Intelligent Enemy Tactics

About two months ago, I got an interesting query from reader Nick Seigal, asking about how to run a monster or villain more intelligent than oneself. When you think about it, it’s a challenge that runs throughout Dungeons & Dragons and every other roleplaying game that quantifies mental capacities: How do you roleplay any character or creature with greater intelligence, wisdom or charisma than you yourself possess? (For that matter, how do you play having significantly less? I’m reminded of the one good bit in the otherwise godawful Robert A. Heinlein book Friday, in which the main character, a covert agent, has to take an IQ test and hit a predetermined score exactly.) In social interaction skill checks, it can be handwaved—and often is—with a die roll in lieu of roleplaying. But combat, with its round-by-round mechanical decision-making, requires something more.

With respect to Intelligence (the ability) in particular, it behooves us to think about what we mean when we talk about intelligence (in general), and one important aspect of intelligence is something we might call “quickness of apprehension”: the ability to rapidly recognize the importance of what one sees or hears. This quality is one we see in great detectives of literature, such as Sherlock Holmes, who hoovers up every visual detail at a crime scene in moments, or Nero Wolfe, who pounces on an out-of-place phrase in a conversation which signifies consciousness of guilt. Any detective of ordinary or slightly above-average intelligence could find the same clues, but it would take hours of examining the crime scene or poring over a verbatim transcript of the conversation, and most would give up long before then.

In a D&D combat situation, this manifests in a highly intelligent creature’s being able to “read the room.” It can tell a fighter from a paladin, a wizard from a sorcerer, or a Life Domain cleric from a Light Domain cleric. It can get a sense of a character’s Strength by observing the force of their weapon strikes, their Dexterity by watching them dodge attacks, their Constitution by watching them take hits, their Intelligence and Wisdom by listening to them call out to their allies. It notes who’s got magical weapons and what they do. It pays attention to how badly injured its opponents are. It observes the opponents’ positioning, notices when someone has made a blunder and capitalizes on it. It’s mindful of its own weaknesses and the need to avoid, neutralize or eliminate opponents who might target those weaknesses.

If a monster possesses superhuman intelligence, i.e., Intelligence 19 or higher (and yeah, some player characters have ability scores this high, but let’s stipulate that these PCs are basically superhuman themselves—the normal distribution of ability is and always has been 3 to 18), it’s so perspicacious that it can glean precise information about an opponent’s abilities at a mere glance, as if it were reading the opponent’s character sheet or stat block. In other words, you as the dungeon master can let it know anything and everything you know, as long as it could know these things by some plausible information vector.

A highly intelligent monster or villain will also strategize—and here we need to clarify the distinction between strategy and tactics, especially since a lot of the time, when I talk about monster “tactics,” I’m lumping strategies in along with them. In brief, strategy is an overall plan for what a creature wants and how, in broad strokes, it plans to go about getting it; tactics are the specific techniques it uses to get what it wants. For instance, a goblin’s strategy for fighting in the outdoors is to avoid melee engagement, snipe from a distance and make maximum use of cover in order to attack unseen. Shoot-move-Hide is the primary tactic it uses to carry out this strategy.

Strategy involves many different things, but most of these things boil down to comparative advantages and disadvantages—exploiting them and, when possible, creating them. While less intelligent monsters can “strategize” a little bit, it mostly boils down to instinctive use of their particular abilities. More intelligent monsters, in contrast, are aware of their weaknesses as well as their strengths and look for ways to compensate for them. This compensation may take the form of allies that, in rock-paper-scissors fashion, are well equipped to target the weaknesses of those who would attack the intelligent monster/villain’s weakness. It may take the form of traps or protective magic. It may take the form of alarms and escape routes. It may take the form of defensible terrain or architecture.

In other words, highly intelligent monsters and villains don’t fight on a featureless plain. They construct an environment that’s favorable to them and unfavorable to foes. They tilt the playing field in their own favor.

If given the opportunity to engage the same opponent more than once, they also learn. My own players once followed the trail of a mind flayer that had established a lair in a cave near a string of small, isolated villages, whose inhabitants it had either dominated or pod-peopled using intellect devourers. Inside the lair, they found it had also somehow managed to put a beholder under a geas and posted it as a sentry. The fight with the beholder went poorly: two of the five party members got petrified, and while the rest managed to finish the beholder off, they had to retreat in order to get help. When they returned, the mind flayer had completely reconfigured its security. Now, instead of two dominated oni guarding the mouth of the cave, there were two oni and a semicircular ring of 20 commoners, all facing outward. In addition, three newly dominated ogres patrolled the cave’s interior passages, alert for intruders.

Suppose the party goes up against a smart boss villain that’s also a spellcaster, and both sides survive the first combat encounter. The next time the PCs meet this villain, it will remember how the first battle went, including whether and how the PCs got the better of it. It will recall which of its enemies posed the most serious threats. And in all likelihood, it will have taken the time to study a new spell or two, specifically intended for use against those particular PCs.

