Dusk Hag Tactics

The dusk hag needs a warning label. There’s some interesting stuff going on in this stat block, but there are also some hidden dangers.

Here’s the crux: Dusk hags are all about exploiting the unconscious condition, but they gain the most benefit when their targets aren’t unconscious as a result of having been reduced to 0 hp. That’s what makes this stat block interesting.

Its mental abilities very good to exceptional, with Charisma on top; its physical abilities are middling, other than a high Dexterity. Dusk hags are distance casters, allergic to melee. However, despite this contour, their attack actions are all melee-based. To resolve this contradiction, I posit that a dusk hag only attacks targets who can’t fight back. That, combined with the bias toward unconscious targets, is what makes it dangerous.

Based on their Intelligence and Wisdom, dusk hags are skillful planners, wise to their targets’ weaknesses and averse to fights they’re not likely to win. This combination makes them nasty opponents, because it means a dusk hag won’t pick a fight against a party of player characters unless the encounter would be a Deadly one. What does that mean in level terms? Against a party of four, a CR 6 dusk hag should pick on level 4 PCs but not level 5; against a party of five, level 3 but not level 4; against a party of six, level 2 but not level 3. As we’ll see, though, this calculation has certain … repercussions.

With proficiency in Deception and Insight and the ability to cast disguise self at will, a dusk hag disinclined to advertise its nature can maintain a false identity for a long time. But does it need to? Maybe, maybe not, depending on whether you put more stock in the evocative names of the dusk hag’s Nightmare Touch and Dream Eater features or in the flavor text. Do dusk hags cause nightmares and eat dreams as ends in themselves, or are these merely ways they torment those who make deals with them? I don’t think this question is answered definitively, but the text seems to learn toward the latter. For instance, Sora Teraza of Droaam doesn’t seem to pretend to be anything other than what she is. Still, the option is there.

As for dusk hags’ proficiency in Perception, it pairs nicely with their 60 feet of blindsight, making them hard to sneak up on. Here, I think, is another point in favor of playing dusk hags as sedentary, waiting for their victims to come to them, rather than having them go out hunting. If they do hunt, though, they do it at night, because of course they do.

Aside from disguise self and sleep, their spell repertoire is a mixed bag, in which the only clearly combat-oriented spell is hypnotic pattern. Dream, legend lore and scrying all have long casting times and no direct offensive application, although dream certainly permits dusk hags to mess with people in all sorts of ways (and potentially cause them to take psychic damage when they awaken). Detect magic is primarily of interest for two purposes: avoiding warding spells, such as alarm, protection from evil and good, hallow and forbiddance; and assaying items that petitioners might offer up in trade.

Dusk hags’ Claws attack isn’t impressive—and isn’t even an option of their Multiattack. Honestly, there’s no reason to use this action at all except as an opportunity attack. Nightmare Touch is the nasty one, dealing big psychic damage when it hits and huge psychic damage when it hits an unconscious target. Moreover, a hit with Nightmare Touch against an unconscious target imposes a curse, against which there’s no saving throw, that eats away at the target’s hit point maximum, day by day, until they croak.

I’ll get to Dream Eater shortly, but first, let’s look at how sleep and Nightmare Touch interact. As a reminder, the dusk hag’s innate sleep ability affects up to 9d8 hit points’ worth of creatures. Two-thirds of the time, this is going to total at least 38. Remember how we’re supposedly using dusk hags primarily against PCs of level 2 through 4? Let’s take a look at how many hit points these PCs will have, on average (one-half rounded to nearest even whole number):

Level 2Level 3Level 4
Squish
(d6, Con mod +0)
101316
Average
(d8, Con mod +1)
142026
Martial
(d10, Con mod +2)
202734
Tank
(d12, Con mod +3)
243444

Let’s say the party of four level 4 PCs has two average adventurers, a squish and a martial; the party of five level 3 PCs has two average adventurers, a squish, a martial and a tank; and the party of six level 2 PCs has three average adventurers, a squish, a martial and a tank. A sleep spell that tranqs at least 38 hp of targets will take out the squish in every party, one additional average adventurer in the level 3 party and two additional average adventurers in the level 2 party.

