Hobgoblin Tactics: Devastator and Iron Shadow

As I mentioned in my last post, Volo’s Guide to Monsters introduces two new varieties of hobgoblin: the hobgoblin Devastator, a battle wizard, and the hobgoblin Iron Shadow, a rogue-monk-mage. Based on the flavor text descriptions of these hobgoblin variants, I’m going to analyze them from the assumption that hobgoblin Devastators will most often be encountered on the battlefield amid other hobgoblins, whereas a hobgoblin Iron Shadow will typically be encountered alone.

Like ordinary hobgoblins, Devastators are strong across all their physical attributes, with none standing dramatically apart from the others, although Constitution is the highest of them. What sets Devastators apart is their very high Intelligence and above-average Wisdom. These scores indicate that a Devastator can accurately assess enemies’ weaknesses and select targets accordingly, as well as recognize when it’s outmatched.

Army Arcana is a handy feature akin to an evocation wizard’s Sculpt Spells or a sorcerer’s Careful Spell, letting the hobgoblin Devastator lob area-effect spells without regard to whether it has allies in the area of effect. Arcane Advantage, meanwhile, gives the Devastator an extra 2d6 damage on ranged spell attacks against front-line enemies (note that this does not apply to spells that require saving throws, only to those that require attack rolls).

So let’s look at what spells it has available:

  • Ice storm is the Devastator’s sole 4th-level spell and therefore the only thing it will spend its one and only 4th-level spell slot on. It does 2d8 bludgeoning and 4d6 cold damage on a failed Dexterity save, half on a successful save, in an area of effect that can be expected to include four opponents, for total expected damage of 69 hp.
  • Fireball does 8d6 fire damage on a failed Dex save, half on a success, also in an area of effect that can be expected to include four opponents, for total expected damage of 84 hp! Why is this only a 3rd-level spell when ice storm is a 4th-level spell? Probably because ice storm has the additional effect of slowing movement. In any event, there’s no need to boost fireball to 4th level, because it’s potent enough already.
  • Lightning bolt does 8d6 lightning damage on a failed Dex save, half on a success, in a straight line. When the Devastator’s opponents are aligned just so, this can zap as many as four of them, but most of the time, you can’t assume it will hit more than two, so this spell is more situational than fireball.
  • Fly does what it says on the can. Mainly useful if the Devastator is being charged by a formidable melee attacker. Otherwise, it just lifts the Devastator out from behind its front line, making it an easier target.
  • Gust of wind can be used tactically to force enemies back from a choke point, allowing the Devastator’s allies either to hold the point or to charge through it. It’s also a useful countermeasure against fog cloud or cloudkill. Situational, but darned handy in those particular situations.
  • Melf’s acid arrow is a spell that no self-respecting battlemage would waste his time learning, and the authors should apologize to all hobgoblin Devastators for giving them this spell.
  • Scorching ray almost makes up for Melf’s acid arrow. The perfect spell to complement Arcane Advantage, it does double its usual 3 × 2d6 fire damage (an expected 21 hp) when aimed at a foe within 5 feet of one of the Devastator’s allies. Boosting it to 3rd level does only an extra 2d6 damage, plus another 2d6 for Arcane advantage, for total damage of 56 hp if every ray hits—and against armor class 15, its chance to hit is only 55 percent—so it’s still not quite in the league of fireball. On the other hand, I’ve calculated the expected damage of fireball based on its hitting four targets. What about the effect on just one? If scorching ray is focused against a single target, it’s as good as fireball even unboosted, and boosting it increases its potential damage by 33 percent. So while fireball is the obvious go-to against clustered enemies, scorching ray moves front and center when it’s more important to hit one enemy hard, and may even be worth boosting if the Devastator’s enemies obviously aren’t going to group up.
  • Fog cloud puts every attacker in the area at a disadvantage. The purpose of this spell is to cover a retreat when the Devastator deems it necessary. In fact, if we think of the smart Devastator as a shot caller for its unit (can you tell I’ve been playing a lot of Overwatch lately?), its casting fog cloud could be a signal to its allies that it’s time to retreat.
  • Magic missile is what the hobgoblin Devastator turns to when it’s out of higher-level spell slots. Even boosted, it can’t hold a candle to scorching ray. Actually, if the Devastator is reduced to casting magic missile, it probably should have cast fog cloud and signaled a retreat already. Either that, or the battle’s just taken longer than expected, and the Devastator is using it to pick off stragglers.
  • Thunderwave is the “go away” spell for when a spellcaster is sacked by two or more enemies. A hobgoblin will use it only if it no longer has access to gust of wind or fly.
  • Fire bolt, ray of frost and shocking grasp are damaging cantrips that a hobgoblin Devastator can actually make hay out of thanks to Arcane Advantage: fire bolt can do 2d10 + 2d6 damage (18 hp expected) against a target who’s within 5 feet of an ally of the Devastator, ray of frost can do 2d8 + 2d6 (16 hp expected) and slow it, and shocking grasp can do 2d8 + 2d6 and suppress opportunity attacks. (Acid splash, since it requires a Dex save instead of a spell attack roll, is still weak.)

