Hags Revisited, Part 1

Volo’s Guide to Monsters includes an extended treatment of hags, and it heavily emphasizes lore: their scheming and manipulation, their names, their personalities, their use of odd mounts and vehicles and keeping of strange “pets,” their fondness for weird objects. But it also presents two much more powerful varieties, along with new information with the potential to alter hag tactics: lair actions and alternative coven spells.

Arch-hags, called “grandmothers,” gain access to powerful lair actions, and their lairs have regional effects. As with dragons and other powerful enemies, the regional effects are mostly for flavor, and those that do actual damage do so whether the resident hags are present or not. But the lair actions include a few curveballs.

All grandmother hags have access to two of these lair actions. One allows them to pass through solid walls, doors, ceilings and floors. The other allows them to open or close doors and/or windows at will, and a closed door or window may be magically locked against any attempt to force it open. If a battle is taking place in a hag’s lair, this can allow the hag to trap weaker enemies inside the lair—or in a single room within the lair. Or enemies chasing the hag through its lair may be cut off from one another by the sudden slamming of a door (giving the hag—and, by extension, the dungeon master—incentive to create lairs that are mazes of small rooms connected by doors). Or, if a battle is going poorly for the hag, it can make its escape by fleeing through a wall, possibly leaving its would-be pursuers locked inside.

A sea hag normally prioritizes opponents who are engaging it in melee. The simulacrum lair action gives it a free opportunity, on alternating rounds, to engage non-frightened opponents beyond melee reach with a doppelgänger made of seaweed and other coastal trash. Each of these simulacra lasts from initiative count 20 in one round until initiative count 20 in the next round, so it will have only one opportunity to get a hit in before it falls apart. The ideal candidate for a simulacrum is a “glass cannon”—an opponent who can dish out a lot more damage than he or she can take—since the simulacrum gets all the original’s offensive stats (minus those that depend on his or her weapon or other equipment). Alternatively, if the sea hag is about to flee, it may create a simulacrum to run interference while it escapes.

A grandmother sea hag can also obscure an underwater area with ink that she can see through but others can’t, rendering them effectively blinded. But this depends on a couple of things. First, the lair has to be underwater, and the hag’s opponents must be fighting it there. Onshore, this lair action has no effect. Second, it’s no good if the lair is in a river, an ocean or sea, or a lake large enough to experience tides (such as the Great Lakes of North America), because the current will wash the ink away after just half a round. In such circumstances, the sea hag can use the ink to cover its escape only if it takes its turn before initiative count 10.

A grandmother green hag can create an illusory duplicate that can’t take actions or reactions but can interact with physical objects. It must remain within sight of the hag; if line of sight is broken, the double vanishes. This is tactically problematic for a few reasons. First, no one who sees what happens can mistake the double for the original (although the act of handling a physical object may create enough doubt in anyone who observes it to pose the question of whether the double is something more than just an illusion). Second, since the hag must keep it in view, the double can’t stand in for the hag while it makes an escape. Third, the double can’t fight, cast a spell, Dodge an incoming blow or even Dash to move more quickly. Fourth, a single point of damage dispels it. It’s an interesting ability to have, but it’s so situational that I can’t think of a general case that would trigger the use of it. Maybe it could be used to momentarily lead pursuers in the wrong direction?

Grandmother night hags have two extra lair actions. One is to banish a creature to a “prison demiplane” for a single round. The other is to fling up to three creatures through the air. Once again, we have an odd disconnect between the hag’s power and its modus operandi. Of the three basic varieties of hag, the night hag is the one most likely to be encountered outside its lair, as it roams in search of victims to corrupt. A night hag poised over a sleeping victim that’s caught in the act would naturally love to be able to banish that witness to another plane or chuck him or her across the room, but these actions are available to the night hag only on its own turf. So these otherwise fitting abilities are nothing more than a couple of extra home-defense mechanisms, applicable only in one highly specific scenario: The player characters are hunting down a grandmother night hag (not just an ordinary one) in her own lair. And if they’ve pursued it that far, why won’t it just abandon ship altogether with plane shift as soon as it recognizes that the PCs are a real threat?

