When Bad Monsters Get Smart

Roleplaying gamers don’t always demonstrate the same Intelligence scores as their heroic characters, and most of us have the anecdotes to prove it. Supergenius wizards fall for the Head of Vecna rouse again or forget that fire elementals aren’t immune to fire, while dumb-as-bricks fighters manage to solve fiendish puzzles and outsmart gods. Stories like these are what make the Dungeons & Dragons game truly memorable.

However, players may find it unrealistic when the DM has their characters constantly outwitted by creatures with the Intelligence score of a small duck. Likewise, even clever Dungeon Masters may find themselves hard pressed to represent the truly deific intelligence of a Pit Fiend. As a Dungeon Master you’re not strictly required to play monsters to their listed Intelligence score, but but to do so can add verisimilitude and make the game more engaging. Read on to find out how.


Like a game of chess, the essence of intelligence in combat is to outwit your opponent, predicting his actions and your responses. Dumb characters are predictable, supergeniuses are always several steps ahead, and deific intelligences are truly ineffable. You can’t directly portray a character who’s genuinely smarter than you are, but you can give the illusion of intelligence by planning ahead. The more situations your creature is prepared for, the more intelligent it seems.

Monsters can be roughly placed into one of several categories.

Mindless (Int 1 or —)
Certain creatures lack any sort of true intellect. Truly “mindless” creatures lack an Intelligence score altogether and act only on automatic impulses or a set of terse instructions. Creatures with an Intelligence score of 1 are only marginally smarter, often simply attacking opponents blindly. Examples of Mindless creatures are giant insects, golems and gelatinous cubes.

Mindless creatures are straightforward for a Dungeon Master to portray. Concoct in advance a definition of the creature’s “orders”, a set of instructions which it always adheres to no matter how idiotic the result. A golem with the orders “kill all who cross the threshold” will abandon his post to chase an intruder, while a giant insect will attack suicidally if asked to “defend the hive queen”. A common set of instructions might be “attack the nearest creature until it drops”.

Bestial (Int 2-4)
These creatures are of limited intelligence, and even those smart enough to speak part of a language still operate largely on instinct and relying on natural ability. Such creatures generally don’t employ any real strategy, although some can be trained or can have an innate talent for hunting in packs. Examples of creatures with Bestial intelligence include many animals, most dire animals, and owlbears.

Creatures of Bestial intelligence are simple for the Dungeon Master to handle. Such creatures are motivated by base desires, such as finding food, protecting themselves from perceived threats, and protecting their young. While normal animals generally aren’t smart enough to pick out the weakest enemy (aside from when hunting their usual prey), they won’t ignore obvious threats and won’t hesitate to flee if it seems their life is in danger.

Monstrous (Int 5-7)
This category of monster is typically able to speak and understand with some competence, carry and use equipment, and most importantly, to understand and follow orders. Although smarter than animals, these creatures are more often compared to humans and seem much dumber by contrast. Examples of Monstrous intelligence creatures are shadows and ogres.

Creatures of Monstrous intelligence are capable of making their own decisions (if sometimes poorly) and so require some planning. Thought must be given to what equipment they may have secured for themselves and what few axioms or superstitions they obey in combat. An ogre might always attack a shorter opponent but fear robed creatures after a bad encounter with a mage, or a shadow may launch his attacks quietly at night. The trick in portraying these creatures is to be predictable.

Wisdom score can big a significant modifier here. A low Wisdom score suggests that the creature is thick-headed and impulsive, lacking foresight and having no problem with placing himself at a tactical disadvantage. A high Wisdom score suggstes that the creature is cautious, and lacks originality and initiative.

Dumb (Int 8-9)
They’re not complete fools, but Dumb creatures aren’t exactly smart either. Although able communicate and work in groups, they tend to have trouble making successful decisions for themselves, and often fall prey to pack thinking. Examples of dumb creatures include orcs and below-average humans.

You don’t want your Dumb creatures to be too smart, so spend five minutes working out how they might act in combat - what mistakes they’ll make. Any plans they concoct are usually simple, are based on previous successes, don’t think too far into the future, and have small flaws which are obvious to an average adventurer. For example, a band of orcs may lay an ambush by the side of the road to waylay travellers and kill them for loot, but don’t know what to do if the travellers turn out to be powerful adventurers.

