Continuing my examination of the stat block updates in Monsters of the Multiverse, today I look at nonplayer characters. Since the majority of NPCs in Volo’s Guide to Monsters (they all come from Volo’s—there are no NPC stat blocks in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes) are spellcasters, and since spellcasting is the most frequently changed mechanic in Multiverse, all but a few of these NPCs have received some substantive change, and the ones that haven’t are all non-spellcasters.
The apprentice wizard’s fire bolt is replaced by a non-elementally-flavored Arcane Burst spell attack that can be used in melee as well as at range. It deals more damage than the laughably useless dagger, which has been taken away (“You’re too young to be playing with sharp things—give me that!”). Also, mage armor replaces shield, and mage hand replaces mending.
Whenever the apprentice wizard would have cast fire bolt before, it uses Arcane Burst now. Since Arcane Burst can also be used in self-defense against a melee attacker, it now competes with burning hands—but it’s not really much of a competition, because burning hands is an area-effect spell, whereas Arcane Burst is aimed at just one target. Normally, burning hands should be saved for when the apprentice wizard has to fight off two or more close-range opponents and kept in reserve against just one—but this depends on their temperament. An untrained and panicky apprentice wizard rushed by an enemy busts out burning hands even if it would be wiser to save that one use per day for a more dire situation. A more levelheaded one is able to make the appropriate calculation in the heat of the moment.
As for mage armor, again, it’s a matter of temperament. A levelheaded apprentice wizard casts it as soon as things begin to look dangerous—most likely, before an actual combat encounter ensues. An untrained one, however, might forget to cast it even after combat begins and need to be reminded to do so.
The bard gains a Multiattack and the Cacophony action but loses Song of Rest. Healing word is gone from its repertoire as well. This NPC is not going to play medic for you.
To be honest, this NPC is not going to give you a lot of magical support at all. Dexterity, rather than Constitution, is still their primary defensive ability, inclining them toward the long-range spellslinger role rather than the short-range support caster role (although they need to stay within 30 feet of their enemies if they want to use Taunt). Along with healing word, the bard loses shatter, heroism, friends and vicious mockery (discarded, presumably, as being redundant to Taunt). Thunderwave is reskinned as Cacophony, which is on a 4–6 recharge and thus can be used approximately once every other round. The bard gains dancing lights and prestidigitation, both utility spells without direct combat application.
The remaining spells can and should be used under the same circumstances, and for the same reasons, as before. But since there are only three of them—four if you count Cacophony—the bard defaults to its Shortbow attack much more often.
As for the Taunt bonus action, now that it’s no longer competing with healing word, the bard must be slightly choosier about how to apply it. Since the saving throw DC is so low, and since it targets Charisma, it’s probably best aimed not at the leader of the enemy side but at one of its stooges.
Aside from being given two extra Dart attacks in its Multiattack, the only change to the martial arts adept is to the additional effects of its Unarmed Strike, but it’s a big one: The drop and stun options are gone. The prone option (now called Knock Down) remains, and the others are replaced by Push. I am sad on the martial arts adept’s behalf, not only for the loss of the drop and stun options, which were interesting and tactically powerful, but also because the aspect of choice has been largely eliminated: Only Knock Down makes sense on the first and second Unarmed Strike, and only Push makes sense on the third, as the martial arts adept uses it to disengage without provoking an opportunity attack.
My past guidance on what I call “magical specialists” (wizards and warlocks distinguished by school or patron) was intentionally sketchy, because there were so many of them and their spell lists were so long. I’m going to continue that approach here, because there are still so many of them and their spell lists are still long, at least relative to the new Monsters of the Multiverse standard.
The relationship between ability scores and combat role remains the same, as do the formulae for calculating spell damage. The “time’s not on your side” principle, however, is something that Monsters of the Multiverse specifically and deliberately addresses: One of its chief goals was to reduce decision paralysis and eliminate subpar options from spellcasters’ repertoires, and another was to turn certain spells, particularly those that deal damage or take a bonus action or reaction to cast, into non-spell powers that can be used at will or after recharging. And the value of spell slots is a moot point, since spellcasting monsters and NPCs no longer use spell slots and can no longer upcast; now the question is how and when to use spells that can be cast once per day, twice per day or three times per day. This question is the thorniest.
It’s also one I’m not yet certain how to resolve, although I do have some hunches about it:
- A once-per-day spell is one that should only be cast when the moment is right. If it has lasting effects, that might be right at the outset of combat. If it’s an area-effect spell, it might be when enough of one’s opponents are properly arrayed. If it’s a highly situational spell, you’ll know when the situation arises. Sometimes, though, it’s not clear at all, and you have to go with your gut.
- A twice-per-day spell isn’t as unforgiving as a once-per-day spell. You can make more judgment calls. There’s room for error.
