Howler Tactics

Howlers are pack-hunting predators from Pandemonium, a peril suitable only for top-tier adventurers to deal with. That’s because, according to the lore in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, these CR 8 fiends never appear alone. Either they’re accompanied by others of their kind, or they’re trained to the service of a more powerful fiend or other evil master and fighting by its side.

Theirs is a nasty ability contour: very high physical ability scores across the board, with an extraordinary peak in Wisdom. This outlier score both powers their Mind-Breaking Howl action and gives them keen hunting senses. (Although it’s not listed in the Mordenkainen’s errata, with a Perception modifier of +8, their passive Perception should be 18, not 15, as published.) But since they lack spellcasting ability, their primary attack is Strength-based, and their top non-Wisdom scores are Strength and Dexterity, I’m going to classify them as shock attackers. Move fast, hit hard.

Howlers have darkvision and therefore attack between dusk and dawn. They’re resistant to cold, fire and lightning damage on top of physical damage from nonmagical attacks, so they’re not going to pay particular attention to a spellslinger who doesn’t think outside the box. Acid or thunder damage will get their attention, but necrotic, radiant, psychic or force damage is what really draws their ire. (Shout-out to James Haeck for laying out the tiers of damage types in a way I hadn’t actively considered before in his editor’s note on this D&D Beyond post by Melissa “MellieDM” Doucette.)

A fiend with trained howlers by its side always travels with at least two, if not more; an independent pack of howlers comprises no fewer than four, allowing them to split up and still use Pack Tactics against two targets if need be. Still, be very careful about sending more howlers than party members at your player characters, because one howler is enough to put up a decent fight against even a 20th-level PC. I’d place the ceiling at one howler per PC, plus one additional howler per magic weapon, and that’s assuming they’re the only foes on the field.

Despite their Wisdom score, howlers are bloodthirsty creatures that won’t shy away from a fight if they have any chance of victory. However, they do have a nose for target selection. My stock formula for a predator is “the young, the old, the weak, the isolated and the oblivious,” and these criteria are their starting point, to which they add one other: the frightened, i.e., those who’ve failed their saving throws against Mind-Breaking Howl. They deviate from these criteria only when they take damage of one of the types listed above.

Mind-Breaking Howl is a recharge ability—in other words, rationed, and therefore the powerful action they should lead with. But since Mind-Breaking Howl recharges only on a roll of 6, it’s most likely a once-per-encounter ability. Being pack hunters, howlers have an instinctive understanding that they shouldn’t all use it at once. Maybe, in fact, their dominance order is also the order in which they use their Howls.

The effect lasts only until the end of the howler’s next turn, and a successful saving throw confers immunity, so the idea is to try to use it repeatedly against those opponents who fail their saves. Once every opponent has made their save, there’s no more point in taking the Mind-Breaking Howl action, but I’m not sure howlers have the Intelligence to recognize that it’s no longer having an effect; I think it’s practically a reflex. If a howler’s Howl recharges, it uses it, unless there’s a higher-status howler whose Howl has also recharged, in which case it defers for the current turn. Before using Mind-Breaking Howl, a howler instinctively positions itself to encompass at least six opponents—or every opponent, if there are six or fewer—within its conical area of effect.

When Mind-Breaking Howl is on cooldown, or when it’s not a particular howler’s turn to use it, howlers Multiattack, always attacking in concert with one another to take advantage of Pack Tactics. They’re uncommonly tenacious: If they’re tearing apart a victim, running up and hitting them won’t make them stop, unless the attacker wields a magic weapon or, as mentioned before, deals one of the types of damage that cheeses them off. In this case, the one struck will turn against whoever attacked it, as will one other. Any howler remaining continues to attack its chosen victim unless it’s the only one left doing so, in which case it joins its fellows.

Their truculence is so intense that it overcomes their self-preservation instinct as long as they have even one ally present. Only when a howler is the last creature standing on its side does it retreat, and even then, it retreats only if it’s at least moderately wounded (reduced to 63 hp or fewer). It uses the Dash action as it flees—unless its Mind-Breaking Howl happens to recharge, in which case it wheels around and uses that action against its pursuers (whether or not they’ve all succeeded on their saves against it) before resuming its exit.

