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I am currently running a 5e game for a party of 5 players (level 3).

I tend to make my enemies use tactics. My encounters involving a large number of low-CR enemies tend to have roles (so a tank, some snipers, some hit-and-runners) and positioning (so the snipers hide and have cover and so on). Intelligent enemies focus fire on the most dangerous opponent, who is almost always going to be the wizard (or at least, as the enemies will guess). Even for unintelligent enemies, they will still gang up on one player at a time, because they have no reason to do so otherwise. If it's predator animals, they will finish off the already wounded to prevent their prey from fleeing.

The only exception thus far is mindless enemies who attack completely randomly, but these encounters are not common.

I have noticed a repeated pattern in all my encounters: the targeted player goes down in 1 or 2 rounds. Even though they have no trouble staying alive, I'm still worried that the downed player is not having fun for the rest of the encounter, and that this scenario is getting repetitive.

I have already tried making more varied combat encounters with goals other than killing all enemies. For example, a recent encounter involved the players having an object to protect while the enemies attempted to damage the object. The wizard cast a spell and since some spells can invalidate certain enemy tactics (and even enemies who don't know magic fear magic), all enemies decided to take out the wizard first then damage the object, resulting in the wizard getting downed almost immediately after.

Even though my players have not complained about this, I would still like to learn ways in which I can diversify enemy tactics.

Question: how do I design encounters in which the enemies have a reason not to focus fire on one character, downing the character in the first or second round and making the rest of the fight boring for the player whose character got downed ?

EDIT: In this world, wizards are rare and generally speaking spellcasters are feared more than martials by people in general. So even a group of disorganised enemies with no plan will still focus fire on the wizard. As for focusing fire on other classes, this does happen, and even if the targeted is less squishy than the wizard, they still get downed.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm honestly unsure how to approach this. Without an actual problem to solve...what does an answer look like? \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 28 at 16:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ Has your wizard tried looking less wizardy? And in general, what has your party tried doing? \$\endgroup\$
    – goodguy5
    Mar 28 at 16:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ The wizard is clearly a wizard as soon as they cast a spell. Even if the enemies don't know spellcaster types, spellcasters are dangerous all the same. And in general, fights just involve one party member going to stabilise the downed character and the rest keep hitting the enemies. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 28 at 17:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ The party composition is wizard, fighter, homebrew subclass artificer (mostly uses weapon attacks), rogue and hexblade. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 28 at 17:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Snipers should not exist in most encounters. It is extremely draining to be in a sniping position for extended hours and stay alert. It is extremely unrealistic to have basically smart animals perform advanced tactics. Heck, a typical average human actually can't be a sniper because it is so boring and they would fall asleep. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nelson
    Mar 29 at 16:18

9 Answers 9

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Monsters aren't perfect

. . . so don't play them that way. The PCs make mistakes, so should the monsters.

In any battle, from a street fight to the Battle of Endor, mistakes will be made. The PCs make mistakes, the monsters should make 'em, too. And plenty of them.

You've mentioned that some monsters are smarter than others. Some should also have better (or worse) leadership, communication, discipline, and organization.

These are lessons I've learned from my own DMing.

Don't give the monsters a sky general

It is tempting to view the monsters' side of the fight as if you are playing chess, surveying the board and moving each piece as part of a strategic whole. By doing so, you are giving the monsters an intangible omniscient general in the sky, who knows every monster and PC perfectly and has complete knowledge of the battlefield.

Instead, give the monsters whatever leader they have (or none), and make that leader make imperfect decisions with the available information. Some monsters, like hobgoblins, are likely to have pretty good leadership, others, less so.

Monsters can have command and control problems

Just because a monster leader wants everyone to attack the wizard, that doesn't mean they are going to be able to successfully communicate that. Sometimes communications fail in the heat of battle. Sometimes the order 6 seconds ago made sense but now it doesn't. Sometimes a monster leader misperceives a situation and gives the wrong order.

Monsters have imperfect knowledge

Monsters should have imperfect knowledge. Each monster is only seeing the world from its own perspective. A single monster usually can't see the whole battlefield, and it might be too busy with its own attack and defense to pay attention to all the details anyway. And even disciplined monsters should have the perspective of self-preservation. If someone is all up in their face with a sharp sword, that might be more important than that dude waving his hands over there.