Dumb creatures may make the mistake of automatically following the rest of a pack, being smart enough to realise that they’re not always right themselves, but not smart enough to realise that everyone else can be wrong too.

Average (Int 10-11)
Creatures possessing the Average level of humanoid intellect have a solid potential for problem-solving and co-operation. They can concoct basic strategy, outwit stupid monsters, and plan ahead when they make decisions. Examples of Average intellect creatures include humans, dwarves and bugbears.

When running a group of Average creatures, you should spend at least five minutes considering the strategies which they will employ. They’re generally enough to post guards at their camp, fight from more defensible positions if possible, try to predict their enemy’s tactics, judge the relative severity of multiple threats with some adequacy, and agree on a straightforward plan of attack with their comrades.

Clever (Int 12-15)
Notably smarter than a typical human, a Clever monster possesses a keen intellect and a demonstratably dangerous understanding of his opponent. These creatures often have their own cunning schemes, with some true villains in their own right. Clever creatures include drow, doppelgangers, and vrocks.

Clever creatures require more DM planning than normal - ten to fifteen minutes should suffice. If they can use equipment, they should almost certainly weigh up the pros and cons of what’s available to them. They should hate to fight their opponent on even ground if it can be helped, knowing full well the advantage to be gained by the best use of force.

The creature should always have a general combat plan prepared, aiming to attack in the most effective manner. Pay special attention to the terrain and environment. However, bear in mind that an Intelligence score of 15 is by no means superhuman, and even these creatures make mistakes.

Genius (Int 16-18)
Reaching the upper levels of human intellect, a Genius creature is usually something to be feared. Their sharp wits afford them the ability to forsee their enemies’ movements, letting them evade capture or strike targets where they are at their weakest. Examples of Genius creatures include a legendary thief, a powerful human mage and an adult red dragon.

Never run a Genius creature without a significant amount of planning. A strategist of this calibre is typically well prepared for a wide range of eventualities, including ambushes or assaults on their base. They frequently employ misdirection, lure enemies into traps, and lay ambushes. Genius villains are likely to have an array of minions, and always several step ahead of their enemies.

If your villain is aware of the threat posed by player characters, there’s a good chance he will aim to discover their strengths and weaknesses long before he encounters them in person. Learned abilities and equipment purchases should be carefully considered for maximum benefit, and a detailed and optimized combat plan drawn up.

Supergenius (Int 19-23)
Surpassing even the most impressive of mortal intelligence, creatures of Supergenius intellect weave vast plots within plots, rouses within rouses. Even when their plans come unravelled, their true goal may not become apparent until it’s too late. Examples of Supergenius creatures include liches and mind flayers.

A Supergenius character cannot be authentically represented without lengthy planning sessions, preferably altering their plans between game sessions to react to the the player characters’ interference. A villain of this intellect should be able to predict years or decades into the future, evading capture almost indefinitely. They will always have a perfect strategy prepared to defeat the player characters.

In fiction, Light Yagami from the manga Death Note could be considered a Supergenius.

Godlike (Int 24+)
Utterly ineffable to mortal men, the minds of the most. Even the least of these creatures outsmart and manipulate supervillains and great leaders, spotting flaws in a plan instantly and taking advantage of any weakness. Examples of creatures with Godlike intellect include pit fiends, the eldest of dragons, and most deities.

A creature of godlike intellect poses a special challenge to the Dungeon Master. If the complex plots of a supergenius villain might form the basis of an entire campaign, how much smarter must a creature be? How much further can the Supergenius level of intellect be taken?

In some cases, the solution is to simply cheat. Have creatures suddenly produce counters to attacks and schemes, giving the illusion that this incredible creature has been deceiving the players all along. On the other hand, the superhuman insight posessed by deific beings may lead them to take take actions that seem ineffible, even mad.


