Kruthik Tactics

Kruthiks are a refreshing change of pace: a straight-up monster that just wants to eat, have babies and otherwise be left alone. They come in various sizes, but all of them have in common a high armor class, burrowing and climbing movement, darkvision, tremorsense, and the features Keen Smell, Pack Tactics and Tunneler.

Ordinary young and adult kruthiks have a balanced ability contour favoring Dexterity. This would normally indicate a bias toward ranged combat, but young kruthiks lack a ranged attack, and in adult kruthiks, the bias is slight, almost insignificant. Thus, they don’t fit neatly into any one single combat profile. On the other hand, their Intelligence isn’t high enough to indicate tactical flexibility. I’m going to interpret this to mean that they may start combat in any number of ways—brute melee fighting, ranged sniping, scrappy skirmishing, hard-and-fast shock attacks—but whichever of these they choose, they generally don’t deviate from.

Because their ability contours offer so few clues about their fighting styles, the importance of their burrowing and climbing movement and their Pack Tactics and Tunneler features is magnified. Young kruthiks are disinclined to fight enemies they don’t outnumber—at least 3 to 1. Adult kruthiks don’t necessarily have to outnumber their enemies, but they’ll never fight in a group of fewer than three, and four or five is a more typical squad size. Since young kruthiks have only melee attacks, they have to swarm their enemies; adult kruthiks can combine melee Stab attacks with ranged Spike attacks (akin to a porcupine throwing its quills) and gain the benefit of Pack Tactics as long as least one of them is engaged in melee with a foe. Continue reading Kruthik Tactics

Stirge Tactics

Stirges are flying, bloodsucking parasites. One alone is a pest, but a flock of them constitutes a threat, and this is how they’ll nearly always be encountered.

Their Strength is pitiful, but their Dexterity is high. This makes them hit-and-run attackers, or rather hit-and-fly attackers, since they waddle along at a laughable 10 feet per turn but fly at a brisk 40. With a Wisdom of only 8, they’re indiscriminate in their target selection, attacking whoever comes closest to them; and with a barely cognizant Intelligence of 2, they know only one way to attack and stick with it regardless of circumstances.

This attack revolves around the use of their Blood Drain feature. Starting from a position in the air above its victim, a stirge dives down to bite with its mosquito-like proboscis. If it hits, it latches on. At the start of each subsequent turn, if its victim hasn’t yanked it loose, it automatically drains another 1d4 + 3 hp from him or her. Keep track of this number for each stirge individually, because once it’s drained 10 hp from its prey, a stirge is sated, and it detaches and flies away at normal speed (potentially incurring one or more opportunity attacks as it departs). Continue reading Stirge Tactics

Flying Snake Tactics

You could be forgiven for getting the flying snake confused with the couatl, since they seem to come from the same source material. The easy way to think about it is that the flying snake is the cute, undomesticated wild version, while the couatl is the powerful, otherworldly, people-size version. Or, in Scholastic Aptitude Test format, couatl : flying snake :: angel : titi monkey.

Flying snakes, by and large, avoid combat. First, they’re unaligned, so they have no evil intent to drive them. Second, they’re very low in Strength. Usually, this indicates a preference for fighting in numbers, but snakes are predominantly solitary, not social. (Note that the Monster Manual contains no “Swarm of Flying Snakes” entry.) A flock or nest of flying snakes would be a rare thing, perhaps the result of control by some more powerful being with an affinity for reptiles.

Their Dexterity is exceptional, their Constitution merely average, and they have just 5 hp. If they attack at all, such as if a player character surprises it or stumbles across a nest of its eggs, it will be a shock strike: one hit, then fly away as fast as possible. They can do decent enough damage with this strike—their teeny fangs do just 1 point of puncture damage, but they deliver 3d4 points of toxic venom—to make them a legitimate threat to entry-level adventurers. Continue reading Flying Snake 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

Neogi Tactics

Neogi have the bodies of spiders, the heads of some kind of sharp-toothed worm-thing and the hyper-hierarchical worldview of an 18th-century aristocrat. Nearly all their relations—with other species and with one another—revolve around power. Anything other than deference to the powerful and domination of the powerless is foreign to their way of thinking.

However, neogi are physically weak: their power comes from their psychic abilities. In terms of their ability scores, a neogi’s high Dexterity and Constitution, combined with its low Strength, indicates a preference for skirmishing and for outnumbering opponents. But neogi of equal status will cooperate only under the command of a higher-status neogi; a lone neogi must fend for itself, and will strive to avoid any engagement in which it doesn’t have a clear advantage.

