We interrupt our irregularly scheduled monster tactics to share a bowl of mind-flakes that spilled out of my head yesterday morning.
This blog, generally speaking, is dedicated to examining the round-by-round tactics of monsters, with the goal of helping dungeon masters make decisions about monster behavior ahead of time rather than in the moment, under pressure. (And if you need an illustration of the importance of that, how about
DM Matthew Mercer’s recent loss of a beloved big bad who was supposed to be a recurring villain because he forgot to move it out of reach of a player character who could stun it
But I found myself thinking about encounter building, in the context of trying to develop premises for new adventures, and this led me to the broader strategic question of what monsters’ overarching goals are. And it occurred to me that a monster’s type is an excellent proxy for its strategic goals.
Beasts and monstrosities are easily grouped together, because their priorities are simple: They want food. Also, perhaps, territory, but territory is mainly a way to ensure uncontested access to food, along with individual survival. Monstrosities tend to have animal-level intelligence, although there are a handful of exceptions, notably krakens, sphinxes, nagas, lamias and certain types of yuan-ti. Even these exceptions, I think, will possess an animal-like instinct to establish and defend territory, despite coming up with more sophisticated rationalizations of this behavior.
Dragons are über-monstrosities with a distinctive personality. They want food and territory, but they also crave two more things: treasure and domination. The treasure thing is a compulsion, because it’s not as though they’re going shopping with all those hoarded coins and gems. They like beautiful, expensive things, and they want them. End of story. They also have a deep-seated desire to demonstrate their superiority over other beings. Like a certain individual whom a few readers chided me for alluding to before, although they generally don’t have any interest in the practical aspects of ruling, they’re quite fond of being rulers, and they think they’re entitled to it. Thus, they may act like mafia bosses over a region, extorting wealth in exchange for “protection,” by which they mainly mean protection from them. Even good-aligned dragons share this tendency, although their rule is more likely to be benevolent rather than exploitative.
Dragonkin such as pseudodragons, drakes and wyverns lack either the power or the intelligence to dominate other beings in the way that full-fledged dragons do, but they’ll still exhibit draconic greed and wrath in the limited ways they’re capable of. Pseudodragons gather shiny objects like magpies; drakes and wyverns exhibit dominance behaviors as they hunt and fight.
Humanoid enemies (as opposed to humanoids just going about their business) are driven by the things you don’t talk about at the dinner table: politics, religion and sex. They differ from beasts in that they’re social creatures, and therefore their goals are typically social in nature, as are the units they form to bring these goals about. A humanoid boss enemy is a leader of like-minded humanoids who all want the same thing, and the sophistication and abstraction of the goal is proportional to the intelligence of the humanoid(s) pursuing it. Although it’s still fundamentally largely about territory, wealth and domination, it’s about shared territory, wealth and domination, and the superficial justifications for those pursuits take the form of ideologies built around tribal, clan or national identity; moral or theological doctrine; sex or gender roles; caste roles; hierarchies of rulership and allegiance; or rules of trade. Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations (fairness, kindness, loyalty, obedience and sanctity) and their opposites (injustice, abuse, treachery, rebellion and sacrilege) come into play: either the “bad guys” are committing one or more of the latter group of sins, or they’re going overboard in their attempts to root those sins out.
If dragons are über-monstrosities, then giants are über-humanoids, but while dragons have broader interests than most monstrosities do, giants’ interests are narrower than those of most humanoids, and they’re tightly dictated by their species and its place in the Ordning. In terms of social ideology, giants are chiefly interested in their relationships with other giants, and this impinges upon humanoid society only to the extent that giants need to claim humanoids’ territory, humanoids’ wealth or rulership over a humanoid group in order to establish their intragigantic status. In other words, giants’ goals revolve around rivalries, and when this makes them the villains, it’s usually because of the collateral damage they’re causing.
Undead creatures are driven by compulsions, generated by whatever spell, influence or event caused them to rise from the dead. The simplest undead creatures are compelled by the orders of whoever or whatever controls them. Ghosts are compelled by the need to resolve unfinished business. Other mid- and high-level undead are compelled by hunger, hatred and megalomania. Whatever the compulsion of an undead creature, everything it does revolves around that compulsion and serves it in some way.
Celestials and fiends are two sides of the same coin. They’re embodiments of good and evil, but they’re not just quasi-humanoids that meander through everyday situations and always do the good or evil thing. They’re concerned with cosmic order. I thought about this for a while, and the conclusion I settled on is that their goals revolve around purification and corruption. Celestials aren’t just about doing good things—they’re about purging evil influences. Fiends aren’t just about doing bad things—they’re about introducing evil influences, tempting people to do wicked things they might not otherwise do.