And that’s assuming that a dusk hag casts sleep at a whole party that’s awake and active. Sleep bypasses targets who are already unconscious. So if the dusk hag targets a resting party and waits until the right moment, with only one or two PCs on watch, it can send the sentries straight to dreamland. (At level 3, this assumes that the tank is asleep and that the martial doesn’t have a companion on watch. At level 2, it assumes that the tank and the martial aren’t on watch together, which is likely more often than not. And, of course, it assumes no elf on watch, since elves are immune to magically induced sleep.)

Ensuring that every opponent is asleep is necessary groundwork without which a dusk hag won’t move forward with an attack. Once they’re all zonked, it can finally move in and hit one of them—twice, thanks to Multiattack—with Nightmare Touch. Since they’re unconscious, and since N.T. is a melee attack with only a 5-foot reach, the dusk hag makes its initial attack with advantage, and the first hit is an automatic critical. Of course, the target wakes up immediately upon taking damage, so the second attack is made as a normal roll—unless it’s pitch-dark and the target lacks darkvision, in which case the dusk hag, which has blindsight, gains advantage as an unseen attacker!—and deals normal damage. Still, assuming two hits, we’re looking at a tremendous tranche of damage here: 14d6 + 4 from the first hit, 7d6 4d6 + 4 [thank you, Richard Whatever] from the second, for an average total of 82 71. Against the PCs above, except for the level 4 tank, this damage kills the target instantly.

Whoa. Was this outcome intended?

At this point in the analysis, I have to advise you to disregard my earlier statement about what levels are appropriate targets for the dusk hag, in part because I think its challenge rating has been calculated incorrectly. If you run it according to its nature, i.e., if you have it attack unconscious targets exclusively, it can deal 82 71 damage per round to three consecutive targets. A creature that can do that isn’t CR 6. Per the Dungeon Master’s Guide, that amount of damage equates to an offensive challenge rating of 13 11; combine that with an average of 82 hp and Armor Class 17, for a defensive challenge rating of 3, and you’re looking at CR 8 7.

That still doesn’t change the encounter math significantly: It’s still deadly for a party of four level 4 characters but not for a party of four level 5 characters, but it’s also deadly for a party of five level 4 characters. It remains deadly for six at level 2 but not six at level 3. That clearly isn’t enough of a change to reflect the threat this thing poses.

So let’s go one step further and factor rolling with advantage into the attack bonus. We’ll call it equivalent to Blood Frenzy or Nimble Escape and bump the offensive challenge rating up to 14 12, making the overall challenge rating a half-value that we’ll round up to 9 8. Now the maximum level for a deadly encounter is level 5 for a party of four, level 4 for a party of five and level 3 for a party of six. [Nope. As we know from my first analysis with inaccurate math, CR 8 is no more dangerous than CR 7 in this scenario.]

It’s still not enough. Even at level 5, only the tank can avoid being killed outright by a dusk hag in a single round. This encounter goes beyond Deadly. We need a new category: Massacre.

Let’s come at it from the other side, then: How tough does our party need to be to survive getting jumped by a dusk hag? First, we have to calculate its damage a little differently: Rather than take the average, we have to look at a worst likely case. Theoretically, the dusk hag can deal up to 134 116 damage with its two attacks, but in 95 percent of cases, it’s going to deal 93 82 damage or less. Half of that is 47 (rounding up this time) 41. That’s how many hit points our squishiest party member needs to have.

Squishy needs to be level 13 11 just to have an opportunity to make death saves.

However, now we’re at a tier where sleep, even the 3rd-level version that dusk hags sling, isn’t going to accomplish much, because even Squishy has enough hit points to resist it at least half the time. Obviously, then, the dusk hag isn’t going to bother! In other words, we have a situation where the dusk hag’s only sensible attack approach is one that the PCs mathematically can’t survive, and any situation they can survive is one in which the dusk hag refrains from attacking in the first place.

