Balhannoth Tactics

A couple of readers asked me to look at the balhannoth, and I have to say, this is one of the strangest stat blocks I’ve ever looked at. Not necessarily because it has the most peculiar abilities—although a couple of its abilities are unique and quite interesting—but because it almost seems like two different monsters in one, each with a completely different modus operandi.

Going by its ability scores and its attack actions, the balhannoth is a straightforward brute, with exceptional Strength and Constitution. Its Bite action is a basic melee attack that deals a ferocious four dice of piercing damage at close range. Its Tentacle action does bludgeoning damage (which can be read as “constricting” as well as “whomping”) and also grapples and restrains on a hit. Additionally, the grappled target “is moved up to 5 feet toward the balhannoth.” “Up to 5” includes zero, and this gives the balhannoth the option of either reeling a target in to Bite them or holding them at a safe distance, out of melee attack reach. A balhannoth can grab up to four targets this way.

Its Multiattack offers two choices: Tentacle/Tentacle/Bite (or Tentacle/Bite/Tentacle) and Tentacle × 4. If opponents are rushing the balhannoth, or if they’re clustered too closely together, the latter lets it seize several of them at once. If only a couple of enemies are within reach, it can grab and Bite right away.

As a legendary creature, the balhannoth has three legendary actions, one of which is Bite Attack—a Bite on another creature’s turn. This makes the Tentacle × 4 Multiattack option more appealing, as the balhannoth doesn’t have to forgo biting altogether simply because it wanted to snatch as many foes as possible in its tentacles. It can also Teleport up to 60 feet, which is useful for positioning, because the balhannoth is slow. (Although the illustration in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes seems to suggest that it floats like a grell, it has no flying speed—just walking and climbing, both 25 feet.) I’ll talk about its third legendary action in a moment.

If you knew nothing else about the balhannoth, you’d think it was basically an unusually vicious roper—a brute that snatches foes with its tentacles and holds them in place, restrained, while chomping down on them with advantage.

But then there’s the other half of its kit.

The raison d’être of the balhannoth, a denizen of the Shadowfell, is to sucker lost wanderers into its lair by making it appear and feel like the answer to their deepest longings. It does this by way of its regional effects and lair actions. And this is where the balhannoth gets truly strange, because its lair actions—which take place on initiative count 20, like all lair actions—seem designed specifically to be used outside the context of a combat encounter, when there is no “initiative count 20” or any other initiative count.

Its regional effects work the way other regional effects do, out to a distance of 1 mile: the balhannoth can sense the desires of a humanoid wanderer and can implant in that wanderer the sense that the fulfillment of those desires is nearby. Next comes a circular zone with a radius of 500 feet: at this distance, the balhannoth can sense anything, thanks to its ridiculous blindsight, and can use a lair action to either kidnap a creature (this one doesn’t have to be a humanoid, necessarily) or turn invisible to one creature. Inside this is a square zone, 500 feet on a side—in other words, a distance of 250 to 353 feet from the balhannoth—in which the balhannoth can use another lair action to create an ultra-detailed yet weirdly flawed illusion of a place that fulfills the wanderer’s desires.

The fact that these lair actions take place “on initiative count 20” of a combat encounter that player characters may not even be aware they’re in yet isn’t the only strange part. The reality-distorting lair action also takes 10 minutes to take effect.

Suppose the balhannoth senses the desires of Daria Hrast, a ranger, and starts to reshape the terrain of its lair into her dream campsite. Daria, with her keen sense of direction and harefooted step, immediately begins to zero in on the lair of the aberration. Even if her base movement speed is only 30 feet and she doesn’t Dash, she can still arrive at the balhannoth’s lair nine rounds, or 54 seconds, after it begins remodeling. It’s not even going to be close to done.

So the balhannoth has to be particular about what order it uses its powers in. First, it has to sense its victim’s desires, at a range of 1 mile or less, without foisting a sense of their being close by. Second, it has to use a lair action to design the set. Ten minutes later, once it’s finally ready to show off its handiwork, then it can use its other regional effect to lure its victim in. Finally, it must wait for the victim to approach within 500 feet, at which point it can use another lair action to become invisible to that victim, followed by a third lair action to try to yoink them the rest of the way. Any alarm the abductee experiences is drowned out by the regional effect of the balhannoth’s lair, from which the feelings of being near one’s heart’s desire are overwhelming at ground zero.

Of note here—aside from the incongruity of using lair actions entirely outside initiative order—is the fact that while the balhannoth can’t use the same lair action two rounds in a row, the effects of its first and third lair actions are persistent. It can, and probably will, have both up and running at once, and it can use the second while the first and third are in effect.

What if the balhannoth fails to become invisible to its victim? Then it simply doesn’t bother to yoink. What if the invisibility succeeds, but the yoink fails? Then it waits patiently for the victim to find their way to its lair on their own.

