Construct Tactics: Scarecrows, Helmed Horrors and Shield Guardians

Time for more things that will kill you even though they have no business moving around at all. The scarecrow and the helmed horror are much more capable of operating independently than animated objects; the shield guardian, on the other hand, is little more than an anthropomorphic drone.

Scarecrows, unlike animated objects, are brought to “life” by infusing them with the spirits of slain fiends or other evil creatures. They have an odd ability contour, mostly flat but with above-average Dexterity and Charisma. The latter seems to provide only a power source for their Terrifying Glare feature and some modest defense against banishment. The former suggests either a preference for ranged attacks over melee engagement or a reliance on Dexterity for both attack and defense—more on this in a moment.

Scarecrows are vulnerable to fire, and this presents an interesting behavioral wrinkle. Like other constructs, scarecrows must follow the commands of their creators, but unlike most other constructs, the source of their dynamic force is the spirit of a creature that was once alive. Combined with a Wisdom high enough to indicate a normal survival instinct, this suggests that a scarecrow threatened with fire will be torn between the instinct to flee and the compulsion to obey its creator. This will drive it a little bit haywire, as it tries simultaneously to flee the fire and kill the enemy who brandishes it. In this situation, don’t worry about whether the scarecrow’s actions make tactical sense. It should behave irrationally.

A scarecrow is resistant to physical damage from normal weapons. It also has an effective Multiattack that can impose the frightened condition, which is disadvantageous to an opponent trying to fight back. Its claw attacks use Dexterity, not Strength, so the scarecrow is best thought of as a shock attacker, specializing in swift, hard strikes and reluctant to engage in drawn-out combat. On the other hand, even two dice of damage don’t amount to much when the dice are d4’s. So how can we make this creature an effective shock attacker?

The key is Terrifying Glare and the fact that it can impose paralysis, a devastating condition to anyone afflicted by it. A paralyzed opponent is incapacitated and immobile, all attacks against him or her have advantage, and every hit from melee range is an automatic critical. That’s what makes the scarecrow a shock attacker: doubled damage dice.

Here’s how it all fits together. Using its False Appearance, a scarecrow lurks, motionless, until a target comes within 30 feet of it. It gazes upon that target with its Terrifying Glare. It doesn’t even need to raise its head to do this; it can merely swivel its eyes. This is not an “attack” as far as the rules are concerned, so whether it succeeds or fails, it doesn’t give away the scarecrow as anything but the straw dummy it appears to be. Also, unlike many monsters’ saving throw effects—for instance, dragons’ Frightful Presence—Terrifying Glare can be attempted on the same target repeatedly if it doesn’t work the first time.

The scarecrow uses this ranged #attacknotattack until it succeeds in frightening and paralyzing a target. (If it tries its Terrifying Glare on a target twice and that target makes his or her saving throw both times, it gives up on that target—it can tell it’s not going to work.) Once a target is paralyzed, that’s when the scarecrow springs into action: on its next turn (not before!), it closes to melee range and Multiattacks with its claws, with advantage on both rolls. Every hit is a crit—and means that the target continues to be frightened until the end of the scarecrow’s next turn, so he or she has disadvantage when trying to fight back. (Note, incidentally, that even if a quick-thinking ally of the target casts lesser restoration to end his or her paralysis before the scarecrow attacks, the target is still frightened—lesser restoration doesn’t remove that effect.)

A scarecrow will spend two turns engaged in melee with a target. After that, if the target’s not dead, too bad. At the end of the second turn, the scarecrow retreats its full movement speed (30 feet) from its foe, heedless of opportunity attacks because of its damage resistance. (The opponent can probably close that distance; he or she also probably won’t want to, considering the damage the scarecrow has done already.) This distance gives the scarecrow room to try its Terrifying Glare again, either on the same target or on someone else.

Scarecrows have darkvision, and fighting in darkness will embolden them to attack non-paralyzed, non-frightened creatures, as long as those creatures don’t also have darkvision. Against dwarves, elves, gnomes, et al., they’ll stick to their standard glare-first, julienne-later method.

A seriously wounded scarecrow (reduced to 14 hp or fewer) will flee, using the Dash action, if doing so doesn’t contradict the orders its creator has given it. If its creator has commanded it to fight to the death, it will, hissing and snarling with pain and rage.

