Monsters of the Multiverse: Undead


Half a dozen undead creatures in Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes receive significant updates in Monsters of the Multiverse, and deathlocks account for half of these—unsurprisingly, since they’re all spellcasters.

Gone from the deathlock’s Spellcasting repertoire are arms of Hadar, hold person and chill touch. Eldritch blast is reskinned as the ranged spell attack Grave Bolt, dealing an extra 3 damage (presumably from the deathlock’s Charisma modifier). A new Multiattack lets it attack twice with either Deathly Claw or Grave Bolt, doubling the amount of damage it can deal in a single turn.

These changes turn the deathlock inside out. For starters, it loses both of the spells that benefited from being boosted to a higher level by the deathlock’s warlockitude. It also no longer has anything that fills the role of chill touch’s suppression of healing. On the other hand, the fact that the deathlock now gets to attack a second time makes invisibility-based ambush more practical (although it gains advantage only on the first attack roll of the two), and spider climb no longer has to compete against more potent spells for the use of a spell slot.

As for direct attacks, the choice is no longer between Deathly Claw and chill touch but rather between Deathly Claw and Grave Bolt—which is really a choice between melee and ranged combat. This choice is resolved by looking at the deathlock’s ability scores and asking what they say about its combat role. With Charisma as its primary offensive ability and Dexterity as its primary defensive ability, the deathlock is a spellslinger, and as such, it wants to sling spells and avoid melee.

Therefore, its strategy is now to fortify itself in advance with mage armor and either disguise self or invisibility (the latter precludes the use of detect magic while the deathlock concentrates on it); stay as far as possible from likely foes; cast hunger of Hadar to delay opponents while the deathlock completes its task(s); and if that fails, cast spider climb to escape or to attack with Grave Bolt from inaccessible places. Since the deathlock no longer has a convenient way to paralyze an opponent, Deathly Claw is now only a last-ditch defense, for use when the deathlock is cornered and can’t get out of melee.

Meanwhile, the deathlock mastermind, which already had Grave Bolts (plural, now changed to singular), loses some damage from this attack. Before, it dealt 4d8 necrotic damage on a hit and could be aimed at two different targets; now it deals 3d8, and if it wants to strike a second target, it has to do so via its Multiattack. The revised Multiattack also lets it make two Deathly Claw attacks if it wishes.

It loses access to arms of Hadar, blight, counterspell, crown of madness, hold monster, chill touch, mage hand and poison spray. Most of these losses aren’t worth mourning, especially hold monster: that spell, cast at 5th level, is objectively worse against a party of player characters than hold person cast at 3rd level. Counterspell might have been redeemable: it was a trap choice for a warlock because of spell slot competition, but in the new regime of the Multiverse, monsters don’t have spell slots anymore. However, by and large, they also don’t have counterspell anymore, either. (Probably out of fairness: if PCs can’t counterspell monsters’ spell attacks, why continue to let monsters counterspell the PCs’?)

I am a bit disappointed, though, that blight is no longer an option, because that was one of the few spells the deathlock mastermind had that made clear sense to cast. Of its short list of unambiguously useful spells, only three remain: darkness, fly and dimension door. And there’s another hitch: Before, a deathlock mastermind could lean on a squad of deathlocks to make up for its own lack of spellcasting potency. Now, though, those minions’ spell list is nerfed, too. The only offensive spell they have that a mastermind doesn’t is hunger of Hadar.

Even more than before, then, a deathlock mastermind needs to use its magic to avoid detection while carrying out its tasks; aside from its at-will spells, only invisibility offers clear utility in this regard. (Darkness is too conspicuous.) If it’s interrupted, it may be able to cast darkness or fling Grave Bolts to stall for time, but it’s more likely to simply dimension door away.

