Ooze Tactics

After all the time I spent trying to figure out tactics for mummy lords and liches, I’m taking it easy on myself today and talking about oozes—those barely intelligent, probably nonsentient, subterranean amoeboids.

The fifth-edition Monster Manual claims that oozes “have no sense of tactics or self-preservation,” but I can’t buy the second half of that. They may be “drawn to movement and warmth,” but even an amoeba will move away from an electric current. Despite the lore that oozes originated as fragments of the demon lord Juiblex, I’m going to treat them as evolved beings, akin to slime molds—scavengers that exist as part of the subterranean ecosystem.

The MM lists four types of oozes: the gray ooze, the ochre jelly, the black pudding and the gelatinous cube. All of them have several things in common: negligible Intelligence and Charisma (the ochre jelly, with Intelligence 2, is the genius of the bunch), low Dexterity and Wisdom, high Constitution, an acidic pseudopod attack and 60 feet of blindsight. Also, all but the gelatinous cube are Amorphous and can climb walls.

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Undead Tactics: Liches

The lich (rhymes with “itch,” not “ick” or German ich) stands out not only as the alpha undead creature going all the way back to the days of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons but also as the only type of undead creature that’s undead because it wanted to be. It’s what you get when a wizard decides he or she wants to be immortal, reads the fine print on the contract, and says, “Yeah, I’m down with that.” To become a lich to begin with, a wizard must necessarily be monomaniacal, as well as malicious, sadistic and/or vengeful, and the transformation of undeath intensifies these traits. A wizard who becomes a lich must also necessarily be a genius and a world-class spellcaster, and the lich retains these traits as well.

Although it’s only as strong as an average humanoid, all of a lich’s other ability scores are exceptional, most of all its Intelligence. It gets sizable bonuses to Constitution, Intelligence and Wisdom saving throws (notice that two of the “big three” are in that bunch); resists cold, lightning and necrotic damage; and is immune to poison damage and to physical damage from nonmagical weapons. It can’t be charmed, frightened, paralyzed or poisoned, and it never suffers from exhaustion. It has truesight—the ability to see in darkness, into the ether, and through illusions, transmutations and invisibility—out to a range of 120 feet, along with a passive Perception of 19. And it’s proficient in both Perception and Insight, so not only does it notice you’re there, it knows what you want.

A lich receives additional, powerful lair actions when it’s encountered in its lair. Why, then, would it ever leave? Good question. It won’t, if it can help it. No lich will ever leave its lair unless it must, in order to do something that it can’t get an agent to do for it. Follow-up question: Who on earth would sign up to be an agent of a lich? Well, who on earth would sign up to be an agent of Adolf Hitler? The answer is, someone of like mind—in the case of a lich, another evil wizard hoping to gain access to its voluminous reservoir of arcane knowledge. Or someone who considers the lich’s long-term goals to be aligned with his or her own. Or someone who fears the lich’s power and hopes that he or she can earn privileged treatment by showing sufficient loyalty and obedience. (Spoiler: Not likely.) Or, barring all that, someone whom the lich has magically dominated. Agents of a lich must be powerful enough for it to consider them useful, and they’ll generally be ambitious enough for service to a lich to seem like a reasonable arrangement.

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Undead Tactics: Vampires

I’m going to begin my discussion of vampires with a digression: Years ago, I read a book titled (I swear I’m not making this up) Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula: The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count. It was written by Loren Estleman in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle, and as I recall, it was less cheesy and far more entertaining than you might assume . . . although I don’t think I’ve read it since I was in college, so take that with a grain of salt.

Anyway, there’s one bit of that novel that sticks in my mind as being particularly cool: At one point, Dracula walks right into Holmes’ room, in the middle of the day, and Holmes expresses surprise that Dracula can go out in broad daylight. Oh, sure I can, Dracula says; it’s just that I don’t have any of my supernatural powers when I do.

I thought that was an interesting spin on vampire abilities. One of the crucial elements of horror is exploiting the fear of the unknown: we’re most afraid of a monster when we’re not sure what it is, what it can do or how far it can pursue us. One of the best ways to spice up a D&D game is to take familiar monsters and give them unfamiliar powers, or have the familiar powers manifest in unfamiliar ways. Trolls, for example, are great for this: use the variant that allows severed limbs to keep moving and even fighting independently, and have the troll periodically pick up its limbs and stick them back onto itself, and watch your players wig out. (You may already be aware that this version of the troll originated with a scene in Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson.)

It’s so taken for granted in our popular culture that vampires are burned by sunlight, the thought of a vampire who’s merely weakened by it, not hurt—let alone destroyed—would never occur to most of us. The vampire in the Monster Manual is the conventional burned-by-sunlight variety, but what if you removed that weakness and substituted one that merely disabled the vampire’s special features in daylight?

Try this sort of variation out—if not with a vampire, then with some other monster whose powers players assume they already know.

