The Monsters Know What They’re Doing with Keith Ammann

Keith Amman, author of The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, shows us how to decode a monster’s game mechanics, and how culture creates monsters.

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Crunch in Game Design

Lucas: Hello and welcome to another bonus episode of Making a Monster, the show where game designers show us their favorite monster and we discover how it works, why it works, and what it means. Usually. I’m Lucas. This week, I want to talk about crunch. In game design, crunch is a measure of how much math is involved in playing the game.

Video games like Monster Hunter and Destiny have a lot of crunch, and they reward players who pay careful attention to the numbers. Narrative-focused games like Fate Core involve almost no crunch at all, favoring narrative mechanics instead. All these games have to “crunchatize” their monster – they have to code it into the mechanics of the game.

See, it’s one thing to tell me a spooky ghost story. It’s another thing to tell me how exactly the ghost damages me and how much damage I take. And all of these crunchatized monsters have created a demand for someone to decode daft blocks into plain language, tactics, and directions for game masters. And that’s someone is

Keith Ammann: Keith Ammann, author of the blog, The Monsters Know What They’re Doing,, and also the books The Monsters Know What They’re Doing: Combat Tactics for Dungeon Masters and Live to Tell the Tale: Combat Tactics for Player Characters. Mostly what I do is, analyzing, reverse engineering, other people’s creations.

Lucas: Is there one of your entries that you feel is your most popular or best represents the work that you do?

Keith Ammann: Oh, I can absolutely tell you which one is the most popular it’s hags, runaway number one.  Second place is not even close.

Lucas: What’s second place?

Keith Ammann: I can check real quick. Uh, so after hags, with 116,000 all-time views, number two is beholder tactics with almost 70,000 views; followed by dragon tactics with 67,000; and Mind Flayers with 64,000 and vampires with 61 and a half.

Lucas: I think what you might have done, hags excepted, is reverse-engineered a popularity ranking for D&D monsters.

Keith Ammann: I think you’re probably right.  To an extent,  let’s see. So after vampires then comes goblins, liches, aboleths then ooblexes,, which surprises me a little bit; then skeletons, zombies and shadows; giants, orcs, nothics. I think nothic is up there because of people running, Lost Mines of Phandelver and wondering what they should be doing with this thing.

Lucas: Right. Yeah. And that might be the same thing for the ooblex or Oblex?  They made that stat block available for free before Volos came out. So I think

Keith Ammann: Oh, okay. Okay. That would stand to reason.

Lucas: Why is it important that the monsters know what they’re doing?

Keith Ammann: Two reasons,  one intangible, one mechanical. The intangible reason is you want the game setting to feel alive. You want it to be immersive. And so you want to express the nature of the monsters that the PCs are going to encounter. You want them to feel like themselves because that is part of the draw of the entire role-playing experience.

The mechanical reason is that if you’re not using the monster’s abilities to their best effect, then you’re not actually achieving the challenge rating. As the designers calculated that challenge rating, you might be playing a CR seven monster as a CR four or CR five monster if you’re making suboptimal choices for it.

Now, there are reasons why you might want to play a monster below its CR. You might be playing it for comic value. You might be playing it for story value. But if the monster’s function is to be a combat opponent, then you need to get your full value out of it or the players won’t feel challenged and the combat won’t feel as satisfying as it ought to be.

I’m not a “kill your players” DM. I, I am a “scare your players” DM, but I’m not a “kill your players” DM. I’m fundamentally on their side. And I think every DM worth their salt ought to be on their player’s side. But you do want to give your players challenges that make them feel like they worked for their victories. So if you are, if you’re not playing your monsters as if they do know what they’re doing, then the experience is going to fall short.

D&D Parties are Close-quarter Combatants, not Fire Teams

Lucas: What are your bon mots in the field of medieval strategy and, historical tactics?

Keith Ammann: Um, not much. The analyses that I do on the blog come out of the stat block, not from tactics first. And, and part of that is that my background is not in military science. Most of the research that I have attempted to do into military science runs up against the fact that most available sources assume the use of firearms. Everything you read about small unit tactics these days is, what a fire team will do.

And D and D parties are not fire teams. They are close combatants. They are direct engagers.  So a lot of the analysis that I do is not so much rooted in historical military tactics, as it is in making the best use of the quote-unquote laws of combat as defined by the rules. But that being said, for my latest project, I am reading an army doctrine reference publication,  ADRP 390, on offense and defense, and I’m finding some real gems in there.

One of the ones I think I like best is that when you’re preparing for combat, when you’re trying to come up with a plan, you should spend the minimum amount of time necessary to ensure a reasonable chance of success.  Because the longer you delay, the more opportunity your opponent has to prepare as well. And I think that’s just for every party out there for whom the perfect has become the enemy of the good, this is a message that deserves to be heard. Don’t spend all your time trying to cover every possibility you are trying to manage risk, not eliminated. You can’t eliminate it. You can only thoughtfully minimize it.

Lucas: Surely in this case you would have heard the adage, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” We have all spent an entire session planning for combat instead of fighting and then have been disappointed. So I have to, I have to appreciate that advice as a player, as well as a tactician.

How to run a hag in D&D

Lucas: Let’s take it from the other direction then. I would love to talk about the hag in this instance, partly because there have been a couple of other hags on making a monster. And because I have this question myself, I would love to hear maybe one or two things. That a player should know if they’re going to run a hag.

