NPC Tactics: Apprentice Wizards, Bards and Martial Arts Adepts

The new NPCs in Volo’s Guide to Monsters fall into three categories: prospective boss enemies or boss lieutenants (the archdruid, blackguard, champion, kraken priest, war priest and warlord), magic-using specialists (the abjurer, conjurer, diviner, enchanter, evoker, illusionist, necromancer, transmuter and three warlock variants) and “other” (the apprentice wizard, bard, martial arts adept, master thief and swashbuckler). Analyzing the magic-users requires close, time-consuming attention to their spell repertoires, so I’m going to put off talking about them for now; ditto the archdruid, kraken priest and war priest. The blackguard, champion and warlord are mostly uncomplicated brutes. The “other” category looks more interesting, so that’s where I’ll start.

The apprentice wizard is exactly what you’d imagine—and why are you fighting this adorable yet dangerous moppet, anyway? Assaulting Hogwarts is what the bad guys do, and that’s not your player characters, right? Well, the apprentice wizard can be any alignment, so there’s nothing that says he or she can’t be apprentice to an evil wizard—or maybe one of the bullies, “mean girls” or malcontents of his or her wizarding community. More likely, though, the apprentice wizard is fighting at your PCs’ side.

With only 9 hp and unremarkable physical abilities, the apprentice wizard shouldn’t be fighting on the front line of any battle, but rather taking cover somewhere. Because of the apprentice wizard’s merely average Dexerity, he or she should eschew ranged weapon attacks as well as melee; the dagger in the apprentice’s belt is largely ornamental. If he or she is able, the apprentice wizard attacks with spells, and if not, he or she runs and hides.

The apprentice wizard’s spell repertoire is ultra-basic, and he or she has only two 1st-level spell slots—one for burning hands and one for shield. (The apprentice wizard mainly uses disguise self to appear older, taller and more attractive.) As long as the apprentice wizard is behind cover, he or she will stick with the fire bolt cantrip, which has a range of 120 feet, does 1d10 fire damage and ignites most flammable objects. In contrast, burning hands reaches only 15 feet, so the apprentice wizard will cast this, as a self-defense measure, only when an enemy comes within range. He or she will cast shield as a reaction the first time he or she is struck with a weapon attack.

When seriously injured (reduced to 3 hp or fewer), the apprentice wizard will Dash (action) away. Despite his or her high Intelligence, the apprentice wizard doesn’t have the martial training to know how to Disengage, and the opportunity attack(s) that Dashing away incurs could end badly for our little chum.

The bard, with high Dexterity, modestly above-average Constitution and average Strength, can be a skirmisher if necessary but is better off sniping at range. Even “sniper” is too limiting a term, because like bard PCs, the bard NPC is essentially a controller, manipulating the battle to his or her allies’ benefit.

The Song of Rest feature doesn’t apply during a combat encounter (again, this is the sort of thing that will come into play if the bard NPC is accompanying the PCs’party), but the Taunt feature does. This is a bonus action, which means it can supplement the bard’s action economy in any round except one in which he or she is casting healing word. Also, though it’s limited to two uses per day, Taunt isn’t a spell and doesn’t consume a spell slot. Figure that the typical combat encounter lasts three rounds, and there’s no reason not to use Taunt in any round in which the bard isn’t casting healing word instead. (By round three, if the bard has already used Taunt twice, either his or her allies are romping, or he or she is definitely casting healing word on someone.)

Whom should the bard taunt? Thinking defensively, any enemy that’s coming for an ally who’s less equipped to take an incoming blow. Alternatively, any enemy whose saving throws the bard wants to undermine.

Embracing the idea of the bard as controller of the battle, how can he or she do that?

