Molydeus Tactics


The molydeus is a demon of extraordinary power, on par with several named demon princes. The flavor text refers to various demon lords as “masters” of molydei, but there aren’t too many entities to which that word could apply, given that demons are chaotic evil and therefore not likely to take orders from anything less powerful than themselves. The Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes flavor text notwithstanding, unless and until new demon lords are crowned and their stat blocks published, there are only two that could indisputably command the obedience of a molydeus: Demogorgon and Orcus. (Graz’zt and Yeenoghu are only one challenge rating higher than the molydeus; I’m not sure that’s enough of a difference. Baphomet and Fraz-Urb’luu have the same CR as a molydeus, so even if one of them created a molydeus, I think it would tell them to buzz off, if not turn on them immediately.) For some unfathomable reason, I looked at that “CR 21” I don’t know how many times, and my brain processed it as “CR 23.” Yes, any demon lord is powerful enough to command a molydeus. SMH.

For a huge creature, the molydeus is speedy, with a movement speed of 40 feet. Its ability scores are all extraordinary, with Strength first and Constitution second—a brute. While it has Innate Spellcasting, it’s secondary to melee fighting. It has proficiency in four out of six saving throws, but one of the big three—Dexterity—is missing from the list, so in relative terms, this could stretchily be noted as a weakness. But it also has Magic Resistance and three uses of Legendary Resistance per day, so whenever it fails a Dex save . . . it doesn’t fail.

Typically for a demon, the molydeus is resistant to physical damage from nonmagical weapons, cold, fire and lightning and immune to poison; it can’t be blinded, charmed, deafened, frightened, poisoned or stunned. (It can, however, be paralyzed, knocked prone or restrained.) It has a truly bonkers +21 Perception modifier and passive Wisdom (Perception) 31. Player characters trying to sneak up on one, at a minimum, will need pass without trace.

The molydeus has a triple Multiattack: a weapon strike and a bite from each of its two bestial heads. The type of weapon isn’t specified, so you can skin it as you please, as long as the damage it deals is slashing. (The flavor text handwaves that, suggesting that the weapon a molydeus wields depends on which demon lord it serves and includes morningstars and flails. If you give a molydeus of Orcus Yeenoghu a Demonic Morningstar Flail, I think it ought to do bludgeoning damage.)

Two damage dice is low for a Huge creature; you’d expect three. But Demonic Weapon comes with a nasty rider: When the molydeus rolls a natural 20 while attacking with it, “the target is decapitated and dies if it can’t survive without that head.” Five and a half points of damage is a reasonable tradeoff for a 5 percent chance of a one-hit kill if your opponent has a hit point maximum of 110 or more. [ETA: Some discussion of this figure in the comments. The actual value may be significantly lower.] So let’s say the molydeus uses its Demonic Weapon only against enemies who are that tough. It can tell who is and who isn’t. (What if it’s reskinned as a bludgeoning weapon? Instead of lopping the noggin off, the molydeus smashes it in. “I am crushing your head!”)

Wolf Bite has a shorter reach than the molydeus’s other two attacks (10 feet rather than 15 feet) and doesn’t have any unique effect; it’s just additional damage against foes who get too close. The molydeus won’t bother to use it for opportunity attacks, since Demonic Weapon does more damage. Snakebite does quite a small amount of damage—just one die’s worth—but the damage it deals can’t be healed during combat if the target fails a DC 22 Constitution save, because it’s subtracted from the target’s hit point maximum. If any foe with less than 110 max hp is foolhardy enough to get within reach of it, this is the attack to use against them.

This is all impressive, but it’s not especially interesting. Where the molydeus gets interesting is in the synergy between its legendary actions and its Innate Spellcasting, since one of those legendary actions is Cast a Spell. This allows the molydeus to use its innate spells without having to give up Multiattack on its turn. Whenever it can, it will use those spells to make its melee attacks more potent.

Its at-will spells are dispel magic, polymorph, telekinesis and teleport; it can also cast lightning bolt three times per day.

