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The descriptions of many "Conjure ..." spells (e.g. Conjure Animals pp.225 PHB) contains text like this:

If you don't issue any commands to them, they defend themselves from hostile creatures, but otherwise take no actions.

My initial impression was that conjured creatures wouldn't take any Action outside the Dodge Action on a turn without given commands to do so, but that seemed unreasonable and immersion-breaking.

I then thought if the conjured creature would take the Dodge Action to defend itself, then why not any Action that makes sense given the circumstances, such as neutralizing any threat to itself and/or its companions.

This would also give the DM the opportunity to decide any compelling Actions for the conjured on behalf of the player who summoned it in the case they player has a habit of forgetting to give commands on their turn.

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Ask your DM

The rules do not elaborate further what "defend themselves from hostile creatures" entails, defending is not a defined term. For terms that are not defined, we look at the dictionary definition, which for defend has:

resist an attack made on (someone or something); protect from harm or danger.

So it is up to your DM to decide, if they take the Dodge action, cast Sanctuary on themselves or use other means of defense.

I would exclude teleporting or running away, as that is not defending, it is fleeing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Defending oneself can be considered self-defense which has a definition that states: "the act of defending one's person when physically attacked, as by countering blows or overcoming an assailant" (Webster's unabridged Dictionary of the English Language 1989). So by definition I suppose a DM could decide to take the Attack Action for the conjured against its assailant on behalf of the summoner who did not give any orders on their turn in the case regarding the spell Conjured Animals. As a DM trying to address party balance, fairness, and immersive combat, I appreciate the insight. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kronecker
    Oct 2, 2022 at 21:58
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Action Economy would say no

The reason that conjured creatures, summoned creatures, the steel defender, the wildfire spirit, the homunculus servant, and any number more all include a variation on the phrase "...but the only action it takes on its turn is the Dodge action, unless you take a bonus action on your turn to command it to take another action," is that there needs to be a cost to the owner/summoner.

Bonus actions are not a given, you only can take one if a feature says you can. But when you have one, that can be very important (extra attacks, spells, healing) all that do not interfere with your normal Action for your turn.

By changing all these summons to say, "You can go ahead and attack freely," you are giving back that extra slot for characters. Now that Bonus Action is available for something else; healing word, misty step, second wind, two-weapon fighting, etc.

There needs to be an action cost on the summoner's end to balance out all the new possible Attack Actions that come with adding more creatures to the fight.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that the specific spell cited does not require any action or bonus action to command the summoned creatures (although you are correct that many others do). \$\endgroup\$ Oct 2, 2022 at 18:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MivaScott No disagreement here regarding Action economy, which is why I gave an example of a spell without the Dodge and Bonus Action caveat. As a DM, I am trying to address issues of balance and immersion when summoners don't or can't give commands. Giving players free Actions can create imbalance and exploits of game mechanics and may also cause annoyance to other party members. On the other end is the frustrated player who gives a command to a summoned to attack a creature who ends up dying before the the command can be executed and then watches the summoned pick its nose inbetween dodges. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kronecker
    Oct 2, 2022 at 22:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kronecker, seeing as how Conjure Animals, along with many of the summoning spells, are Concentration spells, the character's death would break the concentration. Just being knocked to 0 hp would do it: Unconscious -> Incapacitated -> Breaks concentration. All the summons would vanish well before their action, unless the spell says otherwise. Such as Conjure Elemental; "If your concentration is broken, the elemental doesn't disappear." \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Oct 3, 2022 at 1:20
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No, because otherwise the player is not in control

If the summoned creatures attacked whatever they felt threatened by that would go counter to the player not giving instructions, instructions are easy enough to give in your example (not requiring any part of the action economy).

If they were to attack on their own then it would mean the player specifically has to tell them to dodge etc, which isn't exactly difficult either, but is more effort than just saying nothing.

The rule is meant to reflect that the player controls what the summons attack, but they won't just stand around and die if they can help it.

