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The Monsters Know what they're doing, by Keith Ammann (Review)

Combat is a big part of Dungeons and Dragons - and yet, it's really easy to make it suck. You've probably run or played a session like that - where your party of 5 just take it in turns to pile in on one big monster who just stands there and takes it. Where there's no real change to the combat scenario between rounds, and there doesn't feel like there's much peril or much at stake for your players. Sound familiar?

I'm a big fan of trying to improve combat sessions, by making them dynamic, and varied; by having your players make difficult choices, and by having things at stake. If this sounds like the kind of combat that you want to run, then maybe you should check out The Monsters Know What They're Doing by Keith Ammann(*).

*N.B. The Amazon links on this page (marked with an *) are affiliate links. This doesn't cost you any extra, but I make a small commission from any sales - which helps support the site :)

It's a compendium of loads of different monsters and enemies that your players might encounter, with detailed descriptions of the combat tactics that each might employ when fighting. By reading up ahead of time how the monsters are likely to act in battle, it becomes far easier to make varied, interesting, and dynamic combat encounters that your players will love.


This book basically has two short sections explaining the rationale behind why certain monsters might act in certain ways (is the creature intelligent, dextrous, strong? do they live in groups or alone? what special abilities have they developed that give them advantages in certain combat scenarios?) and what exactly they are fighting for (are they defending territory, hunting for food, serving a master, following a religious cause etc?). These sections are short (only 12 pages in total) but give a good grounding for what follows. The rest of the book (over 500 pages) breaks down the specific combat tactics that all manner of different opponents might choose to employ, and why.

How to use this book

Obviously, 500 pages of specific tactics and differing abilities is far too much to just read in a few sittings and have memorised and ready to pull out on the fly. That's not how I use this book. Instead, if I know that I have an encounter coming up with a particular enemy, I will read that section beforehand when doing my prep, to get an idea of how they are likely to fight - which will give me some inspiration for how to design the combat encounter.

An example

Here's one example picked at random (and massively summarised) about Harpies. Harpies have no ranged weapons, but instead use their luring song to bring parties into melee distance. As such, when choosing the terrain for a fight, they may congregate around natural hazards that they can lure their prey onto. Indeed, harpies will often choose to live in these environments, as they provide more opportunities for feeding.

After they lure their prey into this natural hazard, they would likely try to swoop down and multi-attack the target - trying to finish it off in a single turn. If it is unsuccessful, and its prey appears more dangerous than first anticipated, the harpy may also try to flee, rather than get embroiled in a fight to the death.


The great thing about taking time to consider how a foe chooses to fight is that it also gives you ideas as to where the fight is likely to take place. An ambush predator is unlikely to pick somewhere without a place to hide, a creature that has dark-vision is unlikely to attack by daylight etc. With the harpy example then, they are more likely to be found by rocky shores, tall cliffs, or fast running rivers that they could lure their prey into.

These ideas can offer sparks of inspiration for how to make the combat session more vibrant and changing. Suddenly a party might need to make a choice as to whether they want to keep attacking the harpy, or save their companion who is either clinging to the cliff edge at risk of falling, or is being swept away by a strong river. Or maybe they want to try and find some sort of cover to neutralise the harpy's advantage of swooping down from height. You get the idea.

Whatever ideas this sparks for you when planning your encounter, chances are that they will make your combat sessions more fun for both your and your players. And with detailed descriptions for around 150 monsters written out, this should be a source of inspiration for many years to come.

Do you need this book?

Can you run fun, interesting, and dynamic combat encounters without this book? Yes, absolutely. I certainly don't refer to it before each and every combat session I run. But if I'm in need of inspiration, or just want to run something a little bit different, then this book can be a goldmine.

It's easy to dip in and out of as and when you need it, and can be a fun tool to use when you're trying to come up with a plan for a combat session to leave your players breathless. Given that it's a tool that you can refer back to for years and years, I also think that its price (currently around $20/£15 on Amazon(*)) is pretty good. So there you go, check it out and see what you think.


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