And that’s going to be it for Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes for the time being. The next creature I’m going to look at is the bone knight from Eberron: Rising From the Last War. Look for other monsters from Mordenkainen’s in The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, Vol. 2, tentatively scheduled for release in November 2021.

19 thoughts on “Howler Tactics”

  1. I noticed James Haeck doesn’t mention Poison in his hierarchy of damage types. I assume it is weaker than those already mentioned. It would be nice if he’d said how much weaker – is it worth +1 or 2 dice, a dice category (say d6 to d8?) or a spell level?

    1. I had the same thought, and personally gave considered it the “inverse” of force, since unless I’m mistaken, every elemental, fiend, and construct, (to say the least!) is flat-out immune to poison and the poisoned condition, in addition to many other creatures having resistance to it.

      I personally would lower the spell level by one to compensate, so at least if a PC tries a spell and find out its useless, they didn’t waste a higher level, presumably scarcer spell slot on the attempt.

    2. Consider that the only cantrip that deals poison damage uses a d12 (and until the release of XGtE was the only cantrip that did so) and I’d argue that you have your answer. It’s worth noting, however, that extant spells that deal poison damage aren’t especially overpowered. Nobody is clamoring for Ray of Sickness, and Cloudkill is good but not necessarily better than other damaging 5th level spells. Even the aforementioned Poison Spray cantrip is underrepresented.

    3. Agree that Poison is probably worth an improvement in dice. I do note that Poison Spray is d12’s for damage, but that is mitigated both by the less-versatile damage type and the extreme short range of that cantrip.

      Thunder and acid are also better damage types than Haeck’s chart implies.

      My ranking is
      Fire, Cold, Lightning
      Psychic and Necrotic
      Acid and Thunder
      Radiant and Force

  2. Good article, as usual. I wish you’d cover a bit further how they act with other fiends around.

    With high Wisdom and instinctive aggression towards frightened creatures, I think Howlers should recognize when a creature has gained immunity to their howl through a successful save. As fiends, they’ve had lots of time to work on the heuristics of their tactics.
    Also, they’d certainly never use it 2 rounds in a row, even if it recharged.

    By the way, no idea how you think a howler can put up a fight against a 20th lvl character.
    A 20th lvl fighter has about 180 hp, +11 to hit (80% hit chance), and 4 attacks of, let’s say, 2d6+5, for 48*0.8= 38.6 damage per round (assuming a magic weapon-let’s say from Eldritch Knight). That’s before feats, action surge, fighting style, etc.

    A howler has 90 hp, +6 to hit (45% vs full plate), and 10 or 32 damage per each of 2 attacks, for 9 or 28.8 per round. Even if it wins initiative and successfully bites next turn, the fighter will tear it to pieces easily afterwards, and the picture would be very similar with other classes.

    1. The CR system assumes no magic items (and especially not weapons). Hence why Keith added one additional hound per magic weapon. That means the fighter‘s damage is halved. Even without the half, it takes the fighter three actions to kill the thing. And in return the fighter takes 57 damage. That’s more than 1/6 (Assuming 6 encounters a day) of the fighter’s health, even if you account for the additional 90 short rest health the fighter gets for free, so I’d consider that a “decent fight”.

      1. Yeah, ok, I guess 2 howlers vs a lvl 20 pc do have somewhat of a fight, if it doesn’t happen to be a wizard or sorcerer. Or a paladin. Or barbarian.

        No chance of winning, but yeah, they’ll qualify as a ‘decent fight’.

