NPC Tactics: Magical Specialists

Volo’s Guide to Monsters includes stat blocks for 11 different magic-using specialists: wizards from eight different schools and warlocks of three different patrons. The wizards are all at least level 7; the warlocks, even higher. There are also a level 9 war priest, a level 10 blackguard (antipaladin) and a level 18 archdruid. Every one of these spellcasters has a different repertoire of spells. To come up with individual tactics for each of them would take me the next two weeks.

Rather than tackle each one separately, then, I’m going to share some rules of thumb for developing tactics for a spellcasting NPC. Continue reading NPC Tactics: Magical Specialists

Troll Tactics

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. Continue reading Troll Tactics

NPC Tactics: Swashbucklers and Master Thieves

Today I take a look at two roguish NPCs in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, one flashy, one furtive: the swashbuckler and the master thief.

The swashbuckler of Volo’s doesn’t bear much resemblance to the swashbuckler rogue archetype in the Sword Cost Adventurer’s Guide. Instead, it has a passive feature, Suave Defense, that increases its armor class and an action economy–enhancing feature, Lightfooted, that grants it either Dash or Disengage as a bonus action. (This is actually a slightly nerfed version of Cunning Action, which also allows the user to Hide.)

The swashbuckler is distinguished by an exceptionally high Dexterity; expert proficiency in Acrobatics, Athletics and Persuasion; and a triple Florentine-style Multiattack. The Dexterity suggests a sniper, but the swashbuckler’s attacks are melee-focused. (The dagger can be used as a ranged weapon, but a swashbuckler who does this forfeits two-thirds of that Multiattack.) Because its Strength and Constitution are only slightly above average, we have to imagine a fighting style that somehow allows the swashbuckler to strike at melee range yet avoid getting hit on its opponents’ turns. How do we achieve this, given that the swashbuckler has only a normal 30-foot movement speed? Continue reading NPC Tactics: Swashbucklers and Master Thieves

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. Continue reading NPC Tactics: Apprentice Wizards, Bards and Martial Arts Adepts

Beholder-Kin Tactics

The Monster Manual lists two variants of the beholder: the death tyrant, a more powerful, undead variant; and the spectator, a less powerful, not-really-evil variant. Volo’s Guide to Monsters lists three: the death kiss, the gauth and the gazer. Together, these are referred to as “beholder-kin.” All three variants are evil.

The death kiss is the most powerful of the three, though not as powerful as a standard beholder. In lieu of ray-projecting eyestalks, its body is covered with long, waving tentacles that end in spines and toothy mouths. It has the extremely silly feature Lightning Blood (which I can’t even type without laughing ruefully), which inflicts lightning damage against any opponent that strikes it with a piercing or slashing weapon. That’s right: Its blood is electrically charged. This is ridiculous even for an aberration. I mean, I can almost buy the flavor text explanation, “A death kiss survives solely on ingested blood, which it uses to generate electrical energy inside its body,” with the usual suspension of disbelief that Dungeons and Dragons demands, but to suggest that the death kiss’s blood itself is what carries the stored electrical charge, and not some other organ in the death kiss’s body . . . whatever, man, I can’t even with this. You hit it, you get shocked. That’s what it says.

Sigh. Continue reading Beholder-Kin Tactics

Beholders Revisited

Volo’s Guide to Monsters is thorough in its treatment of beholders, in terms of both tactics and flavor. It contains material on determining a beholder’s appearance and behavior, the layout and contents of its lair, and even where baby beholders come from (it’s suitably weird). Since this blog’s focus is on tactics, I’ll concentrate on that.

For the most part, everything I said in my original analysis of beholders stands, but there is one small, implied contradiction. Continue reading Beholders Revisited

Bodak Tactics

Today I go from talking about my greatest disappointment in Volo’s Guide to Monsters (so far) to one of my happiest finds. A couple of weeks ago, I had to quickly build a last-minute encounter to fill a plot hole for my mid-level players. One thing I recall from a class I took in fantasy fiction years ago is that the suspense in horror fiction comes from not knowing what the heroes are up against or what it can do, so I needed an unfamiliar monster to build the encounter around. I found it in the bodak.

The bodak is a CR 6 undead creature, immune to lightning, poison, and being charmed or frightened. It’s resistant to cold, fire and necrotic damage, along with physical damage from nonmagical weapons. It’s proficient in Perception and Stealth, has 120 feet of darkvision and is hypersensitive to sunlight, so it’s strictly nocturnal and/or subterranean. Its physical abilities are uniformly high; its Wisdom and Charisma are above average, but its Intelligence is low, so its behavior is mechanistic and compulsive.

It has an unarmed melee attack, but its real power comes in the combination of its distinctive features: Aura of Annihilation, Death Gaze and Withering Gaze. Death Gaze and Aura of Annihilation, in particular, are a nasty combination. Death Gaze hits at the beginning of an opponent’s turn; Aura of Annihilation, at the end of it. Continue reading Bodak Tactics

Gnolls Revisited

I hate to say it, but Volo’s Guide to Monsters has managed to make gnolls even less interesting to me than they were before.

That’s unfortunate. They were already an unsophisticated, “Rrrrraaaahhhh, stab stab stab” kind of monster, aside from the gnoll Fang of Yeenoghu, which at least had the brains to identify weaker party members and go out of its way to get them. Here’s what we learn about them from Volo’s:

  • They’re not evolved creatures, but rather hyenas transformed by the power of the demon lord Yeenoghu.
  • They’re driven solely by the desire to kill and eat.
  • That’s pretty much it.

And yet, inexplicably, Volo’s contains a section on “Gnoll Tactics.” It doesn’t provide any such section for goblinoids, whose features make possible some really interesting tactics. (In particular, hobgoblins are supposed to be savvy tacticians.) It provides one for kobolds, which is great, because kobold tactics aren’t obvious without a fair amount of analysis. But the “Gnoll Tactics” in Volo’s aren’t tactics so much as reiterations of gnolls’ fundamentally brutal and unimaginative nature. (They don’t set up permanent camps. They leave no survivors. They like weak, easy targets. They attack tougher creatures “only when the most powerful omens from Yeenoghu compel them to do so,” i.e., when the dungeon master decides they will.) Continue reading Gnolls Revisited