Our current Dungeons and Dragons group got together after one of my wife’s coworkers cattily referred to a client as “someone who looks like he’d play Dungeons and Dragons in his mom’s basement,” and another of them retorted, “I would totally play Dungeons and Dragons.” He ended up being the host of our weekly sessions.
Why do I mention this? Because the beholder is such an iconic D&D monster that our host—who knew hardly anything about the game before we began playing—told me near the beginning of our campaign, “All I want is to run into an ‘eye of the beholder,’ and I’ll be happy.”
The beholder is an aberration—a magically summoned creature of extraplanar origin—with a hateful, avaricious and territorial temperament. It has little purpose in life beyond guarding its chosen turf. Though not strong, it has powerful mental abilities along with a high Dexterity and very high Constitution, protecting it against all of the “big three” types of saving throws. As you’d expect from a floating blob with a giant central eye, its Perception skill is through the roof; it also has darkvision out to 120 feet. It has an innate ability to hover, so it can never be knocked prone.
At melee range, it has a bite attack, but the beholder’s trump card is its Eye Rays, which emanate from the many smaller eyes at the end of stalks extending from its body. These rays have a range of 120 feet, enough to keep trespassers at a distance for two to five combat rounds. It can also project an Antimagic Cone from its central eye, but this ability is problematic, as we’ll see in a moment.
Finally, a beholder in its lair has access to three lair actions: slippery slime on the floor, grasping appendages flailing from the walls and random beholder eyes appearing on nearby surfaces. And a beholder encounter almost always happens in its lair.
The beholder is aggressive, malicious and antisocial, so when trespassers appear, it’s not going to indulge any attempt to negotiate passage—it’s going to attack immediately.
At the start of its turn, it must decide whether to use its Antimagic Cone. Here’s the problem: According to the Monster Manual, the cone “works against the beholder’s own eye rays.” OK, imagine that the beholder spends all its time with its gaze focused on the entrance to its lair, because that’s exactly the sort of thing an aberration would do. A group of intruders appears in the doorway. Every instinct it has tells it to kill the intruders. The only function its Antimagic Cone will have is to interfere with its killing the intruders.
As written, the Antimagic Cone seems at first to be a power of highly questionable usefulness. A beholder is going to position itself as you’d place a security camera: in a high-up corner where it can see everything and no one can maneuver behind it. Wherever it aims its Antimagic Cone, it’s also going to catch creatures it wants to shoot its eye rays at.
But with a little geometry, we can see how the Antimagic Cone can be made to work effectively. In fifth-edition D&D, a cone-shaped area of effect covers a distance of x feet, out to a width of x feet at that distance. Without boring you with the math, I’ll just share that, regardless of the cone’s range, this means it covers an arc of about 53 degrees, or slightly less than one-sixth of a circle. The upshot is that, while enemies are at a distance, the Antimagic Cone is practically useless. But when they’re close, and they’re surrounding the beholder, it can isolate one or two opponents within the cone while projecting Eye Rays in other directions.
OK, so the intruders have appeared, the beholder is attacking, it’s choosing not to use its Antimagic Cone just yet—but what if the intruders see the mean expression on this thing’s H. R. Giger–draws–Mike Wazowski face, roll higher initative and act first? The beholder’s got three Eye Ray legendary actions it can use between its turns, and it’s going to use one against each PC who gets a turn before it does.
When its own turn comes, it projects three Eye Rays. These rays are chosen at random, based on three d10 rolls (with duplicates rerolled). How does the beholder choose its targets? Let’s examine the saving throws needed to resist the various rays:
- Strength: Telekinetic Ray
- Dexterity: Slowing Ray, Petrifaction Ray, Disintegration Ray, Death Ray
- Constitution: Paralyzing Ray, Enervation Ray
- Wisdom: Charm Ray, Fear Ray, Sleep Ray
The beholder has Intelligence 17, so it knows better than to use its Telekinetic Ray against a hulking barbarian brute, its Disintegration Ray against a hyperactive halfling rogue, its Paralyzing Ray against a doughty dwarf, or its Charm Ray or Sleep Ray against an elf.
Let’s say you roll that the beholder is using its Telekinetic Ray, its Paralyzing Ray and its Sleep Ray. It aims the first at a weak-looking wizard, the second at a frail-ish rogue or warlock, and the third at a non-elf fighter or rogue. It might be right; it might be wrong. But its first guess is always going to be a sensible guess.