So we see that the hobgoblin Devastator is equipped to handle a variety of battlefield situations. Against strong clustered enemies, fireball is the first choice; against clustered enemies whom the hobgoblins need to slow down, ice storm is a satisfactory alternative. If one enemy stands out as more threatening than the rest, and if that enemy isn’t armored head to toe, scorching ray focuses fire (literally) on that enemy. Fog cloud both signals and covers a retreat; gust of wind dispels an enemy fog cloud when the hobgoblins aren’t ready to give up yet, neutralizes cloudkill, and is good for both attack and defense of chokepoints. If the Devastator is charged by a melee opponent, it can repel that opponent with gust of wind or thunderwave, slip away with fly, or go ahead and take the melee opponent on with shocking grasp. The only spell the Devastator is likely to boost is scorching ray, and only if the need to focus down a single opponent significantly outweighs the likelihood that multiple opponents will cluster within the radius of a fireball.

The only reason for a hobgoblin Devastator ever to resort to using its quarterstaff to attack (which it will do two-handed) is if it’s under the effect of a silence spell and therefore can’t cast. In any other situation, there’s nothing the staff can do that one of its cantrips can’t do better.

A hobgoblin Devastator is seriously injured when it’s reduced to 18 hp or fewer. At that point, it gives the signal to retreat, if it hasn’t done so already.

The hobgoblin Iron Shadow is also a tough, shrewd opponent with strong stats across the board. Its Dexterity being slightly higher than its Constitution, and its Constitution slightly higher than its Strength, we’ll assume that it leans toward a skirmishing style of combat. This is consistent with its AC of 15; its proficiency in Acrobatics, Athletics and Stealth; and its Shadow Jaunt feature. Speaking of Shadow Jaunt, the fact that it’s limited to use in dim light or darkness, combined with the Iron Shadow’s darkvision, strongly suggests that the hob-ninja chooses to operate only at night.

The fact that the Iron Shadow’s Multiattack lets it make four attacks, either ranged or melee, in any combination and in any order, and use Shadow Jaunt before or after any of them means it’s capable of some crazy stunts, including creating the illusion of being two separate attackers (dart–dart–Shadow Jaunt–dart–dart). Also, think in three dimensions: Shadow Jaunt allows the Iron Shadow to teleport up, onto a cavern ledge or into the rafters of a dimly lit, high-ceilinged room.

What else can a hobgoblin Iron Shadow do?

  • Charm person is the classic opponent-neutralizing whammy, good for when the Iron Shadow is spotted on the job by a single snoop.
  • Disguise self is handy for preventing the aforementioned circumstance. In particular, it’s handy for disguising the hobgoblin Iron Shadow as some other kind of humanoid, depending on who else is around.
  • Expeditious retreat is so useful—granting Dash as a bonus action for as long as the spell is sustained, an invaluable addition to the Iron Shadow’s action economy—that, almost without exception, it will cast it as a bonus action during the first round of combat and keep it going as long as it can. Now look at what the Iron Shadow can do with Multiattack and Shadow Jaunt: full move, dart, dart, Shadow Jaunt, dart, dart, full move again. And I haven’t mentioned yet that the Iron Shadow has a base movement speed of 40 feet. This combo—and the same elements combined in other orders—represent the full maximization of what the Iron Shadow can do in a single turn.
  • Silent image is useful, first and foremost, as bait. The lack of an auditory component makes it unconvincing for any other purpose.
  • Minor illusion is more useful, because especially in the dark, a sound that you can’t see is more believable than an image you can’t hear. Good for voice-throwing and other decoy purposes.
  • Prestidigitation is useless in combat. Do not take the Iron Shadow for some conjurer of cheap tricks.
  • True strike is slightly less useless than usual, only because (since it has no verbal component) it can be cast from hiding without giving away the Iron Shadow’s position, giving it advantage on one attack roll in its next round. It’s got to be in the next round, because the Iron Shadow isn’t going to sustain true strike for longer than that, not when it could be sustaining expeditious retreat. And it should probably be the second attack, because the Iron Shadow already gains advantage on the first one by attacking from hiding.

