Roleplaying in combat is an important part of a D&D game. When a combat encounter begins there’s a temptation for the roleplaying to end and for a tactical combat game to begin, but may a suggest roleplaying in combat? Sometimes it’s fine for a fight to just be a fight. Players like combat in Dungeons and Dragons, and sometimes a fight can must be a fight. However, too many contextless battles can just start to feel like a chore.
When I need help figuring out how a creature would behave, of the first places I look to is the creature type. The creature’s type strongly dictates what type of behavior is typical of the monster. The 5e Monster Manual contains a brief description of these types.
Aberrations are creature from other realms of existence that are very alien to the nature of the prime material plane. As such, their actions may be very unpredictable in our world. More intelligent aberrations would act to preserve their lives. Simpler aberrations may just flee outright or may be exceedingly aggressive.
These creatures are suggestive of eldritch horror, invoking fears like contamination and madness. Playing into that trope result in placing a higher value in and out of combat on violating character autonomy, both physical and mental. Aberrations have their own logic, but that logic bends towards corruption over outright harm. They may be more interested in subduing PCs than they are in killing them outright.
This is especially true for aberrations like mind flayers and Beholders. Unless they’re actively looking for a brain to snack on right at the moment, they would rather keep humanoids alive for conversion into mind flayers, or to keep their brains fresh for later consumption. A beholder would likely want to keep the PCs around to serve it and admire its immense power and intellect.
Beasts are mundane animals. They are comparatively less dangerous than almost any other creature type. These creatures would be motivated to engage in combat by biological necessity. They fight to eat, protect their young and defend their territory. Beasts are not likely to fight to the death. They might not even continue combat after significant harm has been done to them, even if they are very hungry and the PCs seem tasty to them.
If you need beasts to fight to the death, there should be a reason. They may suffer from a disease (e.g. fantasy rabies) that removes their inclination to flee. Maybe they have been called by the spirit of the forest to protect it. Beasts fighting to the death should be an indication that something is unusual in the about the situation or the world. Player should be left with the question, “Why did this happen?”
As long-lived beings of the heavens, celestials should be unintested in throwing their lives away on combat with mortals. They have a heavenly realm to return to, and dying in meatspace can’t be justified under most circumstances.
If they do choose to fight to the last, they should have a good reason that is relevant to the players, just as beasts do. They are typically lawful beings, and so will follow orders. If the celestial has been ordered to stop the PCs at all cost by a god, that would do it. Another option would be that the PCs are threatening the heavens, or the order of the universe with their actions. Finally, if death just means that they’ll be returned to the heavens, they may be willing to go a little further. They will want to avoid outright loss; being defeated by mortals can’t be great for their egos.
Killing a servant of heaven is a consequential thing. According to the DMG, creatures souls travel through the astral plane and into the presence of their god. Even if players don’t ever experience direct consequences, they should fear them. The gods don’t take these slights well, and retaliation is always an option.
Constructs are one of the more flexible creature types with respect to behavior in combat. As the executors of their creator’s will, they are unlikely to consider their own safety when it comes to combat. Perhaps their creator doesn’t care if the construct is destroyed or hasn’t instructed the construct to keep itself in one piece. Additionally, most constructs have very low intelligence scores. They may exhibit complex behaviors based on their orders, but don’t have any understanding of what they do. PCs may be able to exploit this lack of understanding.
The Modrons are a special subdivision of constructs. They are creation of the machine god Primus, and serve his will alone. Primus is the embodiment of lawful neutral, committed to maintain order in the multiverse. The Modrons are his servants in those efforts. They can be expected commit both good and evil acts in service of maintain a lawful balance in the universe. This would at times make their actions inscrutable to mortals.
Regardless of which construct we are talking about. the constructs motivation is important to story. It could provide insight into the BBEG’s plans, or insights into old magics the party may be able to harness for their own purposes.
With a few exceptions (I’m looking at you, white dragons) dragons are highly intelligent. Their long lives give them a great deal of experience to draw and, and a strong sense of self-preservation. Time is on their side, and so they take the long view. They are likely to flee from a battle they cannot win and live to fight another day. This is especially true if they are not in their lairs.
