D&D monster tactics are hugely important in game play, without opponents that are as capable and tactical as the players the game suffers and the monsters you have spent so long crafting become dull and two dimensional punch bags.
Something even worse happens however - the players have a tendency to morph into entitled frat boys/girls who simply wander round the fantasy world you've lovingly created annihilating everything they encounter. The need for caution, avoiding certain threats, for problem solving instead of slaying, for subtlty, diplomacy and cunning all go out of the window because your players are invincible.
This is a recipe for dull and it also makes for bored, frustrated players who imagined being unstoppable might be fun, but when they actually find a world with no challenge in it, learn that it is utterly tedious.
Fear not though, for there are countless ways to knock those strutting popinjays down a peg or two (remember, you're being cruel to be kind here), and to give them the challenge of their character's lives.
If you use some of the strategies below, the game doesn't have to become a power-up arms race either, where you have to use ever more powerful Beholders, Dragons etc in order to challenge your players. If you use the strategies suggested, then low or mid challenge rating monsters can suddenly punch above their weight significantly.
Players who have had it too easy for too long might moan a bit but in the end you'll have far more engaging and gripping games. This is ultimately what we're in gaming for, that nail biting moment when we watch every dice roll and wait to see if the players have triumphed. Nobody goes to see a movie where the hero's ultimate triumph is a foregone conclusion, instead we watch movies where the hero has to expend every last drop of sweat to beat the villain. All of a sudden we really get to know the hero by finding out exactly what they're made of.
This is what most players are trying to achieve with their own heroes, to learn all about them by testing them and challenging them. This can happen in a number of ways, such as by giving the character difficult tasks to complete, by forcing the character to confront moral dilemmas or difficult choices, or by putting the character in dangerous or stressful situations. By pushing their characters to their limits, players can learn more about what their characters are capable of, what they are willing to do, and what they believe in.
All of this is facilitated through smarter monsters that are just as determined to survive as the players are.
Flanking: Monsters might try to position themselves on opposite sides of a player character (PC), taking advantage of the fact that characters have a harder time defending against attacks from multiple directions.
Example: The PCs are fighting a group of goblins in a narrow tunnel. One of the goblins positions itself on one side of the tunnel, while another goblin positions itself on the other side. The goblins then attack the PCs from both sides at once, taking advantage of the fact that the PCs have a harder time defending against attacks coming from two directions at once.
The goblins are hoping that this tactic will allow them to deal more damage to the PCs, since the PCs will be unable to concentrate their defenses on one side or the other. The goblins are also hoping that this tactic will create confusion and chaos among the PCs, making it harder for them to coordinate their attacks and defenses.
Overall, the flanking tactic is a common one used by monsters in D&D, especially in situations where the monsters have a numerical advantage or where the terrain or layout of the battlefield gives them an advantage. By positioning themselves on opposite sides of the PCs, monsters can create a pincer attack that can be difficult for the PCs to defend against.
Crowd control: Monsters might use abilities that incapacitate or hinder the movement of PCs, such as stunning them or entangling them in vines. This can make it easier for the monster to pick off individual PCs or focus its attacks on a smaller number of targets.
Example: The PCs are exploring a dark and treacherous dungeon, when they suddenly come across a group of giant spiders. As the spiders approach, one of them rears up on its hind legs and begins to spin a web, aiming to entangle and immobilize the PCs. The other spiders take advantage of the distraction to scuttle forward and try to bite and poison the trapped PCs.
In this example, the giant spider is using its web-spinning ability as a form of crowd control, aiming to hinder the movement and actions of the PCs. By entangling the PCs, the spider makes it easier for itself and its companions to attack the PCs without having to worry about being flanked or avoided. The spider is also using its poison ability to try to weaken the PCs, further increasing its chances of success in the fight.
Ganging up: Monsters might try to surround and overwhelm PCs by attacking in large numbers. This can be especially effective if the PCs are already weakened or otherwise disadvantaged.
