Sahuagin Tactics

Sahuagin are fierce, amphibious fish-men that live underwater but emerge periodically to raid coastal settlements. Although the Monster Manual says they “dwell in the deepest trenches of the ocean,” that’s a bit far for even a creature with a 40-foot swimming speed. Those ocean trenches are as far from the coasts as the highest mountains are, and you don’t often hear about the yeti of the Himalayas spending an afternoon staging a raid on Kolkata, or the Tatzelwürmer of the Alps popping down to Genoa for some late-night ravaging. These are distances of hundreds of miles we’re talking about. So chances are, any sahuagin that player characters encounter are going to be denizens of shallower depths. Maybe they’re the border reivers of the ocean kingdom.

When they come ashore to raid, they do so at night, as implied by their 120 feet of darkvision. They can’t come far inland, since their Limited Amphibiousness gives them only four hours of air breathing before they have to return to the water. Unlike, say, merrows, sahuagin can move about on land as easily as any other humanoid.

In this environment, they’re basic brutes. Their Multiattack gives them one weapon or claw attack and one bite attack. Since their armor class doesn’t include a shield, we can presume that they wield their spears two-handed for the greater damage.

Because their Blood Frenzy feature gives them advantage on attacks against any opponent who’s taken damage already, they’ll press this advantage, continuing to attack any enemy they’ve bloodied rather than switch targets, even for opportunistic reasons.

However, sahuagin are not dumb. In fact, their Intelligence and Wisdom are higher than those of the average humanoid. They’ll attack with discipline, in cohesive units, perhaps even splitting up to flank or encircle a group of enemies. And they’ll realize quickly when they’re outmatched, retreating if all the members of their fighting group are moderately wounded (reduced to 15 hp or fewer) and their enemies aren’t hurt even worse. When they come ashore, they’re looking for an easy fight. A hard one isn’t worth the effort. Retreating sahuagin are sophisticated enough to use the Disengage action.

In the water, they don’t fight significantly differently, but they do have a couple of advantages they don’t have on land.

First, they’ll usually be accompanied by sharks. Thanks to the Shark Telepathy feature, any sharks fighting alongside them will show the same intelligence and discipline that they themselves possess.

Second, being naturally aquatic, they can easily recognize when other creatures aren’t naturally aquatic. They’re smart enough to know that a halfling isn’t a sea creature, and therefore, if it’s breathing underwater and swimming as if born to it, there’s some kind of magic giving it that ability. They won’t know automatically who’s casting water breathing, for instance, but as they fight, they’ll be trying their darnedest to figure it out. They know that magic exists, and once they see a player character cast a spell, they’ll draw the logical (though not necessarily correct) conclusion that that same PC is the one enabling his or her allies to breathe, and they’ll focus their attacks on that PC. If they subsequently see a different PC cast a spell, some of them will break off to attack him or her as well. A reader points out that the spell water breathing doesn‘t require concentration. Sahuagin may or may not be aware of this fact, and may focus less or more of their attention on spellcasters accordingly.

Sahuagin in the water are also more tenacious than sahuagin on land. When fighting underwater, they’ll hang in there until a majority of them are seriously wounded (reduced to 8 hp or fewer). After that, they’ll Disengage and retreat if they’re on their own, but they’ll fight to the death at the command of a sahuagin baron or priestess—usually in order to defend a location or object.

The sahuagin baron doesn’t differ significantly from an ordinary sahuagin. It’s stronger, tougher and a little smarter, its Multiattack gives it one more poke with a melee weapon, and it gets proficiency on all the most important saving throws, so it has less reason to fear spellcasters—not that sahuagin fear them to begin with. When any group of sahuagin led by a baron launches a coordinated attack on a PC spellcaster, the baron will take part in that attack, not just hang back and give orders. Sahuagin raids on land don’t usually include a sahuagin baron—not unless they’re launching an all-out attack of conquest.

The sahuagin priestess is primarily a support caster that carries no weapon, although it still has a claw/bite Multiattack. It will always cast spiritual weapon (bonus action) on the first turn of combat, but lacking any useful cantrip to cast along with it, it will either move up behind an ally and use the Help action to give it advantage on its own melee attack, then retreat again afterward, or simply Dodge. [As a reader called to my attention in the comments, if the priestess gets close enough to the enemy to Help, she risks an opportunity attack when she falls back. That’s not worth it.]

On subsequent turns, the priestess’s choice of spell depends on what else is going on. If the priestess’s allies are focusing attacks on a spellcaster, the priestess casts guiding bolt at that caster to do some radiant damage and also give advantage to the next attacker. (Ending any water breathing spell is the sahuagin’s No. 1 priority.) If it becomes evident that the players’ water breathing doesn’t come from a sustained spell, however, then the priestess casts hold person on the most dangerous-looking opponent who has the Extra Attack feature. If there are two, and the priestess can’t choose between them, it will spend a 3rd-level slot to boost the hold person spell and nab them both. However, that being said, sahuagin priestesses understand the connection between clerical spellcasting and the brandishing of holy symbols, and they also know that spells like hold person don’t work as well on the devout, so paladins get a free pass from this.

