Corpse Flower Tactics

The corpse flower is a horrible ambulatory plant that scavenges the remains of the dead and occasionally belches one of them back out as a zombie. As such, particularly given its slow speed, it’s not a predator that might pursue a party of player characters, but rather a noxious nuisance that the PCs might be called to eliminate.

It has a weird ability contour: peaks in Constitution and Wisdom, with high Strength and Dexterity as well. It has no Wisdom-based offensive action, and while its Strength and Dex are equal, its Tentacle attack is clearly Strength-based. What we have here, I think, is a creature that’s mostly brute but that also has a touch of the skirmisher to it. It’s not fast, but it can climb, so that’s going to add a wrinkle to its behavior.

The corpse flower’s Intelligence is just barely within the range of sentience. Though able to grasp what’s going on around it, it’s still extremely instinct-driven and inflexible, locked into one mode of behavior. What about that high Wisdom, though? Normally it would suggest a creature that’s good at sizing up threats and reluctant to pick fights it can’t easily win. However, the corpse flower is utterly reliant on its blindsight to sense danger. It’s not able to pick up on clues such as a character’s confidence or the quality of their equipment to read them as presenting an above-average threat. Any reaction to the danger an opponent poses is going to have to occur after a demonstration of that danger.

The corpse flower has two main actions: Harvest the Dead and a triple-Tentacle Multiattack. Harvest the Dead is situational, usable only when there’s an “unsecured dead humanoid” within its 10-foot reach. What does “unsecured” mean? On the level of the obvious, we’re talking a corpse that isn’t roped or chained down. But the flavor text states that corpse flowers prowl “battlefields and graveyards.” Corpses on battlefields are often just strewn around, but in graveyards, they’re usually buried or entombed, and possibly enclosed in coffins as well. Are these bodies “secured”?

I think so, and furthermore, note that while the corpse flower can climb, it can’t burrow. Nor does it have any trait or action that suggests an ability to dig. Per the Monster Manual, monsters can take the actions available to all creatures—i.e., those listed in “Actions in Combat” in  chapter 9 of the Player’s Handbook—so we could stretch that and argue that by taking the Use an Object action, a corpse flower could wrench off the lid of a coffin or yank open the door of a tomb, perhaps upon succeeding on a Strength check. I’m disinclined to do that, though.

To a corpse flower’s blindsight, a coffin looks like a wooden box; a tomb, like a solid block of stone; a grave, like any other patch of ground. How could it know there was something it wanted inside? It doesn’t have Keen Smell, nor any other specialized trait that would let it sense the presence of a corpse that wasn’t lying out in the open. A partially destroyed coffin, lying aboveground—that would be another matter. It might use a tentacle attack to smash it to flinders, then Harvest the contents on its next turn … but only if there weren’t easier pickings in the area, and only if it wasn’t under attack. The battlefield is therefore much preferred over the graveyard.

The corpse flower’s preferred action is Harvest the Dead, because taking this action makes it stronger, so whenever it’s given leeway to do so, its turn sequence is simple: move, snatch corpse. However, when anything moves within its reach, it reflexively lashes out with its tentacles. If only one creature comes close enough, they get whomped by all three tentacles. If three creatures approach, they get one tentacle each. If two approach, they get one each, and one or the other gets whomped once more, with enemies not incapacitated by the corpse flower’s Stench of Death being favored as targets. Otherwise, the selection is random.

The whomping doesn’t stop when a foe is beaten unconscious. An unconscious humanoid is of no use to a corpse flower. A dead one is useful. Therefore, without compunction, a corpse flower keeps attacking an enemy who’s reduced to 0 hp—focusing its attacks on this enemy, sensing that they’re near death. As soon as that last death save failure is chalked up, it Harvests their body on its next turn, even if this means forgoing an attack against another living enemy.

Like the shambling mound, the corpse flower doesn’t know what to make of a ranged attack that originates from beyond its blindsight radius, and it reacts instinctively to a hit from such an attack by moving away from the attacker. A ranged attack that originates from within its blindsight radius, however, draws its ire and causes it to move toward the attacker.

One trick the corpse flower employs instinctively whenever it’s under attack is to move toward the nearest tall thing—a tree, a tomb—and climb up it until it’s 10 feet off the ground. This movement places it out of reach of its opponents’ weapons, while they remain within reach of its tentacles. It can also snatch a corpse up off the ground if and when it creates one.