  • Invisibility has many uses, but the most bang surely comes from casting it on a rogue who can then perform a Sneak Attack. If there’s a rogue among the bard’s allies, the bard will cast this in the first round of combat, then the rogue will go forth to strike a high-value target. If there’s time for the rogue to get back to the bard, they may even be able to pull this maneuver off a second time.
  • Shatter is a horde-breaker spell, optimal against two or more enemies clustered together, especially squishy little ones such as goblins or kobolds, or ones that are made out of stone, crystal or metal, such as gargoyles. Make sure not to catch any of the bard’s allies in the area of effect.
  • Charm person is most effective against an enemy without allies, one that hasn’t yet been attacked by the bard or any of his or her allies. In a pinch, it may also be used to remove a key enemy from the battle. But the fact that it can be resisted with a Wisdom saving throw means it’s not going to be as effective against spellcasters, who (except for sorcerers) tend to have decent Wisdom scores. If the target makes the save, that’s a valuable action wasted, so it helps for the bard to know something either about the specific target or about that target’s species in general. Another option is to Taunt (bonus action) to give a target disadvantage on saving throws, then cast charm person (action) against that Taunted target. This technique is known as “negging.”
  • Healing word is a bonus action, and a no-brainer anytime an ally is moderately or seriously injured. Will the bard boost it to 2nd level? Only if it’s not going to have any reason to save its 2nd-level spell slots for invisibility or shatter, e.g., he or she doesn’t have a rogue ally and is fighting a small number of stronger, more widely spaced enemies rather than a swarm of low-level ones. Keep in mind that if the bard casts healing word as a bonus action, he or she can’t cast another leveled spell as his or her main action.
  • Heroism is a nice buff for an ally who’s likely to be a focus of enemy attacks. But it requires concentration, so it can’t be sustained at the same time as invisibility. If the bard has a rogue ally, he or she will prefer invisibility; otherwise, he or she will cast heroism in the first round of combat.
  • Sleep is another horde-breaker for use against swarms of weak enemies (it’s actually useful only against weak enemies), and better than shatter if you’re trying to be sneaky. Boost it only in those circumstances in which you’d also boost healing word.
  • Thunderwave is the “Back off, man, I’m a rhapsodist” spell, used for self-defense against sudden melee invasion. It’s not the kind of spell a bard is going to run right into the middle of a group of enemies to cast. Nor is the bard going to cast it at 2nd level, except in those circumstances in which he or she would do the same with healing word.
  • Friends is a crude, rude manipulation cantrip that applies mainly to social interaction situations, not combat.
  • Mage hand is good for playing the harp you left on the other side of the room when you don’t want to get out of bed.
  • Vicious mockery is a useful spell for the bard, for two reasons: First, being a cantrip, it can be cast in the same turn as healing word. Second, it includes part of the effect of Taunt, giving the target disadvantage on its next attack roll (but not ability check or saving throw), and also dealing a nominal amount of psychic damage, if the target fails its Wisdom saving throw. However, the bard should probably cast this cantrip only to blunt the attacks of a powerful enemy attacker, because it has no effect at all if the target makes its saving throw, and it does less damage than a shortbow. Though it seems like it might be redundant to combine Taunt with vicious mockery—and if the Taunt succeeded, it would be—vicious mockery is a decent backup if Taunt fails, since it targets a different ability (Wisdom instead of Charisma). But the bard should do this only for the aforementioned reason, and only if there’s no better spell to cast.

If the bard has a spell that’s appropriate to the combat situation, he or she will cast it. Only if there’s no appropriate spell for the situation will the bard resort to a ranged weapon attack instead, targeting whoever seems to be doing the most damage or otherwise causing the most trouble. Most bards will be canny enough to know that shooting a caster who’s sustaining a spell may break that caster’s concentration.

A bard will retreat—and call for his or her allies to do the same—when seriously injured (reduced to 17 hp or fewer). A College of Valor bard would probably know how to Disengage, but a College of Lore bard probably wouldn’t—and Taunt seems to be a rebranding of the College of Lore feature Cutting Words. Either way, though, the bard is a team player (usually) and won’t Dash away if his or her allies can’t keep up, but rather will move away at full speed and either Dodge (action), cast spells or shoot arrows while retreating.

A curious feature about both the apprentice mage and the bard is that they have two eight-sided hit dice for each class level they possess. I’m going to have to look at other NPCs based on PC classes and see whether the same applies to them. I’m wondering whether this is meant to make up for their lack of other class features (a bard PC, for instance, would also be able to confer Bardic Inspiration; the bard NPC can’t).

Similarly, the martial arts adept is a de facto level 5 Way of the Open Hand monk, with 11 hit dice—one more than twice its apparent level—without the Slow Fall class feature, and without the Patient Defense or Step of the Wind ki features, but also with a d8 damage die instead of d6. The adept’s ability score profile suggests a sniper, but this NPC’s features are clearly geared toward melee combat; maybe this is why he or she gets that extra hit die.

