What Monsters Want

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

Click to reveal spoiler relating to a well-known actual-play stream.

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

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?)

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.

14 thoughts on “What Monsters Want

  1. This is great! I am running a campaign for a group of friends and I found myself thinking about my monster’s motivations and not my players’ motivations. I started the campaign with a ship wreck scenario, they’re stranded in an undisclosed location, came across a cave they’re using as their headquarters, and have stumbled into a maze which of course is the lair of a Minotaur. So of course my PCs want to pillage the labyrinth take the treasure for themselves and slay the Minotaur. But what about the Minotaur… his lair is getting invaded. What are his motives? Defend his territory, eat, survive. Now that the presence of these intruders/looters, have his motives changed? This is where I find that the verisimilitude in your world can be created. Great post. Super inspiring. I love reading this blog.

  2. Fiends actually have very specifically defined motivations.
    Devils want to control everything. To this end they want to destroy their enemies, (Demons and Celestials) spread their influence, tempt people into doing Lawful Evil acts, and selling their souls. They can spread chaos though as a means to draw people to their oppressive security. “See what it’s like not living under our safe ordered system?”

    Demons want to see the world burn. They want to destroy their enemies ,(Everyone but the other demons they work with, (but there are plenty of demons they work against because the Abyss and its’ inhabitants are chaotic by nature) their mortal followers, and Daemons, but they’ll destroy all of those eventually too if they have their way) and make others suffer.

    Daemons (Yugoloths if you’re boring) are selfishness incarnate, and want anything that benefits them.
    An individual Daemon’s loyalty can be bought in the short-term, but they’ll betray the moment the cash-flow stops or a better offer comes along. They won’t attack the players for funzies, but they might do it to loot their stuff if they think they can get away with it. If you’re fighting a Daemon it’s because you’re on the offensive and trying to kill them, or someone hired them. They’d even work alongside angels and Paladins (who wouldn’t willingly work alongside Daemons, but I’m being hypothetical) if it paid and had no risk to them.

    Miscellaneous fiends have more specific motivations, so I won’t go into them here.

  3. Two separate trains of thought about angels:
    1. Lawful angels: Lawful angels work fine, because (as stated in the Monster Manuals) they faithfully serve their creator deities, which include Chaotic Good deities. Angels of such deities may act towards chaotic goals or ends, but their own personal mindset is orderly adherence to the wishes of their creator deities. As an illustration, imagine a lawful knight who serves a chaotic lord. The knight is orderly obeying his or her master’s orders, which just so happen to be to commit chaotic acts. The internal logic of alignment compels an outwardly contradicting behavior.

    2. Non-exclusively lawful angels: Alternatively, angels should not be . My earliest experience with D&D was in 3rd edition, where angels were “Any Good” alignment; so a Chaotic Good deity would presumably have Chaotic Good angels, with perhaps some Neutral Good angels sprinkled in. Then 4th edition, the 9 classical alignments were replaced with a single spectrum, so “lawful good” became “more good than good”, and so angels were slotted there. In 5th edition, angels were left as lawful, rather than returning to “any good”.

  4. One thing to add for undead. Those that are brought back but have lost their purpose are driven purely by a hatred of the living. They are just aware enough to know that the spark of life in living creatures is a mockery to them and what they are now. They seek to extinguish it

  5. How about giving elementals parallels to cognitive functions? Fire’d be Feeling, Water, Thinking, Earth’d be Sensing and Wind, Intuition?

    1. I don’t see how that would help establish their goals, only their style. Also, according to the usual esoteric correspondences, fire would be sensing-feeling, water intuitive-feeling, earth sensing-thinking and air intuitive-thinking.

  6. There WERE chaotic good celestials in 3e and maybe a few editions before, but they became a sloppy 4e race that are basically identical to 5e High elves and lack any of their lore or distinctiveness.

    They were called Eladrin.

  7. Love your blog, use it loads! Can I suggest maybe the relation you note between elementals & fey might be that elementals are about ego in the same way as fey are about id? The MM says lots of course about djinn craving praise & awe even to the point of putting themselves at risk of injury or servitude (perhaps even worse to a creature of pure ego). And even the stupider elementals reflect this colossal megalomania to some extent, in wanting the world around them to reflect their own nature. I think that works quite well with how you describe them here?

  8. You do address this, but in an indirect way. An aberration, as an enemy, is both intimately violating and completely indifferent. The terrifying aspect of an aberration is that it’s motivations are the same as any creature of their intelligence, but humans and their aspirations are no more significant than any other part of the natural environment in the plan. People are just another kind of cow to a mind flayer.

    A concrete physical example would be the Alien from the movie of the same name. It impregnates a human, uses the body to gestate, and then tears it apart in birth. The fact that the host experiences pain and dies is coincidental.

    A more terrifying example is the Slake Moth from Perdido Street Station
    by China Miéville. This is an aberration for which consciousness itself is simply food.

    In every case, an effective aberration confronts the party with the cosmic indifferentism exemplified by H.P. Lovecraft.

    From an adventure design perspective, some key notes are that aberrations are often simply unaware that their activities are unwanted. They also might not recognize they are being opposed, even when this would be obvious to a non-aberrant creature.

    For example, a group of aberrant engineers might not recognize that the adventurers are intentionally breaking their world-destruction-device. It might take time for it to even occur to them that the party is more than a collection of rats chewing randomly on cables.

    This leads to the crucial weakness of Aberrations. The flip-side of cosmic indifference is a lack of adaptability. At both an instinctual and intellectual level, aberrations don’t recognize human will as significant. Therefore, they will always be confused and slow to adapt when directly confronted.

    From a thematic perspective, this does imply the answer to the question “How did the Gith successfully rebel against the Illithid?” The answer is that, for all their raw intelligence, the illithid are aberrant. They don’t understand their slaves any better than their slaves understand them. It’s possible the Illithid didn’t even understand what was happening until it was too late.

  9. I think Elementals are fairly straight forward. They are (literally) out of their element. Either summoned or got lost through a planar rift. In the mean time, they huddle in the places that are most like home (volcanoes, mountains, oceans, windy peaks etc.) feeling grumpy and miserable and homesick, lashing out at those who come near.

    For things like mephits, I’d treat them like elemental roaches.

    For those with Plane Shift, they may have spotted opportunities here, or chosen to be a big fish in a small pond, or they’re exiled or have some other reason for laying low form the elemental planes. I’d treat them like condescending ex-pats, lording it over the locals.

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