The Monsters Know What They're Doing: an RPG sourcebook for DMs who want to imbue monsters with deep, smart tactics

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For years, Keith Ammann has maintained his blog, The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, in which he carefully laid out the logical tactics that the monsters of Dungeons and Dragons would use in combat, based on their alignment, stats, and habitats, creating sophisticated advice for Dungeon Masters hoping to move their combat encounters from rote stab-stab-kill affairs into distinctive, memorable strategy-and-tactics affairs that created not just variety and challenges for players, but also depth and verisimilitude. Now, Ammann’s work has been collected in the first of two planned volumes: The Monsters Know What They’re Doing: Combat Tactics for Dungeon Masters is one of the most interesting, thoughtful, smart RPG sourcebooks I’ve ever read.


“Dave, this is the eighth TPK is a row. We’ve all decided Dianna will be the DM from now on.”


in my (admittedly dated) experience, kobolds and skeletons NEVER knew what they were doing, so i’d love to read his take for them.


“You know, we’re guarding that magical weapon. Why don’t we take it down from the wall and use it against the people trying to steal it? Plus, we see in the dark. Let’s put guards outside watching down that long corridor for light, and have five minutes warning to get ready.”


This doesn’t work when the players have absoltely no idea what they are doing.

After killing 3 robed cultist guards.

“I toss their bodies into the chasm.”

“Uh, are you doing anything first?”

“Nope, just chuck them over, get rid of the evidence.”

5 minutes later

“We really could use a disguise to sneak in…”

I tried, folks!


I remember dming a session that my players never forgot,

I just set up a dozen kobolds with strategy and tactics, like bolt holes, arrow slits, smokebombs and nets. they did things like shoot an arrow volley/oil flask from cover and RUN LIKE HELL… They just peppered those low/mid level pcs (level 4 or 5 IIRC) with rocks and arrows and TACTICS from cover, never leaving their fallen behind never showing their faces

The players were so freaked out by the mystery enemy that was giving them so much trouble, they never completed the quest, or the dungeon, just said F IT and walked away.

Best part? they never managed to catch sight of them and they spent hours discussing what was down there (some really good stealth rolls from the kobolds helped)…
they diddnt believe me when i told them it was a bunch of kobolds, i had to show them the encounter notes. hahahahahaha


This is also just a very engaging writing topic, a satisfying blend of technical writing, biology, psycological analysis, empathetic reasoning, and fantasy fiction all wrapped up in one and broken up into digestible chunks. This would make a great assignment for a reluctant reader/writer as it would slyly introduce them to writing styles they otherwise would think boring or dry. tabletop RPGs and collaborative storytelling should really be a more integrated as a model for education.


I’ve DM’s who play monsters depending on their intelligence. At the very least kill or neutralize the spellcasters, kill the cleric first, why waste time banging on a tank if he’s just going to get back up again when he’s healed?


“Shoot the girl first!”


There was an infamous D&D scenario that used to do the rounds of the Oz RPG convention circuit.

On one side: the party of dungeon-bashing PCs, fairly experienced and powerful.

On the other side: two kobolds hiding in a carefully-prepared mansion. Think Home Alone.

It was notorious for producing TPKs.

The climactic battle of the last dungeon I ran finished with the party being attacked by a squad of elven wizard-ninja-assassins. The elves threw magically-illuminated pebbles ahead of them to reveal any traps or ambushes; used fire-and-movement covering tactics when exploring; covered the stairs with caltrops to protect their archers from being charged (which killed the swashbuckler PC, when he dramatically leapt onto the stairs, fell over with severely spiked feet and then got porcupined by the archers); and they all loaded themselves up with buff spells (blur, haste, etc) before the fight began.

The PCs won in the end, but it was a hard-fought thing.


“They’re only Kobalds!” are Famous Last Words.
Ok, that’s admittedly a 1st Ed. AD&D statement… In the Monster Manual, the typical Number Appearing was 40-400. Unless the party is specifically prepared to be able to retreat into some place the Kobalds can’t get, basic dogpile tactics will destroy parties of even pretty high-level characters. Ok, so that 10th level Fighter kills 10 each round, and the Magic User takes out 50 with a fireball, but most other classes are only going to get 2-3 each. So there’s still 100 or so who all grapple. And once the PCs are unable to fight back under the pile, some Kobald reaches in with a dagger and makes a coup de gras against Immobile targets.

If the monsters use smart tactics, then the players have to use smarter ones.



There was a great article, I think it was in Dragon in the '80s, about a DM who took on the challenge of putting together a difficult dungeon for an experienced party with only kobolds. First time through: TPK. Second time through, the party survived but was badly beat up and basically had to retreat without finding the objective. Third time through the part achieved the objective but losing two party members. It was a great read and also a reminder about strength in numbers and force multipliers.


“What are we after here? Oh, jewels and a sword? Right. I’m gonna need some pitch, a bottle of good booze, and a couple of bottles of that rotgut they sold us in the last town.”

Spread pitch in a couple of spots we know have been cleared, near exterior windows. Put cloth in the bottles of rotgut as wicks and light, throwing it through the windows onto the pitch where it can burn nice and hot.

What’s the good booze for? We need something to do while we wait.


Have you ever read about Tucker’s Kobolds?

The party leader went over the penciled map of the dungeon and tried to find ways to avoid the little critters, but it was not possible. The group resigned itself to making a run for it through Level One to get to the elevators, where we could go down to Level Ten and fight “okay” monsters like huge flaming demons.


THAT’S THE ONE! Thank you!


@Wanderfound @CyberKender @DukeTrout
You know not of Tucker’s Kobolds.

Pray you never meet them.

Edit: Ninja’ed by @the_borderer


Posting Oglaf in the open, are we? … daring!


What’s next, monsters with MBAs?

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We already have those in real life. CEOs and board members. So it would hit too close to home.

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