What do you get when you cross a dragon, a kraken and a beholder? You get a morkoth, a weird, paranoid, tentacled beastie that drifts through the planes on its own private island, which might be aquatic but might also be airborne, and hoards living beings as well as treasure.
By default, a morkoth’s lair is immersed in water, although the morkoth can make that water clear and/or breathable at will—as well as the reverse. This water is just one of many advantages the morkoth has in its own lair, since it has a swimming speed of 50 feet, twice its land speed. It can breathe equally well in air and water, so the breathability (or lack thereof) of the water in its lair is an amenity it can offer to guests and a weapon it can use against intruders.
Morkoths, despite their many hit points and high armor class, aren’t all that physically formidable. Their Strength, Dexterity and Constitution are all modestly above average. Their standout ability is Intelligence, which is also their spellcasting ability, so while they do possess a respectable Multiattack that can also restrain one enemy, they’ll reserve it for enemies who get right up in their beaky faces. They’d much rather attack with spells.
They’re also not afraid of enemy spellcasters at all, and in fact are happy to have them in the fight, because these can be turned to their advantage with their Spell Reflection reaction. Their proficiency on Dexterity and Wisdom saving throws (Intelligence, too, but not many spells require that), along with their armor class, gives them a good chance of diverting roughly two-thirds of all incoming spell effects, which they’ll gleefully redirect at the casters’ allies. Their Achilles’ heel is the Constitution save, which they don’t have proficiency on and are most likely to fail. If an enemy spellcaster slings a spell that calls for a Con save, the morkoth is likely to decide he or she isn’t any fun anymore and move him or her to the top of its target priority list.
Morkoths have resistance to physical damage from nonmagical weapons. Magical weapons are another story. Any enemy with a magic weapon is an obvious threat, and eliminating this enemy will be a morkoth’s top priority once combat ensues. If there are more than one, that’s a good enough reason for a morkoth to stop casting spells for a moment in order to grab one with its tentacles and restrain him or her long enough to deal with the other(s).
Morkoths’ skill proficiencies include Perception (a whopping +10) and Stealth; they also have 30 feet of blindsight and 120 feet of darkvision. This gives them a strong incentive to darken the water in their lair—a process that takes a full minute to complete, but they have Intelligence 20, so they can predict when something’s about to go down, especially since no one can arrive on their islands or at their sanctums without their knowing. Total darkness (heavy obscurity for creatures without darkvision, light obscurity for morkoths and other creatures with darkvision) suits them just fine, since the
−2 −5 [how did this stay up so long without anyone saying something?] penalty to Perception checks is nothing next to their +10 bonus. Thanks to their blindsight, they’re even OK in the super-obscurity of a darkness spell, but this is a contingency plan, not the default.
Before I start going down the morkoth’s list of spells, let’s take a look at its Hypnosis action. It covers a 30-foot conic area, so based on the “Targets in Area of Effect” table on page 249 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, we’re looking at three enemies as minimum threshold for using that ability. Unlike a dragon’s Frightful Presence, this is not an ability that either works on the first try or not at all: a character who succeeds on his or her saving throw has advantage on subsequent saves for 24 hours, but not immunity.
The Hypnosis action charms targets who fail their saves, and the charmed targets are drawn toward the morkoth. Why? Presumably to be noshed upon. Didn’t we already decide, however, that the morkoth isn’t all that interested in melee combat? Yes, we did. So why would a morkoth want to draw enemies into melee range? Three possibilities:
- It wants to shut down a spellcaster who’s casting spells that force it to make Con saves.
- It needs to deal with a ranged attacker with a magic weapon or magic ammunition.
- There’s an enemy who’s somehow interfering with its own spellcasting, such as with dispel magic or counterspell, and it intends to put a stop to that.
However, in doing one or more of these things, it needs to be careful not to draw in any formidable melee fighter with a magic weapon. To avoid this, it’s going to reposition itself accordingly, and its armor class is high enough that it can take a chance on an opportunity attack as long as it’s not engaged with more than one magic weapon–wielding melee opponent. (Depending on initiative timing, it may cast misty step instead—see below.)