It’s unfortunate that the Iron Shadow has proficiency in Acrobatics and Athletics but that grappling and shoving aren’t options included in its Multiattack. Instead, a grapple or shove has to take the place of the entire Multiattack action. Similarly, since Shadow Jaunt takes a full action when not used as part of that Multiattack, it’s impossible to combine it with a grappling or shoving attack.

However, an Iron Shadow sustaining expeditious retreat can hide within reach of a target (maybe it used Shadow Jaunt to get there the round before), grapple (action) with advantage for attacking from hiding, then use its full movement, plus Dash (bonus action), to drag its grappled opponent a full 40 feet! That’s good to know if your Iron Shadow is on a kidnapping mission.

OK, speaking in general, though, assuming that the Iron Shadow is relying on the combination of Multiattack (including Shadow Jaunt) and expeditious retreat to maximize its effectiveness, how’s it going to put this combo to use?

First, assume the Iron Shadow knows the lay of the land. It chooses its ground, and wherever it’s decided the battle will take place, it knows its hiding places—places that will be in darkness or shadow, whence and whither it can teleport using Shadow Jaunt. Assume that, whenever possible, the Iron Shadow wants to end its turn out of view, so that its enemies are denied the effective use of their own turns.

Second, it knows its own weakness: generally, its susceptibility to area-effect spells, and specifically, its merely average Charisma. The most likely spell its opponents may cast that targets this attribute is bane, and that’s castable by bards, clerics and paladins. But paladins are likely to be armored up like a Brink’s truck—not really good targets for darts and unarmed strikes, even with +5 to hit. Also, clerics tend to have high Wisdom, meaning high Perception, meaning high chance of spotting the hob-ninja darting around in the shadows. So the Iron Shadow is going to target clerics first—especially clerics of races that possess darkvision themselves. Secondarily, it will go after bards and other spellcasters, along with other enemies with darkvision. Once it’s taken out those who pose the greatest threats to it, it shifts its focus to whichever foes stand most directly between it and the object of its mission.

Third, the Iron Shadow’s unarmed strike doesn’t stack up well against its dart attacks, for one simple reason: a melee attack, followed by running away, invites an opportunity attack. The Iron Shadow’s whole modus operandi revolves around never giving the enemy a chance to fight back. So it won’t make unarmed strikes unless it absolutely has to. When will it have to? When its target or targets are in full cover and can’t be reached any other way, when it has a target grappled and wants to attack it without letting go, or when another melee attacker has managed to close with it.

Incidentally, while those attacks seem quite weak, consider that they have a 55 percent chance to hit against AC 15, and there are four of them, each with a +3 damage modifier, for a total expected damage of 12 hp per round. That’s not a lot against mid-level adventurers, but against low-level ones, it’s a lot, especially if the Iron Shadow can avoid being hit.

The hobgoblin Iron Shadow is seriously wounded upon being reduced to 12 hp or fewer, and at that point, it doesn’t mess around: it Disengages (action) and flees the scene by the fastest possible route, still using expeditious retreat.

Next: revisiting kobolds.

22 thoughts on “Hobgoblin Tactics: Devastator and Iron Shadow

  1. Awesome Analysis, you made me realise how awesome Iron Shadows really are. However grappling (at least for players) PH pg. 195 doesn’t take an action but rather replaces ONE of the attacks you have access to with multi attack. With this the Shadow could not only grapple and run 40ft but make 3 attacks on the quarry allies or the quarry itself.

  2. Although they are interesting, most blaster casters aren’t as much a threat as they could. They are squishy enough for a fighter, a rogue or a monk to kill them before they could do much damage.

    1. I’m not sure what that has to do with this post. A hobgoblin Devastator is a solid opponent, especially when you consider that it won’t ever be encountered alone, but rather at the rear of a line of other hobgoblins.

  3. For lightning bolt, the best situational use would be a pitched battle where he will attempt to flank and then ‘devastate’ the enemy’s entire front ranks.

  4. Shouldn’t the Iron Shadow’s Multiattack or even just Shadow Jaunt take precedence over Disengage action? You can’t opportunity attack a teleporting target, and it gives them 30 extra ft to move.