- A thrice-per-day spell is almost at will, but not quite. I think the right attitude to take with these spells may be, cast them when it seems like a good idea, but don’t treat them as default choices.
- An at-will spell is basically an innate power. No need to hesitate; if it helps, do it.
- Generally speaking, choose a spell with more daily uses over one with fewer daily uses unless the effect of the latter is significantly superior—or the need for it is urgent, such as casting dimension door or plane shift to escape a losing battle. “Significantly superior” generally isn’t a hard call to make.
Some noteworthy changes:
- All wizard NPCs now have Arcane Burst. The damage type varies from school to school, and the evoker’s deals an extra die, but the other particulars are essentially the same. It can be cast in melee or at range, so it’s a strong option for self-defense as well as an all-purpose “mage laser” with which a wizard can deal damage when it has nothing better to do. Every wizard NPC also gets a Multiattack that allows them to fire multiple mage lasers per turn—three in most cases, although the poor illusionist gets only two. Although I’ve said I find the “mage laser” concept somewhat boring and video-gamey, I will say that I do enjoy visualizing a wizard inflicting this damage in melee with a blow from their staff—or their fists.
- School-specific abilities that previously could be invoked after a wizard cast a spell of the appropriate school are delinked from spellcasting and become bonus actions or reactions with a recharge.
- Depending on how you choose to handle it, the abjurer’s Arcane Ward now reduces damage by either a fixed amount or a randomized amount with an average slightly lower than the ward’s former full strength. After reducing that damage, it pops, whether or not it could have taken more. This change prevents the abjurer from maintaining a continuous ward; it can soak up damage in this way approximately once every other round. However, the abjurer can now extend the protection to an ally they can see. The abjurer also gains Force Blast, a more emphatic analogue of thunderwave. Although the abjurer has the Constitution to act as a support caster, as revised, they need to keep their distance from the action, because Force Blast’s area of effect is large, and it affects friends as well as foes.
- The conjurer can now summon an elemental as a freaking bonus action, without any spell components, which is amazing: usually it takes a full minute and a 10-foot cube of the appropriate stuff. I mean, that’s just practically unfair. As for Benign Transportation, aside from being on a random recharge, it works the same as before.
- The diviner’s Portent works the same way as before, except that it can be used three times per day, period; the diviner doesn’t need to recharge it by casting a divination spell, and can’t anyway.
- The enchanter’s Instinctive Charm recharges randomly, rather than with the casting of an enchantment spell. Otherwise, it’s the same.
- The evoker’s former Sculpt Spells action is now a Sculpted Explosion—basically, a gently upcast fireball, coldball, lightningball or thunderball that exempts targets of the evoker’s choice and recharges approximately every other turn. This action is part of a much-shortened menu of damaging magic, which also comprises Arcane Burst, wall of ice, ice storm and lightning bolt. (Bigby’s hand is the most disappointing deletion.)
- The illusionist’s Displacement bonus action is now on a 5–6 recharge—but it lasts for a full minute, or until the illusionist takes damage or is incapacitated or immobilized. Before, I said they should use Displacement all the time; well, now they can’t, but at least there’s a better-than-zero chance that by the time they need to use it again, it will have recharged.
- The necromancer’s Grim Harvest no longer requires the use of a necromancy spell; it works with any source of necrotic damage. Given the extent to which the necromancer’s spell list has been whittled down, however, this source is necessarily going to be either Arcane Burst or circle of death. (Arcane Burst supplants the former Withering Touch attack, which was much, much weaker.)
- The transmuter’s Transmuter’s Stone is now a bonus action called Transmute, delinked from casting transmutation spells and placed on a 4–6 recharge; it also allows the transmuter to cast alter self in lieu of changing the benefit of the Transmuter’s Stone. Most of the changes to its spell list are unobjectionable, but I have strong words for whoever decided to take away blink.
- The warlock of the Archfey’s dagger has been upgraded to a rapier, which they can use twice per turn, thanks to a new Multiattack action. They also gain the Bewildering Word action, a supercharged vicious mockery, which they can also use twice per turn in lieu of their two Rapier attacks. This action becomes their primary method of dealing damage, since they no longer have eldritch blast. Misty Escape remains the same.
- The warlock of the Fiend has changed a lot. They now have a Dex higher than their Con; proficiency in Persuasion rather than Perception; resistance to fire damage rather than to physical damage from nonmagical, non-silvered weapons; and a scimitar instead of a mace, juiced up by a triple melee Multiattack. The Fiendish Rebuke reaction supplants hellish rebuke, dealing 3rd-level rather than 5th-level damage, and the Hellfire action is like a lower-damage, spherical flame strike that deals fire and necrotic damage; it’s the Fiendlock’s only source of ranged damage now, and they should definitely be attacking from range now, not close-up (if they can help it). Dark One’s Own Luck is unaltered.
