Elemental Tactics


Elementals are spirits of air, fire, water and earth, usually summoned to do a spellcaster’s bidding. Each is physically powerful in some way, not too bright, able to see in the dark, capable of two melee attacks in a turn, resistant to physical damage from nonmagical weapons, and immune to exhaustion, paralysis, petrifaction, poisoning and unconsciousness. Beyond that, the elements they’re generated from grant them additional powers and influence their manner of movement and fighting.

Elementals are summoned spirits, not evolved creatures. They have no particular survival instinct—on the contrary, they’re bound to the will of their summoners and peevish about it, and what they want more than anything is to get back to the plane they came from. If they’re destroyed, they get exactly what they want. Consequently, elementals will fight to the death with zero concern for damage to themselves. They’re also indiscriminate in their target selection and may or may not keep attacking the same opponent round after round.

Air elementals are distinguished by their wicked fast 90-foot flying speed (their only form of movement); their extremely high Dexterity; their resistance to lightning and thunder damage; their immunity to grappling, restraint and falling prone; and their Air Form and Whirlwind features. Their Strength and Constitution are also high, but the contour of their physical abilities suggests a combat style based on being fast and hard to hit.

From the fact that it recharges, we can infer that the Whirlwind feature is the air elemental’s most favored weapon. Air elementals are Large creatures, meaning they take up four 5-foot squares (or three 5-foot hexes). Their Air Form feature allows them to occupy the same space as a hostile creature, and their Whirlwind feature allows them to affect creatures “in the elemental’s space,” meaning in all the squares (or hexes) they occupy. From the “Targets in Areas of Effect” table on page 249 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, we can calculate that a spell whose effect covered the same area as an air elemental would typically be expected to affect two people. Therefore, an air elemental will use this ability whenever (a) it has it available and (b) two or more of its opponents are within a single 10-foot square (or a triangle of three 5-foot hexes).

Whirlwind flings creatures that fail their Strength saving throws up to 20 feet “in a random direction.” It’s interesting that the text specifies a random direction but seems to leave the distance up to the dungeon master’s discretion. I’d choose one of these three methods of determining distance and direction:

  • Determine the direction randomly, as written, by rolling a d8 for a square map (or a d6 for a hex map) and assigning numbers clockwise, starting with “northeast”; the target moves as far in that direction as it can until it strikes an obstacle (a wall, a piece of furniture, another creature) or reaches the maximum distance of 20 feet.
  • Determine the direction randomly, as above, and also determine the distance randomly by rolling 1d4 and multiplying the result by 5 feet.
  • Decide both the direction and the distance yourself, for maximum player enjoyment and/or DM amusement.

When not zeroing in on a cluster of enemies to use its Whirlwind feature, an air elemental will move continuously in narrowing and widening circles (counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere of your game world, clockwise in the southern), looping through its opponents and making slam attacks against any two whom it passes over—or, if it passes over only one, slamming that opponent twice. (Multiattack grants the air elemental two slam attacks—it doesn’t say they must be against the same target, and movement can be broken up between attacks and other actions any way one sees fit.) It uses its full movement each round and couldn’t care less about opportunity attacks.

Earth elementals are distinguished by their burrowing movement; their extremely high Strength and Constitution and low Dexterity; their vulnerability to thunder damage; their tremorsense, which lets them “see” other creatures by feeling the vibrations they transmit through the ground; and their Earth Glide and Siege Monster features.

Earth elementals are brutes, engaging opponents directly in melee combat. Although they choose their targets at random, once they’ve chosen them, they stubbornly stick with those targets, pounding on them until they’re subdued, unless their controller directs them to do otherwise. If they’re fighting in concert with another creature that makes ranged weapon or spell attacks, and that creature is fighting a target that’s taken cover, rather than choose a living target, they may choose to destroy the cover instead. The Siege Monster feature grants them double damage against the cover; armor class and hit points for inanimate objects are given on pages 246–47 of the DMG.

Note that the Earth Glide feature allows earth elementals to burrow only through unworked earth and stone. It can pass freely and easily through cavern walls or the dirt floor of a peasant’s hut, but not through the stone walls or floors of a castle. It can, however, smash through the stone walls or floors of a castle.

Fire elementals are distinguished by their immunity to fire damage, grappling, restraint and falling prone; and their Fire Form, Illumination and Water Susceptibility features. Their Strength is merely average, but their Dexterity and Constitution are very high: they’re scrappers. Like air elementals, fire elementals can occupy the same space as one or more opponents, and they use this feature to charge repeatedly through their enemies.