Bear in mind that even with a high Intelligence score, creatures make mistakes and things don’t always go to plan. Minions mess up or turn traitor. Unexpected events throw a cog into the works. Villains fall prey to weaknesses like greed, madness, vice, arrogance or sentimentality.

Take care not to arbitarily foil all the players’ plans, no matter how smart your creatures are. Your monsters and villains should pose a challenge, not be invulnerable, and just because a lich hasn’t been seen in over a century doesn’t mean a powerful group of heroes can’t hunt him down and ruin his day. Realism is only useful when it makes the game more enjoyable, and in the end the purpose of a creature’s intellect is to ensure that it’s all the more satisfying when you outsmart it.

Comments (9)

Steve (February 21st, 2008)

Methinks that maybe other abilities (Wis and Cha, mostly) would benefit from such an analysis?

Good article!

Cole (February 21st, 2008)

My players once mistook my Listen checks for playing the monsters smarter than they were. I had told them, that if I had done that, they wouldn’t have killed half as many monsters as they had done up to that point. Once I gave them some examples, they agreed with me.

Yax (February 22nd, 2008)

Combat with smart villains is hard to run because they are deadly. It’s quite easy to come up with great tactics. It’s harder to come up with great tactics that don’t kill PCs.

Zaratustra (February 23rd, 2008)

Remember that, for supergenius NPCs, you can use your -own- knowledge of what the PCs are planning and just assume the villain had a plan regarding that (unless it’s an extremely clever or obscure plan)

TX (February 29th, 2008)

This throws out pre-determined challenge ratings in most regards. I’d suggest determining the CR after the challenge, if any PC’s are left. This may teach hot-head PC’s to respect what encounters. GOOD STUFF!

Juan Navarro (March 20th, 2008)

This is a great article and addressed something I as struggling wiht both as a player and as a DM. In the long run, Intelligence will also tell if a monster or NPC could even stike back at you. Sure the big dumb troll may fight to the death , calling you a puny punk even as your about to cast burning hands on it’s limbless body, but a Mind Flayer may have an escape route or something, and believe me will plan on dining on your brain later.
That was the other bone of contention I had with INT and monster. Again the dumb troll may think about going one on one with you but a Mindflayer may decide to take you through a maze or divide the group or even teaming with the troll to get you. My DM will sometimes jsut plop the mindflayer in the middle of a room surrounded by treasure for the “Big fight” but then be a gasp as the fighter charges, the rogue tumbles to back stab, the spell caster get lingual on him before the first mindblast.
I hope people take this article to their DMs, if only to point out fo-paws.

starsrift (March 26th, 2008)

I think it’s reasonable to assume that even the most stupid of creatures will go after those that appear to be weaker. Wolves harry the sick and the elderly from a herd, for instance. And most animals in our current, modern world are afraid of humans and will run away - I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that a powerful monster with no intelligence will know that people with shiny metal skins are much crunchier and harder to get at than the guy in a robe. Conversely, intelligent creatures might reasonably pick off the strongest person first in order to lower the personal threat to them.

One thing I have trouble with, as a DM, is intelligence and motivation. If a monster attacks PC’s because that’s what it eats, is it going to leave a PC alone once they’re disabled, or start crunching on the PC in the middle of combat, bringing them below -10 HP? As a DM, it seems like a cheap playerkill - especially since I can reasonably expect that the creature is going to be defeated anyway.

Stripes (March 26th, 2008)

"If a monster attacks PC’s because that’s what it eats, is it going to leave a PC alone once they’re disabled, or start crunching on the PC in the middle of combat"

You can justify it either way. “Sure it wants it’s yummy wizard treat, but before it munches down it will defend itself from thoes guys with pokey spears!”, or “Grabs up the wizard and tries to scuttle off with it”.

If you have it scuttle off, you can reduce it’s movment since it has a large (unless it was a halfling wizard) load, and a ungainly one at that (in a woods you can describe how the dire wolf is out pacing the persuing party, until it gets the downed wizard stuck between two trees, and wastes 3 rounds tilting it’s head from side to side).

Goodfellow (December 15th, 2008)

Good stuff! I incorporated it into my campaign notes, (with the proper attribution of course).

Comments for this article are closed.