Monsters make mistakes and errors in judgement

Just like PCs. They don't know how many hit points the PCs have. They don't know how hard the PCs hit. A monster may take a hit and erroneously assess that its life is in danger, but perhaps the PC got a in a near-maximum damage hit and is unlikely to score another similar one. The monster doesn't know that.

Monsters can have conflicting goals

The monsters should have conflicting goals. Not every monster is on board with Team Monster. Some of them might just grab some loot and head for the hills. Some are braver than others. Some would rather take advantage of the fog of battle and knife a companion in the back than face the PCs. And, of course, some are competent, motivated, and goal-driven, but not all.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel like the "actionable" part of this is that monsters should gang-up less and take longer to focus the wizard (as in "get the mage, you idiots!") and that's actually more realistic, in most cases. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 29 at 0:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is best answer. Simply put, you don't let your players metagame, you shouldn't either. How do the monsters know who the wizard is (before they openly and visibly cast a spell)? Without someone giving orders, how do they all know who to focus on at first? \$\endgroup\$ Mar 29 at 1:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Xavon_Wrentaile: And even if they know who the wizard is, with a Big Stupid Fighter in front of them, they have a bigger problem. Or they know who the wizard is, but it's behind a tree / wall, and rather than moving from their comfy spot, they'll decide to just shoot someone else. Or... \$\endgroup\$ Mar 29 at 8:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Xavon_Wrentaile The problem is that players are allowed to "metagame" -- to use the aerial view which their characters don' t have to carefully pick targets and perfectly place AoE's. It's tough to remember that's a special player advantage only. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 30 at 20:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @OwenReynolds your comment makes me think that the answer is kind of missing the mark with the title. But also says the right thing in the text. The players and monsters should have something like a bird-eye view of the battlefield. But both players and monsters should have fog of war (aka not seeing around corner) and no prior knowledge of the other side (The players shouldn't know every monsters monsters statblock, neither should monsters know players ). \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    Mar 31 at 1:09
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You might have "My Monster Syndrome".

One of the highest scoring Q&As on the stack deals with something called My Guy Syndrome. Alex P diagnoses and treats My Guy Syndrome in this answer:

"My Guy" syndrome is when — often unwittingly — you disclaim decision-making power and responsibility by acting like "what my character would do" is inevitable and inviolable, even if it gets in the way of actually having fun in the game or being able to play the game at all.

[...]

Why is this busted?

"My Guy" behavior is busted because you, the person at the table, are the one actually making decisions. Always. You always have the option not to pursue a path that'll negatively impact you and your friends' enjoyment of the game as a whole. You may feel compelled to act a certain way out of a sense of fidelity to established characterization, or you may be worried about losing a character (or a character losing face, which can be just as ego-bruising). But, well, the health of the game is in your hands, not in the hands of a fictional character.

Handling "my guy" syndrome

Dealing with "My Guy" is pretty easy once you're aware of it, really: don't hide behind "It's what my guy would do," and don't accept it for an answer. Instead, communicate and engage with each other as people at the table.

Just, like, say what's really on your mind. If something makes you uncomfortable, say "This makes me uncomfortable." If something seems out-of-character for the kind of game you're trying to run or play, say that.

As the player making a decision, look beyond "My Guy" to "Our Game." Are you doing something that you, as a player, actually want to see happen in play? Is it fun for you? Is it fun but only at the expense of someone else's fun?

I have extracted the most relevant parts of Alex's answer here, which is a large portion of it. You have an outcome that you don't want (wizard gets knocked down), that is the result of what the mounters would do. What you describe in your first full paragraph seems to me to be classic "my guy" syndrome, but for monsters (emphasis mine):

Intelligent enemies focus fire on the most dangerous opponent, who is almost always going to be the wizard (or at least, as the enemies will guess). Even for unintelligent enemies, they will still gang up on one player at a time, because they have no reason to do so otherwise.

So to deal with this, follow the treatment plan described in Alex's answer. First, find out if the problem is actually a problem:

Wizard, I've noticed that you've been getting knocked down with some frequency in combats. I noticed you haven't said anything about it, but I don't want to assume that means you're totally cool with how things are going. So I wanted to check in with you, and I want you to be perfectly honest - is the way these fights have gone negatively affecting your time at the table?

