and make melee attacks while two goblins stand 30 feet away from the party and make ranged attacks.

An adventure might not have any tactics descriptions at all. Various DM use different tactics, that's why different DMs can run the same combat encounter very different ways. This is also the reason why CR is not a strict measurement, but "is only a guidepost":

Challenge rating is only a guidepost that indicates at what level that monster becomes an appropriate challenge.

Any DM has their own style. A beginner DM can use simple MMORPG-like tactics like "when a monster sees you, it runs into you and repeatedly hits you until it dies", while more experienced one adds more variety. How to make your combat encounters more exciting and meaningful is a huge (and completely different) topic. I suggest reading The Angry Guide to A$&kicking Combats for more information.

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No, there is not "a correct way to play NPC/monsters in D&D according to RAW" -- the rules say nothing about it. A DM may play his monsters as smart or as dumb as he pleases.

I play the monsters as smart as they can be, subject to their own limitations. I think it is, though, important to respect those limitations -- some monsters aren't that smart, or that patient, or have other flaws.

I definitely have monsters and NPCs learn from their encounters with the PC party, and alter their behavior as best they can, if they get a second chance.

An example -- I recently had a party that found a small orc tribe that moved into a formerly safe area and were starting to cause trouble. Resolving this involved several encounters. Along about the third encounter, some of the Eyes of Gruumsh came up with plan to surprise and ambush the party, and managed to pull it off, driving the PC party away from what they thought was going to be another easy raid.

However, orcs are not disciplined and patient by nature, so I decided that they were not going to be able to maintain that state of readiness for a long term; the tribe did find a more defensible position and prepared it, and also recruited a few allies, but did not maintain all of the heightened security after the PC party had gone and done something else for a couple of weeks.

Taking them out still wasn't easy, but was possible. If I had had the tribe maintain its alarms and readiness, it would have been very difficult, but I didn't feel that was reasonable for orcs.

Remember the DM is supposed to really be the referee between the PCs and the world, and should be fair about that.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Given that the OP asks, "Is there a correct way to play NPC/monsters in D&D according to RAW? I am specifically looking for instances where tactics are detailed from an official source", I don't think this really answers the question that was asked. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Mar 26 '18 at 22:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Given that there isn't any, and it's entirely up to the DM to play the monsters, this IS an answer to the question. If you don't like that, write your own answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Phil Boncer Mar 26 '18 at 23:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ Technically it wasn't an answer to the question until you edited in that first paragraph. I think as long as you state that the rules are silent on the matter before you explain how you DM it, it's fine. :) \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Mar 26 '18 at 23:55
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Tactics are up to the DM...and even an animal with low intelligence will have enough cunning to make effective use of their abilities.

I would temper that though by avoiding DM-metagaming: In other words, if it isn't obvious that a character is the prime 'healer' then I would not recommend that a low-intelligence monster aim to cut them off first (is it that easy to distinguish a cleric from a fighter before they act?)

On the other hand, a more intelligent foe could reasonably be expected to adjust their tactics based on character abilities (and a good way of making an especially intelligent foe such as a beholder or mindflayer even scarier is to assume that they have learnt the characters strengths and weaknesses and use this knowledge against them).

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Without going into mechanical details, I noticed you pointed out that it was specifically the healer that was engaged in melee.

A non-human monster would most likely not have a concept of the specific role this character plays in the group. It would therefore not choose tactics specifically geared towards them.

This might be what the players are complaining about, as it would be a meta-gaming approach to take down the healer for no in-universe reason.

So check yourself if you are using such meta information that the monsters would not have to decide on the strategy they are using. If you can answer "no" to that, the other answers apply and your players should stop complaining that a monster actually tries to fight as if its life depended on it.

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Variance is Fun

I think it is important to vary the monster's tactics and intelligence based on in-character reasons.

If NPC bad guys are always the same sort of dumb or clever, it doesn't make the game very fun for the players.

Maybe try changing things up based on the character of the bad guys. Sometimes its nice for players to deal with a bull-headed minotaur that charges at the largest character in the party and ignores the mage. Othertimes, it might be fun to have enemy rogues try to incapacitate the mage as early as possible.

It might be fun to enter a vampire's castle and run into a series of clever traps that he has prepared over years of planning. Or it might be fun to enter the careless evil cleric's hold, and be able to march straight through.

Variance is fun.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Given that the OP asks, "Is there a correct way to play NPC/monsters in D&D according to RAW? I am specifically looking for instances where tactics are detailed from an official source", I don't think this really answers the question that was asked. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Mar 26 '18 at 22:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ OP asks how good you should make the monster's tactics and JoshuaD explained very clearly and helpfully why variance in monster tactical ability based on the monster's in-character reasoning IS GOOD for monster tactics, not just a set level of good or bad tactics. There are numerous examples supporting this, one being on pg 70phb "A gladiator fights for sport in an arena, a master with his trident and net, skilled at toppling foes and moving them around for the crowd's delight-and his own tactical advantage." The tactics used depend on the creature, its abilities AND also its character. \$\endgroup\$ – xsithos Jan 24 at 22:26

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