Devil Tactics: Abishais

I’ve got Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes in my hot little hands, and the first request I’ve gotten is for abishais, a kind of devil-dragon hybrid. It would be lovely if they followed a nice, regular pattern of features, as dragons do, but unfortunately, they’ve inherited their fiendish progenitors’ all-over-the-place-ness.

There are certain things all abishais have in common, though:

  • Impressive natural armor, with ACs ranging from 15 up to 22.
  • Brisk flying speeds.
  • Above-average abilities across the board, with peaks varying according to type.
  • Resistance to physical damage from nonmagical, non-silvered weapons, along with cold damage (except for white abishai, which are fully immune to cold).
  • Immunity to fire and poison damage, along with the types corresponding to their draconic progenitors’ breath weapons (this means that red and green abishai don’t get an extra type), and immunity to being poisoned.
  • Long-range darkvision and telepathy.
  • Devil’s Sight (the ability to see through magical darkness), Magic Resistance and Magical Weapons.
  • At least two attacks per Multiattack action, along with additional elemental damage when they claw or bite.

So here are a few things we can already infer about abishais in general: fearlessness toward most other beings; tactics built around aerial attacks (since opportunity attacks pose little threat to them); and a strong preference for operating underground, at night or in artificial darkness.

The white abishai, like its draconic progenitor, is at the bottom of the abishai pecking order. It’s a brute, with high Strength and exceptional Constitution, but not a stupid one—its Intelligence is average and its Wisdom above-average. It has the fiendish ancestry to thank for that.

Although it’s feasible for the white abishai to hold station in the air between turns, flying down to attack and then flying back up out of reach of its enemies’ melee weapons, it does have one incentive to remain engaged. That’s its Vicious Reprisal action, which allows it to use its reaction to counterattack when it takes damage. Additionally, it has the Reckless feature, allowing it to attack with advantage at the cost of conferring advantage on its enemies’ attacks as well.

Vicious Reprisal is good for only one counter-bite per turn, and if you do the math, it’s immediately obvious that Reckless is good if and only if outgoing attacks equal or outnumber incoming attacks. For both of these reasons, a white abishai is willing—eager, even—to engage an opponent in protracted melee on the ground, but only one. If its foes try to double- or triple-team it, it’s right back to hanging out in the air between turns.

The white abishai has an unfortunate limitation on its Multiattack: It must make one claw attack and one longsword attack. This is kind of bogus for the abishai, because having no shield, it would really like to wield that sword with both hands, but it can’t really do that if it’s combining sword attacks with claw attacks. (Yes, you can imagine it swinging a sword with both hands, then letting go of the sword with one hand to attack with its claws, but that’s weird and awkward and one of those cases in which I think common sense has to prevail over what the rules technically allow.)

The Multiattack is still the white abishai’s best attack option, offering a d8 plus a d10 plus two damage bonuses, versus a single d10 (longsword or claw alone) or a d4 and a d6 with only one damage bonus. A bite attack is its second choice, offering a tiny extra half-point of average damage on a hit, plus the ability to bypass the resistance to physical damage afforded by a barbarian’s Rage.

White abishais aren’t brilliant at target prioritization, but attacks that bypass their damage resistances and immunities will grab their attention, and they’ll bend their efforts to destroying the foes who deliver them. This includes spells that require Dexterity or Wisdom saving throws and any spell or weapon that does acid, lightning, thunder, necrotic, radiant, force or psychic damage.

The black abishai is a finesse fighter, less sturdy than the white abishai, with exceptional Dexterity but merely above-average Strength and Constitution. It has proficiency in Stealth and Perception and a high Wisdom, plus the Shadow Stealth feature, which lets it Hide as a bonus action. This beastie is a shock attacker that prefers to ambush its foes, and it has the perfect feature to complement this fighting style: Creeping Darkness.

Not only can the black abishai see in magical darkness, it can create that darkness and rule the roost while within it. In fact, it has little reason not to use this action to initiate combat, even if its environment already provides it with sufficient darkness to hide in, unless all its enemies are oblivious to its presence. This is because if it simply attacks from hiding, its first attack gives its position away, denying it advantage on its second and third. But if it attacks from magical darkness, it gains unseen attacker advantage on its entire Multiattack. Not only that, it imposes disadvantage on denies its opponents’ opportunity attacks when it retreats after striking. Only taking its opponents completely by surprise will be enough to make up for this benefit.

