Angel Tactics

Who gets in a fight with an angel? “Evil characters” is the obvious answer, but it’s not the only answer. Angels being lawful good, a dedicated group of chaotic player characters could find just as much reason to beef with them—and even PCs who are neutral on either the good-to-evil spectrum, the law-to-chaos spectrum or both, and who find themselves gadding about on Mount Celestia (or the Seven Heavens, as we called them back in the day), might somehow run afoul of the ruling authority in a way that needs to be kiboshed.

Angels, in fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons, come in three levels: devas, planetars and solars. These qualify as boss opponents for mid-level, high-level and top-level adventurers, but realistically, players are rarely going to run across them before they acquire access to the 7th-level spell plane shift, and that doesn’t happen until level 13. Lower-level PCs might journey to the Outer Planes through the use of a magic item that allows them to cast plane shift or a portal created by the gate spell, or they might manage to summon an angel to serve them using planar binding or planar ally. Even so, we’re still talking level 9 and up.

The upshot of this is that a deva is unlikely to play the role of boss enemy. Rather, devas are angelic minions, encountered either before or alongside a more powerful planetar or solar. The 5E Monster Manual describes them as “messengers or agents.” They follow orders; they don’t issue them.

Before going into what distinguishes a deva from its more powerful cousins, let’s look at what all angels have in common:

  • Mind-blowing ability scores, across the board.
  • Proficiency in Wisdom and Charisma saving throws. (Most important upshot of the latter: angels are hard to banish.)
  • Resistance to radiant damage, as well as physical damage from mundane weapons.
  • Immunity to being charmed, exhausted or frightened.
  • Knowledge of all languages, plus the ability to communicate telepathically.
  • Angelic Weapons, which are magical and deal bonus radiant damage.
  • The innate ability to cast detect evil and good, commune and raise dead.
  • Advantage on saving throws against magic.
  • Healing Touch, which not only restores hit points but also removes curses, neutralizes poison, and cures disease, blindness and deafness.
  • The ability to fly—fast.
  • And one more thing, whose importance may not be immediately obvious: lawful good alignment.

Why is that last item so important? Because it means angels don’t want to hurt you. They’re consummately just, kind and other-centered. They’ll kill fiends, all right, and they’ll destroy undead creatures. But as far as other living beings are concerned, they have two overriding rules: commit no harm, and prevent harm from coming to others. I don’t agree with the flavor text’s assertion, “An angel slays evil creatures without remorse.” I’d maintain instead that angels slay only intrinsically evil creatures without remorse.

Thus, except against fiends and undead, they always attack to subdue, not to kill (see “Knocking a Creature Out,” Player’s Handbook, page 198). This holds true even if their opponents are of evil alignment. It doesn’t mean they’ll hesitate to fight—it just means they’ll do no more damage, and no damage more lethal, than is necessary to stop their non–lawful good opponents from doing whatever rotten things they’re doing.

Other conclusions we can draw from those common traits: Angels fight while hovering in the air. They have no particular fear of spellcasters, although they’ll treat any who cast spells requiring Dexterity saves with some caution. (Devas extend that same caution to casters of Constitution-save spells.) They’re similarly cautious around magic weapons. If they have minions of their own nearby, they’ll use Healing Touch to top them up when they’re 20 hp down or seriously wounded, whichever happens first.

And you can’t fool them. They know your weaknesses as if you were wearing them on a T-shirt. They’ll talk before fighting if it seems likely to be fruitful, but with Insight +9 (the +7 in the MM is a typo), devas in particular are likely to see right through you if you’re lying. They can fight in whatever fashion fits the situation best, but they’ll generally come back to good old-fashioned toe-to-toe melee.

OK, back to devas specifically. Their Multiattack—two swings with a mace—is straightforward. Change Shape is a tricky one. A polymorphed deva takes on the armor class, movement, senses, Strength and Dexterity of its humanoid or beast form; it also takes on that form’s other capabilities and features. (It retains its own Constitution, hit points, saving throws, resistances and immunities.)

When is this a good trade? A deva’s normal AC is 17; no humanoid or beast is going to beat that, nor is it going to have better than 120 feet of darkvision. A deva might go whale or dolphin for the ability to swim, but aside from that, any humanoid or beast form a deva could take would be trading down, no matter what special features it had.

