Create better encounters by considering what your monsters want

Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons worlds seem split in two. In the towns and hamlets, players exercise charm and guile. In dungeons and lairs, every creature attacks on sight and battles continue to the death.

When TSR printed Dungeon magazine, the most common room description must have included a passage like this: “The room has five orcs. They attack immediately!”

I remember when every dungeon denizen attacked because they were monsters in a dungeon. Over time, adventure writers came to assume the they-attack part. Even modern adventures often assume, because what else? Since when do creatures or adventurers in dungeons want to talk?baba lysagas hut

Sometimes, players in role-playing games choose to role play in the oddest situations. I know. They surprise us all.

Sometimes the author of an adventure adds a routine fight, complete with an implied “they attack immediately.” But at the table, the players decide to talk. So I say “yes” instead of “roll initiative.” I scramble to improvise an interesting scene that challenges the players without handing them the keys to the dungeon. And I think unkind shots about an author who failed to account for role playing. Yes, some of the fun of being a dungeon master comes from making stuff up. Nonetheless, am I wrong to think that perhaps the adventure’s author could come up with something better? Am I wrong to ask the author to inspire me?

In your home game, if you assume a monster exists to attack immediately, you can’t annoy me, but you might miss a chance to create a more interesting encounter.

If heroes and monsters decide to stake their lives on a fight over a 10-foot room, both sides need a reason. The players decide for their heroes, but you choose for the monsters.

Spend a moment thinking about what your monsters want. Often they just hate all that live, or they thirst for blood, or they want to fatten children for dinner. That’s okay. If you have a combat-focused game, players seldom look for more.

If inspiration finds you, the monsters motives may surprise you. If goblins stand watch for the tribe, why would they fight to the death? They might run as the players spot them. Now the players face a dilemma. Give chase and risk blundering into a trap, continue carefully and risk a prepared foe, or find another route? What if the monsters try to negotiate to save their skin? Do the players trust them? Perhaps the orcs are only raiding because they want to retrieve a lost totem. Do the characters help the orcs, perhaps stopping the raids? Or do the PCs just destroy one war band of many? You can create an extra dimension by imagining monsters that want something unexpected, perhaps even noble.

When you understand what your monsters want, fewer encounters end with one side dead. Encounters may end—or start—with monsters fleeing or bargaining. If the players all drop, and you know the monsters intentions, you may see a way to fail forward. (I recommend Sly Flourish’s post Failing Forward on a Banshee TPK.) Fewer encounters turn into grinds. More develop into interesting choices.

4 thoughts on “Create better encounters by considering what your monsters want

  1. alphastream

    This trend does seem to be reversed. Wizards seems to know look at many encounters as story-rich (beyond the story of battle), with goals or motives for the “foes” and the opportunity for players/PCs to avoid battle. Much of Princes of the Apocalypse is written this way, but other recent published adventures as well. It is a welcome change.

    I also see this in convention play. When the intro format for the AL seasons was first created, this was something that was a big change from before, where a Gen Con would have a “delve” for new and casual players or “in between games” filler. Those delves were largely combat fests. WotC swapping from delves to the intros, which expressly requested a mix of the three pillars of play, was a huge deal because it meant even short play and even casual play should showcase the entire D&D experience. So many play those intros that it naturally serves as a training ground for new DMs, new authors, and the old hats that need to see what is changing. I like to think that Candlekeep also played a role in this change (by proving that new/casual players loved a story-rich short format), but I suspect WotC was moving in this direction through their development of 5E.

    It is all a wonderful change from the later 3E era, where everything began to be minis, mat, and battle. Hard to believe today that entire adventures were printed with almost no plot developments at all beyond the final encounter’s win/lose resolution!

  2. Beoric

    What is even more interesting is when the monsters don’t just have a potential relationship with the PCs, but have relationships with each other which the PCs may be able to exploit.

    I am pleased if, as Alphastream says, adventures are being designed with room for social interaction with monsters. However, I am curious whether that is supported by a change in the presentation of the adventures? Social interactions, being less constrained than most combat encounters, require a high degree of flexibility on the part of the DM, but in my view the 3e and 4e (and probably most 2e) style of presentation mitigated against this.

    I say this because they tended to explain every damn thing, which has an oddly constraining effect. First of all, when so much is explained, the DM tends to want to look for the answer instead of making it up. Second, long explanations lead to a “wall of text” problem, which makes it hard to find the information you need (or know if you are missing something).

    So the DM gets in the habit of relying on the adventure to provide an answer, instead of his own imagination. Moreover, he can’t be certain if he is missing something, and he worries that if he goes off-book he may inadvertently screw up the plot of the adventure (and of course the heavily structured plots of these adventures is another problem). So this style of writing encourages the DM *not* to make too many judgment calls.

    Are the 5e era adventures moving to an explanation-light model, or some other method of supporting social play? Because new DMs often form their expectations about how to run a game from published modules, and for the last 25 years it seems like most have been featuring heavily railroaded plots, opaque keyed entries, and a presumption that all encounters are combat encounters.

    1. Heather Jolliff

      One of the things that sticks with me from running the 5th edition starter set module is a “simple” “scripted” encounter with a band of orcs. The task the PCs have been given is to “deal with” the orcs and make it so that they are no longer a nuisance to the townsfolk; the assumption in the way the encounter is written is that this will be achieved by killing them.

      I knew, because the group had run into orcs before as a random encounter, that they were likely to try diplomacy rather than fighting – perfectly reasonable, since one party member was a half-orc himself. Sure enough, I ended up improvising the personality of the chief (who thankfully has a name), a bunch of details about orcish culture, and the result was a peace treaty between the orcs and Phandelver, mediated by the PCs.

      The text of the adventure gave me no help at all with this outcome. It assumed (a) that the orcs were mindless monsters who could not be reasoned with, and (b) that no player party would think to try. Fortunately, my group had a high percentage of new players who are less bound by these expectations, and more than willing to roleplay peace negotiations. So I let them, because it was much more fun than yet another combat encounter.

  3. Jarrett

    I appreciate the balance that Michael Curtis struck in Stonehell. Most monsters encountered are in the midst of doing something and this is presented simply without the wall of text that Beoric mentions.


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