Not only does the black abishai use its Creeping Darkness to confer advantage on its own attacks and impose disadvantage on its opponents’, it also moves it tactically to blind enemy spellcasters, foes whose attacks bypass its damage resistances and immunities, and anyone else who inconveniences it—within the limits of its 30-foot diameter, of course. It casts darkness around head height, rather than at ground level, to allow itself more aerial clearance while staying within the confines of the spell.

This feature is so advantageous to the black abishai that, depending on its orders and who issued them, it may choose to abandon combat entirely if its opponents manage to neutralize it, such as by casting dispel magic or daylight. Abishais are lawful evil, though, so a black abishai will abort its mission only if it appraises its chances and concludes that without Creeping Darkness, its chances of success are slim to none.

The green abishai is a skirmisher and a master manipulator that will resort to combat only if chicanery fails. Spies and negotiators, green abishais use the bulk of their spell repertoire to do their masters’ bidding, keeping confusion and at least one use of fear in reserve for when a fight breaks out.

The green abishai has a unique Multiattack that allows it to cast one spell in addition to making a claw attack, so its first action in combat will be to cast fear or confusion, depending on how its opponents are arrayed, then to slash up an enemy who makes his or her saving throw (passing up dwarves and green dragonborn, on whom green abishais know that their poison doesn’t work well). On its second turn, it switches to its sword/claw Multiattack.

Why not cast another spell? Two reasons: First, most of its spells require concentration, so it can cast only one of those at a time. Second, except for alter self and major image, they all require Wisdom saving throws. If one doesn’t work, the others aren’t likely to, either.

Of all the types of abishai, the green abishai is the only one whose saving throw proficiencies include none of the “big three” (Dexterity, Constitution and Wisdom). Thus, despite its Magic Resistance, spellcasters pose a heightened threat to it, and it knows it. Its armor class and hit points, on the other hand, are great. For these reasons, spellcasters—especially clerics, druids and rangers, who have the best resistance to the green abishai’s own spells—are at the top of its target priority list.

Green abishais aren’t into melee engagement. They hang out in the air between turns, fly down to attack, then fly back up. No other style suits them, and if it’s not working, they bail out.

The blue abishai is a mastermind and versatile spellcaster, with extraordinary Intelligence and Wisdom and exceptional Charisma and Constitution. Despite its having above-average Strength and Dexterity, its mental abilities are so superior that it resorts to melee fighting only if it’s getting nowhere with magic.

  • Teleport is a powerful escape hatch, though it may be overkill if the blue abishai has a safe base that it can reach using dimension door.
  • Chain lightning is murder in a can, dealing an expected 135 points of lightning damage in a single casting. The blue abishai won’t use its 6th-level spell slot for anything else.
  • Cone of cold is spectacular against squishies, dealing an expected 162 points of cold damage—but only if the blue abishai can catch six enemies inside the area of effect. Against four or fewer enemies, chain lightning is better. Against five, it’s a tie. But this is ceteris paribus, assuming that the targets have equal chances of making a Dexterity save or a Constitution save. The blue abishai knows which of these your player characters’ party will have a harder time making, because you’ll do the math on its behalf before your session begins. It then casts chain lightning against a party more likely to botch Dex saves, cone of cold against one more likely to botch Con saves.
  • Wall of force puts annoying ranged attackers in timeout so that the blue abishai can get on with the business of melting the melee fighters.
  • Dimension door is an escape hatch that the blue abishai may or may not need, depending on where the fight takes place.
  • Greater invisibility lets the blue abishai wreak havoc wholly unseen, even as it attacks and casts spells.
  • Ice storm does only 69 points of expected damage, less than that against a Raging barbarian. Boosting it to 5th level adds only 14 points of expected damage. The blue abishai is probably better off boosting lightning bolt, unless it can’t get its foes to line up.
  • Dispel magic is dandy for debuffing PCs and for shutting down their attempts to impose magical constraints.
  • Fear is situationally useful, but the blue abishai would probably rather sustain greater invisibility or darkness.
  • Lightning bolt does 21 points of expected damage per target if cast at 3rd level, 24 at 4th level and 26 at 5th level, and it’s always possible to target at least two opponents. Ideally, though, the blue abishai would like to target at least three, to make it competitive with ice storm.
  • Darkness is nothing but win for an abishai of any sort. Its utility is slightly reduced for the blue abishai, though, because most of its attacks require saving throws rather than attack rolls, and being blinded doesn’t impose disadvantage on saves, not even Dex saves. Illogical? Maybe, but that’s the way it is. Suppose, though, that there’s a particular enemy who’s showing an irksome resistance to the blue abishai’s magical attacks. In that case, the blue abishai has the option of dropping a darkness spell on him or her and delivering a few melee attacks before returning to its default modus operandi.
  • Mirror image is useful if and when the blue abishai’s attempts to cast greater invisibility and darkness have been thwarted and enemy melee fighters and marksmen are overperforming, most likely because they have magic weapons.
  • Misty step is one of only two ways a blue abishai can enhance its action economy, the other one being expeditious retreat. Unfortunately, it also precludes casting any other leveled spell in the same turn. Thus, it will always be combined with a melee Multiattack (shocking grasp isn’t good enough to compete).
  • Chromatic orb is subpar compared with the rest of the blue abishai’s repertoire. It will probably flee before reaching the point where this spell is the best it can do.
  • Disguise self is a noncombat spell.
  • Expeditious retreat has the same drawback as misty step.
  • Magic missile is better than chromatic orb, but not by much.
  • Charm person is a noncombat spell.
  • Thunderwave is OK if the blue abishai gets triple-teamed, or worse. But remember that the area of effect isn’t centered on the caster—it’s adjacent to the caster.