The main choice we have to make with the martial arts adept is which Unarmed Strike effect to use on each hit. We can whip up a simple heuristic:

  • Stun against any opponent with an Extra Attack, Multiattack or bonus attack action.
  • Drop item against any spellcaster holding an arcane or druidic focus or holy symbol, any opponent using a magic item, or a bard playing a musical instrument.
  • Knock prone as the first or second attack in a Multiattack (never as the third—the opponent will simply get back up on its own turn).

If an opponent meets more than one of these criteria, use the options in the above order, as applicable. If an enemy is already stunned, there’s no need to knock it prone. If the opponent makes its saving throw against one type of attack, the adept can judge whether the opponent was lucky or just good, and use this information to inform its decision whether to try it again or move on to the next applicable effect.

For instance, say the adept is beating up on Epirotes the sorcerer, who’s a fragile flower, with Strength, Dex and Con save modifiers of 0, +1 and +1. On the adept’s first attack, he hits and tries to make Epirotes drop his wand. Epirotes makes his saving throw, but the adept senses that this was a fluke: the sorcerer is frail, and he had only a 40 percent chance of maintaining his grip. On the second attack, the adept misses—his plan was to try to knock Epirotes prone, since that effect would no longer make any sense on the third attack, but he’s missed his window of opportunity. So on the third attack, when the adept hits, he tries again to smack the wand out of Epirotes’ hand.

Suppose instead that he’s fighting Eofn, a feisty fighter with a polearm. Her Strength, Dex and Con save modifiers are +4, +1 and +4. He knows she’ll probably resist any attempt to stun her, but since she’s got an Extra Attack, he’s got to try. His first attack hits, and she makes her saving throw. No point in trying that again now; the next thing he does is try to knock her prone. His second attack hits, and she fails her Dex save: she’s on the ground. He makes his third attack with advantage, hitting easily, and what the heck, he may as well try stunning her again, since he can’t knock her more prone, and if he disarms her, she’ll just grab her weapon as she gets back up. She makes the save again. Oh, well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. In the meantime, it’s worth noting, he’s done 3d8 + 9 damage to her—not too shabby for an unarmed attacker.

Of course, the martial arts adept need not confine himself or herself to fighting a single opponent. If multiple enemies have engaged the adept in melee, he or she can aim blows at any or all of them, choosing additional effects suitable to the targets. The adept prioritizes targets the same way he or she prioritizes effects, attacking opponents with robust action economies first, then attackers holding focuses or magic items, and finally anyone still standing up.

The martial arts adept retreats when seriously injured (reduced to 24 hp or fewer), using the Disengage action to ensure a clean getaway, thanks to his or her advanced training and exceptional speed.

Next: swashbucklers and master thieves.

11 thoughts on “NPC Tactics: Apprentice Wizards, Bards and Martial Arts Adepts

  1. I find your website extremely useful, keep up the good work! Orcus is my favorite D&D villain and the most dangerous opponent in my swords and sorcery game. I’d like to know your opinion as to how Orcus would fight.

      1. No worries, Escapist magazine published the official 5e stats for Orcus on their website as part of a promotional puff piece for the Rage of Demons supplement. I hope you find that helpful.

  2. I believe the d8 hit dice thing is something they standardized to creature size for npcs. So all medium creatures can be expected to have d8 hit dice.

    1. Yes, this is true. But wouldn’t you expect that an NPC with a character class would have hit dice equal to his or her level? I would. The decision to make it equal to twice the NPC’s level is peculiar, and it suggests an attempt to compensate for something.

      1. I feel like it might be like this to make escort or rescue missions slightly less frustrating.

        With apprentice wizards in particular, I believe the one of most common ways one would be involved in a combat encounter is the old “apprentice wizard tried doing something way above their level, now the PCs have to rescue them from whatever was unleashed when that went wrong” quest.

  3. Aw man. I don’t want to rush you, but I’m on the verge of rolling out some reskinned Kraken Priests in our game and I’d love a better idea of what to do with them. Any chance those guys are up soon?

  4. Why does the apprentice wizard only use shield against a weapon attack? Am I missing a reason why it’s a bad idea to use shield against a spell attack?

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