Personally, I’ve always tended to go in one of two directions with my Dungeons and Dragons adventures: either totally far-out, never-before seen, otherworldly strangeness; or the consequences of straightforward humanoid motivations—ambition, desperation, greed, envy, benevolence, revenge—played out on a fantasy backdrop. Consequently, I haven’t tended to incorporate many monsters that have been imported into D&D straight from classical or medieval mythology.
The lamia is one of those: originally a queen who dallied with Zeus and was cursed by Hera to devour first her own children and then the children of others; later a monster with the torso of a woman and the lower body of a serpent; and in the depiction of Edward Topsell, a 17th-century clergyman who fancied himself a naturalist, a creature with a woman’s head on a lion-like body covered with serpentine scales, finished off with human breasts and what looks like a horse’s tail. Recurring themes in lamia myths include seduction, gluttony, filth and bloodlust.
D&D’s lamias have their roots in Topsell’s interpretation. In Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the lamia was drawn as having leonine paws in front and cloven hooves in back, and was vaguely described as having the lower body of “a beast.” After several evolutions (including a mystifying fourth-edition departure in which it became a corpse animated by devoured souls transformed into insects), the fifth-edition lamia has returned to something near the original concept, with the nonspecific “beast” body now specifically the body of a lion, sans horse tail. These lamias, rather than slovenly and gluttonous, are smooth seducers, corrupters of virtue, and admirers of beauty and power. Continue reading Lamia Tactics
I have to hand it to Volo’s Guide to Monsters for giving us grungs, undisputed winners of the Most Adorable Evil Creature title, formerly held by kobolds.
Clearly based on poison arrow frogs, grungs are arboreal rainforest dwellers, tribal and territorial. In the latter respect, their behavior in groups will therefore resemble that of lizardfolk, so I refer readers to my original article on them. Their amphibian nature also invites comparison to bullywugs.
Lizardfolk are brutes, but grungs are low-Strength, high-Dexterity, high-Constitution skirmishers. Their low Strength means they’re going to be encountered in large numbers; no fewer than half a dozen at a time, I’d say. If they’re going to initiate an encounter against your player characters, rather than vice versa, they’ll have to outnumber the party at least three to one.
Grungs share the Amphibious and Standing Leap features with bullywugs. This means they’ll often be found in swampy areas, around rivers and in other sorts of difficult terrain, which they can get around in easily by jumping. They’re quicker than bullywugs, though not as quick as most PCs, and since they can climb as well as jump, they’ll use their proficiency in Stealth to hide in trees and drop on their enemies from above. Continue reading Grung Tactics
Going solely by their extraordinary Strength and Constitution, it would be easy to lump all giants together as brute fighters. If we want encounters with giants to be more than boring bash-fests, we have to look for clues not just in their stat blocks but also in the Monster Manual flavor text.
Take the matter of rock throwing. Every race of giants has this ranged attack alongside its melee attack, and on average, it does more damage. Yet every race of giants also has a Strength much, much higher than its Dexterity, so based on the assumptions I’ve been using all along, they should consistently prefer engaging in melee to attacking from a distance. Also, giants’ Multiattacks apply only to their melee attacks, not to throwing rocks. So why include a ranged attack at all? Continue reading Giant Tactics
Neothelids are products of mind flayer reproduction gone awry. Mind flayers reproduce by hatching thousands of tadpoles and implanting as many as they can in the brains of living hosts. Unimplanted tadpoles must be killed, because if they’re left to their own devices, the tadpoles will grow out of control and dumbly devour every living thing around them, including other mind flayer tadpoles. As they feed and grow, their psionic power grows as well, but the intelligence needed to direct it—which normally comes from the host brain—doesn’t. You can see how this ends: not well.
Gargantuan, clumsily thrashing brutes, neothelids have extraordinary Strength and Constitution but below-average dexterity, subsentient Intelligence but high Wisdom (representing perception and survival instinct, nothing else). It has 120 feet of blindsight, suiting it to any environment but giving it the greatest advantage in subterranean places. It can also detect the presence of intelligent creatures up to a mile away, unless they’re masking their minds with magic.
The combination of high Wisdom and rock-bottom Intelligence indicates a sort of animal cunning, which isn’t the same as flexibility—the neothelid has none of that. Operating purely from instinct, it nevertheless can choose its moment to attack and avoid tangling with creatures of comparable or greater power. It can also detect—imperfectly—which of its prospective victims are weakest and go after them first. And if it’s seriously wounded (reduced to 130 hp or fewer), it will recognize the danger it’s in, break off fighting and Dash away. Continue reading Neothelid Tactics
The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide describes four tiers of play, based on player character level. From level 1 to level 4, PCs are “local heroes,” saving one village at a time. At levels 5 through 10, they’re “heroes of the realm,” regionally renowned. At levels 11 through 16, they’re “masters of the realm,” on whose deeds the fates of kingdoms turn. And at levels 17 through 20, they’re “masters of the world,” the ones who wind up as protagonists in books by R.A. Salvatore.
