NPC Tactics: Tribal Warriors and Berserkers

I have a bone to pick with the fifth-edition Monster Manual’s description of the tribal warrior, as well as the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide’s description of the Reghed and Uthgardt barbarians. In brief, the repeated insistence that these people defer to a chief (“the greatest or oldest warrior of the tribe or a tribe member blessed by the gods”) is based on ignorance of the difference between bands and tribes on the one hand and chiefdoms on the other, and of the egalitarian nature of traditional societies.

Every dungeon master who aspires to any degree of coherent world-building needs to be a Jared Diamond aficionado. His best-known book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, examines the factors that cause certain societies to advance technologically and socially faster than others (spoiler: abundant access to high-protein staple grains, easily domesticated animals and long east-west trade routes gives a people a major leg up). His book Collapse examines the factors that cause societies to stagnate or go extinct: environmental degradation, changing climate, hostile neighbors, lack of friendly trading partners and overly rigid ideology. And his most recent book, The World Until Yesterday, examines the features of traditional societies that set them apart from modern ones.

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NPC Tactics: Archmages

The mage was complicated; the archmage, even more so. Strap in.

As with the mage, the archmage’s ability scores imply an aversion to melee combat, a strong self-preservation impulse, and a strategically and tactically savvy view of the battlefield. We can also determine, by reading between the lines, that the archmage is a wizard of the abjuration school, because Magic Resistance is a feature that abjuration wizards obtain at level 14. Mechanically, that doesn’t mean much, since Magic Resistance is the only abjuration feature the Monster Manual gives the archmage; still, this inference adds a dash of flavor to our archmage’s personality. Abjuration is the magic of prevention. All other things being equal, the archmage’s primary impulse is to shut you down.

The mage’s spells topped out at 5th level, but the archmage’s go all the way up to 9th, with only one slot each of the top four levels. I assume this was to simplify an already extremely complicated and powerful enemy. What it means for us is that those four slots are reserved exclusively for the archmage’s four highest-level spells: time stop, mind blank, teleport and globe of invulnerability. And mind blank, according to the MM, is pre-cast before combat begins—along with mage armor and stoneskin—so that slot isn’t even available. (How does the archmage know to combat is about to begin? Dude, 20 Intelligence. “Nolwenn an Gwrach, Supra-genius!”)

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NPC Tactics: Mages

Figuring out tactics for spellcasters is always complicated by the need to assess the relative merits of their spells, which requires application of game-theory math along with examination of their action economy. I’ll start with the mage non-player character, basically a level 9 wizard.

Before looking at spells, let’s look at abilities. Strength is below average, Dexterity above average: a mage is a ranged attacker by preference. Intelligence is very high: a mage knows which enemies to target with which spells. Wisdom is above average: a mage prioritizes self-preservation. In fact, given the amount of training and education a wizard has to undergo in order to do what he or she does, and also given how squishy magic-users typically are, I’d say the mage has an above-average interest in self-preservation and will commence escape protocols after taking only moderate damage (reduced to 28 hp or fewer).

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NPC Tactics: Cultists and Priests

A cynic might say that the only difference between an “acolyte” and a “cultist” is one’s point of view, but the Monster Manual would disagree. Piety takes different forms depending on whether an NPC is an extra or an antagonist.

The fifth-edition MM doesn’t even do cultists the courtesy of giving them spells to cast. In fact, for the most part, they’re just shifty commoners with exotic swords. They’re not strong, they’re not tough, and they’re not even stealthy. They have proficiency in Deception, whose only function as far as I can tell is either to try to convince you that they’re not cultists at all (“Nope, no sirree, just ordinary villagers going about our ordinary business!”) or for recruitment purposes (“Say, how’d you like to come to our low-key get-together/self-actualization workshop/poetry reading?”). Dark Devotion is an interesting feature but not one that suggests any distinctive combat tactic.

Normally, a creature whose only above-average ability is Dexterity is some sort of ranged sniper, but cultists don’t even carry ranged weapons. And why on earth would a demon worshiper need to have slightly above-average Dexterity? What is their actual deal?

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NPC Tactics: Bandits and Assassins

In yesterday’s post, I discussed non-player characters who are likely to be found enforcing the local law; today I’ll talk about the ones likely to be found breaking it, starting with bandits. The bandit stat block isn’t the ideal template for your typical back-alley burglar or pickpocket—oddly, the fifth-edition Monster Manual omits that archetype altogether. At the end of this article, I’ll provide a homebrew stat block you can use for that type of NPC. Rather, the MM bandit is more like a highwayman (on land) or a pirate (at sea), and his or her primary motivation is loot.

The bandit’s physical abilities are all modestly above average, with Dexterity and Constitution in the lead: bandits are scrappy fighters who rely on their numbers. They wield “scimitars,” for reasons I can only guess at—maybe this is the closest thing 5E Dungeons & Dragons has to a cutlass? Maybe because it treats shortswords as primarily stabbing weapons and thinks bandits ought to carry slashing weapons instead? I dunno. The weapon properties are the same, and the damage is the same except for the type, and if there’s any kind of armor or enchantment that resists slashing damage but not piercing damage or vice versa, I haven’t found it yet. In any event, you can let the flavor of the setting determine whether your bandits are carrying scimitars, cutlasses, arming swords, dirks, gladii or whatever—they all do 1d6 + 1.

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