In case your players are so jaded that they just shrug and say, “Whatevs,” when you throw a giant at them, Volo’s Guide to Monsters introduces a set of elite variations, one for each race of giants in the “ordning.” Curiously, however, most of them don’t offer any new tactical twists.
In fact, the Mouth of Grolantor, Volo’s elite hill giant, manages somehow to be less tactically sophisticated than an ordinary hill giant, which is no Hannibal to begin with. Basically a weapon used by other hill giants against their enemies (and already, I’m having trouble imagining hill giants working together effectively enough to come up with such a plan), the Mouth of Grolantor’s behavior is entirely random and mechanistic, with no dungeon master discretion. Just wind it up and let it go. (It doesn’t even have a vomit attack, which would have been thematically appropriate.)
Similarly, the frost giant Everlasting One is basically just an extra-tough frost giant, one that’s eaten a troll (ew) and thereby gained its ability to regenerate damage. It also possesses Vaprak’s Rage, pretty much a carbon copy of the barbarian class feature Rage, but with a fixed value for the added damage. If you want to make the encounter extra-bonkers, you could spin up a version of the troll’s Loathsome Limbs feature and give it to the Everlasting One, but aside from that . . . well, frost giants aren’t that complex to begin with, being aggressive brutes ideologically motivated to fight to the death. Because of their aggressive ideology, they probably won’t even be deterred by acid or fire damage, just more motivated to kill whoever inflicts it. “Rrrrahhhh, bash bash bash” is all there is to the Everlasting One.
The fire giant Dreadnought is stupid but exceptionally strong, a front-line defender employed by fire giants when they go to war. Dual Shields is a passive feature, but there’s some small tactical potential in Shield Charge, especially if a group of fire giants is employing multiple Dreadnoughts on their front line. Their stupidity doesn’t mean they lack fire giants’ typical discipline: a wall of Dreadnoughts will synchronize their use of Shield Charge and all plow forward together. This is especially useful as a way of clearing away the enemy’s front line in order to get to the soft, squishy foes behind it. Because a Dreadnought holds a shield in both hands, it probably won’t bother to throw rocks; instead, it provides cover for the rock-hurling allies behind it. Charge forward, attack with shields, repeat until marmalade.
The stone giant Dreamwalker is a curiosity. A holy fool on a vision quest gone awry, it’s driven by isolation, shame and disorientation into a kind of schizophrenia. It’s not likely to treat (or even recognize) player characters as enemies, but its irrationality makes it hazardous, because its Dreamwalker’s Charm is a passive feature—it just happens to anyone within 30 feet, whether the Dreamwalker means it to or not.
A typical Dreamwalker encounter involves the giant wandering by, apparently aimlessly, and suddenly deciding that a PC—or something in the PCs’ vicinity—is mystically meaningful, prompting it to come close enough for Dreamwalker’s Charm to kick in. Then, if the person of interest is affected, the Dreamwalker uses Petrifying Touch on him or her, picks him or her up, and adds the unfortunate individual to its collection of flair. Afterward, it will simply go on its way—if the PCs allow it, which they won’t.
A stone giant Dreamwalker is an evolved being, but not a rational one. If attacked, it may ignore the attack, or try to swat the attacker away with its club, without evidencing any awareness that it’s “in a fight”—just as you or I would never consider ourselves to be “in a fight” with a biting fly. It might whimsically throw a rock at someone, or at something, or at no one and nothing at all. As far as it’s concerned, everything it’s experiencing is some kind of hallucination anyway, and its only concern is whether it can make some kind of sense of it. Play the encounter for maximum oddity.
In contrast to these four elite giants, the cloud giant Smiling One and the storm giant Quintessent are tactically complex. In fact, the Smiling One is so complex that I can offer only general guidelines on how to run one. This is because the Smiling One is a trickster and manipulator, motivated by the pursuit of wealth (and remember, a cloud giant’s definition of “wealth” revolves around quality and rarity, not the size of the pile), so as a DM running a Smiling One, you have to be just as crafty and opportunistic.
In addition to the usual repertoire of spells that cloud giants can cast innately, the Smiling One can also cast a variety of bard spells. Of these, the two with the most potentially effective combat applications are suggestion (powerful in either social interaction or combat, but because it requires concentration, it can be used against only one target at a time) and Tasha’s hideous laughter (effective way to take a key opponent out of the fight). Invisibility is useful for tactical relocation, but all cloud giants can cast misty step without even spending a spell slot on it; cure wounds doesn’t match the rest of the Smiling One’s repertoire, but it will use this spell on itself if it can get a moment to breathe while it’s moderately wounded (between 183 and 105 hp).
The Smiling One’s other spells are, at best, more suited to social interactions than to combat encounters; at worst, there’s tongues, which serves a purpose only if no one in the party speaks Common, and disguise self, which isn’t going to make an 18-foot giant look like anything smaller than a 17-foot giant. At most, a Smiling One can use it to make you think you’re dealing with some other giant. And why would it cast disguise self when it can Change Shape? (Though there’s not much tactical advantage even in Change Shape, since unlike a druid’s Wild Shape feature, it doesn’t give the Smiling One a reservoir of extra hit points, nor does it enhance its movement.)
