Golem Tactics

OK, I’m back. Let’s talk golems—living statues, animated through magic. (Specifically, according to legend, by hacking the divine power by which life was created; according to the Monster Manual, by summoning an animating spirit from the Elemental Plane of Earth.) Golems are fashioned to be servants, with great strength, limited intellect and no free will. A golem severed from the command of its creator may be either inert and harmless (if it could fulfill its last command) or dangerously berserk (if it couldn’t).

There are four types of golems in fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons: clay, stone, iron and flesh. One of these things is not like the others. The flesh golem is, for all intents and purposes, Frankenstein’s monster, and of all the types of golems, it has the most unfit vessel for its life force and the most existential angst. The clay golem, on the other hand, is the direct conceptual descendant of the Golem of Prague, and the stone and iron golems are stronger variations on this theme.

All golems are straightforward brutes, with exceptional (and in most cases extraordinary) Strength and Constitution and below-average Dexterity. If anything, they’re even more brutish than the average brute, because of their immunities to normal weapons and to many debilitating conditions (they can be incapacitated, knocked prone, restrained or stunned, but not charmed, frightened, paralyzed, petrified or poisoned). Any variation in behavior is going to come from their special features, so I’m going to focus largely on these.

The most distinctive thing about the flesh golem is its Aversion to Fire. A golem that takes fire damage has disadvantage on attacks and ability checks until the end of its next turn, so it’s going to steer clear of anyone wielding a flaming weapon of any kind, including a torch, or from an uncontrolled open flame, such as a slick of burning lamp oil or Greek fire. On its turn, it will compulsively move away from any such flame until there’s at least 30 feet between them. It may combine this movement with movement toward some other target, but the distance is nonnegotiable, and if there’s no other place or thing that it’s specifically moving toward, it will move directly and diametrically away from the flame. This aversion doesn’t apply to acid, lightning or radiant damage, just fire.

The second-most distinctive thing about the flesh golem is its Berserk feature. As constructs (i.e., arcane creations from inanimate materials), golems have no self-preservation instinct in the conventional sense. That is, they’ll seek to avoid obvious danger in the course of carrying out their orders—if you tell one to fetch something on the other side of a chasm, it will look for a bridge rather than march straight into it—but if they’re ordered to fight, they’ll fight till they’re destroyed. Whether controlled or uncontrolled, a seriously damaged flesh golem, rather than flee, will simply go haywire, attacking the nearest creature within its movement range. If there’s no one within range, it will attack an object instead.

The golem’s creator can talk it down, but aside from that, the only way to stop its berserk rage is, counterintuitively, to heal it back up to its hit point maximum.

The clay golem shares the Berserk feature with the flesh golem. In addition, it has the Acid Absorption feature: acid not only doesn’t harm it but heals it. Thus, while the flesh golem compulsively avoids fire, once a clay golem observes that one of its foes is dealing acid damage, it will compulsively pursue that foe. If more than one foe is dealing acid damage, it will go after whichever one is closest.

Clay golems also have the Haste feature, which is a little weird because of how it’s written. For the clay golem, Haste is an action, which means it can’t be taken in the same turn as a Multiattack action. A golem under Haste can Slam as a bonus action, however.

For the sake of comparison, let’s look at two different possible clay golem behaviors over the course of two rounds:

  • Multiattack, Multiattack. In round A, the golem makes two slam attacks. In round B, the golem makes two more slam attacks.
  • Haste, Multiattack. In round A, the golem makes one slam attack, as a bonus action. In round B, the golem makes two slam attacks, then a third slam attack as a bonus action. It also has +2 to its armor class and advantage on Dexterity saving throws in both rounds.

Essentially, by using Haste, the golem gains an AC bonus and advantage on Dex saves at the cost of having to put more of its attacking eggs in the second-round basket. Is this a good deal for the golem? D&D’s designers must believe it is, because they put Haste on a recharge.

That being said, there’s clearly a lot more benefit to forgoing an attack in the first round of combat in exchange for bonuses that apply in the first and second rounds than there is to, say, forgoing an attack in the third round in exchange for bonuses that apply to the third and fourth. A clay golem is much more likely to be able to cash in on an attack delayed until round 2 than one delayed until round 4 or later.