The thing that pains me the most about the changes to the deathlock and the deathlock mastermind is the deletion of patron-specific spell lists, especially in the case of the deathlock mastermind. These lists, by and large, were both more coherent and more effective than the deathlocks’ vanilla spell lists. These new deathlocks are indisputably more straightforward to run than their former iterations were, but I’m not sure that the deathlock mastermind is interesting enough to bother with anymore …

Well, let me interrupt myself there, because there’s still the deathlock wight to look at. Its spellcasting remains mostly intact, with one exception: no more misty step. While its revised Multiattack lets it make two Life Drain attacks per turn, each hit deals one die less necrotic damage, although it’s also upped by the deathlock wight’s damage bonus. The upshot is that two new Life Drain hits deal a little more damage than one Life Drain hit did before—and the target must make more saving throws to avoid reductions to their hit point maximum. Against a target with AC 15 and a +2 Constitution saving throw modifier, meaning a 50 percent chance to hit and a 50 percent chance to save, what we’re looking at here is an expected 6 damage and maximum hit points reduced by 3, vs. an expected 4 damage and maximum hit points reduced by 2 in the old stat block. So it hits a little harder and drains a little faster, but the risk of getting drained to death remains low. Meanwhile, its Grave Bolt is juiced up with an extra die of damage, an unambiguous gain.

Based on these changes, I don’t think anything about the deathlock wight’s tactics needs to change. “Keep a distance from enemies but close in and use Life Drain when the right opportunity presents itself” is still sound and, moreover, more effective, especially in combination with other deathlock wights and/or a deathlock mastermind. Unlike the deathlock, the deathlock wight still has hold person, by means of which it can accelerate the Life Draining process. The one option it loses is the use of misty step to rush a prospective victim.

Thankfully, this undead blastie is as nasty as it ever was. I think, therefore, that the best way to keep the deathlock mastermind interesting is to mix up the encounter. On its own, it’s lost a lot of its pizzazz, but a mixed unit of two or all three types of deathlock produces pizzazz-restoring synergy.

The alhoon undergoes big changes. It gains a 15-foot flying speed and the ability to hover (replacing levitate and fly), is beefed up from 16 to 20 hit dice but loses its immunity to physical damage from nonmagical attacks, and gains a double melee or ranged Multiattack. In lieu of counterspell, it gains the Negate Spell reaction, which it can use three times per day. Its damage-dealing spells are gathered up into the terrifying ranged spell attack Arcane Bolt, which hits with 80 percent of the power of a disintegrate spell and can be slung twice every turn (!!) but won’t blast a KO’d target into a pile of dust. (Give thanks for small blessings.) Finally, it loses the spells confusion, Evard’s black tentacles, phantasmal killer, mirror image and shield, along with all the aforementioned damaging spells.

Alhoons can still turn invisible and Hide when they realize you’re coming, but this is now the only chance they’re going to get to cast invisibility: it’s become a once-per-day ability. Because they now have a flying speed, there’s no concentration conflict between, say, levitate and dominate monster, although hovering in the air still makes them a tempting target; the only practical use for it is to stay out of reach of melee weapons.

They still have wall of force, and this is still the best spell for them to lead off with. The 2nd-to-4th-level supermarket fatigue is relieved by the deletion of scorching ray, lightning bolt, Evard’s black tentacles and counterspell. The first two of these spells are superseded by Arcane Bolt, the last by Negate Spell. Only the absence of Evard’s black tentacles leaves a void: An alhoon no longer has a good way to restrain its opponents.

The utility spells all remain, but the damaging cantrips chill touch and shocking grasp are gone. Before, these were slightly superior to the melee spell attack Chilling Grasp, which had no effect beyond the damage it dealt. So what’s the benefit of Chilling Grasp, a melee attack, over Arcane Bolt, a ranged attack? I’m glad you asked! It now saps vitality from the target and gives it to the alhoon. Thus, a moderately damaged alhoon no longer needs to transition immediately to the retrograde: it can instead switch from Arcane Bolt, which simply damages its target, to Chilling Grasp, which deals half as much damage to the target but also restores hit points to the alhoon. The resulting net difference in hit points between the alhoon and the target is the same, but the alhoon gains a bit more staying power. Chilling Grasp isn’t merely a B-grade demonstration of disdain anymore.

