In a similar vein to a question on tactics sources, I'm interested in knowing what are common tactics for monsters to use. The DMB and the MV mention monster groups, which are very useful, but I want to know if there are standard ways to attack with those groups once you actually get them on the table. For example, "A good thing to do on the first turn of combat is to move and charge your fighters to surround the party". Or, say "Scatter your troops at least X squares from one another so bursts and blasts don't affect them all" (note, I am only imagining. I don't claim this is good advice!).

I do understand that any manual on tactics taken as-is is less useful if the players know about it. Still, in chess there are lots of standard tactical actions, and I wondered if the same could be said about D&D.

EDIT: I'm hoping for more answers in @ObliviousSage's vein. I know how to roleplay motivations and desires -I think-. My players and I -as far as I can tell- have a great amount of fun. I don't want to do this every session. It's just that sometimes I'd like to offer a harder challenge to my players in combat. Sometimes, I feel my combats flop, and that my players are breezing through too many fights. I don't want to throw them the kitchen sink, just challenge them. A harder battle is sometimes a more satisfying battle.


5 Answers 5

  1. Focus Fire: Don't spread out damage any more than you have to. It's far more effective for most of the monsters to concentrate on a single target. If you can get a player down, that's that much less damage per round Team Monster is taking, and the party is suddenly on the defensive to try to save the downed player (only particularly nasty monsters should take the opportunity to coup de grace an unconscious player). Which player should you target first? That leads to the next question...

  2. Target the Squishies: Monsters should always focus fire the available target with the least current HP & lowest defenses. That's who they're most likely to successfully take down. Brutes in particular benefit from attacking low-defense targets, since they have high damage but low attack. Note that I said available target, though. If a sticky defender is guarding a doorway, don't try to rush past him to get at the wizard. But if several monsters can get at the wizard...

  3. Weigh Cost/Benefit for Marks: If a monster is marked, you shouldn't have it automatically attack the fighter or always ignore the mark; only ignore the mark when it's worth it to do so. How much damage as a percentage of the max HP are you likely to do to the defender, versus how much are you likely to do to whoever else you could be hitting? If you're probably going to be more effective against someone else, how much HP do you have left and how unpleasant is the defender's mark punishment? Remember that any target that has defenses that are lower than the defender's by more than 2 is easier to hit than the defender even when the monster is marked.

  4. Flank Them: Have a couple lurkers or skirmishers come in behind the party (they were hidden, used secret doors, or whatever). It's very hard for a single defender to stop attackers coming from 2 different directions. Getting a couple melee units in among the party's ranged backline makes it much harder for the party to focus fire, which means monsters last that much longer.

  5. Control, Control, Control: Make good use of controllers and leaders. Unlike damage, control should be targeted at the characters it will be most debilitating on. Immobilize/slow are for melee attackers, blindness & daze should be dropped on the biggest threats, daze shuts down most defender mark punishment (except paladins), and so on. Control has a huge effect on the difficulty of a fight.

  6. Protect Your Squishies: Artillery and ranged controllers, and when possible leaders, should be stationed towards the back. Use soldiers and minion packs to tie down melee players so that they can't get to your ranged units and to keep defenders busy so lurkers, skirmishers, and brutes can slip past to the party's weaker ranged units.

  7. Use the Terrain: Have your ranged attackers hide behind pillars (remember, if you're directly behind a one-square pillar, you have cover but enemy targets don't). Remember that monsters can use each other as cover if necessary. Position your frontline and backline to maximize the amount of difficult or dangerous terrain melee players have to go through to get past the frontline to the backline.

  8. Alpha Strike: Winning initiative helps; if your group simplifies initiative by having all the players go in order then all of Team Monster go, or vice versa depending on which team won initiative, then winning initiative really helps. Monsters should use any encounter or recharge powers they have early & often. It's better to use it at the start of the fight in a slightly less-than-ideal targeting scenario than to save it for later and end up dying without using it. Even if you can't alpha strike (and it's admittedly much harder for Team Monster than it is for the party), it's hugely beneficial to prevent the players from alpha striking. To give an example, with a proper alpha strike the group I play with have often killed or incapacitated (prone + 1 square away for melee enemies, prone & around a corner for ranged enemies, blinded, etc.) over half the monsters in an encounter before any monsters got to act; the record is 7 monsters (no minions) getting a total of 3 attacks before the fight was over (not 3 per monster; Team Monster as a whole got in 3 attacks before the fight was over, including misses).