Fire elementals don’t necessarily move constantly, like air elementals do; what they try to do is set everyone on fire. Both their Fire Form feature and their touch attack ignite creatures and flammable objects. When a fire elemental uses Fire Form to ignite one or more creatures in a space it shares, this does an automatic 5 hp of fire damage to each creature; its fiery touch does twice as much damage to each creature it hits, but it requires an attack roll to hit. Against AC 15, it has a 60 percent chance of hitting, for 6 hp of expected damage—slightly higher than Fire Form’s.

On the other hand, Fire Form is not an action—it’s something that just happens as a fire elemental moves. It’s not required to stop in a hostile creature’s space to set that creature on fire—it sets a creature on fire whenever it first enters that creature’s space in a turn. It can still leave afterward, and the creature remains on fire. Thus, if it can move 50 feet and pass through every player along the way, setting each one on fire as it does, that’s exactly what it will do! And it still gets to make two fiery touch attacks, either along the way or afterward! And it can do this every turn! (I love discovering stuff like this.)

A fire elemental’s target selection process looks something like this: Is there someone who’s not on fire? If so, can I set him or her on fire just by rushing past? If so, do it! If not, can I reach him or her with a fiery touch attack at the end of my move? If so, do it. If not, oh, well, maybe next turn. If everyone’s on fire, then I’ll just stay where I am and keep hitting whoever’s in reach with my fiery touch.

There are two things that fire elementals don’t like: water and cold damage. These don’t simply hasten fire elementals’ return to their home plane—they dilute their essence, and that displeases them. However, they’re not smart or wise enough to know for sure whether they should avoid the source of the unpleasant effect or make it a top-priority murderization target. They might do either. Flip a coin.

Water elementals are distinguished by their swimming movement; their resistance to acid damage; their immunity to grappling, restraint and falling prone; and their Water Form, Freeze and Whelm features. They have high Dexterity and extremely high Strength and Constitution, a contour that makes them more brute-like than otherwise. And like air and fire elementals, they can occupy other creatures’ spaces.

Like the air elemental’s Whirlwind, the water elemental’s Whelm feature has a recharge, making it the preferred method of attack against any group of two or more opponents clustered within a 10-foot square (or three adjacent 5-foot hexes). One or two of these opponents may end up grappled and drowning. If an opponent is reduced to unconsciousness this way, the water elemental lets go of him or her—a blessing on solid ground, not so much in open water, as drowning people tend to sink, especially ones weighed down by armor, equipment and waterlogged clothing.

Water elementals don’t rush around the way air elementals do or sweep from opponent to opponent as fire elementals do. If the Whelm feature isn’t available to them (or there aren’t any clustered opponents to use it against), they make slam attacks against whoever’s within reach, and if no one’s within reach, they move only as far as the nearest opponent, then slam-attack him or her. If they must move farther than 30 feet over dry ground to reach an opponent, they favor clustered opponents over solitary ones.

Unlike fire elementals, which can’t stand water or cold damage, water elementals are indifferent to being frozen. It doesn’t make them any less watery; it just slows them down. Otherwise, they behave the same.

Next: jinn.

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19 responses to “Elemental Tactics”

  1. […] use create food and water to hurl smoked hams), but a few are. Conjure elemental can summon an ally whose tactics we’ve looked at already. Gaseous form, invisibility and plane shift offer paths of escape, and plane shift can also be […]

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  4. Alicommagali Avatar

    A couple thoughts on this one:

    I always read “up to 20 feet” as “20 feet unless something is in the way”. So potentially, you could add on “fall” damage if a player hits a wall after traveling 10 feet or more.

    I’m interested in the idea that a monster can move between the attacks in its multiattack. For PCs, they have to take the full Attack action before they can continue moving, even if that action contains multiple attacks. I checked the MM and it doesn’t specify, so I wonder if the designers meant to do it one way or the other.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      PCs do not have to take their full attack action before they can continue moving. See page 190 of the Player’s Handbook, “Moving Between Attacks.”

  5. asc Avatar

    Any thoughts on how these creatures would behave if they were summoned, but the summoner lost control? Would they just fight to the death, or would they attempt to flee or otherwise preserve themselves in different ways? Thanks!

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Turn on the summoner, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. They don’t like being summoned one bit. After that, make a beeline straight for the nearest large volume of their element. In the case of air and earth elementals, that’s pretty simple—they vanish into the air or burrow into the ground. Water elementals are likely to do a lot of damage on their way to the nearest body of water, and fire elementals will straight-up run amok.