The presence of a priestess also keeps a moderately wounded group of sahuagin in the fight longer: anytime all the sahuagin in the group are reduced to 15 hp or fewer, the priestess casts mass healing word to top them back up, then uses either the Help action or the Dodge action, as in round 1, until all its 3rd-level spell slots are gone.

Finally, in any group of sahuagin with both a baron and a priestess, it’s the priestess, not the baron, that’s the de facto leader (whether or not the baron cares to admit it). If a PC tries to start a parley, the priestess will call a halt to combat and cast tongues to allow the two groups to communicate. It’s unlikely that the sahuagin will ever initiate a parley on their own, however, unless they know they’re outmatched and aren’t guarding anything super-important—and unless they have a priestess with them, because they know most land creatures don’t speak their language.

Sahuagin priestesses call a general retreat when they’re moderately wounded (reduced to 23 hp or fewer), unless they’re guarding an important location or object, in which case they defend until they’re seriously wounded (reduced to 13 hp or fewer). Sahuagin barons will always fight until they’re seriously wounded (reduced to 30 hp or fewer), then call a general retreat.

Next: xvarts.

18 thoughts on “Sahuagin Tactics

  1. So- funny story. I was thinking about using Sahuagin in my upcoming pirate campaign, and started to wonder what sort of tactics Sahuagin used. I remembered your site, and- come to find out- you posted Sahuagin tactics just today! =D

    1. I forgot to mention on my last comment- but- excellent article!

      I really like your breakdown of the Priestess spells, and how she would use each.

      What I find most interesting about Sahuagin is how easily the encounter can scale up or down based on what sharks they have with them. An encounter with a few Reef Sharks is a pretty different beast to an encounter with a Giant Shark or two.

  2. Great article, I must say I always have a lot of fun introducing Sahuagin to my players.

    Few weeks ago my players were on a ship, sailing form one port to another. As the campaign was focused on threat that dwells in the deeps, I had some Sahuagin attack the ship. The PC were quite strong at that time (level 6 and well equipped) so the first two turns proven them that Sahuagin are not a threat. On the third turn I had the priestess cast Hold Person on Fighter and Barbarian, and Sahuagin who were in combat with those two, hauled them into the water slowly drowning them.

    Those players are now scared of any form of waterborne transport in my campaign.

  3. I, too, happen to be introducing Sahuagin to my players. It’s the middle of the night in a small pirate port that just so happens to be built over convenient sea caves which were being used as turtle pens in several houses. The one that caused me to be quite glad to see this article is a trading establishment that has been attacked by a priestess with six warriors. She will encounter an elf wild mage and five pirates that have been delegated to her (the rest of the party has been busy) and my player is desperately trying to work out a game plan before Tuesday. So am I as it looks to me that the priestess could be a total pushover according to your write up. I think I might be going for the old Sea Devils version of Sahuagin priestesses and give them all a decent scare.

  4. One thing that caught my attention on this one: there’s considerable emphasis put on the Sahuagin targeting spellcasters when they notice that the PCs are water breathing, assuming that the mage is the reason. Which is often valid.

    However, the Water Breathing spell is not concentration and can be cast as a ritual. It lasts 24hrs. When my players go swimming, the druid always does a ritual cast of breathing for them. But having her knocked out or killed wouldn’t effect the rest of them. At least, not the way I run the concentration mechanic at my table. The whole point of having a differentiation in my opinion is that the spells that aren’t concentration are fire and forget, they last for their duration (or until dispelled) regardless of the caster’s status.

    1. We’re assuming that the players will always use Water Breathing when the OP assumes they will not. They could be using Alter Self or Polymorph, homebrew, or a spell from a third party RPG supplement.

      But our assumption is still only relevant if the players are going to be below water for less than 24 hours. If their mission would take longer than a day, and the mage is killed – the mission can no longer be completed. I think that might be what the OP is implying.

      I think it was implied that the Sahaugin would outright try to kill the caster – that the DM would not be true to the monster’s strategy if they handled the encounter with “kid gloves.” The Saguagin want the spellcasters dead – like dead dead. I think we can read this as an effort to put an effective end to the invaders’ capability to continue to conduct their mission in Saguagin territory (underwater) after 24 hours have elapsed.

      Sahaugin aren’t likely to be encountered in the middle of the ocean for no reason – they are probably going to be guarding something or somewhere or protecting something or someone in transport – which means ending that capability is a good strategic move.

  5. Regarding the priestess moving behind an ally and using the Help action to grant advantage to their next attack, that’s not how the Help action works in combat. From page 192 of the PHB:

    “Alternatively, you can aid a friendly creature in attacking a creature within 5 feet of you. You feint, distract the target, or in some other way team up to make your ally’s attack more effective. lf your ally attacks the target before your next turn, the first attack roll is made with advantage.”

    Unless the priestess is within 5 feet of a target enemy, they cannot Help in this way.

    1. My wording was vague: I meant that the sahuagin priestess moves up from behind, alongside the ally. The real error in what I wrote is that the priestess risks incurring an opportunity attack by retreating again afterward, and that’s probably not worth it to her, so she should just Dodge.