But here’s the counterpoint: The clay golem has Intelligence 3. Its behaviors aren’t simply mechanical, they’re purely mechanical. It may not be enough to say that if the clay golem has Haste available to it, it will probably use it, or that it will use it if it seems to make more sense than not using it. We may have to conclude that if the clay golem has Haste available, it automatically uses it. (With one somewhat obvious exception: Even if it recharges, it doesn’t make sense for a golem to use Haste two turns in a row. Haste offers little payoff unless the golem can make its three slam attacks in the subsequent round.)

The stone golem’s single unique feature is Slow, which is also a recharge ability. It’s limited only by radius, not by number of targets, and will apply to essentially every character engaged in melee with the golem, possibly including supporters as well. With a radius of 10 feet, this power pays for itself if it affects just two enemies. Against only one, however, it’s not worth the cost of the action, because it means giving up a Multiattack. The rule, therefore, is that the stone golem will use Slow when (a) it’s available and (b) two or more enemies who are not already Slowed are within 10 feet of it.

The iron golem has Fire Absorption, which works the same way as the clay golem’s Acid Absorption and has the same effect, except with regard to fire rather than acid. It also has Poison Breath, a small-scale equivalent of a dragon’s breath weapon. The 15-foot conic area of effect calls for a minimum of two targets; however, with Intelligence 3, the iron golem isn’t knowledgeable enough not to use this feature on dwarves or stout halflings. It will use its Poison Breath on the most, nearest enemies, whatever they may be.

As for its weapon attacks, its sword has a longer reach and does more damage; therefore, it will always prefer a sword attack over a slam attack, unless it’s somehow disarmed.

Next: remorhazes.

15 thoughts on “Golem Tactics”

  1. Nice breakdown. I like the bit about making the golems’ behaviors automatic so they don’t necessarily adapt as well, such as the Clay Golem always using Haste automatically (except for the obvious exception) and the Iron Golem using its Poison Breath indiscriminately, without regard for enemies who might resist.

    I’ve found that it’s surprisingly important to balance out really clever enemies with creatures that are a bit dumber. While it may be fun for me as the DM to outwit and outmaneuver the players – all while using only the evil mage’s in-character knowledge – the players still want to feel powerful and heroic, so it pays to include encounters wherein the enemies make mistakes that allow the player’s special abilities to shine. A dwarf wants to shrug off poison damage sometimes, and a dragonborn is hoping their resistance pays off eventually!

    So while it is technically disadvantageous to the golem and its creator for it to be capable of squandering its poison breath, doing so is not only in-character for the golem, but a great moment for your players to feel strong!

    I guess my point in this long-winded post is that I really appreciate how this blog not only describes how to play certain creatures intelligently, but also how certain others can be play unintelligently. It creates a nice balance.

  2. Glad you’re back! All three of my parties have commented that my creatures feel more real since I started using your tactics. Keep up the good work!

  3. I might add something that you may have missed:

    A flesh golem is essentially Frankenstein’s monster, who historically had an aversion to fire as well. This may explain that feature.

  4. How would a stone golem tasked with guarding a dungeon react to a character fleeing over a wide chasm? Would it:
    a) attempt to make the jump to pursue
    b) take an alternate route to the other side
    c) remain in place at the edge of the cliff and watch the PC

    If it loses line of sight to the PC, how long before it would return to its standard “guard” mode?

    I think of these guys as big lumbering machines inclined to hit, rather than jump. I realize its an athletics check, but it seems to clash with the tone.

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts.

    1. I think of them, like all constructs, as being very literal in the execution of their instructions. If they’ve been tasked with guarding a dungeon, and the character is fleeing, the character isn’t trying to get into the dungeon anymore, so the golem would consider the dungeon successfully guarded and have no further need to pursue. If the chasm is part and parcel of the dungeon, that’s another matter. Stone golems are equal in Intelligence to zombies, which take the most direct path to wherever they’re going. If the character successfully leapt the chasm, it might try to do the same. If the character crossed it by normal means, the golem would probably avail itself of the same means. If the character flew across by magic, it would probably stop at the edge of the chasm, flummoxed, unless it knew of another way to cross.

  5. Flesh Golems have Lightning Absorption, so the same rules that apply for clay golem and acid damage apply for the flesh golem and lightning damage. A clever necromancer might bind a will o’ wisp to accompany their flesh golem at all times, as a way to keep it topped up and prevent it from going berserk.

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