Hag Tactics



Hags, as monsters, never interested me much, but fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons has made it possible to build some very cool encounters around them. Evil fey creatures, hags rely on magic and deceit to befoul everything and destroy everyone around them. In many cases, by the time players realize that one or more hags are what their characters are up against, it’s already too late to avoid the encounter.

All hags possess very high Strength and Constitution, and they can do fierce damage with their claws, suggesting that they won’t shy away from toe-to-toe melee combat. When they come together in covens, they also gain access to a powerful repertoire of spells. To cast these spells, they must all be within 30 feet of one another, which limits their mobility somewhat. So that they’re not forced to retreat out of range, we can suppose that they fight facing outward, their backs toward one another. Thus, if they’re knocked back, for instance, they fall toward the others rather than away from them. This leaves them vulnerable to being surrounded, but it also offers some protection against flanking, since most player characters won’t want to run right into the midst of the trio.

Hag covens can also create hag eyes, little surveillance cameras they can all see through. The Monster Manual flavor text says a hag eye “is usually entrusted to a minion for safekeeping and transport,” but it can also be hung in an unobtrusive location that allows a hag coven to spot creatures approaching its lair. If they do this, however, they’ll be careful to conceal it, because if it’s destroyed, they’ll not only suffer minor to moderate damage but also be temporarily blinded.

Let’s look at the spells available to a hag coven:

  • Eyebite is a sustained spell requiring concentration which can impose a debilitating condition (unconscious, frightened or “sickened”—effectively poisoned) on a succession of targets who fail their Wisdom saving throws.
  • Contact other plane and scrying apply less to combat than to social interaction scenarios in which the PCs might be petitioning the hags for otherworldly wisdom.
  • Phantasmal killer is weaksauce, requiring not one but two failed Wisdom saving throws for a target to take any damage, and it requires concentration as well. Sea hags might use it anyway, however, because all they require to set up their Death Glare is that the target be frightened, and that requires only one failed save.
  • Polymorph can turn a PC into a newt. They’ll get better, but not for an hour, or until the spell is dropped or disrupted. In the meantime, the hag who casts it can’t use any other sustained spell.
  • Bestow curse is yet another sustained spell—unless it’s cast using a 5th- or higher-level spell slot, and it just so happens that our hags have two 5th-level spell slots that they’re probably not going to use in combat! So if they use bestow curse, they’ll do it with one of those slots, meaning they won’t have to concentrate to sustain it, and the effect will last 8 hours. What kind of curse should they bestow? If a hag is likely to land more hits than its target, it should go for the necrotic damage boost option. If the target is likely to land more hits, it should go for the attack disadvantage option. (There’s an easy way to predict who’s likely to land more hits, the hag or the target: whichever one gets the lower result from subtracting his/her/its own attack modifier from the opponent’s armor class.) In either case, however, if the target has the Extra Attack class feature, the hag should go for the wasted action option, because this has a much greater effect on the action economy of an opponent who can attack more than once in a single action. All this being said, the Wisdom save DC of 14 (13 for a sea hag) is not that tough to beat for a PC with a decent Wisdom score or proficiency in that particular saving throw. A hag generally will try bestow curse only against an opponent with a zero or negative Wisdom saving throw modifier, and absolutely won’t bother against an opponent with a modifier of more than +3.
  • Counterspell is an automatic reflex against any incoming damaging spell. It uses a reaction, so the hag doesn’t have to spend an action on it—but it does also cost a 3rd-level spell slot.
  • Lightning bolt competes with counterspell for the use of that 3rd-level slot. If the hags in a coven spot an opportunity to nail three or more opponents in lightning bolt’s linear area of effect, have already gotten as many targets as they’re going to with bestow curse and still have a 5th-level spell slot left, they’ll cast it at that level. But if there’s no 5th-level spell slot available, or if they’re going to want to cast bestow curse again, they’ll cast lightning bolt using a 3rd-level slot only if all spellcasters in the PCs’ party are already shut down. Otherwise, they’ll want to keep that slot free for counterspell.
  • Hold person requires concentration and, like every such spell we’ve looked at so far, a failed Wisdom saving throw. But it ain’t half bad, and if it’s cast using a 5th-level slot (see above), it can paralyze up to four opponents.
  • Locate object and identify are more divination spells, not appropriate for combat.
  • Ray of sickness is the one ranged spell that all hags in the coven possess. It requires a ranged spell attack roll to hit rather than a saving throw to resist, which makes it useful against low–armor class, high-Wisdom opponents. It’s also an instantaneous spell, no concentration required. If cast using a 5th-level spell slot, it deals 6d8 damage on a hit, which is about as good as a 3rd-level lightning bolt, and may poison the target as well. This can cripple a low- to mid-level wizard or sorceror, if not take him or her out of the game completely. Just be sure you don’t need that 5th-level slot for bestow curse.

