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

Sorrowsworn Tactics

In the Feywild, creatures spring into existence that are the manifestations of the feelings of mortals. In the Shadowfell, this happens, too, but only for the really bad feelings. These creatures are the sorrowsworn.

The intriguing thing about the sorrowsworn is that they literally feed off negative emotions. Doing violence to the Angry, for instance, makes its attacks more effective, while refusing to do violence to it reduces its effectiveness.

All sorrowsworn have 60 feet of darkvision—good for the gloom of the Shadowfell—and are resistant to physical damage from any type of weapon, not just nonmagical weapons, while out of bright light. Continue reading Sorrowsworn Tactics

Star Spawn Tactics, Part 1

Star spawn are new arrivals in the Dungeons and Dragons universe. The name seems to be borrowed from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, but according to the Powers That Be, star spawn aren’t native to the Far Realm specifically. Some of them are from the Far Realm, but others are associated with “Elder Evils” that inhabit other planes, such as the Shadowfell, the Gray Waste and the Abyss. They understand and speak Deep Speech, which is not the same as Undercommon, but rather a language associated with the Far Realm; it’s also spoken by neogi, mind flayers, beholders and aboleths.

There’s a variety of star spawn for every level of play, from the lowly grue to the boss-level larva mage. Continue reading Star Spawn Tactics, Part 1

Derro Tactics

A long while back, a reader asked me to look at the derro, a creature featured in Out of the Abyss. I didn’t have Out of the Abyss (and still don’t), so I had to table the request. But since Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes includes the derro, I can finally—belatedly—fulfill it.

Derro are small humanoids native to the Underdark. “Equal parts fearful and vicious,” Mordenkainen’s says, “[they] prey on those weaker than themselves, while giving simpering obeisance to any creatures they deem more powerful.” No doubt they want to make the Underdark great again.

With high Dexterity and above-average Constitution but merely average Strength, derro are skirmishers, but not especially mobile ones. Their Intelligence is average, but their Wisdom, for some reason, is in the cellar. This is unusual; the reverse is far more common, especially since Wisdom supports the Perception skill. Not only are they easy to get the drop on, they also have an underdeveloped survival instinct, making them more likely to fight to the death. They are, however, proficient in Stealth, predisposing them toward an ambush strategy.

They have excellent darkvision and Sunlight Sensitivity, so they’ll rarely venture aboveground for any reason, and absolutely never during the day. This, plus their innate paranoia, combine to suggest an intense territoriality—which is to say, not only will they defend their turf viciously, they’ll hardly ever leave it at all, except to try to conquer an adjoining sliver of new territory.

Derro have two weapon attacks, hooked spear and light crossbow. One option with the spear is to knock an enemy prone (presumably by hooking and tripping him or her), which would give an adjacent melee attacker advantage on a follow-up attack. However, a ranged attacker has disadvantage against a prone target, so this doesn’t help the crossbow-wielding derro at all. Even worse: It turns out, if you run the numbers, that even if the first derro in a group successfully hooks and trips an enemy, its allies nearly always do less expected damage, despite having advantage on their to-hit rolls, than the group would do if all of them simply attacked to do damage.

This holds true for any group of two five derro. It takes six or more derro attacking a single opponent in melee for the advantage from hooking and tripping to produce an increase in overall damage, and at that threshold, it only works against unarmored, lightly armored or moderately armored opponents.

Reflecting on this, I think you should consider the hook-and-trip to be an “advanced” derro tactic. Derro have a challenge rating of only 1/4, so you can throw them against even level 1 player characters. Against these PCs, they won’t appear in great enough numbers to do anything but stab. But once your PCs are up around level 5 and higher, they’re going to be fighting hordes of derro, not just patrols and platoons, and in that instance, the first in each group of attackers will hook and trip to try to give the rest advantage. (For the sanity of your players and yourself, use the “Handling Mobs” rule on page 250 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and assume that advantage gives +4 to hit.) Assuming they all share the same initiative count, derro wielding crossbows will all shoot first, before any of their enemies fall prone; then the derro with spears will attack.

Alternatively, if you’re more interested in flavor than in optimization, always have the first derro in a group of three or more wielding spears attack to hook and trip. The average difference in damage is less than 1 point, and your players probably won’t do the math on the fly and realize that being flat on their prats doesn’t put them in any more danger than they were in standing up.

After all that, it seems almost anticlimactic to point out that the light crossbow does significantly more damage than the spear—86 percent more, on average. So rather than divide up a derro unit between crossbowmen and spearmen, assume that every derro carries both a crossbow and a spear; that they prefer to use their crossbows over their spears; but that when an enemy rushes them, they switch, and so do their immediate neighbors. Also, if at all possible, they launch their first crossbow volley from hiding, to gain unseen attacker advantage.