  • Dispel magic: It’s rare that a debuff spell will make it through the molydeus’s other defenses and affect it, so when one does, the molydeus immediately tries to make it go away. Its spellcasting ability is Charisma, with a +7 modifier, so it has a two-thirds chance of snuffing a 4th-level spell, but not one of 5th level or higher. Thus, if it fails to dispel a 4th-level spell on its first try, it tries again on the next combat turn, but if it fails to dispel a higher-level spell, it just accepts it. It also casts dispel magic against any 1st- through 4th-level buff its opponents cast on themselves or on one another, and takes one crack at extinguishing a buff of 5th level or higher.
  • Polymorph is cute, but it has two drawbacks: It requires concentration to sustain, and it gives at least 1 hp to its target. If the target of polymorph “dies” as an animal, it just comes back as itself, with however many hit points it had before (RIP your great idea of turning the enemy wizard into a fish), so the only practical application of this spell is to confine an enemy in an undesirable form and keep it there. A better use of the molydeus’s concentration is . . .
  • Telekinesis, which it can use to pluck squishy opponents from the enemy’s backline, hoist them into the air and haul them within reach of its jaws. (Since sustaining telekinesis beyond the end of the molydeus’s next turn requires a turn action, it will drop the spell—and the targets—as soon as it must choose between prolonging the spell and Multiattacking.) Or it can magically pick up a half-ton object, if one is handy, and drop it on an enemy or two (see “Improvising Damage” in chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide for suggested damage—this is 10d10, at the very least). Seriously, this is way better than turning the cleric into a moth.
  • Teleport is the flip side of telekinesis: when those cowardly PCs keep running away, the molydeus can relocate itself (along with any demonic allies in its entourage) directly into their path. However, since this carries a chance of failure even when teleporting to a point within view, the molydeus avoids casting this spell unless it has no other good option available, and it never uses it to teleport to a point it can’t see.
  • Lightning bolt is for punishing bad positioning. If three or more opponents make the mistake of forming a straight line with the molydeus itself, it opportunistically fires off one of these.

What about imprisonment? Impractical for combat, because it takes a full minute to cast. However, depending on the demands of your adventure, it’s possible that casting imprisonment is part of a molydeus’s endgame—that its purpose in fighting is not necessarily to kill the PCs, although it does enjoy that, but is specifically to render them unable to stop it from casting imprisonment, on one of them or another target, for the full minute it takes to cast.

When it comes to target selection, the molydeus is shrewd—intelligent enough to size up opponents down to their stat modifiers, prudent enough to recognize if and when they post a meaningful threat to its plans and/or its existence. Despite its Magic Resistance and all its damage resistances and condition immunities, there’s one thing it has no particular defense against: magical weapon attacks, particularly those that deliver radiant, necrotic, force, acid or thunder damage directly, so that it gets no saving throw against them. All it has against these are its Armor Class of 19, and that’s not so big a hurdle to a world-class adventurer. Therefore, opponents with such weapons have to be taken out first and fast.

However, this melee-loving brute is also savvy enough to know that marching right up to an enemy with a +3 holy avenger melee weapon is a dangerously bad idea. This is where the molydeus gets by with a little help from its friends: it commands whatever allies it has on the field to converge on that threat and take it out. It also takes advantage of things they can do that it can’t, such as casting darkness, through which a molydeus can see just fine, over large areas.

In the past, when I’ve examined demon summoning variants, I’ve come to the conclusion that even when the number and type of demonic allies summoned makes it a good bet for the action cost, it may still be better to take a pass on the variant, because both failure and exceptional success (summoning the maximum number of demons) can throw the balance of an encounter way off. Even if you’re the type who doesn’t care about encounter balance, you should care that a molydeus’s losing its entire turn to a failed summoning may well result in its premature demise, disappointing both you and your players. Instead, if you want your demon to summon other demons, you should simply decide that the summoning will work and introduce the new arrivals at whatever moment you find dramatically satisfying.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t introduce a few if-then statements into that formula. For instance, what if a molydeus finds itself facing enemies who can fly? Chasmes can dogfight them. Need something to 1v1 that nuisance with the holy avenger? Send a marilith to do the job.

For that matter, you don’t need to limit yourself to babaus, chasmes and mariliths. Those are merely the types of demons a molydeus can summon. There’s no limit to the types or number it can bring with it. And if it knows who’s coming to mess with it, it selects its team roster accordingly.