Keith Ammann: So this is going to be kind of hilarious. A lot of these questions I can’t answer off the top of my head because part of my reason for creating the blog was to create a reference for myself to go back to so that I didn’t have to memorize everything. Um, I can, I can tell you a lot more or about the monsters that I have actually run than the ones that I’ve thought about, but have not run and hags largely fall into that latter category.

One thing to remember about hags is that they are not team players by nature. If you are fighting a hag coven, and one of the hags is a focused down, they’re going to cut and run. The tenuous relationship that held the coven together is going to collapse and they’re going to turn on each other.

And that is not an optimal way for the hags to act, but it’s consistent with their nature. And so that’s what I have them do. The other thing, however, is that when they are working together as a coven, the synergy they get in the form of their coven spells is very, very powerful.

Lucas: Are there two that you would be able to point out as like, the one, two punch of the hag coven?

Keith Ammann: I’d say probably eyebite and bestow curse or hold person and anything because paralysis is so extremely powerful in 5E. I call it the demon king of the debilitating conditions.  Bestow curse and eyebite are not so much a combination, but they are two of the most powerful things that the hag coven can do because  they offer options that let you hit player characters where they’re strong.  If the target has extra attack, they can  make them waste their actions, which is particularly devastating to a character with extra attack, because they are relying on being able to attack more than once to be effective. They don’t have other abilities that they would lean on instead they are leaning on their weapon attacks. And so taking away their action just undoes them.

Monsters as a product of their culture

Lucas: You talk a lot about monsters as a product of their environments or,  their ecology, I think  and I wonder if there are any similarities between this, and a monsters, cultural or historic environment as a story?

Keith Ammann: Oh, absolutely. I think that Venn diagram is a circle. Um, if you have a creature with a sophisticated enough society, that society is going to have its effect on the stat block. Take orcs, for example. Orcs, as “statted out” in five E, are very specifically followers of Grumsh and the Orcish Pantheon. That holds conquest and physical valor as the central virtue.

So if you’re going to create orcs with a different culture, they are necessarily going to have different special abilities from the ones who are “Grumshians”.  Other things are definitely going to vary  and be more reflective of the kind of culture that these alternative orcs come from.

You talked about how some monsters have, have changed from edition to edition or how they’ve been coated has changed. Goblins have changed profoundly. Fifth edition goblins are slippery, hit and run attackers, but AD&D goblins.

I just, out of curiosity, I went back and looked to see how were goblins defined in AD&D what were their distinctive abilities? Because when I was first playing AD&D, and granted I was only a teenager at the time, but it seemed that there was very little to differentiate different humanoid races. Five E in contrast does a very good job of defining the different humanoid species in contrast to one another, at least if you read between the lines. AD&D’s goblins were essentially defined by the fact that they like to take slaves. Okay, glad they changed that.

We deserve better orcs in D&D

Keith Ammann: And then orcs, I have for a very, very long time, thought that, orcs needed a better treatment.   There have been many, many societies in human history that survived by essentially being border reavers – by raiding. Their point of view about raiding is not that it is what their evil god has commanded them to do. It’s a survival strategy for them, probably a very rational survival strategy, given the environment in which they live.

So what happens when their circumstances change? Either they can stick to those old raiding ways which are going to be more and more maladaptive over time, or they can try to find new ways of being in the world. In my current campaign have orcs that do both. I have orcs that stick to those raiding ways, and I have orcs that are very consciously trying to resist them.

And I think that is an interesting way to treat orcs.  That is the approach that I like to take. There are always going to be creatures that engage in activities that their victims define as evil, of course, because they’re being victimized for them, but they have their reasons. Their reasons may not be well-developed or they may be very well developed, but you don’t know until you ask them. As the DM, you want to have kind of a, an idea about it.

For my orcs that are trying to resist the old ways, they are in fact unapologetic about those old ways because from their point of view, humans, elves and [dwarves] got all the best land and weren’t willing to share it. Wherever orcs are, there’s already somebody else there and they attack us. So of course we fight back and of course, sometimes we take the fight to them to show them that they shouldn’t mess with us.

It’s the code of the streets, you know? Just, applied to the mountains and the valleys and the forests instead of the street.  These particular orcs get to a point where they realize they are actually stronger than their neighbors. And one particularly enlightened leader, instead of saying, “This means we can finally crush them,” says, “This means we can finally get them to leave us alone and live in peace for a while.” So he signs a treaty with the neighboring dwarves and they get to actually enjoy a golden age for a while.

I think that you’re only going to come up with stories like this if you actually spend some time trying to get into the heads of the orcs and how they see the world they live in and how they justify the things that they have done and are doing now.

Where to find Keith Amman’s best-selling book

Lucas: My guest is Keith Ammann, the author of a series of books decoding monster stat blocks from Dungeons and Dragons into combat tactics for dungeon masters and players alike. The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, MOAR Monsters Know What They’re Doing, and Live to Tell the Tale: Combat Tactics for Player Characters.

Keith Ammann:  The books are trade books published by Saga Press, which is an imprint of Simon and Schuster. So you can get them at any independent bookstore, Indie Bound,, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, wherever you like to  buy your trade books. If you would prefer to get it from your friendly local game store, they can obtain it wholesale from Simon and Schuster distribution.

I am working on the sequel volume to The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, which is going to tackle monsters from Volos Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. And after that, I am also working on a project called How to Defend your Lair, and more details will be available on that in the future.

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Next Episode: The Displacer Beast

The true and actual* origins of D&D’s displacer beast with A. E. Van Vogt, author of the science fiction short story Black Destroyer that inspired the classic D&D monster.

*This episode was released April 1st. Celebrity voices were impersonated, even mine.

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