“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
So it turns out that catoblepas comes to us by way of Latin catōblepās from Ancient Greek katôbleps or katôblepon, and its plural in Latin is catōblepae, while its Ancient Greek plural is either katôblepes or katôblepones. Of all these, I like “catoblepes” best—much more than “catoblepases.” I’m going with it. Also, the accent is on the o: ca-toh-bleh-pahs, ca-toh-bleh-peez. And that’s one to grow on!
The catoblepas is largely a scavenger, whose loathsome presence befouls the environment around it; I guess it likes its food somewhat pre-decomposed. The foul-tempered monstrosity extends this preference to any edible trespasser who wanders into its territory—thus its Death Ray feature, which inflicts considerable necrotic damage on its target, enough to kill even a level 2 or 3 player character on a successful Constitution saving throw.
Catoblepes are classified as monstrosities, but they’re unaligned and have only beast-level Intelligence, around the level of a cat or dog. Their Strength and Constitution, however, are extraordinary, and their Dexterity is above-average as well. Their darkvision suggests that they’re crepuscular and/or nocturnal; you’re not likely to run across one in broad daylight. They combine above-average passive Perception with Keen Smell, giving them an effective passive Perception of 17 if you’re upwind of them. Continue reading Catoblepas Tactics
Wood woads are lawful neutral living plants, basically meaning, don’t start none, won’t be none. The only way you’re going to get in a fight with one is either to trespass on the territory it guards and initiate ruckus, or to attack it outright. Otherwise, they’re likely to remain indifferent to your presence. Not friendly—indifferent.
Wood woads are tough. They have 10 hit dice, exceptionally high Strength and Constitution, and a two-swing Multiattack with a Magic Club that does considerable whomp damage. However, they also have proficiency in Perception and Stealth—and advantage on Stealth checks in “terrain with ample obscuring plant life,” i.e., any kind of forest, wild or cultivated, or even a tall-grass prairie—so they won’t run straight at you as soon as they see you. Instead, they’ll blend in quietly, waiting to attack until trespassers come within reach—or, if they need to put an immediate end to a disturbance, closing the distance with Tree Stride, then attacking. Thus, their first attack will always be an ambush, with unseen-attacker advantage.
However, this ambush won’t necessarily be an attack with intent to harm. They’re lawful neutral, not lawful evil. They have proficiency in Athletics as well, and in combat, that usually means grappling or shoving. If they’re not outnumbered, rather than try to pummel trespassers, they may simply try to bounce them: grapple them, carry them to the edge of their territory and dump them there. Or they might shove a trespasser into a pit or trap, but chances are, it won’t be they who’ll dig that pit or build that trap. Shoving is a tactic they’ll generally use only when they’re henchmen of something or somebody else—though a roaming wood woad, if antagonized, might choose to shove an enemy into a ravine, if one happened to be nearby. Continue reading Wood Woad 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
“Are there unicorns in these woods? I want to see a unicorn!” Venture into any idyllic forested setting, and you’re sure to hear this request from one of your players.
Unicorns are elusive beasts—actually, not beasts, according to fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons’ classification system, but celestials. They’re gentle, exuding a spirit of tranquility that extends to the other creatures that dwell in their vicinities, but also alert defenders of their domains. A unicorn may choose to reveal itself to a good-hearted creature, but any character who takes ill advantage of a unicorn’s good nature will be made to regret it.
I’m actually surprised and impressed by how formidable 5E unicorns are. I’d intended to draw on the suggestion I made in my earlier article on vampire tactics, about taking familiar monsters and giving them unexpected powers, and write a comical post about how unicorns could summon hordes of angry woodland creatures, disappear by running behind a tree and reappear behind another one, fire trebuchets, and rear up on their hind legs and deliver stunning roundhouse kicks like Chuck Norris. The incredible thing is, I don’t need to! Unicorns are pretty tough already. Continue reading Unicorn Tactics
Salamanders are the fiery analogue to water weirds, galeb duhrs and invisible stalkers, but they’re significantly more independent-minded, serving only efreets (and those only reluctantly and resentfully). They have a society of their own, on the Elemental Plane of Fire, and if they’re hanging out on the material plane, they’re probably doing so against their will.
As fighters, salamanders are shock troops. Their exceptional Strength is coupled with high Dexterity and Constitution (their Con is higher than their Dex, though not significantly so): they can engage in either toe-to-toe slugfests or hit-and-run attacks, but in general they’ll favor melee over ranged attacks, because they can do much more damage at close range.
Salamanders are immune to fire attacks, vulnerable to cold attacks and resistant to physical damage from nonmagical weapons. Thus, they’re more cautious around foes who wield magic weapons, as well as spellcasters who sling frost spells. Because of their choleric temperament, however, this caution is as likely to result in focused fire (pun intended) as in avoidance. Continue reading Salamander Tactics
Another monster classic, the roper is a dungeon predator/scavenger that nabs its prey by camouflaging itself as a stalagmite or stalactite. The latter is rarer, probably because in every instance I can recall, the roper has always been depicted pointy side up; perhaps dungeon masters never consciously consider that ropers can also adhere to cave ceilings.