Creatures that act purely on instinct—or are simply stupid—tend to have one modus operandi that they use over and over again and to be unable to adapt if it stops working. Smart creatures have contingency plans. To paraphrase Teddy the arsonist in the movie Body Heat, if you can think of even half of the ways a plan can go wrong, you’re a genius; conversely, if you are, in fact, a genius, doesn’t that speak pretty well to your ability to anticipate ways a plan can go awry? As a DM, you can take advantage of your own knowledge of your players’ go-to strategies and assume that your clever villain has already predicted that someone might try those things—or at least something like them, though maybe not exactly like them. Moreover, while a dumb brute only does one thing, a smart creature knows how to do lots of things. If its stat block doesn’t contain lots of things it can do, then maybe its native terrain contains them, or its home base does, or its inventory does . . . you get the idea. And we’re not necessarily talking Inspector Gadget–level technology, either. Medieval and renaissance engineers knew well that you can achieve many things with simple machines.

Intelligent creatures recognize the value of information, and they try to acquire as much of it as they can. This means lore, but it also means news. Does your big bad spend most of its time in one location? Then you can bet it has agents in other locations sending reports back to it. Maybe it scries on potential threats or communes with supernatural entities for advice and warnings. Maybe it has spies embedded in organizations, friendly (or dominated) critters watching the terrain, the power of psychic telepathy. Alternatively, maybe it sees the value in staying on the move, and gathers its own information under cover of stealth and/or disguise. Certainly any creature trying to stay a step ahead of its rivals is on the lookout for sources of powerful esoteric knowledge and wants to get its hands on them before others do, so when the PCs get wind of the existence of such lore, they’ll have to race to get to it first—and may find themselves beaten to the prize.

So far, this discussion has mostly centered on individual monsters and NPCs, but what about groups? A smart commander knows the capabilities of its subordinates. To return to my mind flayer example, in its lair, it had a variety of minions: not just dominated commoners and that one beholder but also grimlocks, ogres and a grell. It sent the the grell against the halfling ranger/rogue because he was an archer, and the mind flayer deemed him the most dangerous threat; the grell could pick him up off the ground, restrain and potentially paralyze him, and he’d take falling damage if he struggled free. It sent the ogres after the barbarian to monopolize her attention, a mob of commoners after the paladin because he would have trouble bringing himself to fight them, and grimlocks after the other two PCs because nothing about them seemed especially dangerous to it. None of these minions had much savvy regarding target selection, but the mind flayer did, and it deployed them accordingly.

Similarly, in a whole team of smart creatures, each knows what its allies can do and looks for opportunities to synergize with them. As an example, let’s throw together some snakey types: a yuan-ti abomination, a yuan-ti nightmare speaker, several type 1 yuan-ti malisons, a spirit naga, and what the heck—let’s say they’ve picked up a medusa buddy along the way. The nightmare speaker and the naga can both cast hold person, and the malisons can descend on paralyzed targets to attack them with advantage. The malisons can cast suggestion and say, “It would be foolish to split up; there’s safety in numbers!”—driving their foes to cluster themselves, the better to hit them with the nightmare speaker’s hunger of Hadar. With everyone properly positioned, the abomination can use fear to drive enemies toward the medusa, while the medusa—keeping herself concealed from the eyes of her allies—shoots a fusillade of arrows at targets paralyzed by hold person or restrained by the abomination.

In short, a very intelligent creature or NPC has the benefit of knowing more of what you, the DM, know—and, more significantly, what you know and your players don’t. That doesn’t mean it knows everything the PCs know, but it does make it fairly easy for your brainy villain to always stay one step ahead of them.

Next: astral dreadnoughts.

6 thoughts on “Intelligent Enemy Tactics

  1. If you’re DMing for a PC with 19+ intelligence, do you let them read the monster’s stat blocks? If “no”, then this would seem to put the genuis PCs at an unfair disadvantage relative to genius NPCs. If “yes”, then this would seem to disvalue specific class abilities that allow players to read monster statblocks. (Like the Battle Master ability, or the Monster Slayer ability.) I don’t think that either of these answers is indefensible, but I am wondering how you deal with it.

    1. I don’t let PCs read the monster’s stat blocks. I do let them notice details about the monster as it attacks, if the players ask. I also let them take advantage of the players’ meta-knowledge, when it can be plausibly rationalized as the fruits of the PCs’ curiosity. 5E gives players their own built-in advantages. The playing field doesn’t have to be level as long as it’s balanced.

  2. You win my undying gratitude for the phrase “one good bit in the otherwise godawful Robert A. Heinlein book.”

    Any of his books.

    That alone was worth coming here for.

    Found you through Dungeon Fantastic.

  3. As a lazy GM I’ve followed a formula for NPC intelligence whereby the greater INT, the more meta information about the campaign, PCs, combat situation I allow it to exhibit. If and when a player asks, “well how did they figure that out?” I launch into a Holms-ian breakdown of true facts and B.S. that gives both meaning and flavor to the minutia of how high intelligence beings know what they know.

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