Beholders Revisited

Volo’s Guide to Monsters is thorough in its treatment of beholders, in terms of both tactics and flavor. It contains material on determining a beholder’s appearance and behavior, the layout and contents of its lair, and even where baby beholders come from (it’s suitably weird). Since this blog’s focus is on tactics, I’ll concentrate on that.

For the most part, everything I said in my original analysis of beholders stands, but there is one small, implied contradiction.

Per the beholder stat block in the Monster Manual, “The beholder shoots three of the following magical eye rays at random (reroll duplicates), choosing one to three targets.” Based on this, I concluded that the highly intelligent beholder would aim those randomly selected rays at the opponents least able to resist them.

Volo’s informs us, “A beholder analyzes its opponents, makes note of armor, weapons, and tactics, and adjusts its strategy to eliminate the most dangerous threats as quickly as possible.” That, by itself, is not necessarily a contradiction, but then it goes further: “A beholder can fire multiple eye rays on its turn, and it might use all of them in succession on its most dangerous foe. Even a very tough fighter is going to have second thoughts after taking damage from a disintegration ray, an enervation ray, and a death ray.”

As intelligent as a beholder is, why would it use an enervation ray against “a very tough fighter”? That fighter is going to have a good chance of making a DC 16 Constitution saving throw and halving that damage. Given that a typical adventuring party is made up of characters of comparable ability, why would a beholder forgo the chance to do full damage with that Enervation Ray by aiming at someone unlikely to resist it? Is the fighter really that much more of a threat than the wizard in back? Especially since the beholder can float off the ground, out of the fighter’s reach, but within range of the wizard’s spell attacks?

Also, why would such a mastermind be firing off its eye rays at random? If it really did deem that fighter to be such a threat that it had to focus on her to the exclusion of her companions, why wouldn’t it choose a Sleep Ray to hit her with, rather than an Enervation Ray?

This time, when forced to choose between an implication of the Monster Manual and an implication of Volo’s, I side with the Monster Manual. The stat block says, “at random.” We can construe this as one of the ways in which the beholder, an aberration, behaves aberrantly. But given that the rays fire at random, the beholder can still make intelligent choices about whom to aim them at, and I think it’s going to aim them wherever they have the greatest expected effect. Maybe if the members of a party differ substantially in power—say, if that fighter is level 12, while all her companions are level 10 or below—it will focus an eye ray on her even if she’s not an optimal target of it. But this would be an exception to the rule.

I was also skeptical when I first saw the subsection heading, “Use Antimagic Freely,” but there’s an important insight here. When I first contemplated beholder tactics, I assumed (without even being fully aware of it) that the beholder would identify the best position in its lair and hold it—and that position would be relatively far from its opponents. But especially if the beholder has vertical room to maneuver, keeping it out of reach of melee fighters, it could use its Antimagic Cone as a “fourth eye ray” by repositioning itself so that it could aim that cone at one or more spellcasters while leaving other opponents outside the cone, where they’ll be susceptible to eye rays. (To recap, the issue with the Antimagic Cone is that it can’t be narrowed, so that if the beholder is too far from its targets, the “pie slice” suppresses its own eye rays as well as any magic that its opponents might use. Up close, however, that pie slice is narrower and can be aimed to include just one or two targets.)

The rest of Volo’s treatment of beholder tactics relates to the layout of its lair and the various minions therein. This is useful for planning a larger adventure scenario, but it doesn’t have much to do with the tactics employed in a single combat encounter.

Last week, I mentioned that suspense comes from the unknown—specifically, not knowing what one’s opponent is or what it’s capable of. Thus, the “Variant Abilities” section on page 12 is a fantastic way to mix up what might be, for players with their own copies of the Monster Manual, too predictable an encounter. “Each of these effects is designed to be of the same power level as the one it replaces, enabling you to create a custom beholder without altering the monster’s challenge rating,” Volo’s says, although I think substituting a single use of power word stun for the Antimagic Cone increases the beholder’s power significantly, because of all the instances in which it might forgo the use of its Antimagic Cone in order to maximize the use of its eye rays.

Note also that Volo’s stipulates, “The saving throw for an alternative ability uses the same DC and the same ability score as the spell the eye ray is based on” (emphasis mine). Take, for example, the substitution of banishment for the beholder’s Charm Ray. The Charm Ray calls for a DC 16 Wisdom save, but the banishment spell requires a Charisma save.

Hey, this is how our super-intelligent beholder can tailor its randomly chosen eye rays to the target it wants to facially reconfigure! You rolled an Enervation Ray, but you really want your beholder to aim it at that tough fighter? Make it a polymorph, which calls for a Wisdom saving throw instead of a Con save, and turn her into a goat.

