I mentioned trolls in an earlier post on this blog, but a reader recently brought to my attention that I’ve never given them the full treatment. This is an inexcusable oversight on my part. Trolls are great—if you use the Loathsome Limbs variant. I love this variant because it creates trolls that hark back to my favorite troll combat scene ever, from Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson, and because I once ran a solo adventure for a friend in which he and a couple of NPCs had to fight one such troll without ever being told what it was. The suspense was heightened by the fact that they didn’t know what it could do, and they had to discover its weakness by trial and error.
The vanilla troll isn’t all that interesting. It’s a straightforward brute, with exceptionally high Strength, extraordinarily high Constitution and low-to-middling mental abilities. It’s got darkvision, so it prefers to operate at night or underground. It operates more by smell than by sight, regenerates damage unless it’s been struck by fire or acid, and has a claw/claw/bite Multiattack.
Such a monster would be an uncomplicated opponent: It would close to melee range immediately, slash and chomp away, and retreat only if seriously injured or attacked with fire or acid.
But add in Loathsome Limbs, and trolls become a lot more fun.
In the Loathsome Limbs variant, you can lop off the troll’s arms, legs and head—and they keep fighting independently! Not only that, the troll can grab them and reattach them! This is what Anderson’s troll did, and it adds tons of flavor to the combat encounter.
Fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons is a streamlined affair, compared with earlier editions of D&D (and other role-playing systems such as Pathfinder and GURPS), with little in the way of directed attacks or limp-specific injuries, so when you hit an opponent, you do x damage. What does “x damage” mean? It means you’ve come a certain amount closer to defeating your opponent. It doesn’t mean you’ve crippled its arm, opened a gushing wound or given it a concussion. In fact, unlike in some systems, having taken serious damage doesn’t even reduce a character’s or monster’s efficacy in combat. So the specificity of being able to cut off a troll’s leg is deliciously enlivening. And the fact that the leg keeps kicking you afterward is both hilarious and horrific.
To sever the limb or head of a troll, you have to inflict 15 hp or more of slashing damage. Even then, half the time, nothing special happens. But the other half of the time, you have a 40 percent chance of cutting off a leg, a 40 percent chance of cutting off an arm and a 20 percent chance of cutting off its head. Each arm is responsible for one of the troll’s claw attacks, and the head is responsible for its bite, so if you cut off an arm, you end up with a troll with a claw/bite Multiattack and an arm that can only claw.
A severed leg can move but can’t attack, a severed head can attack but can’t move, and a severed arm can do both. And every part Regenerates independently, so if you cut a troll apart, it actually recovers faster. But a troll would still rather remain intact, so it doesn’t take advantage of this fact.
Most of the time, trolls are indiscriminate in choosing targets: they’ll attack whoever or whatever is closest. Their vulnerability to fire and acid, however, means that such attacks draw their attention. If they’re lightly wounded or less (59 hp or more), these attacks provoke them, and they’ll focus on whoever struck the blow, if they can figure it out easily enough. If they’re moderately wounded (reduced to between 34 and 58 hp), however, they’ll recoil, using their movement to reposition themselves farther away from the source. And if they’re seriously wounded (reduced to 33 hp or fewer), they’ll flee from it, using the Dash action to move away at top speed.
Since a severed leg can’t attack, it will use its 5 feet of movement to move back toward the troll. A severed arm attacks with disadvantage if the troll can’t see both the arm and its target, so in this case, it will also use its 5 feet of movement to drag itself back. If the troll can see both the arm and its target, however, the arm will keep fighting independently until it’s destroyed. A severed head can’t move, so the troll will move toward it instead.
Neither the Loathsome Limbs feature nor the troll’s stat block says anything about the troll’s being able to reattach its limbs, but it does get a mention in the flavor text: “A troll can even reattach severed body parts, untroubled by its momentary disability.” As a dungeon master, I allow a troll to pick up and reattach one severed body part as a bonus action; to do so, it has to be in the same square or hex.
The limbs’ movement “decisions” may become scrambled if they’re attacked with fire or acid. Each independent limb, as well as the troll’s body, will react the same way to fire or acid as an intact troll would—except a severed head, which can do nothing but sit there and yowl. That is, a severed arm that has 8 hp or more after taking fire or acid damage will slash back angrily, one that has 5 to 7 hp will move away from the source at its full movement speed of 5 feet, and one with 4 hp or fewer will Dash away at 10 feet per turn—even if this means it’s not moving back toward its body. But the body, if it hasn’t been burned by fire or acid, won’t react at all to the burning of its severed arm, won’t chase after it, won’t target the source of the fire or acid. If its severed head is being burned, the body will stop moving toward it. However, if the body is struck with fire or acid, any severed leg or arm that’s trying to make its way back to the body will keep doing so.
This fairly simple heuristic creates battles that are far more complex and entertaining than they have any right to be.
Edited to add: I forgot to discuss the fact that player characters, once they see a troll reattaching its severed limbs, will surely try to carry off any subsequent limbs they sever. The limbs fight this! Treat any limb that a PC has picked up as grappled. A leg will try to resist the grapple, using Athletics, rather than Acrobatics, because its Strength is so much higher than its Dexterity. An arm will keep clawing at whoever’s holding it if it would normally attack and will try to struggle free if it would normally be working its way back to its body. A head will try to bite whoever’s holding it.
Next: How to determine tactics for spellcasters.