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Undead Tactics: The Mummy Lord

So, yeah, mummy lords. This is a totally different league of monster from your rank-and-file mummy—and the power difference between a mummy and a mummy lord is much wider than that between an orc and an orc war chief, a hobgoblin and a hobgoblin warlord, or a gnoll and a gnoll Fang of Yeenoghu. Mummy lords are bosses on par with adult dragons and tougher than giants. Only experienced adventurers need apply.

Their array of powers makes them complicated to run, so this is going to be a long and thorough breakdown.

  • Abilities: Average Dexterity and Intelligence; very high Strength, Constitution, Wisdom and Charisma. They’re brutes, but they’re not fools. And they have personality. Conceited, toxic personality, but personality nonetheless.
  • Damage and Condition Immunities: same as regular mummies but with an added immunity to physical damage from nonmagical weapons. They’re not the slightest bit afraid of your pigsticker unless it’s got a plus in front of it.
  • Damage Vulnerability: Fire, same as regular mummies.
  • Saving Throws: Hefty bonuses on Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma saves. That’s two of the big three and two of the little three, and with Strength 18, it doesn’t need to worry about that one, either. The only gap in this fortification is Dexterity. However . . .
  • Magic Resistance: Even its lower (only in relative terms) Dexterity isn’t too much of a hindrance, because it makes all its saving throws against magic with advantage. Whoo.
  • Rejuvenation: You can’t even kill it unless you jump through the extra hoop of destroying its heart. (For this purpose, I recommend fire.)
  • Spellcasting: More on this in a moment.
  • Legendary Actions: Every turn, it can perform up to three legendary actions on other characters’ turns. These include an out-of-turn Attack, an area-effect blinding, an area-effect stun attack, suppression of healing and turning momentarily incorporeal.
  • Lair Actions and Regional Effects: All the preceding applies if you happen to encounter a mummy lord on the way to the bodega to get milk. A mummy lord in its lair is even more powerful, conveying advantage on saving throws to other undead creatures in the lair, providing them with the equivalent of radar, and giving anyone else who tries to cast a spell a punishing necrotic jolt.

Like I said, a boss. With the attitude of a boss to boot. The mummy lord’s rational and justifiable assumption is that you ain’t jack.

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Undead Tactics: Ghosts and Mummies

We now return to two of our more cinematic undead creatures: ghosts and mummies. Aside from being horror-film staples, they don’t have a lot in common with each other, except for one thing: each is bound to a specific location. A ghost has “unfinished business” and haunts an area closely related to whatever trauma it needs to resolve; it’s compelled by the urge to resolve this trauma. A mummy is the guardian of a tomb or other burial place, compelled to punish transgressors against either the tomb itself or, sometimes, the person buried there. (In the latter case, the mummy may leave the tomb to hunt down the transgressor. In the former, it always stays put.)

Ghosts may be malicious, but they don’t have to be. (A malicious ghost that for some reason is permanently prevented from resolving the trauma connected with its death may end up as a poltergeist instead.) They may want to punish people who wronged them in their previous lives, but they may also be sorrowful, lonely, lost or even deceiving themselves that they’re still alive. Revenge against those who wronged them might satisfy them, but so might making amends to those whom they wronged. You really can’t have a decent ghost without a backstory.

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Undead Tactics: Specters, Wights and Wraiths

Ghouls and ghasts are flesh-eaters; specters, wights and wraiths are life-drainers. Driven by malice, envy and despair, they compulsively consume the vitality they themselves can never possess again. They all possess darkvision and shun the sunlight, so they’re encountered only at night; in some shuttered, haunted locale; or underground.

Specters are incorporeal: they have no material existence and can pass through solid objects and other creatures, although they can be harmed by stopping inside one. They have a very fast flying movement speed of 50 feet per turn. Their only exceptional ability scores are a Dexterity of 14 and a Strength of 1. They’re immune to most debilitating conditions, although they can be blinded, deafened, frightened, incapacitated or stunned. They’re immune to necrotic and poison damage and resistant to other forms of damage, except for radiant damage and physical damage from magical weapons. Being of normal humanoid intelligence and Wisdom, they have the sense to back off from an opponent that starts inflicting these types of damage upon it.

A specter might be expected to identify and zero in on weaker victims, and if it were an evolved creature, it might act that way. But specters operate are driven by their compulsion, not by adaptive survival instincts. When they sense the presence of a living victim, they don’t evaluate how easy or hard it will be to devitalize. They just wanna kill everybody, and it doesn’t matter who’s first.

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Undead Tactics: Ghouls and Ghasts

Ghouls and ghasts are a classic pair of flesh-devouring undead creatures dating all the way back to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, ghasts being the more dangerous of the two. Unlike skeletons and zombies, which are created by necromancers casting animate dead, ghouls and ghasts are purported to have demonic origins (although there exists a spell usable by player characters, create undead, to produce them as well—here the lore and the rules contradict each other).