Man, so much of this is just extra complexity for not much payoff—and I haven’t even started on the alternative coven spell lists yet. The fifth-edition Monster Manual made me appreciate hags as an enemy in a way I never had before. Volo’s is making me think, “They’re interesting, but not this interesting.” It seems to be written for DMs who build entire campaigns around hag encounters. Are there many of those?

Sigh. Digression over. All right, let’s suppose that your PCs are fighting a grandmother night hag in its own lair, and it has some reason not to bug out right away. Banishment: Use it against the opponent who has the most robust action economy (Extra Attack, bonus actions, etc.) in order to stall for time. The night hag’s Intelligence is 16, high enough for it to be able to figure out who this is after just one round of combat, but not high enough for it to be able to make this assessment before combat begins. Therefore, this lair action will be used in round 2 or later. Fling: Use it to scatter melee opponents when surrounded, to make a quick end of frailer foes, or both. Range doesn’t matter. Requires a Con save, so the hag probably won’t try it on dwarves or barbarians. Volo’s doesn’t say this ability can be aimed, but it doesn’t say it can’t, either, so I’d say that flung enemies can and should be flung out windows whenever feasible. Whether those windows are open or not.

The two new hag varieties introduced in Volo’s are the annis hag and the bheur (pronounced vay-ur) hag. These are much more powerful than ordinary hags, even night hags. They’re not for low-level PCs.

Annis hags have mental abilities comparable to green hags’, but physically, they’re much stronger—even stronger than night hags. They have resistance to physical damage from nonmagical weapons as well as to cold damage. In their normal form, they’re Large creatures, but they can disguise themselves to appear Medium-size. (This is an innately cast disguise self spell, not the night hag’s Change Shape feature, so it takes no time to drop if the annis hag chooses.)

Annis hags aren’t stealthy. They are thick-skinned (natural AC 17!), but their standout ability is their extraordinary Strength. Their preference is to end a fight as fast and violently as possible. Consequently, they’ll favor their ferocious claw/claw/bite Multiattack over the slower Crushing Hug.

Crushing Hug requires a close read, because it doesn’t act the same way that some grappling attacks do. An enemy caught by Crushing Hug is not restrained, only grappled. Its movement speed is 0, but it can fight back, without disadvantage. Nor does the annis hag have advantage on attacks against a Crushing Hug victim—in fact, it can’t attack at all while it’s crushing a foe. It can only continue the Crushing Hug. If it wants to claw or bite the victim, or someone else, it has to let go first. There’s no combo attack here.

However, the annis hag is surprisingly fast. Its base movement speed is 40 feet, so it can close unexpectedly with opponents who might believe themselves to be out of reach. In this case, an annis hag may choose to bust out a surprise Crushing Hug against an elusive or otherwise annoying opponent before he or she can get away. Oh, also, this grapple works against Large creatures as well as Medium and Small, and an annis hag isn’t above giving a Crushing Hug to a rider’s mount. Yep. The annis hag will attack Horsey—and probably kill Horsey in one hug. What part of “chaotic evil” was unclear?

With their high AC and resistance to normal weapons, they’re not going to have any fear of fighters, even those with Extra Attacks. They’ll have it in for spellcasters, though, and this includes paladins, who like to cast smite spells and enchant people’s weapons and stuff. In fact, annis hags will probably target those goody-two-shoes crusaders out of spite and malice as well as threat assessment.

The fact that they’re violent brutes doesn’t mean they’re mindless or reckless, however. Their Wisdom, at 14, is high enough for them to know when the odds are against them, and they won’t willingly fight such a battle—alone. If they’re not caught by surprise, they’ll come to the fight with enough ogre or troll minions to tilt the encounter in their favor. And if they’re moderately wounded (reduced to 52 hp or fewer) despite the favorable odds, they’ll cast fog cloud to cover their retreat—and leave their stupid minions behind.