I would recommend having this conversation away from the ears of the other players. We want to minimize the social pressure to keep rolling with how things are going and allow the wizard to feel comfortable being open and honest. If they're cool with how things are going, I'm not sure you even have a problem to solve here. But if they express that they aren't enjoying the way things are going, then the monsters have a reason to do otherwise. The monsters need to know that everyone is having fun before they know what they are doing. Your conversation with the Wizard should continue, they probably some ideas for helping you out here:

Thanks for being honest, I really want to make sure everyone is having as much fun as possible! I want to do that without making it feel like combat is cheap or that the monsters are dumb and make the worst decisions possible. During the fight where you got knocked out [describe one particular fight], could you give me some ideas for how you would have expected the enemy to behave? How could I have run the encounter differently without knocking you out so quickly, but without diminishing the feeling of victory over a challenge?

Of course, the player probably doesn't know what you know about all the monsters' abilities, but hear what they have to say, they probably have some good ideas.

Similar guidance appears in the introduction to the Dungeon Master's Guide:

The D&D rules help you and the other players have a good time, but the rules aren’t in charge. You’re the DM, and you are in charge of the game. That said, your goal isn’t to slaughter the adventurers but to create a campaign world that revolves around their actions and decisions, and to keep your players coming back for more! If you’re lucky, the events of your campaign will echo in the memories of your players long after the final game session is concluded.

[...]

The success of a D&D game hinges on your ability to entertain the other players at the game table. Whereas their role is to create characters (the protagonists of the campaign), breathe life into them, and help steer the campaign through their characters’ actions, your role is to keep the players (and yourself) interested and immersed in the world you’ve created, and to let their characters do awesome things.

I don't intend to provide any concrete guidance about exactly what to do with the monsters, because I hope that this perspective equips you well enough to make good decisions for optimizing fun at your table, and because other answers seem to have that covered.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I know about My Guy Syndrome and have generally been successful at avoiding it as a player, but didn't know about My Monster Syndrome, thanks ! When I was told to make my monsters use tactics, I admit I kinda went a bit too into it. Almost all my encounters against intelligent enemies have hidden snipers, etc, and now I kinda realise that perfect monster tactics isn't the most fun. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 28 at 21:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ Anyways, regarding the wizard player, they said that they understand why enemies would focus fire on them, but I still want them to have some encounter spotlight and vary encounters more, which I'll do according to some of the other responses ! \$\endgroup\$ Mar 28 at 21:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "The monsters need to know that everyone is having fun before they know what they are doing". Monsters are tools, not PCs. \$\endgroup\$
    – DunBaloo
    Mar 29 at 6:56
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Put lots of cover and environmental detail in

Water, cover, elevation advantages, bridges, narrow passageways there's lots of environmental details you can include that can make a wizard less squishy. It's harder to attack someone behind cover, and may give other players more chances to do AoO on enemies who attack.

I've found at times players don't realize this is happening, so it helps to have allies and enemies make use of the environment, and to have enemies announce their actions. If the people intend to attack the wizard their biggest member can announce it, pointing a sword at them after their action and saying wizard meat is on the menu, and give them a round to react.

Have different personalities for enemies.

There are some tactical perspectives that preclude focus fire. You don't just need intelligence. You need to be militarily smart, and intelligent. A group of foppish noble cultists for example wouldn't necessarily focus fire the wizard, they might focus on dramatic duels with people. A group of thieving goblins might want to grab the shiniest person and take them to sell their stuff. A group with a pack mentality might want to kill the alpha of the group so they can break their morale and claim dominance over them.

A group of opportunistic bandits might not have experience in tactical combat, and might just target whoever is closest to them, because they're not used to even fights.

One of the big flaws of focus firing the wizard is you're making combat boring for the front lines. The fighter and the barbarian took their classes to fight. If you bypass them and their vast pools of HP to not fight you're making life boring for them. It's often better to give enemies personalities that encourage fun fights.

Don't focus fire wizards just because they're wizards.

You said this.

The wizard cast a spell and since some spells can invalidate certain enemy tactics (and even enemies who don't know magic fear magic), all enemies decided to take out the wizard first then damage the object, resulting in the wizard getting downed almost immediately after.

