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Problem

The PHB states, at p. 189

The DM makes one roll for an entire group of identical creatures, so each member of the group acts at the same time.

Honestly, I usually ignored this one, except for really large groups of weak monsters. But in a 4 goblins vs 4 PCs fight, I would usually roll individual initiatives. Lately, I've decided to follow the book. Combats became quicker, which is good, but another problem appeared: Burst damage.

While the NPCs might be dumb, they are not animal-level of dumb. Some of them are actually smarter than the PCs. Focus firing in order to neutralize one threat each time makes sense for me - two PCs at 1 HP are more annoying than one unconscious and one full life PC, and most of the NPCs know that.

The fact that all the NPCs are actually attacking together the same character leads to the following serie of events:

  1. One PC, usually the melee/tank one, which is closer to the NPCs, get focus fired.
  2. Being low level, he has low Max HP and drops to 0 HP.

This is actually happening roughly every other encounter. This is a problem for me and my players.

The question is: Group roll is the "default"/mandatory rule described in the PHB. For many encounters described in published adventures, it actually becomes a Side Initiative, as every creature in the encounter is the same creature, thus each side acts at once. How can I solve this problem while still using this rule? What are the implications of not using it at all? Are there cases where it is simply better to not use it, period? - Currently, I feel like "low level party" is a strong candidate for cases where I shouldn't be using it.

Party

The party consists of 6 PCs at level 2. Classes are: Ranger, Cleric, Paladin, Barbarian, Warlock and Druid. Not all of them are present every session. We're running Lost Mine of Phandelver. Almost every group encounter (Goblin ambush, goblin hideout, redbrand ruffians) led to some character getting to 0 HP.


Note: I understand that the problem can be solved other ways, e.g. "don't make the NPCs focus fire, screw what makes sense", but I would rather not playing my NPCs in an irrational way.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @PurpleMonkey There are encounters where the burst damage should not be a problem, mainly higher level encounters where PCs have more HP. To be fair, even if the player wasn't frustrated by getting to 0 HP, the burst damage from 4 NPCs attacking at the same time a 1st/2nd level character and instantly dropping him unconscious is still a problem for me. One that I could solve by playing the NPCs irrationally and randomly targetting, but which feels like a bad solution. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 20 '18 at 0:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PurpleMonkey Any more clear/less opinion-based? (at least in the body - still thinking about a better title) \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 20 '18 at 0:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Right now this is an opinion question to me, but might be able to be solved if you revised it to address your specific issue. Can you provide exact details for your party and the enemies they're facing, perhaps it will make it possible to provide an answer tailor made for your situation as opposed to a blanket answer that will not apply to anyone. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Jun 20 '18 at 0:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Pyrotechnical Some drastic changes were made in title and body. I'm not sure how much more I can add about the specific campaign without enabling answers that won't be helpful two sessions from now because then they would be at level 3 and the encounters are different, though. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 20 '18 at 0:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's mandatory in the sense it strictly says-- No It Is Not Mandatory. Read the DMG. The rules serve you. You are master of rules. Please see also my answer to the frustrated cleric. Do not say, as DM, "but the rules make me do that." Not in this edition unless you want to keep having these same problems. (It's also bad form ...) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 20 '18 at 2:39
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Thinking like a monster

There's no question: focus fire is a good idea. No matter how you look at it, the mathematics are in your favor if you try to injure one enemy until it is down, and then move on to another. Once you realize this, it may seem like you either have to use this tactic, or be completely unrealistic to what an enemy would do. But there are a few rationales for why a group of enemies would fail to use focus fire. And not all these are "screw what's rational: I want my PCs to survive." It can sometimes be more realistic to have your monsters avoid focus fire. Here are a few possible reasons they might.

1. They are used to weaker enemies

Many "evil" creatures prey on creatures far weaker than themselves preferentially. A squad of goblins might be used to attacking only the sick, the weak, or the unarmed and unarmored: merchant families, or innocent homesteaders. Most importantly, they may be used to enemies that go down in one hit. In a situation like that, it's actually disadvantageous for the goblins to all aim at the same enemy: their first salvo might end up hitting an enemy with five arrows when one would have killed him, and leaving other targets unscathed. By spreading out their attacks, they ensure that they drop the maximum possible number of enemies in the first round, ensuring no one escapes and leads to a messy and lengthy hunt. Perhaps these monsters default to such tactics, only realizing part way into the combat that these opponents do not fall so easily.