Bheur hags are different from other hags. Most distinctively, they’re not brutes. With their high Dexterity and merely above-average Strength, and with no resistance to bludgeoning, piercing or slashing damage, bheur hags prefer to keep their distance from their opponents. They’re proficient in Stealth and can walk and climb across ice without inconvenience or penalty, and they’ll take advantage of this, engaging with their opponents on treacherous, icy ground whenever possible.

With its graystaff, a bheur hag can fly (speed: 50 feet), or it can cast one of several extra spells, but it can’t do both at the same time: it has to be seated on the staff to fly on it, and it has to hold the staff in its hands to cast spells with it. There are loopholes here, though. For instance, there’s nothing stopping a bheur hag from flying 50 feet, landing and using the staff to cast a spell within a single round, or from casting a spell, mounting the staff and flying 50 feet on it. It can also Dash while airborne, flying twice as far; use another object; or even make a Slam attack. What it can’t do is fly 50 feet, remain in the air and cast a spell before flying another 50 feet. If it’s going to cast a spell with the graystaff, it has to land first. [Ignore all this. I was imagining the graystaff as a spellcasting focus, but it’s not—it’s just a thing that activates the bheur hag’s Innate Spellcasting, which requires no material component and therefore no spellcasting focus. Thanks to the commenter who pointed out my error. –KA–]

The bheur hag always has access to ray of frost, but this does only 1d8 damage, less than its melee attack, so it strongly prefers to use its graystaff to cast spells. Cone of cold is the gold standard here: the bheur hag will always prefer this spell as long as it can catch six of its foes (or all of them, if there are fewer than six) within the area of effect. If it has five or more opponents, and it can catch four of them within a 20-foot radius, it will cast ice storm. A pair of particularly threatening melee opponents less than 20 feet from each other will be trapped under a dome-shaped wall of ice, whereas if there’s only one opponent who seems dangerously chargy-bashy, the bheur hag will use hold person on him or her.

A note about Maddening Feast: The flavor text notes, “When a bheur hag his fully in the throes of combat and has recently slain one of her foes, she often forgoes a direct attack on her remaining enemies and instead takes a moment to feed on the corpse.” OK, but look carefully at the stat block wording: “The hag feasts on the corpse of one enemy within 5 feet of her that died within the past minute” (emphasis mine). A PC reduced to 0 hp is not necessarily dead, merely unconscious (Player’s Handbook, page 197). The bheur hag won’t swoop in and start snacking unless the PC has been instantly killed or until he or she has failed three death saving throws. Consequently, you won’t often use this feature, unless the unfortunate meal-to-be is a non-player character destined to die for this purpose. And when you do, it needn’t last more than one turn.

Bheur hags in a coven that cast eyebite will favor the panic option, since they want to keep their opponents at a distance. That the frightened opponent has disadvantage on attacks against the hag casting the spell is icing on the cake. Aside from counterspell, however, they’ll generally eschew their coven spells in favor of their graystaffs’ spells, with one exception: one bheur hag in the coven may cast hold person, boosted to 5th level, to pin clustered opponents in place so that its sister hags can repeatedly pelt them with cone of cold or ice storm.

A bheur hag will flee when seriously injured (reduced to 36 hp or fewer), mounting its graystaff and flying away, using the Dodge action to avoid incoming attacks.

This is already awfully long, so I’m going to save my look at alternative coven spells for a subsequent post.

16 thoughts on “Hags Revisited, Part 1

  1. A super fascinating article! You’re right that the lair actions leave a bit to be desired. In defense of the night hag, I suppose that a higher-level party tracking down a coven including/led by a night hag could conceivably Counterspell the hag’s Plane Shift to stop their escape – though that’s a very specific and niche situation. As for the green hag’s illusion lair action, I was thinking that perhaps if the party is trying to execute a heist on the hag, the illusion might be able to help play keep away with whatever the treasure is, but again, that’s very niche.

