NPC Tactics: Scouts and Spies

OK, here’s a quickie post in response to a reader who pointed out that I haven’t yet taken a look at two non-player characters from the Monster Manual: the scout and the spy.

Scouts are spotters and lookouts. With proficiency in Perception and Stealth, they could be effective ambush attackers, but that’s not their job. Their job is to gather information and return with it; combat is an undesirable complication. Consequently, if they attack at all, they prefer strongly to do so at range.

Eighty percent of the humanoids they encounter will have a speed of 30 feet. Of the remainder, most will have a speed of either 25 or 35 feet. Therefore, they don’t position themselves any closer than 75 feet to their targets unless they absolutely have to, and if they have a good view, they’re content to stay as far as 150 feet away. They can attack at these distances without disadvantage, but they’re not assassins. They attack only in self-defense.

Whether they do even this much depends on the speed of any foe who sees and pursues them. If the subjects of their reconnaissance have a speed of 30 feet or slower, they take potshots (Multiattack, Longbow × 2) at pursuers who are still more than 75 feet away at the start of the scouts’ turn. If the pursuers are closer or faster, scouts Dash away. If more than one opponent manages to get within melee reach, or if they can’t afford to take even a single hit, they Disengage—they have the training to do so.

Scouts only drop their bows and draw their swords when they’re surrounded, with no avenue of escape. If they have no reason to think they’ll be killed if they’re captured, they may choose to surrender rather than fight.

Spies are like scouts, but more hands-on. Rather than simply observe from a distance, they often have to operate in their enemies’ midst. Spies aren’t assassins either, but from time to time, if they’re caught, they may have to fight someone to the death. To make this feasible, it’s extremely important that they find or manufacture some source of advantage on each attack roll, so that they can maximize their damage via Sneak Attack, because they’re not likely to have allies on the scene to distract their targets. If they can’t do that, they need to head for the door.

Sadly, there’s nothing in the spy stat block that enables a spy to blind, paralyze, knock prone, restrain or stun an opponent. Nor does it include any sense that would allow the spy to see its opponent in darkness. This is super easy to handwave: All you have to do is decide that your spy belongs to a race with darkvision. But this “solution” leads to a game world arms race in which only races with darkvision are spies, so I’m disinclined to go there.

One alternative is to get out of sight, then use Cunning Action to Hide as a bonus action, then Ready a Shortsword attack, counting on the enemy to pursue. But this isn’t ideal, either. It costs spies the second melee attack they’d otherwise get by using Multiattack on their own turn, so that, at best, they deal 3d6 + 2 damage (on average, 12) rather than 2d6 + 4 (on average, 11). What they really want is a second Shortsword attack and Sneak Attack damage, and that can happen only on their own turn.

Ah, here’s a loophole: The spy’s Multiattack specifies “two melee attacks,” not “two Shortsword attacks.” That means spies can grapple and shove as part of their attack combos! If a spy can knock its opponent prone, they then get advantage on the follow-up grapple attack [Nope. A grapple is a contested ability check, not an attack roll.] , which if successful Knocking an opponent prone, then grappling them reduces the opponent’s speed to 0, making them unable to get up. On its next turn, the spy can then stab with impunity. Alas, there’s a major downside. The spy’s Strength is only 10. That doesn’t bode well for the initial shoving attack. If they can get advantage on that attack, maybe they can make it work—but if they have advantage, why don’t they just stab and deal Sneak Attack damage instead? Grapple/shove, if it can be made to work at all, is preferable only if the spy doesn’t want to kill the target—if they want instead to extract information under the threat of stabbing. (Which would be more effective if the spy had proficiency in Intimidation.)

Unless a spy gets exceptionally lucky, there’s no way out of this mess. Not even Cunning Action offers spies a way to break line of sight, Hide, then attack at melee range in a single turn without being spotted again as they move in to strike. It looks like the only good application of the melee Multiattack/Sneak Attack combination is taking out guards in dim light, inasmuch as an already hidden spy can plausibly close the distance to its target without being spotted along the way. This maneuver deals 18 damage on average, 50 percent more than trying to do the same job from a distance with a hand crossbow.