Example: The party of player characters (PCs) has been battling a group of Orcs for what seems like hours. The PCs are tired and their spells are running low, while the Orcs seem to be coming at them from all sides. Just when the PCs think they have the upper hand, a Orc chieftain appears at the head of a large group of reinforcements. The chieftain calls out to the other Orcs , rallying them to attack the PCs with renewed ferocity.
The PCs try to hold their ground, but the goblins are too many, and they start to be surrounded. The PCs are forced to retreat, but the goblins are right on their heels, attacking them from all sides. The PCs are already weakened, and they struggle to fend off the Orcs' relentless attacks. It seems like they will be overwhelmed at any moment.
In this example, the goblins are trying to surround and overwhelm the PCs by attacking in large numbers. The fact that the PCs are already weakened makes it easier for the Orcs to succeed in their attack, as the PCs are less able to defend themselves. The Orc chieftain's leadership also plays a role in coordinating the Orcs' attack and keeping them motivated.
Hit and run: Monsters might try to attack and then retreat, either to regroup or to lure the PCs into a trap. This can be especially effective if the monster has a high movement speed or can otherwise move quickly and easily through the terrain.
Example: The PCs are exploring an ancient temple filled with traps and puzzles, when they come across a group of giant spiders. As soon as the PCs enter the room, the spiders attack, biting and poisoning several of the PCs. However, instead of continuing to fight, the spiders quickly retreat back into their webs, disappearing from sight.
The PCs are left to deal with the poison and their injuries, wondering if the spiders will return. As they continue to explore the temple, they notice that the spiders are always one step ahead of them, attacking and then retreating before the PCs can get a good shot at them. The spiders seem to be luring the PCs deeper into the temple, but the PCs are not sure why.
As it turns out, the spiders were being controlled by a powerful necromancer who had taken up residence in the temple. The necromancer was using the spiders to lure the PCs into a trap, hoping to capture them and use their bodies as experiments for her dark magic. However, thanks to their quick reflexes and clever thinking, the PCs were able to outsmart the necromancer and defeat her, freeing the spiders from her control in the process.
Ambush: Monsters might try to set up a surprise attack, either by hiding and waiting for the PCs to come to them or by using stealth to get close to the PCs before attacking. This can be especially effective if the monster has a significant advantage in terms of numbers or power.
Example: The party is exploring a dark and abandoned castle when they hear a loud growl coming from behind a closed door. They decide to investigate and slowly push open the door, revealing a room filled with shadows and rubble.
As they cautiously step inside, they suddenly hear a series of loud thuds and five ghouls drop from the ceiling, landing in front of them. The spiders had been hiding in the rafters, waiting for the party to come close enough for them to attack. The ghouls have the element of surprise and are able to strike first, taking the party off guard and giving them a significant advantage in the ensuing battle.
Divide and conquer: Monsters might try to separate the PCs and pick them off one by one, either by using stealth or by using abilities that allow them to move quickly or through obstacles.
Example: The PCs are exploring a dark, abandoned castle when they come across a group of wraiths. The wraiths, undead spirits that can pass through walls and other solid objects, are intent on picking the PCs off one by one. They try to separate the PCs by using their ability to pass through walls and floors to sneak up on them from behind or from below. They also use their speed and agility to dart in and out of the PCs' line of sight, making it difficult for the PCs to keep track of all of them at once.
As the PCs struggle to defend themselves, the wraiths focus their attacks on isolated PCs or those who are separated from the group. They try to take out the weaker members of the party first, hoping to quickly wear down the PCs' defenses and make it easier for them to finish off the rest.
The PCs must work together and use their own abilities and tactics to stay alive and fight off the wraiths. They must also find a way to reunite and regroup, or risk being picked off one by one by the wraiths' stealthy and relentless attacks.
Feint: Monsters might try to fake an attack or a retreat in order to trick the PCs into reacting in a certain way. This can be especially effective if the monster has a strong follow-up attack or can take advantage of the PCs' positioning.