On subsequent rounds, the beholder refines its choices. If a ray didn’t work against a particular player character, it won’t use that ray—or any of its sibling rays—against that PC again. If it did work, it will use that ray’s sibling rays against that PC as well.
After it’s taken its turn, the beholder will use its legendary actions on the next three PCs’ turns, but now with a twist: instead of automatically attacking whichever PC has just taken his or her turn, it chooses targets according to what it knows about the PCs and their susceptibility to its various rays.
Also. on initiative count 20, the beholder uses a lair action. If one or more PCs is charging in to fight the beholder up close, it favors slippery slime. If one or more PCs is near a wall, it favors grabby appendages. If neither of the above situations applies or it’s already used its only favored lair action on the previous turn, it chooses random wall eye.
As long as the PCs remain out of melee range, the beholder will use nothing but its Eye Rays against them; it also won’t willingly move from its chosen location, which will be hovering at least 10 feet up if the chamber allows it, so as to remain out of characters’ reach even if they run up to it. But there is one twist here: Beholders are often summoned as guards by other magic-using entities. Say a beholder is under a geas to guard a passageway out of a chamber. Even though it would prefer to hover high out of reach, if a PC approaches that passageway, the beholder will be compelled to descend in order to block it. Then the PCs may be able to reach it with melee attacks.
If enough of its attackers close with it, it will then start using its Antimagic Cone to shut down spellcasters, provided that it can do so and still target non-spellcasters with its Eye Rays. Maintaining its use of the Eye Rays is always the beholder’s higher priority. It will Bite only if (a) it’s within melee range of a target and (b) all the PCs it can attack with its Eye Rays have already proved themselves resistant to two or more types of them. Or, alternatively, if a particular melee opponent has proved resistant to two or more types of eye rays, yet he or she is the only one whom the beholder still considers a genuine threat.
A beholder is so ultra-territorial, if it’s encountered in its lair, it will always fight to the death; ditto if it’s been summoned as a sentinel. Only a beholder encountered outside its lair (it does have to feed from time to time) and under no obligation to stay put will flee from combat, and it will do so after taking a relatively modest amount of damage: just 54 hp (reducing it to 126 hp or fewer). First it will Disengage (action) and ascend out of the PCs’ reach (move), then it will Dash (action) on a beeline back to its lair.
The death tyrant is a “high concept” monster: an undead beholder. In most respects, it behaves exactly the same way as a normal beholder does. But there are a couple of exceptions.
First, its Negative Energy Cone doesn’t interfere with its own Eye Rays the way the beholder’s Antimagic Cone does, so the Negative Energy Cone is always on as long as intruders are present. It keeps this cone oriented in whichever direction catches the most opponents in it, including unconscious ones (who may die and be raised as zombies).
Second, the death tyrant is never found outside its lair unless it’s been summoned as a magical sentinel. Either way, it doesn’t flee, no matter how much damage it’s taken. Its compulsion to guard supersedes everything else, including its own survival.
Finally, the Death Tyrant has Intelligence 19. As the DM, you can construe this as allowing it to “read” PCs’ ability stats. In other words, it doesn’t just chuck an Enervation Ray at you because you look frail—it chucks an Enervation Ray at you because you have a −1 Constitution modifier. It aims each of its Eye Rays first at the PC who’s least equipped to resist it, then works its way up.
On the other end of the danger spectrum, we have the spectator, a lesser cousin to the beholder that’s not malicious, just dutiful. It has no territory of its own; it’s summoned as a magical sentinel, and that’s its one and only responsibility. It’s willing to speak civilly (via telepathy) with PCs who encounter it, although it’s liable to come off as offbeat, high-strung and suspicious. And the PCs had best not mess with whatever it’s guarding.
Spectators have only four types of Eye Rays: two (Confusion, Fear) that target Wisdom and two (Paralyzing, Wounding) that target Constitution. They also shoot only two per action, rather than three. They have no legendary or lair actions. In other respects, however, they fight similarly to beholders—in particular, they strongly favor their Eye Rays over their Bite attack, and they’ll Bite only if there’s an opponent within melee range and the Eye Rays aren’t working. They also have the unique Spell Reflection ability, which upon a successful saving throw lets them redirect spells cast at them onto other targets. Unlike beholders, spectators don’t possess genius-level Intelligence; they redirect spells not toward whoever’s most vulnerable to them but toward whoever’s causing them the most hassle. Finally, like others of their kind, they don’t flee. They have a job to do, and by gum, they’re going to do it or die trying.
Next: Another D&D classic, the owlbear.