Jiangshi Tactics


The jiangshi (pronounced chyahng-shr, with both syllables in level high tone) is a reanimated corpse from Chinese folklore, nicknamed the “hopping vampire” because of how it struggles to move within the limits of rigor mortis (translated literally, the name means “stiff corpse”). This limitation is reflected in its 20-foot movement speed, which is a key consideration in the jiangshi’s tactics: It’s not going to chase anyone down, and without proficiency in Stealth or Perception, it’s not an ambush attacker, either. The jiangshi has to seek out victims who are sleeping or otherwise immobile—or get next to them without their realizing what it is.

With their exceptional Strength and Constitution (and miserable Dexterity), jiangshi are brute melee fighters, so they’re inclined toward melee combat to begin with, but their speed turns this preference into a necessity. The sine qua non of their combat tactics is their Multiattack, which comprises three Slam attacks and one use of Consume Energy. Consume Energy is their compulsion, the means by which they suck the life force out of living creatures. To get the most out of it, a jiangshi has to kill its victim with the necrotic damage it deals with this action. Therefore, the attacks it makes immediately beforehand have to bring their victim to the point of death.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of this Multiattack combination, I want to comment that Dungeons & Dragons is getting smarter with respect to how it handles life drain. When you scrutinize the stat block of, say, the wight (whose tactics I’m going to have to revisit at some point, because I’ve realized I have them wrong), you realize that the chances of its turning a victim into a zombie with its Life Drain attack are pitifully low. To do so, it has to reduce the victim’s hit point maximum to 0. But the victim’s hit point maximum is only reduced by Life Drain damage, and only when it fails a saving throw with a pretty easily attainable DC; even a commoner has a better than one-third chance of avoiding the reduction. Now, a commoner has only 4 hp, so a single Life Drain attack against them is enough to reduce them to unconsciousness, but if they succeed on that save, they’ve avoided zombification unless the wight Life Drains them again and they fail their second. Against an adventurer, who’s not going to be one-hit-killed and who’ll typically succeed on that save at least half the time, the wight has to make a choice: take its Multiattack action, which essentially means giving up any chance of zombification because half its attacks won’t reduce the target’s hit point maximum at all, or halve its offensive power by only ever attacking with Life Drain. What a mess.

In contrast, the jiangshi—and the vampiric mind flayer, which I examined recently—don’t depend on max hp reduction for their big wins, but simply on whether their last life drain attacks reduce the target to 0 hp, in the case of the VMF, or death, in the case of the jiangshi. That’s a much easier bar to clear, which increases the menace of these creatures dramatically. When D&D gives the Monster Manual the Monsters of the Multiverse treatment with the release of OneD&D in 2024 (and I’d bet money that this is a “when,” not an “if”), I hope it changes the wight to follow this new paradigm. (That being said, it’s not even followed consistently throughout Ezmerelda’s Guide to Ravenloft: The nosferatu, for instance, still splits its Multiattack between Bite, which reduces max hp on a hit, and Claw, which doesn’t—and Bite doesn’t even reduce max hp by the full damage dealt, only by the necrotic portion.)

Anyway, back to the jiangshi’s Multiattack. The thing to pay attention to here is that Consume Energy creates a wight not when it reduces the target to 0 hp but rather when it kills the target. That means that Consume Energy has to be a coup de grâce against an already unconscious opponent. Working backward, the victim has to have failed two death saving throws already for Consume Energy to impose a third failure and cause them to die. It’s not enough for the victim to have failed one death save, because Consume Energy is not an attack, so it can’t cause a critical hit (and, by extension, two death save failures) even if the jiangshi is within 5 feet. It also doesn’t matter how much damage the jiangshi deals with Consume Energy, because the victim takes it regardless of whether they succeed or fail on the save, and any amount of damage triggers the death save failure.

The Slam attack that immediately precedes Consume Energy is how the jiangshi brings its target from zero failed death saves to two. Slam is an attack, and it has only a 5-foot reach, so the jiangshi is in just the right place for it to deal an automatic crit with a hit. The Slam just before this Slam must therefore be the one that brings the target to 0 hp and, by extension, unconsciousness.

