Holy heck. The entire month of May got away from me. Sorry about that, readers.
Anyway, today it’s back to business, with the deep scion from Volo’s Guide to Monsters. Technically a humanoid but giving off serious aberration vibes, the deep scion is the product of a pact with a great undersea power—one made under duress, at the point of drowning, so the terms aren’t nearly as favorable as those granted to warlocks. Not only transformed but brainwashed as well, the deep scion can take the form of its previous self, but it no longer considers its previous self to be its true self; that identity is lost.
Deep scions have two forms, “humanoid” and “hybrid.” The hybrid form is its “true” form, having humanoid torso, legs and arms but crustacean claws, tentacles (non-prehensile) emerging from its head and a mouth that DEAR GOD WHAT IS THAT THING? In its humanoid form, it moves at a humanoid-typical 30 feet on land and, like other landbound creatures, swims at only half that speed. In its hybrid form, its walking speed is 20 feet, but its swimming speed is 40 feet. If it can, a deep scion maximizes its movement by using its Shapechanger action in the middle of the turn in which it travels from land to water or vice versa, taking this action at the moment it reaches the shoreline. This way, even if it’s used its full walking movement to reach water, once it transforms, it still has another 10 feet of swimming movement left to go.
In combat, deep scions are pure brutes, with exceptional Strength and very high Constitution. However, their expertise in Deception makes this as formidable a weapon in social encounters as their battle axes are in melee. They also have proficiency in Insight, Sleight of Hand and Stealth. Deep scions are spies as well as warriors; they fight only when their cover is blown. As I’ve said before, it’s easier to punch someone after fooling them has failed than it is to fool them after punching them has failed. Continue reading Deep Scion Tactics
I was asked about jackalweres in conjunction with my post on lamia tactics. I’m going to look at them in isolation, though, because generally speaking, the company a monster keeps isn’t going to influence its tactics substantially (goblins being an exception when they’re bossed around by hobgoblins).
As the name implies, jackalweres—not “werejackals”—aren’t your ordinary lycanthrope. Rather than humanoids tainted with a bestial curse, they’re jackals tainted with a human curse. Like lycanthropes, however, they typically adopt a hybrid form during combat.
Jackalweres have an unusual ability contour: high Dexterity but merely average Strength and Constitution, combined with above-average Intelligence. This is a contour you’d usually associated with a sniper or a spellcaster, but jackalweres’ attacks are largely melee-based. This suggests three things. First, jackalweres are highly unsuited to drawn-out combat and will abandon a fight quickly if they don’t immediately get the upper hand. Second, they’ll rely heavily on guile. And third, the successful use of their Sleep Gaze feature—the closest thing they have to “spellcasting”—will figure prominently in their strategy. Continue reading Jackalwere 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
What teenage Advanced Dungeons and Dragons player wasn’t fascinated and titillated by the succubus, that naked sex demon leering off the page of the Monster Manual? Mind you, this was the same era when a “harlot encounter table” in the Dungeon Master’s Guide allowed you to determine whether a randomly encountered prostitute was a “saucy tart,” a “cheap strumpet” or a “slovenly trull,” which was great for vocabulary building but not so much for encouraging a healthy understanding of sex roles and interpersonal relationships. You’ve come a long way, D&D. (Now let’s work on the ill-considered conflation of race with personality traits, ’K?)
Originating as a mythological explanation for erotic dreams (and, possibly, sleep paralysis episodes as well), the succubus and its masculine counterpart, the incubus, were imagined as devils who tempted people in their dreams. What did they want? The same thing devils always want: to lay claim to your soul, in their case by getting you to corrupt it of your own free will by giving in to the deadly sin of lust.
Despite including some of the trappings, D&D doesn’t share Christianity’s religious cosmology, but the flavor text in the fifth-edition MM assigns succubi and incubi essentially the same mission: “[W]hen a succubus or incubus has corrupted a creature completely . . . the victim’s soul belongs to the fiend. . . . After successfully corrupting a victim, the succubus or incubus kills it, and the tainted soul descends into the Lower Planes.”
