Demon Tactics: Shoosuvas, Maw Demons and Babaus


A reader asked me to look into the shoosuva, and I just now notice that it shares an entry in Volo’s Guide to Monsters with the babau and the maw demon, so congrats, readers, today you get three for the price of one.

Shoosuvas, creations of the demon lord Yeenoghu, are fiends that function sort of like a ranger’s beast companion, except for gnolls that have distinguished themselves in battle with exceptional ferocity. They’re big and brutish, with exceptional Strength and Constitution and high Wisdom, indicating some shrewdness in target selection. They hold the rare distinction of being proficient in all of the “big three” saving throws: Dexterity, Constitution ahnd Wisdom. They’re immune to poison, can’t be charmed or frightened, and are resistant to cold, fire, lightning and physical damage from mundane weapons. Although their low Intelligence indicates a lack of adaptability and a reliance on instinctive behavior, they can speak, both normally (in Abyssal and Gnoll) and telepathically. A chaotic evil monster that can speak is a monster that taunts. Going up against one of these should terrify your players.

The shoosuva’s basic attack is a bite–tail stinger combo. The bite is a straightforward melee attack, but one that does unbelievable damage—like being bitten by a mouthful of glaives. The tail stinger does base damage more in line with what you’d expect from a Large creature, but it also delivers a venom that paralyzes targets who fail their saving throws, and it has a reach of 15 feet, allowing it to strike a second enemy farther away.

The flavor text in Volo’s indicates that biting one foe, then stinging another is its standard behavior. Despite its low Intelligence, I think its Wisdom is high enough to allow some variation, especially when you consider that intelligent evil creatures love to prey on the weak. Let’s posit three basic approaches:

  • The shoosuva engages a strong, front-line enemy in melee and strikes it with both its bite and its tail stinger. In this instance, the shoosuva uses the tail stinger first, because if it succeeds in paralyzing its target, the follow-up bite attack has advantage and is an automatic critical hit if it succeeds. (Danke schön to reader James for reminding me of this!)
  • The shoosuva engages a strong, front-line enemy in melee but uses its tail to strike a weaker enemy within reach—preferably one that looks like it might fail its Constitution save.
  • The shoosuva engages a strong, front-line enemy in melee but uses its tail to deal with any pesky skirmisher that thinks he or she can take advantage of its distraction. “Nope [whap]!

In fact, not only does the shoosuva use its tail to deal with auxiliary threats, this is more or less how it behaves itself with respect to its gnoll master: While the gnoll focuses on fighting its primary foe, the shoosuva engages anyone else who tries to insert him- or herself into the duel.

Like other creatures in the gnoll family, the shoosuva has Rampage, which lets it move up to 20 feet and make a bite attack against another creature anytime it finishes one off on its own turn. However, as worded, it can use this feature only against an enemy who’s already within that radius—it can’t simply run 20 feet toward an enemy that it can’t reach to engage in melee. Besides, it never strays far from its master’s side.

Being a demonic creature, not an evolved one, and a manifestation of fiendish ideology at that, a shoosuva never flees, no matter how much damage it takes.

Like shoosuvas, maw demons are also creations of Yeenoghu that travel with gnoll war bands. They have the same resistances and immunities as shoosuvas, except that normal, nonmagical weapons do the usual amount of damage to them. They have above-average Strength and Constitution but low everything else. They’re brutes, but they’re not especially formidable ones, certainly not in comparison to shoosuvas. They’re basically just lumbering inflicters of bite damage which look scarier than they really are. They bumble across the battlefield, chomping on whatever they happen to bump into until someone or something kills them.

Yeenoghu’s patronage of gnolls is imperfectly paralleled by Graz’zt’s patronage of lamias. If your players encounter a babau—a creation of Graz’zt—on the material plane, it will probably be in the context of an encounter with a lamia. Perhaps the babau will be serving as one of her minions, albeit one that won’t appear until things are already getting hairy.

