This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Forty Nine on 10th October, 2023.
Note: This article was adapted from an episode script, and so there may be parts that don’t flow well when read, because they were initially designed for broadcast.
Combat in D&D can quickly become repetitive once the characters are at a high enough level and players are familiar enough with their abilities to figure out their best moves. This is especially true if there isn’t a lot of variety in the nature of monsters or environments combat happens in.
Apart from changing the type of monsters (like using one or two large ones rather than multiple regular foes) the next easiest way to make combat different is to change the environment around. Pits, changing terrain, and verticality are easy ways to change up the battlefield. However, if you have a campaign taking place in a normalized environment like, say, Waterdeep, that gets a little harder. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to have a pit of lava guarded by Yetis in a warehouse down by the docks. And that’s apart from the fact the Yetis would probably wander away because of the heat.
That last quip is actually what we want to talk about. A common rut that many DMs can fall into is making all their monsters behave the same. Or, arguably worse, making the monsters behave in a metagame-y fashion, as if they are your characters you’re controlling to try to beat the players.
Almost everyone is guilty of this, but remember it isn’t really fun for anyone except you if you take all of your characters and punish the player character who’s doling out the most damage. That is, unless it makes sense.
To begin with, especially if you’re a new DM, having every group of enemies attack the closest player characters and fight to the death makes sense. In most adventures it also makes sense for the initial foes to do that, too. But that’s not the way all the creatures in the world behave. Or it shouldn’t be if you want your players to actually think about combat and who they’re facing.
In older editions of D&D, monster descriptions also separate sections detailing how different creatures would behave in combat. Some of the descriptions also included details about how behavior would change if they were wounded, or if they had allies around vs fighting alone.
Unfortunately most modern 5e resources don’t include that information, or if they do they don’t call it out; it’s just buried in the creature’s description along with their preferred diet and what they like to do on the weekends. There are some cases where the behavior of a group of monsters in an adventure module will be laid out for the DM, but that usually only happens when the creatures need to behave a certain way in order to move the story along.
For monsters that have been around in D&D for a while, you can look back at some of those older resources for inspiration. However, if you don’t have access to them, or if you just don’t want to bother, there are still some general assumptions you can make depending on the type of enemy.
Let’s start with beasts, because they’re not sapient so their behaviors tend to be consistent. Almost all the beasts that characters would end up fighting are predators, and a few thousand years of avoiding, hunting, and studying them has given us a good baseline for guessing behavior.
Your solitary predators like large cats and bears generally want to be left alone. If they’re very hungry or if someone’s bothering their home they will hunt and attack until they’re too hurt for it to be worth it. In that scenario, they will start out going for someone separated from the group or who looks weaker. They’re going to switch to whoever’s in their face once the fighting starts though.
If they’re defending their kids, however, it’s all-out berserker fighting until their opponent is dead or gone, and they will just try to tear the face off of whatever is closest to them.
So looking at monster resources and reading the descriptions can give you a good idea what monsters should behave this way. Drakes, wyverns, griffons, and chimera [KY-mare-uh] would all mostly follow this behavior pattern by default. Now obviously if someone has captured or trained one of these creatures to behave a certain way, they will, but for random encounters it’s worth it to remember the creature will very likely give up and run away if it’s losing the fight.
Pack hunters are a totally different animal.
In general packs have the same behavior patterns of the solitary hunters, but they’re used to working in groups and they will do that instinctively. That means they will know how to feint and flank. So their chosen target will end up with multiple creatures attacking them, and when the character swings back, their next move is going to be to dodge while their buddies keep attacking. They’ll also stick around and fight a bit longer; it’ll take a few of them going down before they cut and run. If a creature that’s usually in a pack is fighting alone, it’s going to be very timid and hesitant about fighting. Basically if it has to fight to live, it will, but it will also cut and run at the first opportunity.
Any creatures with pack tactics, or any other ability where they get bonuses from allies being around or within sight or something like that are going to behave this way.
Then there’s the non-sentient kind. Mostly these are the oozes and aggressive plants, and for them it’s worth reading through the descriptions for their behavior. Gelatinous cubes, for example, literally do nothing until something walks into them, and then they just beat it into submission blindly.
Sapient beings, on the other hand, move out of instinctive behavior and into the realm of psychology. There are obviously a whole host of different responses you can model for enemies that actually think. To give you a starting point, we’ve come up with three blanket profiles you can apply to thinking enemies; fanatics, conscripts, and soldiers.
