As soon as my last post went up, I got a request to examine the gaj. However, I already promised you astral elves. So it’s astral elves today, gaj next time.
Ageless astral elves pilot ships made of crystal and plant matter, because of course they do. It reminds me of all the “elves be like this, dwarves be like that” jokes we used to make back in high school (Gruff voice: “Dwarves drink stout!” Prissy voice: “Elves drink wine!”), to the extent that I kind of want to see a Spelljammer game in which a bunch of space dwarves cruise by on a big lump of rock that’s nothing more than a mined-out and repurposed asteroid with a bar at the center, where you’ll find the drunkest dwarf spellcaster at the helm. (I say that with the absolute certainty that it’s been thought of at least a thousand times already, and actually done at least a hundred.)
Your basic mook, the astral elf warrior, has a challenge rating of 3, on par with its counterpart among the giff. That CR makes it a match for most mid-level player characters, and a whole crew of them is threat suitable only for high- and legendary-level PCs to take on. However, the astral elf warrior is an extremely uncomplicated foe. Despite its very high Intelligence and Wisdom and high Charisma, it’s not a spellcaster; it has no offensive capabilities beyond its weapon attacks. Among its physical ability scores, only its Dexterity stands out. Thus, it’s a combination sharpshooter and shock attacker that employs the solid but unexciting tactic of shooting at its opponents from a safe distance of 60 to 150 feet away until they’re all perforated enough for it to charge in and finish them off with its blade.
If you were hoping for more flair, I’m sorry to disappoint you; it simply isn’t to be found here. Not only are astral elf warriors dull hole punchers, they’re systematic dull hole punchers: Their Intelligence and Wisdom give them the wits to choose their battles carefully, assess their enemies’ weaknesses accurately, and target accordingly. In other words, they know not to pick fights they’re likely to lose, and they have a very good idea of whom they should shoot at first. Combat encounters initiated by astral elf crews should always be Deadly. If an encounter would be Hard, the astral elves don’t fight, they parley—and by “parley” I mean “bluff,” since the only social skill they have proficiency in is Intimidation. If the encounter would be Easy or Medium, they cut and run, and their Star Moth ships are among the faster ones out there. Moderately wounded astral elf warriors (reduced to 40 hp or fewer) retreat if none of their enemies are worse than lightly wounded, and seriously wounded warriors (reduced to 23 hp or fewer) always retreat, although a couple of the least wounded may stay behind to delay pursuers.
I usually look at groups of humanoids in order of their challenge rating, but in this case I’m going to skip ahead to the astral elf commander, because that’s what you’ll most likely find at the head of a crew of astral elf warriors. Here we see essentially the same ability contour as in the astral elf warrior, but with a greater separation between mental and physical ability scores.
Once again, the elevated mental abilities go largely wasted. It makes me pause and ask what purpose those scores serve, which makes me refer back to the Astral Adventurer’s Guide. It’s nothing to do with flying the ships, because fighting over control of a spelljammer helm is a contest of Constitution—and even that only applies when there’s more than one helm on a ship. Astral fishing explains astral elves’ Survival proficiencies, but the only other thing I can find is under “Travel by Thought Alone” in chapter 2. If an astral elf warrior falls overboard in the Astral Sea, it can cogitate its way back to its ship at a speed of 80 feet; an astral elf commander can go 90 feet per move.
Anyway, aside from trivial differences such as Armor Class and hit points, there are only two things that make the astral elf commander stand apart from the astral elf warrior: It can cast teleport twice per day, and it has proficiency in Deception as well as Intimidation. These differences suggest two things to me.
First, the commander does the negotiating anytime an astral elf crew decides that parley is wiser than attack, and because of that Deception proficiency, its bluff is likely to be more convincing, as it can back its bluster up with—how do you say—“alternative truths.”