        1. The wizard and sorcerer would actually have a tough time even at 20th level. Resistance to cold, fire, and lightning really restricts the damage they can deal. There aren’t really any high-powered spells that deal acid or thunder damage, and the few spells that deal necrotic damage are either big single-target nukes or underpowered aoe spells given their level. The four that deal force damage are magic missile (useless in this fight), Mordenkainen’s Sword, which is just a generally bad spell, and disintegrate, which is all or nothing, making it possible to deal no damage at all with a 6th level spell. Steel Wind Strike brings up the rear as unavailable to sorcerers, and also requiring attack rolls for each target, so once again, no damage from a 5th level spell is possible. Sunbeam and Sunburst are the only radiant spells, and while good, they’re both high level, which limits usage and makes it likely they won’t be prepared or known. Synaptic Static is the only good mid level psychic dealer, Psychic Scream the only good high level one, so same story as Sunbeam/burst. The wizard and sorc really need to be optimized for the fight, otherwise they’ll have a difficult time, especially the sorcerer who lacks proficiency in Wisdom saves, and doesn’t even have access to all of the utility spells the wizard does to make the fight easier. A sorcerer of any level fighting two howlers that fails their save against the howl twice is dead. Each failed save translates to 8d6+12 piercing and 16d10 psychic. At 20th level with a +5 con mod, the average sorcerer hp is only 182. The damage they’re nearly guaranteed to take from a single failed save is well over half of that.

          1. A wizard or sorcerer will only need Fly, G.Invisibility, or any one of a number of other spells to simply stay out of reach of the howlers (or mind blank to tank the damage).

            Btw, you forgot about Bigby’s Hand when referring to force damage.

            So yeah, maybe if a wiz/sorc fails his saves on round 1 (25% for wizard with +0 wis, 64% for sorc with +0 wis) and gets hit 4 times (+6 with adv. vs ac 17 means 75% to hit, so 31.6%) and takes the 128 damage of 4 hits- yeah, they’re pretty screwed.

            But the odds of that are extremely low, and if the caster gets even 1 turn he’ll have more than enough solutions (shapechange into a dragon? Psychic scream to stun? PWK? Time stop+fly up 70 ft?)

            It basically comes down to “can the howlers kill the caster before they have a turn”.
            My math says that 2 howlers who win initiative can deal an avg. of 192 damage if the caster fails both saves. for a sorcerer, that’s 122 expected damage. for a wizard, 64. You could say the howlers will put up a decent fight, but statistically they have no real chance of winning.

          2. Sorry; one mistake. You’re right that a sorcerer who fails both saves is dead, and that’s likely (64%). But they’re dead only if losing initiative to BOTH howlers (25%), otherwise they’ll still get a turn to time stop. So the sorcerer is still the winning bet.

    1. Spells like Fly and Greater Invisibility lose their efficacy when a failed save against howl ends concentration. Mind Blank is good for this scenario, but unavailable to sorcerers.

      1. Ok, maybe invisibility is no use since they might still catch you in the howl area.
        still, time stop + fly + 70 ft up takes you out of range of anything they can do.

        1. In other words, you have to bust out 9th-level spells to deal with the threat posed by a CR 8 creature, which is still on the ground menacing your fellow party members along with others of its kind. Yes, you certainly can save yourself from it, and eventually you can save your allies as well, but it takes work. And drains resources.

          1. And that’s the FIRST time you encounter them. If the Fiends running packs of howlers as security find you with a second group an hour later, how long before you’re scraping the barrel for solutions?

  3. Even among the elemental damage types, I think there’s a hierarchy; fire is so commonly resisted that changing it to, i.e., thunder seems like it might warrant a change in the damage scale.

    I was just looking at a chart on Reddit that showed that, after force damage, actually *acid* damage is the least resisted out of published monsters, which I think can be the only explanation for Melf’s Acid Arrow even existing.

    1. The counter to that is that fire is also one of the few damage types which creatures are frequently vulnerable to; many ice-based elementals and flammable creatures like scarecrows are vulnerable to fire. It also frequently has secondary effects as well, such as its avoidance effect upon flesh golems. The other elemental damage types very rarely have anything of the sort, though it does happen occasionally.

  4. Also in defense of Acid Arrow, the fact that it calls for an attack roll means it can crit for a total of 10d4 damage, or an average of 25. That’s pretty good for a second level spell, and easy to combo using spells like Hold Person/Monster.

    If upcast to 4th level that becomes 16d4, or an average of 40. Again, better than the average for Blight, even when the target doesn’t make its save. Just saying it’s not totally terrible.

    1. Had an NPC spellcaster use acid arrow to great effect in a one-shot a few days ago. Took a sizeable chunk of health from the tortle tanking all his lower to-hit-bonus allies.

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