DMing enemy NPCs, prioritzing PCs, and how to go about it.


Silver Crusade

Hello all, I'm making this post, both to discuss, and to advise/get advice about DMing enemy NPCs in combat. How to have them behave, and why. Now, let us assume this discussion involves games up to and including level 17, as most APs do not go higher than this.

My Primary question is as follows, should you as a GM, in a "normal" or "generic" fight, have enemies prioritize players, and if so by what prioritization should you do so?


Now, as a secondary question from the first, What constitutes a threatening/priority target character?

I have seen countless times on these boards people speaking of making yourself a threatening target, you have to be threatening in order to be a good frontliner... What constitutes threatening? Is it damage, the thing that actually kills you in game? Control, the thing that sets you up to be easier to damage? space occupation, the thing that keeps you from damaging whoever you want? Can a pure martial character, ever be more threatening than a caster? Can a pure caster, ever truly be more threatening than a pure martial? Is it based on levels? should enemies always have 100% information on the party and their abilities?

If the standard is damage, how much damage is needed? what is "threatening" in terms of damage? do you need to kill something in a hit or two to be threatening, or is it also threatening to be able to kill something in the course of 2-3 rounds? is it damage per hit? damage per turn? Is it not threatening enough to be the thing that actually kills you?

If control, how much control do you need to provide? Is one or two targets a round worthy of being a priority target, or do you need multiple AoE effects to be considered threatening in this regard? Are combat maneuvers enough control, or do you need control like web, entangle etc? Or is control by itself, or in majority, not threatening enough to constitute being a priority target. (which would mean, casters on average should be considered less dangerous off the bat)

is it a "total" combination of the two? If so, which is more "threatening"? Damage, or control?

Example- you think damage, the lifeblood of the game and the one thing that eats away at the life of all people in the world is the largest threat factor.

We have a Sword and board martial, lets say a paladin for full on defensive power that does not try for TWF, and focuses more on defense than offense. He is hard to hit, hard to damage, damn hard to kill or even to effect with most spells. he does "ok" damage via a decent strength score and power attack... Is this a threatening target? If no, should a GM make this player feel nigh useless, because he wanted to play an iconic SnB paladin? should enemies constantly avoid him solely because they don't deem him a worthy "threat", even though he does do damage, just not "enough"

What if the wizard is purely a control wizard and makes use of mostly control/buff/debuff spells? Would he still be a priority target?

Another example, you believe that battlefield control is the most dangerous in combat, and as such should be used to prioritize targets.

What happens to the paladin from the first example? Is he ignored even more now because he has little to no battlefield control, and only "ok" damage outside smite?

What if the wizard decided to focus on blasting because he wanted to throw fireballs, bolts of lightening etc around in fights?

What if a "turtle" character focuses on performing combat maneuvers, and leaves 1-2 enemies prone a turn, or drags them around the battlefield provoking AoOs? Do the enemies focus him now, and miss 9/10 attacks?

If you deem control AND damage necessary to be a threat, or if you deem them equally worthy of being a threat, how do you target players? Would you simply ignore the ones that are harder to hit at this point because "thats no fun" or "thats what the person would do"? Or would you allow the player that wants to be the tank, feel useful in that regard and have enemies fight him? Or would you simply have them target the closest?

And my final question is, Regarding the above, if you believe that yes, your NPCs should prioritize PCs purely on "threat", should we be okay with invalidating character concepts/designs because they don't work within said system?

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There's no single answer to these questions, I'm afraid. My advice, for what it's worth: Think less about tactics and more about the perspective of the NPC in question.

Personality and skill set: Is that NPC a master tactician? Are they impulsive, more prone to reacting to immediate threats rather than assessing the entire field? Are they single-minded, ignoring obstacles and threats while they fixate on their current goal? Are they smart? Stupid? Overconfident? Cowardly? That's the first thing I keep in mind before I even get into tactical assessment. The way a character fights is as much a part of telling the character's story as any dialogue. Some of this is situational as well: a normally calm and collected combatant might behave quite differently if, for example, everything goes dark during the royal dance and people are screaming from different directions, while the maid who's used to avoiding notice might flip into full-on panic mode in such a situation and beat the living daylights out of anybody she bumps into.