  6. Dave Avatar

    Would an earth elemental grapple a target and then attemp to burrow while holding them? Could that work?

  7. Ethan Avatar

    I’m a bit late to the party,

    What about elementals which have taken up residence on the material plane, in this case I’m think of a fire elemental living in a volcano. My PC’s are looking to hunt one down and capture it for in game purposes.

    Would they simply stay in the lava? would they defend the volcano? would they let things like fire drakes and whatnot live in ‘peace’? Then would they maybe a have a sense of self preservation? 3.5 gives them 6int, 11 wis 11 cha, would they communicate or surrender?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      It wouldn’t want to be captured, that’s for sure.

  8. Matthew Neagley Avatar

    The whirlwind power does not say that targets are thrown “up to 20′”. It says they are thrown “up 20′” so since they always are thrown up 20′ they also take 2d6 falling damage from the attack unless they have some way of negating falling damage or they are unable to travel up 20′.
    But there is also a section of the attack that talks about what happens IF the target strikes an object such as a wall or floor while they are thrown. It seems like a forgone conclusion that they would strike the floor on which they were originally standing, so it makes more sense for the “floor” mentioned in the attack to the be the floor above. So the attack should always do it’s own damage, plus up to 2d6 falling damage, plus up to 2d6 bludgeoning damage if the target hits something else along the way. Which would make fighting an air elemental in a room with 20′ ceilings or 20′ or more ceilings but only 10′ square particularly dangerous as it would max their whirlwind damage
    Since we know, from the text of the attack that the target is always thrown 20′ up, but also away in a a random direction, I would interpret that as a high parabolic arc with a vertex of 20′ and depositing the target just outside of the elemental’s squares. A random distance with a fixed height of 20′ is possible with different throw forces but seems unlikely. Since there are 12 squares surrounding a large creature, using a d12 for a scatter die would suffice. It also seems likely in this case to maximize the other “if” in the description, “if they strike someone else” since most melee attackers will be in those 12 squares.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Sorry, I don’t buy this for a second. The complete phrase is, “a target takes 15 (3d8 + 2) bludgeoning damage and is flung up [sic] 20 feet away from the elemental in a random direction and knocked prone.” Flung upward and knocked prone? Also, who uses the phrase “flung up 20 feet away”? This is clearly a typo, and I’ll stand by that interpretation until Jeremy Crawford tells me otherwise.

  9. Yackl Avatar

    As always, love your advice Keith.

    One question about the fire elemental. Fire form says “The first time it enters a creature’s space on a turn, that creature takes 5 (1d10) fire damage and catches fire”

    Wouldn’t that mean that it can only light one creature on fire per turn with his fire form instead of moving though as much enemies as possible and setting them all ablaze?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      No, but I see how you might draw that interpretation from it. I read it as—and I think it’s intended to be read as—“Each creature takes damage the first time it enters that creature’s space,” not, “It deals fire damage the first time it enters a space occupied by another creature.” The distinction being drawn here is that the fire elemental can’t keep dealing fire damage to a creature repeatedly by moving in and out of its space.

  10. Natespeed Avatar

    The specific wording on fire elementals is: “In addition, the elemental can enter a hostile creature’s space and stop there. ”

    Given that other abilities that allow creatures to enter spaces occupied by hostile creature either say they can “Occupy” (swarm) or “Move through” (Incorporeal movement) it seems to me that the intent is that a fire elemental must end its current movement when it enters a hostile creature’s space.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      I’ve always taken it to mean that entering a hostile creature’s space and stopping in a hostile creature’s space are two things that one normally can’t do, but that the fire elemental can.

  11. Yackl Avatar

    I think Keith’s right. You normally can’t stop in anothers creatures location, even if you can move through it.

    I think the stop addition is made so that you can’t force the elementals movement through other creatures spaces and burn them in that way – they only burn when the fire elemental stops.

    So if you push a fire elemental with thunder wave and it stops on anothers creature space, it will start to burn. But if the thunder wave pushes the fire elemental though another creature and it ends its movement on another space, the creature does not burn.

    1. Yackl Avatar

      Misread, the stop part is not in the catching fire part. Strange that is has a different wording then.

  12. […] use create food and water to hurl smoked hams), but a few are. Conjure elemental can summon an ally whose tactics we’ve looked at already. Gaseous form, invisibility and plane shift offer paths of escape, and plane shift can also be […]

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