Pigeon Tactics

If you live in a major North American city (except, weirdly, Milwaukee), you’ve undoubtedly encountered pigeons on an almost daily basis. Like squirrels, they enjoy a commensal relationship with humans, benefiting greatly from our effect on the ecosystem without significantly helping us or harming us in any way. And you know they’re generally quite chill, unless your toddler runs directly at them, as toddlers invariably do.

The standard pigeon in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons is no different. A small, unthreatening thing, it’s disinclined to fight at all and relies heavily on its Hypervigilant Flight reaction, which allows it to move up to half its speed as a reaction—without provoking an opportunity attack—if another creature moves within 5 feet of it. Pigeons are prey creatures, not predators, and the only way you’re likely to suffer a Beak attack from one is if you somehow manage to grab it.

A swarm of pigeons behaves similarly to a single pigeon, but not exactly the same. It still spooks easily, and it rarely attacks, preferring simply to use Hypervigilant Flight to retreat to a safe distance and, if pursued, to Dash to a safe perch out of reach. However, sometimes a swarm of pigeons chooses an empty, elevated location to roost in, such as an upper floor of an abandoned building. Particularly if this roost is home to eggs or squabs, a swarm of pigeons may become aggressive toward anyone who intrudes.

The first action it generally takes against a trespasser is Evacuate, more as a scare response than a calculated attempt to debilitate. If the target subsequently moves, so does the swarm, using Hypervigilant Flight. However, if the target doesn’t leave, the swarm then swoops back down and attacks with its Beaks. It continues to attack until the intruder is driven off or the swarm is reduced to 10 hp or fewer.

The giant pigeon is another matter, because unlike its Tiny cousins, it doesn’t scare. Cheeky and undauntable in its pursuit of food, it disregards other creatures as long as they leave it alone. Even snatching food away from it doesn’t provoke it to fight; it simply continues to try to get the food back, with greater determination. (You can use the Disarm action, from “Action Options” in chapter 9 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, to represent the giant pigeon’s attempts to snatch food back from a character who’s holding it.) If and when one does actual harm to it, however, it fights back, doing its best to drive the aggressor away. Continue reading Pigeon Tactics

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. Continue reading NPC Tactics: Scouts and Spies

Conjured Creature Tactics

Today’s post is as much for players as it is for Dungeon Masters, because creatures summoned by conjure animals are as often found fighting alongside player characters as against them. And, in fact, the tactics relating to conjured creatures are player tactics as much as they are creature tactics, if not more so.

Conjure animals—along with the closely related spells conjure woodland beings and conjure minor elementals—is sometimes referred to as a “broken” spell. It’s not necessarily that the spell is excessively powerful; in fact, as we’ll see, it comes with a built-in hitch that can have just the opposite effect. Rather, it’s the fact that this hitch encourages casters to summon as many creatures as possible, causing combat to bog down badly—over and over and over again. So one of the things I’ll talk about is how to keep this from happening.

It behooves any player whose PC learns conjure animals (or conjure woodland beings or conjure minor elementals) to read the spell description very closely, because it doesn’t necessarily do what you think it does. Unlike, say, find familiar, these spells don’t give you the privilege of choosing what kind of creature shows up. They don’t even let you dictate how powerful the summoned creature(s) will be. The only thing you’re assured of is how many creatures show up. Continue reading Conjured Creature Tactics

Chitine and Choldrith Tactics

Today I look at two related creatures from Volo’s Guide to Monsters, the chitine and the choldrith, part-elf, part-spider abominations created by magic as servitors of the spider goddess Lolth, patron of the drow. Based on their descriptions in the lore, even though they’ve produced offspring for many generations, the manner of their creation and the strong connection to their demonic mistress’s will suggests that they haven’t evolved; rather, they remain much as they were when they were created. Which implies two things: that they don’t necessarily have the same survival instincts that evolved creatures do, and that they may occasionally behave in suboptimal ways.

Chitines—hairy bipeds with multiple additional arms and eyes—are the more humanoid of the monstrous pair. They’re also the weaker, with a challenge rating of just 1/2. Largely, they’re uncomplicated ambush attackers. Their Web Sense and Web Walker traits strongly suggest that they’re usually encountered in the company of creatures that spin webs, such as their choldrith cousins, giant spiders or ettercaps; they may also be minions of a drow arachnomancer. But while spinning webs isn’t part of their combat repertoire, it is something they can do on their own time, according to the flavor text, so they don’t need these other creatures to have a webbed-up field to fight on. Fighting in webs and pitch darkness gives them a big comparative advantage. Their Stealth proficiency and climbing movement suggest not only that they lurk in the dark, waiting to pounce, but that they lurk in the dark on the ceiling.