In DnD 5e most classes are fairly balanced. Tier lists often put barbarians or paladins as more dangerous. It's a bad attitude to think that just because an enemy can use magic you should focus on them. Other classes are also powerful and dangerous in combat and should also get focus fired.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I probably forgot to add this in the question, but in my world, it's not just me thinking wizards are mechanically stronger. In this world, wizards are rare and generally speaking spellcasters are feared more than martials by people in general. So even a group of disorganised enemies will still focus fire on the wizard. As for focusing fire on other classes, this does happen, and even if the targeted is less squishy than the wizard, they still get downed. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 28 at 17:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just to specify, I've talked to the players about the place of spellcasters in the world already, and they understand why the spellcaster would get targeted and don't take it personally, but I would still like to avoid repetitiveness in encounters. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 28 at 17:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ It is just you, you control the NPCs, and mechanically magic users aren't stronger. You said they feared magic users? Why does that equate to focus firing them? Fear tends to encourage people to avoid them. They might seek to put the martial characters between them and the wizard, seeking protection from any attacks. If in this world wizards inspired berserk anger, that would be different, but fear encourages avoidance. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nepene Nep
    Mar 28 at 18:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is everyone they face a fanatic of this religious faction? Does this desire to persecute wizards outweigh their tactical sense that often the wizard isn't actually the most deadly figure on a battlefield? It's not like they can't kill them after they kill the naked guy screaming at them (the barbarian). \$\endgroup\$
    – Nepene Nep
    Mar 28 at 18:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, it's not good to set up a worldwide assumption that everyone should immediately focus fire the caster. There's lots of other tactical ideas you could have from them being afraid, not just the one you want where you get to tactically focus fire the caster. You can make elaborate justifications about why everyone wants to focus fire the caster, but you shouldn't do that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nepene Nep
    Mar 28 at 20:44
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Give the enemies a flaw.

You are playing your enemies intelligently, which is awesome! But it might help to give them a weakness that the party can exploit to mess up their teamwork. Here are some examples:

  • Poor Discipline The enemies are a poorly disciplined mob, unable to organize well enough to go after a specific target. Gnolls and zombies may have this problem, as well as some beasts.
  • Fervor/Temper Some enemies may break ranks when given an insult or struck with a particularly strong attack. Consider giving the party's tanks a chance to Intimidate or Deceive an enemy into attacking them when they deal a powerful blow, score a critical hit, or do something else that might cause the enemy to lose focus. Insulting the deity of a cultist might cause them to target you, for example.
  • Low morale You mentioned that even enemies that don't know magic fear magic, but not everyone responds to fear by trying to stab it. Superstitious or ignorant enemies may be reluctant to get close to or attack a caster, or outright flee in the face of a powerful spell. Bandits or Goblins could have this problem.
  • Honor Not exactly a flaw, but the enemies might follow some code that compels them to fight one on one. Or, they could simply prefer to prove their skills against an opponent with similar abilities - their casters target casters while their warriors target warriors. Enemies with a lot to prove, such as aspiring knights or mercenaries, might fall into this trap.
  • Dissension in the ranks The enemies have some sort of internal conflict. Maybe two warriors vying for leadership each think their squad should target a different party member. The party might be able to use Deception, Persuasion, or magic to help fan the flames of internal conflict among the enemies before or even during the fight. Any intelligent enemies may have this problem.
  • Tyranny The enemies are held together by a single, charismatic (though not necessarily powerful) leader. While the leader is standing, they act as a perfect unit, but if the party can eliminate the leader, they devolve into a chaotic mob. A necromancer or Lich and their undead minions or a Hobgoblin leading Goblins or Bugbears could have this issue.
  • Arrogance This might work well for enemies that have faced the party before. They know (or think) they can bring the Wizard down in a round; they can finish them off whenever they please. Best to focus on the more troublesome party members first, possibly while mocking the Wizard's fragility. All the more satisfying when the Wizard gets a chance to show they're not to be underestimated.
  • Programmed behavior Undead or constructs may have been instructed by their master to choose a target based on who is closest to a relic or forbidden area, whoever attacked them most recently, or some other condition. The party can use this to their advantage to keep such enemies' attention split.

It can be really cool to fight well organized and intelligent enemies, but it can also be a lot of fun for the party to find the weak spot in their tactics and exploit it to gain an advantage. This can also help make it feel like different enemies from different organizations, societies, or species have different fighting styles.

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Your Game World Is Functioning According To Its Design

This answer springboards off of this separate and excellent answer, but looks at a different angle of the problem.

Your problem, paraphrased, is that your combats almost all look the same, and almost all share the common flaw of focusing fire on the wizard, taking that character out of action early and possibly impacting their fun.