Example: The party is exploring a dark, damp cave when they come across a group of goblins. The goblins are armed with crude weapons and are clearly dangerous, but the PCs are confident that they can handle the threat. As the PCs approach, one of the goblins charges at them, shrieking and brandishing its weapon. The PCs respond by readying their weapons and preparing to defend themselves.
Just as the goblin is about to reach the PCs, it suddenly stops and turns, running back to its comrades. The PCs are momentarily confused, but they quickly realize that the goblin was only trying to lure them into a trap. As they watch, the goblin and its companions start to circle around them, clearly intending to attack from multiple angles.
The PCs are now in a difficult position. They can try to defend against the goblins' attacks, but they are vulnerable to being surrounded and overwhelmed. Alternatively, they can try to retreat, but the goblins might pursue them or set up another ambush. The PCs will have to think quickly and use their resources wisely if they hope to emerge from the encounter victorious.
Distraction: Monsters might use abilities or attacks that create distractions or distractions, such as loud noises or bright flashes of light, in order to divert the PCs' attention or disrupt their formation.
Example: The PCs are exploring a dark, abandoned temple when they come across a group of Orcs . As the PCs approach, one of the Orcs pulls out a small horn and blows into it, producing a loud, shrill noise that echoes through the temple. The noise startles the PCs, causing them to pause and cover their ears. Meanwhile, the other Orcs take advantage of the distraction to launch their attacks, using their surprise round to catch the PCs off guard.
The loud horn is an example of a monster using a distraction to disrupt the PCs' formation and divert their attention. The noise is loud and disorienting, making it harder for the PCs to focus and respond to the attack. By using the horn as a distraction, the Orcs are able to gain an advantage in the battle and potentially catch the PCs off guard.
Psyche out: Monsters might try to intimidate or unnerve the PCs with taunts, threats, or other psychological tactics. This can be especially effective if the monster is physically imposing or has a reputation for being particularly terrifying.
Example: The PCs are exploring a haunted castle when they come across a giant, hulking monster known as a troll. The troll stands at least ten feet tall, with a hulking mass of muscle and a massive, spiked club in its hand. As the PCs approach, the troll starts to taunt and threaten them, bellowing out insults and challenges in a guttural voice.
"You puny humans think you can take me on?" the troll growls. "I'll crush you all with a single swing of my club! Come on, let's see what you've got!"
The PCs might be intimidated by the troll's physical size and strength, as well as its reputation for being a formidable foe. However, they might also be unnerved by its taunts and threats, which are designed to get under their skin and shake their confidence. The troll is hoping that the PCs will become flustered or panicked, which would make them easier to defeat in combat.
Coordinated attacks: Monsters might use abilities or attacks that work well in combination with one another, such as a monster that uses a knockdown attack followed by another monster that uses a high-damage attack.
Example: Imagine that the party is fighting a group of goblins, and one of the goblins has the ability to knock a player character (PC) prone with a shove attack. Another goblin in the group has a high-damage attack that is more effective against prone targets.
In this scenario, the goblin with the shove attack might try to knock a PC prone, and then the goblin with the high-damage attack might try to follow up with a powerful attack while the PC is prone and vulnerable. This combination of abilities allows the goblins to coordinate their attacks and potentially take out a PC more quickly and efficiently.
Alternatively, the goblins might try to use this tactic defensively, with the goblin with the shove attack trying to knock PCs prone to make them more difficult to hit, while the goblin with the high-damage attack hangs back and waits for an opportunity to strike.
In either case, the goblins are using their abilities in combination with one another in order to maximize their effectiveness and take advantage of the situation.
Adaptation: Monsters might try to adapt to the PCs' tactics or abilities by changing their own tactics or using abilities that counter the PCs' strengths.
Example: The party is facing off against a group of goblins, who have been using hit-and-run tactics to harass the PCs and wear them down. The goblins have been using their superior mobility to dart in, attack, and then retreat before the PCs can catch them.
