Dullahan Tactics

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OK, I learned something cool today. As I read the description of the dullahan in Ezmerelda’s Guide to Ravenloft—“Dullahans are headless undead warriors—the remains of villains who let vengeance consume them. These decapitated hunters haunt the areas where they were slain, butchering innocents in search of their severed heads or to quench their thirst for revenge”—my thoughts immediately went to Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” in which the legendary “headless horseman” was said to be a former Hessian auxiliary soldier beheaded by a cannon shot during the American Revolution, prowling the area around the battlefield where he fell. But it turns out that this was already a longstanding mythical trope even in Irving’s time, found in tales from the Rhineland region of Germany (which includes the region of Hesse!) and the British Isles—and in the Irish version of the trope, the undead warrior is called a dulachán, anglicized as “dullahan.”

Like chromatic greatwyrms and ancient dragon turtles, the dullahan—despite its comparatively low challenge rating—is a mythic creature, meaning that its opponents effectively have to kill it twice to truly finish it off. It’s also got strong ability scores and a combination of melee and ranged attacks; it can’t be charmed, frightened or poisoned; and it’s resistant to cold, lightning and poison damage—but not, interestingly, physical damage from nonmagical weapons.

Its abilities follow a brute contour, with exceptional Strength as its primary offensive ability and very high Constitution as its primary defensive ability. But its Charisma is also very high, helping to foil attempts to banish it. Its Wisdom is high as well, so it knows better than to provoke anyone who can easily clobber it—but this prudence is complicated by its compulsive pursuit of revenge and/or recapitation. It may keep its distance from powerful enemies for a while, shifting around restively, growing more and more agitated, until it can no longer resist the strain and flies at them. A dullahan moves with ordinary humanoid speed, but it would certainly be in keeping with the headless warrior trope to give it a riding horse as a mount, or even a warhorse or—if you’re feeling especially mean—a nightmare. (I suggest treating any such steed as a controlled mount rather than an independent mount—see Player’s Handbook, chapter 9, “Mounted Combat.” The dullahan is the real threat.)

The dullahan’s compulsion has a peculiar influence on its target selection. It doesn’t necessarily charge its strongest target (for the glory), its weakest (for the easily acquired head) or whichever is dealing it the most damage (for self-preservation’s sake). Rather, if all it wants is a head, it tries to take whichever one is most like its own; if, on the other hand, it’s looking for revenge, it assails whichever foe most reminds it of an erstwhile rival. Goading the dullahan into picking a different initial target demands an extraordinary degree of provocation.

On foot, a dullahan can—and does—lead with its Head Hunt legendary action, which uses up all its legendary actions until the start of its turn, but in the first round of combat, this hardly matters! All that matters is whether it’s within 30 feet of its foe. Because of Head Hunt’s specific wording (the dullahan “makes one Battleaxe attack with advantage”), a hit gains not only the additional effect described in the legendary action itself but also the additional effect described in the Battleaxe action, which cuts off the target’s head on a critical hit followed by a failed Constitution saving throw. This combination is dirty pool, but let’s be honest: It’s also epic.

A mounted dullahan can’t get away with this tactic. An easily overlooked catch of legendary actions is that, unless they include movement, they have to be taken wherever a legendary creature happens to be. Head Hunt does include movement, but it’s the dullahan that moves, not its mount. (If the creator of the stat block meant for the mount to move, it would have said so.) A dullahan can use half its movement to dismount and the other half to close with an enemy, but that presumes that the mounted dullahan is already within 20 feet of its target (15 feet of movement plus 5 feet of reach); the mount itself can’t move until the dullahan’s own turn. Such a maneuver hardly seems worth it, especially since the likeliest mounts all have at least double the dullahan’s speed.

