I’ve put off writing about nagas, because to be honest, they’re a pain to analyze: there are three different types, all of them are distinguished primarily by the spells they can cast, and the lists are long. Analyzing specific stats and features is easy. Analyzing the pros and cons of various spells is hard, or at the very least time-consuming. Plus, at least one of the types of naga is lawful good, so player characters won’t often encounter it as an enemy. But I received a request from a reader, and I live to serve.
To simplify as best I can, I’ll start by looking at what they all have in common:
- They’re shock attackers. Their highest physical stats are Strength and Dexterity, with Constitution significantly lower in each case. This means that they’re melee fighters, but they’ll try to strike fast and do as much damage as they can on their first attack, because they don’t have as much staying power as a skirmisher or brute.
- Their main weapon is their bite, which does only a modest amount of piercing damage but a lot of poison damage, and this is their default action in combat. They themselves are immune to poison, as well as to being charmed.
- Their mental abilities are strong across the board, indicating good combat sense and willingness to parley, within reason. Once combat starts, they’ll focus their attacks on their most belligerent enemies, counting on their other opponents’ losing the will to fight once those most eager are taken down.
- They have darkvision, indicating a preference for nighttime and/or subterranean activity. They won’t be encountered outdoors during the day, at least not randomly.
- Nothing we can usually say about evolved creatures applies to them. Per the Monster Manual, “A naga doesn’t require air, food, drink or sleep.” On top of that, living nagas (the spirit and guardian varieties) can’t be slain without casting a wish spell: if you “kill” one, it returns to life, with full hit points, in just a few days. Thus, among other things, they never have any reason to flee.
- Living nagas also have no reason to fear spellcasters, since on top of their already high ability scores, they have proficiency in all the big three saving throws, plus Charisma (guardian nagas have proficiency on Intelligence saving throws as well).
The two types of living nagas are the evil spirit naga and the good guardian naga. The guardian naga is the stronger of the two, with slightly greater spellcasting ability and significantly greater hit points and poison damage. Unfortunately, their spell lists are completely different, with one exception: they both have hold person. (I like to imagine that they cast this while swaying back and forth and singing “Trust in Me.”)
Instead of my usual spell-by-spell breakdown, I’m going to make an observation about what’s conspicuously missing from nagas’ spell lists: spells that enhance their action economy (spirit nagas have none; guardian nagas have only one, shield of faith, which requires concentration to sustain, undermining its value) and spells that would enhance their first strike. Hold person, in fact, is the only spell either type of naga has that would give it advantage on an attack.
Well, that’s not entirely true: the spirit naga also has sleep. Attackers have advantage against unconscious targets, and every up-close hit is an automatic critical. This seems ideal for setting up a combination.
The problem is how hard it is to put a PC to sleep with sleep. It doesn’t work on elves at all, and the base 1st-level spell can only drop 5d8 hp of enemies. Figure that no creature is going to rely on an ability that doesn’t have at least a two-thirds chance of success. For a 1st-level sleep spell to have a two-thirds chance of knocking a PC out, that PC would have to have 16 hp or fewer. How many mid-level adventurers have that few hit points? A 2nd-level sleep must be targeted at an opponent with 23 hp or fewer; 3rd-level, 30 hp or fewer; 4th-level, 36 hp or fewer; and 5th-level, 43 hp or fewer. To sleep a PC opponent with more hit points than this is a matter of dumb luck. In my players’ party of mid-level PCs, the average character has 58 hp; only one of them has fewer than 30 hp. So sleep followed by a bite attack—a combo that requires two turns—seems unpromising.
Hold person is only slightly better. It requires a Wisdom save, putting the onus on the opponent, but the spirit naga’s save DC is only 14, so any opponent with a Wisdom saving throw modifier better than −1 is going to be a hard target; if it’s +4 or better, it’s not even worth trying. For the guardian naga, the odds are a little better, but not a lot: it has a good chance of success with hold person against a target with a Wisdom saving throw modifier of +1 or lower, and it can take a reasonable gamble on opponents with Wisdom save mods below +6. Looking at my own players’ party again, their average Wisdom save mod is between +2 and +3.
So I’d have to characterize hold person plus bite as “OK but not great”—and it still takes two turns to pull off. On the upside, however, a naga can boost that spell to 3rd or 4th level and try to get two or three opponents with it at once. The chance of paralyzing a single, specific target is iffy, but the chance of paralyzing one or more of two or three targets is much better. I’d say, therefore, that this is a tactic that a naga might go ahead and try against a party of four opponents, in which case success would mean disabling half of them or more; but against five or more opponents, it probably wouldn’t bother.
Spirit and guardian nagas are faster than most PCs (40 feet of base movement), and their bite is a potent attack, especially against low-Constitution enemies. But what about enemies beyond that range, or ones with higher Constitution?
The spirit naga has lightning bolt for direct, ranged damage, and it requires a Dexterity save. If three of its enemies are unfortunate enough to have positioned themselves in a straight line, it will go for it. It’s also got blight, but the range of blight is only 30 feet. For an enemy within 70 feet of the naga’s original position, it can make this work by moving as far as it needs to in order to get within range of the opponent. Blight’s raw damage is greater than lightning bolt’s (8d8 vs. 8d6), but lightning bolt has the potential to affect multiple enemies, while blight targets only one. Unless its enemies are resistant or immune to lightning damage, the spirit naga is better off boosting lightning bolt to 4th level instead of casting blight.