Babaus are an awesome physical presence, despite being only Medium-size: with very high Dexterity and Constitution, extraordinary Strength, they’re part brute, part shock attacker, all melee. With proficiency in Stealth and expertise in Perception, they’re optimized for ambush attack. They can’t be poisoned and are resistant to cold, fire, lightning and physical damage from mundane weapons. They have darkvision out to 120 feet, but not blindsight; this complicates their use of the darkness spell, which they can cast innately. Their spell save DC is also nothing to write home about, so dispel magic and levitate are to be favored over the other spells in their repertoire.

The best way for a babau to enter a combat encounter, it seems to me, is for it to lie in wait until combat has already begun, then attack from hiding with advantage. In doing so, it will try to take out a spellcaster or shock attacker—someone relatively fragile who can nevertheless put out a lot of damage. It will try to finish this enemy off, then deal with any melee opponents who come running to his or her rescue.

A babau’s Multiattack includes two melee attacks and a Weakening Gaze attack. It can either Gaze/melee/melee or melee/melee/Gaze, but it can’t melee/Gaze/melee. It’s not clear to me that the order really matters, except in one instance: Against a Battle Master fighter with the Riposte maneuver, it would be desirable to weaken the target before striking. But the babau’s Intelligence and Wisdom aren’t high enough for it to be able to “read” an opponent and infer whether he or she has this ability. So I wouldn’t sweat the order.

There’s an irony about Weakening Gaze: its save DC is rather low, but it’s only useful against enemies who primarily employ Strength-based weapon attacks, and they’re likely to have high Constitutions (and maybe even proficiency in Con saves) as well. Shock attackers such as rogues and monks tend to use Dexterity, not Strength, as their melee weapon attack ability. This is kind of a no-win situation for the babau. It has to keep using this ability over and over against the melee opponents it engages with, hoping that they’ll flub a roll. But for what it’s worth, its best chances of succeeding are against paladins and fighting clerics, who may have robust Constitutions but who at least don’t have proficiency in saving throws with that ability. Given a choice, therefore, it’ll aim its gaze at these classes.

Whether it uses a spear or its claws is a six-of-one, half-dozen-of-the-other matter: either way, it does 1d8 + 4 damage, and there’s no functional difference between slashing and piercing. (I still don’t know why fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons bothers to differentiate bludgeoning, piercing and slashing when there are so few instances in which the difference matters at all.) It can throw a spear, but then it doesn’t have it anymore. I guess you could say that a babau carries a spear and uses it in melee until it has to hurl it (which does less damage than wielding it two-handed in melee does) to deal with a pesky marksman or spellslinger, after which it just uses its claws. Or . . . it could just use its claws.

Levitate allows the babau to hold station in the air between its turns, fly down to attack a melee opponent, then fly back up out of reach; its resistance to physical damage from nonmagical weapons reduces its concern for opportunity attacks, though it won’t willingly fly into two or more opponents’ reach to strike in this way. Dispel magic is good for nullifying the good guys’ buffs. But with a DC of only 11, fear is too likely to fail; there’s no good reason to waste an action on it when the babau can spend that action to make two highly effective melee attacks and use its Weakening Gaze. To an extent, that also holds true for levitate. If the babau can’t cast levitate before anyone knows it’s there, it may as well not bother, unless the opposing side is disproportionately melee-dependent.

Heat metal is an interesting option. On average, it does just over half the damage of two successful spear or claw hits. But it’s also a sustained spell. In a situation where the babau has no good target for its Weakening Gaze, it might instead choose to cast heat metal on one of its melee opponents. This will inflict a little less damage in the first round, but in the second, if its concentration hasn’t been disrupted, the babau gets to make its two claw or spear strikes and use its bonus action to inflict another 2d8 of fire damage and take a Hail Mary on its Withering Gaze. If it manages to keep it up for a third round, that’s yet another 2d8 of bonus fire damage. Basically, it’s spending one melee weapon attack in the hope of recouping two or even four attacks’ worth of equivalent damage in subsequent rounds. That’s a good investment. And in this instance, the low DC is almost a feature rather than a bug, because the target is more likely to hold onto his or her weapon and keep taking damage rather than drop it! (Muchas gracias to reader Latham for reminding me of this.)

Babaus are bloodthirsty fiends, but they’re not immortal. They’re also blinded by their own darkness spells when they cast it. Thus, the only practical use for this spell is to cover an escape, which they’ll do when seriously wounded (reduced to 32 hp or fewer). “Oh, Miz Lamia, ma’am, you were expecting me to fight to the death for you? Yeah, no. Sorry-not-sorry about that.”