Can the balhannoth use a legendary action outside combat? Legendary actions can be used only “at the end of another creature’s turn,” but lair actions can only be used “on initiative count 20,” and we’re already playing absurdly fast and loose with the definition of combat time here—if we don’t, then half the balhannoth’s kit becomes completely worthless, because it will never be able to reshape its lair in time. In this new “Do what you gotta” regime, as long as the balhannoth’s marks are still on their way to its lair, they’re taking turns, in a sense. And the balhannoth, on one of these turns, uses the Vanish legendary action to turn invisible, not just to its victim but to everyone. That’s where we’ll stop bending the rules; from this point on, the balhannoth does everything by the book.

If it’s lured just one victim to its lair, it gives the victim 30 seconds or so to enjoy and appreciate the rare feeling of being granted their fondest wish, followed by the dawning awareness that the cake is a lie. Having had that satisfaction, the balhannoth attacks. It can use its Multiattack flexibly, making two Tentacle attacks, then deciding whether to Bite (if it’s grappled its victim) or make two more Tentacle attacks (if it failed on its first two tries). Because the balhannoth is invisible, it makes the first attack with advantage. (It may not make it with surprise, however. It lacks Stealth proficiency, and its Dexterity modifier is an infelicitous −1. If its Stealth roll doesn’t beat the victim’s passive Perception, they’ll know something is there, even though they can’t see it.) It attacks to kill and doesn’t let up unless its victim manages to moderately wound it (reduce it to 79 hp or fewer) before it can moderately wound its victim (reduce them to 70 percent or less of their hit point maximum).

If the victim arrives under their own power, with an entourage, the balhannoth has to try to get within 10 feet of as many of them as possible and lash out with every tentacle, like the octopus who plays the drums. It makes its first attack against a target with AC 15 or higher (AC 18 is ideal), to get the most value out of its attack advantage, but this is as sophisticated as its target selection gets.

And now we’re back in brute territory—not just brute territory, but mechanistic brute territory, because the balhannoth’s Intelligence 6 allows it no tactical flexibility. After taking its own turn, it uses its legendary actions as it’s allowed to. It uses Vanish immediately after its last grappled victim escapes, preparing to reposition for another mass grab. It uses Teleport when it has an empty tentacle and no other way to get to the next target it wants to use it on, or to get away from an enemy who deals it 12 damage or more in a single hit. Otherwise, it uses Bite Attack to munch on one of its grappled victims. If it’s grappled any of its victims at a range of 10 feet, it holds them there so that they can’t close in and fight back while it Bites those nearer to it.

Like most predators, the balhannoth doesn’t care much for prey that fights back, but it also doesn’t want to abandon its lair if it can help it. It flees when seriously wounded (reduced to 45 hp or fewer).

ETA: OK, a couple of things, now that I’ve had a bit more time to think about this. First, as I realized immediately after posting (but didn’t have time then to fix), I haven’t discussed how a balhannoth will use its lair actions during combat. Well, first of all, the reshape-reality lair action is useless, because it doesn’t take effect for 10 minutes; by that time, the combat encounter is long over. Scratch that one off. The invisibility lair action isn’t entirely useless, but it’s redundant and inferior to the Vanish legendary action. However, the teleportation lair action may be useful for relocating a difficult and persistent enemy to a safer distance. The catch is that it can only be done once every other round, since the balhannoth can’t use the same lair action two rounds in a row. Teleporting itself is more broadly useful.

Second, about Teleport: As Andy nD pointed out to me on Twitter, a balhannoth can use Teleport to outpace its enemies and carry a victim away to a safe place where it can monch them to death. And why wouldn’t it do that? Predators are generally content to take down a single prey creature. A balhannoth has no need to stick around and keep four foes restrained at once while it Bites just one of them.

Now, maybe the balhannoth is greedy. Maybe it wants to carry off and kill as many easy targets as it can. What’s going to distinguish easy prey from difficult prey? Remember how I mentioned that it aims its first attack at a higher-AC target, to make use of its unseen-attacker advantage? With +7 to hit, a balhannoth has a two-thirds or better chance of hitting an unrestrained target with AC 14 or lower, or a restrained target with AC 19 or lower. Anyone with AC 20 or higher is difficult prey and not worth the trouble. Anyone with AC 14 or lower is easy prey and will be whisked off. As for those in between, they’re only worth trying to eat if the balhannoth can keep them restrained. If they manage to escape, it lets them go and makes no further attempt to grapple them, although it will smack them with a tentacle if they insist on pursuing.

Next: deep scions.

18 thoughts on “Balhannoth Tactics

  1. This is a creature I utterly dismissed as being too much of a niche thing until I read your article, and now I’m looking for a way to nudge my PCs towards the shadowfell to have an excuse to use it.