A molydeus working solo will handle most conflicts on its own, but there are edge cases. Remember, this is a demon with supernatural Intelligence and Wisdom, not just colossal might. It can size up the opposition in an instant. And if it, by itself, doesn’t constitute a Deadly encounter (see “Creating Combat Encounters,” Dungeon Master’s Guide, chapter 3) for the foes it finds itself up against, it has to make some adjustments, such as summoning enough help to tip the scales (remember, you can simply decide that it succeeds) or using telekinesis to modify the environment to break the problem in front of it into smaller problems. Why fight five or six at a time when you can take them on one or two at a time?

What it will not do, however, is flee. The only thing in the Abyss more powerful than a molydeus is a demon lord. Despite its Wisdom, it’s so cruel, remorseless and destructive that nothing can make it turn away from a fight. It always fights to win, whatever that takes.

So as a basic heuristic, we have Multiattack as the one action that unequivocally makes sense for the molydeus to take on its turn as long as there are foes within reach. What if there aren’t? That may be a good moment to summon some backup—but it can also march juggernautily toward its foes, using the Dodge action as it approaches to impose disadvantage on all attack rolls against it. (This is assuming that its 40-foot speed isn’t enough to bring it within reach of an enemy. If it is, it simply moves, then Multiattacks.)

On other creatures’ turns, it takes legendary actions when those creatures’ actions demand a response. If a melee attacker strikes it, it Attacks back—unless the attacker wields a magic weapon, especially one that deals one of the types of damage that hurt it, in which case it may teleport away to a safe distance or cast telekinesis to shove the attacker away. If a ranged attacker strikes it, or a spellcaster casts a spell worth dignifying with its attention, it casts telekinesis to yoink the impertinent whelp up to the front line. If an opponent within reach backs away, it uses Move to close the gap again. As mentioned before, it casts dispel magic to shut down sustained buffs and debuffs.

There may be a thing or two I’m missing here—I’ve been sick this weekend, and taking care of my daughter who’s also been sick, and I’m not firing on all cylinders. If you find something I missed, shout it out.

Next: ulitharids and mindwitnesses.

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36 responses to “Molydeus Tactics”

  1. G Avatar

    Hi, I’m a big fan of your work, and I’m looking forward to your piece on Ulitharids and Mindwitnesses, especially since the flavor for the former near guarantees that it will have backup in the form of many illithids at all times.

    As for the molydeus, could you explain a bit more what priorities a molydeus might have if it needs to cast imprisonment, like would it be willing to retreat from a bothersome enemy if it needs to devote its action each round to casting the spell, and how would it’s spell choice be affected since it can’t cast any concentration spells with its legendary actions while casting imprisonment.

    Thanks in advance

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Well, there are two cases: Either the molydeus began casting imprisonment before the meddling kids showed up, or it’s going to wait to begin until after it’s dispatched them. We really only need to look at the first case. If it has allies, I think it’s going to use those allies to stall for time, hoping to complete the spell before the PCs chew a hole through them.

      Spellcasting rules: “When you cast a spell with a casting time longer than a single action or reaction, you must spend your action each turn casting the spell, and you must maintain your concentration while you do so. If your concentration is broken, the spell fails, but you don’t expend a spell slot. If you want to try casting the spell again, you must start over.” If interruption doesn’t cost a spell slot, maybe it doesn’t cost the molydeus its once-per-day use, either, and it just stops what it’s doing to deal with the nuisance, planning to start over afterward. That would be the simplest solution.

  2. Tim H Avatar
    Tim H

    Hi Keith. Great article.

    Are you able to expand on the significance of the 110 hit point max that you refer to in both the Demonic Weapon insta-kill and the Snakebite attack?

    P.S. Hope you and your daughter both get well soon.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      So the rule of playing the lottery is that if a ticket costs $1, and you have a 1 in x chance of choosing the winning numbers, you should buy the ticket only if the jackpot is equal to or greater than $x.