So I conclude that Change Shape is something a deva uses only to pass among people in disguise. If a combat situation is likely to ensue, it immediately uses its action to revert to its true form—both to regain access to its superior stats and for its deterrent power (“Are you sure you’re committed to this course of action, now that you know this badger is in fact a powerful heavenly being?”).

Devas prioritize their targets by alignment: chaotic evil foes first, then chaotic neutrals and neutral evils, then lawful evils and neutrals (they cut the chaotic goods a bit of slack here, unless they’re on their home plane and the CGs are causing a ruckus), then lawful neutrals and chaotic goods, then neutral goods and finally lawful goods. The idea here is that if they remove the worst elements first, the others may be more amenable to correction.

Once a deva has selected a target, its manner of fighting depends on that target’s own strengths and weaknesses. Against a front-line brute fighter, it will skirmish, hovering high up in the air, swooping down to make its two weapon attacks, then swooping back up, without concern for opportunity attacks. Against a skirmisher, ranged attacker or spellslinger, on the other hand, it will close to melee range and stay there, making its own opportunity attack when its target tries to get away.

Unlike many fiends, angels do not zop back to their home plane when their bodily forms are destroyed. If you kill an angel, you kill it. So despite their commitment to duty, devas may or may not retreat when seriously injured (reduced to 54 hp or fewer); it depends on whether their duty requires them to fight to the death. Against fiends and undead, they’re likely to fight to the bitter end, but in certain other circumstances, there may be more to gain from flying away and reporting back to their heavenly superiors.

A retreating deva Dodges as its first action against a melee opponent with only a single attack, Dashes if its opponent has Extra Attack or Multiattack, and Disengages if its melee opponents outnumber it. Once it’s clear of melee opponents, it Dodges until it’s out of range of missile fire and spell attacks, then finally switches to Dash.

Planetars are celestial elite troops. They have proficiency on Constitution saves in addition to Wisdom and Charisma saves, their weapons do an additional die of radiant damage, and their Healing Touch restores two additional dice. Thanks to Divine Awareness, you can’t lie to them at all without being caught. They can cast invisibility on themselves at will, and they also have limited uses of blade barrier, dispel evil and good, flame strike, control weather and insect plague.

In most respects, planetars fight the same way that devas do, but their spellcasting ability adds a wrinkle. Let’s look at the merits of each spell:

  • Control weather—eh, forget this one. It’s just showing off, and it takes 10 minutes to cast.
  • Blade barrier, a.k.a. “wall of razors,” is a planetar’s “Go to Jail” card, the primary use of which is to isolate one particular enemy who’s significantly more chaotic and/or evil than all the rest. The planetar airdrops next to that enemy and casts this spell in a ring around itself, trapping the enemy inside with it and shutting everyone else out.
  • Dispel evil and good has a couple of different uses. If the planetar’s opponents include a single celestial, elemental or fey creature, it may use the Dismissal option to eject that enemy from the game. If there are multiple such enemies on the field, or one or more fiends or undead creatures, it’s more likely to maintain concentration on this spell to give them disadvantage on attacks against it. The Break Enchantment option is situational.
  • Flame strike is a powerful, instantaneous damaging spell that requires a Dex save against fire and radiant damage in a 10-foot radius column. Referring to the good ol’ “Targets in Area of Effect” table on page 249 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, we can determine that a planetar wants to catch at least two enemies in this area of effect if it can. But here’s the twist: it wants those enemies to be its top-priority targets. If it can’t cast this spell without also affecting someone further back in line, it will refrain.
  • Insect plague is similar to flame strike, except that it requires concentration and affects a 20-foot-radius sphere, so a planetar wants to catch at least four enemies in this area of effect (DMG 249 again). The same no-queue-jumping rule applies: All four (or more) enemies must occupy the top of the planetar’s hit list.
  • Invisibility, so strong in so many other circumstances, seems oddly inapplicable to the planetar, which seems rarely to have any need for it. But I can imagine at least one use: to thwart attacks from enemies it doesn’t want to fight. Suppose, for example, that the planetar is tussling with a group of PCs who are mostly chaotic neutral, but somehow they’ve fallen in with a lawful good paladin, who’s fighting the planetar out of loyalty to his associates. When the pally engages in melee with the planetar, the planetar—who has no beef with the pally, and in fact is hoping that the pally will see reason once all his CN companions are subdued—simply vanishes from the pally’s sight and relocates itself to a more tactically advantageous position before reappearing.

