How obedient are summoned creatures? Will they obey self-destructive commands?


Rules Questions


2 people marked this as FAQ candidate.

This was inspired by another thread where there's a discussion of summoned birds being used in essentially kamikaze attacks: dive-bombing enemies to literally collide with them and cause falling object damage.

The question is, exactly how obedient are summoned monsters? Specifically, will they obey obviously suicidal commands?

From the description for Conjuration spells in the PRD:

PRD wrote:

Conjuration

[...] Creatures you conjure usually—but not always—obey your commands.

Summoning: A summoning spell instantly brings a creature or object to a place you designate. When the spell ends or is dispelled, a summoned creature is instantly sent back to where it came from, but a summoned object is not sent back unless the spell description specifically indicates this. A summoned creature also goes away if it is killed or if its hit points drop to 0 or lower, but it is not really dead. It takes 24 hours for the creature to reform, during which time it can't be summoned again.

From this we know two things:


  • Summoned creatures don't always obey commands
  • Summoned creatures don't die.

It's not clear if summoned creatures know they don't really die. Intelligent ones might. But, even if they knew their destruction would not be permanent, would they still treat their summoned existence as disposable?

Animals probably don't know that they aren't going to die. Because they're animals.

Moving on to the Summon Monster description:

PRD wrote:

Summon Monster

[...] It attacks your opponents to the best of its ability. If you can communicate with the creature, you can direct it not to attack, to attack particular enemies, or to perform other actions.

From this we can imply that a summoned monster:


  • Inherently knows who your enemies are, and attacks them
  • Can be directed to attack, not attack, attack specific targets, or perform "other actions" (assuming you can communicate with it)

That is it for guidance on summoning from Core. The Monster Summoner's Handbook doesn't offer any additional insights. There are some snippets from the Bestiary that are specific to some creatures. Air Elementals, for instance "resent being summoned or doing the bidding of mortals". Demons are options for summoning, but this suggests that's actually a very bad idea:

Bestiary wrote:

Demons view such summoners with a mix of hatred and thanks, for most demons lack the ability to come to the Material Plane to wreak havoc on their own. They depend on the mad to call them up from the Abyss, and while they gnash their fangs and rail against the commands and strictures enforced, most demons find ways to twist their summoners' demands so that even the most tightly controlled demonic slave leaves a trace of ruin and despair in its wake. More often than not, a foolish spellcaster makes a fatal mistake in the conjuring and pays for it with blood, unwittingly releasing a terrible blight upon the world as his conjuration breaks free of his control.

It's pointed out this reads mroe like calling than summoning.

So there are clearly some creatures that are not going to just blindly obey orders from a mortal that has summoned them. An air elemental might resist if you push them too hard, and demons might even undermine you given the chance. This suggests that creatures with intelligence and will are being compelled, but they know it and can resist.

There's no such guidance for animals, though. They are just animals that were "there" and are now "here", and suddenly have targets that they are compelled to attack.

So what happens if you try to communicate something outright suicidal? How strong are these compulsions to obey your commands?

There's perhaps some guidance from Dominate Animal, which is about as forcefully as you can directly control an animal in the game:

PRD wrote:

Dominate Animal

[...] Suicidal or self-destructive commands (including an order to attack a creature two or more size categories larger than the dominated animal) are simply ignored.

Digesting all of this, my interpretation is:


  • Summoned creatures will faithfully attack your enemies, except...
  • Obviously suicidal orders will not be obeyed
  • Animals view attacking something one or two size categories larger than themselves as "suicidal"
  • Intelligent creatures decide for themselves what is suicidal/self-destructive 
  • Demons and devils may find ways to indirectly harm or harass the summoner if treated poorly

Other thoughts?

Scarab Sages

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Summon Monster monsters are completely dominated. This is why demons you summon don't start murdering people who aren't your enemies or try to fulfill their own wishes. But there are summon spells that do not offer control, such as Summon Swarm(explaining the 'but not always' text).

The quoted bestiary text reads like it is referring to called monsters instead of summoned. As called monsters do have a will of their own on top of any control or deals you make with them.


Lorewalker wrote:

Summon Monster monsters are completely dominated. This is why demons you summon don't start murdering people who aren't your enemies or try to fulfill their own wishes. But there are summon spells that do not offer control, such as Summon Swarm(explaining the 'but not always' text).

The quoted bestiary text reads like it is referring to called monsters instead of summoned. As called monsters do have a will of their own on top of any control or deals you make with them.

