Banshee Tactics

Banshees are curious creatures: accursed undead elves, without any clear explanation of who did the cursing. They’re the “mean girls” of elvenkind, beautiful but cold, shallow and manipulative, who instead of remaining eternally youthful become more and more debased and drained of vitality, and end up wallowing in empty alienation forever.

Banshees have no physical form, so their only movement is flying, at a brisk 40 feet per round. They have above-average Dexterity and very high Charisma, but owing to their lack of substance, they have virtually no Strength. Thus, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever engage in prolonged, toe-to-toe melee combat; instead, they’ll use their ranged powers first, then make hit-and-run attacks. They’re not worried about opportunity attacks, because they’re resistant to physical damage from nonmagical weapons.

In addition to laughing at mundane iron and steel, banshees are also resistant to acid, fire, lightning and thunder damage and outright immune to cold, necrotic and poison damage, along with the vast majority of debilitating conditions. Thus, they have as little to fear from spellcasters as they do from loutish fighters. A magic weapon, on the other hand, puts them on red alert.

Banshees have darkvision, so they’ll be more active at night or in dark places. Also, good luck getting the drop on them: they can sense the presence of living creatures up to 5 miles away. They won’t run—their curse binds them to remain where the last flicker of life left them—but they’ll know you’re coming.

By my interpretation of the Way of Things, undead creatures are driven by compulsion, not by survival, so while a banshee may want to prolong its own existence, it’s not only unwilling but unable to flee the place where it resides. It may also pick a fight out of rage, but if quick-thinking player characters preemptively appeal to its basic desire—to possess objects of great beauty—a banshee will refrain from attacking and may even be willing to barter for information.

The banshee has three combat actions: Horrifying Visage, Wail and Corrupting Touch. The first two are effectively usable only once per combat encounter. Horrifying Visage has the greater range, but Wail has the stronger effect. While I like the idea of kicking off combat with Horrifying Visage—a sudden transformation from creepy, ethereal beauty to blood-chilling hideousness—I think Wail has to come first, because a frightened creature can’t willingly move closer to the source of its fear. This means that a banshee could frighten an enemy outside the range of its Wail and thereby prevent it from coming within range.

So Wail comes first, and before using it, the banshee plonks itself down right in the midst of its opponents, so that as many of them as possible (ideally, all of them) are within a 30-foot radius of it. The saving throw DC isn’t high, but it’s not a gimme, either, and any opponent who flubs his or her save is down for the count, while the rest begin combat an average of 10 hp down. After using Wail, the banshee flies 10 or 15 feet up in the air, out of reach of melee attacks (so make sure its initial relocation doesn’t consume more than 25 feet of movement).

Horrifying Visage comes the following round. If it works, it’s good till the effect wears off. If it doesn’t, it’s not going to. So there’s no benefit in using this power more than once. While using this ability, the banshee continues to hover in the air, out of melee reach.

Starting in the third combat round, the banshee starts strafing its enemies with Corrupting Touch, flying down to attack, then flying back up out of reach, heedless of opportunity attacks. This time, instead of positioning itself in the midst of its enemies, the tricksy banshee spends its time between turns on the outside of the fray, with its victim between it and its other opponents. Since a frightened creature can’t move any closer to the source of its fear, a frightened enemy can’t come any closer to aid his or her companion.

For the same reason, the banshee begins by targeting enemy spellslingers, marksmen and skirmishers—those who are most likely to be positioned far from the center of the battle. Remember, a banshee has no fear of spellcasters, and if there’s any enemy it hates more than any other and needs to take down quickly, it’s an archer wielding a magic bow. Other ranged attackers pose a threat, but not as much of one.

Beyond that, other things being equal, a banshee’s vanity also generates a furious envy, and it will bear a particular hatred (combined with a weird sort of infatuation and craving) toward any exceptionally attractive person. While peaceful talks are going on, a banshee will listen to such a person more attentively, treat his or her proposals with greater consideration, and even try to entice him or her to remain in the banshee’s company. As soon as things turn south, the banshee will want more badly to destroy that person than any other.