No, if a spy is busted—and especially if a spy is busted by an entire party of player characters—its best recourse is to book it. Dodge isn’t a good retreat action for spies: their Armor Class is too low. They’re better off Disengaging when engaged in melee with more than one opponent or when they can’t afford to take a single hit, and Dashing when they can afford to take a single hit and/or their opponents are very likely to give chase. While retreating, they use Cunning Action to Hide as a bonus action as soon as they break line of sight, and they stay hidden as they complete their escape.

If they’re cornered, however, spies fight to the death. Captured spies are nearly always killed, or at least tossed in nasty dungeons to think about what they’ve done for a long time, and the reputations of the organizations they belong to hang on their members’ unwillingness to give up the secrets they’ve learned. This combination of factors produces a kind of zealotry that overrides their self-preservation impulses.

Next: leucrottas.

16 thoughts on “NPC Tactics: Scouts and Spies

  1. I know that I’m kind-of reaching, and that it runs into the same “arms race” issue by making a single-race class of spies, but could a lightfoot halfling spy conceivably hide “behind” the target itself thanks to its “Naturally stealthy” trait thus getting two melee attacks with sneak attack?

    I mean, it’s fun (and frustrating, but that would be appropriate) to think of one of those sneaky little hobbitses keeping just outside of your peripheral while they stab you in the groin, but I’m not sure that it would be even near to anything RAW.

    (Also same question, maybe a bit more viable, with wood elves, Mask of the Wild and natural phenomena)

    1. Well, first of all, any creature with Sneak Attack can use it only once in a turn, so only one of those melee attacks gets the extra damage. Your phrasing is ambiguous, and I realize you might not have intended to imply that Sneak Attack damage applies to both melee attacks, but I want to make that point clear.

      Second, I don’t believe line-of-sight rules allow the halfling spy to use Naturally Stealthy to Hide behind a target it’s going to attack. The big difference between this case and that of, say, the phase spider is that the phase spider begins its turn on the ethereal plane and appears behind its target before immediately attacking. The halfling has to get there. There’s no place the halfling is coming from that would conceal it from the target’s sight until it was ready to attack. And even the phase spider still has to make a Stealth check to make sure the target doesn’t hear it. Now, a halfling spy could certainly Hide behind a friendly humanoid—or even in a crowd of bystanders, Assassin’s Creed II–style—and ride that cover until it came within reach of its target. But Hiding behind the target themself? Nah, that’s too much.

      Mask of the Wild, on the other hand—that could allow a wood elf spy to march right up to a target unseen and unheard and stab away if it were raining or snowing. That’s a much more potent trait for a spy to have. In fact, it’s so good, both for attacking and for escaping, that if we were looking for any folk that would make the ultimate spies, it’d be wood elves. (They’re faster than most other humanoids, too—another edge when making a run for it.)

      1. Mask of the Wild allows a Wood Elf to attempt to Hide, not move Unseen towards a potential target. A Wood Elf can move, then Hide on its Action, and then repeat the process, but it can’t Move Unseen.

        1. “In combat, most creatures stay alert for signs of danger all around, so if you come out of hiding and approach a creature, it usually sees you. However, under certain circumstances, the DM might allow you to stay hidden as you approach a creature that is distracted, allowing you to gain advantage on an attack roll before you are seen” (PH, chapter 7, emphasis mine).

          If the conditions that allow a wood elf to Hide with Mask of the Wild (rain, light fog, etc.) exist throughout the area, it can surely remain hidden while moving through them as well.

  2. I’d like to believe a spy would have some sort of poison, hopefully inhaled or injury but possibly ingested, that gives disadvantage on checks to make it easier for them to prone their target.