A blue abishai is very, very smart. It could lead with darkness, and maybe, under certain circumstances, it will. But it also knows that an enemy party of any substance is likely to have dispel magic or daylight, making darkness a waste of time, and in that case it will lead with greater invisibility instead. If that spell is nullified, it may switch to mirror image, but more likely it will accept that the fight is going to have to take place out in the open and use cone of cold to freeze its opponents or wall of force to split them up. It will then work its way down through its spells, trying to maximize its damage with each action. Once it’s out of uses of lightning bolt and ice storm, it will switch to its melee Multiattack rather than cast chromatic orb, magic missile or shocking grasp. And it will always remain in the air unless forced down, hovering out of its enemies’ melee reach between turns.

As for target prioritization, it knows that it’s most likely to take damage from enemies who deal acid, thunder, force, psychic, radiant or necrotic damage and/or cast spells that require Dex saves, so these are the ones it tries to take out first.

The red abishai is a brute, though “brute” understates the case. A “devastation” may be more apt, since a red abishai is in fact more formidable than an adult red dragon—especially if it’s got allies with it.

Its Multiattack includes a claw attack, a bite attack, a weapon attack and a use of Frightful Presence. The thing about Frightful Presence, though, is that it works either on the first try or not at all, so you may as well forget about it after that initial use.

As a brute, the red abishai favors melee engagement, though it still employs the tactic of hovering between turns, flying down to attack, then flying back up out of reach, simply because it can. Unlike the blue abishai, it can’t “read” its opponents’ abilities to know what they’re capable of; it doesn’t know it until it sees for itself. But when it does observe that an enemy attacks with a magic weapon, especially one that does acid, lightning, thunder, force, psychic, radiant or necrotic damage, it will single out that enemy for special attention.

The real power of the red abishai emerges when in the presence of allies. Its Incite Fanaticism action grants advantage on attacks and immunity to being frightened to four of its allies for 1 minute, effectively an entire combat encounter. There’s no reason for the red abishai not to make this its very first action in combat. Once its allies are empowered, it can begin smacking enemies down itself.

The last action available to the red abishai is Power of the Dragon Queen, which straight-up lets it charm a dragon—even an enemy dragon, and even a metallic dragon, although chromatic dragons are more susceptible to it. Once again, this is a “first try or not at all” ability. But it’s also a lot more powerful than your run-of-the-mill charm person: “While charmed in this way, the target regards the abishai as a trusted friend to be heeded and protected” (emphasis mine). That means it will believe what the red abishai tells it, follow its orders and defend it against other attackers. It’s not domination, but it’s the next best thing. The possibility of taking a dragon that’s neutral or allied to the PCs and turning it against them threatens an enormous swing in the balance of power, so of course the red abishai will do this if it’s able.