With Intelligence and Wisdom of only 10, chitines aren’t particularly choosy about their targets. Their above-average Dexterity and Constitution suggest a preference for skirmishing, but really, Dexterity is both their primary offensive ability and their primary defensive ability, and they lean heavily on their Multiattack. Even when engaged with one melee opponent, they’re happy to ditch them to go after another who seems more vulnerable, judging by size, age, relative isolation, whether a they seem to have a hard time seeing in the dark, and/or whether they’re under a debilitating condition, such as being restrained by sticky webs. They’re not quite smart or disciplined enough to know how to Disengage, so they’ll often provoke opportunity attacks against themselves while darting from opponent to opponent. But they can—and do—minimize these by climbing up walls, skittering across ceilings to get past enemies they don’t want to engage with, then dropping down on those they do want to engage. Continue reading Chitine and Choldrith Tactics

Rot Grub ‘Tactics’

Rot grubs are nearly mindless creatures that exist primarily in swarms, a stat block for which is provided in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. They’re a nasty surprise for any adventurer who stumbles across them, since the only way to fight them off once they’ve burrowed into you is to intentionally burn yourself. However, to talk about their having “tactics” is to give them too much credit, and I’m only bothering to write them up because a reader requested it.

A swarm of rot grubs is easy to hit, having an armor class of only 8, but not so easy to destroy. The swarm is resistant to piercing and slashing damage, reflecting the fact that you can kill a lot more grubs with a broad bashing weapon than with a thin cutting edge or poking point. The swarm is also immune to most debilitating conditions, stunned and unconscious being two standout exceptions. The swarm can be blinded, but that doesn’t mean much, since it has 10 feet of blindsight. Except for its Constitution, which is average, the swarm’s ability scores are pitifully low.

The swarm has only one attack, a bite that does only indirect damage. Rather than take place at the moment of attack, the damage occurs at the start of the target’s turn, and it varies in proportion to the number of grubs that have burrowed into the target’s flesh (1d4 per hit). The target must cauterize the bite wound on this turn, or the burrowing grubs will do continuous round-by-round damage until the target is either cured of the infestation or dead. Continue reading Rot Grub ‘Tactics’

Modron Tactics

I was a huge math nerd as a kid. I think I must have been just 5 or 6 years old when I first got my hands on Flatland, and I drank it up like a parched man in a hot desert (having no idea until many years later that it was an allegory for classism and sexism in Victorian England), and the discovery of a quasi-sequel called Sphereland (sadly, not in print right now) delighted me even further.

So maybe you’d expect me to be more into modrons than I am. But when a reader recently told me he planned to run a campaign in Mechanus, the plane of pure law, and thought he wasn’t doing the modrons justice, I had to confess: I hate them. I have a great appreciation for silliness, but modrons have always struck me as just too silly, like whoever came up with the idea of Mechanus envisioned it as something out of The Phantom Tollbooth or Donald in Mathmagic Land.

Modrons are constructs, automata with vaguely mathematically inspired bodies and weirdly humanoid faces (with, in the illustrations of the fifth-edition Monster Manual, disturbingly full lips). The more advanced the modron, the more it can multitask, and the more authority it has over other modrons. All modrons possess natural armor, above-average Dexterity, 120 feet of truesight, and the features Axiomatic Mind and Disintegration.

One of the many peculiarities of modrons is that they’re denizens of an outer plane, yet their challenge ratings top out at 2. How many low-level adventurers are going to travel to Mechanus? I wonder whether these creatures must exist at least primarily for the sake of background decoration. They’re not going to pose a challenge to the player characters who encounter them except in great numbers—legions. Continue reading Modron Tactics

Rust Monster Tactics

Back when God’s grandma was a little girl, Dungeons and Dragons’ focus was emphatically on the dungeons—and by “dungeons,” it meant not just dank, subterranean lockups but vast underground complexes containing entire societies and ecosystems. Player characters spent a lot of time exploring these networks of caverns, and there was little or no opportunity to pop back up to the nearest village and replenish supplies.

