Old-school Dungeons and Dragons players will recall that the kuo-toa made their debut in the venerated, if somewhat incoherent, D-series of adventure modules, which also introduced the drow. In the world of Greyhawk, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons’ original setting, they and the drow were fierce enemies. In fifth-edition D&D, however, the kuo-toa have been retconned into broken ex-subjects of an empire of mind flayers, their rivalry with the drow now mentioned only in passing.
“Many weapons of the kuo-toa are designed to capture rather than kill,” the Monster Manual flavor text informs us, but it leaves open the question of what they want to capture anyone for. Religious sacrifice, maybe? Interrogation? Found-art pieces? Regardless, I’m going to examine their tactics with the assumption that they are, in fact, trying to kill the player characters.
The basic kuo-toa stat block has high Strength but average Dexterity and Constitution, and it lacks proficiency in Stealth. This is tricky to interpret. Ambush isn’t a realistic possibility, but neither is aggressive toe-to-toe fighting. Kuo-toa need to be selective about their encounters and maneuver their foes into situations where they’re restrained and helpless.
They have a couple of features that will help with this. One is their use of nets as a ranged weapon attack. The net attack restrains an opponent, giving the kuo-toa advantage on attacks and giving the opponent disadvantage. However, the net is effortless to escape from, so the kuo-toa have to exploit this advantage quickly. Since throwing the net uses up one kuo-toa’s action, there needs to be a second kuo-toa on hand to stab the restrained opponent. What this tells us is that kuo-toa don’t attack without a 2-to-1 numerical advantage or better. One nets; the other stabs. Once an opponent is netted, the battle buddies flank their target (Optional Rule: Flanking, Dungeon Master’s Guide, page 251—use it!) in case he or she wriggles free, in order to maintain their advantage.
The kuo-toa have the ability to breathe underwater; they also have Sunlight Sensitivity and 120 feet of darkvision. This tells us they’re strictly subterranean and semi-aquatic, and in combination with the Slippery trait—which gives them advantage on ability checks and saving throws to escape being grappled—we can infer another possible tactic, which is hauling enemies into the water and trying to drown them. But we need to consider this one carefully, because Slippery doesn’t give them advantage on grappling attacks, only grappling defense. This tactic is only reasonable against an opponent who has neither Athletics nor Acrobatics proficiency and whose Strength and Dexterity modifiers are both 0 or worse, and to have any real confidence of success, they both need to be −3 or worse. Of course, this assumes the opponent isn’t restrained; if he or she is, this becomes a nasty tactic when Strength and Dexterity modifiers are both +1 or lower and feasible even against an opponent who’s proficient in Athletics or Acrobatics, as long as the modifier is no greater than +4. (That took me way too long to figure out.)
The kuo-toa aren’t smart enough to make all these calculations. They can only know from experience whether a tactic generally works or generally doesn’t. What experience tells them is this: It’s possible to drown a restrained opponent. Against an unrestrained opponent, it doesn’t usually work. Therefore: net, then grapple, then drown. (The added advantage of this sequence is that a target can use his or her action either to escape the grapple or to escape the net, but not both at once.)
The Sticky Shield reaction gives the kuo-toa a chance to disable an opponent’s weapon. It’s only usable in melee. Therefore, kuo-toa will prefer melee over ranged combat. Ranged combat, in general, isn’t a great idea for creatures that don’t shoot expendable ammunition: once you throw your javelin or your hand ax, you don’t have it anymore. This goes double for the kuo-toa, who not only are unlikely to carry more than one spear apiece but also can’t use their Sticky Shield feature if they’re not engaged in melee, and whose net range is only 15 feet.
Kuo-toa have a normal self-preservation instinct and will Dash away when seriously injured (7 hp or fewer). They’ll also Dash away (through water, if possible) as soon as they no longer outnumber their opponents.
The kuo-toa whip is actually a clerical spellcaster, not (as one might reasonably think) a kuo-toa with a whip. It has above-average Constitution and Wisdom; the former makes the kuo-toa whip a more durable melee fighter. Its pincer staff grapples opponents but doesn’t restrain them, so again, it needs backup. But since it grapples on a melee hit, not on a skill contest, its chances of success are much higher than a regular kuo-toa’s, and so now the drowning tactic becomes way more promising—usable against almost anybody. The execution of this tactic depends on which has higher initiative, the kuo-toa whip or its kuo-toa ally. If the kuo-toa ally goes first, it throws its net, then the kuo-toa whip Multiattacks, first biting, then using its pincer staff. If the kuo-toa whip goes first, it Readies an Attack action, the triggering condition being when a kuo-toa ally restrains an opponent in a net; in this case, it doesn’t get to Multiattack, because its pincer staff attack is now a reaction.
Shield of faith is a bonus action but also a sustained spell with just one target. Bane is also a sustained spell, affecting up to three creatures but also costing a full action. The kuo-toa whip is more likely to use bane if its allies are generally failing to net their opponents, shield of faith if there’s just one opponent who’s hard to net and if that one opponent happens to be attacking it. The cantrip sacred flame, which costs an action, does 1d8 radiant damage to one target on a failed Dexterity saving throw. It’s good to use against enemy spellcasters, not so good against ranged attackers, who are likely to have high Dexterity. Once combat has begun, thaumaturgy serves no purpose that isn’t better served by some other action.
Kuo-toa in general aren’t super-disciplined, and the kuo-toa whip is no exception: it will Dash away when seriously injured (reduced to 26 hp or fewer). It doesn’t stick around to help its allies disengage.