Why? Because the wizard occasionally ruins the enemy tactics, and they are smart enough to then retaliate against the wizard. Why else? The enemies are all humanoid and humanoids are all smart enough to recognize the big threat and focus fire to eliminate it, prior to running away if defeat is still imminent. Why else? Because wizards are novel and shiny and fearsome over and above other targets, so all enemies smart enough to do so focus fire on the wizard, even if they're not really that bright or organized or disciplined.

When you design a world that hates wizards in combat, and uses predominantly enemies smart enough to act on that background, of course you are going to end up with combats that focus fire on the wizards.

It's not just My-Monster-Syndrome, it's also My-Campaign-Syndrome.

If you want combats that don't automatically dogpile on the wizard, then stop running encounters with combatants that do that. If you can't do that because of your campaign world, then change your campaign world: Focus on a different part of it, add something to it, de-emphasize the parts that aren't working, whatever, but do something that changes your mix of combatants or changes the way they act.

If you don't address one or both of those fundamental underlying issues, you cannot solve this problem.

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DMG Resources

First easy solution is to use some of the options on DMG pg. 81. The suggestions here help you vary what the purpose of the encounter is.

Outside Resources

A personal favorite of mine to help with monster tactics is The Monsters Know What They Are Doing. The blog has lots of articles that he has written that analyze the monster block and info to glean information on the tactics and behavior of the monster. He also has several books that can be used as resources.

Lastly a note on your given examples

It kinda feels like you have a slight bias toward targeting wizards in your tactics and a bias towards single target attacking in general. At its most basic you may want to use a basic set of rules when thinking through what a creature would understand about combat. Here is a set of premises that the creator of The Monsters Know What They Are Doing uses Source:

  1. Every creature wants, first and foremost, to survive. If it’s seriously wounded (by my definition, reduced to 40 percent of its maximum hit points or fewer—you may prefer a different threshold), it will try to flee. Exceptions are (a) fanatics or (b) intelligent beings who believe they’ll be hunted down and killed if they do flee.

  2. A creature with an Intelligence of 7 or less operates purely from instinct. That doesn’t mean it uses its features ineffectively, only that it has one preferred modus operandi and isn’t going to be able to adjust if it stops working. A creature with Intelligence of 8 to 11 is unsophisticated in its tactics and largely lacking in strategy, but it can tell when things are going wrong and adjust to some degree. A creature with Intelligence of 12 or higher can come up with a good plan and coordinate with others; it probably also has multiple ways of attacking and/or defending and knows which is better in which situation. A creature with Intelligence of 14 or higher can not only plan but also accurately assess its enemies’ weaknesses and target accordingly.

  3. A creature with Wisdom of 7 or less has an underdeveloped survival instinct and may wait too long to flee. A creature with Wisdom of 8 to 11 knows when to flee but is indiscriminate in choosing targets. A creature with Wisdom of 12 or higher will choose targets carefully and may even refrain from combat in favor of parley if it recognizes that it’s outmatched. A creature with Wisdom of 14 or higher chooses its battles carefully and fights only when it’s sure it will win (or will be killed if it doesn’t fight).

  4. Physical abilities influence fighting styles. Low-Strength creatures, whatever their Dexterity and Constitution, will always try to compensate with numbers; if their numbers are reduced enough, they’ll scatter. Low-Constitution creatures, whatever their Strength or Dexterity, will prefer to attack from hiding. Low-Dexterity creatures, whatever their Strength or Constitution, will need to choose their battles carefully: since their ability to avoid damage is poor, they’ll want some sort of compensatory advantage. High-Strength, high-Constitution, low-Dexterity creatures are brutes that will welcome a close-quarters slugfest. High-Strength, low-Constitution, high-Dexterity creatures will use stealth and go for big-damage sneak attacks. Low-Strength, high-Dexterity, high-Constitution creatures are scrappy. Low-Strength, high-Dexterity, low-Constitution creatures will snipe at range. If all three physical abilities are low, a creature will seek to avoid fighting altogether unless it has some sort of advantage; if it’s intelligent, it may lay traps.

  5. Creatures that rely on numbers have an instinctive sense of how many of them are needed to take down a foe. Usually this will be at least 3 to 1. This sense is not perfect, but it’s accurate given certain base assumptions (which player characters may defy). The smarter a creature is, the more it will account for such things as its target’s armor, weaponry and behavior; the stupider it is, the more it will base its estimate solely on size.

