Bone Knight Tactics

I’ve been excited to dig into the Eberron setting for a long time, and I’m kicking things off with the bone knight—not an undead, as one might guess from the name, but a humanoid non-player character who can be of any folk. Champions of the Order of the Emerald Claw, a group of fanatical lost-cause nationalists led by a lich, bone knights get their name from their practice of forging armor from the bones of fallen foes. (Judging from the illustration in Eberron: Rising From the Last War, I think they like to sneak a little Punisher imagery in there, too.)

The ability contour of the bone knight isn’t cut-and-dried, since their two outstanding ability scores are Strength and Charisma. Their Constitution edges out their Dexterity, but just barely, and neither is unusually high. What this reminds me of more than anything else is a paladin whose player didn’t get the third high die roll he was hoping for and decided to go all in on offense. I conclude that bone knights fight like brutes, cast self-buffing and control spells from the front line, and compensate for their slightly lackluster Constitution with their bonecraft armor, which gives them a formidable AC 20. They have the Intelligence to plan and adapt, and the Wisdom to choose their targets and their battles.

Their Charisma is high enough that an encounter will probably involve some measure of parley, and maybe only parley—they understand, after all, that it’s better to get what you want without fighting if you can—but their social skill proficiencies are in Intimidation and Deception, so we’re not talking about good-faith negotiation here. Instead, this combination suggests to me that they’re about trying to get their opponents to capitulate, through a combination of outright bullying and more subtle manipulation. Any rhetorical maneuver an abuser might use is right up the bone knight’s alley: direct and indirect threats; negative reinforcement; false accusations; gaslighting; DARVO; demonstrations of explosive anger and sudden, unpredictable violence; dividing enemies by singling out individuals among them for particular blame; and so on. Continue reading Bone Knight Tactics

Meazel Tactics

Meazels are, to put it simply, kidnappers. Misanthropic humanoids warped by toxic levels of exposure to the Shadowfell, they skulk through the shadows, throttle their victims with cords, and teleport away with them to some godsforsaken locale where they can murder them free from interference.

With low Strength and low Constitution but very high Dexterity, meazels are not in any way suited to attrition fighting; they want to grab their victims and go. Their high Intelligence and above-average Wisdom mark them as crafty judges of whom they need to jump first. They have proficiency in Perception and Stealth, the classic ambush predator combination, and should always begin combat hidden. Their 120 feet of darkvision suits them to subterranean as well as nocturnal existence.

The core of the meazel’s strategy is the Garrote/Shadow Teleport combination. Meazels have two attack actions, Garrote and Shortsword, which do the same damage on average; however, Shortsword is a straightforward melee weapon attack that just happens to deal some bonus necrotic damage as a rider. Garrote, on the other hand, grapples on a hit and enables the meazel, on a subsequent turn, to Shadow Teleport away along with the grappled victim! For low- to mid-level player characters, this combination is potentially nasty, because the range of Shadow Teleport—500 feet—means the victim of the meazel’s maneuver is cut off from allies who might be able to help them. They’re on their own, possibly still with a strangling cord around their neck. Continue reading Meazel Tactics

Sea Spawn Tactics

Sea spawn are humanoids who once lived normal lives but in one way or another have been “lost to the sea”—either by violating some maritime taboo or by falling under the sway of some powerful underwater denizen. Because they can survive out of the water for no more than a day, their transformation dooms them to live the remainder of their lives beneath the waves.

With an ability contour that peaks in Strength and Constitution, sea spawn are straightforward, and fairly uncomplicated, melee fighters. However, since their Piscine Anatomy allows three variations, you can enliven a sea spawn encounter by throwing a mix of types at your player characters.

Sea spawn have 30 feet of swimming movement vs. 20 feet of normal land movement, a strong incentive for them to fight in water (where they can move twice as fast as a typical humanoid foe) rather than out of it (where they’re 33 percent slower). Similarly, their 120 feet of darkvision is a strong incentive for them to attack only at night or in water so deep that sunlight doesn’t penetrate. Continue reading Sea Spawn Tactics

Shadar-kai Tactics

If eladrin are the elf-kin with the strongest remaining connection to the Feywild, shadar-kai are those whose nature has been shaped by the grim Shadowfell. Three types are described in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes: the shadow dancer, gloom weaver and soul monger.

Shadow dancers are shock troops optimized for operations in darkness. They can function in dim light, but bright light hobbles them severely, so they’ll never willingly choose to fight in daylight or comparable illumination. Dexterity is their one outstanding ability, which they rely on for both offense and defense, and they’re proficient in Stealth, predisposing them to ambush.

Although they’re tough, their stat block is short, not especially complex and mostly passive. Their two standout features are Shadow Jump and Spiked Chain (which they can use three times as a Multiattack action).