Derro paranoia and low Wisdom mean they don’t flee when seriously wounded but rather keep on fighting until they’re down to 1 or 2 hp. At that point, the gravely wounded derro will run, baiting out opportunity attacks—and their erstwhile allies will seize that opportunity to retreat out of melee range themselves and go back to attacking with their higher-damage crossbows. If combat drags on beyond three rounds, all derro will flee the scene, Dashing away. But this is simply a strategic retreat. They‘ll gather some more allies, stalk their opponents and ambush again as soon as they get the chance.

Derro savants are derro with sorcerous ability. Aside from having high Charisma and slightly below-average Strength, they have exactly the same ability contour as a regular derro. Because that below-average Strength makes them even less effective in melee, however, they’ll always attack from range, and other derro will run interference for them in case an enemy tries to close to melee distance.

Lightning bolt is the big gun in the derro savant’s arsenal, but it has the drawback of affecting only a narrow, straight line. Invisibility, however, gives the derro savant the freedom to position itself where it can cast a lightning bolt that nails three or more enemies, if they’re properly lined up. It’s most likely to get this chance if the battle has a well-defined front line. In a more all-over-the-place battle, though, there may never be a good opportunity to cast lightning bolt.

Normally, I’d say, the derro savant should use its 3rd-level spell slots for lightning bolt and nothing else. But I’d also say that because of the length of its area of effect, it’s practically wasted if cast against just one or two enemies. So what about, say, boosting chromatic orb with a 3rd-level spell slot? That would make it do 5d8 damage (22 points, on average) against a single enemy with a ranged spell attack roll, vs. 8d6 damage (28 points, on average) against one or two enemies, with the burden on them to make a Dexterity saving throw, and half damage done even if they succeed. There’s no comparing the two. Chromatic orb falls far short.

Burning hands? At least that one requires a Dex save, does half damage on a success and can affect a second target, but even when boosted to 3rd level, the base damage is only 5d6 (17 points, on average). This one’s a self-defense measure for when the derro savant gets sacked, nothing more. And sleep just doesn’t scale well. So save those 3rd-level spell slots, even if the opportunity to cast lightning bolt doesn’t seem to present itself. The derro savant holds out hope that the moment will eventually come, and when it does, it will be ready.

As for cantrips, the derro savant has two that do damage: acid splash and ray of frost. Ray of frost is better, but neither is that great. The derro savant will use up its lightning bolts and chromatic orbs before resorting to cantrips. Spider climb is useful for escaping in a high-verticality environment, and not much else—and since the derro savant is as unlikely to flee as any other derro, this spell won’t get much use. Ditto sleep, once the PCs are past level 4 or so.

Next: star spawn. No, really, I mean it this time.

Oblex Tactics

More from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes: After the abishai, the next two requests I got were for the oblex, a slime-creature created out of mind flayer experimentation which feeds off humanoids’ memories. On D&D Beyond, Jeremy Crawford recently characterized the oblex as “D&D’s new scariest monster.” Is it? I’m not convinced that it’s the scariest, in terms of the degree of threat it poses—but I would say it’s one of the creepiest.

The main reason I think oblexes (I feel like the plural should be “oblices”) are more creepy than scary is that they don’t need to kill their victims to consume their memories. They can kill their victims, but they don’t need to. Furthermore, it’s not clear that they have any compelling reason to. It’s the memories that power them, not the physical substance of their victims. There’s also a curious choice of wording in the Eat Memories feature that makes me wonder whether an oblex has any good reason to use it more than once per target. But more on that below.

Oblexes/oblices have an unusual ability contour, with peaks in Dexterity, Constitution and Intelligence. Dexterity plus Constitution usually means “skirmisher,” but oozes can’t move fast enough to skirmish. What they really are is quasi-brutes with Dexterity- and Intelligence-based rather than Strength-based attacks and a keen sense of their opponents’ weaknesses. Continue reading Oblex Tactics

Dinosaur Tactics

“Sophistication” is not the word that leaps to mind when discussing the battle tactics of dinosaurs. Most of these ancient beasts are dumb brutes, with extraordinary Strength and Constitution and rock-bottom Intelligence. They also fall into two main categories, plus one variation:

  • Plant-eaters: These tend to be peaceful unless spooked. They may lash out if you invade their space, and they’ll defend themselves if cornered, but most of the time, they’ll mind their own business. If attacked, they’ll usually run.
  • Meat-eaters: These are predators that will hunt, kill and eat any creature smaller than themselves. If they’re hungry—and they usually are—you can count on them to chase and attack anyone and anything they might construe as food.
  • Flying meat-eaters: These behave like their landbound kin, but the fact that they can fly adds an aerial wrinkle to their attack pattern.

