• Dullahan Tactics

    |

    OK, I learned something cool today. As I read the description of the dullahan in Ezmerelda’s Guide to Ravenloft—“Dullahans are headless undead warriors—the remains of villains who let vengeance consume them. These decapitated hunters haunt the areas where they were slain, butchering innocents in search of their severed heads or to quench their thirst for revenge”—my thoughts immediately went to Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” in which the legendary “headless horseman” was said to be a former Hessian auxiliary soldier beheaded by a cannon shot during the American Revolution, prowling the area around the battlefield where he fell. But it turns out that this was already a longstanding mythical trope even in Irving’s time, found in tales from the Rhineland region of Germany (which includes the region of Hesse!) and the British Isles—and in the Irish version of the trope, the undead warrior is called a dulachán, anglicized as “dullahan.”

    (more…)
  • Gallows Speaker Tactics

    |

    The gallows speaker (I love the name) haunts places where many people have been put to death, echoing their last words and foretelling the dooms of others (I love the concept). Is it really a monster, though? That is, is it going to pose a danger if player characters simply leave it alone?

    I’m inclined to say no. An insight I had about undead creatures long ago is that they all have two things in common. First, as everyone already knows and understands, they occupy a liminal space between life and death—they’re no longer alive and not yet dead. Second, the transition to this space imbues them with a compulsion, which causes them to engage in repetitive and often illogical behavior. Skeletons keep going through the motions of their prior lives. Ghouls and ghasts devour the living. Ghosts are unable to leave a place where they have unfinished business. Mummy lords cling to lost glory. Et cetera.

    Gallows speakers have a compulsion, too, but their compulsion is all talk. They haunt the gibbet—but they never wander away from it. They yammer away, but their yammering isn’t an attack per se; it’s merely a behavior with an unfortunate damage-dealing side effect. Like a number of other creatures, such as vampiric mist, it’s not a monster, in the functional sense, as much as it is a hazard. And I’d say it fights only when it’s actually attacked.

    (more…)
  • Vampiric Mind Flayer Tactics

    |

    There’s a lot of fun to be found in mashing up creature types: crossing dragons and undead to create the dracolich, or fiends and constructs to create the hellfire engine, or—as Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons did—dragons and aberrations to create the eyedrake and the elder brain dragon. Ezmerelda’s Guide to Ravenloft gives us a few of these, including today’s featured creature, the vampiric mind flayer.

    Comparing and contrasting the vampiric mind flayer with the stat blocks of the stock vampire and the stock mind flayer is the obvious exercise. However, when you look at the flavor text and see how these beasties are created (summary: not vampirism-infected adult mind flayers, but vampirism-infected mind flayer larvae), vampire spawn seem like a better analogue than full-fledged vampires, so we need to throw them into the mix as well.

    The results of the comparison are … interesting. And a little odd. The result isn’t a simple average of the vampire (or vampire spawn) and the mind flayer, nor is it the sum of its parts. It’s both a little more and a little less than either.

    (more…)
  • Brain in a Jar Tactics

    |

    The brain in a jar—literally, exactly what it is—poses several interesting problems, along with a few unanswered questions.

    For one thing, is the “natural armor” that gives it an Armor Class of 11 supposed to be the glass of the jar? We have to assume so, because a naked brain with a −4 Dexterity modifier would have to have some ankylosaurus-grade armor plating to give it AC 11. However, according to the Object Armor Class table in chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, a glass jar ought to have AC 13. At the same time, 55 hp is absurdly durable for even a resilient object of Small size.

    (more…)
  • Variant Zombie Tactics

    |

    The Monster Manual zombie isn’t a complicated or sophisticated attacker, but it possesses one trait that makes it memorable: Undead Fortitude, which allows it to pop back up and keep fighting even after it’s reduced to 0 hp. You never know how many hits it will ultimately take to stop a zombie. Ezmerelda’s Guide to Ravenloft additionally (and accurately) notes, “The horror of the shambling dead lies not in their individual menace … but [in] their numbers, their persistence, and their disregard for their own well-being.” One zombie, in the right circumstances, can be played for laughs; many zombies are legitimately unnerving, regardless of context.

    Even so, after a while, zombie fights can become ho-hum affairs—especially past level 5, when clerics’ Destroy Undead feature can clear them out en masse. How can a Dungeon Master keep the thrill alive?

    We can find part of the answer by looking to an unrelated monster: the troll. A troll, out of the box, is nothing but a hard-to-kill brute. However, the Loathsome Limbs variant, which allows the troll’s severed limbs to keep fighting independently, turns a troll encounter into something special. In a similar vein, suppose that a town’s response to an invading zombie horde was to make absolutely sure they didn’t get up again by hacking the corpses to pieces—and even that didn’t work. That’s one way you might end up with a swarm of zombie limbs.

    (more…)

Support the Author

Bookshop | Tertulia | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indigo | Kobo | Google Play | Apple Books | Libro.fm | Audible

Praise for The Monsters Know What They’re Doing: Combat Tactics for Dungeon Masters

“I’ve always said, the Dungeon Master is the whole world except for his players, and as a result, I spend countless hours prepping for my home group. What Keith gets is that the monsters are the DM’s characters, and his work has been super helpful in adding logic, flavor, and fun in my quest to slaughter my players’ characters and laugh out the window as they cry in their cars afterward.” —Joe Manganiello

“The best movie villains are the ones you fall in love with. Keith’s book grounds villains in specificity, motivation, and tactics—so much so that players will love to hate ’em. This book will enrich your game immeasurably!” —Matthew Lillard

“This book almost instantly made me a better Dungeon Master. If you’re running games, it is a must-have enhancement. I gave copies to the two others in our group who share in the Dungeon Mastering, and both of them came back the next time grinning rather slyly. Keith is a diabolical genius, and I say that with the utmost respect!” —R.A. Salvatore

Find my short works on the Dungeon Masters’ Guild, or just toss a coin to your witcher: