DMing Tips: Managing “Aggro”

Spreading damage around so that the players can survive the encounter while still having the monsters behave in an intelligent and logical way is an important part of running a combat encounter. So how do you determine who gets attacked by the monster and who gets a free pass this round?

The Warrior: Characterized by strong defenses gained by wearing lots of armor the warrior is an imposing figure on the field and will likely draw a lot of attention. Unless the monsters have a chance to evaluate the PCs before engaging them in battle they will likely rush the warrior or rush whomever is furthest away as they seek to avoid the intimidating warrior.

The Expert: Characterized by light armor and moderate combat skills the expert is a capable combatant and due to high dexterity may be harder to hit than a warrior. These guys look easy to take down and often carry smaller weapons than warriors so their perceived threat level is reduced. Cowardly creatures will go after them first while more valorous foes will save them for last.

The Mage: Characterized by low armor class and powerful ranged spells the mage is very dangerous to opponents and is a rather inviting target. Most creatures will seek to take mages out first before working on the meatier combatants, though not all mages are obviously mages at the start of combat and may be overlooked by enemies when doing threat assessment.

So here we have the three types of characters and how enemies will look at them in terms of threat assessment, now lets look at enemies and see how they respond to each assessment.

Unintelligent: Oozes, undead, etc. don’t really bother with the threat assessment step and simply attack whomever happens to be closest. They also are unlikely to change targets unless their current target is dropped and may continue to attack until the target is dead.

Animals: Non-predatory species will fight to get away or if their young are threatened while predatory species will seek to grab someone weak, likely a mage or expert and then retreat. If it appears that a target is more trouble than they are worth the predator will likely disengage and seek to stalk and attack later or just give up altogether.

Smaller than you: Creatures such as goblins and kobolds like to avoid a fair fight and will likely not engage a warrior 1-on-1 so they will avoid warriors unless they have good odds and can work some flanking bonuses. Being that they have few hit-dice and several may fall prey to a single casting of sleep so casters are probably the most dangerous to them they will have much to gain from focusing on mages. If they are flanked or attacked by more than one enemy they are likely to change targets or flee.

Equal size: Orcs, other standard races, gnolls, etc. also benefit from avoiding fair fights though they can go toe to to with a warrior and the leader of a group may relish in doing so. They are likely to attack whomever attacked them last and may focus on taking down a warrior before working on the softer party members.

Bigger than you: Ogres, trolls, etc. use brute force to smash through their foes and are often outnumbered by those that they attack. It makes sense then, that they might swing wildly at all who are near spreading the damage around the party, a smart creature though will be more systematic and focus on dropping players one at a time. They may take special delight in attacking small players due to the ease with which they can be grappled or otherwise controlled.

Really it does just boil down to a random choice by the DM. It helps to be somewhat systematic and play your pieces in a logical manner to make the world more real to your players. You could always just assign each player a number or range and then roll the appropriate die attacking whomever the dice decide on.

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~ by katallos on December 21, 2009.

3 Responses to “DMing Tips: Managing “Aggro””

  1. In general a well done article. However, I think that the point of the “realism” is to have the monsters play to win.

    I generally don’t like myself to play in games where the damage is spread around to help us win.

    Now some creatures aren’t very smart and others are just too smart. So they make choices that they think are rational but end up to their disadvantage. Like get the squishy guy in the robes who turns out to be a Sword Mage.

    I am pretty religious about designing the tactics for the monsters into the fight. In fact if you switch tactics around it’ll keep your players guessing as to what will come next. I love doing this.
    I suggest that you don’t spread the damage around unless that is the tactic like with a poison attack or bleed attack because as you have indicated it runs the risk of looking fake. But IMO it also removes the real threat of the encounter and for me personally a lot of the fun.
    The players should have an active part in figuring out how to keep from death. If you think the players lack some skills in this arena I would suggest a bit of training. We ran 3 sessions of mock encounters at the start my campaign to help people learn how to survive and how the mechanics work.
    Of course I say all of this with the one simple rule in mind. The game should always be fun. I know for my players if I spread the damage out they’d be disappointed. But I know other players would love it all the more.

  2. I guess the real point of my post was to say that different monsters have different tactics and that you shouldn’t focus fire on the same character in every fight. During a single encounter damage will most likely be concentrated, but over a whole campaign there should be a more even distribution so that one player doesn’t feel singled out as if the DM is trying to kill them.

  3. Ah, I agree totally. I think its very important for the DM to run monsters in a consistent way. In doing so the players can learn to be better and better. If the monster’s act randomly and don’t follow some logic in their tactics it makes it hard to develop a winning strategy.

    Your explanation of the tactics is great.

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