True, it does seem to read more like calling than summoning.

As for being completely dominated, even dominated creatures resist obviously self-destructive commands.

Scarab Sages

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John Mechalas wrote:
Lorewalker wrote:

Summon Monster monsters are completely dominated. This is why demons you summon don't start murdering people who aren't your enemies or try to fulfill their own wishes. But there are summon spells that do not offer control, such as Summon Swarm(explaining the 'but not always' text).

The quoted bestiary text reads like it is referring to called monsters instead of summoned. As called monsters do have a will of their own on top of any control or deals you make with them.

True, it does seem to read more like calling than summoning.

As for being completely dominated, even dominated creatures resist obviously self-destructive commands.

It is not dominate as per the spell. You have complete control, as the creature is not allowed its own will. It has no will thus has no resistance to suicidal orders.

Also, no order is suicidal as it can not die. It just goes home.

The creature even is aware of who your enemies are without you telling them and is compelled to attack them. Which is how creatures you can not communicate with work.

Scarab Sages

With a Shared Language, summoned creatures will do *whatever* you ask them to do.

Without a shared language, summoned creatures are really NPCs, and will just attack whatever you direct them at, but the summoner has no control over how they attack things, just what they attack. It's even ambigious if you can command a summoned creature to stop attacking something you've already told them to attack.

Scarab Sages

Oh, I'm talking about the summoned creatures via the Summon Monster and Summon Nature's Ally spells. Some of the other summoning spells do grant more control to the summoned creature.


The fact that some spells say "Obviously self-destructive commands will not be obeyed" and Summon Monster doesn't say that makes me think that they will obey self-destructive commands.


Makes me remember a lot of Summon Monster catastrophes I've had in some games. Some of them were willing, others were unwilling.

-Using summomed monsters to detonate traps.
-Having a Lillend caught by a telekinetic living tank (I sent her to check if the tank had ranged attacks and what reach it could have. The answer was «LONG».
-Having a devil with poison immunity shot to death and killed by a living mist with armed zombies inside (we thought it was a poisonous mist, but it was a creature!)

I have a long story of sending summoned creatures on semi-suicidal scouting missions.

I've always thought they followed suicidal commands, for the reasons Matthew mentioned.

Our take on summon monster is «you are not summoning the real creature but some sort of manifestation/reflection of it, that's why it vanishes instead of dying» but I don't know if there is something official about this explanation.

Sovereign Court

Just to share a little bit of further insight. The spell-caster that summoned the, "dive-bombing eagles" in question, has an indirect way to communicate with them. His familiar, an intelligent thrush, can communicate with animals.


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The spell specifies that the creature attacks to the best of its ability, not attacks as you direct. You can choose the target of its attack and for it not to attack certain targets, assuming you can communicate with it. The summoned creature still has instincts and tactics it uses and will use them in combat. I don’t know of any creature that uses suicidal tactics in combat. The summoning does not override its instincts or the creature would not be able to fight effectively.

The line about other actions allows you to direct it to do things other than attack. But even then it still has some choice on how it acts. You could have the summoned creature walk down a hallway to check for traps, but it will still try and avoid the trap if it is hit with it.


Mysterious Stranger wrote:
I don’t know of any creature that uses suicidal tactics in combat.

IRL worker bees die when they sting you, but they do it anyway. There are probably other suicidal vermin. I don't know of anything with an Int score that uses such tactics.


True there are some mindless creatures that may use suicidal tactics, but being mindless means they don’t realize they are going to die. Also since they are mindless you really can’t communicate with them so they still would not obey suicidal orders because they are incapable of understanding the orders.


This description from the Conjuration magic description is what keeps me from agreeing with the interpretation that summoned creatures are completely dominated by your will, or will obey any command no matter how destructive (emphasis mine):

Quote:

Conjuration

Conjurations transport creatures from another plane of existence to your plane (calling); create objects or effects on the spot (creation); heal (healing); bring manifestations of objects, creatures, or forms of energy to you (summoning); or transport creatures or objects over great distances (teleportation). Creatures you conjure usually—but not always—obey your commands.

Only two types of conjuration are relevant here: calling and summoning. The description about creatures usually obeying your commands is left generic for all conjuration. It doesn't differentiate between called and summoned.

