The kirin (inexplicably hyphenated “ki-rin” in Dungeons and Dragons products going all the way back to the original D&D book Eldritch Wizardry, which preceded even Advanced Dungeons and Dragons—kirin, unhyphenated, is a Japanization of the Chinese 麒麟 qílín) is a mythical creature whose appearance portends the births and deaths of great rulers and sages. A deerlike beast with scaly skin, grand antlers and dragonish facial features, the kirin is often characterized in Western writing as the “Japanese unicorn” or “Chinese unicorn” because of its virtuousness and standoffishness and because it’s sometimes depicted as having a single horn rather than a pair of antlers. The link is reinforced in fifth-edition D&D, as both unicorns and kirin are categorized as celestials.
Kirin are reclusive, and being lawful good, they prefer to avoid violent encounters. Combat with a kirin is going to take place in only two instances: Either a player character has attacked the kirin, or the kirin is fending off an intrusion by an intrinsically evil creature, such as a fiend or undead.
A kirin’s extraordinary Strength is nearly matched by its Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma, making it one of the few creatures that’s equally well-suited to melee combat and spellcasting. With proficiency in Perception, it’s hard to catch by surprise, and with proficiency in Insight, it knows which of its opponents are genuinely hostile and which are simply misguided. Continue reading Kirin Tactics
The couatl is rarely encountered in Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, partly because of its distinctly Mesoamerican flavor (most campaign settings remain hardily quasi-European) and partly because of its lawful good alignment (good monsters make bad enemies), but the winged, feathered serpent has been part of the game since the first Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual. In fifth edition, it’s categorized as a celestial.
Couatls have exceptional ability scores across the board, but their Dexterity and Wisdom are especially extraordinary. Their mental ability scores are higher on average than their physical ability scores, suggesting a preference for spellcasting over messy tooth-and-claw conflict (though their spell repertoire turns out not to support this preference especially well). Their 30-foot slithering speed is put to shame by their 90-foot flying speed; this, plus an awesome natural armor class of 19 and an immunity to physical damage from nonmagical weapons, implies that if they do engage in physical combat, they’ll most often hover in the air, dive-bomb their targets, then fly back out of reach without concern for opportunity attacks. Continue reading Couatl Tactics
“Are there unicorns in these woods? I want to see a unicorn!” Venture into any idyllic forested setting, and you’re sure to hear this request from one of your players.
Unicorns are elusive beasts—actually, not beasts, according to fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons’ classification system, but celestials. They’re gentle, exuding a spirit of tranquility that extends to the other creatures that dwell in their vicinities, but also alert defenders of their domains. A unicorn may choose to reveal itself to a good-hearted creature, but any character who takes ill advantage of a unicorn’s good nature will be made to regret it.
I’m actually surprised and impressed by how formidable 5E unicorns are. I’d intended to draw on the suggestion I made in my earlier article on vampire tactics, about taking familiar monsters and giving them unexpected powers, and write a comical post about how unicorns could summon hordes of angry woodland creatures, disappear by running behind a tree and reappear behind another one, fire trebuchets, and rear up on their hind legs and deliver stunning roundhouse kicks like Chuck Norris. The incredible thing is, I don’t need to! Unicorns are pretty tough already. Continue reading Unicorn Tactics
Who gets in a fight with an angel? “Evil characters” is the obvious answer, but it’s not the only answer. Angels being lawful good, a dedicated group of chaotic player characters could find just as much reason to beef with them—and even PCs who are neutral on either the good-to-evil spectrum, the law-to-chaos spectrum or both, and who find themselves gadding about on Mount Celestia (or the Seven Heavens, as we called them back in the day), might somehow run afoul of the ruling authority in a way that needs to be kiboshed.
Angels, in fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons, come in three levels: devas, planetars and solars. These qualify as boss opponents for mid-level, high-level and top-level adventurers, but realistically, players are rarely going to run across them before they acquire access to the 7th-level spell plane shift, and that doesn’t happen until level 13. Lower-level PCs might journey to the Outer Planes through the use of a magic item that allows them to cast plane shift or a portal created by the gate spell, or they might manage to summon an angel to serve them using planar binding or planar ally. Even so, we’re still talking level 9 and up. Continue reading Angel Tactics
Not to be confused with ordinary merfolk, merrows are larger-than-humanoid monstrosities, the descendents of merfolk warped by demonic influence in the ancient past. Since they’ve bred and survived since then, we can consider them evolved creatures despite their supernatural origin.
Merrows are water-dwelling creatures, drawn to coastal areas with a lot of marine traffic, where they prey on anyone and anything weaker than themselves. While they can breathe both air and water, they flounder about at a pitiable 10 feet per turn on land, but in water, they swim at a brisk 40. Their exceptional Strength and very high Constitution place them in the brute category, eager to get up close and personal with their prospective victims. They’re not that bright, but they can tell when they’re getting beaten. They also have darkvision, so the hours from twilight to dawn are particularly dangerous times to be messing about in boats where merrows roam.
Most humanoids are strongest on land and weak in the water; merrows are strongest in the water and weak on land. It’s a given, therefore, that when merrows attack, their first and foremost goal is to pull their opponents into the water. Continue reading Merrow Tactics
I picked the barghest to examine out of Volo’s Guide to Monsters, recognizing it as a monster that’s been around a long time, but not one I’d ever made use of. Then I read the flavor text. What the what? A monster that only eats goblins? That couldn’t be how this creature was originally conceived.
So I did a little follow-up. Barghests come from Northern English folklore, in which they take the form of huge, black dogs, either possessed by evil spirits or being spirits themselves. The second half of the name is related etymologically to “ghost” and “ghast,” while the first half may mean “city,” “mountain” or even “bear”; no one’s sure. They prey on lone travelers and vagrants, they often have the power to change shape or pass invisibly, and the appearance of a barghest is considered an omen of death.
That’s popular lore. In Dungeons & Dragons lore, barghests began as fiends (as they still are) associated with goblins (as they still are) and often taking a canine shape (as they still do), but the ones that prowled the material plane were the young of those that resided—and ruled their own lands—in Gehenna. The current origin story, in which they’re created by the General of Gehenna to hunt goblins, is a new fifth-edition twist. And, frankly, a preposterous one.
So here’s how I’d interpret the flavor text in the barghest entry: It’s what goblins believe. Continue reading Barghest Tactics