For these reasons, celestial and fiend goals make excellent complements to humanoid goals. The involvement of a fiend might push a group of humanoids to take their ideological pursuits in an evil direction—or desperate humanoids might enlist the aid of a fiend in the pursuit of their goal, corrupting them and their goal in the process. Celestial involvement in humanoid affairs is a trickier needle to thread, and if you’re going to make a celestial the bad guy, it’s almost by necessity going to have to be misinformed or overzealous—or corrupted and on the verge of a fall.*
Aberrations, by definition, are beings whose ultimate goals make no sense to us, and for this reason, coming up with decent, plausible schemes for aberration villains can be difficult. Fall back on conventional schemes of domination, and you risk making your aberration into a funny-looking humanoid, for all intents and purposes. An aberration’s behavior has to be weird. But also, for an aberration to be a villain rather than a mere curiosity, it has to pose some kind of threat. A good solution for aberrations with mind-control powers is to have them brainwashing ordinary people into participating in their weird schemes. No one wants to be a part of that. The side effects of aberrations’ activities can also have deleterious effects on nearby habitations. Maybe they’re causing nightmares, spooking livestock (the livestock are always first to know when bad juju is going down), disrupting the local economy with excessive demand for some random commodity or using up a natural resource. Or maybe, like the stereotypical gray alien, they’re abducting people, probing them with weird devices, then returning them to their homes. Aberrations’ behavior doesn’t have to make clear sense—although, in at least some respect, it should make internal sense.
In terms of how much sense they make to an outside observer, the goals of fey creatures aren’t all that different from those of aberrations. But while aberrations’ goals are simply inscrutable, fey goals always have a clear emotional or aesthetic aspect, something that might not make logical sense but would seem perfectly sensible in a dream, or to a child. Mischief is common; outright malice is rare. The seven deadly sins are all well represented, as is every primary or secondary feeling, turned up to 11. A fey antagonist is an id without an ego to ground it. No matter how large or small the scale of a fey’s goals, they’re always personal, and the motivations behind them are explainable, if not excusable.
Constructs don’t have goals. They only have instructions—specifically, the last instructions they were given. When the instructions no longer fit the circumstances, they sometimes go haywire trying to resolve unresolvable contradictions.
Oozes don’t have goals either; they’re sub-beasts that aren’t even interested in territory, just food. Most plants are the same, although there are a small number of monsters categorized as plants that possess above-animal intelligence. (Myconids are one of these, although in my opinion, they’re wrongly categorized.) Even an intelligent plant, however, is unlikely to possess any goal beyond survival, self-propagation and protection of its environment; it simply develops more sophisticated means of pursuing these goals, ones that involve understanding other creatures, anticipating causation and planning for the future. Cursed plants, like blights, have a wee dram of undead-ish compulsion in their mentalities.
That leaves elementals, which—strangely—I find the hardest type to sum up. They’re not full-on alien, like aberrations; simple, like beasts and monstrosities; mechanistic, like constructs; or defined by their social structures, like humanoids. What they are, I think, is humorous, in the archaic sense: defined by temperaments associated with their elements. (ETA: The word “temperamental” fits just as well, and I’m not sure why it didn’t come to my mind when I first wrote this.) The classical humors don’t work especially well for this purpose, though. It’s easy to imagine elemental beings of fire as choleric, i.e., bad-tempered and irritable, and their goals as primarily involving destroying things out of anger. But phlegmatic water elementals, melancholy earth elementals and sanguine air elementals fit poorly in adventure narratives and feel off-base, somehow. The Chinese wŭ xíng elements fit better—elemental beings of fire being angry and volatile, those of water being aimless and impulsive, those of earth being stolid and hidebound—but air isn’t a wŭ xíng element.
In both literal and figurative senses, elementals are forces of nature, difficult for ordinary mortals to redirect once they get going. There has to be a sense of out-of-controlness about them, even—perhaps especially—the intelligent ones, like genies. I think we all share a pretty good sense of what elemental beings of fire are all about (“Was tun, wenn’s brennt? Brennen lassen!”), but what about the rest? Elemental beings of earth—at least metaphorically, if not literally—want to solidify, to suffocate, to entomb. Elemental beings of water are the flood, the tsunami—inexorable forces carrying away anything and anyone that’s not tightly secured, whether it be a seaside village or people’s common sense. Elemental beings of air are entropic—they want to scatter what’s ordered, create disarray, rearrange everything than rearrange it again, the opposite of their earthy complements, which seek to hold everything in place. In this respect, they’re a bit like fey, except that fey can be reasoned with, if you know the rules of their anti-logic, while elementals can’t.
All the tactics I describe in this blog describe how to use a monster’s features effectively, considering what it’s capable of. The monster’s type, as described here, tells us why the monster is doing what it’s doing. Ultimately, a monster’s choices, in or out of combat, are a function of this motivation, and when you’re writing your own material, you should use this information not only to generate plot—to determine why your monster is a threat in the first place—but also to contemplate in advance how your monster is going to react when it realizes that the PCs aren’t going to let it have what it wants.
* A tangent that crossed my mind as I was thinking about this—I don’t know how germane it is, but it’s too interesting to pass up—is that we assign great importance to the difference between lawful evil fiends and chaotic evil fiends, between by-the-book devils and anything-goes demons, but celestials with an interest in mortal affairs are almost always lawful good. It’s as though we consider purity and an ordered society to go hand-in-hand. Maybe they do, but what if they don’t? The hypothetical goals of a chaotic good celestial are worth contemplating.