Howler Tactics

Howlers are pack-hunting predators from Pandemonium, a peril suitable only for top-tier adventurers to deal with. That’s because, according to the lore in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, these CR 8 fiends never appear alone. Either they’re accompanied by others of their kind, or they’re trained to the service of a more powerful fiend or other evil master and fighting by its side.

Theirs is a nasty ability contour: very high physical ability scores across the board, with an extraordinary peak in Wisdom. This outlier score both powers their Mind-Breaking Howl action and gives them keen hunting senses. (Although it’s not listed in the Mordenkainen’s errata, with a Perception modifier of +8, their passive Perception should be 18, not 15, as published.) But since they lack spellcasting ability, their primary attack is Strength-based, and their top non-Wisdom scores are Strength and Dexterity, I’m going to classify them as shock attackers. Move fast, hit hard.

Howlers have darkvision and therefore attack between dusk and dawn. They’re resistant to cold, fire and lightning damage on top of physical damage from nonmagical attacks, so they’re not going to pay particular attention to a spellslinger who doesn’t think outside the box. Acid or thunder damage will get their attention, but necrotic, radiant, psychic or force damage is what really draws their ire. (Shout-out to James Haeck for laying out the tiers of damage types in a way I hadn’t actively considered before in his editor’s note on this D&D Beyond post by Melissa “MellieDM” Doucette.) Continue reading Howler Tactics

Corpse Flower Tactics

The corpse flower is a horrible ambulatory plant that scavenges the remains of the dead and occasionally belches one of them back out as a zombie. As such, particularly given its slow speed, it’s not a predator that might pursue a party of player characters, but rather a noxious nuisance that the PCs might be called to eliminate.

It has a weird ability contour: peaks in Constitution and Wisdom, with high Strength and Dexterity as well. It has no Wisdom-based offensive action, and while its Strength and Dex are equal, its Tentacle attack is clearly Strength-based. What we have here, I think, is a creature that’s mostly brute but that also has a touch of the skirmisher to it. It’s not fast, but it can climb, so that’s going to add a wrinkle to its behavior.

The corpse flower’s Intelligence is just barely within the range of sentience. Though able to grasp what’s going on around it, it’s still extremely instinct-driven and inflexible, locked into one mode of behavior. What about that high Wisdom, though? Normally it would suggest a creature that’s good at sizing up threats and reluctant to pick fights it can’t easily win. However, the corpse flower is utterly reliant on its blindsight to sense danger. It’s not able to pick up on clues such as a character’s confidence or the quality of their equipment to read them as presenting an above-average threat. Any reaction to the danger an opponent poses is going to have to occur after a demonstration of that danger. Continue reading Corpse Flower Tactics

Sword Wraith Tactics

I often talk about undead creatures as being driven by compulsions relating to the circumstances of their reanimation, and the sword wraith is a dandy example of a backstory-driven compulsion: a warrior, obsessed with glory, slain in combat in a manner much more in line with the reality of war than the ennoblement of it, and refusing to stop seeking that glorious victory despite being technically dead. It comes in two varieties: the rank-and-file sword wraith warrior and the higher-level sword wraith commander.

According to the flavor text, despite being evil-aligned, sword wraiths don’t necessarily attack every living being who comes near. They’re closer to ghosts, haunting the locations where they met their ignominious demises and grinding their emotional axes. They can be talked to. They can be flattered. They can be offended. (Boy, can they be offended.) Mostly, they want to be treated with the adulation they expected to receive for the valorous deeds they were very sure they were capable of performing.

Both sword wraith warriors and sword wraith commanders are melee-focused brutes, with exceptional Strength and Constitution. Sword wraith warriors have animal-level Intelligence and below-average Wisdom, while sword wraith commanders have more humanoid-typical Intelligence and above-average Wisdom, so while they play the same combat role, they assess situations differently. Continue reading Sword Wraith Tactics

Deathlock Tactics

Pacts formed with supernatural patrons tend not to have escape clauses, and the penalties for breaking them can be unpleasant. Did you make a pact with an archfiend to do its bidding in exchange for occult powers and fail to live up to the terms? No “till death do us part” in this vow—that archfiend owns you after death, as well. You’re a deathlock, Harry! Free will? No longer an issue. You’re undead now, and your compulsion is to serve your patron—and to do a better job of it than you did when you were alive.