It would be far clearer if it just said "takes the dodge action" but why be clear when you can be vague? 🤷 Seems the 5e philosophy.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I share your frustration with "Why be clear when you can be vague", but some would express that as "5e specifically empowers the DM to make decisions in a way that 3e did not" \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Oct 3, 2022 at 14:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Those people would be quoting that out of context. Empowering the DM would mean arming them with good clear information and instructions on the use of that information. The DMG doesn't do that, nor does this ability. It basically abandons the DM and shifts responsibility. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Oct 3, 2022 at 15:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt the dndbeyond forums are living proof that vagueness isn't enough to empower people who feel they must stick by all rules unto death (modrons?), and the 3e DMG was pretty clear about empowering the DM, in an atypically verbose and extensive fashion (probably due to aforementioned problems with people being sticklers for rules in a game that explicitly says the DM can break them). \$\endgroup\$
    – user2754
    Oct 3, 2022 at 18:18
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It's not defined well but there is a precedent for the Dodge Action

Compare the wording of

If you don't issue any commands to them, they defend themselves from hostile creatures, but otherwise take no actions.

with

If you don’t issue any [commands], it takes the Dodge action and uses its move to avoid danger.

As the former seems to be primarily used in PHB and the latter is used in its place in similar spells by later sourcebooks, I am be inclined to believe the intention was to clarify "defend themselves from hostile creatures" into "takes the Dodge action and uses its move to avoid danger" and that's how I would treat it unless there is some other action specified in the spell block.

I don't think it's as unreasonable as you think. Bear in mind that most of those type of spells works by whisking away some spirit, presumably from another plane, from whatever else they were doing, putting it into the form of whatever you summoned and dropping it right in the middle of some combat that they don't really have a stake or interest at. They're bound by the spell to obey your instructions, but if you don't give any, it makes perfect sense for them to defend against whatever would attack them but otherwise to be as passive as they can get away with, they don't really have an incentive to do anything else.

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Motivation

Take a good look at all the text of the spell, and try to figure out the attitude of the creature towards its summoner. Is it positive like that of, in your example, a conjured animal, where:

The summoned creatures are friendly to you and your companions.

Or is it more neutral like what you might get with Planar Ally, where

When the creature appears, it is under no compulsion to behave in any particular way. You can ask the creature to perform a service in exchange for payment, but it isn't obliged to do so.

Or is it more hostile like that of the forces you could call up with Summon Greater Demon, where:

On a successful save, your control of the demon ends for the rest of the duration, and the demon spends its turns pursuing and attacking the nearest non-demons to the best of its ability.

Let's assume for the sake of this question it is a creature that is "friendly" to the caster - and wants to help in whatever way it can (or, depending on your cosmology, at least is compelled by the power of the spell to help in any way it can).

Reasoning

So, we have a creature or creatures who are highly motivated to help their summoner in any way they can - but who haven't been told what to do just now. What should they make of the situation?

They can conclude that their summoner wants them there. Most of these spells have a duration which includes Concentration. As concentration spells, their summoner can dismiss them at any time, no action required. They have not been dismissed; ergo, they can assume their summoner, to whom they are friendly, still wants them there even if they have not been given a specific command. Thus their desire to 'defend themselves' should include sticking around - they will not run away, will not run so far from their caster that they are out of range of the (often verbal) commands. They will do what they can to keep themselves on the board and in play.

They can conclude that their summoner does not want them taking offensive actions at the moment. Most of these spells have a casting time longer than one action (Conjure Animals and Conjure Woodland Beings being the exceptions). Typically these are not cast in combat, so their summoner will have had time to brief them on their responsibilities ('stay at my side until I say go, then you two attack the caster and you two ready actions to grapple anyone that approaches me'). In the case of the creatures that are actually likely to be summoned in combat (animals and woodland beings), the caster can easily give them commands:

They obey any verbal commands that you issue to them (no action required by you).

So if they haven't been given a specific command, it is reasonable to conclude that their caster, with whom they are friendly, doesn't want them doing anything at the moment other than protecting themselves. Maybe the caster's ally is about to drop an AoE and they are supposed to rush in later. Maybe the caster is about to charm an opponent. Maybe they are just there to look menacing without upsetting a tense negotiation. They don't know the reason, but they can be pretty sure that the caster doesn't want them to act.