      The 110 hit points is like that: A weapon that deals 3d10 damage will deal 5.5 damage more per round, on average, than a weapon that deals 2d10 damage. Imagine that combat dragged on for 20 whole rounds. Over those 20 rounds, that extra damage would amount to a difference of 110 hp. What would be worth giving up that extra damage? A one-hit-kill rider that could summarily execute a 110 hp target on one of those 20 rounds. If the target has fewer than 110 hp, you’d rather have the additional damage, because that would be more likely to kill the target than the decapitation rider would be.

      Although now that you’ve made me articulate it, it occurs to me that maybe the correct number isn’t 110 but 55, because the decapitation rider doesn’t simply render the target unconscious—it kills them. That normally only happens when a target takes damage equal to its hit point maximum beyond that necessary to reduce it to 0 hp. And since almost no PC of a level high enough to go up against a molydeus is likely to have only 55 hp, maybe the molydeus isn’t choosy about whom it targets with its Demonic Weapon—or maybe it reserves its Demonic Weapon for “worthy adversaries,” i.e., PCs, as opposed to squishy little nonentities.

      I’ll throw this one open to the crowd.

      1. Jacob T Blalock Avatar
        Jacob T Blalock

        Really, assuming it doesn’t have advantage, it should be adversaries with fewer than 66hp. After 14 d20 rolls there’s a 51.2% chance you will have rolled at least one Nat 20. It typically takes 2 melee attacks after an opponent hits 0hp to kill. So, instantly killing on a Nat 20 is better than an extra d10 of damage against any opponent with 66hp or more (with adv. on every attack e.g. in darkness it’s 28+hp).

        1. Jacob T Blalock Avatar
          Jacob T Blalock

          Excuse me, it should 69hp and 30hp respectively. I forgot to factor in the extra crit damage on the extra d10 of dmg.

      2. Tim H Avatar
        Tim H

        Okay, so you’re using the 110 hp (or 55) to determine why the molydeus would use its Demonic weapon (2d10) over a normal weapon (3d10). The answer is the lottery of dealing a killing blow. I was missing the “cost” part of this decision – the extra 5.5 damage per hit with a normal weapon.

        The next questions is “why 20 rounds”? That’s a loooong combat.

        All that said, I’m still not sure why the molydeus would ever hold back using the weapon. According to the stat block there is no option to replace the Demonic Weapon attack in the multiattack. If you multiattack then you have to Weapon, Wolf Bite, and Snakebite. Once each. I do agree that it would use this weapon against the beefiest target available.

        1. Keith Ammann Avatar

          Twenty rounds because of the 5 percent chance of rolling a natural 20 in any given round. Over 20 rounds, the probability of having rolled a natural 20 approaches 100 percent.

          1. Matt Wigdahl Avatar
            Matt Wigdahl

            It actually takes 45 rounds before the probability of at least one natural 20 in a combat exceeds 90% (0.95^45 for chance of _not_ rolling one). Not sure it fundamentally changes your analysis though.

  3. ArthopodKing Avatar

    ‘If you give a molydeus of Orcus a Demonic Morningstar, I think it ought to do bludgeoning damage’

    I think that Morningstars would actually do piercing damage.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Ah, you’re right!

      Really, they should do both.

  4. Riki Scanlan Avatar
    Riki Scanlan

    Hi, the last few words in the below quote seem to imply that magical weapon attacks that do not deal those damage types directly (e.g. magical slashing) do incur a saving throw. That’s not what you mean, right? Thanks 🙂

    “Despite its Magic Resistance and all its damage resistances and condition immunities, there’s one thing it has no particular defense against: magical weapon attacks, particularly those that deliver radiant, necrotic, force, acid or thunder damage directly, so that it gets no saving throw against them.”

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      When I say “directly,” I mean, e.g., a sword that deals 1d8 + n slashing damage plus 2d6 radiant damage, as opposed to, e.g., “On a hit, target must make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or take an additional 2d6 radiant damage.”

      I don’t actually know off the top of my head whether any magic weapon of the latter type exists; I still thought it was important to draw the distinction.

      1. Riki Scanlan Avatar
        Riki Scanlan

        That makes sense. Thanks for the clarification.

      2. Leith Avatar

        It occurs to me that the molydeus gets a disproportionate advantage from, well, Advantage. The odds of decapitation almost double.

