You know what’s cool? Defying the odds, standing your ground, and coming out the other side victorious.

You know what’s not cool? Rolling like butts, then getting handed a victory anyway. Ain’t nobody wanna feel patronized.

This can be a tough tightrope to walk when you’re a GM. That’s because the difference between a fair fight and unfun  tactics can be little more than a matter of taste. Take the boss fight my PF1e megadungeon group just lived through. The five of them were APL 16, and they were facing off against a CR 20 kraken lich monstrosity. Here are a few of the close calls I had to make as a GM.

  • All PCs are in reach. Do you target the squishy caster with all ten of your tentacles, or do you spread the damage out across the party?
  • Do you turn on power attack (increasing the likelihood of PC death), or do you leave it off (increasing the likelihood of dramatic but non-damaging grapples)?
  • The party’s bard has access to bard’s escape, and can teleport grappled party members out of trouble. Do you stuff your grapple victims beneath the inky waves, cutting off line of sight and blanking the spell?
  • You’ve decided to reflavor your lich kraken’s beak attack as an inflict wounds by simply changing the damage type to negative energy. When your player asks for a save to half, do you allow it?
  • The wizard casts control waterattempting to lower the water level and leave the kraken high and dry. You didn’t plan out ocean depth ahead of time. Does the wizard’s plan work as intended?

There are a couple of ways to approach these decisions. You can try to play optimally, giving your monster the maximum chance of winning the fight and killing the PCs. Then again, your can play in a characterful way, taking the monster’s psychology into account. Is it arrogant? Is it mindless? Under what circumstances will it choose to retreat? You might even take a mechanics-first angle, showing off as many tricks as possible for the sake of variety.

For my part, I wanted to foreground the multi-grapple aspect of the fight, so I leaned into those mechanics rather than maxing damage. I also like to reward my players for bringing the right tool for the job, so the teleportation and the water control tricks both worked. As for the inflict wounds business, that was just lazy monster building on my part. I can’t very well punish my players for my mistakes, and so the Will saves were summarily saved.

That’s my line of thinking anyway. What about the rest of you though? Is it incumbent on a good GM to play the monsters as tough as possible, or do too-clever tactics get in the way of a good time? Conversely, does it ruin your victory when a GM “plays the villain dumb,” or can that serve to make more interesting fights? Sound off with your monsters’ tactical preferences down in the comments!


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