  9. Retreat & Reinforce: If a group of monsters that are part of a larger faction in the area are getting their butts kicked, have a few of the remaining ones retreat to try to join an allied group a room or two over. This not only makes the next fight harder without technically altering XP budgets, it has the added bonus of reducing the boring mop-up phase.

  10. Encounter Building: Picking the right monsters to use can make a huge difference in an encounter's difficulty, even when your options all have the same total XP budget. Here are some things to remember:

    1. Frontline & Backline: Try to have a mix of frontline monsters that are designed to keep melee players busy and backline monsters that are designed to hit hard. You will especially need a good frontline if most of your "backline" monsters have to stay in melee range (brutes, some skirmishers and lurkers).

    2. Monster Synergy: Pick monsters whose abilities complement each other. If you have a skirmisher/lurker that does bonus damage to slowed foes, find a controller with a nice AoE or save-ends slowing attack. Daze & prone is another nice combo, especially against melee players; immobilize & forced movement is also strong against melee players. If you have several monsters that give a bonus to adjacent allies, go heavy on melee monsters so more of them can benefit.

    3. Terrain Synergy: Are there a lot of hazards players will have to avoid? Bring lots of forced movement to try to shove them into it. Lots of terrain sources of elemental damage? Pick monsters that resist or are immune to that damage, so they can move through it with impunity. Lots of difficult terrain or features that block movement but not line of sight? Go heavy on ranged monsters so you can pincushion the players as they move to engage.

    4. Control Is Good: Control effects, used properly, will generally be more effective than damage if you have a couple high-damage monsters to take advantage of them and you have some blockers to keep your control monsters from dying the instant the players notice them. Generally speaking, a good ratio is 30% blockers, 20% damage, 50% control. This doesn't mean use nothing but controllers, though: remember that lots of non-controller monsters offer decent control effects, especially as you start getting into paragon tier (by epic, almost every non-minion has some sort of control).

    5. Don't Use Pre-MM3 Solos: This one is admittedly a little specific, but it's good advice nonetheless. Before MM3 solos depended entirely on having lots of HP to survive, but this meant a typical solo fight entailed the party stun-locking the solo for a round or two while the strikers went nova on him, typically ending the fight with little or no damage inflicted on the party. I've actually seen a mid-heroic solo killed in the first round by a single player (admittedly he critted with a daily power, action pointed, and then critted with a second daily power, but still). MM3 and later solos tend to have more ways to negate or ignore status effects (especially stun/daze) and more ways to interrupt multi-attack chains, thus giving them considerably more survivability.

    6. Use Higher Level Monsters When Possible: All else being equal, 4 level+1 foes will generally be a harder fight than 5 level-1 foes. Monster and terrain synergy definitely trump this one, though.

That said, not every monster is a tactical genius. Animals in particular will tend to just concentrate on whoever is closest or doing the most damage to them, and will almost always ignore defender marks (though most predators will attempt to start the fight by going for whoever looks the weakest). Dumber and more cowardly enemies (goblins, kobolds) will usually attack in a big pack, and will almost always respect defender marks.

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    \$\begingroup\$ excellent 4e specific answer here. \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Commented Jul 20, 2012 at 14:54

Here are some of the tactics that I've collected in my research so far:

Three-Pronged Attack Forward skirmishers advance to take center and flanking positions, while artillery hangs back and provides covering fire.

Dog Fight Made famous by the Mongols, have the forward monsters panic and flee after being wounded; when the party pursues, they find that they have been led into a trap, where fresh fighters lie in wait.

The Lake Another Mongol tactic. Units move forward and backward like a succession of waves. This spreads out the damage across the entire monster group and doesn't let the party pick them off one at a time.

Falling Stars Attack from multiple directions simultaneously to prevent the party from taking advantageous positions (e.g. tanks up front, AoE and artillery in back).


I think we don't have to forget that we are roleplaying. Tactics varies accordingly to the monster(s) you're considering.

The standard tactical action for Kobolds could be

Group up and attack until we are outnumbering them otherwise flee.

because they are stupid and a GM should roleplay this condition.

On the other hand even Kobolds with a more intelligent leader (maybe a Shaman?) could try to take down the weaker enemy first. The question is that there must be such an intelligent/experienced Kobold which is able to

  1. Lead his mates.
  2. Recognize what's the deadliest enemy in the given situation.

The (1) is a roleplaying issue and, in my opinion, is the most important thing. For example, I think it's too much to pretend that Kobolds keep fighting when many of their mates are dead. So the authority and the source of their tactical approach to fight is quite "volatile" for Kobolds.