Here’s the overall effect on the alhoon’s strategy:

  • Mind Blast from hiding is still the best opening play.
  • Mirror image is gone, so cut straight to wall of force.
  • Mind Blast works through the wall of force. So does Arcane Bolt: nothing can physically pass through the wall, but Arcane Bolt deals force damage, and per the Player’s Handbook, force damage is “pure magical energy focused into a damaging form” (chapter 9, “Damage Types”). Energy is not physical matter! This loophole makes up for the loss of Evard’s black tentacles.
  • Shield is no longer an option; the alhoon uses the Negate Energy reaction whenever it would have cast counterspell before.
  • Don’t let an enemy attacker get within melee reach. Float up off the ground.
  • Pick off key enemies—or ones who are fleeing—with Arcane Bolt.
  • If the battle has swung decisively against the alhoon because the opposition has better spellcasters, substitute globe of invulnerability for wall of force. The kicker? Arcane Bolt and Mind Blast work through globe of invulnerability, too! Globe keeps magic out, not in—and anyway, neither of those abilities is a “spell of 5th level or lower,” so even if the alhoon’s enemies have a globe of their own, it won’t stop the alhoon from taking these actions against them.
  • In the moderate-to-serious damage range, the alhoon stays in the fight if it can descend on an enemy whose melee attacks can’t hurt it and heal itself up sufficiently with Chilling Grasp. If it can’t reach such an opponent, or if it’s losing more hit points than it’s regaining, it withdraws.

The eidolon itself doesn’t change in Monsters of the Multiverse (except to acquire the Unusual Nature trait), but its sacred statue does. Its Multiattack, which formerly only included its Slam attack, now allows one or both attacks to be ranged Rock attacks. It also uses the eidolon’s +8 Wisdom saving throw modifier, instead of its own +6 save mod, and has no challenge rating of its own.

Rock still does less damage than Slam, but the difference isn’t huge, and with the change to the sacred statue’s Multiattack, an eidolon in its vessel can feel free to opportunistically attack foes up to 60 feet away if that seems like a better idea than pummeling whichever enemy happens to be directly in front of it—for instance, if it permits an attack against a spellcaster with the goal of breaking their concentration. Beyond this greater flexibility, though, the tactics of an eidolon in a sacred statue don’t differ.

That leaves the skull lord, whose bickering heads make it my favorite monster from Mordenkainen’s. There are quite a few changes to this legendary undead boss, some big, some small. Clearing the small ones out of the way first, it gets one more hit die, it gains a ranged spell attack, its Multiattack lets it choose between ranged and melee attacks, and it’s tagged with Unusual Nature. The big changes involve Spellcasting and its legendary actions.

To begin with, the skull lord’s list of spells is pared way back: No more finger of death, eyebite, ice storm, haste, mirror image, scorching ray, magic missile, expeditious retreat, thunderwave, chill touch, fire bolt, poison spray, ray of frost or shocking grasp (it gains message). That leaves it with one use each of cloudkill and cone of cold (which once competed for two 5th-level spell slots and are now Solomonically forced to share them), two of dimension door and fear, and at-will cantrips. Amazingly, though, this is enough.

“With its abundant spell slots, ample Constitution, and immunity to a variety of debilitating conditions,” I wrote of the skull lord’s prior iteration, “the skull lord is the rare monster that wants to drag combat out.” This statement no longer applies—certainly, at least, not to the extent that it did before. It’s still tough, it still has lots of immunities, but its spellcasting options are now far from abundant. If combat drags out, the skull lord is going to run out of things to do with its time. Of course, it can always fall back on its new Deathly Ray ranged spell attack, but you already know what I think about mage lasers. I guess the truest assessment is that the skull lord can handle a drag-out fight if it must, but after several rounds, it will start to get tedious for everyone involved. The skull lord would much prefer to dispatch its enemies as quickly as it can.

Now, before I go on, I candidly acknowledge that I literally began my original analysis of the skull lord by whinging about the length of its spell list. But I also went on to say, “Spells are all right, but if you ask me, the way to make a monster interesting is to give it interesting features.” The skull lord doesn’t gain any new, interesting feature to make up for the loss of so many spells in Monsters of the Multiverse. The changes to Spellcasting are strictly subtractive. The saving grace of this new stat block is that, even with the subtractions, the skull lord has just enough left to make the couple of big plays it would have made before. I just wish it had something better than mage lasers to use after that.

