Any creature that has evolved to survive in a given environment instinctively knows how to make the best use of its particular adaptations.

That seems like a straightforward principle, doesn’t it? Yet monsters in Dungeons and Dragons campaigns often fail to follow it.

No doubt, that’s largely because many of us begin playing D&D when we’re teens (or even pre-teens) and don’t yet have much experience with how the world works. Or we come to D&D as adults with little or no background in the military, martial arts, evolutionary biology or even tactical simulation games, and so we don’t consider how relative strengths and weaknesses, the environment, and simple survival sense play into the way a creature fights, hunts or defends itself. Consequently, we think of combat as a situation in which two opponents swing/shoot/claw/bite at each other until one or the other goes down or runs away.

I learned this the hard way by playing the computer game XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Over and over, I kept getting massacred, even on the easiest levels. What was I doing wrong? I had no idea. But thanks to many hard years of learning how to learn, I finally figured out that I was failing because of something I hadn’t known I didn’t know. XCOM taught me what it was that I didn’t know: small-unit tactics. So I started reading up on them. My XCOM game changed overnight.

Primitive societies fight battles by charging out into the open and stabbing at each other. Trained soldiers don’t. They use ranged weapons and shoot from cover. They strive to occupy high ground, where they can see farther and from which it’s easier to shoot or charge. While one soldier or fire team moves from cover to cover, another stays put and watches for danger; then they switch. They’ve learned this from centuries of experience with what wins a battle and what loses it.

Similarly, a lion or a crocodile could ruin any one of us in a head-to-head fight; even so, they don’t charge at us from out in the open. They use cover and stealth, and they strike when they’re close enough that we have little chance of running away. A crocodile isn’t fast enough to give chase, and a lion would tire itself out before it caught us if we had enough of a lead. On the other hand, black and brown bears, which are also deadly up close—and are more than fast enough to chase a human down—use stealth hardly at all. Why? Because, by and large, they don’t hunt. They scavenge, forage and fish. Their environment is different, and their diet is different, so their habits are different.

So what, in a game of D&D, distinguishes goblins from kobolds from orcs from lizardfolk? In many campaigns, hardly anything. They’re all low-level humanoids who go, “Rrrrahhhh, stab stab stab,” then (if the player characters are above level 2) get wiped out. They’re cannon fodder. Only the packaging is different.

The simple fact that they have different names tells us they should behave differently. And one of the great things about the fifth edition of D&D is that not only the ability scores but the skills and features of monsters are specified precisely. Those skills and features, along with the flavor text in the Monster Manual, give us clues as to how these monsters ought to fight.

In the course of a D&D game, however, a dungeon master has to make one decision after another in response to player behavior—and the better the players, the more unpredictable their behavior!—and it doesn’t take long for decision fatigue to set in. It’s easy for even an excellent DM to allow combat to devolve into monsters’ running directly at the PCs and going, “Rrrrahhhh, stab stab stab.”

The way to avoid this is to make as many of these decisions as possible before the session begins, just as a trained soldier—or accomplished athlete or musician—relies on reflexes developed from thousands of hours of training and practice, and just as an animal acts from evolved instinct. A lion doesn’t wait until the moment after it first spots a herd of tasty gazelles to consider how one goes about nabbing one, a soldier doesn’t whip out his field manual for the first time when he’s already under fire, and a DM shouldn’t be deciding how bullywugs move and fight when the PCs have just encountered 12 of them.

This blog is aimed at:

  • Beginning DMs, especially younger DMs and adult DMs with little or no strategy gaming experience.
  • Intermediate DMs who are looking for ways to add more flavor and challenge for their players.
  • Advanced DMs who could figure all this out perfectly well on their own but are too busy to put the time into it.
  • And players. Yes, players! I don’t see anything wrong with your scoping this blog for intel. If your DM is using these tips, it’s going to make your characters’ lives a little tougher, and I don’t want them to get slaughtered like I did my first time playing XCOM. If you know what your characters are up against, you can begin to plan for it yourselves, and that’s part of the fun of D&D.

This article has 13 comments

  1. Andrea Carenzi Reply

    Just wanted to leave here somewhere how much I love what you’re doing here. Really makes you think about how NPCs should behave organically on the battlefield. This blog genuinely made me happy (and some of my friends). Thank you ^^

  2. John Mort Reply

    I wanted to thank you for doing this, it has saved me a lot of work and fits really well into the hexcrawl I am running. I have a player diving into a location that was taken over by myconid, and having something written up where someone else has already thought of this stuff is a real time saver. You’ve clearly put a lot of thought into how these encounters should generally go.

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  4. Jack McDade Reply

    Just stumbled across this blog and am completely loving it so far. Is there any kind of recommended order in reading through the articles? If there are a number of “foundational” tactical posts, I’d love to have that context as I go deeper.

    • Keith Ammann Reply

      Not really, although these days I often don’t bother re-defining terms that I use all the time. If you stumble on one that puzzles you, just search for that term and start reading the hits in chronological order.

  5. Phil Reply

    I stumbled upon this at an opportune time, just as my players are dealing with bullywugs and soon to tackle a green slaad (both profiled here), so thank you for your work.

    While I see you’ve covered a variety of NPCs, I was wondering if you had any suggestions for antagonists made up of what are traditionally seen as “player” races, such as elves, dwarves, dragonborne, etc.?

    One of the recurring villains in my current game are elves, who started a long-running war with the human nations because the elves were angry about the widespread deforestation and mining and general pollution the humans were responsible for. while I’ve been using the occasional elf guerrilla attack with a lot of emphasis on sniping from cover, I’m curious to know if there are other tactics I should be rolling out (bringing in magic-using eladrin to impose environmental cover like fog or hazards like thorns is another idea I’ve used).

    I always figured dwarves would use a lot of traps, like kobolds, and that dragonborn would favor some of the same tactics used by dragons of their color, but not many have wings or lair options, so there are obvious limiting factors to that idea.

    Mainly, I just like the idea of presenting my players with unexpected foes from time to time… Thanks again for all your work – it’s clearly a labor of love.

  6. drs Reply

    “Primitive societies fight battles by charging out into the open and stabbing at each other.”

    AIUI, not true of real “primitive” societies. Open “battles” likely involve a lot of ritual, posturing, and withdrawing after someone gets killed or even hurt. ‘Real’ war centers around ambush raids, preferable with 3 to 1 ratios, and annihilation by attrition. I think the same is true of chimp bands; I read of one that gradually wiped out another.

  7. Zack Reply

    You sir are a genius, I’m willing to start dming d&d, done alot of reading, seen live games and Podcasts, but nothing comes close to what I discovered through your innovative and brilliant articles. I do sincerly hope that you won’t stop making these anytime soon.

    I would like to thank you for this flawless work. Hopefully I’ll get my hand on a pre-paid credit card and purchase your book too, speaking of that, do you believe that I, being in canada, can use a pre-paid CC to make that purchase, since I sadly do not own one ?

    • Keith Ammann Reply

      “Flawless.” Heh. Far from it. In fact, when I screw up, I usually leave the erroneous text up, struck out, along with the correction. Nobody’s perfect, and I don’t pretend to be.

      As for prepaid credit cards, beats me. Try it and let us know if it works.

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