It doesn't matter if the creature really dies or not (and it's difficult to believe that animals would "know" this, anyway). If reduced to 0 hp its current form is destroyed. It is inconsistent with the game design that any creature with an Int score would knowingly, deliberately and directly cause its own destruction. I see a fine line, but a line nonetheless, between "attack my enemy" and something more directly suicidal like "jump off a cliff" or "fly into wall/ground at high speed". That "usually but not always" line in the PRD is what makes me hesitate.

I feel like there's enough ambiguity here to warrant clarification via an FAQ ruling.


Fuzzy-Wuzzy wrote:
Mysterious Stranger wrote:
I don’t know of any creature that uses suicidal tactics in combat.
IRL worker bees die when they sting you, but they do it anyway. There are probably other suicidal vermin. I don't know of anything with an Int score that uses such tactics.

This only applies to honey bees. But I'm going to call this "not relevant" because in terms of game mechanics, honey bees would be represented by swarms which have different rules. In Summon Swarm, the caster has no direct control over the swarm's actions.


Here is a pretty good article from Ultimate Campaign discussing the issue of control from the perspective of Companions. The sections on Eidolons are especially appropriate given that Eidolons are literally Summoned Creatures.
The general implication though is that even companions are generally considered NPCs, the it is within the GMs rights to dictate their actions. Obviously this would apply to Summoned Creatures as well. Most GMs simply don't do this because its more work for them to fight themselves, and nobody wants to play characters who don't get to control their own class features.


Summon Monster says the summoned creature "appears where you designate and acts immediately, on your turn. It attacks your opponents to the best of its ability."

Does this mean the monster automatically knows who your opponents are?


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Bacondale wrote:

Summon Monster says the summoned creature "appears where you designate and acts immediately, on your turn. It attacks your opponents to the best of its ability."

Does this mean the monster automatically knows who your opponents are?

Yes, I believe that is so. Creatures summoned by Summon Monster and Summon Nature's Ally should never accidentally attack you, your allies, or what you believe to be innocent bystanders, just your known enemies.


Fuzzy-Wuzzy wrote:
Mysterious Stranger wrote:
I don’t know of any creature that uses suicidal tactics in combat.
IRL worker bees die when they sting you, but they do it anyway. There are probably other suicidal vermin. I don't know of anything with an Int score that uses such tactics.

But a honey bee's sting, against common targets, will not kill it. Only against thicker-skinned targets, like mammals, will the barbed dart stay stuck in its victim, and rip its guts out as it tries to dislodge itself. Against other insects, for example, they can sting repeatedly.

Does the individual bee know of this distinction? I think it more likely that it evolved to learn to use its dart only sparingly, rather than to discriminate targets.


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Kileanna wrote:
Having a devil with poison immunity shot to death and killed by a living mist with armed zombies inside (we thought it was a poisonous mist, but it was a creature!)

I am definitely stealing that!


Let's see if I can recall what happened when a monster dies.

- In past editions summoned monsters went back to their home plane injured (but not death) and hating the goblin su**** who summoned them. Dangerous affairs indeed.

- In 3.5 summoned creatures return back unscathed with just 'an another annoying day in the routine of an outsider'. Gate-called monsters die permanently. And yes, when you are in Hell and summon a devil the devil is still a summoned outsider binded to the "Universal Cosmic Laws of Summoning". For that fact creatures from the Material Plane can never be summoned, I don't know if Gate will work or not.

I'm curious how it works in PF, I'll try to look for some info.

Now, my opinion on the matter is as follows.

Summon monster/ally spells are meant for combat, the creature appears and attacks as the text say. And we should make some difference between 'useless' suicide (go and dive in that volcano) and 'useful' suidice (attack the dragon that will AoO and one hit kill it anyway).

Gate-called monsters obeys you but follow their own common sense and won't dive in the volcano neither they'll go and attack that dragon knowing that will kill them for sure.

They're all npcs after all, so the GM has the final word about how to play them no matter the circumstances.


William Werminster wrote:
Summon monster/ally spells are meant for combat, the creature appears and attacks as the text say. And we should make some difference between 'useless' suicide (go and dive in that volcano) and 'useful' suidice (attack the dragon that will AoO and one hit kill it anyway).

I think this gets at the hear of it. Most of the time, the Summon spells are used to bring in combat allies. Flankers, grapplers, someone who can cast aid, or whatever. This is all "typical use", almost by convention.

It's the edge cases where things break down. If I summoned an archon and ordered it to start killing innocents, what would happen? That's where the lack of clarity in the rules becomes problematic. Fortunately, it's not the sort of thing that comes up often, but then again, we don't come to the rules forum for answers to the easy questions.

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