In addition to its action and its movement, the corpse flower has a choice of bonus action: either pop out a zombie or regenerate some hit points. Until it’s moderately wounded (reduced to 88 hp or fewer), the corpse flower doesn’t bother to regenerate; as long as it senses enemies, it uses that bonus action to chuck a zombie at them. After it’s moderately wounded, it digests a corpse and regenerates anytime it’s taken 11 damage or more since the end of its previous turn. If it’s taken less damage (or none), it produces a zombie.

(Yes, it pops out zombies even when it’s up in a tree or sitting on top of a tomb. Yes, the zombies take 1d6 falling damage as they plummet to the ground. Falling zombies are comedy gold.)

The only time the corpse flower doesn’t use a bonus action at all is when it’s uninjured or only lightly wounded and doesn’t sense another living creature within 120 feet. I mean, within reason—let’s say a Small or larger living creature. A bird flying over it isn’t going to activate zombie production.

Then again, this condition raises an interesting question. Suppose something bigger, like a coyote, passes through the corpse flower’s blindsight radius and does trigger the production of a zombie, but then the triggering creature simply leaves. That’s going to leave an unattended, purposeless zombie wandering around, isn’t it? Yep. So I’d conclude that any corpse flower encounter is always going to be foreshadowed by at least one seemingly random zombie, and once a group of PCs finally closes in on the thing, there ought to be a few already existing zombies to deal with as well.

When a corpse flower is seriously wounded (reduced to 50 hp or fewer), its self-preservation impulse kicks in to tell it that it’s not going to survive just by digesting its corpse collection. Lacking the Intelligence to Disengage, it Dashes away in whichever direction it senses the fewest enemies in.

Next: howlers.

22 thoughts on “Corpse Flower Tactics

  1. The rules also seem like they distinguish between “corpses” and “piles of bones” (as in Animate Dead, for instance); even if there was no official line between them, it’s hard to imagine a dusty old skeleton being a particularly nutritious meal for a Corpse Flower, so even if it *could* get into a crypt, unless the bodies were pretty recently interred, I don’t imagine it would have a very good time there.

    1. also worth noting that the description for a corpse flower says that the flower’s stench “clings” to the zombies it produces; I guess we’re meant to infer that zombies produced in this way *also* have the Stench of Death trait?

      1. Stench of Death says “Each creature that starts its turn within 10 feet of the corpse flower or one of its zombies must make a DC 14 Constitution saving throw […]”, so the effect is carried by the zombies too.

        1. Yes. Moreover, the wording suggests that the stench is still the stench of the corpse flower, so a save against it inures a character against all stench for 24 hours. It doesn’t become “zombie stench” because a zombie is carrying it; it’s still corpse flower stench, being carried by a zombie.

          1. Yeah I guess not as catastrophic as if the zombies all had their own stench of death, but still a fun surprise if the party runs into a lone zombie wandering around the woods.

  2. There’s no reason the flower couldn’t pummel a zombie back to death after releasing it for no reason, then Harvest it again. So would it really have a released zombie with it?

    Although, it certainly makes for a more interesting encounter, which is reason enough to do it.

      1. I mean, it says “dead humanoid”, and once the zombie is destroyed, whatever remains is a dead corpse, and it comes from a humanoid that at some point was briefly turned into a zombie but is not an undead anymore. Even on the base of the pretty linear and straightforward design philosophy of 5e, I wouldn’t flat-out rule out such an interpretation in favor of the very shaky concept of a “dead undead”.

        What I would instead argue about is the plant even being able to come up with the concept of such a strategy, but I could see it working as the ingrained response of “pummel and harvest whatever is around, moving, and of the right size”. Sure, that could open the can of worms of the Corpse Flower attacking both a party of PCs and its own zombies, but it could also stand to reason that it would be able to distinguish them by pheromones aka Stench of Death, and only target the zombies if not disturbed by other distressing agents.

        The Corpse Flower is a living creature. Maybe not “evolved”, but living nonetheless, so it would make sense for it to re-absorb spent resources whenever possible to maximize its own chance of survival, akin to a lizard eating back its own shed skin or tail.

          1. That means that a PC-turned-undead would be an ineligible target for any resurrection magic short of True Resurrection, though, and that seems a bit harsh (5e is a pretty forgiving edition, with a built-in revolving door approach to death).

            I looked around for an answer to that (that could then be applied to the Corpse Flower, and its zombies still counting as undead after destruction) and to my surprise the matter is pretty unclearly regulated, with conflicting takes on SageAdvice and raisable undead NPCs in Adventure Modules.