That said, playing into a dragon’s nature is a good way to give them a reason to stand and fight. Good dragons may be compelled to fight to the death to save the lives of others. Evil dragons may do so for pride. Gem dragons, creatures of the Feywild may have more exotic motivations.
Elementals can be divided into two categories. Some are simple creatures made of animate elemental energy. These are often bound to our plane by wizards or druids. In some ways, they may behave similarly to constructs, carrying out the orders they have been given. Uncontrolled elementals are likely to behave wildly, with little concern for their well-being.
Other elementals are intelligent creatures, such as djinn and genasi are intelligent, and can be expected to exhibit self-preservation and the ability to engage in tactical combat. They should, I think, maintain some of the wildness of their simpler, force of nature siblings.
Generally speaking, fey creatures are chaotic. One interpretation of this alignment that they value the wellbeing of the individual ahead of the wellbeing of the society or group. As a result, Fey are likely to put self-preservation above most other concerns. This is true even if they are acting on orders from an archfey. If fey creatures are willing to fight to the death, your players well be well served figuring out why. Likely some strange and serious business is afoot.
Most fiends are returned to the hells or the abyss they cam from when they die. Indeed, the only way to kill many of them is to do so on their home plane. That said, they probably got out of their home plane for a reason, and their preference is probably not to return. Once you send them home though, they are not likely to forget your. The more of them you defeat, the more enemies you have clawing themselves out of hell for payback.’
This lack of concern for their well-being flips to intense self-preservation when the fiend is on its home plane. This is the only place they have an actual fear of death. They are much more likely to be craven or cowardly in their homes. They bargain, beg, whine and run.
Size excluded; Giants are a lot like other peoples. They will make rational decisions about when and how to fight and will act with a sense of self-preservation. Giants are typically tied to the natural elements in some way and should also exhibit that element in their natures in the same way that elementals do.
Ogres, Trolls and Hill Giants are different though. Trolls regenerate and so may be more likely fight to the death and beyond. A troll that hasn’t ever been exposed to fire may not even know that it can be killed. Similarly, being burned and seeing itself not heal for the first time would be a tremendous blow to the troll. It may rage and continue to fight, but it seems equally likely that it would run in terror.
Ogre and Hill giants are big and dumb, and so maybe more prone to fight recklessly anger, or to run in fear. Making them act like hurt and scared children at the end of a fight is a good way to play on your players’ sympathy. Will they spare this simple but hulking brute? If they do, will they regret their choice later?
You can generally assume that most humanoids are like the humans you know. They can be given a wide range of motivations that will justify everything from craven cowardice to willing self-sacrifice. They are mortal, and so should probably not fight to the death without good reason. Any good reason is probably worth something to the players.
According to the Monster Manual, monstrosities are almost never good. I would generally assume that they are engines of destruction that will put causing harm above self-preservation. That said, it can be good to play a creature against type. A kind-hearted owl bear will throw your player a loop, and probably get adopted as a pet.
With the exception of plasmoids and oblex, ooze are pretty dumb. They would behave like lower-intelligence beasts. The exception to this is that many of them split when they take slashing damage. I would assume that one part would flee while the rest stand and fight to the death to ensure the survival of the runaway piece of goo.
Most plants are pretty dumb, but I’d also treat them as alien minds. Some are like simple beasts, but others are just responding to a stimulus. They aren’t smart or wise enough to protect their own lives. They may not be smart or fast enough to give chase either. In this way, continuing combat with them is on the player. They can choose to plow through them, swords flashing and spells blazing, or they can
The simpler undead, like skeletons and zombies don’t care if they live die again; maybe they’d even prefer it. They’ll fight until they can’t. If they were created by a necromancer, they may be bound to their maker’s will, and thus contain relevant information for the adventurers.
Undead may also be revenants, beings who came to undeath out of a need to take care of unfinished business, regrets, or curses. These again serve as a resource for the party. The may unburden themselves by expositing to the players during combat.
The smarter ones, like liches, will do anything to keep from being deader than they already are.
I’ll be back soon with more thoughts on roleplaying in combat. How about some nasty monsters to throw at your players in the meantime?