Shadow Jump is a mobility feature and action economy enhancer that lets shadow dancers teleport from one dark or dimly lit point to another up to 30 feet away. Depending on the environment and the positioning of combatants, they can use this trait either to engage in melee or to disengage from it. Shadow Jumping to engage is a more desirable tactic when fighting in total darkness, as we’ll see in a moment. Continue reading Shadar-kai Tactics

Duergar Tactics: Mordenkainen’s Duergar, Part 2

Moar duergar! The duergar mind master is the last of the CR 2 duergar, the one with the ability contour of a spellcaster but no actual spells. What it does have is Mind Mastery, a feature with a 60-foot range which requires an Intelligence saving throw to resist. More to the point, it targets one creature within 60 feet and requires a DC 12 Intelligence save to resist.

This feature, frankly, is terrible. Even a level 1 PC who’s dumped Intelligence still has a 40 percent chance of succeeding on this saving throw. It’s a straight-up waste of an action in any circumstance save one: as part of an ambush. In this instance, a hidden mind master can use Mind Mastery against a target without giving away its position or even its presence if it fails, since Mind Mastery is technically neither an attack nor a spell. If it succeeds, it gets to force an opponent to sucker-punch one of their own allies—or, depending on the local terrain, walk directly into a chasm or a river of lava or something. With Intelligence 15, a mind master is smart enough to know not to bother using this feature in open combat.

So forget treating it as a spellcaster; we’ll pretend that its Intelligence is nothing special after all and it’s just another shock trooper, using Dexterity for offense as well as defense. Continue reading Duergar Tactics: Mordenkainen’s Duergar, Part 2

Duergar Tactics: Mordenkainen’s Duergar, Part 1

The central question in running duergar—which otherwise are simple and straightforward brute fighters—is when to use Enlarge and when to use Invisibility, the complication being that Enlarge both breaks invisibility and takes an action to execute, preventing a duergar from attacking on the same turn. Thus, any additional damage it deals from being Enlarged has to make up for the round in which it deals no damage at all. As I note in an earlier post, the break-even point for ordinary duergar is in the third round of combat. Over just one or two rounds, Enlarging doesn’t add enough damage to make up for the lost round. Over four or more, it offers a clear advantage. Thus, the more likely a fight is to drag out—in other words, the more evenly matched the two sides—the greater the benefit of Enlarge. Invisibility, meanwhile, is really useful only for either ambush or flight, since it’s a once-per-combat feature that’s disrupted by attacking, casting a spell or Enlarging.

Interestingly, not all the duergar in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes possess Enlarge and Invisibility. In fact, only four of the seven duergar variants in Mordenkainen’s have these two features, and one of them has Invisibility on a 4–6 recharge, resulting in a big increase in the breadth of its usefulness. Also, while most of the variant duergar are also brutes, one is a quasi-spellcaster (it has no spells to cast, but it does have an Intelligence-based long-distance offensive ability), and one is a shock trooper. Finally, alongside those seven variants, there are two profiles of constructs that duergar employ. As I go through the various stat blocks, I’m going to focus primarily on how these variants differ from run-of-the-mill duergar. Continue reading Duergar Tactics: Mordenkainen’s Duergar, Part 1

Deep Scion Tactics

Holy heck. The entire month of May got away from me. Sorry about that, readers.

Anyway, today it’s back to business, with the deep scion from Volo’s Guide to Monsters. Technically a humanoid but giving off serious aberration vibes, the deep scion is the product of a pact with a great undersea power—one made under duress, at the point of drowning, so the terms aren’t nearly as favorable as those granted to warlocks. Not only transformed but brainwashed as well, the deep scion can take the form of its previous self, but it no longer considers its previous self to be its true self; that identity is lost.

Deep scions have two forms, “humanoid” and “hybrid.” The hybrid form is its “true” form, having humanoid torso, legs and arms but crustacean claws, tentacles (non-prehensile) emerging from its head and a mouth that DEAR GOD WHAT IS THAT THING? In its humanoid form, it moves at a humanoid-typical 30 feet on land and, like other landbound creatures, swims at only half that speed. In its hybrid form, its walking speed is 20 feet, but its swimming speed is 40 feet. If it can, a deep scion maximizes its movement by using its Shapechanger action in the middle of the turn in which it travels from land to water or vice versa, taking this action at the moment it reaches the shoreline. This way, even if it’s used its full walking movement to reach water, once it transforms, it still has another 10 feet of swimming movement left to go.

In combat, deep scions are pure brutes, with exceptional Strength and very high Constitution. However, their expertise in Deception makes this as formidable a weapon in social encounters as their battle axes are in melee. They also have proficiency in Insight, Sleight of Hand and Stealth. Deep scions are spies as well as warriors; they fight only when their cover is blown. As I’ve said before, it’s easier to punch someone after fooling them has failed than it is to fool them after punching them has failed. Continue reading Deep Scion Tactics

Nagpa Tactics

Thought I might be able to tackle something easy after the drow matron mother, but no—you guys want me to look at the nagpa, another monster with eleventy billion spells. (OK, it’s got 26. That’s still a lot.)