Neogi have darkvision (the standard 60 feet) and proficiency in Perception, so it’s to their advantage to engage either at night or underground. They also have proficiency in Intimidation; this plus their above-average Wisdom suggests that when they’re outmatched, they’ll try to bluff and bluster their way out of having to fight. Continue reading Neogi Tactics

Xvart Tactics

Xvarts are tricky to devise tactics for, because their ability scores, their features and their Volo’s Guide to Monsters flavor text all seem to be at odds with one another. Their ability scores suggest Dexterity-focused sniping and shock attacks. Their Overbearing Pack feature suggests a reliance on shoving opponents prone, presumably to be followed up with melee attacks (both of which depend on Strength). And the flavor text states that they attack primarily to abduct, which implies grappling. There is a solution, but it’s tricky.

Xvarts move at the normal humanoid speed of 30 feet per round. Their Strength is low, and their Constitution merely average, so they’re anti-brutes—averse to melee slugfests. Xvarts will necessarily seek strength in numbers—and allies, specifically giant rats and giant bats. Giant rats make particularly good allies for xvarts, because of their Pack Tactics feature; giant bats, however, are tougher and more challenging. A xvart encounter should include, at a minimum, two xvarts per player character, plus an animal ally for every two xvarts.

Xvarts are neither smart nor wise. They have no ability to adapt if their favored strategy doesn’t work, and they may not be particularly quick to notice that it isn’t working. However, unlike the usual low-Wisdom monster, which waits too long to run away, xvarts are cowardly; if anything, they’ll run away prematurely from encounters that actually favor them. The Low Cunning feature gives them Disengage as a bonus action, but this represents instinctive evasive ability, not discipline. Continue reading Xvart Tactics

Boggle Tactics

Boggles are fey pranksters, called to the material plane by people’s loneliness. You might say they’re the embodiment of the desire to get attention—any kind of attention, including negative. This may remind you of someone you know.

Boggles have low Strength but exceptional Dexterity and above-average Constitution. Their melee attack is feeble, and they lack a ranged attack. Really, they’re incapable of seriously hurting any but the lowest-level adventurer. Therefore, they attack not to kill but simply to harass.

They have proficiency in Perception, Sleight of Hand and Stealth, along with 60 feet of darkvision and advantage on Perception checks that rely on smell, so they won’t operate in broad daylight but rather in twilight, at night and underground. They’re at their best in darkness, where their Uncanny Smell makes up for the penalty on seeing targets in dim light. They’re resistant to fire, which has no meaningful bearing on their tactics. Continue reading Boggle Tactics

Slaad Tactics

Slaadi are beings of pure chaos, native to the outer plane of Limbo, vaguely resembling humanoid salamanders. There’s no good reason for them to be hanging out on the prime material plane, but being beings of pure chaos, they don’t need a good reason to be doing anything.

Slaadi come in a variety of colors, tied to their bizarre reproductive cycle. Red slaadi deposit eggs that hatch into slaad tadpoles (I think the writers missed a great opportunity by not calling them “slaadpoles”), which grow up into blue or green slaadi. Blue slaadi, in turn, infect victims with a bacteriophage that transforms them into red or green slaadi. Green slaadi are more powerful and intelligent than red and blue slaadi, and they eventually metamorphose into gray slaadi, which in turn can metamorphose into death slaadi by eating the corpses of other death slaadi.

Being aberrations, slaadi should behave—and fight—in ways that reflect their origin on the plane of chaos, a factor that has to be considered alongside their abilities and features. Slaadi are high-challenge monsters, so as tempting as it may be to ramp up the chaos they create by having the player characters encounter many of them at once, it can be deadly to throw more than one slaad at a party of low- or even intermediate-level PCs. Moreover, their ability to reproduce by turning humanoids into slaadi and slaad hosts can have exponential effects, so even one slaad is a threat that needs to be squelched pronto. Continue reading Slaad Tactics

NPC Tactics: Tribal Warriors and Berserkers

I have a bone to pick with the fifth-edition Monster Manual’s description of the tribal warrior, as well as the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide’s description of the Reghed and Uthgardt barbarians. In brief, the repeated insistence that these people defer to a chief (“the greatest or oldest warrior of the tribe or a tribe member blessed by the gods”) is based on ignorance of the difference between bands and tribes on the one hand and chiefdoms on the other, and of the egalitarian nature of traditional societies.

Every dungeon master who aspires to any degree of coherent world-building needs to be a Jared Diamond aficionado. His best-known book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, examines the factors that cause certain societies to advance technologically and socially faster than others (spoiler: abundant access to high-protein staple grains, easily domesticated animals and long east-west trade routes gives a people a major leg up). His book Collapse examines the factors that cause societies to stagnate or go extinct: environmental degradation, changing climate, hostile neighbors, lack of friendly trading partners and overly rigid ideology. And his most recent book, The World Until Yesterday, examines the features of traditional societies that set them apart from modern ones.

Continue reading NPC Tactics: Tribal Warriors and Berserkers