Goal: What's the NPC's goal in this situation? Sometimes it's as simple as "kill the interlopers" or "survive", but other times it's "protect the high priest at all costs", "finish the ritual", "drive the invaders away from our home", or "assassinate the witness". Sometimes the most likely path to that goal is to fight optimally with the knowledge and tactical capability that character has, but other times a character may do something less likely to win the battle if it means they're more likely (or, more importantly, if they think they're more likely) to achieve their goal.

Knowledge: How much do the NPCs know about their foes? Most of the time, all the NPCs know is that they're attacking or being attacked by that guy in heavy armor with a mean looking greataxe, some elf in rune-covered robes, and a halfling who somehow produced daggers from nowhere. They don't know what feats you've taken, which spells you have prepared, or how much damage you can do on a critical hit until they've been in the thick of it for at least a round or three. Other times, the bad guys have been watching the PCs from afar and know many of their tricks; they're more likely to make intelligent decisions about whom to prioritize in combat (personality and goal willing, of course). And all of this may be moot if the NPC is an idiot with a club.

I find that concentrating on these things instead of battle tactics makes the other decisions either easier or unnecessary. Only particular NPCs are capable enough to require me to attempt to fight optimally the way I would if I were a player. And the players tend to remember and talk about the fights where the NPCs' personalities came out rather than the ones where they all behaved according to an obvious battle algorithm. (My favorite example: the noble's manservant who'd never killed before but flipped out after an accidental crit and kept stabbing the dead goblin over and over heedless of the battle around him. My players kept asking when he'd show up again like he was a major character, so I had to make plans to bring him back into the picture later!)

I agree with everything blahpers has said. From the DM side of things creatures don't have "threat meters" the way they do in videogames. Nor should they really.

I personally start with the creature's intelligence and natural instincts. A mindless enemy like a skeleton uses zero tactics. It moves toward the closest "warm body" and attacks. It only goes around things if it can't reasonably climb over it (iow if it will cost it more then a double move). If the creature is intelligent, how intelligent is it? "Dumb monsters" will look for obvious displays of strength/power and treat those as being the "biggest threat". If the big human in shiny armor bangs on their shield and the scrawny elf with the pointy hat is hiding behind him. The monster will go after the human. Unless experience has taught them otherwise.

Once we are outside the realm of "dumb monsters" and are up to creatures of average and above intelligence I start looking at what does the creature know? does it know about adventurers in general? does it know anything about this particular group? How does the creature feel about arcane magic and/or divine magic? It will then fight using tactics based on this knowledge, which might be completely wrong for the group or spot on. At this point I pretty much follow the same path blahpers has stated. Where a creature's actions are based on what it sees, knows, desires, and has experienced.

From the player end. You make yourself a "threat" by manipulating the information a monster has. The last "tank" I played had the feat antagonize. Which specifically forces a creature to attack you. I also had a back up ability for when that failed. I had the bite ability from the serpentine sorcerer bloodline. This poison effect causes con damage. If something started to ignore me I could bite it. For both players and monsters con damage is no joke and immediately gives the impression "if not dealt with soon, she's going to kill me". I could only use it so many times per day but the monsters have no way of knowing that. So far as they know I can keep on biting them and it would be "stupid" to ignore me.

In general if you want things to come after you, you just need to convince them that you will kill them if they don't kill you first. This could be doing lots of damage or it could be something as simple as a well executed dirty trick or bluff. If you happen to know something about a creature's desires you can certainly use that to your advantage as well. If it doesn't want any harm to come to the macguffin then attack and/or threaten to harm the macguffin. That should be enough to convince the thing to come after you. If you think it's pissed off at player X, make an illusion of player X that's closer to them then player X is. Unless they recognize what's happened they will likely go after the closer version. etc.

Grand Lodge

I agree with pretty much everything written above. I'll add this:

A good DM knows the limit of the NPCs knowledge of their enemies prior to any fight. If you're encountering a random group of highwaymen, they're not necessarily going to distinguish who in your party will be the biggest threat outside of what is immediately viewable, and even then it can be hard. Is the unarmed and unarmored party member who is very lanky able to evade everyone's attacks and throw down 6 punches in a round? Or maybe they just look like a monk and instead are a water kineticist that is suppressing their elemental overflow. They wouldn't know what abilities they have.

