NPC Tactics: Commoners and Nobles

Not all the enemies player characters encounter in Dungeons & Dragons are monsters. Many of them are simply people: villagers, townsfolk, nomads, vagabonds, hermits. They’re what we refer to as “non-player characters.”

In the fifth-edition Monster Manual, the basic template for an NPC is the commoner. The commoner has all-average attributes, no special skills or features, and no weapon attack except a club, which is interchangeable with any improvised weapon.

The German psychologist Karen Horney (rhymes with “horsefly,” not “corny”) observed three tendencies in people’s behavior: moving toward others, moving against others and moving away from others. She later called these tendencies compliance, aggression and detachment. In any given personality, one of these will probably be stronger than the other two. So a commoner thrown into a conflict situation might react one of three ways:

  • Fight. This character will reflexively attack a perceived enemy. The attack won’t be sophisticated. The NPC will grab the nearest weapon (improvised, if necessary), move toward his or her opponent, and Attack (action) until either the enemy is defeated or the NPC is seriously wounded (reduced to 1 hp) or knocked out. A rare commoner—for instance, a hunter—may know how to use a simple ranged weapon, in which case he or she will Attack without moving toward the opponent, but will give limited pursuit to an opponent that tries to escape.
  • Flee. This character will turn and run. Lacking the training to know to Disengage, he or she will instead Dodge (action) while within an opponent’s reach, Dash (action) otherwise, and in either case move at full speed toward the nearest place of perceived safety.
  • Freeze. In real life, this reaction to danger is surprisingly common. The character will neither fight nor flee but stand rooted, paralyzed with fear. If the NPC can gather his or her wits (say, by making a Wisdom check against a DC equaling 10 plus the enemy’s challenge rating times the appropriate encounter modifier from page 82 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide), he or she will form the words necessary to surrender.

Why are you attacking commoners anyway, you naughty PCs? Well, a dungeon master may have good reasons for including commoners in an encounter other than evil PC behavior. Maybe the commoners are being attacked by a monster and must be rescued. Maybe they’ve been charmed by a more powerful foe. Maybe the PCs have been charmed or magically disguised to appear as a threat. Maybe the commoners are xenophobic, and the PCs are foreigners to them. Maybe they’re embroiled in a feud with some other commoners.

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Grick Tactics

The grick is a grayish, subterranean snake-worm monstrosity 5 to 8 feet in length, with a sharp, beaked mouth ringed by four clawed, suckered tentacles—in short, the stuff of nightmares. Normally a cavern-dweller, it occasionally ventures aboveground if food is scarce, ensconcing itself in rocky crevices where prey is likely to pass by.

Its Strength and Dexterity are high, in contrast with its average Constitution, so its preferred method of attack is ambush. It’s also primarily nocturnal, on the basis of its darkvision, though not exclusively: it may, for instance, hide in a dark crevice aboveground, yet attack creatures that are outside in the light. At the same time, though, it’s probably more likely to attack around dusk than in the middle of the day. Although it has no Stealth skill per se, it has the Stone Camouflage feature, which gives it advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks in rocky terrain. Consequently, it will stick to this kind of area and remain hidden until a target creature draws near, then Attack from hiding, with advantage.

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Ettercap Tactics

Ettercaps are arachnid-humanoid hybrids, and not the adorkable, crime-fighting type. They live in forests, herd spiders, and generally lend an air of gloom and despair to wherever they live. Anytime a party of adventurers encounters an ettercap, it will be accompanied by at least a few giant spiders.

Ettercaps are robust in all their physical abilities, with Dexterity leading by a nose. They’re not afraid of a toe-to-toe confrontation, but considering their high Dexterity, combined with their Stealth and Survival skills, an ambush scenario is more likely, perhaps with the ettercaps beginning the encounter hiding in trees (thanks to their Spider Climb skill). They also have darkvision, Web Sense and Web Walker, making it advantageous for them to blanket dimly lit parts of thick forests with webs and wait for hapless travelers to get stuck in them. Alternatively, if there’s a road or trail that passes through their forest, they may lay webs across the path which even travelers who notice them and aren’t caught in them will still be stopped by, giving the ettercaps an opportunity to attack. An adventuring party that makes camp in the woods may wake in the morning to find its campsite entirely encircled by webs.

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Peryton Tactics

The peryton is a monstrosity with the body of an enormous bird of prey and the head of a stag, albeit a carnivorous stag with nasty incisors. Perytons roost in mountains and rocky hills near settled areas where they can find prey. According to the Monster Manual, they favor humanoids in general and humans and elves in particular, and they’ll often try to rip out their prey’s heart and carry it off. “When attacking a humanoid,” the MM says, “a peryton is single-minded and relentless, fighting until it or its prey dies.” This is the behavioral oddity that distinguishes it, as a monstrosity, from an ordinary evolved creature.

All of a peryton’s physical abilities are above average, but its Strength is especially high, so it’s going to go for big-damage attacks, either by dive-bombing its prey or in a close-quarters scrap. Its features include Dive Attack and Flyby: the former is an aerial charge that deals additional damage, while the latter exempts it from opportunity attacks when it flies out of an enemy’s reach. The peryton has a flying speed of 60 feet, and its Dive Attack requires it to fly 30 feet to gain the extra damage.

This combination makes the peryton’s preferred attack tactic obvious: Its first attack will always be a Dive Attack, from a distance of exactly 30 feet if possible. It uses 30 feet of its move to conduct this attack; Multiattacks (action) with Talons and Gore, gaining Dive Attack damage on both of these; then, if its target is still alive and kicking, uses the other 30 feet of its move to fly away again. As long as its prey lives, it will repeat this half-move/Dive Attack/half-move combination.

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Owlbear Tactics

In fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, “monstrosities” are monsters that don’t fit neatly into another category: they’re not beings from other planes, they’re not magically animated objects, they’re not animals or ambulatory plants, they’re not humanoids, they’re not giants or dragons, and they’re not undead. Mostly, they’re magically created beings, or they were at some point far back in time. In some respects, they behave like evolved creatures (the more so the longer they’ve been around), but they may retain oddities of behavior that reflect their unnatural origins.

The first monstrosity I’ll examine is another D&D classic, the owlbear: a creature of grizzly bear–like size and shape (and temperament) with an owl-like head. Applying my usual Str-Dex-Con analysis to it places it in the category of “brute”—high Constitution, extremely high Strength, relatively low (though still above-average) Dexterity—which means its preferred fighting style will be direct assault. Owlbears are dumb (Intelligence 3) and won’t prioritize one target over another. They’re not stealthy, but they’re also hard to fool with stealth, having Perception +3 and advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks based on sight or smell. They’re pretty fast as well, able to outrun most player characters. Finally, they have standard darkvision, so we can assume that they’re active primarily at night and/or underground. An owlbear encountered in its lair during daytime hours will be sleeping, or at least resting, though the presence of other creatures may wake it up.

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