Both ghouls and ghasts are immune to poison and to being charmed or exhausted, and both have darkvision. They have high Dexterity and Strength, in that order, and can either claw or bite. The bite attack does more direct damage, but the claw attack has a greater chance to hit as well as a chance of paralyzing its target, rendering it incapable of action, movement or speech, granting advantage to all attacks against it, and turning all hits on it into crits. (Ghouls’ claw attack doesn’t have this effect on elves, but ghasts’ claw attack does.) Although its chances of success are low, its potential effect is so powerful that it has to be considered the attack of first resort, except against elf PCs. Finally, ghasts have the Turning Defiance feature, which grants advantage on saving throws against turning not just to themselves but to any ghoul within 30 feet of them. (They have resistance to necrotic damage, too, but that’s probably not going to be your players’ first choice against them.)

In my last article, I stated that undead creatures are driven less by survival than by compulsion—whatever compulsion the method of their creation imbues them with. In the case of ghouls and ghasts, this is hunger for the flesh of the living. This, combined with their average-level Wisdom, suggests that they possess a stronger self-preservation instinct than mindlessly obedient skeletons and zombies, since the whole point of eating is to fuel one’s continued existence. It also suggests that their goal is to obtain living flesh to eat, and that once they’ve achieved this goal, they have no particular reason to keep fighting.

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Undead Tactics: Skeletons, Zombies and Shadows

The premise of this blog is that evolved creatures know how to use the abilities they were born with. The interesting thing about undead creatures, in this context, is that they’re not evolved creatures—at least, not anymore. The transformation to undead status doesn’t entirely erase what a ghost or zombie was in its previous life, nor does it necessarily come with a set of survival rules that any and every undead creature will adopt. Undeath is a curse, and as such, it creates what I think of as compulsions. That is, whatever spell, influence or event caused a creature to rise from the dead also drives that creature to behave in ways that have nothing to do with its own self-preservation. In fact, since the creature has already experienced death, the concept of “survival” is essentially meaningless to that creature. Consequently, how badly an undead creature is injured has nothing to do with whether it will flee, and the tactics it uses will have less to do with how to effectively guarantee its continued existence and more to do with the particular compulsion that drives it.

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Goblin Boss, Hobgoblin and Bugbear Tactics

In an earlier article, I examined the tactics of goblins, which turned out to be significantly more sophisticated than those of your average cannon-fodder humanoid monster. Goblins are low-level, though, and to present more of a challenge to intermediate-level players, large groups of goblins are often accompanied by more advanced goblinoids, such as goblin bosses, hobgoblins and bugbears.

The goblin boss is distinguished from ordinary goblins by its Multiattack and Redirect Attack features and by the fact that it doesn’t use a bow. Additionally, the Redirect Attack action is useful only in a context in which goblins are fighting side-by-side rather than in an ambush or skirmish. Based on this, I conclude that goblin bosses are found only in goblin lairs—caves, ruins, what have you—where large numbers of goblins will fight in close quarters.

By the way, have you read that Redirect Attack feature? The goblin boss uses its reaction to avoid a hit on itself and cause it to land on one of its goblin minions instead. What a jerk! Here’s a critter that’s better suited for fighting than most of its kind—stronger, better at absorbing damage and capable of landing more blows—and yet it possesses no notion of carrying the team. “Aw, sorry about that, Jixto! Send me a postcard from Hades!” Continue reading Goblin Boss, Hobgoblin and Bugbear Tactics

Gnoll Tactics

I don’t know about your campaigns, but I think I’ve literally gone my entire Dungeons and Dragons–playing life so far without ever once either using (as a dungeon master) or encountering (as a player) a gnoll. So I’m coming at the final monster in my initial series on humanoids with fresh eyes.

Gnolls are described in the Monster Manual as rapacious raiders, scavengers and nomads with hyena-like heads. They have high Strength and low Intelligence; their behavior is driven by their violent and destructive instincts. Like many other humanoid D&D monsters, they have darkvision. They wield spears and longbows, according to the MM, and they have one distinguishing feature, Rampage, which allows them to move half their speed and make a bonus bite attack after reducing a foe to 0 hp in melee.

Honestly, I’d dispense with the longbow—it doesn’t make sense in the context of what else the MM says about gnolls. Their Strength is high enough that they gain little advantage from using one. They aren’t smart enough to craft one or social enough to barter for one. According to the flavor text, gnolls prefer to strike at easy targets; longbows are designed to puncture armor. And gnolls’ single unique feature is melee-oriented.

So my vision of the gnoll is strictly a hand-to-hand fighter. As creatures with high Strength, high-average Dexterity, average Constitution and a respectable five hit dice, gnolls are shock troops. When they spot a vulnerable target, most likely during a nighttime patrol (darkvision provides advantage against PCs who don’t have it), they strike at once. Despite the premise of this blog—that monsters don’t just go “Rrrraaaahhhh, stab stab stab” all the time—this is exactly what gnolls do. They’re fearless and aggressive, using their full movement speed to approach their targets, then Attacking (action) with spears; if one such attack reduces an enemy to 0 hp, the gnoll Rampages toward another enemy within 15 feet and bites it (bonus action).

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