Golem Tactics

OK, I’m back. Let’s talk golems—living statues, animated through magic. (Specifically, according to legend, by hacking the divine power by which life was created; according to the Monster Manual, by summoning an animating spirit from the Elemental Plane of Earth.) Golems are fashioned to be servants, with great strength, limited intellect and no free will. A golem severed from the command of its creator may be either inert and harmless (if it could fulfill its last command) or dangerously berserk (if it couldn’t).

There are four types of golems in fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons: clay, stone, iron and flesh. One of these things is not like the others. The flesh golem is, for all intents and purposes, Frankenstein’s monster, and of all the types of golems, it has the most unfit vessel for its life force and the most existential angst. The clay golem, on the other hand, is the direct conceptual descendant of the Golem of Prague, and the stone and iron golems are stronger variations on this theme.

All golems are straightforward brutes, with exceptional (and in most cases extraordinary) Strength and Constitution and below-average Dexterity. If anything, they’re even more brutish than the average brute, because of their immunities to normal weapons and to many debilitating conditions (they can be incapacitated, knocked prone, restrained or stunned, but not charmed, frightened, paralyzed, petrified or poisoned). Any variation in behavior is going to come from their special features, so I’m going to focus largely on these. Continue reading Golem Tactics

Giant Tactics

Going solely by their extraordinary Strength and Constitution, it would be easy to lump all giants together as brute fighters. If we want encounters with giants to be more than boring bash-fests, we have to look for clues not just in their stat blocks but also in the Monster Manual flavor text.

Take the matter of rock throwing. Every race of giants has this ranged attack alongside its melee attack, and on average, it does more damage. Yet every race of giants also has a Strength much, much higher than its Dexterity, so based on the assumptions I’ve been using all along, they should consistently prefer engaging in melee to attacking from a distance. Also, giants’ Multiattacks apply only to their melee attacks, not to throwing rocks. So why include a ranged attack at all? Continue reading Giant Tactics

Yuan-ti Revisited

Volo’s Guide to Monsters’ treatment of the yuan-ti is heavily lore-focused, with a section, useful to dungeon masters, on how to design a yuan-ti temple-city. From a tactical standpoint, the only additions are five new variants (!) and a brief subsection headed “Unusual Abilities.”

Unusual Abilities offers four traits that DMs can use to customize an individual yuan-ti or a group of them:

  • Acid Slime gives the yuan-ti a corrosive coating, lasting one minute, that inflicts 1d10 acid damage against a grappled opponent or one who strikes it with a close-range melee attack. It’s a bonus action, and yuan-ti don’t get any other bonus actions, so this is a free supplement to the yuan-ti’s action economy. It’s all benefit and no downside, so the yuan-ti will use this feature on its first turn.
  • Chameleon Skin is also a freebie: it’s a passive ability that grants advantage on Stealth Checks. No tactical implication; it just makes the yuan-ti better at what it already does.
  • Shapechanger, for the yuan-ti pureblood, comes with the same disadvantages as it has for the yuan-ti malison and yuan-ti abomination. Skip it.
  • Shed Skin is another all-benefit, no-downside feature, letting a grappled or restrained yuan-ti slip free without a skill or ability check. It costs only a bonus action, which is no cost at all, since the yuan-ti has no other bonus action to give up. A yuan-ti with this trait will use it anytime it applies.

Continue reading Yuan-ti Revisited

NPC Tactics: Magical Specialists

Volo’s Guide to Monsters includes stat blocks for 11 different magic-using specialists: wizards from eight different schools and warlocks of three different patrons. The wizards are all at least level 7; the warlocks, even higher. There are also a level 9 war priest, a level 10 blackguard (antipaladin) and a level 18 archdruid. Every one of these spellcasters has a different repertoire of spells. To come up with individual tactics for each of them would take me the next two weeks.

Rather than tackle each one separately, then, I’m going to share some rules of thumb for developing tactics for a spellcasting NPC. Continue reading NPC Tactics: Magical Specialists

Troll Tactics

I mentioned trolls in an earlier post on this blog, but a reader recently brought to my attention that I’ve never given them the full treatment. This is an inexcusable oversight on my part. Trolls are great—if you use the Loathsome Limbs variant. I love this variant because it creates trolls that hark back to my favorite troll combat scene ever, from Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson, and because I once ran a solo adventure for a friend in which he and a couple of NPCs had to fight one such troll without ever being told what it was. The suspense was heightened by the fact that they didn’t know what it could do, and they had to discover its weakness by trial and error.

The vanilla troll isn’t all that interesting. It’s a straightforward brute, with exceptionally high Strength, extraordinarily high Constitution and low-to-middling mental abilities. It’s got darkvision, so it prefers to operate at night or underground. It operates more by smell than by sight, regenerates damage unless it’s been struck by fire or acid, and has a claw/claw/bite Multiattack.

Such a monster would be an uncomplicated opponent: It would close to melee range immediately, slash and chomp away, and retreat only if seriously injured or attacked with fire or acid.

But add in Loathsome Limbs, and trolls become a lot more fun. Continue reading Troll Tactics

NPC Tactics: Swashbucklers and Master Thieves

Today I take a look at two roguish NPCs in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, one flashy, one furtive: the swashbuckler and the master thief.

The swashbuckler of Volo’s doesn’t bear much resemblance to the swashbuckler rogue archetype in the Sword Cost Adventurer’s Guide. Instead, it has a passive feature, Suave Defense, that increases its armor class and an action economy–enhancing feature, Lightfooted, that grants it either Dash or Disengage as a bonus action. (This is actually a slightly nerfed version of Cunning Action, which also allows the user to Hide.)