Note the preponderance of spells that call for Wisdom saving throws. A hag coven can wreck a low-Wisdom party, but against a high-Wisdom party, they’ll have to rely on claw attacks, ray of sickness and whatever other features they possess.

Now let’s look at the three types of hag:

Sea hags are the weakest type, unable to disguise their hideousness; at best, they can appear as normal humanoids who happen to be very ugly. Nevertheless, they’ll maintain this illusion unless and until they attack or are attacked, in the hope of luring their victims close (close enough to use their Horrific Appearance feature) and gaining the element of surprise.

When all the PCs are within 30 feet of one or more sea hags, they’ll revert abruptly to their true, horrible appearance (bonus action), at which point the PCs must make a DC 11 Wisdom saving throw or be frightened, giving them disadvantage on all ability checks and attack rolls as long as the hags are within view. Each hag then directs a Death Glare at a frightened opponent, starting with the one who seems like he or she ought to have the lowest Wisdom saving throw modifier. (Sea hags are smart enough to make good guesses about this, but not so intelligent that they can “read” PCs’ stats infallibly.) If no one was frightened, they attack the nearest PCs with their claws; if they’re in a coven, one will cast phantasmal killer (not eyebite, because this would cause opponents to Dash out of Death Glare range) and try again to frighten a PC who resisted the sea hags’ Horrific Appearance.

The following round, the sea hags’ actions depend on whether or not they’re in a coven and whether or not they’re close to a frightened opponent. A sea hag that isn’t sustaining phantasmal killer and is close to a frightened opponent will hit it with a Death Glare. One that isn’t close to a frightened opponent but is near one who might botch a Wisdom save will try eyebite (to sicken), bestow curse, polymorph or hold person (in that order, depending on what spell slots are available), prioritizing opponents who are engaging it in melee. One that isn’t close to a frightened opponent but has no realistic chance of getting a spell past an opponent’s Wisdom save will attack with its claws if an opponent is within easy melee reach and ray of sickness if not. If a hag isn’t in a coven, it’s a far simpler decision: Death Glare if there’s a frightened opponent within 30 feet, claws if not. (Unlike Horrific Appearance, Death Glare can be repeated on a target who’s already made a successful saving throw if that target is still frightened.)

In the third round of combat, the hags will attempt other spells, such as bestow curse, hold person and lightning bolt, although by this point they’ll know better than to try the first two if all their other Wisdom-save spells have been fizzling.

A sea hag who’s seriously wounded (reduced to 20 hp or fewer) will flee, Dashing away (by water, if possible, so that it can use its superior swimming speed). If the seriously wounded hag happens to a member of a coven, the coven is broken. At that point, if any of the three sea hags still has 37 hp or more while another on the field of battle is seriously wounded, it will turn against the seriously wounded hag and try to kill it. Once one member of the coven is killed, the other two will cease to cooperate and will fight as individuals.

Green hags are able to disguise themselves as normal, even attractive, humanoids, and they’ll use this disguise to lure victims to them. Green hags don’t have any features that lend themselves to tactical combinations, so they’ll almost always be found in covens. They’ll use eyebite to put tough melee fighters to sleep, sicken ranged attackers and skirmishers, and panic spellcasters. They won’t bother with phantasmal killer, cutting straight to bestow curse instead, followed by polymorph and hold person if needed, though they too will give up on Wisdom-save spells if they’re obviously not working and switch to claw attacks and ray of sickness.

In a coven, green hags use Invisible Passage to try to knock off isolated enemies who are causing them trouble, converging on them and reappearing all at once to attack with their claws. They all take the action of turning invisible at the same time and move together, in order to stay within 30 feet of one another. One green hag in a coven won’t use Invisible Passage alone—unless it’s seriously wounded.

A green hag who’s reduced to 32 hp or fewer will flee, using Invisible Passage to vanish and run—if possible, in the direction of the coven’s hag eye, which the wounded hag will try to secure. Successful retrieval of the hag eye will keep the coven intact for the time being. But if it can’t do this, for whatever reason, then just as with sea hags, a green hag with 58 hp or more will turn against a seriously wounded sister hag who’s still within range, and once any one of the three is dead, the other two no longer cooperate.