The (2) is more up to you. Since you role the leader, you should have an idea of:

  1. What the Kobold Leader wants to achieve engaging the fight.
  2. What are the weaknesses of players' party in the given combat situation.

(2.1) is important because nobody likes risking their life, so ask yourself

Why are we fighting?

Possible answers could be

  • Is the leader following orders by someone else?
  • Is he going to fight until death or he will flee leaving other kobolds to make his flesh-wall to gain some time?

And so on.

(2.2) Is less roleplay, more ruleset. @ObliviousSage gave you a more complete answer about this.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm hoping for more answers in @ObliviousSage's vein. I know how to roleplay motivations and desires -I think-, it's just that sometimes I'd like to offer a harder challenge to my players in combat. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 16:39

The Standard Tactic You Should Employ Is: Make The Game Fun.

This may sound like a trite answer, but it's really important. As a DM, you don't need tactics to "beat" your players, because you control more than just the monsters' tactics: you control which monsters make up the encounter, what the monsters' stats are, the layout of the map, the nature of environmental features, which events occur during the fight, etc.

As a DM, think of yourself more of a movie director than a military tactician: your goal is to orchestrate entertainment rather than victory. As a result, the tactics you should employ for monsters should reflect the atmosphere of the battle.

Here are a few tips I've found effective when controlling monsters in battle:

Games are a series of interesting decisions. -Sid Meier
No matter what tactics you employ, make sure they give players choices in how to respond to them. The worst thing about using good tactics is that they often leave players with few choices in how to respond. The challenge in the fight should come from the monsters and the environment, more than the tactics they employ. Having a monster take up a disadvantageous position encourages players to exploit it. Having several monsters take up disadvantageous positions gives players an interesting decision: which do I exploit first?

Make the players feel like movie heroes.
Movie heroes often catch the enemy in a disorganized state, or manage to easily outflank them, or set up overly complicated combination attacks that wipe out entire armies. Find ways to set up your monsters that give players opportunities to create moments of cinematic awesomeness. Have a monster step dangerously close to a pit, knowing a player will try to push him in (the player still has to succeed on the roll!). Stuff like that.

Don't block players in the doorway.
This is key, and straight from the DMG. Monsters often win initiative rolls, and DMs often charge those monsters up to the players, and this often leaves the players stuck in the entry of the room. The rest of the battle plays out in the same half-dozen tiles the party began on, and all that work building the battle map is wasted. Do whatever it takes to spread the battle throughout the room. Have monsters hide around obstacles to lure players in. Go up and grab them and throw them into the room if you have to.

Move your Monsters, even if it means incurring opportunity attacks.
The DMGs can't stress this enough: if you don't move your monsters, your players won't move either, and everything ends up being a boring old stalemate. The fact is, OAs are fun and a lot of player powers and feats are built around taking opportunity attacks. A Warlord's Viper Strike is pretty boring if the DM never incurs OAs.

Spread out the damage.
It can be tempting to focus all attacks on the Defender, especially if he's marked all your monsters. Or, if one player has exposed himself, it could be tempting to pile everything on and pound him into the ground. In reality, it's more fun to spread the attacks around, it gives every player a chance to be hit, and it makes life easier on the healers if damage isn't quite so spikey. As a secret DM tactic, you may want to watch the amount of surges each character has and try to smooth damage across those values to keep things dropping evenly: if you have to end your adventuring day because your defender has no surges left and everyone else is full, that's boring.

Don't be afraid to waste monster HP
It's my experience that most monsters have plenty of extra hit points, and if you play monsters conservatively it just drags out the battle. When in doubt, give players more monsters to fight rather than make monsters more tactical. Trust me, your players will have a lot more fun flinging out big AOE attacks on clumped up monsters and blowing huge chunks of HP away than they will chipping down a few crafty and well-positioned soldiers. Plus, would you rather kill 3 monsters with sneak attacks while flanking them, or kill 1 monster with regular attacks because you couldn't flank? Find ways to let your players use their powers to their fullest potential, even if that means employing bad tactics.

Roleplay the tactics
If the encounter group has a leader and some means of communicating, have them verbally shout orders that the players can overhear (if they speak that language) and have the other monsters follow them. You might think "that's stupid, the players will effectively counter my orders and my monsters will be wasted." Rather, that's a good thing! Players usually enjoy thwarting the plans of their enemies!

