Volo Has Landed

What’s this under the tree? A Guide to Monsters? O, frabjous day! It’s gonna take me a couple of days to survey what’s on offer here (oh, goody . . . the flail snail is back), but look forward to some new monster tactics analyses along with some reexamining of previous analyses in light of new information.

In the meantime, I’m still working on myconids. Stay tuned.

Aboleth Tactics

From their description, you’d think aboleths were among the bossest of all boss monsters, but in fact, they have a challenge rating of just 10—well within the power of a party of medium-high-level adventurers to take on, assuming they have some way to reach the creatures’ underwater lairs.

The Monster Manual classes them as aberrations, but they don’t originate from some other plane of existence, despite having a connection to the Elemental Plane of Water. Rather, they antedate all the gods and intelligent beings of the contemporary material world. They are the Old Ones. To me, it’s cool to think of them as the product of a different, much more ancient path of evolution, like holdovers from the world-sea of the Ordovician Period in our own history, 450 million years ago, and their connection to the Elemental Plane of Water as a way they discovered of perpetuating their existence over the eons.

Aboleths have high Constitution and extraordinary Strength, but it’s their exceptional mental abilities that define them. With their high Wisdom and exceptional Intelligence and Charisma, they’re schemers and manipulators par excellence, with superior situational awareness. Because they can’t be permanently slain, according to the MM flavor text, their self-preservation impulse doesn’t manifest the same way it would in an ordinary mortal creature.

As for their physical abilities, they fit the brute profile most closely, though not perfectly, their Constitution falling somewhat short of their Strength. They have no ranged attack and engage in melee without reluctance, but their preference is for a short and decisive battle, settled by their phenomenal Strength, over a drawn-out one. Continue reading Aboleth Tactics

Chuul Tactics

Believe it or not, until I cracked open the fifth-edition Monster Manual, I’d never heard of chuuls. I got into role-playing games with Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, back when God’s grandma was a little girl, and we didn’t have chuuls back then, not even in the Flumph Folio. According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, chuuls were introduced in the third edition. (Maybe not so all-knowing: it describes them as “extremely intelligent,” while according to the 5E MM, they have Intelligence 5.)

Chuuls are, more or less, enormous, semi-uplifted crayfish, servants of the mighty, ancient aboleths. They’re amphibious, chosen for their role because of their ability to survive on land as well as in the water. They’re larger than human-size and exceptionally strong and tough, predisposing them to be brute fighters. Although they’re not exceptionally dexterous, their chitin gives them an armor class of 16. They can sense magic, and we can infer from the flavor text that they’re drawn to it, obeying an ancient, instinctual command to gather powerful items for the aboleths that ruled them.

Chuuls have darkvision, suggesting that they move about on open land only at night and spend the rest of their time either underground or underwater. Judging from the flavor text, they don’t seem to have a lot of motivation to go wandering around but rather will stick close to locations that they feel some urge or duty to guard. They aren’t conscious of any such duty, however: with Intelligence 5, they operate strictly by instinct. Continue reading Chuul Tactics

Naga Tactics

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).

Continue reading Naga Tactics

Kraken Tactics

Release the kraken! A high-level boss monster that player characters won’t encounter until they’re masters of the realm (if you, as their dungeon master, have a shred of decency in you), the kraken isn’t so much a creature as it is a natural disaster.

Running a kraken, like running a dragon, requires keeping track of legendary actions and lair actions as well as regular and bonus actions and reactions. One consolation is that, of all boss monsters, the kraken is probably the most likely to be encountered outside its lair, unless the PCs are on a mission to slay it. On the other hand, if the kraken is encountered within six miles of said lair, its regional effects mean that PCs will have to run a gantlet of hostile crocodiles; swarming schools of quippers; giant crabs, frogs, seahorses; sharks of all kinds; and water elementals. They’ll also have to contend with torrential rain and storm-strength winds, imposing disadvantage on navigation checks, Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight or hearing, and ranged weapon attacks. In colder climes, they’ll have to make DC 10 Constitution checks against exhaustion every hour—and saving throws every minute if they fall in the frigid waters—unless they have natural or magical protection.

