NPC Tactics: Scouts and Spies

OK, here’s a quickie post in response to a reader who pointed out that I haven’t yet taken a look at two non-player characters from the Monster Manual: the scout and the spy.

Scouts are spotters and lookouts. With proficiency in Perception and Stealth, they could be effective ambush attackers, but that’s not their job. Their job is to gather information and return with it; combat is an undesirable complication. Consequently, if they attack at all, they prefer strongly to do so at range.

Eighty percent of the humanoids they encounter will have a speed of 30 feet. Of the remainder, most will have a speed of either 25 or 35 feet. Therefore, they don’t position themselves any closer than 75 feet to their targets unless they absolutely have to, and if they have a good view, they’re content to stay as far as 150 feet away. They can attack at these distances without disadvantage, but they’re not assassins. They attack only in self-defense.

Whether they do even this much depends on the speed of any foe who sees and pursues them. If the subjects of their reconnaissance have a speed of 30 feet or slower, they take potshots (Multiattack, Longbow × 2) at pursuers who are still more than 75 feet away at the start of the scouts’ turn. If the pursuers are closer or faster, scouts Dash away. If more than one opponent manages to get within melee reach, or if they can’t afford to take even a single hit, they Disengage—they have the training to do so.

Scouts only drop their bows and draw their swords when they’re surrounded, with no avenue of escape. If they have no reason to think they’ll be killed if they’re captured, they may choose to surrender rather than fight. Continue reading NPC Tactics: Scouts and Spies

NPC Tactics: Kraken Priests

Despite several reader requests, I kept putting off analyzing the kraken priest because it’s always kind of a pain to analyze creatures with large spell repertoires. Turns out the KP’s repertoire isn’t as big as I thought it was, so my bad.

The kraken priest’s ability contour is highest in Constitution, second-highest in Wisdom, with Strength and Dexterity a good ways behind. This non-player character is a spellcaster first and foremost, and arguably a support spellcaster first and foremost, rather than a spellslinger hiding way in the back. Charisma is also high; Intelligence, merely average.

Presumably through the kraken’s influence, the KP has resistance to physical damage from nonmagical weapons and can breathe underwater. That’s pretty much it in the way of distinctive passive features. Aside from spellcasting—which isn’t all that unusual for, you know, a priest—the KP’s only distinctive features are the actions Thunderous Touch and Voice of the Kraken. Continue reading NPC Tactics: Kraken Priests

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

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

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

Goblinoids Revisited

Since I started this blog with a look at goblins, I’ll start my examination of Volo’s Guide to Monsters with another look at goblinoids. But first, one observation: In my original analysis of goblin tactics, I stated that they’d Disengage when an opponent closed to within melee range. This was based on their Nimble Escape feature, which allows them to Disengage as a bonus action. However, while composing my later post, “Dodge, Dash or Disengage?” I learned that orderly retreats are risky moves that require discipline, a trait that goblins aren’t known for. So how do they possess this ability as a feature? I conclude that they’re innately slippery enough that they can scamper out of an opponent’s reach too quickly for the opponent to react. It’s not a disengagement in the true, military sense, just an ability of theirs that happens to have the same effect, from a game-mechanics perspective.

As it turns out, my analysis of goblins hit pretty close to the mark. Volo’s goes into more depth about goblin behavior and social structure, but the basic ambush principle holds. There’s a greater emphasis on traps, suggesting that encounters between player characters and goblins not led by more formidable goblinoids should often begin with the PCs walking into one of the goblins’ traps (or avoiding them in the nick of time). The “Goblin Lairs” section provides a nice scaffold for building a series of goblin encounters on if the PCs decide to go hunting goblins themselves, rather than vice versa. Continue reading Goblinoids Revisited

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

NPC Tactics: Archmages

The mage was complicated; the archmage, even more so. Strap in.

As with the mage, the archmage’s ability scores imply an aversion to melee combat, a strong self-preservation impulse, and a strategically and tactically savvy view of the battlefield. We can also determine, by reading between the lines, that the archmage is a wizard of the abjuration school, because Magic Resistance is a feature that abjuration wizards obtain at level 14. Mechanically, that doesn’t mean much, since Magic Resistance is the only abjuration feature the Monster Manual gives the archmage; still, this inference adds a dash of flavor to our archmage’s personality. Abjuration is the magic of prevention. All other things being equal, the archmage’s primary impulse is to shut you down.

The mage’s spells topped out at 5th level, but the archmage’s go all the way up to 9th, with only one slot each of the top four levels. I assume this was to simplify an already extremely complicated and powerful enemy. What it means for us is that those four slots are reserved exclusively for the archmage’s four highest-level spells: time stop, mind blank, teleport and globe of invulnerability. And mind blank, according to the MM, is pre-cast before combat begins—along with mage armor and stoneskin—so that slot isn’t even available. (How does the archmage know to combat is about to begin? Dude, 20 Intelligence. “Nolwenn an Gwrach, Supra-genius!”)

Continue reading NPC Tactics: Archmages

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

NPC Tactics: Bandits and Assassins

In yesterday’s post, I discussed non-player characters who are likely to be found enforcing the local law; today I’ll talk about the ones likely to be found breaking it, starting with bandits. The bandit stat block isn’t the ideal template for your typical back-alley burglar or pickpocket—oddly, the fifth-edition Monster Manual omits that archetype altogether. At the end of this article, I’ll provide a homebrew stat block you can use for that type of NPC. Rather, the MM bandit is more like a highwayman (on land) or a pirate (at sea), and his or her primary motivation is loot.

The bandit’s physical abilities are all modestly above average, with Dexterity and Constitution in the lead: bandits are scrappy fighters who rely on their numbers. They wield “scimitars,” for reasons I can only guess at—maybe this is the closest thing 5E Dungeons & Dragons has to a cutlass? Maybe because it treats shortswords as primarily stabbing weapons and thinks bandits ought to carry slashing weapons instead? I dunno. The weapon properties are the same, and the damage is the same except for the type, and if there’s any kind of armor or enchantment that resists slashing damage but not piercing damage or vice versa, I haven’t found it yet. In any event, you can let the flavor of the setting determine whether your bandits are carrying scimitars, cutlasses, arming swords, dirks, gladii or whatever—they all do 1d6 + 1.

Continue reading NPC Tactics: Bandits and Assassins