A reoccurring NPC or someone who has the means to hear about the feats of your party might have a different understanding though. They might know that the guy in heavy armor and wielding a big sword is actually a defensive fighter and utilizes bodyguard, while the swashbuckler with the whip is the one who really deals the most damage in the party.

Overall though, Martial characters fear magic users. They know they could be eating a fireball to the face, be blinded with glitterdust, hit with an energy channel, or fall into an extradimensional pit the moment a caster's turn is up. Sure a full-attack from a martial character isn't any fun on the receiving end, but even if they're left with 1HP by the end of it they're still kicking. And more often than not they don't get to full-attack on round 1. Casters, on the other hand, can shut down NPCs on round 1 through debuff or SoS spells. Also, most intelligent creatures know that primary casters tend to be a lot more squishy than their martial counterparts, and the fewer bodies that are up to fight them, the better their chances are of winning.

Spell component pouches, belts with wands and scrolls attached, robes, staves, etc., are all indicators that this character casts spells and therefore they tend to go up in priority. Even the formerly mentioned highwaymen would see that. They might see the unarmed and unarmored monk on the frontline but will order archers to attack the caster in the back first, to get rid of them.

Even animals will see a bigger threat when they notice a fireball flying out of a wizard's hand.

I agree with everything LordKailas and Blaphers said.

But I do want to explicitly address the idea of tanking characters and invalidate concepts.

Yes, its absolutely okay to invalidate the concept of tanking. It's an MMO concept and one that has no place (in my opinion) in table top games.

"Tankimg" in Pathfinder is done like LordKailas said. You have a character that can deal a lot of damage, or do scary things like con damage. You make a character that's too dangerous to ignore. Yes that means the high AC characters aren't actually good at tanking because they don't "produce enough threat" to the enemy (because usually the resources required to have a very high AC/defense means you offense will suffer).

I see that as working as intended. Now, I also know people who haven't played table top before and you should explain to them that it doesn't work the same way if they try to build that character.

Syries wrote:
They wouldn't know what abilities they have.

To address this, they actually added the ability to identify classes to the knowledge skills.

Let me see if I can find a link.


Recall Intrigues (Knowledge)

Source PPC:SpyHB

You can identify feats and the class features of various classes with successful Knowledge checks when you observe the feats or class features being used.

Check: You can attempt a skill check to identify a feat or class feature when you observe it in use, similar to how Spellcraft can be used to identify a spell. The feat or class feature must have some observable effect in order for you to attempt the Knowledge check. For example, you can’t see the internal determination of Iron Will, so this ability can’t identify that feat. In general, if a feat or class feature creates a noticeable effect (such as the extra attack from using Cleave) or has a variable modifier a character must choose to use (such as Arcane Strike, Combat Expertise, or Enlarge Spell), it can be identified. If it creates a static bonus (such as Dodge or Lightning Reflexes), there’s no telltale sign to give it away.

Task Knowledge Skill DC
Identify a class feature from a class that grants arcane or psychic spells Arcana 10+ class level when the feature is granted.*
Identify a class feature from a class with access to the druid or ranger spell list Nature 10+ class level when the feature is granted.
Identify a class feature from a class that grants divine spells Religion 10+ class level when the feature is granted.
Identify a class feature from any other class Local 10+ class level when the feature is granted. *
Identify a combat feat being used Local 10+ character’s level
Identify a metamagic feat being used Arcana 10+ character’s level
Identify teamwork feat being used Nobility 10+ character’s level
*Add 10 to the DC if the class is a prestige class

The Knowledge skill required to identify a feat or class feature varies depending on the type of feat or class feature to be identified and is outlined in the Recall Intrigues (Knowledge) table above, along with the DCs of such skill checks.

Well, that's going to format poorly but it's under the knowledge section of skills on d20pfsrd.

But you can identify classes as a character takes actions. And presumably know what a class is generally capable of doing if you can identify them.