OK, spells. We have four tiers here: 6th level, 1st level, cantrips, everything else.
The morkoth’s only 6th-level spell is chain lightning. It uses its lone 6th-level spell slot solely for this spell, and it casts it when it’s moderately wounded (reduced to 91 hp or fewer)—that is, as soon as it realizes that, holy cow, these PCs are in fact a genuine threat to it and need to be dealt with more aggressively.
Its 1st-level spells include detect magic, identify, shield and witch bolt. Something’s gone pretty wrong if it’s resorting to witch bolt, given the other weapons in its arsenal, so a morkoth will use as many 1st-level spell slots as necessary to cast shield against incoming attacks from magic weapons. (Remember, though, that the morkoth gets only one reaction per turn. It has to weigh shield against Spell Reflection, and it’s more likely to choose shield if it’s already given up on reflecting spells, if there’s no caster to reflect a spell from or if the magic weapon in question is especially powerful—say, +2 or better, or +1 with an additional effect.)
For the same reason that a morkoth won’t often cast witch bolt, it won’t often cast a cantrip either. But let’s imagine a very narrow scenario: It holds an enemy in its tentacles, but it’s also sufficiently separated from its foes that it can’t see any of them to cast a spell at. In such a situation, sure, maybe it could cast shocking grasp for 3d8 damage on top of the free 3d8 + 2 of crush/whomp damage its tentacles deal. But then again, rather than cast shocking grasp, it could also bite its victim three times for 2d6 + 2 per hit, which is twice as good. The only benefit to casting shocking grasp is a slightly higher (net +3) probability to hit. (Either way, it has advantage on its attack roll against a restrained target.) So . . . yeah, not too much call for cantrips.
The real meat of the morkoth’s spellcasting power is in 2nd through 5th level. Per my rule of slot scarcity, since the morkoth has three spell slots at each of these levels, I treat them all as being of equivalent value, since a lower-level spell can sometimes be boosted by spending a higher-level slot.
- Geas is normally a minute-long ritual. I’ve toyed with mind flayer builds that allowed them to cast geas in combat, but that’s because they’re specifically supposed to be powerful mind controllers. I don’t see any compelling reason to give the same power to a morkoth.
- Scrying is a 10-minute ritual, so this isn’t going to be used in combat.
- Dimension door is the morkoth’s escape hatch. I’ll talk about its retreat criteria down below.
- Evard’s black tentacles is a good immobilizer that also happens to do damage. It affects a 20-foot square, so looking again at “Targets in Area of Effect,” our magic number is four. The morkoth wants at least four enemies clustered together in a single 20-foot square, and ideally, these are enemies that are neutralized by being restrained, such as front-line fighters and skirmishers. Being restrained doesn’t impede a ranged attacker as much—although if they’re lined up properly, it makes everyone sitting ducks for lightning bolt.
- Dispel magic is best used against ally-aiding buffs, since baleful magic can be volleyed back with Spell Reflection. But because of its limited action economy, a morkoth’s not going to bother dispelling dinky spells like bless, only buffs of 3rd to 5th level. If it’s trying to dispel a 4th- or 5th-level spell, the morkoth will spend a 5th-level slot to cast it. Wanna know what its very favorite spell to dispel is? Water breathing. Mwahahahaha! Take that, landlubbers!
- Lightning bolt is a beaut if opponents are arranged in single file—four or more are ideal, but a morkoth will settle for three if they have disadvantage on the save from being restrained. And if it can get at least four and it has a 5th-level spell slot available, it will happily add two more damage dice to the blast.
- Sending is irrelevant to combat.
- Darkness is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it creates a 15-foot-radius sphere in which no one but the morkoth can see a thing—and its tentacles reach to the edge of that sphere. On the other, it stops enemy spellcasters from targeting it, which means it doesn’t get to use its Spell Reflection reaction. I think a morkoth will probably save this spell for when its enemies have caught on to its tricks and stopped casting spells at it—or if they’re such good spellcasters that the morkoth flubs at least two saving throws.
