Elementals are spirits of air, fire, water and earth, usually summoned to do a spellcaster’s bidding. Each is physically powerful in some way, not too bright, able to see in the dark, capable of two melee attacks in a turn, resistant to physical damage from nonmagical weapons, and immune to exhaustion, paralysis, petrifaction, poisoning and unconsciousness. Beyond that, the elements they’re generated from grant them additional powers and influence their manner of movement and fighting.
Elementals are summoned spirits, not evolved creatures. They have no particular survival instinct—on the contrary, they’re bound to the will of their summoners and peevish about it, and what they want more than anything is to get back to the plane they came from. If they’re destroyed, they get exactly what they want. Consequently, elementals will fight to the death with zero concern for damage to themselves. They’re also indiscriminate in their target selection and may or may not keep attacking the same opponent round after round.
Air elementals are distinguished by their wicked fast 90-foot flying speed (their only form of movement); their extremely high Dexterity; their resistance to lightning and thunder damage; their immunity to grappling, restraint and falling prone; and their Air Form and Whirlwind features. Their Strength and Constitution are also high, but the contour of their physical abilities suggests a combat style based on being fast and hard to hit.
From the fact that it recharges, we can infer that the Whirlwind feature is the air elemental’s most favored weapon. Air elementals are Large creatures, meaning they take up four 5-foot squares (or three 5-foot hexes). Their Air Form feature allows them to occupy the same space as a hostile creature, and their Whirlwind feature allows them to affect creatures “in the elemental’s space,” meaning in all the squares (or hexes) they occupy. From the “Targets in Areas of Effect” table on page 249 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, we can calculate that a spell whose effect covered the same area as an air elemental would typically be expected to affect two people. Therefore, an air elemental will use this ability whenever (a) it has it available and (b) two or more of its opponents are within a single 10-foot square (or a triangle of three 5-foot hexes).
Whirlwind flings creatures that fail their Strength saving throws up to 20 feet “in a random direction.” It’s interesting that the text specifies a random direction but seems to leave the distance up to the dungeon master’s discretion. I’d choose one of these three methods of determining distance and direction:
- Determine the direction randomly, as written, by rolling a d8 for a square map (or a d6 for a hex map) and assigning numbers clockwise, starting with “northeast”; the target moves as far in that direction as it can until it strikes an obstacle (a wall, a piece of furniture, another creature) or reaches the maximum distance of 20 feet.
- Determine the direction randomly, as above, and also determine the distance randomly by rolling 1d4 and multiplying the result by 5 feet.
- Decide both the direction and the distance yourself, for maximum player enjoyment and/or DM amusement.
When not zeroing in on a cluster of enemies to use its Whirlwind feature, an air elemental will move continuously in narrowing and widening circles (counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere of your game world, clockwise in the southern), looping through its opponents and making slam attacks against any two whom it passes over—or, if it passes over only one, slamming that opponent twice. (Multiattack grants the air elemental two slam attacks—it doesn’t say they must be against the same target, and movement can be broken up between attacks and other actions any way one sees fit.) It uses its full movement each round and couldn’t care less about opportunity attacks.
Earth elementals are distinguished by their burrowing movement; their extremely high Strength and Constitution and low Dexterity; their vulnerability to thunder damage; their tremorsense, which lets them “see” other creatures by feeling the vibrations they transmit through the ground; and their Earth Glide and Siege Monster features.
Earth elementals are brutes, engaging opponents directly in melee combat. Although they choose their targets at random, once they’ve chosen them, they stubbornly stick with those targets, pounding on them until they’re subdued, unless their controller directs them to do otherwise. If they’re fighting in concert with another creature that makes ranged weapon or spell attacks, and that creature is fighting a target that’s taken cover, rather than choose a living target, they may choose to destroy the cover instead. The Siege Monster feature grants them double damage against the cover; armor class and hit points for inanimate objects are given on pages 246–47 of the DMG.
Note that the Earth Glide feature allows earth elementals to burrow only through unworked earth and stone. It can pass freely and easily through cavern walls or the dirt floor of a peasant’s hut, but not through the stone walls or floors of a castle. It can, however, smash through the stone walls or floors of a castle.
Fire elementals are distinguished by their immunity to fire damage, grappling, restraint and falling prone; and their Fire Form, Illumination and Water Susceptibility features. Their Strength is merely average, but their Dexterity and Constitution are very high: they’re scrappers. Like air elementals, fire elementals can occupy the same space as one or more opponents, and they use this feature to charge repeatedly through their enemies.
Fire elementals don’t necessarily move constantly, like air elementals do; what they try to do is set everyone on fire. Both their Fire Form feature and their touch attack ignite creatures and flammable objects. When a fire elemental uses Fire Form to ignite one or more creatures in a space it shares, this does an automatic 5 hp of fire damage to each creature; its fiery touch does twice as much damage to each creature it hits, but it requires an attack roll to hit. Against AC 15, it has a 60 percent chance of hitting, for 6 hp of expected damage—slightly higher than Fire Form’s.
On the other hand, Fire Form is not an action—it’s something that just happens as a fire elemental moves. It’s not required to stop in a hostile creature’s space to set that creature on fire—it sets a creature on fire whenever it first enters that creature’s space in a turn. It can still leave afterward, and the creature remains on fire. Thus, if it can move 50 feet and pass through every player along the way, setting each one on fire as it does, that’s exactly what it will do! And it still gets to make two fiery touch attacks, either along the way or afterward! And it can do this every turn! (I love discovering stuff like this.)
A fire elemental’s target selection process looks something like this: Is there someone who’s not on fire? If so, can I set him or her on fire just by rushing past? If so, do it! If not, can I reach him or her with a fiery touch attack at the end of my move? If so, do it. If not, oh, well, maybe next turn. If everyone’s on fire, then I’ll just stay where I am and keep hitting whoever’s in reach with my fiery touch.
There are two things that fire elementals don’t like: water and cold damage. These don’t simply hasten fire elementals’ return to their home plane—they dilute their essence, and that displeases them. However, they’re not smart or wise enough to know for sure whether they should avoid the source of the unpleasant effect or make it a top-priority murderization target. They might do either. Flip a coin.
Water elementals are distinguished by their swimming movement; their resistance to acid damage; their immunity to grappling, restraint and falling prone; and their Water Form, Freeze and Whelm features. They have high Dexterity and extremely high Strength and Constitution, a contour that makes them more brute-like than otherwise. And like air and fire elementals, they can occupy other creatures’ spaces.
Like the air elemental’s Whirlwind, the water elemental’s Whelm feature has a recharge, making it the preferred method of attack against any group of two or more opponents clustered within a 10-foot square (or three adjacent 5-foot hexes). One or two of these opponents may end up grappled and drowning. If an opponent is reduced to unconsciousness this way, the water elemental lets go of him or her—a blessing on solid ground, not so much in open water, as drowning people tend to sink, especially ones weighed down by armor, equipment and waterlogged clothing.
Water elementals don’t rush around the way air elementals do or sweep from opponent to opponent as fire elementals do. If the Whelm feature isn’t available to them (or there aren’t any clustered opponents to use it against), they make slam attacks against whoever’s within reach, and if no one’s within reach, they move only as far as the nearest opponent, then slam-attack him or her. If they must move farther than 30 feet over dry ground to reach an opponent, they favor clustered opponents over solitary ones.
Unlike fire elementals, which can’t stand water or cold damage, water elementals are indifferent to being frozen. It doesn’t make them any less watery; it just slows them down. Otherwise, they behave the same.