Grand Lodge

You still have to observe the feat or class feature being used first, and my point in my hypothetical was that if you just randomly come across a party and a fight starts, until that character has done something other than JUST swing a weapon, you don't really know what their capabilities are.
*edit* but thank you for reminding me of this. I rarely open the actual books since I almost always use the AoNPRD over d20.

Let me join this community of mutual agreement among blahpers, LordKailas, Syries, and Claxon.

The enemies' combat tactics is another opportunity for the GM to tell another story about the setting. Is a group of odd-looking humanoids ferocious monsters, savage tribesmen, or an invading military? The party learns the answer through the enemy's tactics.
* Is the enemy a predator looking for food? Then it will attack whichever party member looks like easy prey, often just a pack mule.
* Is the enemy a group of bandits? They have their own definition of easy prey. They might start with an intimidating charge that would terrify most travelers, and might size up the party in a round and beat a hasty retreat.
* Is the enemy a military force? Then they will use disciplined tactics and advanced weapons and armor to not leave an unprotected flank. If overwhelmed, they could signal for re-enforcements.
* Is the enemy tribal defenders? They will try to act like a military force, but will lack the discipline and gear and be easily fooled.
* Is the enemy an evil wizard with minions? Then he will use clever tactics, especially terrain advantage and battlefield control spells, to demonstrate his mastery, yet will also spend the lives of his minions cheaply.
* Is the enemy a demon from the Abyss? Then it is motivated by a desire for destruction and will kill the party even at risk to itself for the joy of killing.
* Is the enemy a potential ally that the party attacked by ignorance. Ouch, that is the hardest to roleplay. They will talk to each other a lot until the players get a clue. "Stop the invaders! Protect the women and children!" is a good battle cry.

How they respond to threats, intimidation, and disciplined tactics is also determined by their nature. Some will run. Some will be challenged and respond to the challenge.

This is a contextual answer really. Its individual.

But as to the concept of threaten--I would alter that to "draw aggro" rather than threaten as a term.
For me its literally "the thing that prevents them from killing everyone" or "the thing that is going to make me lose/die" Whether thats the big ole beatstick one rounding enemies. Or the caster's SoS or changing the battle field to isolate enemies. or in my case threatens (pulls aggro basically) because when he is there none of my allies can die. and he himself is extremely difficult to kill via HP damage (Save or suck gets me good). So while my team is doing damage. I'm the "threat" because they can not stop my team while I'm there. They can almost kill my big damage dealers (one melee big dice lots o static damage, one ranged needleing them to death) in 1-2 rounds. But if I'm still free to do as I like they're usually healed up, or I prevent the attacks from actually hitting them (bodyguard feat). But that is a specific case.

And on the prioritizing. Well. They'd priorize the same as anyone who does not want to die. They'd go for what they can notice is going to lead to their death. I.e. they'd initially go for the big damage (typically in their face) but once something else supports them (caster doing something shiny. or a healer preventing the death). I can't really see a way to play other than "I don't want to die" followed by "I have a job to do" This can change depending on how "aware" of things they are (skills, history. job). But that is the general guidelines.
Anything could kill a dragon, if it was unkillable due to an outside force, or the dragon was sealed and unable to do anything due to an outside force. Thus it would have to take care of the mitigating factor before it could win. to take a hyperbole.

It is of course different with animals/magical beasts. They often go by instinct. Or by a magical sense and I follow accordingly.

as for invalidating.. Yes and No? I as a GM would probably point out "Well.. that doesn't really work in this world." and then discuss what they want to do exactly. And then figure out ways for that to actually work mechanicaly.
I'll probably never go "easy mode AI" where the enemies are just cannon fodder ala Dynasty Warriors or crashing waves against the shore.
But. That is me as a GM. I can't really GM training wheels combat. I'm sure a different GM could and ultiamtely that would probably be what I suggest.
But as policy, like say in Society? No, I dont think the enemy should act outside the norm for the created world to accomidate that situation.
There are of course. Always exceptions. We can only really discuss a generalization of concept here.

Silver Crusade

You say tanking is a silly MMO concept, yet use the term "threat", which is a key concept of MMO tanking. (Or was, most games make it laughably easy for tanks to keep threat, or, aggro these days). And speak of identifying abilities as if they were skills from a video game.