The guardian naga’s go-to spell for direct damage is flame strike, which does a maximum 4d6 fire damage plus 4d6 radiant damage in a 10-foot-radius column, 40 feet high, with a range of 60 feet. The spell is worth casting if the guardian naga can strike at least two enemies within the area of effect. Its only other damaging spell is sacred flame, which does only 3d8 radiant damage (the guardian naga is a level 11 spellcaster) on a failed save and none at all on a success.
As a general rule, I consider the value of a spell slot to depend on its scarcity more than its level. Thus, for a spirit naga, boosting lightning bolt (a 3rd level spell) by spending a 4th-level spell slot to cast it is as good as using that slot to cast blight, because it has as many 4th-level spell slots as it does 3rd-level slots. But it has fewer 5th-level spell slots, so it will save those slots for its 5th-level spell (dominate person). Similarly, since a guardian naga has two 5th-level slots but only one 6th-level slot, it won’t boost flame strike by spending its 6th-level slot to cast it—even though it has little reason to cast its 6th-level spell, true seeing, in combat. (Little reason, but not no reason—maybe a hostile PC has cast greater invisibility.) Either type of naga, if it casts hold person, will boost it as high as 4th level, targeting up to three opponents—but not to 5th.
To quickly go over the nagas’ other spells:
Spirit nagas’ repertoire is capped by dominate person, which is a powerful spell but probably not one it would cast in combat, because any damage dealt to the target gives him or her a chance to snap out of it. Instead, this is a spell the naga would cast before a fight breaks out. Dimension door is a common escape hatch for creatures that value their lives, but a spirit naga doesn’t care; it will cast this spell only if their enemies tip their hand and cast their “no coming back from the dead” wish spell before they’ve killed it. Water breathing makes a spirit naga effectively amphibious; if yours is near water, assume it’s cast this spell in advance and subtract a third-level spell slot. Detect thoughts, detect magic and charm person are useful in social interaction but largely a waste of time in combat, although a spirit naga may cast a boosted charm person in order to subdue its enemies before it attacks.
Guardian nagas can cast geas, which takes a full minute to cast, so forget about doing that in combat. Banishment, inconveniently, requires concentration to sustain (so no casting hold person at the same time), and the targeted opponent comes right back after one minute. Freedom of movement is useful if the guardian naga needs to escape from being restrained. Bestow curse affects only one target, ever, and it requires concentration; it doesn’t stand up as a combat spell next to hold person. Calm emotions is another concentration spell, only situationally useful. Command has its uses, the most apt among them for a lawful good creature being, “Begone!” (The guardian naga may be a capable fighter, but that doesn’t mean it wants to fight. Unless your PCs are unabashedly evil, it will try to get them to leave peacefully rather than initiate combat itself.) Cure wounds is more likely to be cast as a boon to supplicant PCs than on the naga itself as a defense measure. Shield of faith’s +2 to armor class isn’t worth the action the spell costs.
Incidentally, in all this talk of spells, I’ve glossed over the guardian naga’s other combat action: Spit Poison. Bluntly, the guardian naga is a lawful good creature; it will only use Spit Poison against an evil attacker who won’t relent. And only against one who’s out of melee range, because the damage is the same as the poison damage from its bite, without the accompanying piercing damage.
Both spirit and guardian nagas are good at identifying which enemies are likely to be weak to which of their abilities, and they’ll both avoid battles that don’t favor them, to the extent that their duty allows. Spirit nagas will do so by deceiving or charming enemies into leaving them alone; guardian nagas will use negotiation, persuasion and, if necessary, intimidation.
Bone nagas are undead, which brings the element of compulsion into play: whatever purpose the bone naga was created for (probably by yuan-ti—those guys ruin everything), it will be obsessive about serving. This may cause it to make what appear to be less rational decisions in combat, including fighting until it’s destroyed even though bone nagas don’t come back to life afterward. The range of conditions bone nagas are immune to are more extensive, including exhaustion and paralysis, but this doesn’t affect their combat behavior. They are more vulnerable to spellcasters than living nagas are, however, and will make these targets a higher priority.
Bone nagas don’t do as much poison damage with their bite, relative to their piercing damage, as living nagas do, but this is still their default action. Against smaller parties, bone nagas will still try the hold person–bite combination, but it’s not as likely to work, because of their much lower spell save DC. The fact that they try it anyway is part of their compulsion to behave as they did when they were still living.
Former spirit nagas will use lightning bolt the same way and for the same reasons that living spirit nagas do. But a former guardian naga lacks flame strike, and what would an undead creature be doing casting sacred flame? To be frank, a guardian naga turned into a bone naga is a sad, defeated wreck of a thing that probably won’t bother to cast spells at all, even those it still remembers, other than hold person. (Maybe, for creepy flavor, you could have it cast command, then issue commands that make no sense.)
Since bone nagas have a lower challenge rating, your players’ characters may encounter them at lower levels than they’d have to be at for an encounter with a living naga to be appropriate. Therefore, sleep has a higher chance of being effective. But if the bone naga behaves more or less the way it did in life, it may still believe sleep to be ineffective and forgo it. Conversely, it may believe it has a better chance to successfully cast charm person than it actually does, trying (and probably failing) to employ it the same way a living spirit naga would.