- The warlock of the Great Old One also has a newly elevated Dex, placing them squarely in the spellslinger role, and a shiny new Multiattack; this one only gives it two Dagger attacks, but the dagger now inflicts a jolt of psychic damage with each impalement. In addition, Whispering Aura’s radius is doubled to 10 feet, and as we’ve come to expect, a lot of spells are no more. But the big change is Howling Void, an area-effect action that deals psychic damage and can impose the frightened condition. Unlike most new “magical actions,” this one isn’t clearly a riff on any of the GOOlock’s old spells, although its bouquet contains notes of dissonant whispers; the spell it reminds me of most is hunger of Hadar. In any event, as with the other two revamped warlock NPCs, this new ability is the GOOlock’s only source of ranged damage and therefore the crux of its kit. Ideally, the GOOlock wants to envelop at least four opponents in the void, but they also want to stay out of the void themself, so it behooves them to stick to locations that are considerably longer than they are wide. Punks who try to dodge the effect by charging the GOOlock are punished by Whispering Aura.
- The archdruid’s scimitar is replaced by a staff, and their Strength is raised to match their Dex, so they can use that staff with reasonable efficacy. You’d think, then, that the archdruid might pick up shillelagh to go with it, but nope; instead, that staff delivers an additional wallop of poison damage, which is better anyway (although why poison?). Like the spellcasters above, the archdruid gains a Multiattack, allowing them to attack three times with either their staff or a new ranged spell attack, Wildfire, which blinds the target on a hit along with hurting them; this effect, at least, is interesting. One final interesting change is that Change Shape now permits the archdruid to cast spells in their altered form, so not only can they become a mammoth, they can become a mammoth that casts entangle. In fact, I’d argue that making entangle an at-will spell is low-key the most significant and powerful change to this stat block, with or without the ability to cast it in beast or elemental form. As just one example, the archdruid can now restrain four or more enemies and make two Wildfire attacks against them in the same turn and Change Shape, then follow up next turn with a Gore attack with Trampling Charge (action), rolled with advantage. And if the target is knocked down, because they’re restrained, they can’t get back up!
- The blackguard’s tactics are essentially unchanged: Dreadful Aspect still incentivizes them to charge into melee and hack away. Its three smite spells are replaced by a single Smite bonus action, which can either temporarily blind the target (as with blinding smite) or pitch the target onto its tuchus up to 10 feet away (as with thunderous smite). Against a target that isn’t blinded already, Blind is always preferable to Shove; the latter should only be used on the blackguard’s first or second attack of the turn unless there’s something 10 feet away that the target would hate to end up in, like a lava flow, a big pile of triceratops dung or a 1,000-foot drop.
The master thief gains a Multiattack that grants them three attacks per turn,
but this boon doesn’t make it any more likely that they’ll deal Sneak Attack damage, because in all likelihood, they’ll only get advantage on the first attack roll of the three. Somehow, I missed what Joseph Blanc points out: The master thief no longer has Sneak Attack. Engaging in melee at all is a desperation move. At best, most of the time, they’ll only land a couple more Shortsword hits before they skedaddle, which is still their preferred course of action. They now wield a shortbow instead of a light crossbow, so goodbye loading property; their Multiattack lets them use the bow as well as the sword, but I’d have the master thief use it only against pursuers while they’re fleeing (Multiattack, move, Cunning Action: Dash). Nothing else about their tactics changes.
While losing call lightning seems like a cruel cut, the kraken priest gains a ranged spell attack, Thunderbolt, in its place. On the plus side, it deals more damage on a hit (4d10 rather than 3d10); knocks the target prone; can be used twice per turn, thanks to a new Multiattack action; isn’t lost if the KP’s takes a hit. On the minus side, it deals no damage on a miss; has only a 60-foot range (rather than 120); doesn’t affect anyone standing next to the target; and must travel from the KP to the target, following line of sight, rather than strike down from above. (I much prefer the mental picture of the kraken priest calling lightning down rather than shooting it.) As a ranged attack, it’s not much use against a melee opponent, but call lightning never was, either: the KP would have risked getting struck, too. That’s what Thunderous Touch was for, and still is, and now the KP can do that twice in one turn as well.
Previously, the KP’s three best spells were call lightning, control water and Evard’s black tentacles, only one of which it could concentrate on at a time. Since the KP no longer has to concentrate to strike enemies with lightning, they can feel free to cast one of the last two spells and lob lightning bolts with impunity on subsequent turns. Aside from this change, the kraken priest’s tactics remain the same.
Next: monstrosities of the multiverse.