A single scarecrow will pose a challenge to a whole party only if it’s made up entirely of level 1 characters. Although scarecrows don’t have high enough Wisdom to avoid fights in which they’re outmatched, if you as the dungeon master want to make a scarecrow encounter interesting for a party of higher-level player characters, you’ll want to make sure it includes more than one scarecrow. You can use the encounter balancing rules on pages 81–83 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide or the Unearthed Arcana Encounter Building article to get a sense of how many scarecrows to throw at them. Personally, I think if you’re going to include a scarecrow encounter at all, it should be a Hard encounter. It should have a palpable horror vibe, not a Scooby-Doo vibe.

Helmed horrors are much more straightforward. They have a high-Strength, high Constitution brute profile and a longsword Multiattack that complements it. They’re no Sun Zi, but they can adjust to adverse circumstances (though they won’t proactively try to alter them for its own benefit) and can identify a character’s class and assess his or her weaknesses as accurately as any ordinary observer could. If it’s feasible for them to do so, they’ll go after “glass cannon” (high damage output, low durability) opponents first.

Helmed horrors can fly at the same speed as they can move along the ground, and if their opponents aren’t pushovers, they’ll make free use of this ability to station themselves 10 feet up in the air, fly down to attack, then fly back up out of melee fighters’ reach. With an armor class of 20, resistance to physical damage from normal weapons and a decent store of hit points, they’re not going to worry about opportunity attacks.

Unless the creator of the helmed horror has some knowledge of the PCs’ party and their capabilities, use the default list of spell resistances, or one tailored to the adventure setting. However, if the creator does have intelligence on the party, feel free to have the helmed horror resist the spells the PCs lean on most.

Helmed horrors have no reason not to fight until they’re destroyed, and the only outward indication of how much damage they’ve taken will be armor pieces knocked askew and weird, irregular eruptions of light from where they’ve been hit.

Outwardly, a shield guardian looks a lot like a helmed horror or animated suit of armor, although PCs with a discriminating eye might describe them as something more along the lines of an “armor golem.” Their ability contour is pure brute, and they wield no weapons, attacking only with their fists. Shield guardians are bodyguards rather than independent sentinels; in a sense, they’re not even creatures as much as devices employed by those whom they protect. They do only what they’re commanded to do. Therefore, you should think of their tactics not as their own but as an extension of the tactics of their controllers. A more malevolent controller may send a shield guardian forth to demolish enemies; one who just wants to be left alone might order it to attack only those who pose a direct and immediate threat.

That being said, a key feature the creator will want to make use of is Shield, which makes the shield guardian function something like a PC fighter or paladin with the Protection fighting style. Instead of imposing disadvantage on the attack, however, it increases the controller’s AC by 2. Aside from this, the shield guardian is a simple melee-bot. It’s optimized for toe-to-toe combat and really can’t do anything else except discharge a stored spell.

Shield guardians are not resistant to weapon damage, but they do regenerate, regardless of what kind of damage they’ve taken. They also have the Spell Storing feature, which doesn’t require the controller to be conscious to use: “When commanded to do so by the wearer or when a situation arises that was predefined by the spellcaster [emphasis mine], the guardian casts the stored spell with any parameters set by the original caster.” Thus, the Spell Storing can function as a dead man’s switch, activating at the moment the controller loses consciousness or even sometime afterward.

I say “controller” rather than “creator” because the creator of a shield guardian can transfer control to someone else by giving him or her the amulet to which the shield guardian is bound. Killing the shield guardian presumably destroys the amulet, but killing the controller explicitly doesn’t. A character who takes possession of the amulet thereby takes control of the shield guardian.

Shield guardians have no reason not to fight until they’re destroyed.

Next: revenants, which a reader asked me to look at a long time ago. It got lost in the pile. My apologies.

4 thoughts on “Construct Tactics: Scarecrows, Helmed Horrors and Shield Guardians

  1. First, I love your blog info, especially for the info but just reading it is interesting.
    Second, once the shield guardian’s controller is dead what will they do? I used them and once the party killed the controller, I had the guardians stop in their tracks. I didn’t have them keep fighting, which I think was a mistake…

    1. You could go either way depending on the wording of their orders. “Uncommanded construct goes haywire trying to interpret its last command under unforeseen conditions” is an evergreen combat encounter hook.

  2. Planning to throw a Crowscare at the party to soup up a faction quest for Waterdeep Dragon Heist. That’s a Scarecrow with a Swarm of Ravens inside that are released as soon as the Scarecrow takes damage. Because, as you say, palpable horror.

  3. To clarify the scarecrow tactics, am I as a DM supposed to not tell my players that something tried to scare them until it’s actually successful? Even saying “you feel like something tried to scare you but you don’t know what” doesn’t make much sense to me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.