            Oh well, DM fiat it is, I guess!

          2. My understanding is that a PC-turned-undead is ineligible for raise dead and resurrection,* which is why gentle repose is an important spell.

            * But not for revivify or reincarnation, which as written contain no exclusion for targets that have become undead.

          3. Revivify will raise a zombie. So will Raise Dead. Reincarnate specifically doesn’t work on undead, but you might get around that if, say, the “piece” of the creature you were using was an arm severed before the creature became undead. Resurrection specifically doesn’t work on undead. True Resurrection and a Wish are the only spells that can return undead to their pre-undead state.

            Dead humanoid means what it says. A zombie is not a humanoid, it’s an undead. When it dies, it leaves the corpse of a dead undead. Corpse flowers can’t harvest their own zombies.

          4. Wait nope Raise Dead doesn’t work on Undead. It’s Revivify (if you want the zombie back), sneaky Reincarnate, True Resurrection, or nothing.

          5. > My understanding is that a PC-turned-undead is ineligible for raise dead and resurrection (But not for revivify or reincarnation, which as written contain no exclusion for targets that have become undead.)

            Mine is that those exclusions were only written to clarify that you can’t use them on a zombie that’s currently animate (as even while it’s attacking you, it could still be interpreted as ‘dead’).

            …Hmm, I wonder if that would make True Resurrection an effective (albeit prohibitively expensive) tactic against liches. It has no saving throw. (Though it would need an attack roll, since it’s a touch spell against a presumably unwilling target)

          6. The trouble with that is that you end up resurrecting a wizard who was the kind of person willing to turn themself into a lich in the first place. Or are you thinking that might make them easier to kill afterward?

          7. re: True Resurrection:

            it’d be an interesting way to attack a Lich I think, but the spell specific that the creature’s soul must be “free and willing”, which I figure a Lich’s soul is unlikely to be.

          8. Lich’s are also not dead, until you kill them. You could True Resurrection a lich afterwards, and maybe its experiences in the lower planes would be enough to make it willing to be resurrected, but in no other scenario.

          1. RAW it actually isn’t debatable. The rules are very clear that creatures and objects are distinct, to the point that different spells specify valid targets as creatures, while others specify that objects are also valid targets. Corpses are not creatures, they are objects. Liches, zombies, and all other undead are creatures–at least until you kill them.

            DMs may obviously choose to amend rules as they see fit for their game, but this blog’s premise is to work within the published ruleset.

      2. I know that this is correct RAW, and that to bring in DM discretion to a blog like this is going to lead to an endless stream of “what ifs” but … I really like the encounter design if the Corpse Flower can use Harvest on its own Zombies.

        You may still get the purposeless zombie wandering around before encountering the Corpse Flower but during the fight the Corpse Flower will be spitting out Zombies and hoovering them back up when they go down. This creates a challenge to the players who may need to start dragging dead Zombie bodies away from the Corpse Flower to deny this. Zombies can reappear with wounds taken from the players attacks so the players know the bodies are being reused and are not endless.

        Your article is excellent and definitely correct, I just add this as an option for DMs.

  3. I re-skinned the Corpse Flower to create in-game “Audrey II” (“Feed me Seymour!”). I nerfed its Harvest the Dead (didn’t fit the theme of that encounter), and instead gave it semi-sentient red flowers all along its ever-extending vines/tentacles to both Charm random NPCs & lure them to the main body (with inhaled poison mist) and act as remote sensors. PCs had to go thru one sewer center room that Audrey had made into a hedged maze, filled with her flowers. And since I reduced its motion to only a single main cavern, I also upped its number of tentacles & their reach.
    PCs arrived to find several town kids plastered to the wall (ala Alien), with Audrey’s vines slowly draining them to feed its vine expansions, and the little girl they were supposed to be protecting just about to be swallowed whole.
    It was a fun encounter, with a lot of things going on – multiple attacks, multiple NPCs to defend & save, various saves vs poisons and acrobatics – so everyone got creative, which I loved!

  4. I would be inclined to rule that the Corpse Flower’s high wisdom has it instinctively not go after its zombies, likely due to the fact that they ‘smell’ like it.
    Rubbing up against a freshly rekilled Corpse Flower zombie to get covered in Stench of Death is an interesting approach to traversing the dreaded Valley of Deathflowers.

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