    I especially liked the discussion of how bheur covens would best use their spells – I hadn’t even thought of trying to pin the party with Hold Person so the AoEs hit better. If it doesn’t work, the party is at least given a spook as they realize what could’ve happened, and if it DOES work, well… that could be a pretty devastating hit!

  2. As I read it, the green hag’s lair action is a pre-combat ability used for misdirection. It directly influences lair design – a good green hag’s lair should be built like a spider’s web – deliberately crafted to draw in and confound chosen prey. It should have a protected, hidden nerve center that allows them to observe many other chambers. In this way, they can manifest their duplicates and manipulate them from a safe hiding place (it says the duplicate appear’s “in its own space” – not the hag’s space, and no distance limit other than visibility). It’s also the flawless use of the Prophecy spell group – arcane eye and/or clairvoyance allow the controlling hag to manifest and maintain her visual control of the duplicate absolutely anywhere in the lair.

    The duplicate not only confuses PCs by disappearing if they attack it or it walks around a corner, it can also manipulate and activate traps, hand the PCs a “gift”, or even hold a fragile object so that if/when the PCs attack it and cause it to vanish, the object itself smashes to the floor or drops out a window/into a chasm. It’s a masterful telepresence spell if the hag takes the time to set up the environment to best effect.

  3. Great post, I currently plan a short Hag centric arc and am still looking for more flavor.
    I can see players trying to disarm a Bheur Hag to get their hands on the greystaff instantly, for like flying and stuff, likely I would say they can’t use it, unless they become a hag or put some effort into it.

    1. I’m also working on a “hag arc” currently, this is useful. (I’m playing a game that breaks down the lines between “good guys” and “bad guys” pretty fundamentally, so it’s likely at least one of the hags will be an information source for the party as much as an antagonist.)

    1. Sure, but not in any tactically advantageous way. Per Xanathar’s, page 77, a falling creature plummets 500 feet in a round. Starting from the air, it would take five rounds of Dashing to reach a safe altitude, and at that point, the bheur hag would be out of spellcasting range at the start of its next turn; it would have to fall to an altitude from which it could reach its targets again before casting a spell. As a “You thought I was gone, but now I’m back!” kind of ploy, it might work, but it seems to me like the bheur hag has a variety of better things to do.

  4. Excellent article, and along with your other hag coverage, very helpful for the campaign I’m running right now, as the PCs are about to unwittingly stumble into a green hag’s nefarious plots.

    I thought I’d mention a situation that didn’t come up in your analysis regarding her lair actions. Since a green hag can turn invisible at will with her Invisible Passage ability, the illusory duplicate could be useful for a bit of mid-combat misdirection, or to cover a sneaky escape. It depends on whether a lair action interrupts her invisibility, but it seems to me it wouldn’t.

    A savvy player might pick up on the fact that the duplicate appeared on initiative 20 instead of on the hag’s turn (unless you’re lucky enough that the hag’s turn coincides with the lair action), but it might just get missed in the confusion, especially if the hag has minions in her employ during the combat (and what self-respecting hag doesn’t?).

  5. You missed a few combos with the Annis Hag. First if the Annis hag could use disgusie self to get close to an unsuspecting person then attack him with the crushing hug or melee attacks.

    Also this is the main combo that was not mentioned. When the Annis had hugs a creature it can’t attack but it can still take actions. It can’t use any of its spells but it can dodge to prevent attacks whiles it crushes the player or disengage 40 feet away faster than most creatures can run or take the opportunity attacks and move 80 feet away out or melee range.