- Detect thoughts isn’t all that relevant to combat, but a particularly curious, less belligerent than average morkoth might use it to answer the question, “Why are these people attacking me?” Then again, it could just ask, telepathically, without spending a spell slot. Personally, I see this spell being used on captives rather than combatants.
- Shatter is a really interesting spell in this context. Its base effect is to do thunder damage (3d8 on a failure, half that on a success) in a 10-foot-radius sphere (i.e., to at least two opponents). It also does equivalent damage to nonmagical objects, such as weapons, armor and exposed equipment. So far, so good. It can be cast with a 5th-level spell slot to do up to 6d8 damage. So far, even better. All right, now here’s my question: What happens when you create a shock wave underwater? That effect isn’t going to end abruptly 10 feet from its epicenter; it’s going to propagate outward. Personally, I think anyone outside the 10-foot damage radius—say, out to a distance of another 20 feet, plus 10 per additional spell slot level—should have to make a DC 17 Strength saving throw against being knocked prone. Mind you, this is not in the rules as written. There is no official Dungeons and Dragons rule regarding underwater shockwaves. This is just me saying, of course anything that can do thunder damage underwater is going to produce a mini-tsunami.
Whether or not you agree that shatter should have an effect beyond its official radius, I think it’s a good spell for the morkoth to lead with, especially if not enough of its enemies are positioned so as to make Evard’s black tentacles or lightning bolt worthwhile. You’re much more likely to see two front-line fighters standing shoulder to shoulder, with the rest of the party dispersed, and shatter suits this arrangement perfectly.
In addition to its turn, a morkoth in its lair gets a lair action on initiative count 20. It has four choices: Hypnosis, darkness, dispel magic or misty step. None of the latter three costs a spell slot—but this also means that dispel magic, cast as a lair action, can’t be boosted, so a morkoth will use this spell in this manner only to dispel a 3rd-level effect. If a morkoth can use misty step as a lair action to avoid an opportunity attack, it will. If it’s the first combatant to act after count 20, it will also use misty step to enhance its normal-turn movement as needed. In general, a morkoth is more likely to use misty step than any other lair action. It will cast darkness only if and when it would cast that spell anyway, and the same is true of Hypnosis. (Alas for the morkoth, it can’t use both Hypnosis and misty step on count 20.)
Morkoths are chaotic evil, and to me, this means they delight in preying on the weak. Generally speaking, therefore, the first opponents they’ll attack non-opportunistically are the weakest—barring spellcasters, because spellcasters are their useful idiots. And by weakest, I’m talking mainly in terms of hit points, influenced somewhat by armor. So we’re most likely looking at archers, glass-cannon shock attackers like rogues and monks, and supporters like druids and bards. These are the opponents who bear the brunt of the spells that a morkoth reflects. Morkoths aren’t going to prioritize front-line attackers unless they’re wielding magic weapons; they show their disdain for front-line fighters with normal weapons by declining to pay them any attention.
(Incidentally, with their extraordinary Intelligence, morkoths know exactly which spells to redirect at whom: the supporters get to make the Dex saves, the rogues get to make the Wisdom saves, and the low-AC monks and archers get to try to duck and dodge the ranged spell attacks.)
What compels a morkoth to retreat? Well, that’s a toughie. On the one hand, a morkoth covets all its possessions, and its life is its most precious possession of all. Also, it’s got Wisdom 15, so it ought to have a pretty good sense of when discretion is the better part of valor. On the other hand, who gives up a private island willingly? I’d say, therefore, that a morkoth retreats at some point between being moderately and seriously wounded (reduced to between 52 and 91 hp), when it’s clear that it’s losing the battle—but it doesn’t run away permanently. Rather, it uses dimension door to bug out to a hiding place somewhere else on its island, where it can hide, recuperate and reemerge later to seek payback. It’s not over for a “defeated” morkoth. It’s never over.