Here’s a little chart of how variant ray saving throws differ from those of their corresponding standard rays (note that Otto’s irresistible dance and blindness/deafness take effect automatically—the saving throws listed are to end the effects):

Standard RaySaving Throw Ability  Variant RaySaving Throw Ability
Charm RayWisdombanishmentCharisma
Death RayDexteritycircle of deathConstitution
Death RayDexterityfeeblemindIntelligence
Disintegration Ray  DexterityeyebiteWisdom
Enervation RayConstitutionpolymorphWisdom
Fear RayWisdommoonbeamConstitution
Paralyzing RayConstitutionmodify memoryWisdom
Petrifaction RayDexterityOtto’s irresistible dance  Wisdom
Sleep RayWisdomblindness/deafnessConstitution
Slowing RayDexteritybestow curseWisdom
Telekinesis RayStrengthgeasWisdom


There also several spells (silence, sleet storm, wall of ice, wall of force) that act on the environment, not on specific targets, and thus don’t require saving throws at all. And create undead is a situational alternative to the Enervation Ray, useful only if there’s a corpse or two (or three) handy.

Next: “Beholder-kin”—the death kiss, gauth and gazer.

15 thoughts on “Beholders Revisited”

  1. I thought the beholder selected eye rays at random so its opponents would have a hard time predicting what would come next. Which makes sense to me, but whatevs. That’s just how I see it. Love ur stuff.

  2. Volo’s Guide recommends that you keep the saving throw the same for an eye ray even if you swap the effects of a ray with a different spell effect.

    1. Nope, that’s not what it says. It says the DC and ability score are based on the new eye ray spell effect. It has the same range as the eye ray it replaces.

  3. Another thing that is mentioned directly in Volo’s: the randomness of the eye rays is combat-only, and the reasoning is literally as simple as “because it makes the game more interesting”. In their normal everyday lives, Beholders’ eye rays are completely under their control. The reason they aren’t in combat is because that would get boring as the beholder would probably just pick the same 1-3 rays over and over and over.

    It’s the most literal case in all of 5e that I know of the rules as written saying “This makes no sense in-universe, but we think that in this instance enjoyable gameplay trumps logical consistency.”

    1. I think this can be explained in-universe. During their normal day-to-day activities, the eye rays work as intended because the Beholder is calm. During Combat, the Beholder is firing multiple eyes per turn, and is extremely frantic (whether excited or frightened) as its aberrant adrenaline starts pumping. Thats why I like the random rays being rolled, but choosing proper targets.

    2. For myself, I play it as “The beholder chooses one eye ray, or three at random.” Then it can use its telekinesis and disintegration rays as tools, while in combat the random option is clearly better.

  4. One neat thing about the antimagic eye is that beholders float, so if it wants to get rid of that annoying fighter using fly to hit its face it can.
    Also would haste lock down an pc every time they got hit, because the effect ends?

    1. I would assume that the negative effects of haste would indeed apply when the spell is ended by an anti magic field.

  5. A bit late, but it says that the variant eye rays target one creature, even if the spell normally affects an area, so I would assume the “silence ray” hits one creature, which then makes no noise for 1 minute (aiding stealth as Boots of Elvenkind, but preventing spellcasting requiring Verbal components and severely limiting communication), and as written seeming to not allow any saving throw at all. Personally, I would allow a Dex save on an unwilling creature to avoid the ray, which seems constant with many eye rays in the Monster Manual. Of course, that section is examples of variant abilities and not hard rules, so it could be used either way.

  6. Hi Keith! Lovely article as always. One thought about something you said with the anti-magic ray:

    “To recap, the issue with the Antimagic Cone is that it can’t be narrowed, so that if the beholder is too far from its targets, the “pie slice” suppresses its own eye rays as well as any magic that its opponents might use. Up close, however, that pie slice is narrower and can be aimed to include just one or two targets.”

    *pushes glasses up nose*.

    Well, actually, the cone *can* be narrowed so it only hits as many targets as the beholder wants. The cone is actually three dimensional. If the beholder looks up, the area of the cone touching the floor will narrow into a parabola. By lowering itself to the ground and looking upwards, it can create essentially a line. It can also float up closer to the top and look down to create a more circular area.

    We make the assumption that the cone must be a perfect 90 degree cone but if we step off of the grid, the beholder can shape that cone many different ways.

    1. Another possibility that heavily depends on Beholders being able to float while not 100% upright: the Beholder rolls its body 90 degrees and squints its main eye, narrowing the cone as it pleases.

      But yeah, a Beholder using geometry and the properties of conic sections to circumvent the weaknesses of its main cone attack sounds exactly like something a flying, levitating, hyper-intelligent paranoid eye monster with a conic ability that likes precise positioning might try, though there might be practical problems with running one that way if you don’t have ways of conveniently drawing arbitrarily-sized parabolas, ellipses, or hyperbolas.

      Heck, if you want to foreshadow that tactic, put a bunch of copies of mathematical treatises it’s penned with its telekinesis or a minion as a hobby in its lair, with the more intelligent members recognizing them as treatises on geometry and/or conic sections.

  7. An especially deadly combination for variant rays is Eyebite (Panicked) + Otto’s Irresistible Dance. If it rolls both of those variants and successfully slaps them upon the same creature, that creature is out of the fight.

  8. Are you sure the Beholder knows what kind of rays its eyes will shoot? If it doesn’t know this then that would explain why a beholder fires at the toughest enemies, it knows it has a selection of effects that could happen, but not which one specifically will when it fires its rays. So, it fires at the most dangerous enemy, hoping to get a good effect.

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