This is a long list of possible circumstances, but these circumstances are also narrow and specific. If none of them is met, then the planetar will simply default back to deva-like, melee-centered behavior. Its threshold for deciding whether to retreat is 80 hp.

At the top of the angelic hierarchy is the solar. Not only does it possess Divine Awareness, it also has proficiency on Intelligence saves, so don’t bother with those illusion spells. Like the planetar, it can cast blade barrier, dispel evil and good and invisibility (control weather too, but we know how useful that one is) and does so under the same circumstances and for the same reasons. It also one-ups its junior angels: instead of raise dead, it can cast the even better resurrection.

A solar has three legendary actions it can take. The costliest—requiring it to expend all three actions—is Blinding Gaze. It targets only one creature, it imposes a serious but not disabling condition, and its save DC is an astonishingly low 15. Why on earth would a solar blow all its legendary actions on this one option? It would do this only if it had only one opponent it needed to defeat.

Much more consequential is Searing Burst, which requires a DC 23 Dex save (thank you, that’s more like it) against a burst of fire and radiant damage, and which can be targeted selectively against any opponent(s) within 10 feet of the solar. Naturally, it will use this ability when it can strike at least two targets this way, and when those targets are at the top of its list. (If only its No. 1 opponent is within range, it won’t bother.)

But if you really want to drive your players crazy, the way to do it is with Teleport. The solar’s Intelligence is 25—it can read out the battle like it’s playing a bridge hand. Just before an opponent gets a chance to attack it, it teleports out of range or out of sight, always one step ahead of its foes. It gets to do this three times per turn, on its opponents’ turns. (Of course, if an opponent doesn’t even have the power to hurt it, it doesn’t bother—it just takes the hit.)

The solar has two weapons, a greatsword and its Slaying Longbow. Let’s compare the two:

  • Greatsword: +15 to hit, average 49 points of damage on a hit, up to two attacks per turn.
  • Slaying Longbow: +13 to hit, average 42 points of damage on a hit, only one attack per turn—but if the target has fewer than 100 hp and it blows a Con save, it straight-up dies. (Note that the 120/600 range is also a typo—it should be 150/600.)

Now, maybe I’m too literal-minded, but it looks to me from the illustration like the solar’s wings would get in the way of any weapon it tried to stow on its back, so how’s it supposed to bring both into combat? Reading its features, I think there’s only one way the solar can pull it off: wearing the sword in a belt scabbard while carrying the bow, then using its Flying Sword action to send the sword forth to do its own thing while the solar attacks with the bow. It’s weird, but it works.

On the other hand, it works, but it’s weird. And how much benefit does it bring, really—trading an average 7 points of damage per round for a low chance of killing an enemy outright, when an angel isn’t necessarily trying to kill anyone anyway?

By my reckoning, it comes down to this: A solar only brings its Slaying Longbow along if it’s going to be fighting fiends or undead, which need killin’. In any other situation, it sticks with the greatsword alone. It’s not as if bringing only a sword instead of a sword and a bow impedes the solar’s ability to deliver justice, since it can fly at 150 feet per turn (!), it can hover, it can Teleport on other creature’s turns, it gets two sword attacks in its Multiattack action, and its base AC is a bigger number than you can roll on a d20.

A solar wielding only a greatsword fights the same way as a deva or planetar (including its application of blade barrier), with the exception of its Teleport trick and the occasional surgical Searing Burst. A solar wielding a sword and a Slaying Longbow, however, mostly stays in the air, loosing arrows hither and yon, and sends its sword down to do its dirty work below. With its sword, it may attack to kill (fiends and undead only, please) or to subdue (everyone else), but with the bow, it always attacks to kill, and it chooses its targets accordingly.

If some deity considers a situation important enough to send a solar to take care of, you’d best believe it’s serious enough that the solar is going to stick around until the job is done. No retreat with this one. It keeps fighting until either the battle is finished or it is.

Next: unicorns.

23 thoughts on “Angel Tactics”

  1. I believe just like a demon, an angel in the material world cannot be slain anyways: their essence goes back to their native plane or that of his deity’s, and can reform. So it would almost never retreat until the job is done, and comes back even if it isn’t, since it should have no fear of death…

    1. Actually, that’s incorrect, at least as far as the 5E Monster Manual is concerned. It states specifically that devils and demons return to their original planes when their material bodies are destroyed, but it says no such thing about angels.