Fanatics are literally the enemies we described at the beginning; they run forward unthinkingly (or maybe stay back a bit if they ended up with a ranged weapon), attack the closest enemy to them, and keep doing that until they aren’t able to anymore. They can’t be reasoned with and they won’t pay attention to or care how their friends are doing.
These are certainly the easiest enemies to run, which is why a lot of people default to this kind of behavior. But if you think about it, there aren’t a lot of enemies that are actually going to behave this way. The average group of gnolls or demons will fight like fanatics by default. Brainwashed groups like cultists or people deeply devoted to a charismatic leader will behave like this as well, but beyond that this attitude shouldn’t be all that common.
The average group of humanoid creatures like bandits or hired guards are more likely to be conscripts. These are people that don’t see combat as their first option, or they only like to fight if they’re definitely going to win.
They’re going to behave more like the pack hunting beasts. They’ll want to gang up on and overwhelm opponents, because most of them aren’t comfortable or confident fighting on their own. If their fight is going well, they’ll keep that up.
However, if and when they start losing, their conviction in fighting will fall apart. Some of them might run, others will give up and try to surrender. A couple of overconfident or panicked individuals might try to fight their way out, but their decisions aren’t going to be good ones.
A way to simulate this might be to borrow from wargames and start having the fighters make checks against wisdom to figure out if they’ve “broken”. If they do, then you decide whether they try to run, try to surrender, or just try to fight their way out. A simple d3 roll would be a good way to figure that out.
Finally you have the soldiers. I like these ones, because they’re how you take a regular group of city guards or mercenaries and have them absolutely tear the player characters apart.
The key thing with soldiers is they’re trained. They know tactics, they understand how to work as a group, and most importantly they know how to assess an enemy’s abilities. Real life Special Forces soldiers aren’t only dangerous because of their physical training; they’re also taught how to exploit weaknesses and circumvent problems.
If you’re running a group of soldiers, this is where you arguably should play them like they’re your characters trying to beat the player characters. Soldiers are not going to gang rush the barbarian who’s soaking up hits and knocking everyone down. They will have one or two people engage them, and then they’ll focus the rest of their attention on taking out the cleric that’s healing the barbarian, or the ranger that’s firing arrows from 100 feet back and isn’t wearing armor. And if a rogue or a warlock is sniping at them from an elevated position, they will actively try to take cover. Then they will ready actions so when the rogue pops their head out to shoot, a bunch of crossbows open up on them. When they actually have to deal with the barbarian, they’re going to space themselves out 60 feet from one another and pelt the raging maniac with arrows until they fall down.
Yeah, there’s nothing melee fighters hate worse than turning a corner and seeing a group of archers with longbows 150 feet away. Just ask the French.
Soldiers are another group that will actually retreat from battles as well, but they won’t just cut and run; they will try to make it painful for anyone that attempts to pursue them by using traps, covering fire from archers, or blocking spells like walls or darkness.
As mentioned, actual trained militaries or higher-tier mercenary groups will all behave like soldiers, as will any devils the characters encounter. And groups of elite bodyguards will not only be soldiers, they will be higher CR creatures. Trust me, any group of creatures 2-3 CR above the characters’ levels that fight intelligently with tactical awareness are going to be scarier than any dragon on the field, no matter what a certain someone says about CR.
Speaking of dragons, they are solitary hunters but they’re also fully intelligent. Applying different profiles to the dragons is a good way to differentiate between the colors. Red dragons, for example, are likely to start out like fanatics because of their penchant for overwhelming their enemies with power. White dragons, on the other hand, are more likely to behave like bestial solitary predators.
Other creatures are harder to pin down because their abilities and their behaviors are a bit alien. Mindflayers, for example, could be arguably fanatical if they believe they’re superior to their opponents, but they’re also not big on physical combat, so conscript behavior might make sense too. Different giants are probably going to behave differently depending on what type of giant they are and who they’re fighting; they might be more conscript-like in general, but pit them against a chromatic dragon and it’s fanatic time.
Beholders…who knows? It probably makes the most sense to just roll a die to determine their behavior. At the start of each turn.
If you really want to get into it, you can get more granular and apply different templates to different individuals in combat. The leader of a bandit group might be a fanatic or a soldier, for example, while everyone else is a conscript. Or the noble who hired the mercenaries might be a conscript while the rest of them are fanatics.
However you want to implement it though, the idea is that if you have the different enemies behaving differently when they fight, the players should be more invested in changing their approach depending on what kind of enemies they’re up against.