There are implications here. What if the jiangshi’s third Slam attack, or Consume Energy, is what reduces the target to 0 hp, after which the target rolls a death save and fails? Against a target with one failed death save already chalked up, a hit with Slam will kill them prematurely, while Consume Energy won’t do the job. A jiangshi in this situation would seem to have screwed up—if its compulsion is to create more jiangshi.

But is that its actual compulsion? Even without raising victims as wights, a jiangshi has a strong incentive to Consume Energy, because taking this action gives it a significant power-up: Its speed is doubled, so it’s no longer hobbled and can finally effectively chase a victim down, and it gains the ability to fly and hover. That also seems like something it would feel compelled to do, even if it cost the jiangshi the opportunity to turn a particular victim into another undead.

On the other hand, there’s the lore to consider. Jiangshi are punitive. They want to take revenge against those they believe wronged them in life, in particular those who cut corners on their funerals and thereby caused their souls to be trapped within their carcasses. Now, which one is the real sacrifice: passing up a chance to wightify a victim in exchange for a power-up, or passing up a chance at a power-up in exchange for revenge against a hated rival? A bystander is of interest to a jiangshi only as a source of fuel. When a jiangshi goes after someone in pursuit of vengeance, however … well, turning them into another jiangshi is the best vengeance. It’s worth a little extra prudence to pursue.

Despite being stiff corpses, jiangshi are not stupid. Just the opposite: They have high Wisdom and very high Intelligence. And while they’re gripped by a compulsion, as all undead are, they possess the wits and self-restraint not to do things that interfere with that compulsion. They may have a goofy, rigid way of moving, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to behave mechanistically. If hoovering up an antagonist’s life force means they have to refrain from attacking for a round, that’s fine; they’ll hold back.

Let’s do the numbers. A jiangshi needs to be certain that a third Slam attack or a failed save against Consume Energy won’t reduce its target to 0 hp. How certain is certain? Well, the maximum damage Slam can deal is 20, while Consume Energy can deal up to 32. Since Slam deals an average of 13 bludgeoning damage per hit, 20 hp or less isn’t a bad place for a target to be at (for the jiangshi, that is): two hits with Slam reduce the target to 0, the third inflicts two death save failures, and Consume Energy finishes the target off. On the other hand, one of those Slam attacks might miss, in which case the jiangshi’s timing is thrown off. A better place for the target to be at the end of its turn is at 12 hp or fewer—where one Slam can be reasonably assured of reducing them to 0 hp, allowing the jiangshi to hold a Slam in reserve in case one misses—but still conscious.

So what the jiangshi needs, in the case of a target with 13 to 20 hp, is a sense of whether it can attempt one more Slam without KOing the target. The jiangshi has Intelligence 17, which places it in the 99.5th 98th percentile of the ability score bell curve, so why not say, by extension, that it wants 99.5 98 percent certainty that it’s safe to Slam? Well, that means it’s never going to take the risk. Even when the target is at 20 hp, there’s a 1.6 percent chance of an accidental knockout. Correction: 20 hp is OK, but 19 hp isn’t—the chance of an accidental KO is 4.7 percent.

Too strict for you? Well, the jiangshi can have 95 percent certainty that a hit with Slam won’t topple a target with 19 hp or more, and 90 percent certainty that it’s safe at 18 hp. Even at 15 hp or more, it can get away with a Slam at least two-thirds of the time, but for the jiangshi, I feel like that’s starting to get a little sloppy.

As for Consume Energy, even a jiangshi that wants 99.5 98 percent certainty can consider it safe against a target with 30 28 hp or more. At 95 percent certainty, the minimum is 27 hp; at 90 percent certainty, it’s 25 hp; and at two-thirds certainty, it’s 21 hp. Below these numbers, the jiangshi holds back—or uses this ability on a different target, because unlike Slam, Consume Energy has a range of 30 feet.