So when your front-line fighter got cocky and armored himself up like a Panzer IV, the Monster Manual provided a way to cut him down to size: the rust monster, whose sole raison d’être was the annihilation of plate mail when it was neither cheap nor convenient to replace.

This cheese beast lives on in fifth-edition D&D, and despite the absurdity of a creature nourishing itself on a pre-oxidized, chemically stable substance, we have to look at this unaligned monstrosity as an evolved creature, because any other explanation of its existence is just too meta. Continue reading Rust Monster Tactics

Sahuagin Tactics

Sahuagin are fierce, amphibious fish-men that live underwater but emerge periodically to raid coastal settlements. Although the Monster Manual says they “dwell in the deepest trenches of the ocean,” that’s a bit far for even a creature with a 40-foot swimming speed. Those ocean trenches are as far from the coasts as the highest mountains are, and you don’t often hear about the yeti of the Himalayas spending an afternoon staging a raid on Kolkata, or the Tatzelwürmer of the Alps popping down to Genoa for some late-night ravaging. These are distances of hundreds of miles we’re talking about. So chances are, any sahuagin that player characters encounter are going to be denizens of shallower depths. Maybe they’re the border reivers of the ocean kingdom.

When they come ashore to raid, they do so at night, as implied by their 120 feet of darkvision. They can’t come far inland, since their Limited Amphibiousness gives them only four hours of air breathing before they have to return to the water. Unlike, say, merrows, sahuagin can move about on land as easily as any other humanoid.

In this environment, they’re basic brutes. Their Multiattack gives them one weapon or claw attack and one bite attack. Since their armor class doesn’t include a shield, we can presume that they wield their spears two-handed for the greater damage. Continue reading Sahuagin Tactics

Fey Tactics: Darklings, Quicklings and Redcaps

Volo’s Guide to Monsters offers a number of new possibilities for deep forest encounters and conjure fey summonees, and today I’m going to look at three of them: darklings, quicklings and redcaps.

Darklings are the rogues of the fey world, inhabiting not just woodlands but also caves and catacombs. They’re high in Dexterity, above-average in Constitution and below-average in Strength, marking them as snipers and shock attackers that must choose their battles carefully. If they can’t manage their mischief with secrecy and stealth, they’ll have to compensate with numbers. But nothing in the Volo’s flavor texts suggests that they’re prolific, so secrecy it is. Fortunately for them, they’re proficient in Acrobatics and Deception and expert in Perception and Stealth.

They have 120 feet of darkvision topped off with 30 feet of blindsight; they’re also light-sensitive, giving them disadvantage on attack rolls and Perception checks in bright light. Dim light is ideal for them, but they can function capably in total darkness—even, to a certain extent, in magical darkness.

They have only one attack: a simple dagger strike, either melee or ranged. Built into this attack, however, is extra damage when they attack with advantage—a partial equivalent of the Sneak Attack feature. The most straightforward way for them to attack with advantage is to strike in darkness against a target who lacks darkvision. Continue reading Fey Tactics: Darklings, Quicklings and Redcaps

Firenewt Tactics

Firenewts are quasi-humanoids adapted to conditions of extreme heat, and they display the corresponding fiery temperament: “aggressive, wrathful and cruel,” according to Volo’s Guide to Monsters. They’re raiders, slavers and zealots. If you encounter a small band of them, they’re probably looking for captives. If you encounter a horde, they’re on the warpath.

Firenewt warriors have above-average Dexterity and Constitution and merely average Strength. Despite this ability contour, they fight as brutes, because Dexterity is their primary offensive ability (they wield scimitars, a finesse weapon) and because they lack any feature that would adapt them especially well to skirmishing. They also wear medium armor and carry shields, and they have Multiattack.

They’re not bright. With an Intelligence of 7, they show no imagination or adaptability in their tactics, essentially fighting like primitives. Nor do they discriminate among targets. “’Tis always a fight to the death for them, so ’tis always one for ye,” says “Elminster” in Volo’s, but I’d consider this optional, not gospel. It’s true that they’re described as fanatics, so they may well fight to the death out of conviction. But their Wisdom of 11 is high enough that they can be presumed to have a normal survival instinct. I might split the difference and say that they’re more likely to fight to the death when they’re on some kind of mission, in the company of other firenewts; if they’re just minding their own business, they’ll Dash away if seriously wounded (reduced to 8 hp or fewer). Continue reading Firenewt Tactics