Night hags are categorized not as fey but as fiends; like succubi and incubi, they delight in corrupting mortal humanoids and laying claim to their souls. Unlike sea hags and green hags, which can disguise their appearance visually but not to the touch, night hags Change Shape, physically transforming into humanoid guise. (This transformation takes an action to undo, so a night hag can’t use it to gain surprise as sea hags or green hags can.)

Night hag tactics revolve around the combination of Etherealness and Nightmare Haunting. Etherealness allows a night hag to travel to a victim’s place of rest, while Nightmare Haunting allows it to cause the victim to have brutal dreams that disrupt his or her rest, not only denying the restoration of hit points that comes with resting but also reducing his or her hit point maximum. The night hag’s goal is to bring that maximum to zero at a moment when the victim has been sufficiently corrupted by the commission of evil deeds; the night visions can themselves help bring about these deeds, such as by deceiving a decent character into suspecting innocent others of having committed foul crimes.

In short, a night hag “encounter” is more like a long-running subplot, just as succubus and incubus encounters are. They’ll share many of the same elements—possibly including the cultivation of a daytime relationship with the night hag in disguise, definitely including nightly stealth visits while the victim is asleep—and the only reason for a night hag to fight is if its cover is blown.

Night hags may or may not belong to covens; I’m inclined to believe that they’re more likely to work alone, since they wouldn’t be able to agree on who’d get to take the soul of a single target. If they did work together as a coven, they’d have to target three different victims, and those victims would have to be physically near each other as well, so that the coven members would be able to support one another with spellcasting if something went wrong.

This seems like a high bar to clear, and I’m not sure they’d consider it worth the trouble. But if they did, they’d prioritize their spells in much the same way that green hags do. Other than plane shift, the night hag’s innate spells don’t add much to the package and are useful only if it doesn’t have access to coven spells:

  • Magic missile offers a modicum of guaranteed-hit ranged damage but nothing more, and it probably isn’t even worth throwing at wizards or sorcerers, who are likely to have shield.
  • Ray of enfeeblement is a low-budget quasi–bestow curse that has to be sustained, and whose only saving grace is that it’s a ranged spell attack rather than a spell that requires a Wisdom save.
  • Sleep probably won’t take out a single PC at the level where they’re likely to encounter even one night hag.

Given the weakness of all these spells (an astonishing level of weakness for a CR 5 creature with 15 hit dice), a lone night hag is not going to be engaging in any epic magical duels. If push comes to shove, its only real asset is its claws. A far superior asset is its ability to keep push from coming to shove in the first place.

A night hag knows that if it’s caught before collecting the soul it’s after, the mission is a failure, and there’s no point in hanging around, so all it takes is a light wound (12 hp of damage or more) for the unmasked night hag to cut and run, making its escape via the Ethereal Plane or a casting of plane shift. Only if somehow chased and cornered does it have any reason to stand and fight, and in order to have the use of its claws in combat, it Changes Shape back to its true form while being pursued if it hasn’t done so already.

Next: satyrs.

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37 responses to “Hag Tactics”

  1. Joe McLean Avatar
    Joe McLean

    From my reading of etherealness, you can still make magic missile attacks while in it. The night hag is invisible, totally silent, and can walk through solid objects ( but not creatures). The only thing that can affect them is force effects.

    Also, the argument can be made that a coven polymorph is cast as if she is 12 level, so mammoth or triceratops time on an ally.

    1. Matthew Vienneau Avatar
      Matthew Vienneau

      I had a similar thought.

      Turning a PC into a newt just means that a smart party will attack the newt so it turns back with a handful of damage on it.

      Turning a Hag into a Giant Crocodile or Giant Ape is really scary. But it’s not thematic.

      1. Cory Thackston Avatar
        Cory Thackston

        You could have them turn the coven member into something horrible and more on theme, and just use the stats of Giant Ape or Giant Crocodile.

    2. Ike Unsell Avatar
      Ike Unsell

      But when you become ethereal, you are in a different plane of existence. You can’t affect others on the material plane (except for that weird stratle thing).

  2. Hunter Avatar

    Do you have any tips for hags that are written up in Kobold Press’s Tome of Beasts? Especially the Blood Hag, which I plan on using in my current campaign.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      I’m not writing up any third-party monsters at this time. Maybe sometime in the future, but not soon.