What if a jiangshi attacks a potential victim but doesn’t finish them off in the first round, and they try to get away? Does it take its opportunity attack? Yes, by all means. If a conscious opponent tries to get away without Disengaging and provokes an OA, they’re already past the point where they’ll have to (or get to) make a death saving throw on that turn if the opportunistic Slam hits and robs them of their last few hit points. The jiangshi will then get to take an entire turn of its own against an unconscious foe with 0 hp and no death save failures yet. Slam, two death saves gone; Consume Energy, there goes the third.

Once a jiangshi has slain whomever it came after in the appropriate manner, it has no particular reason to stick around, so it Disengages and departs. It does the same when it’s seriously wounded (reduced to 47 hp or fewer).

Despite lacking the skill proficiencies to be an ambush attacker, a jiangshi still needs to make its first attack with surprise if possible. It’s not good to let other combatants make attacks against it before it can land its own first blow. With its Wisdom and Intelligence, a jiangshi picks its battles carefully, attacks only when it’s sure it can take its victim down, assesses its enemies’ weaknesses accurately and targets accordingly. For this reason, while Change Shape may allow it to get close to its victim in a wide variety of situations, the fact that it costs the jiangshi an action—and, therefore, a whole turn—to revert to its natural form means it can’t take that action if its opponents are even the slightest bit on their guard.

But so what? The jiangshi’s stats and actions remain the same regardless of what form it’s in. So if it shows up in its victim’s house dressed as a guest, a servant or—what the heck—a party clown, it can do all the things it could normally do without abandoning that appearance. In fact, maintaining its disguise is significantly better for the jiangshi, because no one expects the guest or the servant to suddenly begin striking the host with uncannily powerful blows and drinking up their vital energy. (Something like that is probably to be expected from the clown.) That being said, one of the stats it still possesses is its 20-foot movement speed. It’s up to you whether you want to interpret that as the jiangshi’s being hindered by rigor mortis even when it takes a different form.

The jiangshi has two specific weaknesses: mirrors and holy symbols. It keeps its distance from both. Specifically, it makes sure never to end its turn less than 40 feet away from someone brandishing a holy symbol, unless they’re obviously not a cleric. (If the ostensibly pious character’s class is ambiguous, it may or may not call their bluff.) Otherwise, the jiangshi has just one conspicuous vulnerability: its unexceptional Armor Class. AC 16 is extremely good for a creature with a −4 Dexterity modifier, but the sharp end of a sword is only interested in the total. In contrast, its non-Dexterity saving throws are extremely good, and since it can’t be charmed or frightened, bards and Enchanter and Illusionist wizards are juicy targets for a jiangshi, especially once it gains the ability to take to the air.

In general, it focuses its aggro on opponents with lower AC and Constitution and steers clear of well-armored melee combatants, but its top priority is always whatever hated individual it came to get payback against. Once it lands its first attack against that foe, it’s locked on, and it focuses all its attacks on them, except when their hit points are too low for it to deliver its final killer combo right away. Once they’re down and bewighted, it allows its new minion to handle the tanky tanks while it either picks on the frail and vulnerable or simply takes its leave.

Next: gremishkas.

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3 responses to “Jiangshi Tactics”

  1. Joe Moose Avatar
    Joe Moose

    I’m curious as to what you mean by “The Monsters of the Multiverse” treatment. I’m not sure what that is supposed to mean. That the One D&D Monster Manual will have its monsters revised?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Yeah, that’s what I meant. In addition to revising stat blocks to cut down on decision fatigue, Monsters of the Multiverse also made radical changes to a few fundamental traits, such as False Appearance and Keen Senses, and it made them across the board. I think Life Drain would benefit from such a change.

  2. Fireslayer Avatar

    Actually, wights do not need to reduce a humanoid’s hit point maximum to 0 to turn them into a zombie. The statblock says, “A humanoid slain by this attack rises as a zombie under the wight’s control 24 hours later[.]” While this is still less useful against PCs, it’s not useless.
    Although, in order to kill a PC to turn it into a zombie, the wight needs to hit a PC while they are dying and have already failed one or two death saving throws.

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