The fifth-edition Monster Manual contains stat blocks for six dinosaurs: allosaurus, ankylosaurus, plesiosaurus, pteranodon, triceratops and tyrannosaurus rex. Volo’s Guide to Monsters contains seven more: brontosaurus, deinonychus, dimetrodon, hadrosaurus, quetzalcoatlus, stegosaurus and velociraptor. (All the dinosaurs in Tomb of Annihilation can be found in these two books.)

I’ll look at these by dietary group, from lowest challenge rating to highest within each. Think of this as the dinosaurs’ pecking order, as any meat-eating dinosaur will attack and eat another dinosaur of a smaller size and lower CR, while a higher CR plant-eater, although it won’t actually attack other plant-eaters with lower CRs, may yet decide to muscle in and chase them off if the grazing in an area is especially good. I’ll also link to images, since they’re not all illustrated in the 5E books. Continue reading Dinosaur Tactics

Vegepygmy Tactics

In yon days of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, TSR published every adventure “module” (as we called them then) with an alphanumeric code, and if you speak the code “S3” to a role-playing gamer of my generation, it’ll be met with a big grin and the reaction, “The one with the spaceship!” Yep, that’s Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, a D&D/science fiction crossover, in which the player characters explore the wreckage of a futuristic craft and stock up on assorted high-tech weaponry and loot.

One of the more memorable monsters from this module is the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing, a carnivorous, tentacled stump with a wiggly appendage at the top that resembles an adorable furry creature. Another—equally memorable but less fondly remembered—is the vegepygmy. Among my D&D friends, I think vegepygmies must have come in for more derision than any other D&D monster except the flumph and the flail snail, although thinking about it now, I couldn’t tell you exactly why we thought vegepygmies were so ridiculous. Maybe it was just the name. Anyway, the last paragraph of the vegepygmy entry in Volo’s Guide to Monsters contains a cheeky shout-out to their origin.

Vegepygmies, essentially, are fungus in a humanoid form, though they differ from myconids in . . . ways. For one thing, they do possess the power of speech, sort of. They’re not telepathic. They’re a little more peoply-looking. They propagate by infecting other creatures with russet mold spores, rather than independently. But ultimately, they’re still just another form of animate fungus. And like myconids, they’re categorized in Volo’s as plants, even though fungi, it turns out, are closer to animals than to plants in the taxonomic tree. As I suggested with myconids, you may choose to categorize them as humanoids or even aberrations instead, then let your players try to solve the riddle of their plant-related spells’ not working on beings that sure do look like plants. Continue reading Vegepygmy 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

Animated Object Tactics

So far, I’ve largely neglected constructs, except for my post the other day on golems. Constructs are different from other monsters, because they’re explicitly not evolved creatures—they’re magical creations, usually from inanimate objects. This means they can behave in whatever manner their creators want them to. (Within limits.)

But if you were creating an animated object, you’d still want it to function in the most effective manner it can, given the traits you’ve imbued it with, wouldn’t you? So I’ll examine these constructs as if they were evolved creatures after all. Continue reading Animated Object Tactics

Grung Tactics

I have to hand it to Volo’s Guide to Monsters for giving us grungs, undisputed winners of the Most Adorable Evil Creature title, formerly held by kobolds.

Clearly based on poison arrow frogs, grungs are arboreal rainforest dwellers, tribal and territorial. In the latter respect, their behavior in groups will therefore resemble that of lizardfolk, so I refer readers to my original article on them. Their amphibian nature also invites comparison to bullywugs.

Lizardfolk are brutes, but grungs are low-Strength, high-Dexterity, high-Constitution skirmishers. Their low Strength means they’re going to be encountered in large numbers; no fewer than half a dozen at a time, I’d say. If they’re going to initiate an encounter against your player characters, rather than vice versa, they’ll have to outnumber the party at least three to one.

Grungs share the Amphibious and Standing Leap features with bullywugs. This means they’ll often be found in swampy areas, around rivers and in other sorts of difficult terrain, which they can get around in easily by jumping. They’re quicker than bullywugs, though not as quick as most PCs, and since they can climb as well as jump, they’ll use their proficiency in Stealth to hide in trees and drop on their enemies from above. Continue reading Grung Tactics