What Do I Know About Reviews? The Monsters Know What They’re Doing (D&D 5e)
I love to read game master advice books. As much as I like games and game supplements, I also really enjoy the discussion of games in process and practice. I’m also really interested whenever I see a book about roleplaying games getting into mass distribution in locations like Target or Barnes and Noble.
The book in question this time around is The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, a collection based on blog entries by Keith Ammann, analyzing monster tactics and behaviors in Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition.
This review is based on the physical copy of the book, and the audiobook, which I picked up. I’m not going to segway too much into the audiobook itself, because I haven’t had much time to develop specific commentaries on audiobooks, but I wanted to make sure that I mentioned it. As part of the process of taking notes for this review, I began reading the physical book, but also listened to the audiobook once it became available.
The book itself is a hardcover book with a form factor for mass-market release. This means that it has a dust jacket with artwork and interior “about the author” sections, as well as the standard back cover quotes.
The book is 544 pages, with a five-page index. The dust jacket features full color artwork, and the interior has several black and white illustrations, as well as scrollwork art for the sidebar in each chapter.
The first section of the book describes the author’s experiences with roleplaying games, as well as the history of his return to D&D via the 5thedition rules, the development of the blog, and thus the origin of this work.
Why These Tactics/What Monsters Want
The next section of the book outlines how the author is approaching his analysis of monsters. He gives broad overviews of what drives general categories of monsters without spending too much time on the subcategories of each type. He also discusses how the ability scores assigned to a monster help to determine the kind of tactics that a monster will use in a fight, for example, describing how a creature with a higher dexterity will prefer mobility and ranged attacks, versus a creature with a higher constitution that can take more damage face to face.
This section outlines some overall assumptions on the primacy of favored attacks. This delves into topics like using attacks that force a save over one that might do slightly more damage, or the drive to look for opportunities that grant advantage on attacks. There is also where I started to have a slightly divergent view of some of the overall assumptions in the book.
Assumptions about physical traits are hard to refute. If you have a numerical bonus to hit with a certain attack, or more hit points because of a constitution bonus, that is a true thing expressed in the rules. Where I started to diverge from some of these assumptions comes with mental stats. Specifically, the author’s assumption on intelligence is that anything with an intelligence of 7 or less is operating almost entirely on instinct, rather that reasoned tactics.
This will come up a lot later, as individual monsters are examined, but beyond providing bonuses or penalties at various ratings, and associating specific skills with various ability scores, unlike previous editions, D&D 5e doesn’t make any statements about what intelligence means regarding sapience or the deeper ramifications of exactly what it means to have a given intelligence score. In fact, the continued discussion of intelligence as an ability score in this book prompted me to reread what 5e says about intelligence, which isn’t actually all that much, outside of assigning intelligence scores to various creatures (which is part of the extrapolations made by this book).
On the other hand, the merits of forcing saves, being aware of characters affected by abilities, and the importance and means of gaining advantage or forcing disadvantage are something definitely worth exploring.
The next section of this book delves into individual monster categories, and various monsters in those categories, in much greater depth, and it takes up the vast majority of this book. The sections that follow in the book are the following:
- Oozes and Plants
This is a huge book, and it spends a lot of time going into the cross section of creature tactics, assumptions based on game rules, and how those assumptions interact with the information given in the individual monster entries. In general, there are a lot of really interesting discussions of what it means to have some of these creatures, with the abilities they have, existing in a game world.
There are a few places where I’m not sure I’m entirely sold on the rationale behind the assumptions assigned. For example, in several places, creatures that have higher intelligence are cited as being able to use that intelligence to accurately assume the ability scores of characters, and for it to be common knowledge for slightly less intelligent, but not low intelligence, monsters to determine what classes would have what ability scores arranged where.
There are also several places where very specific calculations are done to determine the exact percentage of probability for the effectiveness of multiple tasks, and while the author doesn’t assume that a highly intelligent monster will literally know that percentage, he does assume that they will understand the relative likelihood of percentages concerning other options.