    I found the reality-warping ability of the Balhannoth to be particularly terrifying in that, as I read it, it would allow the Balhannoth to create physical barriers or difficult terrain that would aid it in combat, so long as it doesn’t involve magic or moving parts. Piles of counterfeit gold pieces that have to be waded through, sharp rocks around the perfect campsite, endless-maze-like bookshelves filled with empty tomes, etc. Maybe it looks fairly “normal” at the center of the lair where the prey is first teleported in, but if it wanders the terrain becomes increasingly repetitive and strange.

    This is probably hampered by the Balhannoth’s low intelligence, so I don’t think it’s going to create a cage or pit to teleport its prey into directly. But I could see it instinctively creating a maze or fractal-like terrain that slows down any escape attempts for the chosen prey while also hampering any would-be rescuers. Even a bunch of spiral arms or concentric rings could be quite helpful. Perhaps with little holes allowing sight so that it can take advantage of its teleport ability to get past obstacles while prey or rescuers have to take a long way around.

    Having a maze to play with also lets it make better use of its (as you note, slightly redundant and inferior) lair action teleport and invisibility to keep the party divided and confused.

    1. Why just restrict the Balhannoth to the Shadowfell? Surely, it’s a monster that could appear in the Underdark, in a haunted twilight forest, a decrepit ruin suffused with necrotic energy, or a “cursed” area peasants and villagers know people go missing from. DM prerogative.

      1. Well the balhannoth’s description does say that drow sometimes capture them and bring them back to the Underdark to use as guard dogs.

    2. This, I like, because it plays into the Balhannoth’s sadistic streak. It doesn’t just want to eat creatures. It wants to mess with them. To luxuriate in the frustration, fear, and despair of its prey, before moving in for the kill.

      Getting a 30 second bit of enjoyment from a victim’s initial hope-turned-disappointment is fine – and something it would do if it were starving – but that’s small change compared to a prolonged session in Mister Balhannoth’s Torture Maze. I’d certainly draw out an encounter like that, were I the DM.

      Moreover, if the PCs get trapped in such a maze, they might find another person similarly trapped, though who was there a lot longer. Starved and mad, they might attack or bother the PCs for a time, instilling in them how horrific the space is. A zone that has no exit, which seems to change shape every ten minutes. The poor fool stalked by an invisible predator that always seems to be nearby.

      The Balhannoth, of course, has no grand design here. It ate the NPC’s comrades long ago, and largely keeps the survivor trapped for both amusement and “emergency rations”. Like a cat, toying with a bird it has in its clutches. Only willing to eat it when it grows hungry, bored, or when better prey comes around.

  2. Surely the illustration is of the balhannoth hanging from the ceiling rather than floating like a grell?

      1. Just because something doesn’t have an innate ability that obviates the need to make an ability check doesn’t mean it can’t do it.

          1. Probably a Dex based Athletics check, but it would require an appropriate ceiling. If the ceiling has appropriate handholds why not let characters hang from them?

            Admittedly, trees and horizontal ladders are more likely to have hangable surfaces, but mold earth could be used to make simple shapes ie stone handholds in cave ceilings.

  3. The way in which the balhannoth’s lair action teleport is worded, and its reality-shaping abilities, suggests to me that it is perfectly capable of enclosing itself in an impenetrable cavity and then teleporting a solo PC inside with it to be devoured, blind, alone and helpless. Of course, this depends on how much agency the balhannoth has over the way it shapes its lair (unclear), its capacity for tactical thought (doubtful), and how mean the DM is (very)…

  4. You keep saying that the balhannoth holds restrained enemies at 10ft, because it’s “a safe distance, out of melee attack reach.” But what’s to stop them attacking the tentacle holding them??

  5. That reality warp lair action *really* should be put into regional effects and then something else should be swapped in as a lair action. Like, random tentacles bursting from the ground that grapple PCs or something.

  6. I feel that the usefulness of the third lair action wasn’t emphasized enough; it causes the balhannoth to become invisible to that target for 1 minute or until it attacks that target.

    This would allow it to become invisible to a creature attacking it from afar with a bow or with magic, and remain invisible to that creature for the entire battle while eating that creature’s friends who can all see it perfectly well.

    This can be done to multiple creatures at once, and depending on how cruel you want to be, the balhannoth could be invisible via its Vanish legendary action until it has had time to attempt the lair action on everyone in the party before beginning its attack.

    It’s probably overkill for a creature with an intelligence of just 6, but it could spend its turns attacking only creatures that can see it, beginning by targeting the creature that looks easiest to eat first.

  7. I used it recently in a different way. The creature’s home was a shadowfell fallen temple and there were more creatures in the lair, sorrowsworn.
    The balhannoth used monsters as brutes while attacking rear members, like wizards and clerics.
    When the main combat was over, Balhannoth repositioned himself, always hunting players through the dungeon preventing them from resting and occasionally trying to teleport some of them to a room with dangers it already knew.

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