Beholder Tactics


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.

Related Posts

25 responses to “Beholder Tactics”

  1. […] this one early, because of the shape of the spell’s area of effect: as we saw when analyzing the beholder, it’s easier to catch a whole bunch of enemies in a roughly 60-degree arc when they’re far from […]

  2. […] the most part, everything I said in my original analysis of beholders stands, but there is one small, implied […]

  3. AnTe Kung Avatar
    AnTe Kung

    I have a question: on the Beholder’s statblock it presents that it must “see” the target for its eye ray to work. I believe the design intend is to ensure the “beam” the rays fired cannot penetrate total cover, but it creates two situations:

    1. both Darkness and Invisibility renders the beholder completely useless, even if it uses its antimagic cone on those under these spell effects, it cannot attack those within the cone.

    and .

    2. Would glass, wall of force…etc stop the eye rays?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Sorry I’ve taken so long to reply, but I wanted to consult all the applicable rules and figure out how they interact. The beholder has darkvision but not blindsight or truesight, so it can’t aim its Eye Rays at a target under a darkness or invisibility spell. However, the Antimagic Cone is not subject to the visibility restriction—it “creates an area of antimagic, as in the antimagic field spell, in a 150-foot cone.” Antimagic field is an 8th-level spell (whoof) that suppresses all spells and magical effects within its area of effect. That wording is important: It suppresses spells. It doesn’t dispel them. And the Antimagic Cone also suppresses the beholder’s own Eye Rays. So you’re right—darkness and invisibility do offer protection from a beholder’s Eye Rays, because it can’t use its Eye Rays against you if it can’t see you, and it also can’t use its Eye Rays against you if it has to use its Antimagic Cone to be able to see you. That being said, both darkness and invisibility are spells that require concentration, and players who don’t think through the technicality may drop those spells as soon as the beholder uses its Antimagic Cone to make them visible. Beholders know this and will take the gamble of using Antimagic Cone against magically concealed opponents to try to trick them into dropping their spells.

      And yes, glass windows and wall of force do block Eye Rays. Magical effects won’t go through a physical barrier, even a completely transparent one. (Although this ruling doesn’t appear in the Sage Advice Compendium, it’s established by Jeremy Crawford from 31:59 to 36:02 in this podcast.)

  4. m Avatar

    good to know the only way to learn the full rules to this game is by scouring the internet for random !@#$%^ podcasts lmao

  5. […] has written up a fantastic analysis of the beholder’s tactics which you can read on his blog The Monsters Know What They’re Doing. But here’s the TL;DR […]

  6. Gabriel Russell Avatar
    Gabriel Russell

    Beholders pick targets then roll eye-rays, so they can’t target weak saves, just soft targets.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Not by my reading of the feature. Where do you get that from?

  7. Drakon Avatar

    I think that only the Spectators are summoned.

  8. Simon Avatar

    If you let an int of 19 to see stat block, wouldn’t it make it possible for a wizard to also do that?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Sure, if I’m running the wizard.

  9. Jeremy Avatar

    If outside anti magic cone aoe and a paladin is with in the 120 ft range could they cast hypnotic pattern above beholder?

  10. David Nuttall Avatar
    David Nuttall

    The Spectator MUST be summoned. The other types may stick around in their own lair or may be summoned for guard duty. If you encounter a spectator, it was put their (and not just by the DM or dungeon designer).

  11. Forrest Aguirre Avatar

    Outstanding article. I wish DMs would play monsters with the high intelligence they deserve to use, more often. There are way too many DMs who are just plain bad tacticians. This sort of article helps a great deal.

  12. Abelhawk Avatar

    What about beholder zombies? Anything out of the ordinary with their tactics?

    1. Konrad Avatar

      I just used one a few weeks ago. I decided since it’s just an undead monster with an Int of 3 and Wis of 8 that it would just follow simple instructions from the summoner or act on instinct and attack the nearest or most injured enemy. Worked well, he worked more as a big beefy minion than as a boss in and of itself.

    2. JP Avatar

      As with all zombies, point and shoot. They’re wind-up automatons of mindless hatred toward living things. No real tactics to speak of. Even minor things that would occur to creatures of even moderate intelligence don’t occur to zombies. Even just hovering out of reach of melee attacks while using eye rays wouldn’t occur to it, instead unthinkingly approaching its targets like a moth to a light.