  6. A creature with a feature that gives it an advantage (or gives its enemy a disadvantage) will always prefer to use that feature. If it can’t, it may even shun a battle altogether. On average, an advantage or disadvantage is worth approximately ±4 on a d20 roll; with midrange target numbers, it can be worth as much as ±5. It can turn a 50/50 chance into 3-to-1 odds, or 3-to-1 odds into 15-to-1 odds . . . or the reverse. Advantage and disadvantage are a big deal.

  7. A creature with a feature that requires a saving throw to avoid will generally favor this feature over a simple attack, even if the expected damage may not be as great. This is because the presumption of an attack action is failure, and the burden is on the attacker to prove success; the presumption of a feature that requires a saving throw is success, and the burden is on the defender to prove failure. Moreover, attacks that miss do no damage at all, ever; features that require saving throws often have damaging effects even if the targets make their saves.

  8. In Dungeons and Dragons, fifth edition, unless otherwise specified, any creature gets one action and up to one bonus action in a combat round, plus movement and up to one reaction. Any creature that exists in the D&D 5E game world will have evolved in accordance with this rule: it will seek to obtain the best possible result from whatever movement, actions, bonus actions and reactions are available to it. If it can combine two of them for a superior outcome, it will. I’ll refer to this principle as “action economy.”

  9. Alignment matters. Good creatures will tend to be friendly by default, neutral creatures indifferent, and evil creatures hostile—but lawful creatures, even lawful good creatures, will be hostile toward chaotic creatures causing ruckus, and nearly all creatures, regardless of alignment, are territorial to some degree or another. Intelligent lawful monsters may try to capture and either imprison or enslave characters whom intelligent chaotic monsters would simply kill.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I know about The Monsters Know What They're Doing, and most of the enemies in this campaign are humanoids. They care about survival first and I have had enemies retreat or run away. It still doesn't change that every combat starts with a focus fire that downs a player character. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 28 at 17:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hey man, I'm just gonna have to point out here that you are asking us to help you design better encounters and then telling the commentators and those who submit answers that what we are saying doesn't fix the fact that your encounters keep starting with attacking one player. There is a pattern here and it stems from the fact that you have created a world where they target wizards first and only. If you want the combats to be more interesting and to not follow that formula, then you probably should find a way out of the corner that you have written yourself into. \$\endgroup\$
    – RyanMcCall
    Mar 28 at 19:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ No, not every encounter starts with attacking the wizard. There are encounters against beasts as well. I've read everyone's answers and there are some interesting points. I will be implementing enemy character flaws and not have them stick to a single strategy prepared before the start of the fight. I also just had the idea of giving the players the opportunity to ambush the enemies instead of the other way round. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 28 at 19:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Even when it's not humanoids vs wizard, the focus fire is still a problem. For example, a pack of predator animals ganging up on one player at a time. It's not only about wizard prejudice. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 28 at 19:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think I'll keep the focus fire encounters as they make sense in some scenarios, but will diversify encounters against enemies that will not have a reason to use the focus fire strategy. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 28 at 19:50
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Monster Personalities

It's really easy to say "There are five goblins with daggers and rags" and leave it at that.
And it's probably worthwhile to leave it at that for the description of them to your players.

Behind the scenes though, there's no reason they can't be treated as individual characters with their own foibles.

Give them names in your notes. ("Sneaky Steve", "Angry Dave", "Bitey-Mcphee") and try and play them to their primary defining character trait.

One might be a coward, one might be a gung-ho idiot.
One might prefer to do targeted attacks against people's ankles.
One is always hungry and tries to steal the player's food rather than fight them.

You do not need to telegraph any of this to the players, but it could prove very useful for non-combat elements too.

If the players are sneaking around and see the group of goblins at-rest, they might overhear conversation, and you'll have a ready-made set of personalities to play with for that.

Giving the monsters caricature personalities, with one major defining trait and maybe a themed name will inform their behaviour and result in five nominally identical statlines behaving differently and with much less cohesion.

They won't gang up anymore because one will be throwing rocks at whoever gets close, one will be attacking the biggest foe available, another will be trying to get into your pack-lunches and the last will be running for the hills.