  3. Jonathan Avatar

    Sorry, I don’t understand why the hags would turn on each other once they’ve decided to flee. Is there some advantage to attacking one of the other hags once the coven breaks, instead of just running away from the encounter (adventurers and other hags both)?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      They turn on one another because they hate one another’s guts. See the first couple of paragraphs under “Hag Covens” in the Monster Manual. A broken coven is a broken covenant.

  4. […] you have time. Other fun things to go over are from Talking20, Dael Kingsmill, Web DM, Dungeoncast, The Monsters Know, Sly Flourish, Eric Edwards, Crash Course, and American Folklore. Cause remember we can pull in so […]

  5. Wakashirimi Avatar

    If someone was to start their turn within 30 feet of 3 sea hags in a coven, would they have to make a wisdom save for each hag or just one save?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      According to Jeremy Crawford, if you’re subject to the same effect from multiple sources simultaneously, you roll only one saving throw. If you’re subject to the same effect from multiple sources sequentially, you must make a saving throw each time.

  6. Scott Avatar

    Can only hags of the same type form a coven?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Wow, I’d have thought that the Monster Manual would answer this question unambiguously, but it really doesn’t. It says, “A coven is made up of hags of any type.” So does that mean “any one type,” or does it mean, “Hags of any type can join together in the same coven”?

      Fortunately, I think this Sage Advice indirectly answers the question: Crawford doesn’t say the night hag and sea hags can’t be in a coven together, thereby implying that they can.

      1. Scott Avatar

        Now all that remains is a reason for different hags to start working together.

        1. Daniel Avatar

          Different knowledge? Sea hag has frightening visage and aquatic knowledge, Green hag has deception and alchemical skills, and the night hag has knowledge of other realms and can craft magic items.

        2. Rubens Martins Avatar
          Rubens Martins

          perhaps the strongest one forces itself on the others?

      2. Rubens Martins Avatar
        Rubens Martins

        In Volo Guide to Monsters and if I’m not incorrect, in some adventures, it’s said that a mage/warlock/witch can be part of a coven. If a humanoid can, I see no reason why different types of hags couldn’t.

  7. Bigby Avatar

    You misspelled sorcerer in “This can cripple a low- to mid-level wizard or sorceror”

  8. Alan Gratz Avatar

    This analysis is super helpful. Thanks!

  9. C Avatar

    Thank you for posting an analysis that actually considers the monster’s personality – my current DM ran a coven of night hags as rational murderbots, and so the gameplay with them was just “they appear at max range, lightning bolt the party repeatedly, and then go ethereal if they’re ever in danger.” For repeated encounters, over in-game weeks.

    It would have been a lot less frustrating if we were dealing with your hags, instead of what he threw at us.

    1. JP Avatar

      To be fair, this is essentially the same thing that Keith suggested, only instead of subverting the PCs’ to darkness they went straight to kill mode for some reason. If the PCs were working towards a goal the hags opposed and the hags didn’t believe their tricks would be effective, then the max-distance-apparition/attack/flee routine makes sense. If they weren’t, uh, show this article to your dm.

  10. Turokk Avatar

    I am writing up a campaign that has a Sea Hag coven. I am looking at tactics of using their Horrific Appearance and Death Glare as the final stand before they flea into the murky water.
    Start off with level 5/6 Hold person (4/5 PCs)
    This may nab 2/3 front line fighters. Second hag lines up 2/3 PC for a lvl 5/6 lightning bolt (10/11D6) damage. It’s not an attack roll so no auto-crit within 5 ft.
    Third Hag can go the LB route also or move in for an auto-crit on claws. Maybe push a paralyzed PC into deep, dark and murky waters.
    A 4th level low wisdom barbarian could easily be making death saves at the end of the first round. Be careful how you unleash them.

  11. Breeana Avatar

    I am running Ghosts Of Saltmarsh. My party now has a ship, and loves sailing everywhere. As an interesting encounter, I was wondering if a coven of sea hags could climb aboard the ship? While they are docked in mucky water, and are not paying attention? Or do Sea Hags only lure people in?

  12. Rossaldinho7 Avatar

    So I’m designing an adventure around a sea hag coven. They have one non-hag member of the coven (a shadow sorcerer) and a pixie familiar, and the party is level 4. I think I’m gonna have other obstacles before they get to the hags, to get them to at least level 5, so gonna add in some aquatic encounters, although it’s basically gonna be a kind of combined swamp/forest, so there could also be some treants. Maybe a Hydra pet.