  5.  “Once per turn, the hobgoblin can deal an extra 7 (2d6) damage to a creature it hits with a damaging spell attack” -Devastator

    For Devastator’s Arcane Advantage, doesnt the ‘Once per turn’ portion mean that scorching ray only gets one addition of 2d6 instead of 2d6 for each ray?

    “Make a ranged spell attack for each ray.” -Scorching Ray

  6. Well, only — let’s see here — two years too late, I guess, but one thing I wanted to add about the Iron Shadow’s spells: an often-overlooked benefit of Prestidigitation is that it can snuff out a candle, torch, or medium-sized campfire. I don’t think that Prestidigitation gives away your position if you’re hiding, its range is only ten feet, so there’s not really a way that the Iron Shadow could snuff out your torch to get closer *while* hidden. On the other hand, if it’s, for example, using Disguise Self to pretend to be a humble merchant visiting your player’s campsite, it might use Prestidigitation to put the lights out in advance of an attack.

    I’m not sure about the numbers exactly, but the benefits of Shadow Jaunt are good enough that I might expect an Iron Shadow to give up its action to try to snuff a single light source; if there are two or three Iron Shadows and only one light, I’d definitely expect at least one to do it.

  7. Prestidigitation does seem like a useless addition to the Iron Shadow’s repertoire, until you realise that it lets you “snuff out a candle, torch or small campfire”.

    It’s a high price for an action compared to the multiattack, but depending on the environment it could change the hobgoblins options substantially with regards to its shadow jaunt.

    I could see using Prestidigitation to kick off an encounter by snuffing out the PCs campfire in order to br able to attack them in the dark.

  8. I don’t think you get the Arcane Advantage for each Ray.

    “Once per turn, the hobgoblin can deal an extra 7 damage to a creature it hits…”.

    “Once a turn” and “a creature” vs. “creatures” suggests it’s just 7 extra damage.

  9. Another small note – True Strike must be used on the first attack roll of the next round.

    And Shadow Jaunt is a full action. I don’t think the Iron shadow can move, attack, shadow jaunt in the same turn. Though shadow jaunt definitely feels like a “move” type of action.

    1. The multiattack allows them to use Shadow Jaunt in addition to the attacks.

      One observation I’ll also make: sharp-eyed observers, arguably, can track the hobgoblin’s teleportation by watching its eyes – the Jaunt requires the hobgoblin to be able to see its target.

      1. You’re totally right. Not sure how I didn’t see that – maybe I was just theorizing without actually checking? How embarrassing!

  10. Ya missed something on the devastator, the Arcane advantage only triggers once per turn, so the combo with scorching ray would be less effective

  11. Prestidigitation is more useful for an iron shadow than you’d think. One of the examples given is putting out or lighting flames. Given that shadow jaunt requires an area to be in darkness, the ability to take down light sources before the fight starts is great for them.

  12. Could a player confuse a Devastator’s troops by casting fog cloud and therefore ordering a retreat? Could they reinforce that by yelling retreat in Goblin or commanding the Devastator to?

    1. If they knew that was a common tactic it employed (from in-game sleuthing, as opposed to reading this blog and and metagaming) then sure. They’d need to succeed on a Deception check against the Devastator’s or its troops’ Insight, but it’s a decent way to cause an amount of confusion.
      I say “an amount,” because this straight up won’t work on a Devastator that lacks other Devastator companions. It will know that it didn’t cast that spell or order that retreat, so this is some trickery from its enemies. Even against non-casting goblins, casting a spell is always an obvious affair, with verbal, somatic, or material components, and always reveals a caster’s position if they were hidden. Unless the caster looks like a goblin (Disguise Self works wonders here) or is in a position where it literally can’t be seen, I’d either give them disadvantage on that Deception check, or give the goblins advantage on their Insight check. If Disguise Self is in play, advantage for the PC’s check is probably in order.

  13. I have used the devastator’s fly to great effect: if they fly 150 ft above the nighttime battlefield, most darkvision and attacks can’t reach them. My non-darkvision PCs were confused why the hobgoblins were intentionally lighting up the fortifications until fireballs began to rain from above.

    Additionally, I think that the devastator’s 4th level slot is best served on a upcast fly vs an ice storm. It can make for a good escape when cast on their leader. Or have them send a strong fighter flying into a backline to harass. Or just go crazy and have the hobgoblins send an ogre or something flying into the PCs defenses.

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