There are three paths out of this mess.

One is to arbitrarily decide that there’s no reason why psychic damage against an unconscious target should automatically be critical. This way, the dusk hag deals an average of only 57 46 damage in two hits. Now Squishy can be just level 8 6 and have a chance of survival. Lower than that would still be better, though.

Another is to decide that dusk hags simply don’t roam. You come to them. If they take a dislike to you, maybe they mess with you in your dreams. But they don’t hunt down you and your friends and give you all aneurysms while you’re dozing. Their ability to cast sleep is a defensive reflex, nothing more.

The third is a compromise that isn’t justified by anything except the need to play fair and keep the game from becoming a total drag: The dusk hag doesn’t want to kill its targets. It wants to curse them and watch them die slowly. To that end, it never makes more than one successful Nightmare Touch attack against a single target, because that’s enough to make the curse stick. While its Multiattack grants it two Nightmare Touch attacks per action, it always makes those attacks against two different targets, unless the first one somehow misses.

This approach is riskier for the dusk hag, because every hit is going to wake its target up—unless it reduces them to 0 hp. Here, finally, is where Dream Eater comes in. This reaction allows the dusk hag to snatch back some of the hit points it’s going to lose due to getting busted. The tricky part is that the dusk hag doesn’t want this additional damage to take more hit points away from its now-conscious victim than they have, because it only regains as many hit points as it takes away. Any damage beyond that is wasted.

What kind of damage are we looking at now? If we assume that Nightmare Touch doesn’t auto-crit on a hit, one hit deals an average of 28 psychic damage, which probably isn’t going to insta-kill anyone at level 4; if it does auto-crit, it deals 53, safe (for certain values of “safe”) for all but the squishiest PCs at levels 4 through 6, and for pretty much everyone by level 7. Finally, we have a scenario that still favors the dusk hag but is balanced enough to live with. (I’d still go with not auto-critting, though—or, alternatively, using the auto-crit damage in place of the additional 3d6.)

Here’s what we’ve got, then: A dusk hag, presumably motivated by spite, schemes to bring a PC to ruin, and their little friends, too. Exercising considerable care, since it doesn’t have proficiency in Stealth—here’s where disguise self can come into play—the dusk hag reconnoiters its targets and awaits the right place and time to get the drop on them. When they’re at their most vulnerable, and when a single casting of sleep will take out everyone who’s awake, the dusk hag casts the spell from as far away as possible.

Now the clock is ticking. The dusk hag has one minute to close in and fill as many brains with nightmares as it can. It begins with targets that are sleeping without the aid of magic, because while magically slumbering creatures have to be shaken, slapped or stabbed awake, the conventionally dormant can be roused with mere yelling. It also favors targets who it supposes are equally melee-averse over those who are likely to try to get in its business. (Paladins, especially elf paladins, stay asleep, since they’re unlikely to be affected by either sleep or hypnotic pattern.) If the dusk hag is at 70 hp or fewer when an eligible creature wakes up, it uses Dream Eater to try to get some of those hit points back—but not if they’re obviously a cleric, druid or paladin, because the dusk hag isn’t going to waste its reaction on a target who’s too likely to succeed on the save.

When, at last, the dusk hag has played around enough—a good measure is when its opponents have stopped fumbling around and mustered a melee counterattack—it’s time for hypnotic pattern, with the goal of boggling the melee fighters long enough for the dusk hag to get away, since another casting of sleep isn’t likely to do anything to them. If that works, the dusk hag immediately bugs out. If it doesn’t, the dusk hag Dodges or Disengages as it withdraws, depending on whether it’s engaged by one melee opponent or by two or more.

What if the PCs attack the dusk hag on its own turf rather than vice versa? It doesn’t want any part of that. As soon as they make clear their hostile intent, the dusk hag pops hypnotic pattern if it’s being charged and engaged by melee attackers and otherwise casts sleep behind it as it withdraws. It doesn’t engage in melee itself unless it’s caught and grappled, whereupon it lashes back with Nightmare Touch, hoping to force its pursuer to back off.