There are also several places where the author assumes or suggests optional rules or house rules to adjudicate situations, such as disarming opponents, or providing for flanking rules where they would be advantageous to a specific monster.
I think the sections that were the most consistently entertaining for me were any of the tactical analysis that involved spells that a creature could use. For creatures that had several spell slots, emulating traditional casters, there were several really nicely argued points about which slots would be the most advantageous to use with which spells, and why a caster would have various spells in the first place. There were also some very cogent points about when to use spells that provide a bonus action, to increase the efficiency of the casting monster’s actions. For creatures that have a limited number of spells that don’t rely on spell slots, the best point at which to release those abilities is analyzed.
While it seems like a fairly simple thing, I also really liked that many monster entries included discussion of when that creature would risk an opportunity attack, based on its armor, mobility, sturdiness, and general demeanor. I will admit that I almost reflexively avoid triggering opportunity attacks, but sometimes it is well worth the risk to reposition an enemy to set up a better avenue for an encounter.
While most of the tactics can be used only assuming the non-optional rules in D&D 5e, there are several creatures where the analysis leans heavily on optional rules. There are also several places where the author assumes or suggests optional rules or house rules to adjudicate situations, such as disarming opponents, or providing for flanking rules where they would be advantageous to a specific monster. In some situations, there is a discussion of facing, which is probably one of the most granular optional rules you could implement in 5e.
There are a few places where I disagree with some of the tactical logic. For example, goblins are cited as using ranged and hit and run tactics, but in the hobgoblin entry, hobgoblins are cited as forcing goblins to fight on the front lines so they don’t waste their own troops. But if hobgoblins are good tacticians, why waste goblins doing something they aren’t good at, just to prove how evil they are by wasting resources? Gnolls are mentioned as being good at melee, and their longbows are cited as a bad option for them, but if they want to kill something at range, even if they are better at melee, why is using a bow a bad option? For the most part, the tactics are very sound and well reasons, I just had a few places where I wondered about how evenly the thought process was being applied, versus playing to biases.
I mentioned earlier in this review that D&D 5e doesn’t actually set a threshold for what is considered sapient in this edition of the game. In older editions, an intelligence of 1-2 was reserved for lower-order animals, with 3-4 being used for high intelligence animals, and if you look up individual animals, for the most part, this holds true with 5e as well.
Where is breaks down is with creatures like apes, which are given an intelligence of 6, and ogres, which are given an intelligence of 5.
When making his case for what monsters fall where in the sapience scale, the author relies on the baseline of apes a lot. To use ogres for an example, they get referred to as barely sentient humanoid-shaped animals. This is even though they have both giant and common listed as languages in their entry. Yes, the description mentions that they don’t communicate in a sophisticated manner in either language, but they do have languages that they can employ.
Additionally, comments about gear in this book will sometimes default to commentary about intelligence. For example, the author wonders what gnoll gear would look like, because they can’t be smart enough to make longbows themselves, and their glaives must just be swords strapped to long sticks.
Where this is interesting to me is that I think some of this analysis is at odds with multiple things we know about D&D 5e’s assumptions. In older editions, an ability score was “set” unless magically altered or damaged and reduced. But in more recent editions, ability scores are one among many traits that a character can advance when they gain more experience. I’m going to jump into the assumption pool myself, since Dungeons and Dragons doesn’t make this explicit, and extrapolate from this situation. Someone with a low intelligence isn’t someone that cannot have a higher intelligence, it is someone that, at the point to where they have their stats assigned, have not put effort into developing their mental stats.
That means that gnolls, goblins, ogres, etc. aren’t locked into only having their listed intelligence. It’s not a biologically limited statistic (ick). It is that the version of the monsters presented with that stat block has not developed their mental stats because of their position in their societies. If you made a kobold alchemist, or a frost giant diplomat stat block, they would likely have much higher intelligence than the base monster stat block, because of what that stat block represents in a society.