It’s not like you’ll even find nagpas running around all over the place. According to Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, there are only 13 of them—a coterie of conniving wizards cursed by the Raven Queen and turned into skulking vulture-people scavenging the remnants of lost civilizations for scraps of arcane lore.

Unsurprisingly, nagpas’ ability contour is that of a long-range spellcaster, with extraordinary Intelligence and Charisma, exceptional Wisdom and very high Dexterity. They carry staves, which they somehow are able to use as finesse weapons and deal two dice of damage with, but melee engagement really isn’t their style. If they do get into melee, they want to get back out of it quickly.

They have proficiency in all the mental saving throws, but their Dexterity and Constitution save modifiers are unremarkable. Thus, they don’t have a lot to fear from bards, whose spells tend to emphasize enchantment, illusion and crowd control; but casters who sling damaging evocation, transmutation and necromancy spells pose a threat that they need to neutralize quickly. Taking out these foes is even more important to them than taking out melee fighters.

Continue reading Nagpa Tactics

Drow Tactics: Matron Mothers

Deepest apologies to all my impatient readers. Between doing revisions on The Monsters Know What They’re Doing: Combat Tactics for Dungeon Masters and taking care of a daughter who’s just starting to get the hang of a nap schedule, I haven’t had time for blogging. And this particular post is a mother.


The drow matron mother, CR 20, is second only to Lolth herself in the drow boss hierarchy. She’s a spellcaster first, a skirmisher second, certain to be surrounded by a multitude of minions. She’s also a legendary creature, with legendary actions—one of which she can turn over to a demon ally for its own use, sort of a drowish Commander’s Strike.

Like all drow, the matron mother has Fey Ancestry (passive), Sunlight Sensitivity (no going outside, especially during the day), and the innate spells dancing lights, darkness, faerie fire and levitate. However, she’s got a few additional tricks up her sleeve: She can cast detect magic at will, and once per day, she can cast clairvoyance, detect thoughts, dispel magic and suggestion.

Note that the matron mother can cast dispel magic with or without using a spell slot, but when she casts it innately, it works only against spells of 3rd level or lower. Since she can cast it this way only once per day, she’s going to be finicky about what spells she dispels with it, saving it only for the most important. A very good candidate is invisibility, since dispel magic affects “one creature, object or magical effect” within 120 feet and doesn’t require her to be able to see the target, only to know they’re there. Pop! Haste, slow, hypnotic pattern, enlarge/reduce and spiritual weapon are also top choices. If she wants to dispel anything else, she’ll spend a spell slot on it.

Continue reading Drow Tactics: Matron Mothers

Drow Tactics: Favored Consorts

The drow favored consort—emphasis on “favored”—is not just arm candy but also an adviser with advanced arcane abilities. While the favored consort occupies a privileged place in drow society, it’s not part of the ruling hierarchy; it’s still effectively a second-class citizen, high-status only as second-class citizens go. One likely upshot of this is that it’s not going to share the zealotry of broader drow society. Unlike, say, a drow inquisitor, which has an example to set and will fight to the death in the line of duty, a drow favored consort is quite keen to preserve its existence, which is probably the only reason it took the job of favored consort in the first place.

The recurring Perception-Stealth proficiency combo is here, along with the drow-standard long-range darkvision, Fey Ancestry and Innate Spellcasting. All its ability scores are well above average, but in particular, its Dexterity is extraordinary, and its Intelligence and Charisma are exceptional. Because its Dex is higher than its mental abilities, we have an interesting hybrid of long-range spellcaster, sniper, and shock attacker, and we should look for ways in which the favored consort can easily slip into and out of melee. Its advanced proficiency in Acrobatics and Athletics may help with that; we’ll see.

Looking over its extensive list of spells for mobility enhancements, we find only two: haste and misty step. Haste requires concentration—and this is interesting, because the drow favored consort is one of very few high-level spellcasting monsters I’ve looked at that aren’t heavily laden with concentration-required spells. In fact, aside from mage hand and its innate spells, the only other two I find are gust of wind and Otiluke’s resilient sphere. So there’s very little reason for the favored consort not to cast haste right out of the gate, unless it has a specific reason to want to trap an enemy with resilient sphere—maybe its priestess has commanded it—or is being blitzed by melee fighters and needs to throw on some mage armor. (A favored consort that has reason to anticipate a combat encounter will always have cast this spell already, putting it one 1st-level spell slot down.) However, the favored consort may not necessarily cast haste on itself—not if there’s a drow shadowblade, house captain or elite warrior in its group, or perhaps a yochlol already on the scene. Continue reading Drow Tactics: Favored Consorts