NPC Tactics: Apprentice Wizards, Bards and Martial Arts Adepts

The new NPCs in Volo’s Guide to Monsters fall into three categories: prospective boss enemies or boss lieutenants (the archdruid, blackguard, champion, kraken priest, war priest and warlord), magic-using specialists (the abjurer, conjurer, diviner, enchanter, evoker, illusionist, necromancer, transmuter and three warlock variants) and “other” (the apprentice wizard, bard, martial arts adept, master thief and swashbuckler). Analyzing the magic-users requires close, time-consuming attention to their spell repertoires, so I’m going to put off talking about them for now; ditto the archdruid, kraken priest and war priest. The blackguard, champion and warlord are mostly uncomplicated brutes. The “other” category looks more interesting, so that’s where I’ll start. Continue reading NPC Tactics: Apprentice Wizards, Bards and Martial Arts Adepts

Gnolls Revisited

I hate to say it, but Volo’s Guide to Monsters has managed to make gnolls even less interesting to me than they were before.

That’s unfortunate. They were already an unsophisticated, “Rrrrraaaahhhh, stab stab stab” kind of monster, aside from the gnoll Fang of Yeenoghu, which at least had the brains to identify weaker party members and go out of its way to get them. Here’s what we learn about them from Volo’s:

  • They’re not evolved creatures, but rather hyenas transformed by the power of the demon lord Yeenoghu.
  • They’re driven solely by the desire to kill and eat.
  • That’s pretty much it.

And yet, inexplicably, Volo’s contains a section on “Gnoll Tactics.” It doesn’t provide any such section for goblinoids, whose features make possible some really interesting tactics. (In particular, hobgoblins are supposed to be savvy tacticians.) It provides one for kobolds, which is great, because kobold tactics aren’t obvious without a fair amount of analysis. But the “Gnoll Tactics” in Volo’s aren’t tactics so much as reiterations of gnolls’ fundamentally brutal and unimaginative nature. (They don’t set up permanent camps. They leave no survivors. They like weak, easy targets. They attack tougher creatures “only when the most powerful omens from Yeenoghu compel them to do so,” i.e., when the dungeon master decides they will.) Continue reading Gnolls Revisited

Kobolds Revisited

Reading the section on kobolds in Volo’s Guide to Monsters gives me a much greater appreciation for kobolds. My own original assessment of kobolds was that they rely on ambush, will never fight an enemy hand-to-hand alone, and will retreat and regroup—or just retreat—if injured or isolated. Volo’s concurs, but it goes so much further. My hat is off to Volo’s.

“Because they are physically weak individually, kobolds know they have to use superior numbers and cunning to take down powerful foes,” it says. “Cunning” may be giving too much credit to a species with an average Intelligence of 8 and Wisdom of 7, but what I like about the section of Volo’s on kobold tactics (something it doesn’t offer for goblinoids) is that it takes the evolutionary perspective one step further than I did and presents kobolds as having evolved a highly cooperative society. Unlike goblins, forever squabbling and looking out for themselves, kobolds instinctively work together, even without having to discuss what they’re doing. Continue reading Kobolds Revisited

Mephit Tactics

I’ve been asked to take a look at mephits, wicked little critters that maliciously embody the para-elements of dust, ice, magma, mud, smoke and steam. The Monster Manual characterizes them as “tricksters,” but every one of them is of neutral evil, not chaotic, alignment, so their “trickery” is of a decidedly baleful sort. I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t behave as evolved creatures with respect to their self-preservation instinct, but if survival is their No. 1 priority, causing gratuitous harm and annoyance to others is No. 2.

Mephits aren’t tough—half of them are CR 1/4, and the other half are CR 1/2. All of them have low Strength, all of them can fly, and all of them have darkvision (meaning they either live underground or are active primarily at night) and the Death Burst feature, which does something when they’re killed, although that something depends on the type of mephit. And they all have a simple melee attack, along with a breath weapon that has only a 1 in 6 chance to recharge, so in all likelihood, they’ll get to use it only once. Most (but not all) of them are proficient in Stealth, suggesting that they like to ambush their victims, and their low Strength suggests that they’ll usually be encountered in decent-size groups; a lone mephit wouldn’t dare pick a fight with more than a couple of enemies at once.

Beyond that, though, every type of mephit is a little bit different, and there’s nothing for it but to look at each type individually. Continue reading Mephit Tactics

Fey Tactics: Pixies, Sprites and Dryads

So far, I’ve been lax in examining fey creatures. This is partly because they generally aren’t evil, so they don’t often show up as opponents. It’s interesting that Dungeons and Dragons has always chosen to portray fey creatures this way, because in folklore, fairykind can be very nasty. In D&D, however, they tend to be giggly and harmless. Continue reading Fey Tactics: Pixies, Sprites and Dryads

Bullywug Tactics

Bullywugs are petty, bad-tempered humanoid frogs, native to swampy areas. The fifth-edition Monster Manual flavor text describes them as “struck with a deep inferiority complex . . . desperately crav[ing] the fear and respect of outsiders” and says they’ll generally prefer to capture trespassers rather than kill them outright, hauling them back to win favor with their rulers first. One way they do this is by taming giant frogs and having them swallow victims whole; however, this works only on Small or Tiny targets, meaning that unless a party of player characters is made up entirely of halflings or gnomes, this isn’t a strategy they can rely on in a typical encounter.