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Focus fire is not the only relevant tactic

You've correctly identified that focusing damage on one PC to get them out of the fight is a better tactical move for a group of enemies than spreading the same damage across the party. This is a natural consequence of the fact that the rules of the game don't give any penalty for having low HP - a PC (or enemy) at 10 HP fights just as well as one with 50 HP. Therefore, it makes sense to reduce PCs to 0 HP one by one rather than working on every PC's HP simultaneously.

While this is a strong tactical consideration, it definitely not the only one - and balancing it with other tactical considerations (including constructing encounters so those considerations can be relevant) will make your combat richer.

For the rest of this answer, I'll list some tactical considerations that might sometimes be more important (either individually, or in combination) to enemies than just following the focus fire strategy.

Starting Position

Where are your enemies starting? Sometimes they will all start together (e.g. if they are huddled round a campfire), but often they will be separated. Even in an ambush situation, where enemies have the choice of where to start, it will often make sense to attack from multiple sides, to cut off lines of retreat. Starting from different positions will change which PCs the melee enemies can reach, and sometimes affect the lines of fire available to ranged enemies.

Opportunity Attacks (melee)

For whatever reason (starting position, the PCs going first, etc.), one of your melee enemies is in close combat with a PC that isn't the one a couple other enemies are focusing. What should they do?

If they move away from the PC they're engaged with, they will allow that PC an opportunity attack against them. At low levels, this is almost equivalent to giving that PC an extra turn of damage. At higher levels, Rogue or Paladin PCs can deal massive damage on opportunity attacks, and PCs with the Sentinel feat can entirely negate the attempt to move.

Giving the PCs this extra damage might or might not be worth it on a strategic level, but meanwhile the enemy will (usually) also have some desire for self-preservation, and so will value their HP more than that of their fellows.

Cover (ranged)

Opportunity attacks are all well and good, but only really a problem for melee enemies. Ranged enemies can freely focus PCs, right? Well, only if they have a clear shot.

Half cover provides +2 to AC, three-quarters cover provides +5, and creatures in full cover can't be targeted at all. All other things being equal, it makes more sense to fire at PCs with lower AC, and cover changes those numbers. It's also worth noting that creatures in the path of a ranged attack provide half cover.

For PCs that deal damage at range (including wizards), it makes a lot of sense for them to duck out of full cover, fire off attacks or spells, and duck back in, if they are able. And if such a strategy is available to them, it will make it much more difficult for ranged enemies to focus them.

AoE damage abilities

You say enemies in your world fear wizards? As well they should, if they only ever all rush over to the wizard, bunch up around them, and attack. If I were your PC wizard, I would look at all your melee enemies clustered around me, and gleefully Fireball myself (either downing myself in the process, or casting Absorb Elements to halve the damage if it would save me).

More generally, if all your enemies are in one place, focusing on one character, it makes it that much easier for the PCs to use what powerful, indiscriminate AoE spells they may have to great effect. If instead your enemies are woven through the battlefield and your PCs, such AoE spells will usually be more trouble than they are worth as they would hit multiple PCs, while not hitting all or even most of your enemies.

Why won't you die?!

Some PCs are designed defensively to absorb fire for their friends. Focus fire makes sense a lot of the time, but it rarely makes sense to focus the Barbarian who is halving all the damage they receive, or the 20+ AC Fighter. If these are the only targets all enemies can reach, it probably makes more sense to spread damage rather than focusing them, as their ability to mitigate damage is much higher than that of their friends.

Enemies able to inflict conditions

Focus fire is powerful because the effectiveness of PCs doesn't decrease with HP. However, if your enemies can inflict a debilitating condition (blinded, restrained, poisoned, etc.) on the PCs, their effectiveness will decrease while they still have HP remaining. If your enemies have a capability of this kind, it will often make sense for them to target different PCs - after all, a PC doesn't suffer any more from receiving the blinded condition if they were already blind, but a second PC being blinded will be very bad for that PC.

Countering focus fire

Focus fire is pretty powerful, right? Often, it might be worth investing battlefield resources into preventing the PCs from utilizing that tactic. Consider two options, given 6 enemies and 4 PCs:

  1. All 6 enemies focus on 1 PC. The other PCs then come over and focus on one of the enemies. Both sides focus a single target on the other side one by one until one side wins.
  2. 3 enemies focus on 1 PC, while the other 3 each move to a different other PC to keep them occupied. Once the first PC being targeted goes down, the 3 enemies focusing them move on to the next PC.

In scenario 1, the PC being targeted will go down quick, and whichever side has more firepower will end up winning.