“Skirmishers need movement abilities to slip out of their enemies’ melee reach. The skull lord has three of these—haste, expeditious retreat and the legendary Move action—two of which conflict with each other, and one of which conflicts with another key ability.” This knot, at least, is sliced through. Haste and expeditious retreat are history. For battlefield maneuvers, the revised skull lord relies wholly on its Move legendary action, which still provides immunity to opportunity attacks. That’s all it needs, really.

Speaking of legendary actions, there are a couple of significant changes here that make the skull lord even more legendary than it was already. The Cantrip legendary action is gone, but as damaging cantrips have been superseded by Deathly Ray, Cantrip is superseded by Attack—which also supersedes the former Bone Staff legendary action. That’s just a straightforward shuffle; the front-page news here is that Attack costs only 1 legendary action, in contrast to Bone Staff, which cost 2. Not only that, but Summon Undead now costs only 2 legendary actions, whereas previously it cost 3. Deadlier and more mobile: Now the skull lord is a proper skirmisher!

The skull lord’s best opening play, subject to positioning, remains cone of cold: It’s still the best raw damage output in the skull lord’s kit, nearly twice as good as three hits with Deathly Ray, and it’s still most desirable before the skull lord brings additional allies onto the field. If the pieces aren’t in place for cone of cold, a triple Bone Staff attack remains a solid alternative.

If a melee opponent comes up to the skull lord and deals significant damage, it has a new option, thanks to its less costly legendary actions: It can immediately use Move to back away from that opponent, then, on a subsequent turn, use Summon Undead to fill the space between itself and the opponent with zombies.

The skull lord is no longer limited to using Summon Undead after going a full round without using any other legendary action at all. If the last creature that takes its turn before the skull lord is up to bat and the skull lord has used only one other legendary action, it can still top up its complement of undead cannon fodder on the field. And the corollary to that is, if the second-to-last creature before the skull lord is up and it hasn’t used any legendary action yet, the skull lord is free to make a gratuitous legendary Attack; it will still have two left over to Summon Undead with.

Once its opponents are tied up fighting undead minions, that’s when it casts cloudkill.

After a round or two, the skull lord decides which of its opponents it hates most and aims its forces against them. Because it no longer has finger of death, it no longer has to wait for them to be seriously wounded to target them with Deathly Rays. It no longer has mirror image or haste to help it against effective melee attackers; its best bet in such a circumstance is fear on its own turn and the Move legendary action on turns in between. Before, the skull lord lacked an incentive to cast fear because it wanted to keep its enemies where it could bludgeon them. Now it can plink them with Deathly Ray as they run.

In short, even though the skull lord’s spellcasting option are drastically reduced, not only can it do most of what it would have done before—including all the most important things—the reduction in cost of its legendary actions and the addition of a ranged attack make it more mobile and capable of dealing with threats at a distance. As for the poor, demoted Magus head, it can complain to the other two about how no one values its skills anymore.

Next: aberrations of the Multiverse.

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8 responses to “Monsters of the Multiverse: Undead”

  1. to_ma Avatar

    Without delving into actual physics to decide what is matter and what is energy based on a less-than-ten-words fluff descriptor, or into a probably more feasible discussion about cover, lines of effect and such within the 5e ruleset, I’m not sure that the wall of force loophole would work.
    Just saying, because I’m doubtful about suggesting a strategy that would be ruled out from the get-go by half the DMs out there.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      I’ve been doing this for six years now, and in that time, I’ve learned a lot about how to interpret the rules of D&D 5E. One point that’s been driven home to me time and time again is that the rules are written to be taken absolutely literally. What they say, they mean. What they mean, they say. It’s so unusual for there to be any ambiguity, uncertainty or apparent internal contradiction at all (e.g., in the slime tether of the oblex, or the lair actions of the balhannoth), when there is, I call it out.

      In this case, I don’t think there’s any ambiguity. Wall of force prevents anything from physically passing through. Arcane Bolt, being pure force, isn’t physical. It travels through as easily as light. In fact, I think one would have a stronger case arguing that sound shouldn’t pass through a wall of force than arguing that Arcane Bolt shouldn’t pass through.