  6. In the Forgotten Realms literature, Sahuagins will eat the dead (their own and their enemies’). Anything that becomes “dead” becomes “food”. I wonder if a few Sahuagins would not, under some circumstances, break ranks to grab a snack?

    Awesome blog btw!

  7. With their superior water movement could groups of sahuagin move-attack-move against the same PC in a single round?

  8. A simple change to the priestess’s spell list solves the issue of water breathing: removing mass healing word or tongues for dispel magic. Good for putting the fear of Sekolah into the opponents of the priestess as they watch the barbarian suddenly begin to drown 200 feet below the surface. Without this change, the sahuagin don’t have much recourse against magically induced water breathing, aside from physically wrestling a cap of water breathing or cloak of the manta ray away from the creature using it, but only a baron has a realistic chance at succeeding at such a task.

    1. I think that Dispel Magic is left off most of the monsters you’re describing intentionally as a design rule – probably to avoid the exact scenario you just described. You’ve just described an encounter that is much more than deadly.

      Don’t forget you don’t “win at D&D” as a dungeon master by killing your players – you win at D&D when 1. everyone at the table has fun; and 2. you tell a story together as a group that is interesting, entertaining, and enjoyable.

      You need to balance the strategy in this blog with the two objectives above – if you frustrate your players they won’t have fun. And I don’t imagine TPKs are fun for any of the players – though there might be a kind of schadenfreude for the DM.

      1. Please leave that kind of lecture out of your replies, it is annoyingly patronizing.

        Sahuagin are not, as a rule, very threatening past 6th or 7th level except in very large numbers. Allowing them to be threatening to higher level PCs while avoiding getting bogged down by sheer numbers is good design.

        Should you fiddle with spell lists for no reason? Of course not. But if, say, the PCs have already encountered this specific priestess and demonstrated magically induced abilities to breathe underwater, then allowing the priestess to prepare accordingly adds to the verisimilitude of subsequent encounters. It’s just an example of monsters knowing what they are doing.

  9. One thing that stuck out to me in the MM that doesn’t come up here is that the standard grunt and baron sahaugin are able to throw their spears/tridents (20/60). This costs grunts a second attack (multiattack is melee only for grunts), but it allows them to do damage at distance, sparking their bloodlust advantage. I did some math, explained below, showing that this is actually not an effective tactic, followed by some possible changes to make it more effective.

    First the cost of throwing a spear: Throwing a spear reduces melee output if the sahaugin doesn’t recover their spear, with the grunts and barons losing 2 damage per attack, or 0.8/turn for grunts, 2.4/turn for barons vs AC15 (ignoring advantage). The grunts are also limited in attacking if they throw their spear, which means giving up their bite (1.35 damage) and limiting their spear damage by 2 because it’s being thrown rather than thrust, for a total of 3.35 assuming a successful throw. Assuming the sahaugin fights for two more rounds, the grunt loses about 5 points of total output, and the baron loses 7, including lost spear damage on the throwing turn.

    The benefits are contextual. Assume that the thrown spear/trident is a successful hit, and that a different sahaugin will be able to immediately follow up the attack. The benefit being conferred is that the target will be damaged for the follow up attack, granting advantage immediately instead of after the follow up attacker makes its first successful hit. If the follow up attack is by a grunt, the expected damage increases from 4.16 for the first turn to 5.58, for a “profit” of 1.43 damage. If the follow up is by a baron, the increase is from 27.26 to 30.7, or 3.44 “profit”. Neither of these is worth what we gave up by throwing the spear initially. One other case is if the baron follow up has disadvantage without bloodlust, we can even the playing field by creating a situation of competing advantage/disadvantage, with a “profit” of 4.7 – about what the sahaugin grunt lost by throwing the spear.

    It’s clearly not worthwhile to send in a spear-throwing vanguard. Generally, a sahaugin should only throw their spear if they cannot reach an enemy on their turn for a melee attack. A sahaugin baron might carry an extra spear for throwing, reducing lost damage, but this is only really worthwhile if they’re assisting another baron either in a follow up or by giving the other baron a trident to rip out of the enemy. One method could be to give some grunts shields, limiting their spear damage in the first place (and reducing the cost of throwing) while trading for some more beefiness. Lastly, if the enemy is particularly squishy (1d4 hp peasants) then throwing is a viable hunting technique given that the target probably won’t survive the spear in the first place.

  10. I’m running a heavily homebrewed Ghosts of Saltmarsh right now, and I recently ran a Sahuagin attack against the party while they were on board the Sea Ghost, a merchant galley. Some extra tactics I used were:
    * Sahuagin Coral Smashers attacking the hull from underwater. They do double damage against objects. The standard Sahuagin defended the coral smashers.
    * The character inevitably gathered at the railings on deck so they could shoot down into the water (at disadvantage). The defending Sahuagin would use their move action to climb the 15’ to the railing, then grapple a character on the boat. On their next turn, they would haul the character overboard into the water.
    * The priestess lurked far below the ship, otherwise behaving basically as you describe.

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