I got my first request to look at the deathlock a fairly long time ago, but just yesterday a reader noticed that it was finally coming up in the queue and asked: “The deathlock only gets two spell slots. What does it do afterward? [Player character] warlocks are built around recharging with a short rest every battle, but enemies rarely survive to return for a second battle, and with its pathetic stats, the only way it’s going to survive is by casting invisibility—and if it saves a spell slot for that, it’s down to one spell slot.”

Well, first of all, let’s look at whether the premises of this question are true. The deathlock’s ability contour peaks in Charisma and Dexterity, which is exactly what you’d expect of a spellslinger in general and a warlock in particular; its Intelligence is also above average. Its 36 average hit points (which you can nudge up, incidentally, if you feel like it needs more staying power) aren’t out of line for a challenge rating 4 foe. Plus, it has resistance to physical damage from nonmagical, non-silvered weapons, so unless you’re handing out magic items like candy, there’s a decent chance that your mid-level adventurers will do only half damage to it. (It’s also resistant to necrotic damage and immune to poison damage and the poisoned condition, but these are less significant.) Continue reading Deathlock Tactics

Yugoloth Tactics: Canoloths

Canoloths are quadrupedal, weirdly doglike yugoloths whose function, like many other dogs, is to stand guard. They have expertise in Perception and Investigation, 120 feet of truesight, and immunity to surprise (unless they happen to be incapacitated), and their very presence suppresses teleportation out to a radius of 60 feet. Good luck sneaking up on these beasties.

They have exceptional Strength, Constitution and Wisdom, but their Wisdom influences only their senses, not their combat abilities; they’re not spellcasters. Really, therefore, they’re just brutes that happen to have exceptionally high Perception—and, perhaps, a particular knack for knowing how much threat an enemy or group of enemies poses. However, with their low Intelligence, they can’t do much with this information—it’s not going to have a meaningful effect on how they act.

Normally, the modus operandi of a brute is to charge and engage. But if it were so easy to entice a fairly stupid guard fiend away from whatever it was guarding, it wouldn’t be much of a guard. Thus, rather than leave its post to charge intruders, a canoloth lashes out at them with a spiky, prehensile tongue—with a 30-foot reach!—and yanks them into melee range. Continue reading Yugoloth Tactics: Canoloths

Fomorian Tactics

Fomorians are yet another manifestation of the “evil ≡ ugly” essentialist trope, which I wish would go away. Once a noble and beautiful strain of giantkind, they were cursed with a warped and hideous appearance for their hubristic crimes against the Feywild. Not only was their pulchritude taken from them, they lost their intellectual brilliance as well: the average fomorian has an Intelligence of only 9.

Extremely strong and tough brutes, with a hefty reservoir of hit points, fomorians barrel directly into the fray. Their Evil Eye feature works out to a range of 60 feet, but they use it from the midst of melee. Long-range darkvision suggests that they dwell in darkness—either underground, where they’re most commonly found, or in the densest and gloomiest of forests—and don’t attack when there’s a bright light source present.

Their low Intelligence and high Wisdom are an interesting juxtaposition. By my reckoning, Intelligence represents logical assessment, while Wisdom represents judgment as well as perception. Fomorians’ situational awareness is a mixed bag: They’re pretty good at assessing whether or not a fight is winnable, and they refrain from engaging when it’s not, but they lack tactical breadth and target selection savvy. Once they’ve committed to a fight, their behavior is relatively simple, and their decisions arbitrary. Continue reading Fomorian Tactics

Cloaker Tactics

For some reason I thought I recalled the cloaker from the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual, but I must have gotten it confused with the lurker, because according to the cloaker’s Wikipedia biography, its first appearance in a core book was in the second-edition Monstrous Compendium, in which it was (hilariously) described as “impossible to distinguish from a common black cloak.” Fashion mimic! Wisely, later editions have depicted it in more evolutionarily plausible terms, although it’s still categorized as an aberration rather than a monstrosity.