Thanks everyone for your responses and thoughts.

It's not about damage, but perceived effectiveness.

A really attention-getting character (wearing really cool armor and wielding a Cloud-sized weapon) would probably be prioritized, at least until the first round is over.

IME clerics draw attention. In one case we fought a wizard, cleric, and barbarian. The wizard died instantly (it had failed to use effective defensive spells) while the barbarian dished out, and took, tons of damage. Then the cleric cast Heal on it. We killed the cleric and then basically killed the barbarian all over again. Clerics have a confusing spell list though, so it doesn't provoke all that much fear.

Rogues draw attention if they get a full-round sneak attack off. As a GM, I once had a barbarian turn around and kill (in one round) a PC rogue who had gotten off a full-round flank sneak attack on the barbarian. IME, however, rogues don't draw that much attention because they're not all that effective. They can deal damage, but it's not a good idea to get off a full-round attack if you cannot kill the target in that one round.

Wizards usually draw the most attention. They're squishy, look soft, and cash battlefield-altering spells and single-target save-or-suck spells. (Or better yet, area-of-effect save-or-suck spells such as Confusion or Fear.) Wizards also have the most baffling defensive spells, ranging from ineffective (Flame Shield) to very effective (Mirror Image) to overpowered (Greater Invisibility).

Fighters tend not to draw that much attention, unless one is in your wizard's face or just got off a devastating full-round Power Attack. If the fighter is using a particularly effective build (Improved Trip and Vicious Stomp, perhaps) then they become a target.

NPCs gain info on PCs from how they present themselves. The wizard does not have to dress in robes. However, it's usually pretty obvious if you're facing a cleric (prominent holy symbol), fighter (typically heavy armor), or rogue (typically skulking around with a small weapon). A wizard typically does not carry a large weapon, and they become an obvious target as soon as they start casting their first spell.

rorek55 wrote:

You say tanking is a silly MMO concept, yet use the term "threat", which is a key concept of MMO tanking. (Or was, most games make it laughably easy for tanks to keep threat, or, aggro these days). And speak of identifying abilities as if they were skills from a video game.

Thanks everyone for your responses and thoughts.

Aggro & threat in some video games can be altered directly by abilities rather than by being the most dangerous thing around, or even reasonably seeming to be that. That's a significant difference to a tabletop game I think.

Most enemies don't have genius-level tactics, but swarming the guy who jumps into the middle of them, or attacking the person with incomprehensible magic is a basic reaction. Some really dumb ones will attack whoever attacked them last, or whoever did 'significant' damage last. Most smarter ones though will have a battle plan. Which will likely not survive contact with the PCs.

At later levels I do expect many enemies to have heard a bit about the PCs and to act accordingly.

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I'd like to give a few scenarios that I enjoyed running and my players said made monsters feel more realistic. Players that deal more damage do get the bigger threat level, and criticals will suddenly change that, but everything reacts differently.

-Goblins are dumb and stupid, not mindless but might as well be close. They waste their turn on non optimal things. They'll spend a move action laughing at their buddy that got caught in a grease trap with feathers instead of doing a full attack. They will respond to power and will attempt to fight the biggest longshank just to prove a point (the Dwarf in armor and gnome sorcerer got ignored)

-Basic animals fought on instinct. They didn't waste turns like the goblins but generally attack those (within reach) who attacked them last. They try and use pack tactics and know how to focus on a single target when needed, but are prone to distraction with Thunderstones and blinding light spells. Animals also know when to retreat and often players have a hard time kill an entire pack, but they aren't really meant to.

-Elementals have almost normal intelligence, they know battle tactics, opposing elements, and how to use their element. A water elemental generally wont chase the party outside of a flooded room into a dry room, but may spend that time try to flood other rooms to chase. They know how to hide from the party. Elementals also know who the magic users are(at least after the first turn) and how to get them.

-Robots were programmed by someone smart to do something. They don't have any problems doing something seemingly mindless because they don't have life. Endlessly chasing the caster despite being destroyed by the martials might be what it is programmed to do. They also might be programmed to tract threats and switch as needed.Robots or constructs would be able to do whatever you want, but you should write it down so you don't forget.

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