Results

Now they are faced with a decision - they can't act aggressively and seek out opponents, for fear of upsetting whatever complicated and contingent plans their caster has. And they can't simply allow themselves to be attacked, because they know their caster wants them to remain. Given these constraints, they will defend themselves in whatever way is likely to maximize their survival, and take any Actions available to do so. If they are attacked by something whose remaining hp are low compared to their damage output, they might Attack back if eliminating the source of the attacks on them is the best method of self-defense. If the thing attacking them is slower than they are but more powerful, they might use a combination of Dash and Disengage to try to remain out of reach, all the while circling around to keep themselves in command range for their caster. If the thing attacking them is both faster and more likely to reduce them to 0hp before they can do the same to it, the best course of action may be to simply Dodge and hope they are still in play when the caster is ready to command them.

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Extract: All summons without instruction should Dodge. Some might act otherwise depending on their relationship to the caster once attacked. If you are concerned with how this works, give instructions, all summons are bound by their summoners instructions. This is part of why many require action economy, though some do not, the point tends to be that getting it to act how you want, requires you to share what you want with the summon.

I feel like all of the answers, many of which have been down voted to zero at the time of me reading this question are answering facets of this question. First, while the OP cites conjure animals, they are generally speaking of conjuration of 'others' conjure animals is simply in reference, I take this to mean, they wanted a spell to talk about, but only because their question is in general to all conjuration spells.

I think Kirt is correct to first consider the creatures relationship to the caster. I personally as a DM track summoned creatures interactions much like renown with different factions in a city... you can a summon that is positive, neutral, or negative. A negative creature is bound by your magic, and just waiting to find the caveat or loop hole to enact revenge for pulling it out of world, as AnnaAG speaks, to your magic is indeed taking these creatures away from their natural state. Even for Drizzt and a positive relationship, I loved the descriptions of Guenhwyvar hunting in the primal forests only to be pulled away from a kill at the summons of Drizzt. Guenhwyvar loved and would die for Drizzt even after only a short while, because Guenhwyvar knew what it was to be controlled by a vile, abusive master, instead of a friend and partner. In the same way, a summoned familiar can begin to find an abusive master distasteful for always sending it to die and eventually begin to unfaithfully interpret poorly worded instructions; or even not acting when an instruction is implied but not given.

MivaScott brings up a great point in the value of keeping action economy in balance. I personally allow summoners to summon up to One creature per player, but each player shares the summons, in that I limit players to controlling their character and one other NPC. Thus the summoner cannot take over the game. In the same way, I often limit my attacks to reduce the DM taking up time when players could be playing (Mob Attacks DMG 250). Many of these creatures must be commanded using action economy because of their relationship as well as their power, though I find often it can be taken as their own self esteem and feeling of sleight or insult at being invoked.

SeriousBri brings up player control and with the prior references I think I can now add what I consider the most pertinent things.
The player can ask the creature to follow a; if 'trigger' is observed to be happening, then 'attack' sequence.

But the player might not give a command. And perhaps here we have where something over laps. If it is something that doesn't care about you, or values its own well being over you, but there is ambiguity in your instructions, it would likely physically defend itself, because it DOESN'T care if you didn't tell it to attack, because you were hoping to negotiate out of combat. If it is something that does like you, that same ambiguity might fall into the realm of not attacking to defend its physical self, because it knows it will simply return home if killed and you might want to remain out of hostilities... even if your beloved friend was injured and lost for the immediate presence...

Does a lot of this come down to DM, of course, I actually think that is the whole reason 5e tends to be so vague. The rules are meant to be individual at any given table. Only Adventure League is supposed to be universal when we really consider it. We even know all of the rule staff have their own home brews that are not official. Make it work for your table. Sometimes that means a blanket statement: When we leave town here, I want to have my pet bear snarl at anything that moves toward us and if it gets closer than 15ft charge and attack it. All the sudden you forget and have a friendly NPC get attacked and killed by the bear... but decisions matter.

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