    But I do think a spy would just leave instead of fighting when caught. When do you determine when a chase scene happens?

    1. No such thing mentioned in the stat block, though. As opposed to the assassin stat block, which does explicitly indicate the use of poison on its weapons.

      I mean, you could decide to give your NPC spy fantasy chloroform. But the possible ways to customize a stat block are limitless; there’s no way I could develop tactics for each one. Consequently, unless I simply don’t believe that a monster can be plausibly run as written—the mind flayer being the only example that leaps immediately to my mind—I limit my analysis to the content of the published stat block.

      1. Btw, about that Mindflayer issue- lore (mostly from Drizzt books, and from the same being written about beholders’ charm in Volo’s) suggests that after continuous exposure to domination and mind blasts, a creature’s mind erodes and it starts to obey whatever a mindflayer tells it without being directly charmed/dominated.

        So you can run a mindflayer as written and assume that minions are being controlled like this, and one of its’ goals might be taking unconscious PCs for later, longer brainwash.

  3. Most humanoids who don’t move 30ft move 25, not 35 (typo?).

    PC Rogues use attack+hide all the time; all it takes is something in the environment (bushes, table, curtains…) that breaks line of sight and that you can hide behind.
    However, while one character out of 4-6 being able to hide like that in the chaos of battle seems plausible, it’s not that plausible when one Spy is outnumbered.
    For that reason, and because of how SA works, I’d say that the spy really, really wants to have allies; They’ll probably never fight when outnumbered.

    1. I should have said, “Eighty percent of the humanoids they encounter will have a speed of 30 feet or less.”

      Also, Attack/Hide is very different from Hide/Attack. PC rogues aren’t the only ones who use Attack/Hide; so do goblins. But Hide/Attack requires very specific and favorable circumstances, and it’s much harder to do with a melee attack than with a ranged attack.

      Finally, while it might be more tactically advantageous for a spy to have allies nearby, the reality is, spies usually operate solo, and that has to be taken into account.

  4. Hmmm, I’ve always treated Multiattack on monsters as the same as Extra Attack; that is, any of the attacks can be replaced with a grapple or shove. I never thought about it specifying the exact type of Multiattack that needed to take place… Doesn’t it just say “melee attacks” because it’s a humanoid that could conceivably be holding a different weapon, as opposed to, say, a manticore that had only its natural weapons?

  5. Why would the spy get advantage on the grapple check after they’ve knocked an opponent prone? The prone condition only grants advantage on attack rolls, and grappling specifically states that the grappler makes a check instead of an attack roll.

  6. My thinking has always been that the melee multiattack is meant to make up for the spy being in melee at all, which is not where it wants to be. If the spy has to fight at all, it wants to follow the formula of “Hand Crossbow from 10-30 feet while unseen->move->Hide->repeat,” at all times. The multiattack is just a way for the spy to save a terrible situation when it gets rushed and loses advantage. The side effect of the spy gaining an even better form of attack as a result of the existence of the multiattack shouldn’t then be taken as the preferred method, except in scenarios where it makes sense. If it only makes sense when the spy has allies (it does) and the spy is unlikely to ever have allies (as you suggest) then simply ignore it and focus on the tactic that works when solo.

  7. The analysis of spies you give here is very interesting, and the assumption that they operate alone is certainly reasonable, but all the difficulties they face in trying to gain advantage seems to me like a solid argument for spies to operate in pairs rather than alone.

    Of course, they would still prefer to avoid being detected at all if possible, but if worst comes to worst, having two of them would allow them to gain advantage on their attacks via flanking (I know how much you love that optional rule – and I agree) without hugely increasing the difficulty of infiltrating in the first place. And since they’re so good at Sneaking and Hiding, they can set up ambushes to strike from opposite sides against isolated opponents, assuming they aren’t actually caught red-handed, anyway.

    If the King (or whoever) really wants this job done right, it seems like a plausible request to send two instead of just one.

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