  13. Morgan Ruthardt Avatar
    Morgan Ruthardt

    Hello, I have recently found your tactic articles, and benefited greatly from them! Thank you for spending so much time on them.
    I’m gleaning much from separate monsters, but I’m wondering about how certain monsters would benefit or be hindered by fighting together against a party?
    For instance, if someone has created a Spectator and given it it’s territory and commands (protecting a deserted pagoda housing a deity’s champion’s weapon), would it be better to also give it a Helmed Horror (or 3), or a Shield Guardian as a protector (for 6 lv 5s?
    I have all kinds of combos like these in mind, but will refrain from asking about any more of them here and now.
    Thanks again,
    Morgolas :-{)~

  14. DM dude Avatar
    DM dude

    I think it is interesting that one tactic that is often forgotten is darkvision range. There are very few characters that get superior darkvision, meaning that the Beholder can fire off eye stalks at a range that the PCs cannot see it. The beholder can fire eyetalks, move and hide, or take cover. The Party’s ability to find the beholder will often be at disadvantage if the Beholder can stay in dim light (which is no light to darkvision PCs).
    I think a Beholder can be found outside of their lair, and talkative, very talkative, considering they look down on humanoid races.

  15. […] notes that, while the cone isn’t particularly effective at range, and interferes with its magical […]

  16. Nathan Avatar

    I kinda wish that paranoid geniuses like these would spend a little more time shoring up their weak points. Grapple + fog cloud turns Beholders into little more than a stiff breeze.

    Despite what they do in published modules, a beholder should want at least 30 foot ceilings and should spend their time near those ceilings. They will probably want a lot of upcast Continual Flames lying around to deal with darkness and good airflow (or something, anything) to deal with fog.

  17. Austin Ballard Avatar

    Just ran my first beholder battle and it was LAME. Only three of the rays actually do damage, and I just kept rolling the stupid Charm, Sleep, and Fear ray, and the party was already immune to fear. They rolled high on their saves against the few times I did roll Disintegrate and Death rays, so no damage at all was done in those cases. I guess a beholder needs really interesting lair features or something, because this was by far the least interesting legendary monster I’ve ever run. 🙁

    1. Resolute Avatar

      If they were fighting underground or otherwise somewhere with weaponizable scenery, shoot a Disintegrate beam at a ceiling or pillar and cause a cave-in. Have a spellcaster beholder who swapped out the fear ray for something juicy. Don’t just rely on direct damage; a tanky PC will wince if a beam takes a third of their health, but if rocks are falling on the squishy wizard and the anti-magic ray is suppressing any ability to shield or deflect it, the party’s gonna wake up for sure.

  18. […] you want some advice on running Xanathar in combat, check out our Creature Feature on beholders or this excellent article from The Monster’s Know What They’re […]

  19. […] eyedrake employs its Eye Rays the same way a beholder does: The rays fire at random, but the eyedrake chooses the best targets to aim those rays at. However, […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Support the Author

Bookshop | Tertulia | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indigo | Kobo | Google Play | Apple Books | | Audible

Praise for The Monsters Know What They’re Doing: Combat Tactics for Dungeon Masters

“I’ve always said, the Dungeon Master is the whole world except for his players, and as a result, I spend countless hours prepping for my home group. What Keith gets is that the monsters are the DM’s characters, and his work has been super helpful in adding logic, flavor, and fun in my quest to slaughter my players’ characters and laugh out the window as they cry in their cars afterward.” —Joe Manganiello

“The best movie villains are the ones you fall in love with. Keith’s book grounds villains in specificity, motivation, and tactics—so much so that players will love to hate ’em. This book will enrich your game immeasurably!” —Matthew Lillard

“This book almost instantly made me a better Dungeon Master. If you’re running games, it is a must-have enhancement. I gave copies to the two others in our group who share in the Dungeon Mastering, and both of them came back the next time grinning rather slyly. Keith is a diabolical genius, and I say that with the utmost respect!” —R.A. Salvatore

Find my short works on the Dungeon Masters’ Guild, or just toss a coin to your witcher: