DMing With Intent part 2: Creature Motivations & Survival Tactics

Regardless of where they are or what we choose to do with them, we want our NPCs to seem real and unique; and it is okay for the minions to follow the descriptions in the Monstrous Manual, but even if we just add a quark to a few of them which doesn’t effect there stats, we can make our encounters more memorable to the players.

Besides having the illusion of personality, we want to really study and develop how the monsters will perceive the players prior to the encounter, as well as during it; noting what we think might change. Unlike 0 INT monsters and animals (or PCs), intelligent monsters will never willingly attack an unknown enemy. This shows us the first factors that we can modify to make this encounter unique: High INT creatures will be able to accurately judge what they are dealing with in less time than Low INT creatures. A low INT monster will take a moment to assess the situation prior to engaging in combat; are they going to be able to figure out that a cleric is present? What will they think about an unarmored PC? From asking ourselves these questions, we can start to develop a basic strategy: Is our monster the kind of creature that will focus on characters that they see as vulnerable first, or are they more likely to start with the largest threat? Chances are, the largest threat to them will be the fighter, but this might change once one of them sees the wizard cast a spell.

We can also factor in motivations: Do the monsters just want to clear their lair, or do they see these invaders as something different? A mind-flayer may want them as slaves; a lich may want to turn this into an experiment, while a dragon may see them as a brief source of mild entertainment and news before eating them.

Not all encounters have to end in total annihilation, if a monster believes that he can surrender, he may attempt to do so. If there is a mix of creatures living in the dungeon, part of the group may see surrender as a political move to be rid of evil oppressors, giving information in exchange for their lives. Others may make some strange demands that the party won’t be able to fulfill, such as letting them have the hobbit to eat, in exchange for them letting the players go.

Some Dungeon Masters get hung up on alignment, stating that chaotic monsters can’t work together as a team, but this really isn’t true. Teamwork is a basic survival skill, and while the lawful creatures will be able to form tighter lines and use more advanced tactics, the chaotic will be able to stay in their battle station; they may think that they are the best soldier in the army and everybody else is incompetent, but they will be able to work as a team.  Think about it more along the lines of trust, a lawful company trusts each other, while a chaotic company probably doesn’t, but both has to work together in order to survive.


Every creature knows that an enemy is weakest when it is traveling, and being able to pick the battlefield should have great advantages. The more time a monster has to design an ambush, the more deadly an encounter becomes. A dedicated ambush spot which is designed to capture supplies from merchants will have a booby trapped, and easily defensible path to a lair which is a death trap once entered.

All ambushes should be designed to function as they need to, and for a purpose higher then just giving your buddies XP. If you want to focus on players needs, instead, focus on creating a great challenge and allow it to flow as it was designed to.  It is best to write exactly what should happen, how the monsters will attempt to control the movements of their victims, and designs which will kill or injure others with the least amount of energy spent as possible. Each ambush should also reflect the strengths of the monster that uses it, and minimize their weaknesses. Don’t worry about how the players will get themselves out of the mess; that is their problem, not yours. Try to kill them! Having to fight for each victory will provide more then just telling a group story.


For reasons of fairness, traps should factor in to how you balance the encounter. This should be a considered a free attack on the party that may or may not be avoidable, and be cohesive with your main plan of attack. A monster that triggers a trap will automatically succeed, and force the player to make a saving throw to avoid full or half of the damage, but with monster triggered traps, it must be decided if a monster will get an attack of opportunity on the intended victim or victims, and, of course, follow up with this plan on game day; you aren’t doing anybody any favors by coddling them.

Much like the ambush, these traps must be thought out, and serve a purpose. If a trap is set off by intruders, then it should alert the monsters who set it; or, if they don’t want to be bothered, why? What is the trap designed to capture? Do they have a problem with bears? If they want meat from the traps, they don’t want the meat going bad; if it is designed to capture slaves, it won’t injure them in anyway unless the monster has some way to heal them. Traps should be designed with intent, and when they are, it makes the encounter more thrilling to the players to see how the creatures that made them think.


Many modules assume that you understand why a creature is there, however I have found that many DMs honestly don’t think about it, and they should. Sure, everybody recognizes a slave/master relationship, but there can be other kinds of relationships in play.


There are trained animals, and untrained animals. Monsters that live in the wildness won’t have any problem in getting animals, and there should be at least one of two monsters who know how to train them. Even an untrained animal will be dangerous to a PC, as a simple dog won’t be obsessed with digging a booger out of its nose, nor get distracted by the boredom of looking down an empty hall all day long. All it has to do is bark and something should go see what it is going on.

A trained animal fights along side of its master, at the same time; they know each other and can always work well together, granting the owner of the animal additional attacks and making the player decide how to spend their own attacks. In cases were a goblin has a wolf or two, the wolves are stronger then the goblin is, but is still subservient to it. This is the preferred relationship for a weaker monster, a much stronger monster that doesn’t boss it around; it just doesn’t get any better then that!


Some relationships are forced upon the owner of the lair or there isn’t anything that the monster can do about it being there, so they factor it into their plans. A really powerful monster that doesn’t care about leadership may only see the goblins as a snack to catch, and while it might eat a few now and then, the defensive bonus of the creature unwittingly being there can be awesome! Orcs can feint a running retreat to encourage the invaders to chase them right into a ropers lair, and then close all of the exits. Since orcs like to add insult to injury, they’ll probably keep peppering everyone with arrows from the safety of a murder hole.

Some monsters, can be contained in a cage or a pit, but can never be controlled or trained, such as a Bulette. Smart monsters could clear an area once the players are inside of it, and then release the creature.

Think about all of the relationships in a specific area. How do they benefit each other, and who considers themselves to be in charge? Is there a weakness to the relationship that a smart player might be able to exploit?

Finally, we have to consider communication between everyone in the struggle. If it takes place inside of a lair, do they have a method of sharing learned information between them? How advanced is this coded communication? They can probably tell each other how many intruders there are, as well as what part of the lair that they are currently in, and where the monsters want them to go. If a wizard casts a spell, there probably is a code sound for others to know. The DM should understand that his monsters can only know what they see or what they are told.

Nothing should be placed in a lair without intent on the DMs part. When we designed things, they should always tell an engaging story that is open to the interpretation of the players experiencing them, and encourages them to seek deeper into what it is that you are doing. I always find it more thrilling to discover what the story is, than I do just being told; why not trust them to discover that for themselves?


Brooser Bear said...


Two great posts on handling monsters!

Do you inject any real difference, other than the appearances, in handlings Goblins, Hobgoblins, and Orcs? Also, I am using AD&D Fist edition books. For the longest time I could not figure out the "Monster Frequency" stat (Common, Uncommon, Rare etc).

Do you use it in any way and how do you interpret it?


RipperX said...

Howdy my friend!

Do I inject any real difference in goblinoids? I sure do! I love thinking about this stuff! There is a power structure in my world, where might is right, but each tribe has little differences. My orcs would kill you for even suggesting that they are goblinoids (which they are). Hobgoblins aren't as racist as orcs, in that they won't go goblin hunting, but they still see themselves as superior and smarter then they are (which they aren't). Goblins are cowards by nature, but will do little things that are brave when nobody is looking. I do go by the Goblinoids as a mockery of mankind theory, the different subraces being different and twisted shadows of ourselves.

As far as the Monster Frequency stat goes, this helps those folks who assemble random encounters, which I typically don't do. Though I do find it useful as it tells me quickly how many monsters of this type are around.

All good suggestions for further elaboration Bear! It took me years of trial and error before learning this stuff, where was the internet when we first started DMing?

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