        This could affect things including the 110 HP figure, or the choice of demon support, or more aggressive target selection when it can get Advantage.

        1. Leith Avatar

          Wrong thread -_-

      3. Ettina Avatar

        There’s definitely a lot of natural weapons with the latter wording, so it might be relevant for a pet or druid at least.

  5. Dan S Avatar
    Dan S

    Hey wait, I thought the molydeus had a CR of 21?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Goddammit, you’re right. How many times did I look directly at that 21 and still somehow see 23? ?

      1. Ike Unsell Avatar
        Ike Unsell

        I’m glad you spelled goddammit right. Also, how would a weapon that does piercing damage decapitate someone?

        1. Keith Ammann Avatar

          Remind me to tell you the copy editors’ shaggy dog story that ends with the phrase “hed tk.”

  6. Gabe Avatar

    If you want to polymorph someone into a form where they won’t simply get smacked back into combat, I favor the Killer Whale. Land speed of 0, but it can actually breathe on land. 90 HP.

    1. JP Avatar

      Not so fun fact, whales and other marine mammals die when beached because they weigh so much that their own body weight slowly crushes their lungs. 🙁

  7. NoxMiasma Avatar

    Another thing to consider when polymorphing an opponent is that drowning and suffocation both kill a creature without reducing HP, so arguably turning an air-breathing opponent into a mouse of something, and then grappling them underwater until they drown, then reverting to a dead true-form, is an environment-dependent save-or-die.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      That’s not true. Suffocation rule: “When a creature runs out of breath or is choking, it can survive for a number of rounds equal to its Constitution modifier (minimum of 1 round). At the start of its next turn, it drops to 0 hit points and is dying” (emphasis mine). Polymorph: “The transformation lasts for the duration, or until the target drops to 0 hit points or dies. . . . When it reverts to its normal form, the creature returns to the number of hit points it had before it transformed. If it reverts as a result of dropping to 0 hit points, any excess damage carries over to its normal form. As long as the excess damage doesn’t reduce the creature’s normal form to 0 hit points, it isn’t knocked unconscious.” (emphasis mine). Since “is dying” (must make death saves) is different from “dies” (no more death saves for you), the drowned mouse reverts to a live true form with all its previous hit points.

  8. idanbhk Avatar

    Molly can also Polymorph itself into a T-Rex, in a pinch.

    Or- funnily enough- Telekinesis itself way up into the air, then polymorph itself into an ankylosaurus, elephant, T-rex, cow or whatever and fall on someone, taking practically no damage (or none at all)- only half of what remains from 20d6 after the animal dies.

    Only useful as a surprise at the start of combat, of course, and Mollydolly should choose an animal that will keep fighting and die (T-rex) or die from the fall (Giant elk would be best, having 45 hp and being Huge, catching several people on the ground).

    Avg 70 falling damage, after the 45 hp of a giant elk, means MolLy will take 11, and the PCs will possibly take a total of 210 or so (assuming you take the same damage from someone falling on you as the falling creature takes).

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      I don’t see why a creature with Intelligence 21 would willingly assume a form with Intelligence 7 or less. You might have the best strategy for how to take out an opponent as an elk, but as soon as you become an elk, suddenly you stop thinking like a strategic supra-genius and start thinking like an elk. You might even forget that you’re under a polymorph spell and never drop it.

      1. idanbhk Avatar

        The point is to polymorph yourself when you’re 200 feet in the air, and then since you stop concentrating on Telekinesis you fall and die, reverting to your original form.

        The elk will never get a chance to think or not- it will just drop and die.

        1. Keith Ammann Avatar

          Unless an equally galaxy-brained PC casts levitate or feather fall on it, since it no longer has Magic Resistance, and keeps it there long enough for everyone to get away.

          Polymorph one oneself is only advantageous when the beast’s stats are significantly better in total than one’s own.

          1. idanbhk Avatar

            Levitate won’t work on a huge creature; the limit is 500 pounds. Feather fall would work I guess, and that might be a reason for the Molydeus not to take the chance.

            Anyway, I’d agree that for a Molydeus there are very few situations where it would want to polymorph itself (especially against spellcasters), but these situations could exist (when at extremely low HP, the extra 136 hp buffer of a T-Rex could make a difference).