Second, while the flavor text says that astral elf commanders cast teleport to spirit their subordinates out of danger in a pinch, it also happens to let a commander lead a strike team of up to eight allies directly to a target ship’s spelljammer helm. Caveat: This maneuver is only a sure thing if a spy on board the enemy ship has taken an object from the bridge or helm room and transferred it to the commander’s possession, guaranteeing an on-target teleportation. However, if the commander has no such an object but is boarding a ship whose bridge or helm room it’s very familiar with—for instance, one it served on before, once upon a time—this tactic has a 76 percent chance of on-target teleportation, an 11 percent chance of landing close enough for horseshoes and only a 13 percent chance of seriously screwing up. Also, because the commander has two uses of teleport per day, it can make a second attempt if the first one fails, raising the overall chance of teleporting directly or very close to the desired location to 99 percent, with negligible expected damage. The probabilities are the same if the commander has been scrying on the bridge or helm room using a crystal ball or similar magic item, and the surveillance has been thorough.
If the surveillance is rushed, the chance of arriving directly at or very close to the intended destination in either one or two tries is only 83 percent, it will take two tries roughly one time in three, and each member of the strike team can expect to take 8 damage in the process. Scrying only once is no better than thinking of the phrase “wherever that ship’s spelljammer helm is,” granting a 74 percent chance of arriving there or nearby in one or two tries at the cost of an expected 12 damage per teleporting commando.
Astral elf commanders retreat when seriously wounded (reduced to 57 hp or fewer) or when all their underlings are retreating or dead.
Back to CR order now, with the astral elf star priest up next. Finally, some spellcasting to go with the high mental ability scores! In this case, however, all the physical ability scores are resolutely average; the star priest neither absorbs nor avoids damage particularly well. Its combat role is therefore best described as “coward”: It doesn’t want to be seen at all, let alone targeted. Its place on the battlefield is waaaay in back, up to 60 feet away from its nearest enemy, and ideally behind as much cover as possible, with just a peephole or arrow slit to peer through.
The astral elf star priest carries a morningstar—and deals a blast of radiant damage on a hit that far outstrips what the weapon itself inflicts—but its to-hit bonus is so pitiful, it’s hardly worth using. Better to stay far, far away from melee altogether and stick with Rain of Radiance and hold person. In a boarding attempt, Rain of Radiance is the stronger choice during the arrow storm phase, good for focusing down anyone who’s effectively fighting back. Hold person comes into play in the melee phase, when the warriors charge across to finish off wounded enemies; it’s good for immobilizing front-line warriors who lack Wisdom saving throw proficiency, i.e., the ones who aren’t paladins or Wild Shaped druids.
Cure wounds can be granted as a boon in a social interaction encounter, but in combat, the star priest is unlikely to cast it on anyone except a seriously wounded astral elf aristocrat (see below). Who else is likely to be important enough to merit an 8th-level healing spell? Divination’s effects are too abstract for a combat encounter, but it’s a good information vector by which a crew of astral elves might be able to determine the difficulty of an encounter before it begins. Word of recall is useful for evacuating an aristocrat and its honor guard (also see below), while sending is handy for informing a ship’s commander that the spelljammer helm is under attack, especially since the star priest is quite likely to be the one controlling it.
If any enemy gets within melee reach of an astral elf star priest—heck, if they get within 30 feet of melee reach of an astral elf star priest—the star priest uses its Starlight Step bonus action to withdraw to the safest place it can see, then uses its movement to withdraw even farther. If that enemy is close enough to smack, the star priest uses its Multiattack to take one desperate swing with its morningstar and dump a Rain of Radiance on its assailant. Otherwise, it saves its action for Dashing after it moves. When it’s seriously wounded (reduced to
25 36 hp or fewer), it uses its first cure wounds spell to heal itself, but not its second. It retires from battle when moderately wounded (reduced to 44 63 hp or fewer) after casting this spell on itself or if it’s already spent one or both of its uses on others. [N.B. In an erratum, the astral elf star priest’s hit point maximum was changed from 63 (14d8) to 90 (20d8).]