That means that a gnoll armorer could be a pretty smart person, able to make all kinds of weapons for the tribe.
Because I want to be intellectually honest, I want to cite one place where D&D 5e has gone against this “your stats are where you put your effort” assumption, and that’s with the very major mistake they made in assigning orcs an intelligence penalty in Volo’s Guide to Monsters.
Honestly, for the number of times it gets referenced, I think the ape would have been better seen as an outlier compared to other animals, instead of a baseline to which other creatures were compared.
Shadows of the Past
There is enough text that reminds me of some of the less welcome terminologies of D&D of ages past that I wanted to take some time and mention it. Whenever tactics involve putting innocents in danger, there is a lot of defaulting to discussions of “women and children.” In several places, a discussion of weapons or tactics would digress into commentary on the historical accuracy of what a weapon does, how medieval society would have been set up, or how tribal structures work versus chiefdoms. When discussing the traits of lizardfolk society, “south seas cannibals” are mentioned.
It’s kind of a greatest hits of things I think D&D has had in it for a long time, and is struggling to move beyond. There isn’t a lot of offensive referencing of gender roles, but there is some default assumption that taking women hostage in a village is “worse” than some other tactic. Discussions of what a given historian may assume to be true almost always devolve into a level of simulationism that D&D occasionally alludes to, but has never been able to pay off. Discussions of humanoid species being degenerate or having almost wholly negative traits come up in multiple places, but the only place where real-world tribal structures are cited for accuracy involve the NPC stat blocks, not those of orcs or gnolls, where is perfectly alright to assume a widespread lack of intelligence and monolithic cultural beliefs.
None of this is unique to this text, but it is something that has been in Dungeons and Dragons for too long, without being challenged in this text. While I don’t expect too deep a dive into challenging baseline D&D’s intrinsic flaws, it is interesting that the book does do this, but not universally, and not in some of D&D weakest areas.
For a lot of the creatures in this book, I loved the conjecture about what their mindset would be in a fight. Not just literal tactics, but the process of viewing an encounter from their point of view. This is especially true for creatures like dragons, undead, aberrations, fiends, and the other wholly fantastical creatures in Dungeons and Dragons. I enjoyed the analysis of when and where the optimal use of spells, spell slots, and limited resource powers would come into play.
Some of the unexamined assumptions about humanoids in Dungeons and Dragons brought up issues where the game still has a long way to go to avoid harmful stereotypes. It’s not something the author created, but it’s not challenged in the text. Additionally, the discussion of intelligence and the comparison of sapience levels started to feel very uncomfortable to me, especially when discussion a culture and the potential of a creature for higher reasoning when compared to a vaguely defined game statistic. The general discussion of tactics and primacy of spells and abilities was engaging and fun, but the deeper number-crunching sometimes reminded me of the arms races of optimal tactics that were needed to make 3rd edition challenge ratings feel accurate.
Tenuous Recommendation–The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.
There were many parts of this book where I enjoyed immersing myself in a deep dive into individual monsters, especially monsters that may not always get the spotlight in official D&D products. It was very interesting to see the deep analysis comparing the statements in a monster’s entry to the game expression of that monster via its stat block.
That said, I can’t give this a wider recommendation than I have for several reasons. The stated goal of the book is to increase a DM’s knowledge of tactical play, so while the tactics are discussed, a useful summary, like a flowchart for expected tactics, doesn’t appear in any of the entries. I suspect part of this is because the product isn’t just interested in making monsters more tactically interesting, but because it assumes DMs that want more tactically interesting monsters should be internalizing natural tactical play more. That means that for someone that wants better tactics summarized, instead of discussing, this will be slightly less useful than it seems on its face.
I also think that for all of the deep analysis of tactics, the unexamined statements of fact that some monsters are evil, and some are stupid, and that’s that, will be a bit of a turnoff for readers that may want a deeper delve into a creature’s psychology.