  9. KanyeWest Avatar

    What do you think a good entourage would be for a Molydeus?

  10. Christopher Lum Avatar
    Christopher Lum

    Just as a note, you’re incorrect that the Molydeus can’t use its Imprisonment spell on the PCs mid-combat. The Molydeus can use its *Legendary Action: Cast a Spell* to cast Imprisonment as a Legendary Action instead of using the full 1 minute casting time of the spell. So it can indeed imprison a PC mid-combat by using one of its Legendary Actions.

    “Cast a Spell. The molydeus casts one spell from its Innate Spellcasting trait.”

    “Cast a Spell (Costs 3 Actions). The sphinx casts a spell from its list of prepared spells, using a spell slot as normal.”

    If there was any restriction on the spell’s *casting time* using a Legendary Action, the Legendary Action would say so, because RAW that wording applies to all of spells, regardless of casting time. Compare the *Legendary Action: Cast a Spell* that the Lord of Blades has in Eberron: Rising from the Last War.

    “Cast a Spell (Costs 2 Actions). The Lord of Blades casts a spell of 2nd level or lower from his spell list *that takes 1 action to cast.*”

    RAW, unless otherwise stated, any spell of any casting time can be cast for as part of a Legendary Action if the action has no specific wording on restrictions such as spell levels or casting times.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      “Each spell has a casting time. A game feature, such as an opportunity attack, doesn’t let you bypass that casting time, unless the feature says otherwise.” Sage Advice, There is no rule anywhere that states that casting a spell as a legendary action overrides its casting time.

      1. Christopher Lum Avatar
        Christopher Lum

        Legendary Actions are not extra Actions (capital A) for a creature, they are a separate feature that are different from the normal action-economy. A legendary creature has one Action, Bonus Action, Reaction (et cetera) per round, plus one or more Legendary Actions.

        The ‘Cast a Spell’ action is still beholden to the normal casting time of a spell. If the Legendary Action simply allows you to take the “cast a spell” action as a Legendary Action without changing the cast time of the spell in question, you can “cast a spell” in theory, but there is no spell in any published material that you can actually cast, because every spell’s cast time is an Action, a Bonus Action, a Reaction, or some longer cast time, none of which you have available to you when you take Legendary Actions.

        Put another way, if ‘the casting time still applies,’ Molydeus can’t cast a spell with a casting time of one Action either, because Molydeus doesn’t have an Action to cast it with. The ‘Cast a Spell’ action *does not substitute for a spell’s casting time;* it’s not an “action” in the sense that it takes your Action; it takes whatever time the spell’s cast time is. If the cast time is one Action, then casting the spell requires an Action. Legendary Actions do not give creatures any extra Actions the way Action Surge does. If a spellcaster uses Action Surge to gain an additional Action on their turn, they can cast two spells that have a casting time of one Action each (such as two fireballs), but if they cast fireball and then identify, identify’s casting time is still 1 minute and it wouldn’t take effect till the caster had spent 1 minute casting it. So if Legendary Actions didn’t override the spell’s casting time as you described, then casting a one Action spell wouldn’t take effect till Molydeus had spent one Action casting it (which it hadn’t, it spent 1 Legendary Action).

        If Legendary Actions can’t be used to cast one minute spells, they can’t be used to cast one action spells either. Legendary Actions override *every* spell’s casting time by default, because there aren’t any spells in 5e that have a casting time of “1 Legendary Action.”

        1. idanbhk Avatar

          “When you cast a spell with casting time longer than a single action or reaction, you must spend your action each turn casting the spell…” (PHB–casting time–longer casting times)

          It doesn’t specify HOW you cast a spell with that casting time, you must still spend your action each turn on it until the time is done.

          The fact that the Lord of Blades’ LA specifies only 1-action spells is baffling… Until you notice it has 2 Bonus Action spells, unlike most other legendary creatures with the Cast LA, so the limiting text is meant to prevent those (so it can’t cast Sanctuary as a LA). The Lord of Blades doesn’t actually have any spells with a longer casting time.

          Conclusion- the Molydeus can’t cast imprisonment as a LA.

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