The kuo-toa archpriest stands outside the net-and-stab and net-grapple-and-drown tactics of regular kuo-toa and kuo-toa whips. With very high Strength and Constitution and decently high Dexterity as well—not to mention a magical scepter that does lightning damage—it’s well-equipped for melee combat, but its repertoire of spells is impressive, too. Let’s see what it’s got:
- Mass cure wounds can be a tide-turner, good when half a dozen of its allies are moderately wounded or worse (kuo-toa reduced to 12 hp or fewer; kuo-toa whips reduced to 45 hp or fewer).
- Scrying lets a spellcaster aim a targeted spell at a point out of line of sight, but generally, taking action economy into consideration, this isn’t worth spending a turn on.
- Control water is super if the kuo-toa are trying to drown their enemies. They can breathe underwater; the PCs, in all likelihood, can’t. Therefore, it’s a near-guarantee that a kuo-toa archpriest will cast this during any encounter. The Flood option can fill a space that has any standing water in it at all to a depth of up to 20 feet—making this an automatic win if the ceiling is no higher than that. If players have already been pulled into a body of water, the Whirlpool option can keep them there and bludgeon them in the process. (The two effects can’t be used in conjunction with each other.)
- Divination is a spell for social interaction, not combat.
- Spirit guardians is great—usually—but in this case, it’s got to take a backseat to control water, since both require concentration. A kuo-toa archpriest will cast this spell only when there’s no water around to control, and really, why would a kuo-toa archpriest be anyplace where there wasn’t water at hand? Seems to me that kuo-toa habitations should exist on a continuum from Venice to Atlantis.
- Tongues is the only way the kuo-toa can communicate with surface-dwelling creatures, since Undercommon is not Common. But again, this is for social interaction, not combat.
- Hold person is always useful—as long as you’re not trying to sustain either control water or spirit guardians.
- Spiritual weapon is always useful, period. It’s a bonus action that creates a floating energy weapon (in this case, in the shape of a kuo-toa whip’s pincer staff), doesn’t require concentration to sustain and confers a bonus attack action on every subsequent round, for up to 10. Casting this spell is the first thing the kuo-toa archpriest does in any combat encounter.
- Detect magic is a spell for another occasion.
- Sanctuary is an interesting and useful spell but one that I have a hard time imagining a kuo-toa archpriest using, unless it were guarding some fishy-head VIP. I don’t think it would cast this spell on itself or any of its allies in combat.
- Shield of faith is a bonus action and a self-defense measure. If a PC has eluded nets and drowning and is coming at the archpriest, it’s might be worth it to forgo a spiritual weapon attack for one round in order to get this spell up and running. But it requires, yep, concentration, so the archpriest probably won’t cast this spell unless and until things are going really awry.
- Guidance is a cantrip that requires concentration. Why bother?
- Sacred flame is useful for smiting a slow opponent at a distance, and that’s about it.
- Thaumaturgy no.
Out of all these spells, only three leap out as unconditionally useful: spiritual weapon, control water and mass cure wounds, in that order. One more is situationally useful: spirit guardians. These should cover the entirety of a combat encounter. If the fighting drags on, a kuo-toa archpriest will probably just start smacking opponents left and right with its electric scepter.
Like the regular kuo-toa and the kuo-toa whip, the kuo-toa archpriest will flee when seriously wounded (reduced to 38 hp or fewer), underwater if possible. Unlike some boss monsters, the kuo-toa archpriest won’t stand its ground over treasure or a holy site. It’s gonna save its skin.
- Regular kuo-toa will only attack if they outnumber their opponents at least two to one. They will flee (using the Dash action) anytime they’re outnumbered. If possible, they swim away rather than run away.
- Kuo-toa favor melee combat always attack in groups of two or more. One casts a net at its target; its allies then stab at the target with their spears.
- If there’s a large body of water at hand, they may cast a net at a target, then try to grapple it, then (if successful) drag it into the water to drown it.
- Kuo-toa flee when reduced to 7 hp or fewer, using the Dash action and swimming away rather than running away, if possible.
- Kuo-toa whips fight alongside regular kuo-toa. If an ally has netted an enemy, a kuo-toa whip will bite at it, then strike it with its pincer staff; if it acts before its ally, it Readies an Attack with the pincer staff, triggered by its ally’s netting an enemy. If it succeeds in grappling the enemy, on its next turn it will try to drown him or her.
- If the kuo-toa’s efforts to net the PCs are mostly failing, a kuo-toa whip will cast bane on the three nearest to it. If they’re mostly succeeding but one PC has managed to elude them, and if that PC is attacking the kuo-toa whip, it will cast shield of faith on itself. If it has no melee opponent and there’s a spellcaster causing trouble, it will cast sacred flame on that spellcaster.
- A kuo-toa whip will flee when reduced to 26 hp or fewer, using the Dash action and swimming away rather than running away, if possible.
- A kuo-toa archpriest will cast spiritual weapon on its first combat turn, along with control water (Flood option) if there’s standing water in the room and the ceiling is 20 feet up or lower. If there’s an existing body of water, one or more PCs have been dragged into it and the archpriest hasn’t already cast control water, it casts this spell with the Whirlpool option to keep the PC from escaping.
- If there’s no water at hand to control, the archpriest will protect itself with spirit guardians.
- If half a dozen of its allies are moderately wounded or worse (kuo-toa reduced to 12 hp or fewer; kuo-toa whips reduced to 45 hp or fewer), the archpriest casts mass cure wounds on them.
- If it has no advantageous spell to cast, it uses the Multiattack action to strike an enemy twice with its scepter, doing bludgeoning and lightning damage.
- A kuo-toa archpriest will flee when reduced to 38 hp or fewer, using the Dash action and swimming away rather than running away, if possible.