This post is part of a series on cinematic combat in Dungeons & Dragons 4E. You can see the other posts in the series here.
In the standard Dungeons & Dragons combat encounter, it seems like both sides often have a fanatical devotion to seeing the death of their enemies. Players rarely retreat, and the general expectation is that the Dungeon Master has any monsters fight to the death in order to ensure the players face a proper challenge. Because this pattern is followed for almost every combat encounter, I feel that it ends up contributing to both an unrealistic feel and monotony.
Giving monsters and NPCs goals beyond simply killing the players characters can both make combat more interesting and more challenging. One of the most memorable fights I’ve ever run ended up being great because the monster’s goal wasn’t to kill all of the player characters, but rather to drag away and eventually eat the first one it knocked unconscious. This twist made the encounter much more dynamic by essentially giving it two phases: first a standard combat followed by a pursuit of the predator in order to rescue the party’s paladin. I eventually realized that the key to this was that the shift in enemy behavior forced players to shift their tactics and re-engaged them in a fight that would have otherwise begun to turn into a slugfest.
In order to help with the general idea of giving dynamic goals to opponents, I’ve prepared some basic encounter role templates that should cover a lot of the combat situations in a normal game and help provide a framework for extensions. Each template contains a few guidelines for decisions that a monster might make during combat. When building an encounter, try to give each monster a fitting template and then stick with it during the combat. Some of the templates are Leader templates which define the behavior of the leader of a group as well as the default behavior of the rest of the group.
Fanatic (aka the Default Monster)
Kill Kill KILL: A fanatic’s only goal is to kill the player characters. If its opponents attempt to flee, a fanatic will follow them and attempt to finish them off.
Feel No Pain: A fanatic will not abandon the fight no matter how outmatched it is.
Looking For Food: A predator will focus attacks on one target. Once the target is unconscious, it will attempt to carry it away from the combat.
Bit Off More Than It Can Chew: A predator will abandon the hunt once it is bloodied. If it is carrying unconscious prey, it will continue to do so until it is reduced to one quarter of its hit points, at which point it will give up and focus on survival.
Stalk The Prey: If its targets retreat, a predator will allow them to flee but follow at a distance. When it next senses weakness, it will renew its attack.
Protect The Treasure: A guardian is tasked with the protection of a location or item. It will fight to keep intruders from accessing the object, but has no interest in pursuing intruders who flee (unless they have taken the item with them).
Bully: A thug will target the opponent it perceives as the weakest.
Coward: Once a fight goes against a thug, it tries to stay alive. If it sees a path of escape, it will flee once it is bloodied. If escape isn’t an option, it will surrender.
Greedy: If offered a bribe to stop fighting, a thug is likely to take it.
Professional Killer: An assassin is trying to kill its targets quickly. It fights methodically, trying to finish off one target before focusing on the next.
Not Paid To Die: If an assassin is bloodied, it will retreat from the fight. It was paid to kill its target, and all of that money isn’t any good if it dies first.
A Reputation To Keep: If an assassin retreats or its targets are able to escape, it will bide its time and attack again.
Sound the Alarm: A sentry’s first goal in combat is to sound an alarm. This could be anything from yelling loudly to ringing an enormous bell. Opponents need to act fast to prevent this from happening.
Reinforcements: When building an encounter with a sentry, hold a few opponents in reserve. These monsters will only join the fight after the sentry sounds the alarm.
Hold Ground: Once the alarm is sounded, a sentry will fight to hold its position until reinforcements arrive.
Devotion Varies: Depending on personal devotion, a sentry may fight to the death or flee once bloodied. A group of sentries could have a mix of devotion levels.
Living Shield: A bodyguard will do whatever it can to keep its ward alive. As long as the bodyguard’s ward has not managed to retreat, a bodyguard will fight to the death. A bodyguard will generally focus its attention on the opponent that is most threatening to its ward without regard for its own safety.
Stay Close: A bodyguard’s job is to stay close to its ward. It will not pursue fleeing opponents.
Clear: If a bodyguard’s ward retreats, a bodyguard will continue to fight for a round or two to cover its retreat. After that, the bodyguard will retreat as well.
Run Away: A flight risk’s only goal in the combat is escape. It might attack, but only if that allows it to open up a path of retreat.
Surrender: If a flight risk’s path of escape is cut off or it is reduced to one quarter of its hit points, it will surrender in order to preserve its own life.
Delegate The Dirty Work: A boss tries to stay out of risky situations in combat. Instead, it orders its underlings to do its dirty work. A boss should generally be an artillery or controller so that it can be effective from the back line.
Too Important To Die: If a boss is bloodied or more than half of its underlings are killed, it will retreat. If it’s path of escape is cut off or it is reduced to one quarter of its hit points, it will surrender.
Follow Them: If a boss’s opponents retreat, it will order its underlings to pursue but will not commit itself to the chase.
Underlings: A boss’s underlings follow its orders in combat and will fight to the death. If the boss retreats or is killed, the underlings will either retreat or surrender no matter their current hit points.
Lead By Example: A champion leads from the front lines. It charges into combat and is committed to seeing its enemies defeated. It will fight to the death for its cause.
Order Retreat: If more than half of a champion’s followers are defeated, it will order a retreat. The champion will continue to fight for one or two rounds in order to give its followers time to escape.
Followers: A champion’s followers are committed to following its orders in combat. As long as the champion is alive, they will fight to the death. If the champion orders a retreat, any un-bloodied followers will ignore the order for one or two rounds in order to give their injured compatriots a chance to flee. If the champion is killed, they will attempt to recover its body and then carry it away from the fight.