2. Enemies act at the same time, but don't think as one

Trained adventurers can act in groups as a seamless unit: adapting their tactics to those of their allies almost instantly. But lesser enemies (again, let's default to goblins as an example) fight without discipline. Perhaps all the goblins do think that they should focus fire: concentrating on a single enemy. But each goblin might have a different opinion on which enemy that should be. Three of them might shout conflicting orders at the same time ("Shoot the human with the bow!" "Shoot the shiny dwarf!" "Shoot the elf who set me on fire!"), and different goblins might follow different orders. If anything, the fact that these enemies are all acting on the same initiative might give more justification for them being confused as to what the other goblins are doing: they act almost simultaneously, and don't have time to notice their companions' actions, or to coordinate their efforts.

3. Monsters are selfish and dumb

Naturally, this one depends on the particular enemies you're fighting. Some enemies might be inclined to focus fire in spite of low Intelligence scores due to their natural instincts to focus on one weakened enemy at a time (like wolves). But generally speaking, some monsters aren't that smart. Even some very intelligent enemies (like vampires) might not be used to fighting in a group, and might simply fight using their own priorities, rather than trying to use teamwork. Some monsters fight based more using rage and bloodlust than tactics and intelligence: even if those monsters are intelligent enough to plan and think tactically, they may abandon these plans in the heat of battle, and attack only the creatures that hurt them, or the ones that look smallest, or the ones that look like they have the most valuable equipment. The three monsters who were hit by a fireball might all aim at the wizard, but the four who weren't might focus on the Paladin to loot his shiny armor. Bottom line, monsters' motivations aren't always to make the smartest move: sometimes it's to make a move that satisfies some baser instinct.

4. Monsters don't know what Hit Points are

This is a big one (and is kind of a variation on point #1). "Rationally", every arrow that a monster fires is an arrow they expect to find their enemy's heart, and drop them dead, regardless of whether it is the first arrow fired at an enemy or the 50th. Monsters don't know they are in a game, and that it is statistically impossible for a goblin's first arrow to drop a level 5 raging Barbarian. The monsters may spread their attacks around because they expect that each attack will kill an enemy. They don't know that "1 hit point" is a status an enemy can reach: they just know they hurt their opponents until they go down.

Likewise, we (as DMs) know what the best tactics are against this particular party, but the monsters may not. For example, enemies might not think to keep themselves spread out enough so that only two of them are in a Fireball radius at a time: why would they if they've never seen these enemies (or maybe any others) use Fireball? Similarly, it may not be particularly obvious to the monsters which creatures have lower max HP and which don't (note that HP often tracks stamina and drive as much as physical damage or resiliance). Thus, they may make decisions that you, as a DM who knows everyone's stats and abilities, know is a bad idea: but it's not unrealistic or irrational for them to behave this way, because they don't have access to your information.

But sometimes... focus fire is the way to go

Note that all of these reasons (other than #4) are conditional. There may be monsters who are smart and/or great at using teamwork: they may target the weakest enemy like a pack of wolves picking off the weakest member of a herd. Focus fire can often be exactly the sort of tactic your monsters should be using, in which case, go for it! This can indicate that these enemies are particularly well trained, disciplined, or simply dangerous.

When the right tactic is empirically obvious to us as DMs, it can be hard to have our intelligent creatures behave in a tactically unsound way, while we strive to make their thinking realistic. But it's worth remembering that realistic thinking can be exactly the sort of thing that would lead to bad tactics. After all, people (and monsters) make bad decisions all the time.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, effectively, monsters know what hit points are. Realistically, most humanoid creatures are going to be familiar with at least hunting or domestic conflict, and will know that a target isn't neutralized the second you injure them, unless you get lucky (say, massive nervous system damage). If a goblin knows it can't necessarily kill another goblin in one shot, then it certainly knows a big scary armored human won't die right away either. \$\endgroup\$ – tex Jun 20 '18 at 14:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, fourth point is a little off for me. The NPCs know how damaged the party members are. Not an exact number, obviously, but they should be able to note a difference between 1 HP and full life. Other than that, the other reasons fit most of the time, so I upvoted it anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 20 '18 at 14:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ NPCs definitely know when an enemy is in trouble ("bloodied" at half hit points). But keep in mind, the way hit points are described (PHB, p. 195-196) implies that many attacks don't actually physically damage a character when they "hit", but sap their stamina, will, or even use up their luck. "An attack that reduces you to 0 hit points strikes you directly, leaving a bleeding injury or other trauma, or it simply knocks you unconscious." Goblins definitely know that some enemies take more arrows to kill than others. But they may not know that a barbarian will take 5-14 arrows to drop. \$\endgroup\$ – Gandalfmeansme Jun 20 '18 at 14:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ I do agree: monsters would have a decent sense of their own capacities, and would have a good sense of how combat works in their world. I guess what I'm getting at is that monsters don't know the combat capacity of their opponents. Even if you imagine the monsters as knowing what hit points are, they certainly don't know how many hit points the characters have (to start with). And so, they might reasonably expect a single attack to take each character down. \$\endgroup\$ – Gandalfmeansme Jun 20 '18 at 15:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a very thorough and well thought out answer. I'm keeping a link to this. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 20 '18 at 21:44
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Don't use group initiative

