Clever Enemies in RPGs

I’m happy to have discovered the blog The Monsters Know What They’re Doing today. The author, Keith Ammann, voices something which I’d been trying to do when running games, which is using common sense in encounters. I’m currently playing the cRPG version of Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, and one thing which is very noticable in PC RPGs is that hardly any NPCs—if any at all—will operate based on common sense rules. Most of the enemies will just move directly towards the players and use whatever features or abilities they have until these bags of hitpoints are depleted. When I just started running tabletop RPGs, I did the same thing with my enemies, because that’s what I’d read. There’s a much better way of handling this, though.

I like the way Ammann phrased it, which is that every creature tries to stay alive as a basic principle. Any creature will try to use its main advantages in conflict situations to get the best possible outcome. Wolves, when in a pack, will try to coordinate and surround prey. While a single bee would sting, if there’s multiple bees, they’ll swarm. Human beings, well, we’re intelligent, so we’ll use tools and tactics to try and get the best of things. I’ve roughly used a similar type of principle as Ammann argues in his blog while running games. Basic animal enemies will use elementary tactics: I’d have a wild boar rush at a player, then disengage to set up another rush. By comparison, while I’d have a common thug try to beat up whoever looked like a threat, I’d have a bandit leader call out commands to take out the wizard first, or to have archers focus on the fighter from afar.

For one, playing like that would give me something to spice up fight scenes a little bit. Instead of the old “it rolls a 5, that’s a miss. Your turn. Okay, you do 7 damage on that hit. Okay, it rolls a 17. It does 4 damage”, now, intelligent enemies shouted out quick commands to each other. Goblins would look around in shock, or kobolds would dive behind rocks before unleashing arrows. On top of that, it turned fights from the standard slog-fest between two bags of hitpoints into something a little more dramatic. Most interestingly, though, it started making combats more threatening. The wizard who always cast fly on himself and bombarded everybody with fireballs suddenly found that if people expected the party to drop by, that they’d prepare their own wizard with dispel magic scrolls. The fighter who’d loaded up on armor and always just wanted to stand in front to tank would suddenly find himself running to and fro as enemies used guerilla tactics to take out the cleric rather than the fighter.

Funnily enough, this didn’t start out of a desire to up the challenge for my players, but rather to make the combats more interesting to play to begin with. Simply by assuming that every enemy has its own world and life behind the bag of hit points would naturally lead to a more dynamic conflict experience. Funnily enough, I never figured to phrase it so eloquently as Amman has done: “The monsters know what they’re doing”. When I’m done with the current books I’m reading, I think I’ll be putting that one on the pile as well.

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