DM Advice: Monsters want to live, too [Monsters: Part I]
Updated: Jul 25
Most creatures in D&D possess survival instincts and they want to live. This isn't intuitive to everyone, which is why it's worth talking about. Monsters and hostile NPCs conveniently come into play when the party needs an encounter. Yet, their role in this organic, imagined world is not to stand idly in a group waiting for the player characters (PCs) to show up and stab, bludgeon, or fireball them to death.
Behind the scenes, it can be assumed that wolves are hunting, napping, protecting their young, and living out their canine lives as wild canines do. Meanwhile, the local goblin tribe may be running amok at night, pillaging small villages, holding up lone travelers on the road, in-fighting in their cavern lairs, and generally quietly existing in the background doing evil goblin things. When the party rolls up to do their adventuring thing, they may come in direct conflict with these beasts or goblinoids and all they see is a pack of snarling wolves or a band of small chaos mongers wreaking havoc. A problem to be solved, often with lethal force as the default solution. Those goblins don't want to die and those wolves have an instinct to survive.
Not every encounter should be a bloody battle to the death and not every creature is going to stick around to die.
This is a multipart series, starting with the monster's will to live and ways to interpret this as a DM.
In Dungeons and Dragons 5e, monster stat blocks give just enough high-level information to deduce how a creature might behave. Here is what to look for at a glance:
Creature Type: Aberration, Beast, Dragon, etc
Alignment: Neutral, Lawful Evil, etc
Creature Type conveys a general idea of what to expect. Most beasts have natural instincts but don't think critically. Most undead are brainless shambling corpses or phantoms with no regard for their own safety. Most dragons are highly intelligent and cunning, more so than the average humanoid. Speaking of, humanoids are varied but generally have the capacity for higher thinking and intuitively want to survive.
Alignment can help indicate if, when, and how a creature may choose to engage in violence or a dangerous situation. A neutral beast won't be inclined to harass a well-equipped party of adventurers unless the beast is threatened or starving. While a chaotic evil demon may need exactly zero logical reasons to attack an adventuring group, regardless of its odds of survival. A chaotic neutral NPC human may want to attack the party over an argument, but also may value their life more than they desire to instigate further conflict. Finally, a lawful good fighter may intervene in a hostile situation if doing so aligns with their moral code or sense of good.
Intelligence measures mental acuity, accuracy of recall, and the ability to reason (PHB, pg. 177). When perusing a stat block we can use Intelligence to determine just how sensible, tricky, and thoughtful the monster or NPC is. Take a look at the Archmage, a spellcaster from the Basic Rules. Their Intelligence score is a whopping 20. This creature is brilliant, calculating, cunning, and will treat an encounter like a chess match. At no point should an Archmage resort to standing in place casting firebolt until they die. The humble Wolf, however, has a piddly Intelligence of 3, which puts them at a -4 modifier. Yet, the Wolf's Wisdom of 12 is higher than the average Commoner.
Wisdom reflects how attuned you are to the world around you and represents perceptiveness and intuition (PHB. pg 178). A creature with average or high Wisdom can be sensible, even if their Intelligence is below average. Wisdom is that intuition and instinct and it feeds into the Survival ability check. A fighter with average Intelligence may not be a tactician or commander, but their high Wisdom may lend to a naturally efficient way of fighting. They protect their weak points, take cover, exploit openings in their foes, and know when to retreat. Rarely do animals or humans fight to the death if there is a means to escape or deescalate the situation.
There are some exceptions, of course:
A fanatic cultist may die for their cause
A spy may ingest poison before giving up their secrets
A rabid animal may have lost its sensibilities
A parent protecting children may sacrifice themselves, even if escape is possible
A soldier, or trained mercenary, may follow orders until their dying breath
The Orc is a strong example and often makes for standard adventure fodder (but can be so much more).
The combination of chaotic evil alignment, low intelligence, average wisdom, and innate inclination toward violence (see Aggressive feature) make the Orc a great candidate for a good old fashioned battle to the death. The Dungeon Master can use this assumption as a baseline for the Orc's behavior and adjust it as desired. While Orcs may be capable of fighting to the death, it doesn't mean they always will or should. For the Orc, and many other creatures in 5th edition, there is a fantastic blog (and book!) called The Monsters Know What They're Doing by Keith Ammann. It's chock full of interesting ways to interpret stats and creature behavior. There's something for everyone in there, even for the veteran Dungeon Master.
It is up to the DM to parse a stat block, assess a creature's individual personality, and infer if they're willing to be mowed down by the ruthless adventurers. This takes practice and an understanding of the underlying framework. Learning to identify patterns is a valuable skill to build-up when running a world teeming with diverse life! In the next entry, I'll delve into the opposite side of this coin: how the player characters regard other creatures.