A banshee that’s seriously wounded (reduced to 23 hp or fewer) won’t flee its home, but it will begin acting more erratically and irrationally—attacking foes at random, grabbing objects and hurling them, using its movement to loop and careen around in a frenzy, trying to seize items of jewelry from its opponents. This will happen especially if its only remaining foes are wielding magic melee weapons, which it’s afraid to come within reach of.

Finally, a reader asked, “Can a banshee be male?” In legend, no: the word “banshee” comes from Irish bean sí “fairy-mound woman”; there’s no male or masculine equivalent. And the Monster Manual defines the banshee as “a spiteful creature formed from the spirit of a female elf” (emphasis mine). It’s funny, though, that beyond that, the MM is silent on the subject. Two paragraphs later, it says, “Banshees are the undead remnants of elves who, blessed with great beauty, failed to use their gift to bring joy to the world.” Not “female elves,” as in the first paragraph—just “elves.”

So in principle, unless you’re going to make assumptions about which sex is or isn’t more prone to getting its way by working its looks, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why a male elf couldn’t also go banshee. If you wanted to be etymologically finicky about it, however, you’d have to refer to that creature as a “farshee.”

Next: minor elementals.

10 thoughts on “Banshee Tactics”

  1. Thanks for this write-up! Just what I was hoping for when I messaged you about doing a banshee entry. Really interesting info about the male v. female stuff at the end as well.

  2. Did a couple conventions one-shots this weekend, and one of them involved a banshee and her minions. When the banshee revealed herself, after a few rounds of fighting her minion specters, she came out and called away her minions and approached the party acting like she wanted to parlay. I had the characters roll insight and only one of them rolled well enough to realize she wasn’t being truthful (duh). She floated out to the middle of the PCs (we were still in initiative order). Right before her next turn, one PC made a full move away. That’s when she screamed! of the 5 PCs still in range, only one made the save! The two survivors managed to kill the banshee, but they specters rejoined the battle. The first scream survivor was down to single-digit hitpoints and didn’t have much chance. The other managed to survive as the rest closed in and surrounded him. Thus, my second ever TPK.

    I didn’t set out to kill them all. It just happened that way! 😉 Con One-shots are so much fun!

    1. One of the earliest lessons a player learns: If you’re still in initiative, you’re still in danger.

      [insert obligatory “Simpsons ‘I’m in danger’ gif”]

  3. Coming from a new DM: thank you so much. This is amazing and so is your site. Thank you for putting the time in to publish this.

  4. I think the banshee would use Horrifying Visage before Wail. Wail is a 1/day use feature, so it the banshee, who is no dullard but also not a genius with 12 in INT and 11 in WIS, will think not to use it right away in case she needs it later. Horrifying visage is the banshee’s way of saying, “skedaddle or things will get ugly”.

  5. Missed opportunity to discuss her ability to pass through objects as difficult terrain. If the Banshee’s haunting grounds happen to be a castle/manor or any other structure, she can abuse that fact to move out of reach AND vision of her opponents, only risking opportunity attacks which (as written) she cares little about.
    Important to remember, though, that she cannot see through walls and her life radar doesn’t get around it either, so she’s most likely to reemerge where she last saw her intended target, without the ability to preemptively correct if it had moved.

    1. If she’s phased through the floor then surely she wouldn’t take opportunity attacks as there’s stone between her and the attacker before she moves out of range?

    2. Her detect life ability may not help her, but her intimate understanding of the area she haunts could, she basically has all the time world to study her surroundings. Also she can see and hear, so perception is always in play.

  6. Some other suggestions:

    The place a banshee haunts doesn’t have to be limited to a small space, just a single area. So it could be as large as a floor of a dungeon, a plaza, a castle, or even a city block. In my last game, group of banshees called the Devine Chorus haunted a whole city.

    It can pass almost freely through creatures and objects, why would it let itself be slain when it could pass into the ground, the floor, a statue or even a PC? It’s undead, so it’s not unfeasible that it returns to it’s buriel place when in peril, such as a grave obscured by the passing of time, or a locked mausoleum

    She can make use of her terrain, floating over rotted floors, flying through walls and ceiling, using objects for cover or concealment

    Banshees can talk, sing, cry etc., they could use there voices to lure members of the party into traps, pick them off one by one.

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