There’s nothing in Eberron: Rising From the Last War to suggest that dusk hags form covens, but there’s also nothing to suggest that they don’t. Dusk hags in a coven lean on their coven spells (see “Hag Tactics” and “Hags Revisted, Part 2”) rather than on sleep and Nightmare Touch, and their strong preference overall is to keep enemies at bay with ranged spells such as eyebite, polymorph, lightning bolt, locate object and ray of sickness.

Dusk hags don’t flee upon reaching any particular hit point threshold. Instead, they exit without delay as soon as their work is done or they realize they may be in some trouble.

ETA: I realized that I haven’t examined what attacking separate sleeping targets with the dusk hag’s Multiattack will do to its CR. Round 1, two Nightmare Touch hits against sleeping targets deal an average 57 damage. Round 2, two more deal another 57 damage, plus an 11 for Dream Eater, supposing that she took a hit from one of the targets who woke up and wants to heal that back. Round 3, we’ll assume two Nightmare Touch hits against conscious targets, for 36, plus 11 for Dream Eater. That’s an average of 57 damage per round; with +11 to hit (+7 adjusted upward by 4 to reflect attacking with advantage), that’s an OCR of 11. Meanwhile, the dusk hag has 82 hp and AC 17, and Magic Resistance (which I forgot to account for the first time around) raises its effective AC to 19, for a DCR of 4. So, as it turns out, we’re still looking at CR 7 or 8.

Next: Eberronian constructs.

9 thoughts on “Dusk Hag Tactics”

  1. Great analysis as always. Makes perfect sense. Does the dusk Hag have to use dream eater on a sleeping target that wakes or can it be really evil and the second the cleric heals the fighter up from zero it uses its reaction to steal those hit points from the fighter (most likely dropping them back to zero if the cleric used a only a first level slot or relied on healing word)?

  2. Your math is off. The first attack does 14d6+4 but the second attack is only 4d6+4 if the target is awake for 71 damage per round, if it can attack an unconscious creature every round. It can also use its Dream Eater Reaction on a creature that it awakens through damage for an extra 11 damage though, another thing you missed. It would actually be CR 9 though, owing to its magic resistance factoring as an AC bonus, but all that is if it can always attack an unconscious creature, an unlikely feat given that it has a meager +2 to Stealth and awakens any creature it hits but does not reduce to 0. The CR math seems to assume one crit for 52 average damage (rounded up naturally) per round, which does indeed make it CR 6.

    1. Good catch on the second attack damage, but I didn’t “miss” Dream Eater. There’s no reason for the dusk hag to spend its reaction on that feature if it doesn’t need the healing.

      1. If it wants to specifically deal damage or kill a specific target, it would seem reasonable to attempt to maximize damage.

  3. Given it seems that the approach is “tormenting, malicious evil” who want to see suffering over necessarily death, need the “only attack when it is a “Deadly” threat to its targets” assessment remain?

    Noting that the Dusk Hag, is a) a Fey, and b) a Hag, I could see a Dusk Hag attacking a “Equal Footing” party (e.g. a party of 4 level 6 characters) when they are down for the night (perhaps Sleeping a lone sentry), then choosing a single target or two beefy targets, and then leaving (taking advantage of the prone condition that most if not all the party is going to be in as an additional defensive measure.

    Afflicted by the curse, the party will have to track down the Hag (not to mention presumably burn a large number of healing resources to ) in hopes of ending the curse, at which point the Dusk Hag can promise to remove it if they do that task for her (I don’t think she can, but she does have proficiency in Deception). If the party turns on her, she has her Coven for back up.

  4. I was about to comment that the hypothetical 71 damage isn’t all at once, so you don’t run the risk of instantly killing most PC’s in this equation. However, the 53 damage from the first crit is enough to knock every PC to 0 HP, in which case the second Nightmare Touch will again be against an unconscious character, so it would again be a crit and deal 53 damage.

    This makes it much worse, because now no one would survive this assassination.

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