In its lair or out of it, the kraken is a juggernaut, with only average Dexterity but godlike Strength, Constitution and mental abilities. No, it’s not just a mindless engine of devastation. It’s smarter than anyone in your adventuring party and most likely wiser as well, and its massiveness and majesty are mesmerizing. Its decisions in combat should convey a sense of calculated malice and cruelty. It knows everyone’s weaknesses, and it doesn’t miss an opportunity to exploit them. If it chooses to communicate (via telepathy), it will be only to taunt, belittle and humiliate its victims; there’s nothing a kraken wants that the PCs can tempt it with. Continue reading Kraken Tactics

Mephit Tactics

I’ve been asked to take a look at mephits, wicked little critters that maliciously embody the para-elements of dust, ice, magma, mud, smoke and steam. The Monster Manual characterizes them as “tricksters,” but every one of them is of neutral evil, not chaotic, alignment, so their “trickery” is of a decidedly baleful sort. I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t behave as evolved creatures with respect to their self-preservation instinct, but if survival is their No. 1 priority, causing gratuitous harm and annoyance to others is No. 2.

Mephits aren’t tough—half of them are CR 1/4, and the other half are CR 1/2. All of them have low Strength, all of them can fly, and all of them have darkvision (meaning they either live underground or are active primarily at night) and the Death Burst feature, which does something when they’re killed, although that something depends on the type of mephit. And they all have a simple melee attack, along with a breath weapon that has only a 1 in 6 chance to recharge, so in all likelihood, they’ll get to use it only once. Most (but not all) of them are proficient in Stealth, suggesting that they like to ambush their victims, and their low Strength suggests that they’ll usually be encountered in decent-size groups; a lone mephit wouldn’t dare pick a fight with more than a couple of enemies at once.

Beyond that, though, every type of mephit is a little bit different, and there’s nothing for it but to look at each type individually. Continue reading Mephit Tactics

Minotaur Tactics

Everyone who took sixth-grade social studies knows the story of the minotaur—literally, the Bull of King Minos, that inhabited the labyrinth into which the tyrant threw his prisoners. In the myth, the minotaur (there was only one) was the cursed offspring of a bull and Minos’s wife, Pasiphae (ew), and the labyrinth was built by Daidalos to contain it so that it didn’t rampage among the populace, devouring the king’s subjects. In Dungeons and Dragons, minotaurs (plural) are a humanoid species with bovine heads and hooves.

So . . . evolved creature or not? The Monster Manual flavor text seems to want to have it both ways:

Minotaurs are the dark descendants of humanoids transformed by the rituals of cults . . . [who] come to the cult seeking a life free from authority’s chains—and are liberated of their humanity instead as [the demon lord] Baphomet transforms them into the minotaurs that echo his own savage form. Although they begin as creations of the Horned King, minotaurs can breed true with one another, giving rise to an independent race of Baphomet’s savage children in the world.

If the MM can’t commit to one explanation or the other, maybe we can’t, either. Maybe we have to accept that some minotaurs are evolved beings, and some aren’t. Maybe the logical extension of this premise is that some minotaurs behave as an evolved creature would, while others don’t, depending on whether they’re born as minotaurs or transformed by a curse. In other words, if your adventure includes a minotaur, in order to know how it will behave, you need to give it a backstory. Continue reading Minotaur Tactics

Sphinx Tactics

Sphinxes are bosses. Probably somewhat underutilized bosses, since you can only employ the solve-the-riddle, access-the-vault trope so many times before it gets tiresome (and that number of times is generally one, if not zero), so the first challenge you have to overcome as a dungeon master, before dealing with its tactics, is figuring out a way to make a sphinx encounter feel fresh. I’ll be honest: I have no useful advice on this. If you have any, share it in the comments below.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons had four varieties of sphinx; the number peaked in version 3.5 (the “More is always better” edition) at nine. But the fifth-edition Monster Manual includes only two: the androsphinx and the gynosphinx. The androsphinx remains the more powerful of the two, because patriarchy. (The gynosphinx, strangely, seems to have a mane, although on closer inspection, it may just be a wig.)