      1. to_ma Avatar

        I guess we’re doing this.

        About the matter-ity of force damage: I realize that the whole thing is up to interpretation, but WoF is clearly intended as an impenetrable barrier and I seriously doubt that the intention is for it to be ignored by first level spells like Magic Missile, if not cantrips like Eldritch Blast.
        Also, Force damage often has physical effects, like pulling (again, EB), pushing (EB, Ring of the Ram) and the such, interpreting it as some sort of tangible projectile-like magic concussive force makes just as much sense as the aforementioned 8-words-fluff descriptor of it being “pure energy”, and there’s no indication whatsoever of force damage not having any kind of tangibility.
        Also also, Disintegrate deals force damage and destroys WoF, which could conceivably mean that force damage IMPACTS WoF instead of going through.

        Anyway, all of this is up to interpetation and holds just as much water as your ruling (meaning, both of our readings do not hold water in an objective way), so let’s get into it by rules:

        – WoF gives total cover

        – PHB, page 196: “A target with total cover can’t be targeted directly by an attack or a spell”. That rules out Arcane Blast, which is a Ranged Spell Attack.

        I would even doubt Mind Blast. PHB, page 204: “If no unblocked straight line extends from the point of origin to a location within the area of effect, that location isn’t included in the spell’s area. To block one of these imaginary lines, an obstruction must provide total cover”. Sure it talks about spells, but that’s the most comprehensive explanation of area of effect that we have, and thus the total cover of WoF would block the line-of-effect of the cone.

        Which BTW leads to a cool rule that I have never seen used, aka that if you are hidden behind a pillar well enough, a dragon’s breath is not going to hit you and the raging inferno/miasma/storm/acid fog/etcetera is just going to rush around you without hurting you. Pretty cinematic! Also you can hide from a beholder’s eye cone to allow some small pockets of magic to be active during the battle, if the beholder is stupid enough to leave some cover in its lair.
        So many potential cool and strategic options making smart placement an actual factor often lacking from D&D battles!

        1. Keith Ammann Avatar

          You make a good case vis-à-vis total cover, so I went back to the sources to read each one closely. Here’s what I found:

          1. The description of wall of force says nothing about providing total cover.
          2. In the first set of tweets you cite, Jeremy Crawford doesn’t actually state that wall of force provides total cover, either. His comment, “Unless a spell says otherwise, you can’t cast it at someone or something behind total cover,” seems to me to be a direct response to the essence of Dan Dillon’s question, “Targeting spells/clear path: ‘Unoccupied space you can see’ Does this imply targeting?”
          3. In the second tweet, Crawford seems to imply that wall of force provides some sort of cover, but he still doesn’t say so explicitly. And while he says, “Cover is a physical obstruction, not necessarily a visual one,” the PH says, “A target has total cover if it is completely concealed by an obstacle” (emphasis mine). Because of that discrepancy, I think Crawford’s statement should be taken to explain how, for example, a big pane of transparent glass can provide physical cover even though it doesn’t provide visual cover. Wall of force is like a pane of glass in some ways, unlike it in others.

          Should glass obstruct sources of psychic damage? Radiant? Necrotic? I’d say no, and I’d also say that force damage is more akin to these than it is to fire, cold, acid, lightning or bl/p/sl damage, which are all clearly physical in nature.

          Also, it’s already settled doctrine that while wall of force stops a caster from targeting fireball at creatures on the other side of it, that’s because of the clause in the spell description, “A bright streak flashes from your pointing finger to a point you choose within range”—meaning fire would have to physically pass through the wall before detonating. In contrast, wall of force won’t stop you from targeting someone on the other side with toll the dead, because the targeting verbiage is “one creature that you can see within range,” you can see through a wall of force, and nothing has to physically travel from you to the target. The same goes for harm, darkness, meteor swarm, spike growth and many others—including Evard’s black tentacles.

          Tl;dr: I haven’t seen anyone or anything state outright that wall of force provides total cover. The only restriction in the description of the spell is, “Nothing can physically pass through the wall.”