The swashbuckler is distinguished by an exceptionally high Dexterity; expert proficiency in Acrobatics, Athletics and Persuasion; and a triple Florentine-style Multiattack. The Dexterity suggests a sniper, but the swashbuckler’s attacks are melee-focused. (The dagger can be used as a ranged weapon, but a swashbuckler who does this forfeits two-thirds of that Multiattack.) Because its Strength and Constitution are only slightly above average, we have to imagine a fighting style that somehow allows the swashbuckler to strike at melee range yet avoid getting hit on its opponents’ turns. How do we achieve this, given that the swashbuckler has only a normal 30-foot movement speed? Continue reading NPC Tactics: Swashbucklers and Master Thieves

Orcs Revisited

Volo’s Guide to Monsters gives us fantastic resources to use when designing lairs for kobolds and planning out how they’ll behave in a combat encounter. When it comes to orcs, though, Volo’s cops out on these topics, instead giving us an anthropological (orcological?) overview of the highly theocentric structure of orc society. This offers some guidance on encounter building, but nothing here offers any new insight on how orcs might behave during a fight, save one detail: war wagons.

We can surmise that a group of orcs escorting a war wagon will be less likely to charge Aggressively if doing so means leaving the war wagon unattended. Also, as reluctant as orcs are to retreat to begin with, they’ll be even more reluctant if doing so means abandoning a war wagon. To allow a well-laden war wagon to fall into the hands of an enemy by fleeing would be unforgivably disgraceful. Orcs are so hung up on pride and valor, they won’t even use the war wagon for cover if they’re seriously wounded. If they have 1 hp left, they’ll place that 1 hp between the enemy and the war wagon.

What Volo’s does offer are five (!) new varieties of orc, two of which are spellcasters, all of which build on the orcish pantheon of the Forgotten Realms setting. Continue reading Orcs Revisited

Cambion Tactics

The more I leaf through the Monster Manual looking for material, the less interested I am in monsters that follow a straightforward brute profile (high Strength, high Constitution) and have no distinctive feature that gives them a reason to do anything other than run up and munch you. For this reason, the cambion deserves some attention. Even though the concept of the cambion, as a creature, isn’t that appealing to me (offspring of a fiend and a humanoid, naughty by nature), its particular combination of abilities and features is intriguing. This is not a straightforward monster. On the contrary, it offers more flexibility than most.

First, although its physical abilities are all very high, its two highest are Strength and Dexterity. The cambion is neither a stereotypical brute (Strength and Constitution) nor a stereotypical skirmisher (Dexterity and Constitution) but rather a shock attacker, optimized for moving fast and hitting hard, for quick and decisive battles rather than drawn-out slugfests. But it also has high Intelligence and even higher Charisma, meaning it has the option to talk its way out of a fight that’s dragging on too long—and so do its opponents.

It has proficiency in several saving throws, but of them, only Constitution is one of the big three—the ones that most damaging or debilitating spells require. It’s got a good enough Dexterity to compensate, maybe, but not Wisdom. So despite its other advantages, the cambion does have reason to be apprehensive around spellcasters, especially bards, sorcerers and wizards with a lot of mind-controlling or restraining spells in their repertoires. Continue reading Cambion Tactics

Yugoloth Tactics

Finally, as promised! In Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the neutral evil analogues to lawful evil devils and chaotic evil demons were daemons, but since midway through second-edition D&D—perhaps to avoid confusion with demons, or perhaps to avoid confusing Philip Pullman fans—they’ve been called “yugoloths.” Yugoloths are neither as obedient as devils nor as recalcitrant as demons: they have a mercenary mind-set, and in fact are often used as mercenary warriors by archdevils and demon lords, according to the Monster Manual flavor text.

There’s little reason for a yugoloth to be encountered in any other context, and therefore little likelihood that player characters will run into one on their home material plane. But I can imagine a scenario in which an evil ruler asks a court wizard to summon a yugoloth for aid in battle against a rival, figuring that it might be easier to control than a demon and less likely to demand something unacceptable in return than a devil.

There are four types of yugoloth listed in the MM. From weakest to strongest, they’re the mezzoloth, the nycaloth, the arcanaloth and the ultroloth. (Given this naming pattern, I’m not sure why they’re called “yugoloths” instead of just “loths.” The “yugo-” prefix is never explained.) However, even mezzoloths have a challenge rating of 5. These are not opponents for low-level adventurers. Continue reading Yugoloth Tactics

Demon Tactics: Manes and Type 1 Demons

Devils occupy the lawful end of the fiend spectrum: demons occupy the chaotic end. Unlike devils, which rarely stray onto the prime material plane except on a mission of malice, demons like to exploit holes in the cosmic fabric, popping through to ruin things for everyone on the other side. Thus, an adventuring party is much more likely to stumble upon a random demon than a random devil. There’s also the possibility that a demon has been summoned as a servant or ally by an evil spellcaster but broken free of its bonds.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons numbered demons by type, but by the second edition, descriptive names were already supplanting numbered types (2E didn’t even use the word “demon,” probably cowed by rampaging fundamentalists). Fifth-edition D&D brings back the numbered types, but they take a backseat; each variety of demon is referred to primarily by name.

One trait that all demons have in common—which is described in the Monster Manual flavor text, not in their stat blocks—is that they can’t be permanently killed on any plane except the Abyss. If the player characters destroy a demon on their own home plane, that demon isn’t killed, merely dispelled, and it immediately re-forms in the Abyss in a nasty mood and with a new grudge. Continue reading Demon Tactics: Manes and Type 1 Demons