If your PCs are coming face-to-face with an empyrean, they’d better either be masters of the world already or have very good health insurance coverage. They are, essentially, demigods. Titans. Boss monsters on par with the most ancient dragons. Most of them are chaotic good, residing on the plane of Arvandor, Arboria or Olympus, depending on how old-school you like your cosmology. But sometimes they go on a spring break bender in Tartarus or something (excuse me—Carceri), and they’re not the same when they come back. These depraved empyreans end up exiled to the material plane, where they take over kingdoms as a hobby. (If a 20-foot-tall god-child can’t make Posleslavny great again, who can, am I right?) Continue reading Empyrean Tactics
“Mind flayers aren’t the real boss monster,” I wrote in my post on mind flayer tactics. “They usually live in colonies, not by themselves. The real boss monster is the elder brain.” And while the fifth-edition Monster Manual doesn’t include stats for elder brains, Volo’s Guide to Monsters does! Huzzah!
Unfortunately, Volo’s doesn’t solve the real problem with 5E mind flayers: that, as written, they simply aren’t powerful enough to carry out their psionic schemes with even a modicum of efficiency. And efficiency is important, because if they have to live near humanoid settlements in order to harvest the brains they live on, yet also have to conceal their presence in order to avoid discovery not just by their prey but also by vengeful gith, they’re gonna need a decent number of minions. Continue reading Mind Flayers Revisited
As I mentioned in my last post, Volo’s Guide to Monsters offers three alternatives to the conventionally witchy hag coven spell repertoire. One is necromantic, one is nature-oriented, and one plays up the divination angle at the expense of the maledictory. These can be used with any variety of hag, although green hags and bheur hags seem more likely to form covens than the other three varieties, which strike me as more exclusively solitary.
Although the Prophecy list seems relatively benign compared with Death, Nature or the default list—and even Nature seems like it could go either way—hags are not your friends. Any prophetic services you get from a hag are going to come at a steep cost, and they’re going to enjoy watching you pay it.
The Prophecy list is distinctive in another way: It offers almost no tactical advantages or combinations. Arcane eye lets the coven hunt down a fleeing or hiding foe, perhaps, and dispel magic’s utility is straightforward, but bane and bless are low-power spells that have to be sustained (and why would a hag want to bless anybody, even one of its sister hags?), and all the other spells in this repertoire are either rituals or strictly divination. Not only are these coven spells more suited to social interaction encounters than combat encounters, a hag coven assembling for this purpose is probably doing so for reasons entirely their own, and they may not even be casting these spells in front of your player characters. Continue reading Hags Revisited, Part 2
Volo’s Guide to Monsters includes an extended treatment of hags, and it heavily emphasizes lore: their scheming and manipulation, their names, their personalities, their use of odd mounts and vehicles and keeping of strange “pets,” their fondness for weird objects. But it also presents two much more powerful varieties, along with new information with the potential to alter hag tactics: lair actions and alternative coven spells.
Arch-hags, called “grandmothers,” gain access to powerful lair actions, and their lairs have regional effects. As with dragons and other powerful enemies, the regional effects are mostly for flavor, and those that do actual damage do so whether the resident hags are present or not. But the lair actions include a few curveballs.
All grandmother hags have access to two of these lair actions. One allows them to pass through solid walls, doors, ceilings and floors. The other allows them to open or close doors and/or windows at will, and a closed door or window may be magically locked against any attempt to force it open. If a battle is taking place in a hag’s lair, this can allow the hag to trap weaker enemies inside the lair—or in a single room within the lair. Or enemies chasing the hag through its lair may be cut off from one another by the sudden slamming of a door (giving the hag—and, by extension, the dungeon master—incentive to create lairs that are mazes of small rooms connected by doors). Or, if a battle is going poorly for the hag, it can make its escape by fleeing through a wall, possibly leaving its would-be pursuers locked inside. Continue reading Hags Revisited, Part 1
Volo’s Guide to Monsters’ treatment of the yuan-ti is heavily lore-focused, with a section, useful to dungeon masters, on how to design a yuan-ti temple-city. From a tactical standpoint, the only additions are five new variants (!) and a brief subsection headed “Unusual Abilities.”
Unusual Abilities offers four traits that DMs can use to customize an individual yuan-ti or a group of them:
- Acid Slime gives the yuan-ti a corrosive coating, lasting one minute, that inflicts 1d10 acid damage against a grappled opponent or one who strikes it with a close-range melee attack. It’s a bonus action, and yuan-ti don’t get any other bonus actions, so this is a free supplement to the yuan-ti’s action economy. It’s all benefit and no downside, so the yuan-ti will use this feature on its first turn.
- Chameleon Skin is also a freebie: it’s a passive ability that grants advantage on Stealth Checks. No tactical implication; it just makes the yuan-ti better at what it already does.
- Shapechanger, for the yuan-ti pureblood, comes with the same disadvantages as it has for the yuan-ti malison and yuan-ti abomination. Skip it.
- Shed Skin is another all-benefit, no-downside feature, letting a grappled or restrained yuan-ti slip free without a skill or ability check. It costs only a bonus action, which is no cost at all, since the yuan-ti has no other bonus action to give up. A yuan-ti with this trait will use it anytime it applies.
Continue reading Yuan-ti Revisited