  2. I find that the Blade Barrier can be used tactically by a Solar in a different way. It can use it to divide the battlefield with the 100ft long wall, trapping all his opponents in one side. Then he hits its opponents with his attacks, and teleport to the other side of the wall, forcing melee fighters to cross it to reach him and giving the Solar +5 to AC from every other attacks. Just before it’s turn the Solar can teleport back to cross the Blade Barrier and repeat. If any of the melee fighters try to cross it, the Solar can teleport once again to keep distance from melee and forcing they to deal with the wall.

  3. Wouldn’t the Solar and Planetar be able to use their dispel evil and good on themselves to retreat? They are, after all, celestials, so they should be a valid target, and saving throws can be failed voluntarily.

      1. Thank you, only recently discovered your blog and I’m binging on it now. Glad I could contribute a tiny bit : )

      2. I’m pretty sure many insane things work great in dnd. One of the PCs in my campaign tries to make friends with everyone she meets, but the player finds lots of ways around that. For example, yelling you betrayed my friendship, killing one enemy, then asking if the others want to be friends again.

  4. Effects that allow you to willingly fail the saving throw they require state that you can do so. Waiving the melee spell attack is one thing, it’s real simple to hit yourself, but they’ve still got to roll low on that save to go home.

  5. I would say that the Gladiator is a decent option for the shape change. You sacrifice 1 AC, but you keep your 18 strength and you gain the brute feature, which gives an additional weapon die on damage. Unfortunately I don’t think they get the three-attack multiattack, because the Deva already has a multiattack feature and the change shape says they only gain statistics that they don’t already have.

    I also know that this was written in 2017, so Volo’s Guide and MToF weren’t an option at the time I think, but they give some good options as well. Getting access to the Flind’s three flail types or the Shadow Dancer’s spiked chain attack and shadow steps abilities can be really nasty stacked with the Deva’s radiant damage bonus.

  6. Why would the Deva swoop down to attack and then fly away “without concern for opportunity attacks”? Is there something I’m missing or is the implication that he just takes the hit? Thank you!

    1. It risks the hit, because it has a pretty good Armor Class and resistance to physical damage from normal weapons. Also, better to risk one hit than to stay in reach and subject oneself to two, three or four.

  7. Why wouldn’t a deva use it’s shape change to turn into a TRex? Or my preference a reskinned giant ape (to giant lion)

  8. Can angels feel guilt?

    What if they had killed living beings (either under orders or by accident) and were left to dwell on those thoughts for centuries?

  9. No, no, no, no, no. The angels in abrahamic religions, what is the DnD angels mostly supposed to be, are ruthless vigilants with flaming swords, who will kill immediately anyone who broke the God’s law. In fact, they are not even good in the sense of morality — they are a “good” just because they fight with obvious “evil” creatures such as fiends and undead beings. So, when the angel see an evil creature, or even a creature that just opposes its deity, it will kill it immediately. No pacifism and puppies.

      1. To say nothing of the fact that none of these angels even remotely resemble the “abrahamic” angels you refer to. “Be not afraid” barely applies to a beautiful bald bro with green skin and wings. Come back when D&D angels are vortices of fire surrounding some eyeballs.

  10. I would like to suggest that angels, Solars in particular, might be more willing to kill, knowing they can just bring them back. It would be a pretty effective way to subdue particularly difficult enemies, especially with the debuff the spells they use to do so gives the target. It risks not being able to do so later, but the Solar and Planetar has 3 uses, so using at least 1 might be worth it every now and again?
    I especially like this for encounters where the party is not expecting a lethal response. For example when they are fighting because the party resisted a command or something and the angel decides to force them to comply.

    Might not make that much sense with how the non-lethal damage rules work in 5e though, since there really is no use mechanically in going for the kill unless they are using ranged attacks with the bow where they don’t have the option.

  11. A Deva can improve it’s AC by using Change Shape to become a Githzerai Enlightened or Githzerai Zerth, and adding in Innate Spellcasting (Psionics) would hurt either. The broad version of Multiattack it has can offset some weaknesses too. Consider that RAW, if it turns into a T-rex it still has it’s original Multiattack and could bite a single target twice.

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