Ropers have enormous, toothy maws and sticky tentacles that lash out and seize their prey. Although their exceptional Strength and Constitution and below-average Dexterity suggest a brute fighter, ropers are ambush attackers, using their fast and flexible tendrils to compensate for their lack of mobility (their speed is only 10 feet per round, whether crawling or climbing).
Despite their low Dexterity, ropers have double proficiency in Stealth, along with the False Appearance feature, which allows it to blend in perfectly with its surroundings. I understand this to mean that passive Perception—and even Searching—will never reveal a roper for what it is as long as it’s holding still. Its Stealth skill comes into play only if it’s moving. Thus, a stationary roper will always take its opponents by surprise, as long as its eye is closed and its tendrils retracted until it strikes. Continue reading Roper Tactics
The otyugh is an old-school monster, dating all the way back to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons—and in all that time, debates have raged endlessly over how to pronounce its name. Countless gamers over the years have made their best guesses, usually settling on something like oh-tee-yug, while the Final Fantasy video game series has adopted the pronunciation oh-tyoo (second syllable stressed, to rhyme with “through”). But according to the seemingly authoritative EN World D&D Pronunciation Guide, citing a 1985 Dragon magazine article, it’s ot-yug; that’s the one I’d go with.
The Monster Manual categorizes otyughs as aberrations, not monstrosities, though it doesn’t explain why—maybe because of their Limited Telepathy feature or their odd morphology. They’re not described as extraplanar, they’re not evil, and they’re not especially intelligent; in all respects other than their telepathy, they seem to behave like an evolved creature.
Otyughs are brutes, with high Strength and extraordinary Constitution. They have a well-developed survival instinct, including the ability to discriminate between easy and difficult prey, but despite their ability to communicate verbally in their own language, their Intelligence is animal at best—about what you’d expect of a sign language–using gorilla. Theoretically, it may be possible to bargain with an otyugh, by appealing to its one and only interest: food. Continue reading Otyugh Tactics
Revenants are undead creatures bent on pursuing revenge against individuals who wronged them in their previous lives. As undead creatures, they have no survival instinct per se; instead, they’re driven by compulsions, in this case the compulsion to avenge themselves.
Now, you might argue, hey, you can’t get revenge if your enemy (or someone else) destroys you. And revenants have high Wisdom, high enough to understand the truth of this—and above-average Intelligence, high enough to understand the fact of it. So you might think a seriously wounded revenant would break off fighting and retreat—that is, unless it was getting too close to its one-year deadline.
But you can’t destroy a revenant. Its Regeneration feature restores 10 hp every round unless it’s taken fire or radiant damage; only if the damage that finally reduces its body to 0 hp is fire or radiant damage will the body it inhabits be destroyed. And even when the body is destroyed, the soul returns 24 hours later in a different body.
The only way to keep this from happening is to banish the revenant’s soul to its appropriate afterlife while it’s disembodied, using a wish spell. Only the most powerful wizards and sorcerers—veritable masters of the world—will have access to that. What kind of favor do you think you’d have to do for one of them to get him or her to cast a wish spell on your behalf? (The Monster Manual doesn’t mention this possibility, but I think you could probably also stop a revenant by bringing it back to life with a true resurrection spell. But this is also a 9th-level spell; instead of wheedling a favor out of Saruman, you’ve got to get it from the pope.) Continue reading Revenant Tactics
“I would love it if you could take a look at the umber hulk,” a reader writes. “It’s such an interesting monster to fight against.” I don’t know whether I agree with that—certainly, from a dungeon master’s perspective, it’s not that interesting a monster to run—but maybe the experience is different from the player’s point of view. Either way, the reader’s final point is beyond dispute: “Also, it penalizes characters who ignore Charisma.”
Based on its ability contour, the umber hulk is a straightforward brute: extraordinary Strength, very high Constitution, comparatively lower (though still above-average) Dexterity; its mental abilities are unremarkable.
It has nothing in the way of special skills, such as Stealth, but it has 120 feet of darkvision and 60 feet of tremorsense—the ability to detect vibrations through earth—and it can burrow at a speed of 20 feet per round. Even solid rock is merely difficult terrain as far as the umber hulk is concerned, thanks to its Tunneler feature. So a burrowing umber hulk can lie beneath the ground, unseen, waiting for prey to pass overhead, then make its first strike with advantage as an unseen attacker. Most likely, though, that first attack from hiding is the only one it will get.
It has a fierce melee Multiattack: two attacks with its claws and one with its jaws. But there’s no decision to be made there. The only thing that makes the umber hulk unique from a combat perspective is its Confusing Gaze. Continue reading Umber Hulk Tactics