The key to the Smiling One’s tactical effectiveness is buried in the small print: both its morning star attack and its rock attack inflict extra damage if it has advantage on its attack roll. Get it? The Smiling One has Sneak Attack! Or a variation on it, anyway (it doesn’t apply if the target is simply engaged in melee with an ally of the Smiling One). So rather than play it like a brute front-line fighter, you should play a Smiling One like a slippery rogue.
OK, so how can a Smiling One gain advantage on its attacks? It has three ways built in: by casting telekinesis against an opponent, restraining him or her; by casting Tasha’s hideous laughter and causing an opponent to fall prone; or by attacking while unseen, using invisibility. (Fog cloud won’t do the trick, because the Smiling One’s vision is just as impaired as the target’s, negating its attacking advantage.) Any other effect that blinds, paralyzes or stuns a target will also work; the Smiling One doesn’t have any of these in its spell repertoire, but it’s ready to seize the moment if something else causes one of these debilitating effects. Smiling Ones are also more likely to cast fly, simply because it’s fun, but mostly for quick, 60-foot-per-turn relocations, since it requires concentration and therefore precludes casting suggestion, invisibility, Tasha’s hideous laughter or telekinesis at the same time.
Although cloud giants can easily hold their own in any melee engagement, that’s not the Smiling One’s style; rather than merely bash away round after round, if it doesn’t have advantage on its attack, it will use its turn to set itself up to attack with advantage the following round, using any of the means available to it, while evading its enemies’ attacks as best it can. Also remember, while it enjoys deceit and mischief for their own sakes, its objective is usually to swipe some piece of exceptional treasure, and whatever else it does, if it can get its hands on the object(s) it wants, it won’t hang around any longer after that.
As for the storm giant Quintessent, this is a legendary enemy we’re talking about, with both legendary actions and lair actions. In pursuit of immortality, the Quintessent has essentially become a living storm, forming weapons and armor out of the elements and force of will. The form that PCs may encounter in combat is not the Quintessent’s true form but rather a temporary corporeal form that can hold conversations and hit things.
Let’s look at the lair actions first:
- Fog/murk cloud:
more powerful than the cloud giant’s fog cloud because the Quintessent has truesight, so while other creatures in the cloud are blinded, the Quintessent can attack freely, with advantage! By far the best of the three.Reader Solus correctly points out that truesight penetrates darkness but not fog, so the effect of this lair action is limited to making combat less desirable for everyone—which the Quintessent may well want to do.
- Blast of wind/jet of water: Twice as wide as most linear attacks, this is solid against two or three opponents but best against four or more. Note that while it pushes opponents 15 feet back, it doesn’t knock them prone. If used after a fog cloud, it does not clear the cloud away, unless the Quintessent wants it to!
- Thunderclap: deafens everyone in a 20-foot radius who doesn’t make a Constitution saving throw. Deafness isn’t an especially debilitating condition, so this is more for atmosphere. However, if there’s a fog cloud in place already, and everyone in it is blind and deaf . . . well, let’s just say that’s every bit as scary as a 24-foot-tall behemoth swinging a lamppost-size sword at you.
The Quintessent can fly, and spends its time between turns hovering 15 or 20 feet up in the air, swooping down to attack, then back up afterward, indifferent to opportunity attacks. With a 15-foot reach and a 600-foot ranged attack, and air superiority to boot, it can target whomever it wants, whenever it wants: wielders of magic weapons and slingers of Dex-save damaging spells are high-priority targets, as is anyone who can also fly.
The Gust legendary action is useful mainly for keeping dangerous melee foes armed with magic weapons at bay. Since it pushes its target only 20 feet, the Quintessent either moves back at the same time or uses it before the target closes to within its movement range.
Thunderbolt is the “nuclear option” to be used against whomever the Quintessent finds most threatening—and this must be someone genuinely threatening, because it costs two legendary actions. A workable definition of “genuinely threatening” is anyone who can deal moderate damage—69 hp or more—to the Quintessent in a single turn. If such a foe exists, the Quintessent will make sure not to use Gust more than once per turn, so that the legendary actions are available to use Thunderbolt. Moreover, it will use Thunderbolt before that enemy takes his or her own turn for the round, and may subsequently use Gust against that same enemy as well.
One With the Storm uses up the Quintessent’s entire quota of legendary actions for the turn, and it uses this action if and only if it’s somehow gotten backed into an untenable tactical position and needs to relocate, or if it genuinely needs to flee—but it takes more than the usual amount of damage to drive a Quintessent to flee. At 92 hp, it’s seriously wounded, but only if reduced to 46 or fewer does it finally acknowledge the need to abandon its lair. Solus points out that a Quintessent may wish to use One With the Storm immediately simply to avoid combat altogether. I suppose it depends on how annoyed the Quintessent is with those who are trespassing on its lair. If it simply wants to be left alone and feels no other particular urge to harm the trespassers, it may well use One With the Storm, then try to harass the trespassers into leaving using nonlethal methods such as the murk cloud.