It is your job as a DM to decide if group initiative is good for your game. Dungeon Master's Guide page 270 describes the Side Initiative variant rule. It is a "stronger" variation of the group initiative, when the whole side acts first in combat.

DMG describes upsides and downsides of this approach:

This variant encourages teamwork and makes your life as a DM easier, since you can more easily coordinate monsters. On the downside, the side that wins initiative can gang up on enemies and take them out before they have a chance to act.

DM decides, what approach would be better. We don't know your players nor your adventure, is up to you to decide by your own experience. Side initiative is meant to be a DM's tool, making their work easier.

If you find that it actually makes things worse for you, don't use it. You chose to change to this method. You don't like the result. Change again.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Fair enough. If only one type of creature exists, the side initiative is a particular case of the group roll. It's a little awkward that it is presented as the default in PHB, though (and many encounters from published adventures are essentially a group of the same creature) \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 20 '18 at 0:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think you can rephrase your question to something like "Group initiative is not an optional rule. Is it mandatory? Do I have to use it and what happens if I don't?" I personally don't use group initiative, but my combat encounters usually doesn't have much combatants. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jun 20 '18 at 0:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have removed things about player frustration and tried to clarify the problem and question. I might have invalidated your answer in the process, though, please recheck. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 20 '18 at 0:26
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Use smaller groups

I normally group monsters into 2 or 3. Perhaps all the goblin archers go in one group, the goblin stabbers in another group and their wolves in a third group.

Use average damage

At low levels, the swinginess of dice can be really bad. At levels 1 and 2, sometimes 3, I use the average damage for monsters (for example, 5 damage instead of 1d6+1).

Remind the players that they can focus-fire as well

In D&D, you should be dogpiling on foes. A monster with 1 HP can hit you just as badly as when it had full HP. Players should be focused on downing enemies, rather than just injuring them.

Remind the players not to neglect defence

Spells like shield of faith and bless and fog cloud are there for a reason.

Having a two-handed weapon instead of a shield is a choice that has a consequence.

Remind the players that this doesn't last

Once their characters get into tier 2 they will have the hit points and defences that they don't have to worry about a dogpile taking them out in 1 round.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ While I like this answer, D&D with side initiative is a lot like historical naval combat, in that "battle of the first salvo" effects are pronounced and snowballing is a common side effect, particularly at lower levels. (The players can focus fire as well paragraph is what this comment is related to). \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 26 '18 at 13:18
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Use Group Initiative As A Guideline

I use group initiative almost exclusively because it saves a lot of rolling, but burst damage can be an issue. You don't need to strictly follow it, however. You may choose to roll once for all your monsters, and then assign them in different groups to act together, as though they had all rolled different initiatives. This "chunking" of turns reduces the burst effect. The rule I stick to is that no creature should act before the rolled initiative value.

For example, you have 6 bandits and roll 20 initiative. Based on how much you want the PCs to feel "surprised", you might have the bandits act at different initiative counts. I might choose to have 4 of them act on initiative count 20 and 2 more act on count 10, or 2 on count 20, 2 on 15, and 2 on 10. Use group initiative to simply initiative rolls and modify it to get the narrative effect you desire.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Essentially, you use the rolled initiative as the "max", and all the others are lower? That's interesting, but how do you handle in the case of bad rolls? i.e. if the group rolls 1, everyone has to be at initiative 1. So they are all attacking at the same time anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 25 '18 at 20:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh, almost forgot - Welcome to RPG.se. When you have time, please take our tour. I've already commented on what I think would improve the answer above. Other than that, great start with experience-based answer :) \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 25 '18 at 20:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ In the circumstances where really bad rolls come into play, then you should rely on your narrative intuition as the GM. If everyone is acting at the same initiative, let your creatures act in a way that accentuates the "coolness" of the encounter. I will typically let my melee characters charge the tankiest character to emphasize the protector feeling, or try and rush the mage to add urgency. Then allow a few players to act before the next group, maybe the archers open fire on someone who is out of position, etc.... Also, thanks for the welcome! \$\endgroup\$ – arobilla Jun 25 '18 at 20:08

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