The gallows speaker (I love the name) haunts places where many people have been put to death, echoing their last words and foretelling the dooms of others (I love the concept). Is it really a monster, though? That is, is it going to pose a danger if player characters simply leave it alone?
I’m inclined to say no. An insight I had about undead creatures long ago is that they all have two things in common. First, as everyone already knows and understands, they occupy a liminal space between life and death—they’re no longer alive and not yet dead. Second, the transition to this space imbues them with a compulsion, which causes them to engage in repetitive and often illogical behavior. Skeletons keep going through the motions of their prior lives. Ghouls and ghasts devour the living. Ghosts are unable to leave a place where they have unfinished business. Mummy lords cling to lost glory. Et cetera.
Gallows speakers have a compulsion, too, but their compulsion is all talk. They haunt the gibbet—but they never wander away from it. They yammer away, but their yammering isn’t an attack per se; it’s merely a behavior with an unfortunate damage-dealing side effect. Like a number of other creatures, such as vampiric mist, it’s not a monster, in the functional sense, as much as it is a hazard. And I’d say it fights only when it’s actually attacked.
But despite its having sufficient Intelligence to adjust when a battle is going wrong, the gallows speaker’s nature makes its combat behavior wholly mechanistic. Suffering Echoes is a reflexive action that it takes when a sentient creature comes close enough to it. There’s no recharge on this action, so the gallows speaker takes it again and again. Why shouldn’t it? It deals more damage by far than Foretelling Touch, a melee spell attack, and with Dexterity rather than Constitution as its primary defensive ability, plus resistance to physical damage from nonmagical attacks, Incorporeal Movement and a 40-foot flying speed, it has no reason ever to stay in a melee engagement.
If it’s going to have any reason to use Foretelling Touch, we’re going to have to come up with that reason ourselves. Let’s look at the mechanic: On a hit, in addition to dealing psychic damage, the gallows speaker imposes a penalty on the target’s next attack roll or saving throw. The penalty is just 1d4, having roughly half the impact of disadvantage on average, which isn’t much. But remember, we’re dealing with compulsion here. Compelled actions don’t have to be rational. Sometimes it’s better if they’re not rational at all.
So let’s say the gallows speaker uses Foretelling Touch in one of two cases:
- Against an opponent who’s just landed a melee hit on it.
- Against an adjacent target of Suffering Echoes who’s just succeeded on their saving throw.
The basic idea being, “Oh, you just hit me? OK, I’ll make it harder for you to hit me next time,” or, “Oh, you think you can resist my Suffering Echoes? OK, I’ll make it harder for you to resist next time.”
Since the gallows speaker can fly, should it stay out of reach of opponents wielding melee weapons? That’s what most flying creatures would do, but the gallows speaker isn’t firing on all cylinders. Instead of purposely keeping its distance, playing, “Nyah, nyah, can’t hit me,” let’s say it withdraws into the air only after being hit and retaliating with Foretelling Touch. (It doesn’t attempt to avoid the ensuing opportunity attack—and by baiting it out, ironically, it’s very likely to squander the benefit of the 1d4 penalty, which lasts only through the target’s next attack roll or saving throw.) Even though the gallows speaker can move 40 feet, it pulls back only 30 feet from its foe, because on its next turn, it wants to be able to use Suffering Echoes on them again. And let’s also say that some supernatural force prevents the gallows speaker from ever moving too far away from the gallows to which it’s rooted, like the leash on a junkyard dog. Fifty feet seems like a good limit to me. (That means that if your gallows is at the center of your 22-by-28-inch battle mat, the gallows speaker will never fly off the edge.)
There’s not much more to it than that. A gallows speaker won’t ever flee; even if it wanted to, it can’t. And once you’ve attacked it, you’ve forfeited any chance of having a productive conversation with it.