Cloakers have exceptionally high Strength and high Dexterity but merely above-average Constitution, a rare contour that I generally associate with shock attacks; combined with their proficiency in Stealth and their False Appearance feature, this contour indicates an ambush predator that seeks to take down its prey in a single strike, if possible. A fight that lasts more than a couple of rounds won’t be to a cloaker’s liking.

Their Intelligence and Wisdom are above-average, but not unusually so, so while they’re selective about their targets, their judgment may sometimes be off. (And then there’s that strangely high Charisma. What’s that for? Resistance to banishment? I have no good explanation.) They have 60 feet of darkvision and Light Sensitivity and speak Deep Speech and Undercommon, so obviously, they’re subterranean dwellers that have little or no reason to venture aboveground. Continue reading Cloaker Tactics

Demon Tactics: Shoosuvas, Maw Demons and Babaus

A reader asked me to look into the shoosuva, and I just now notice that it shares an entry in Volo’s Guide to Monsters with the babau and the maw demon, so congrats, readers, today you get three for the price of one.

Shoosuvas, creations of the demon lord Yeenoghu, are fiends that function sort of like a ranger’s beast companion, except for gnolls that have distinguished themselves in battle with exceptional ferocity. They’re big and brutish, with exceptional Strength and Constitution and high Wisdom, indicating some shrewdness in target selection. They hold the rare distinction of being proficient in all of the “big three” saving throws: Dexterity, Constitution ahnd Wisdom. They’re immune to poison, can’t be charmed or frightened, and are resistant to cold, fire, lightning and physical damage from mundane weapons. Although their low Intelligence indicates a lack of adaptability and a reliance on instinctive behavior, they can speak, both normally (in Abyssal and Gnoll) and telepathically. A chaotic evil monster that can speak is a monster that taunts. Going up against one of these should terrify your players.

The shoosuva’s basic attack is a bite–tail stinger combo. The bite is a straightforward melee attack, but one that does unbelievable damage—like being bitten by a mouthful of glaives. The tail stinger does base damage more in line with what you’d expect from a Large creature, but it also delivers a venom that paralyzes targets who fail their saving throws, and it has a reach of 15 feet, allowing it to strike a second enemy farther away. Continue reading Demon Tactics: Shoosuvas, Maw Demons and Babaus

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

Hydra Tactics

A reader recently asked me to look at the hydra, but the hydra isn’t a particularly complicated monster. A straightforward brute, with extraordinary Strength and Constitution, it’s extremely stupid and not discriminating when it comes to target selection. It also has only one method of attack: one bite for each of its multiple heads, of which it initially has five.

Running a hydra encounter is primarily a matter of accounting: tracking how much damage has been done to it; whether any of that was fire damage; and how many heads it has at the moment, since (a) destroying one head without cauterizing it causes two to sprout back in its place, and (b) it gets an additional opportunity attack for every extra head.

The only question you have to answer, round by round, is where the hydra is going to position itself, and the answer is, wherever it can attack as many targets as possible, up to the number of heads it has. In other words, if possible, a five-headed hydra will try to position itself where it can reach five targets; a seven-headed hydra will go where it can attack as many as possible, up to seven; and so on. It doesn’t have to be immediately adjacent to these targets, since its heads have a reach of 10 feet: a target is still within reach if there’s a single square or hex between the target and the hydra, even if there’s another creature in that square or hex. (Because of the hydra’s size, an interposed Medium-size ally doesn’t give a humanoid creature any cover.) Continue reading Hydra Tactics