Are your combats lacking pep? Has fighting lost its zazz? Do you need a little pick-me-up on the battlefield, something to give your encounters a kick in the pants? My friend, you don’t need better monsters, you need smarter monsters.
More Than Just Numbers
Combat encounters can be one of the most time-consuming parts of a DM’s prep work; while obviously crafting an entire world for your players to inhabit is no small task, those hours of labor generally carry over from session to session- once you have decided what the local town’s inn and its patrons are like, that detail is now a part of your campaign you can come back to at any time in the future and it will still be true. Fights, however, are usually one-and-one affairs; once the players have beaten the monsters, that is generally the end of them barring some kind of recurring plot villain. Because of this, prepping combats can be a significant part of the work of being a DM, especially if you’re trying to make each combat unique and exciting for the players.
However, there are ways to make your combats tougher and more interesting that don’t just involve inflating the numbers on your monsters. Numerically, the monsters almost have the advantage in a fight- there are more of them and they have higher stats than the PCs. The party is expected to use their abilities intelligently to overcome the challenges before them, outthinking their foes rather than merely overpowering them. But there’s no reason that the monsters can’t do this, too!
Location, Location, Location
It’s easy to forget just how much of an impact the situation on the battle map affects things, but it can be absolutely critical. There is a world of difference between an encounter where all four PCs start next to each other, ready to fight, and one where they are caught off guard, separated, or otherwise out of their element.
And just as the PCs can be expected to work to turn fights to their own advantage, the monsters should as well! Monsters are not simply passive sacks of HP that the party hacks at until they explode into treasure, but individuals with their own wants and goals. Think about this when designing an encounter- what are the monsters trying to accomplish here? How would they set up the situation to their advantage? What strategies will they pursue during the fight in order to try and win?
This can apply to intelligent and unintelligent monsters alike- a wild animal may not think rationally about the best way to attack a foe, but it still has its natural instincts to guide it and years of experience hunting other prey to inform what it will do. Animals may not be sentient, but they are not dumb- they will attack in situations where they have the advantage and retreat when things become too dangerous, unless they have reason to be desperate. Facing a wild animal in their natural habitat is extremely dangerous, because they are usually well-adapted to the difficulties of that terrain- they move quicker, blend in better, and take advantage of unusual features of the terrain in ways that the party probably cannot. Fighting a shark underwater, or a cheetah in the wide-open savannah is a tough battle, and the same applies to more exotic creatures. Whether underground in a cave, up in the air, or deep in a volcano brimming with pools of magma, creatures will usually have the party at a disadvantage in a variety of ways.
Smarter Than Your Average Bear
Of course, the same isn’t true of intelligent foes, who will usually be found in the same wide range of environments that the party will rather than being confined to one specific space- but at the same time, these foes can be even more dangerous because of this. Intelligent creatures have the ability to purposefully manipulate their environment, setting up traps and ambushes in far more cunning ways than simple animals would.
These can be actual traps and terrain features, of course- such things are a time-tested part of D&D, from the pitfall to spike traps to more elaborate magical affairs. But as we alluded to earlier, an even more dangerous sort of trap is setting up an attack that catches the party in a disadvantageous situation- for example, while they are fording a river and are divided between the two banks, or from tall grass that conceals their exact position. Weather can also play a big role in making an encounter difficult- heavy winds, rain, and snow can all make a fight more difficult in various ways and smart foes will time their attacks to make use of these phenomena.
Goals and Means
Of course, it doesn’t all have to be about making the players’ lives more difficult, as being a DM is all about balancing various factors. If we are treating the monsters are intelligent actors we should also remember that they have wants and goals beyond simply getting in the party’s way; a predator wants to catch food, but doesn’t want to be injured too badly in the process. Bandits on the road will attack travelers, but only if they look to have valuables that can be stolen. All foes will be concerned for their own safety in some way, although what this means for their behavior will vary a lot depending on the creature and situation.
This can give the party options other than simply punching things as hard as possible- bandits could be distracted by throwing down sack of coins at an opportune time, for example, or a predator could be scared off with a threat display. It can also inform when the encounter ends in a way that isn’t simply everyone running out of HP; the bandits might flee as soon as they take casualties without having downed any of the enemy, or taking out a leader might start a round of infighting among the creatures for the position of the new leader.
Whether you’re making the fight easier or harder for the PCs (or a combination of both), the important thing is to think of the monsters as creatures who are more than just pawns you move thoughtlessly on a map but as motivated individuals who are pursuing their own unique goals. Think about what the monsters are doing and why, and you’ll create not only more interesting encounters but a richer, more realistic world for your players to inhabit.
As always, remember that you can get your roleplaying supplies at great discounts every day from the Frontline Gaming store, whether you’re looking for a sourcebook for your campaign or the perfect mini for your next encounter.