In scenario 2, the PC being targeted will go down slower than in scenario 1 - but they are still being focused down relatively fast, and the PCs are not receiving the benefits of utilizing the focus fire tactic themselves. In this scenario, the enemies are leveraging their greater numbers, potentially allowing them to make up any deficit in firepower compared to the PCs.

How might a single enemy keep a PC occupied like this? Well it could be as simple as threatening an opportunity attack if they move away. Or of grappling them so they can't move and have to use an action if they want to escape. Or of knocking them prone to make them vulnerable and reduce their movement.

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Your encounters sound a bit formulaic.

A pack of guys with clearly defined roles, predators that all target the same guy, or mindless things that do Lolrandom stuff is not great. You want variation - some minions that run and scream when things start to turn south, some big dumb idiot with a massive maul who's doing his own thing and hitting his friends in his desire to get into combat, etc. Combat is not Warmachine, it's not a pure minis tactics game, it's part of a roleplaying story game and thus the actions in combat should tell stories. That naturally makes them far more interesting both in terms of tactics and in terms of player interest. Don't create a tyranid army list. Set up a necromunda gang. The goal isn't to take proportional resources and win - the goal is to take whatever resources you damn well please and make something memorable.

That's not the major problem though.

The major problem with what you've stated is players don't get to play the game. Their character is often unconscious during combat, forcing them to sit out. Further, you don't describe this as a result of them taking poor tactical choices - rather, your encounters include enemies that can take them out and target them first due to obvious signs that they are the most dangerous enemy and the least defended.

There are two main solutions to this problem.

Field enemies that can't or won't target a single character reliably.

or

Give players the opportunity to avoid being targeted.

The first is pretty obvious - enemies without ranged attacks, for example, will have trouble hitting a Wizard at the rear of the party in a narrow tunnel. There's a hundred ways to make that happen, from bad intel to being more scared of big men in platemail than scrawny accountants in robes (not knowing the prevalence of Fireball and similarly effective modern combat magic). The second is somewhat more complicated.

You can achieve it by changing encounters so the party has more room to maneouvre, better knowledge of enemy capabilities, or has the drop on the enemy. But in many cases giving people the opportunity to do things like scout the enemy, form a plan, gather resources, and execute it won't cause them to do that - it's better than 'you are ambushed by goblins, you are here, the goblins are up here' etc - no opportunity for them to do anything - but if you say 'you find signs of inhabitation in the ruins' and people are like 'okay we walk in, making as much noise as possible' you are back at square one.

Some ways to help players create plans include -

  • telling them things their characters would know - a war veteran would know it is normal to field mages in covered locations wherever possible, and to scout.
  • having experienced npcs who are with them for some story reason - an elven scout they rescue from goblins, say - offer advice for taking down some specific group of foes.
  • having the party gain clues as to enemy plans or location in a natural way but without much effort on their part. They come across some goblins who are arguing, and don't notice the party (you emphasize this part) while the party has some handy bushes to hide in nearby - this almost certainly gives the party the knowledge goblins are present without alerting the goblins, either through them hiding, or taking down the goblin duo before they can flee. It may even give them further information, through eavesdropping or interrogation, about general things like numbers, social organization, rough location etc.
  • having a npc who is with the party for some reason remark about how the wizard is always getting wounded, as part of a joke (you're more arrow than man!) or other conversation, to get players thinking about that and maybe trying to avoid it in future.
  • be generous in terms of stealth, conversation, deception, and other attempts to prepare for or circumvent combat. Many GMs suffer from overview fallacy, where they play npcs using their own knowledge - knowing the details of a trap or bluff makes it seem like an obvious and clear-cut ruse, in the same way a puzzle is not interesting if you already know the solution. To be clear - i'm not referring to 'the npc knows you are trying to deceive him because the GM does', but rather 'the GM sees an attempt at deception as 'obvious' because they know it's an attempt at deception - and does not simulate the effect lack of knowledge/benefit of the doubt has on the typical 'mark' in a con, and causes it to fail/makes the DC very high due to that'.
  • in general, be generous to attempts to do any kind of tactics at all that will protect the more vulnerable members of the party. Have them work, even if they're a bit daft, to reward critical thinking and any kind of tactics beyond 'rush in screaming'. Likewise, make sure any prejudices or expectations from 'eye in the sky' viewpoint aren't causing you to judge tactics more harshly than they deserve.
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