          P.S. Totally with you on hiding from dragon breath behind a column!

          1. to_ma Avatar

            The problem with Crawford is the (frankly annoying) decision to avoid making twitter a flat-out source of errata, which brings to reply to everything in the most roundabound non-commital way possible. See the “implication but not confirmation” in the second link.
            That does very little to clarify stuff, though, leading to endless discussions on similar minutia with very little to go on if not some vague reply that pretty much sounds like a confirmation but can’t be objectively considered as such: glass stopping line-of-effect, and casting through windows, is a pretty discussed point of contention actually, and I’ve seen the total cover interpretation come out on top pretty often. Also because, technically, a spell that can’t explicitly target objects doesn’t even have the chance to break the window and travel past the broken glass to the squishy creature behind it.

            Another problem is that, once you get into energy damage, defining what is physical and what is not gets pretty wonky, mostly because the “common sense” solution ends up being that what is real in our world is physical, and what is fantastic (force, radiant, necrotic, psychic) is not. But Radiant could be what basically amounts to radiation poisoning (Sickening Radiance), which is something we can observe in reality, so then what?
            Gravity damage, which is undoubtely real, is statted as force damage.
            Shadow Blade deals psychic damage, but it something that you can hold and it is described as “solidified gloom”.
            Enervation has a “tendril of inky darkness reaching out from you”.
            And what if a caster decides to fluff their spell in a physical way? Like, I don’t know, a chill wind bringing the necrotic whispers of the dead to the target. Is it physical then?
            I would say that either all of it is, or none of it is, because specific distinctions between one and the other can only amount to basically table-specific adjudications.
            For example: TECHNICALLY, Fireball being stopped by stuff between the caster and the target point is not a thing anymore, but just a legacy remnant of old editions (that stated that the bead impacting on something made it explode prematurely): you pick a point, and the fireball explodes there, for all intent and purposes you can lob it in an arc or make it roll on the pavement like a marble if you want to narrate it that way. If we go by the exact text, a “streak that flashes” is a visual thing that is not described as tangible in any way, and since WoF doesn’t block light and vision, a fireball could conceivably cross it and explode inside.

            tl;dr: the specific ruling of WoF is kind of an infamous point of contention, all I’m saying is that the usefulness of this particular strategy guide might be somewhat reduced by a not negligible number of DMs interpreting (by reasons as valid as your interpretation of the contrary) to flat-out disallow it. Personally, I would err on the side of caution and pick the less-lenient interpretation to build a strategy around, but then again, this is your turf and in here, your word goes. If some tables don’t agree, well, that’s just something that happens sometimes!

            P.S. On our little side-line agreement, though: what do you know! Since it is stated that it spreads around corner, Fireball it is better fire than a dragon’s breath against those sneaky little adventurerses hiding behind rocks!

      2. Tess Avatar

        The issue of course being: If nothing can physically pass through the wall, then RAW you can maintain concentration for a few minutes and boom everything inside is dead.
        I think this is one case where RAI is more useful. The intent of the spell is as a dividing wall that keeps two sides separate, not as a wall through which you can sling eldritch blasts.
        If you would prefer absolute RAW: The wall acts as total cover and breaks line of sight, even though it is transparent. Attacks cannot target creatures in total cover.

        1. Keith Ammann Avatar

          What’s good for the goose is good for the gander: PC spellcasters can also cast many spells through the wall. Wall of force and globe of invulnerability complement each other. One stops weapon attacks but lets certain spells through; the other stops spells but lets weapon attacks through. This has always been the case and in fact was a central part of the alhoon’s strategy even before Monsters of the Multiverse gave it Arcane Bolt.

  2. VermilionVirtue Avatar

    I suspect the main reason for removing counterspell from monster spell lists is less the desire for fairness and more that the Spellcasting ability on a monster stat block now occupies the Actions section whereas counterspell needs to be a reaction to function in this form. The same is seen for the sorcerer NPC in the Wild Beyond the Witchlight (name omitted for spoilers) who has “Arcane Defense” – basically the shield spell that they can cast 3/day (the same amount of times as their other 1st level spells) but not a spell as such.

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