Instead, the mounted dullahan waits until its own turn to charge, using as many Attack legendary actions as it can before then to lob fiery skulls, either at its target or in retaliation against anyone who hurts it with a ranged attack or spell. It’s unlikely, but possible, that an enemy will manage to close with it and make a melee attack against it before it can take its own turn; if so, it switches its Attack legendary action from Fiery Skull to Battleaxe, but when its turn comes around, it rushes off after its own preferred target, wherever they may be, potentially incurring one or more opportunity attacks in the process. It does use any surplus movement it or its mount may possess to avoid opportunity attacks from enemies along the way, but if it has to use all its movement to reach its desired target, it does so, regardless of any opportunity attack it may provoke by doing so.

Once it’s engaged in melee with its chosen target, the dullahan Multiattacks with its axe. It never makes a Fiery Skull attack while in melee, since doing so would impose disadvantage on the attack roll; it uses this attack strictly against targets it can’t reach, usually ones that are running away faster than it can pursue. The dullahan’s Multiattack does allow two Fiery Skull attacks, if need be.

After it’s taken its turn, the dullahan happily burns all its legendary actions on Head Hunt—unless all its foes, or at least six of them, have rushed in to interfere. In that case, if it still has the legendary actions to spend, it uses Frightful Presence against them, thereafter spending its one remaining legendary action on an Attack against whichever opponent is giving it the most trouble. Specifically, whichever melee opponent is giving it the most trouble, since—again—making a ranged attack with an active opponent within 5 feet imposes disadvantage on the roll. It spends this legendary Attack on a Fiery Skull only if all its foes have retreated farther than 5 feet away from it, since it can’t immediately move to pursue.

The dullahan isn’t satisfied with reducing its chosen enemy to 0 hp. It wants their head, which means it continues attacking until they’re dead. The likelihood of decapitation is increased by the fact that close-range melee attacks against an unconscious target are automatic crits. Better make that Con save. If the dullahan kills its foe but technically still hasn’t decapitated them, it makes one last Battleaxe attack against the corpse, which you can construe to achieve the desired objective at last.

Once the dullahan has claimed its head, however, it’s done, and it walks (or rides) away. At that point, it doesn’t even fight back, except to take its Frightful Presence legendary action.

All that changes, however, if the dullahan’s foes reduce it to 0 hp, thereby triggering the “Now you’ve made me mad” phase of the battle. In this phase, the dullahan is reinforced by three death’s heads, which take care of frailer, less armored targets while it hacks through the tougher ones. It keeps taking the Head Hunt legendary action as long as it hasn’t yet claimed its head, but once it has, it instead favors Headless Wail if it has at least two foes within 10 feet, followed by Frightful Presence if the criterion described above is met. It then spends its third legendary action on Coordinated Assault, provided it has a melee opponent within reach; if it doesn’t, it uses the Attack legendary action to make a Fiery Skull attack. At this point, nothing will satisfy it except vanquishing every one of its enemies. It even chases down those who flee and tries to finish them off, although it’s content merely to knock them unconscious. It doesn’t need all the heads, only the one.

As for the dullahan itself, it fights until it achieves its goal or is destroyed. No amount of damage will induce it to flee.

Next: nosferatus.

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One response to “Dullahan Tactics”

  1. Morgan Williams Avatar
    Morgan Williams

    This would probably just be one of those scenarios where I would shrug and just allow the mount to move with the legendary action. Maybe it’s a legendary horse, maybe I’m just hoping the players won’t notice, or won’t care if they do, but it is the coolest way to start a fight and the most horrifying especially since this is from the horror book.

    That changes of course if it’s a Nightmare mount (like what is depicted in the book’s illustration, so I consider it not only fair game but the intended setup). Ethereal Stride changes everything. While the party I run is always packing See Invisibility because of ethereal threats, that’s a rare thing for most other parties to be always prepared from a cross-planar ambush. There’s basically no way that the Dullahan won’t Surprise the players, which gives it all the setup it needs while its enemies can’t move or act. It waits until its turn in Initiative, which its mount shares, and it allows the mount to move first. Its mount moves into position, and then at the end of its mount’s turn and before its own, it uses Head Hunt.

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