Androsphinxes and gynosphinxes have many features in common. Physically, they’re brute fighters; mentally, they’re champs across the board, though the masculine androsphinxes have less Intelligence and more Charisma. (If you think this makes them sound like the types who typically get promoted to management, you’re not alone.) They’re hyper-Perceptive, with 120 feet of truesight; they can’t be charmed or frightened, and they’re immune to psychic damage. At a minimum, they’re resistant to physical damage from nonmagical weapons (androsphinxes are fully immune). They can fly, at a speed greater than their normal movement. Their claw attacks are magical, and they get two per action. They have three legendary actions, which they take on other creatures’ turns: a single claw attack, teleportation and casting one spell. (Since this last costs three actions, they’ll use it only in case of dire emergency.) They have the Inscrutable feature, an ability primarily applicable to social interaction, which shields them from mind-reading. And they have a repertoire of spells they can cast at high levels. Continue reading Sphinx Tactics

Cambion Tactics

The more I leaf through the Monster Manual looking for material, the less interested I am in monsters that follow a straightforward brute profile (high Strength, high Constitution) and have no distinctive feature that gives them a reason to do anything other than run up and munch you. For this reason, the cambion deserves some attention. Even though the concept of the cambion, as a creature, isn’t that appealing to me (offspring of a fiend and a humanoid, naughty by nature), its particular combination of abilities and features is intriguing. This is not a straightforward monster. On the contrary, it offers more flexibility than most.

First, although its physical abilities are all very high, its two highest are Strength and Dexterity. The cambion is neither a stereotypical brute (Strength and Constitution) nor a stereotypical skirmisher (Dexterity and Constitution) but rather a shock attacker, optimized for moving fast and hitting hard, for quick and decisive battles rather than drawn-out slugfests. But it also has high Intelligence and even higher Charisma, meaning it has the option to talk its way out of a fight that’s dragging on too long—and so do its opponents.

It has proficiency in several saving throws, but of them, only Constitution is one of the big three—the ones that most damaging or debilitating spells require. It’s got a good enough Dexterity to compensate, maybe, but not Wisdom. So despite its other advantages, the cambion does have reason to be apprehensive around spellcasters, especially bards, sorcerers and wizards with a lot of mind-controlling or restraining spells in their repertoires. Continue reading Cambion Tactics

Reader Questions: Flying Tactics and Opportunity Attacks

Q: What are the generic tactics of any flying character?

A: Any mode of movement other than moving normally over land offers the advantage of being able to go where one’s opponent(s) can’t. A creature with climbing movement, for example, can scale a vertical surface without being subject to any speed penalty or having to succeed on an ability check. In the case of flying, a creature has access to the air. It can hover out of reach; it can also launch itself airborne in order to flee.

Since the reach of most humanoids, armed or unarmed, is only 5 feet, a creature with 30 feet of flying movement can station itself 15 feet above its opponents’ heads, fly down, attack and fly back up using just its normal movement and action. A creature like the peryton, which has the complementary Dive Attack and Flyby features, will always use a tactic like this, because the combination does extra damage, and the peryton isn’t subject to an opportunity attack when it does so.

Opportunity attacks are the hitch with this tactic. Whenever a creature leaves its opponent’s reach, that opponent may use its reaction (if available) to make an opportunity attack against it. If the peryton didn’t have Flyby, for example, then every time it dove, its victim might get a free swing at it. Continue reading Reader Questions: Flying Tactics and Opportunity Attacks