Emphasize terrain
A good encounter will have terrain that is both advantageous and disadvantageous. Have some monsters use some of the advantageous terrain, and have some monsters try to move players into disadvantageous terrain. At the same time, don't use is all: give the players the opportunity to find and use some for themselves. Let them feel like they out-smarted their foes.

Scare your players, don't frustrate them
One of the major changes in later Monster Manuals was the reduction in debilitating powers. I remember fighting a group of Krenshers and they kept using their daze (save ends) fear attack, and that just sucked. Turn after turn, we just had one thing to do. It wasn't scary though, because it was so predictable. On the other hand, we had fun against archers that shot past the defenders and restrained the controller and leader with pinning arrows, then skirmishers ran past the defenders to harass them. The squishies in the back were freaking out and everyone scrambled to save them. It was fun, and everyone got to (had to?) wield all their powers to save the day.

Don't conserve powers.
This is another one straight from the DMG. If your monsters have limited use encounter powers, use them as soon as it makes sense to do so. Don't save your AOE if it only hits 2 or 3 heroes: use it! A coordinated assault by players can drop a monster surprisingly fast, so it's better to use an encounter power poorly than lose it.

Don't think too hard. Act impulsively.
As a DM, you've got a lot to worry about, and a lot of monsters to control. Often, the first idea that pops into your head is good enough. Use monsters to elicit excitement and surprise! Do unpredictable things too! Do crazy things! Don't just reward players' creativity, reward your own!

Ready actions.
It's quite simple: sometimes there's nothing really good for a monster to do when its turn comes up. No problem: ready a simple response, such as taking a ranged attack on the first thing it can see or charging the first enemy it can reach. Readied actions can also give players fun opportunities for role-playing, like if they know several archers all have bows trained on them and they have to pick the sacrifice to go out and trigger all those shots...

With all this in mind, I also recognize that some gaming groups are much more interested in hard-core tactical combat simulation than others. In this case, I'm not sure how much general advice is relevant. Many monsters, especially higher level ones, have very unique powers that lead to them being used in very different ways. Moreover, the combination of unique monsters and unique maps can lead to very different strategies. DM'ing a tactical wargame is a very different experience from DM'ing a more cinematic RPG. You'll probably want to think out the tactics the monsters will use when designing each encounter, both map and monster composition, and ensure there is some fair but challenging synchronicity between the two.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I edited my question to reflect my intent. I routinely do these things you suggest. My players routinely massacre round of monster after round. I want to offer them a different possibility sometimes. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 20:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah... I think you might get more mileage through tactical encounter building and map making more than tactical monster control. Nudge things up one or two levels, pick monsters with complimentary power sets (eg: if a monster deals extra damage to immobilized targets, find a controller with immobilization to compliment it), and maps/features that really let monsters get the most out of their abilities (if a monster has a power that scatters characters, don't have it fight in a tight enclosed area). \$\endgroup\$
    – Soulrift
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 20:55

Oblivious Sage has a good answer for smart opponent. Goblins will have different tactics. Kobold and Orcs.

Don't forget that only intelligent creatures use advanced tactics. Of course a Bear won't throw himself in middle of every player unless he's in rage or has some reason to ignore the other one.

Unintelligent creatures will give opportunity attack because they focus on a specific target.

Always consider how smart the monster should be. Kobold are known for setting traps and attacking in large numbers but cowardly run for their lives if they face a greater opponent. Animals tend to fight the closest target unless he has motivation to attack another one. Again, if you have a player close to the bear but another one is threatening his baby, you can assume the guy with the baby will realize that mom is coming.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Predators are smart enough to target the weakest preys, not only the nearest ones. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 16:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Predators usually have enough Int score to act like this yes. They are also smart enough to ambush you or attack you, let you get weaker and follow you until you can't walk...but in 4E..that won't happen. Healing surges, healing abilities everywhere. Wounds don't last. \$\endgroup\$
    – user4000
    Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 16:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hence my asking for tactics advice. Most "dumb" monsters in 4E are at least predators, so they'd have at least a basic understanding of what to do beyond the "mass attack at the first visible opponent" technique. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 16:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Healing abilities everywhere is only true for the party. Wild animals might have never met the party before. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    Commented Sep 17, 2013 at 20:44

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