Next: cloakers.

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25 responses to “Demon Tactics: Shoosuvas, Maw Demons and Babaus”

  1. James Avatar

    Just one thing for Shoosuvas.
    If you wanted them to be nasty they would attack a target with their tail first. Then they would bite dealing a ton of damage. As the bite is a melee weapon in 5 feet of a paralyzed target its an auto crit so if the Shoosuvas wanted to be mean it could go with that combo. And demons are quite mean.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      That is very smart. That’s so smart I’m going to update the article.

  2. Latham Avatar

    Heat Metal doesn’t use DC for its main effect. Heat Metal just happens.

    There’s a DC to avoid dropping the item, but if you don’t drop it, you keep taking the damage. Catch-22.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Man, I was distracted today. Updating to mention this, too.

      1. RPascuttini Avatar

        Also, heat metal is devastating when used again armour like full plate.
        The target can’t drop the armour. The target needs time to remove the armour. The only option is to cut the straps and ruin the armour.
        Since you said the Babau would target Paladins and Clerics mainly it seems as though this ability had those full plate wearing classes in mind.

  3. Envyus Avatar

    The real prize of having the rampage rule is that that monsters with that ability can be buffed by the Gnoll pack lord and Flind.

    The Flinds Aura of Blood Thirst is really dangerous with a Shoosuva

    Aura of Blood Thirst. If the flind isn’t incapacitated, any creature with the Rampage trait can make a bite attack as a bonus action while within 10 feet of the flind.

    As is the Pack Lords incite rampage.

    Incite Rampage (Recharge 5–6). One creature the gnoll can see within 30 feet of it can use its reaction to make a melee attack if it can hear the gnoll and has the Rampage trait.

  4. Nick Avatar

    Would the babau prioritize Heat Metal on metal-armored enemies? Burning weapons out of their hands is fine, but turning the paladin into a hot-pocket seems better.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Probably, but it also needs heat metal to compensate when Weakening Gaze doesn’t work, so that may sometimes be the higher priority.

  5. Mock Avatar

    Babau DO have a use for Darkness: cast it on top of the enemy archer or spellcaster. It’s complementary to Heat Metal, which is what they use when the biggest threat is the close-quarters fighter. Two or more Babau might use different spells to nullify the biggest threats in the party they’re facing, whatever those threats are.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      True, but while that’s effective for shutting down the opponent, it also makes it harder to hurt that opponent. It’s strictly a stopgap measure.

  6. AJ Avatar

    A note on Babau:

    Levitate can be used offensively to force a creature to remain stationary. At higher levels, a babau can aid allies by holding their prey suspended in the air.

    1. JP Avatar

      Was going to say, Keith seems to exclusively consider Levitate to be used defensively, on the caster, but it’s a very effective way of just neutralizing an enemy melee fighter for as many rounds as you can concentrate, up to a silly maximum of 100. If they dont have a flying speed, they just hang there forever. An air genasi in the game I’m running tried it against a worg carrying a goblin boss and nearly neutralized the strongest brute the other side had. (It made the save by one)

      1. Keith Ammann Avatar

        That’s a good use of levitate! But is it better than other spells that require concentration?

        1. JP Avatar

          Like so many other things, situationally. I’d argue it’s worth trying first over a spell like hold person, which is of the same level and has narrower target parameters (1 humanoid instead of 1 creature) and allows you to save against it each turn while lasting 1/10th as long. If the target fails the first save against Levitate, that’s that; assuming you targeted the typical melee brute, they’ll need an ally to help out or they’re completely done for.

          1. Ike Unsell Avatar
            Ike Unsell

            Also, the DC is really low, so the target has a high chance of making it.

  7. JP Avatar

    Also realized, Babau are demons. They reform in the Abyss. Unless they’ve got a very specific mission to accomplish on the material plane, they don’t care at all about dying on it, and they’ll stick around to that point if they think doing so will help them finish off some wounded opponents.

    1. Anonymous Avatar

      But do they want to deal with finding a way back out of the Abyss?