While abishais are faithful to their masters and committed to their duties, as all lawful evil creatures are, they can be killed outright on any plane, and self-preservation does matter to them. If a black, green, blue or red abishai is moderately wounded (reduced to 40 hp or fewer for a black abishai, 130 or fewer for a green abishai, 136 hp or fewer for a blue abishai, and 178 hp or fewer for a red abishai) and it can think of a way to follow its orders without further combat, it will stop to parley. If any abishai is seriously wounded (reduced to 27 hp or fewer for a white abishai, 23 hp or fewer for a black abishai, 74 hp or fewer for a green abishai, 78 hp or fewer for a blue abishai, and 102 hp or fewer for a red abishai), it will ask itself whether someone else’s chances of accomplishing the mission aren’t better than its own, and if it decides they are, it will Disengage and fly away (or teleport or dimension door away, in the case of a blue abishai). Only if it believes it’s the last, best hope for the success of its mission will it stay and fight to the last. Two commenters are correct that the Monster Manual flavor text about devils being killable only in the Nine Hells applies to all devils—including abishai. So there’s no reason for them to have any self-preservation impulse, and consequently no reason for them to flee a fight however seriously wounded they may be. However, green abishai may parley mid-combat anyway, just because that’s the kind of creature they are, and other abishai may retreat from combat if it gives them a second chance to fulfill their orders—but not simply to save their own skins.

Next: D&D Beyond calls the oblex “D&D’s new scariest monster.” Is that true? We’ll find out.

19 thoughts on “Devil Tactics: Abishais

  1. Excellent stuff, as always. One minor hangup though, in the Black Abishai’s bit it states that Darkness would grant disadvantage on opponent’s opportunity attacks. It’s actually much better than that, as you need to be able to see an opponent to take an opportunity attack against them!

    “You can make an opportunity attack when a hostile creature that you can see moves out of your reach.”

  2. Thanks for the excellent breakdown of my favorite devils. I really like how the different colors now have specific traits unique to them especially the reds.

  3. Since the Abishais are fiends I believe your comment that “they can be killed outright on any plane, and self-preservation does matter to them.”. Either I missed otherwise in their flavor text in MToF they’re fiends which according to the MM “If it dies outside the Nine Hells, a devil disappears in a cloud of sulfurous smoke or dissolves into a pool of ichor, instantly returning to its home layer, where it reforms at full strength. Devils that die in the Nine Hells are destroyed forever-a fate that even Asmodeus fears.”.

  4. “they can be killed outright on any plane”

    No they can’t they are devils, and so get all the benefits that devils do. Like being banished to the Nine Hells instead of actually dying outside of it.

  5. I do, however, believe that the self-preservation rules could still apply when the abishais are in the Nine Hells. Due to this reason, I don’t think that the entirety of the last paragraph should be crossed out. Just because they won’t flee in the middle of combat in a foreign plane doesn’t mean they won’t flee on the plane that, if they do perish, they will most likely forever be deceased.

  6. What do you mean by “the area of effect isn’t centered on the caster—it’s adjacent to the caster”? The text for thunderwave says “originating from the caster,” so I think that means the same thing as centered, right? In any case, why is that something that may limit its usefulness?

    1. No, not in the case of a cubic area of effect. Cubic areas of effect originate from a point centered on one side of the cube. It’s a weird rule that’s easy to miss.

  7. Couldn’t a white abishais fly down, multiattack, fly away, and then if it gets hit by an attack of opportunity make a vicious reprisal against the creature that made the attack of opportunity?

  8. What are your thoughts on whether or not the red could use the Power of the Dragon Queen on a Dragonborn? Would be fun to turn a party member against its companions.

        1. It could be used against a pseudodragon familiar, however, or against a player either True Polymorphed or Shapechanged into any dragon form.

  9. Pardon the lack of concrete original sources, but I think there is good reason for DMs to consider retreat for abishais. Death – even permanent oblivion – is only devils’ second-greatest fear. Their greatest fear is demotion. Earlier editions were clear that a devil that reforms on its home layer in the Nine Hells likely faced demotion. I run devils this way because that fear is a unique narrative element to them. No other standard creature type is more concerned with clawing their way up the hierarchy and avoiding anything that could move them down. It may give the players a break, but the insight into the mind of a foe that has survived centuries of torment, backstabbed and soul-harvested its way to the present conflict with the PC’s, and has ambitions of one day becoming poweful enough to usurp Asmodeus himself – that insight makes me DM them in far more dangerous ways.

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