Most of my RPG experience so far has been with Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, and I believe 4e was the first edition to introduce the concept of “marking” a monster. Defenders all have some type of marking mechanic, in which a marked monster takes a -2 penalty to attack anyone other than the defender who has marked it (unless it’s part of an attack that includes multiple PCs, and the defender is one of them).
Defenders also have some type of “punishment” mechanic attached to the mark, which will have an additional negative effect on the monster if it “breaks” the mark by attacking someone other than the defender. Sometimes the punishment is built into the marking ability itself; sometimes it’s a separate ability that says “When a creature marked by you is naughty, you get to beat it up.”
The usefulness of these marking and punishment mechanics depends to a large degree on the dungeon master and how the DM plays the monsters. There are two extremes the DM could follow (as well as points between): Ignore the mark, and always obey the mark.
Mark? What mark?
On this end of the spectrum, the DM has the monsters act as if they’re completely oblivious to the existence of a mark. Maybe they’ll attack the defender, or maybe they’ll attack someone else. The mark has no bearing on their actions. It’s a pretty stupid way for a monster to act, especially after it gets punished a few times, but hey, some monsters are stupid.
You must obey!
This other end of the “mark obedience spectrum” is where I fell when I first started DMing. In this mindset, the monster knows that it’s marked and that bad things will happen if it attacks someone other than the defender without also attacking the defender, so it attacks the defender. In this way, the defender is doing its job of keeping the scary monsters from attacking the rest of the party. Yay, right?
Don’t ALWAYS obey
Well, no. It was an article on Neuroglyph Games that got me thinking about this a few months ago. The author of the article ranked the Battlemind’s punishment mechanic as being outstanding compared to other defenders. The Battlemind, as you may know, has the ability to punish an adjacent enemy that deals damage to the Battlemind’s ally by dealing an equal amount of damage to that enemy. You hit my friend; I hit you. Bam.
Now, it’s true that this punishment mechanic can deal a whole lot of damage to a monster, especially compared to some of the other punishment mechanics out there. But the problem for me as a DM is that I had been running a game for several levels where the defender was a Battlemind, and her punishment mechanic never, ever did anything.
Why not? Well, she had to be adjacent to the monster in order to punish it. And if she was adjacent, the monster would obey the mark and attack her! The only time the monster ever broke the mark was if the Battlemind wasn’t adjacent, in which case there was no punishment involved.
It’s fun to disobey!
Defenders feel good about themselves when they protect their squishy allies, true. But they also feel good about themselves when they get to beat the crap out of a monster for daring to go after their allies. If the defender’s punishment mechanic never triggers, the defender’s player is having less fun than they could have. And I do believe that the DM should try to help the players have as much fun as possible.
The evolved approach: Role-play the monsters
So what’s the right answer? Remember that this is a role-playing game, and role-play the monsters!
A mindless zombie or single-minded beast is likely to act stupidly or instinctively. This might mean attacking the closest PC or attacking the PC that hurt them the worst or going after the PC who hit it most recently. This monster will fall on the “ignore the mark” end of the spectrum to start with. However, after it gets punished once (or twice, in the case of a really dumb bad guy) it will probably realize that ignoring the defender hurts, and it will start focusing on the defender instead.
Most monsters won’t know exactly how a defender’s punishment mechanic work, and I run it this way even if the rules as written technically say that the monster DOES know (as in the case of a mark power where the punishment is part of that same power). Most monsters at my table will say, “Hm, that fighter is calling me out. But I don’t feel like trying to chew through that armor, so I’m going to eat this tasty-looking wizard instead. OUCH! The fighter hit me when I tried to eat the wizard! Well that does it – you’re gonna get it now, armor boy!” They learn what the punishment mechanic does after it hits them (or one of their nearby allies).
Now, some monsters will be intelligent and may even have experience with battling adventurers. If you have a master tactician going against the players, it can be reasonable for that tactician to instruct its allies to avoid breaking the defender’s mark unless it’s really worth it. If that’s the case, it’s important for the DM to role-play this out at the table. “Ah, I see that your pathetic warden has tried to convince my hell hound to attack it instead of the dazed cleric. Do not be fooled, my minion! Destroy that horrid Pelor-worshipper, no matter the cost!”
The bottom line
Throw the defender a bone now and then by letting monsters discover what the defender’s punishment mechanic can do. Allow the monsters to learn from experience. And if the monster is really smart, have it show the players how smart it is by only breaking marks when it’s advantageous to do so – and make it clear that this is happening because the ENEMY is a tactical genius, not because the DM is.