  8. Mr D Avatar
    Mr D

    1) stealth and ambush with heat metal from 60 feet on heavy armoured tanks, then movement away 40 feet and find cover while maintaining concentration,
    2) continue to do so until the tanks are sufficiently softened up or downed 3) added bonus is that healers or spell casters with dispel magic will waste valuable resources helping their friend, but the Babau’s heat metal is at will, so even if concentration is broken or the spell is dispelled,
    4) the tactic can be repeated until another tactic is needed.
    5) They have an average Int and Wis but they’d definitely know how to play to their strengths. Only close in with other tactics once the tanks are out of the way.
    That’s pretty sound, I think?

    1. JP Avatar

      The Babau’s position is revealed the second they cast Heat Metal, and they can’t attempt to hide again until their next turn. Assuming they’re lucky enough to be fighting PCs without enhanced movement–no rogues, monks, Aarakocra, wood elves, creatures with the Mobile feat, creatures with Longstrider or Haste or Fly, etc–they’re still gonna get caught eventually. Against any of the options mentioned, it’ll be sooner rather than later. It is a good opening strategy though, and makes them useful as an advanced scouting force capable of signficantly weakening enemy forces. Especially useful as a way of drawing enemies into a larger ambushing force: if they don’t give chase, they must keep eating the damage or spend leveled spells to dispel it, while if they do give chase, the ambush awaits.

  9. Dan Avatar

    I agree, of course there are ways around this but I think 100 feet is a pretty decent distance to start from (cast at 60″ + 40″ movement), but if that’s an issue then they could team up with an ally who can block the path. As for flying opponents, I think if a Babau saw that, they’d pick an appropriate spot to concentrate from (low ceiling with an ally blocking the entrance). Nothing is perfect, of course, and a good plan only lasts until the fighting starts!

  10. Paul Giametta Avatar
    Paul Giametta

    Why would the Babau flee instead of fighting to the death? I may be missing something, so correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t demons lack a survival instinct except in the Abyss because they can only be permanently killed there?

    1. Mr D Avatar
      Mr D

      Not flee, but maintain concentration on a heat metal spell for as long as possible by keeping their distance until they’ve achieved their aim. Lacking a survival instinct wouldn’t keep them from fighting smart, and they know their strengths and would have a good understanding of winning strategy.

  11. Jordan Avatar

    Demons live to spread chaos, it’s easier to spread chaos in the prime material plane since the Abyss is already chaos. Also, demons are selfish. If it does fight to the death, it will do so for it’s own reasons not for some Lamia.

  12. Russ Avatar

    I know this is probably very much against RAW, but could the Babau not simply cast Heat Metal on its spear, then in subsequent rounds use its bonus action to sort of smite an opponent for an additional 2d8 fire damage. This seems like a way to include the spear instead of just the claws. Yes, it would sacrifice its two attacks in the first round, but then it gets its full attacks plus the fire damage on ANY CREATURE it attacks not just one. I know I’m bending the rules considerably, but there would be no saving throw because the Babau wouldn’t be in contact with the metal itself. In fact, a clever Babau could cast this spell in advance so its spear tip were ALREADY ablaze when battle began, meaning it wouldn’t even need to sacrifice its first round attacks. It seems to me like this is the most advantage combination, and the demon would only drop it to cast any of its crowd control spells in an attempt to make an escape. But again, I’m a ‘rule of cool’ type of DM, so if a player at my table tried to do something like this I would let it ride, but that’s just me.

  13. Chris M Avatar
    Chris M

    Thanks again for another fantastic article!

    I note that you specify that the Babau is smart and wise enough to target Paladins or frontline Clerics with its Withering Gaze, therefore closing to melee with them over others.

    I think expanding that to note its smart enough to target its foes metal armour with Heat Metal over a weapon would fit its suggested alignment. The down side is that the spell does note remove a damage source which is going to add to the chance that concentration will fail sooner rather than later but that is somewhat mitigated by the allies of the Babu’s foes all doing their level best to hit it too.

    On the otherhand its a fiend with no reason or indication to flee perhaps, and every impetus to cause pain and suffering, which cooking a paladin in plate armour seems to satisfy. Plus faster to take down the main target of the Babau, hopefully?

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