  13. Ryan Pratt Avatar
    Ryan Pratt

    What I plan to do, is to have the pixie invisible, holding the hag eye, so that one hag can see through the eyes of the familiar, the second can see through the hag eye and the sorcerer casts Darkness that they can see through.

  14. Bram Bakker Avatar
    Bram Bakker

    I just realized how INCREDIBLY powerful a coven of hags actually is.

    First off, they share the spell slots, which means a lot more is going to get used, and that’s good. Second, having weak spells at higher levels is not a bad thing at all with how scaleable their spells are. Counterspell, hold person and bestor curse are always worth it, but they’re not the best spell on the hag’s list.

    The real danger to a coven is one of them dying or getting pushed too far away from each other. Luckily, they have the strongest healing spell in the game: Polymorph. When one of the ladies is getting focussed down by the clever heroes, one of the hags can turn her friend into a beast with a large chunk of hit points to keep the coven going.

    Sea Hag (CR4) can polymorph her coven into: Giant Coral Snake, Giant Walrus, Giant Subterranean Lizard and an Elephant, though it’s obvious which ones are fitting.
    Green Hag (CR5): Triceratops, Hulking Crab, Giant Shark, Giant Crocodile, and a Brontosaurus. Many of these fit perfectly with semi aquatic swampland.
    Night Hag (CR7): Giant Ape or Mammoth, less fitting.

    What if a hero tries to counterspell or dispel this? The hags will use their reaction to counterspel it at all cost. Anything better than losing their spells! I’m so excited just thinking about the green coven I’m gonna terrorize my players with!

  15. Dillon Avatar

    how does the Annis hag and the Beur hag differ?

  16. Scott J Avatar
    Scott J

    Love reading your tactics. There are several additional types of Hags now… Would you consider updating this and detailing the different combinations for covens etc… 🙂

  17. JP Avatar

    Something I realized recently is that the “Panicked” option of Eyebite is very dangerous in conjunction with any effect that reduces a creature’s speed to zero. The effect states that an affected creature must use its action to Dash away from the source of its fear, and the effect ends when it’s out of line of sight from that source. If its speed is zero, it’s dead in the water. The easiest way to reduce a creature’s speed to zero is to grapple it, and while normally one wouldn’t get a chance to grapple a target before it ran away on its turn, a hag working in a coven has partners with decently high strength. Setting up a “panicked/grappled” combo removes a character without bonus action teleports from a fight; they use their action to feebly struggle to run away in their captors arms, and that’s all they do. It’s pretty deadly.

  18. Justin Avatar

    Hags that just want you dead could smash a party or PC with 3 uplevelled (1×6, 2×5) lightning bolts at once, potentially delivering 31d6 damage to one or more PCs (depending on positioning and saving throws).

    To be honest that seems more dangerous than a few touch-based curses.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Sure they could.

      But they wouldn’t be hags.

      1. Justin Avatar

        Can you clarify – you don’t think hags would want to kill PCs, so much as curse or charm them (even when the party is trying to kill them)?

        I’m not well versed in their lore, so keen to hear more.

        1. JP Avatar

          Hags, by nature, are cruel and capricious creatures that revel in the anguish of those that entreat them for favors. They would much, MUCH prefer to permanently curse/charm/enslave/bewitch/befuddle PCs to outright killing them, though if they feel truly threatened they won’t hesitate. But hags in a coven are 12th level spellcasters with backup. They’re not going to feel threatened by any tier 1 party, and they’ll probably still like their odds on their own turf vs tier 2, and maybe even early tier 3. So hags immediately attempting to merc a party with 3 lightning bolts is very out of the ordinary, and also unlikely to actually work, given the expected hp of a tier 2 or higher hero. Using all 3 slots in that manner is unlikely to actually drop more than 2 PCs, given that the hags would need each of their initiative rolls to align perfectly in order to reliably target more than just two, and even after dropping them, they’re very likely to just pop back up after a healing word. It’s out of character and also relatively ineffective.

  19. […] & Dragons A Guide to Hags: The Wicked Witches of D&D Hag – Forgotten Realms Hags (D&D) Hag Tactics New Monsters & Spells: Elemental Hags New Monsters: More Horrific Hags Hag, temptress or […]

  20. Jane Avatar

    Thanks Keith. Your books are some of the few I have bought for DnD.
    Setting up a sea hag coven for a boss fight for my level 5/6 party.
    Definitely saving polymorph for tur ing one of them into a Guant Coral Snake.
    Thinking about having a different creature for a third member. A Kraken Priest would work well thematically.

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