In response, the PCs come up with a plan to trap the goblins by using a spell to create a wall of force that blocks off one of the exits from the goblin lair. The PCs then wait for the goblins to attack again, hoping to catch them in the trap.
However, when the goblins attack, they seem to have anticipated the PCs' trap. Instead of charging straight at the PCs as they have done in the past, the goblins split into two groups and try to flank the PCs from either side. The goblins' leader even uses a spell to levitate over the wall of force and attack the PCs from behind.
By adapting their tactics and using abilities that countered the PCs' strengths, the goblins were able to catch the PCs off guard and almost succeed in defeating them. This shows how monsters might try to adapt to the PCs' tactics or abilities in order to gain an advantage in a D&D encounter.
Tactical retreat: Monsters might retreat in order to regroup, heal, or set up a more advantageous position for a future attack.
Example: The party of player characters (PCs) is fighting a group of goblins in a dense forest. The goblins are led by a goblin boss, a formidable foe with a variety of powerful abilities at its disposal. The PCs are holding their own, but the goblin boss is starting to get the upper hand. In an effort to turn the tide, the goblin boss uses a spell to teleport itself out of the fight and retreat to a nearby cave. The PCs are momentarily confused, but they quickly realize what has happened and decide to pursue the goblin boss.
As they enter the cave, they find the goblin boss surrounded by a group of goblin minions, who are tending to its wounds and preparing it for the next round of the fight. The goblin boss sees the PCs and sneers, confident that it now has the upper hand. It knows that it has time to heal and regroup, and that it can use the narrow corridors of the cave to its advantage, setting up traps and ambushes for the PCs as they try to pursue it.
The PCs realize that the goblin boss is not going to go down easily, and that they need to be careful if they want to take it down. They come up with a plan to divide and conquer, sending some of their members to distract the goblin minions while others try to take out the goblin boss. It's going to be a tough fight, but the PCs are determined to see it through to the end.
Misdirection: Monsters might try to mislead the PCs about their intentions or abilities, either by hiding their true capabilities or by pretending to be weaker or less dangerous than they really are.
Example: The PCs are exploring a dungeon and come across a group of kobolds, small, dragon-like creatures that are known for being weak and cowardly. As the PCs approach, the kobolds cower and beg for mercy, claiming that they are just simple trap-makers who were captured by the dungeon's evil overlord and forced to work against their will.
The PCs, feeling sorry for the kobolds, decide to spare them and move on. However, as they leave, the kobolds let out a loud cheer and reveal that they were actually trying to trick the PCs into letting their guard down. The kobolds then attack the PCs with a coordinated ambush, using traps and hidden crossbows to catch the PCs off guard.
In this example, the kobolds were trying to mislead the PCs about their true intentions and abilities by pretending to be weaker and less dangerous than they really were. They were able to use this misdirection to their advantage, catching the PCs by surprise and allowing them to launch a more effective attack.
Zoning: Monsters might use abilities or attacks that create barriers or control areas of the battlefield, forcing the PCs to go around or through them in order to reach their target. This can be especially effective if the monster can use its control over the battlefield to its advantage or to hinder the PCs' movement.
Example: Imagine that the PCs are fighting a group of mummies in a tomb. The mummies are led by a powerful mummy lord, who has the ability to create a wall of sand that blocks off one of the exits from the tomb.
The mummy lord uses this ability to block the PCs' escape, forcing them to fight their way through the other mummies in order to reach the mummy lord and defeat him.
As the PCs fight their way through the mummies, the mummy lord uses his other abilities to hinder the PCs' movement and attack them from a distance. For example, he might use a spell that slows the PCs' movement or a ranged attack that poisons them.
Thanks to his control over the battlefield, the mummy lord is able to use his abilities to his advantage, hindering the PCs' movement and making it more difficult for them to reach him. However, if the PCs are able to overcome these obstacles and defeat the mummy lord, they will have gained valuable experience and earned the right to claim any treasure that might be hidden in the tomb.
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