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When I played 1st and 2nd edition AD&D, I was always a player. The party was written down in order and numbered. When monsters would attack us, the DM would roll the die and check which character it corresponded with on the paper, and that's who the monster attacking would attempt to hit. I can imagine that in later editions that the miniatures and maps made it very easy to figure out who was going to get hit in a more realistic way. If the dwarf is closer to the orc with the ax, then the orc is probably gonna go for the dwarf.

I want to learn how to DM D&D 5E, but I don't want to use miniatures and player maps. Is there a system to decide which party member monsters attack for "theater of the mind"? Should I use the random number system my DM used back in the day? If not, what do you use?

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    \$\begingroup\$ That's a pretty common technique (roll for who gets attacked), but it's not a rule. I think it's just included in a 1st Edition's "gameplay example", and there may be a few monsters that actually work that way. It's a technique used for 1.) easily offended groups or 2.) combats where it really doesn't matter. The advice given in the answers has been the advice I've read since the early 90s when I started playing... and it's the same advice for a good reason! \$\endgroup\$ – Smithers Apr 27 '15 at 19:02
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Short answer: whatever makes sense.

When in battle, you generally don't just strike at random foes. Depending on the combatant's training and role they will choose different targets. Each creature you decide to send into battle should have some preferred tactic to utilize and as the DM, you get to decide what tactic makes the most sense. Some examples:

A mother bear protecting her cubs

The party wanders upon a mother bear and her cubs. The mother will attempt to place herself between the players and her cubs. She will target whoever is closest to her cubs as they pose the most threat.

An enraged orc warchief

You've fought through the orc camp and find their warchief in a bloody rage. He does not care who he hits as long as he causes pain. He will charge whoever particularly hurts or offends him in the previous round and will attempt to finish off any enemy showing weakness.

A trained sniper cripples the party

An assassin has been sent to dispatch your party. The first thing he does is try to incapacitate your cleric so that nobody will be getting back up during the fight.

A cornered scoundrel fights for his life

You've cornered that pesky assassin after his plan failed and he's become frantic. At this point his attacks become more or less random, lashing out in all directions just to buy himself some space. A more level-headed character may attempt to create an opening through which to escape.


Try to think of combat as a social interaction, each character has certain goals and talents they can use to reach those goals. The tactics used by each creature should fit its personality, training, and objective. And as I demonstrated in my last two examples, circumstances can play a major role in these tactics; dynamic tactics make combat interesting and keep your players on their feet.

And a short note on theater of the mind. Rather than think in grids for combat, think about who the major threats are to your creature. For example, if your creature will merely attack whoever is closest, keep track of who is closest, second closest, etc. to the creature. If they are easily enraged, think of whoever has done the most damage to them. Theater of the mind focuses the battle away from numbers and more towards motivations.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Definately "think in goals". For most enemies, "kill or die trying" is NOT the goal, and they should fight accordingly. That also means fighting defensively when overwhelmed, always keep an escape route open, etc. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Apr 27 '15 at 6:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Erik even when "kill or die trying" is a goal, it's a rather different goal than one which most NPCs play out in fantasy games - it would imply that in face of certain defeat they would try to cause as much hurt as possible, e.g. explicitly try to permanently kill off anyone that's unconscious, instead of going off to those still fighting; focus&burst damage to a single weakest PC while mostly ignoring the other threats; if no chance to kill a single PC then try to destroy equipment, animals & supplies instead of (vainly) trying to prolong the battle. Even if you win, you'd still lose a bit. \$\endgroup\$ – Peteris Jul 26 '15 at 14:27
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This is entirely up to the DM.

You can use a random system as you describe, or use a criteria based on the personality of this enemy. If they're cowardly, they may target the smallest or weakest looking PC. If it's a rust monster, it'll go for the one with the most metal. Intelligent enemies may try to take out the party leader, if one is obvious, or the spellcasters.

Even with "theater of the mind", you need some way to judge party members' positions. Parties will often have the fighters in the front rank with spellcasters behind. Many enemies will just target the closest PC, so randomly pick from the front rank.

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There is no "right way," except that you as the DM are trying to create a realistic world for your PCs to participate in.

Different foes would approach target selection in different ways. Unintelligent and/or chaotic foes might pick one at random. Others might pick a target based on their perceptions and culture - do they prey on the weak first, or prove themselves by going after the leader first? Intelligent foes will have a much more thoughtful approach, like by targeting spellcasters first.

Though there is no absolute positioning in theater of the mind combat, you still have some guidelines. You should probably ask the party for a marching order and/or default combat dispositions that would indicate who is likely to be on the front lines. Also, let the PCs create their own stakes with mindful positioning. "I want to be a blocker to keep them off the wizard - but I understand I'll take more attacks." "I want to scoot around to get behind them, and I understand I could get cut off from help." See D&D 5e and "Theatre of the Mind" in combat for more on this topic.

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Even without battle maps and miniatures you can have an organization of the party.

I've always handled it by having the party define what their usual arrangement will be, if nobody specifies they're doing something else I assume that's how they are arranged. Monsters will normally attack what they consider to be the best target amongst those available to them.

If the pattern they have defined isn't feasible in the situation I explain the problem and ask what they want to do. (This is normally a very rare situation as I have them define both an open-space pattern and a pattern for a fight in a corridor.) Should they somehow suddenly find themselves in combat when neither pattern will work I would place the party so as much of the pattern was usable as possible and then stick any that didn't fit behind and tell them where they were and why. I've never had to resort to this, though.

I do not consider a random allocation approach workable as it means there's no way the party can protect more vulnerable members.

This approach takes very little extra work on the DMs part. The party can draw up maps of layouts if you're not comfortable handling it mentally, all it requires is the DM to have some organization to the monsters and you have to have some means of tracking monsters to allocate damage to them anyway.

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In older campaigns, I had some of the more sentient opponents target based on race or class depending on the situation. For example, I had a criminal hiding out from elves he stole from. He naturally would attack the elves of the party, thinking that they were part of the group he stole from.

In most cases though, I use either who's closest or who attacked last.

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Instances like this would be good to use NPC skill checks to determine targets. As an example, rather than have a die side for each party member - the enemy does a Knowledge check on the PCs. If they fail the check against a specific character, that is who they attack. They may also innately go for their foil for saves, such as rogues target foes that depend on willpower or fortitude save and leave reflex saves alone (or D&D5, Charisma & Dexterity Checks), based on perceptions formed at the surprise phase.

For animals depending on scent, they may attack based on what is wounded or sick if they are predators/scavengers - even if the PCs health is full, they may still be smelling the blood soaked armor. For defensive non-predatory animals, if they are cornered, will determine their escape path and then attack whoever is in that way. Even elephants have the nature to run, so unless the creature is innately malign, always plan for animals to escape first and attack second.

As for non-sapient creatures, such as automatons or golems, go off of the prejudice of the creator. If they were divine, they will target heretics and if they were arcane they might attack opposing schools or foes they see as inferior based on race or status. The non-sapient's may not have a reason to their methods, but they can certainly have biases implanted in them.

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