For a creature with only two hit dice, bullywugs aren’t too shabby in combat. All their physical abilities are modestly above average; they have proficiency in Stealth and the Swamp Camouflage feature, which grants them advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks in swampy terrain. It’s fair to say, therefore, that bullywugs won’t venture outside such areas—not when they have such a natural advantage on their home turf.

Moreover, their Standing Leap ability lets them move their full speed of 20 feet per turn as a long jump, when the jumping rule would normally allow them to leap only 6 feet. This allows them to cover distance in difficult marshy terrain without having to halve their movement speed. If you want to be nitpicky about it, you can require them to succeed on a DC 10 Dexterity (Acrobatics) check when they land, per page 182 of the Player’s Handbook, but personally, I’d say that bullywugs, whose natural habitat is the swamp, shouldn’t have to make that check when landing. And for the sake of flavor, I like the idea of having bullywugs bouncing around like a bunch of ornery little superballs during combat rather than trudging around in 2-D as we landbound humanoids must. (Mind you, this does not exempt them from opportunity attacks when they jump out of PCs’ reach.) Continue reading Bullywug Tactics

Kuo-toa Tactics

Old-school Dungeons and Dragons players will recall that the kuo-toa made their debut in the venerated, if somewhat incoherent, D-series of adventure modules, which also introduced the drow. In the world of Greyhawk, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons’ original setting, they and the drow were fierce enemies. In fifth-edition D&D, however, the kuo-toa have been retconned into broken ex-subjects of an empire of mind flayers, their rivalry with the drow now mentioned only in passing.

“Many weapons of the kuo-toa are designed to capture rather than kill,” the Monster Manual flavor text informs us, but it leaves open the question of what they want to capture anyone for. Religious sacrifice, maybe? Interrogation? Found-art pieces? Regardless, I’m going to examine their tactics with the assumption that they are, in fact, trying to kill the player characters. Continue reading Kuo-toa Tactics

Drow Tactics, Part 1

In my article on commoners, I touched superficially on how a drow commoner might fight, based solely on racial modifiers: they’d seek safety in numbers; snipe at range, using hand crossbows; and be nocturnal and/or subterranean. But the fifth-edition Monster Manual has an entire listing for drow, including three variants: the drow elite warrior, the drow mage and the drow priestess of Lolth. And the basic drow is stronger, across the board, than my hypothetical drow commoner. So let’s say that the MM drow is something more akin to a drow guard—a trained, regular fighter or scout.

The contour of its ability scores is the same: Dexterity is the drow’s highest stat, followed by Charisma. Its Strength and Constitution are average, its Intelligence and Wisdom only marginally higher (not enough even to get a plus to their modifiers). This is the profile of a sniper. Drow are armed with both shortswords (thrusting weapons akin to a Greek xiphos) and hand crossbows, but their lower Constitution relative to their Dexterity strongly suggests a preference for the ranged weapon over the melee weapon. They have proficiency in Stealth, marking them as ambush fighters.

They also have the innate ability to cast dancing lights at will and darkness and faerie fire once per day each. The combination of double-range darkvision and Sunlight Sensitivity implies a creature that not only gets around well in darkness but is averse to light, so why on earth would a drow want to cast dancing lights or faerie fire?

Continue reading Drow Tactics, Part 1

NPC Tactics: Cultists and Priests

A cynic might say that the only difference between an “acolyte” and a “cultist” is one’s point of view, but the Monster Manual would disagree. Piety takes different forms depending on whether an NPC is an extra or an antagonist.

The fifth-edition MM doesn’t even do cultists the courtesy of giving them spells to cast. In fact, for the most part, they’re just shifty commoners with exotic swords. They’re not strong, they’re not tough, and they’re not even stealthy. They have proficiency in Deception, whose only function as far as I can tell is either to try to convince you that they’re not cultists at all (“Nope, no sirree, just ordinary villagers going about our ordinary business!”) or for recruitment purposes (“Say, how’d you like to come to our low-key get-together/self-actualization workshop/poetry reading?”). Dark Devotion is an interesting feature but not one that suggests any distinctive combat tactic.

Normally, a creature whose only above-average ability is Dexterity is some sort of ranged sniper, but cultists don’t even carry ranged weapons. And why on earth would a demon worshiper need to have slightly above-average Dexterity? What is their actual deal?

Continue reading NPC Tactics: Cultists and Priests