As its name suggests, the astral elf honor guard protects an astral elf aristocrat. It’s not part of a boarding party unless for some reason the aristocrat is, too. It has a little more Strength in its ability contour than other astral elves do, placing it roughly on par with its Dex. Its attacks are balanced between a melee Longsword attack and a ranged Radiant Ray spell attack (read: mage laser), and so its its Multiattack action, which can comprise two of one or one of each. Since they deal approximately the same amount of damage, we have another dully effective heuristic: Stand next to the VIP, hurl Radiant Rays at enemies who threaten the VIP while they’re charging, then lay into them with Longsword when they get close enough. I think it’s fair to say that the job of an honor guard means standing one’s ground, and that this particular astral elf fights to the death to protect its charge. If the aristocrat must retreat, the bulk of the honor guard stays behind to delay pursuers, with just a couple accompanying the aristocrat as elven shields.
The astral elf aristocrat itself, at CR 8, is the strongest of all the astral elves, which suggests a system of true meritocracy that I find even less believable than the existence of spacefaring elves. Such a paragon can easily hold its own against any low-level party of PCs and needs no more than one or two bodyguards to help it defend against mid-level PCs, but a full honor guard is necessary against high-level threats.
The aristocrat is an extraordinary judge of weakness and exceptional at threat assessment, but it isn’t a truly legendary creature—and it’s also skimpy in the hit point department, making it something of a glass cannon. Thus, while the aristocrat isn’t shabby with its scimitar (it’s certainly better with it than the star priest is with its morningstar), it’s much better off letting its honor guard do the melee fighting. In fact, when it becomes apparent that enemies are charging forward to assail an astral elf aristocrat, the aristocrat calmly casts mislead and pretends to hunker down behind its defenders while it invisibly retires from the battle altogether or posts up in some other, entirely unexpected place.
Well, hang on. The astral elf aristocrat actually has three different sets of tactics: one for when it fights alone, or with just one or two bodyguards; one for when it and its honor guard together constitute a Deadly encounter for their enemies; and one for when they constitute a merely Hard encounter.
When fighting alone or with just one or two bodyguards, the aristocrat casts fly for the benefits of rapid movement and flexible positioning, the better to issue Radiant Beams with (yep, mage lasers again). Any position from which the aristocrat can strike two targets is acceptable; three or more lined up within its 60-foot range are icing on the cake. A flying astral elf aristocrat can cruise up to a foe, strike twice with its Scimitar, aim a Radiant Beam at the target and one or more other foes as well if it chooses, then use its bonus action to Starlight Step upward and backward, putting distance between them without risking an opportunity attack.
If the opposition is tough enough for the aristocrat to need a full honor guard, however, it’s more important to stay behind them (or to seem to!); casting fly would make the aristocrat too tempting a target for arrows. In an encounter that’s Deadly for the astral elves’ opponents, the honor guard can do the bulk of the work, with the aristocrat contributing opportunistically, mainly in the form of Radiant Beams. However, in a Hard encounter, more help is needed to even the score. That’s where Summon Solar Dragon comes in.
Back in the days when I was looking at devils and demons that could summon backup, the probabilities of success and failure rankled me. PCs who want to make risk-reward calculations can roll the dice on whether certain abilities work or not, but I’ve come to hold the opinion that creatures controlled by the Dungeon Master shouldn’t have to do that. Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons combat encounters are over too quickly for an antagonist to waste time on a feature that ends up doing nothing. Either the ability works, or the creature doesn’t waste time on it. That’s where I stand with the astral elf aristocrat’s Summon Solar Dragon bonus action. If the astral elves don’t need it, the aristocrat doesn’t use it. If they do need it, the aristocrat uses it, and it just works—the dragon shows up. It’s part of balancing the encounter. I’ll get to solar dragons eventually, but for now, you can employ the same tactics for a young solar dragon that you’d use with any young chromatic dragon.
An astral elf aristocrat retreats when moderately wounded (reduced to 72 hp or fewer), but it’s a disciplined withdrawal, accompanied by a pair of guards. Any astral elf honor guards left over delay the enemy to cover the aristocrat’s retreat. The illusory double of an aristocrat that’s cast mislead appears to take damage as the aristocrat normally would but does not retreat, in order to keep the astral elves’ foes fighting a phantom—and the real, substantial members of the honor guard. As the honor guard’s blades and rays wear those foes down, the astral elf aristocrat, in full health, can then appear, slash a squishy back-liner into ribbons and commence lasering with abandon.
Next: gaj, as requested.