  6. I recently discovered your site, and because I am soon going to be running a hag encounter for a group of level 10 adventurers. So, I read part 1 and 2 of Hags Revisted, as well as the original “Hag Tactics” post from 2016. I got the overall impression from my reading that you find Hags in 5e to be disappointing in terms of their combat tools. But, it seems to me that, at least regarding Bheur Hags, this disappointment stems from an unnecessarily restrictive reading of their abilities. You said, “With its graystaff, a bheur hag can fly (speed: 50 feet), or it can cast one of several extra spells, but it can’t do both at the same time: it has to be seated on the staff to fly on it, and it has to hold the staff in its hands to cast spells with it.” However, this seems to be a false dichotomy. Why must the hag either sit astride the graystaff OR grasp it with her hands? Why can’t the hag do both? I was unable to find any text in the statblock or in the introductory description that prohibited the bheur hag from holding on to the staff while riding it, and it I know that if I were zipping about on a flying stick, I’d be holding onto that stick with all my might!

    Of course, many spells have somatic components, so the hag might not be able to hang onto the staff with both hands while flying, but I couldn’t find anything in the text that would prevent her from sitting on the staff, while grasping it with one hand, and using the other to perform somatic components?

    What am I missing?

    1. You know, I was treating the graystaff as if it were a spellcasting focus, but I think I faked myself out with that. All the stat block says is that a bheur hag can cast the asterisked spells using Innate Spellcasting while holding the staff, and Innate Spellcasting says no material component is required—which means not even a spellcasting focus is required. So as long as the hag uses one free hand to perform any somatic component of a spell and holds onto the staff with the other, riding the staff like a broomstick should pose no hindrance.

      1. Even if the graystaff were a spell casting focus, though, would that make a difference? The Sage advice compendium says “If a spell has a somatic component, you can use the hand
        that performs the somatic component to also handle the
        material component. For example, a wizard who uses an
        orb as a spellcasting focus could hold a quarterstaff in one
        hand and the orb in the other, and he could cast lightning
        bolt by using the orb as the spell’s material component and
        the orb hand to perform the spell’s somatic component.” What a great source of comedy or just haggish weirdness it would be to describe a hag’s crazy flight pattern while the hand holding the graystaff is used to make somatic componants. A few loop-de-loops and barrel rolls and zig zags, and then whammo! Cone of Cold.

        Link to the compendium (see pg 13) http://media.wizards.com/2017/dnd/downloads/SA-Compendium.pdf

        1. That interpretation was why I’d deemed it impractical to use the staff as a spellcasting focus. The classic trope is that a wizard with a wand or staff waves it around, then aims it at the target; the wizard doesn’t hold it still while waving his or her other hand around.

      2. Also, I really appreciate your work on this site generally, and for engaging with me on this topic in particular. Whether we end up agreeing with each other or not, our brief discussion about bheur hags has helped me think through an encounter I soon will present to our group, and I think the encounter will be better because of it. Thanks!

  7. Here’s a thought on the annis hag and its rather paradoxically poor crushing hug.

    There is nothing in the rules to prevent the hag using Crushing Hug (a melee weapon attack) as its opportunity attack when so provoked.

    This allows the annis hag to really wreak havoc as an ambusher, able to spring out from hiding (created by her fog cloud), tear into a high threat target and if it should try to flee from her, grab it in her crushing arms, dealing an immense amount of damage and then dealing it again on the start of its next turn if the creature so hugged fails to break free.

    Not to mention she can continue to take actions (just not attack) while hugging. Allowing her to run off with her victim (back through her fog cloud).

  8. Grandmother hags can open and close and lock doors in their lairs at will? then every floor should be a trap door that leads to something damaging or incapacitating. Grandmother sea hags should have lairs over water so they can dump intruders into dark waters at will, etc.

  9. The door-close-and-lock lair action works SO well with the Panicked option of Eyebite it’s nearly criminal; affected creatures are stuck inside, can’t unlock the door, can’t pick the lock, can’t break the door down, DOOR STUCK! Additionally, an Annis hag can Panic a creature right next to it, then Crushing Hug it when it runs away. Game over for that poor creature.

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