Therefore, we have to take a bigger-picture view of succubus and incubus tactics. They’re not about simply gaining an edge in a happenstance combat encounter. They don’t have happenstance combat encounters. Rather, these tactics are steps toward the fiends’ final goal. Continue reading Succubus/Incubus Tactics
Werebeasts, a.k.a. lycanthropes, are wonderful enemies. A werebeast encounter can be awesome action or tragic drama. Werebeasts lend themselves perfectly to horror-mystery adventures, in which the players have no idea which of the villagers is the true villain. They threaten to transmit their lycanthropic curse to any character who fights them hand-to-hand—monsters who can make the player characters into monsters themselves. Practically by definition, werebeast encounters take place at night, when everything is scarier. And if the werewolf ever seems too clichéd an enemy, werebeasts come in four other varieties.
All werebeasts have proficiency in Perception and immunity to physical damage from nonmagical, nonsilvered weapons. They also have human forms, beast forms and hybrid forms; their human forms are their “true” forms. My sense as a dungeon master is that they take their beast forms to run around and hunt in the wild, but among people, they take their hybrid forms when their curse is upon them—at any rate, the hybrid form makes for more interesting and challenging combat encounters than the beast form, because it allows them to use their Multiattack action feature. (The exception to this pattern is the werebear, which has Multiattack in all its forms.) But if you want to conceal the fact that the PCs are fighting a lycanthrope and not simply a big, ferocious beast, you may opt for the beast form after all, trading a reduction in damage for the increase in likelihood that the PCs will carelessly let themselves fall afoul of the lycanthropic curse.
Although the Shapechanger feature, common to all werebeasts, states that they can use an action to polymorph from one form to another, I’d disregard this, for two reasons. First, there’s generally no advantage to it: any equipment they’re carrying isn’t transformed, so, for example, a humanoid wearing armor and carrying a sword turns into a beast standing in a pile of armor and staring at a sword on the ground; or a hybrid with natural armor turns into a naked, unarmored, unarmed humanoid. Meanwhile, it’s just spent a whole combat round transforming when it could have been, I don’t know, attacking or running away? And second, isn’t the whole point of lycanthropy that the afflicted individual has little or no control over his or her transformations? High opportunity cost, no obvious benefit, contradicts werebeast lore: there’s only one logical situation in which to use this action, and that’s at nightfall or daybreak, when the lycanthrope changes involuntarily. Continue reading Lycanthrope Tactics
Yuan-ti are snake-human hybrids, created in the earliest days of civilization, whose culture fell from an advanced, enlightened state into fanaticism and cruelty. They live in a caste-bound society in which those who most closely resemble humans make up the lowest stratum, while the most snakelike constitute the highest and most powerful. One distinctive characteristic they all share is the innate ability to cast suggestion: like Kaa in The Jungle Book, they try to win your trust before they mess you up. Another is that they all have magic resistance, so they have no reason to fear spellcasters more than anyone else.
The most common and least powerful caste are the yuan-ti purebloods. (Counterintuitively, “pure” is a pejorative to the yuan-ti; the more adulterated by reptilian essence they are, the more they’re esteemed.) Their physical abilities are average-ish, with a slightly elevated Dexterity; their Intelligence and, particularly, Charisma are higher, implying a species that approaches combat from a mental angle first. This implication is emphasized further by their proficiency in Deception and Stealth. They have darkvision, suggesting that they’re most at home in dim places and/or most active at night. Along with suggestion, they can cast the cantrip poison spray three times per day (presumably only at its base damage level of 1d12—although they have 9 hit dice, there’s no mention of their spellcasting level). They can also cast animal friendship on snakes, for whatever that’s worth.
According to the Monster Manual flavor text, yuan-ti purebloods often put on cloaks and try to pass for human in order to “kidnap prisoners for interrogation and sacrifice,” so let’s start with that: The yuan-ti wants to kill you, but it doesn’t want to kill you right here and now. Instead, it wants to get you someplace where it can kill you in a way that makes its gods happy.
Continue reading Yuan-ti Tactics
Invasion of the body snatchers! Doppelgängers are shapeshifting humanoids (though the fifth-edition Monster Manual categorizes them not as humanoids but as monstrosities) that take on the appearance of other beings for fiendish purposes.
Doppelgängers have high Constitution and extremely high Dexterity, making them scrappy fighters. Their self-preservation instinct is strong, and they’re unusual among monsters in having a high Charisma, along with proficiency in Deception and Insight. They can’t be charmed, they can Read Thoughts, and they have the Ambusher and Surprise Attack features in addition to their Shapechanger power. All these abilities synergize to make the doppelgänger a sucker-puncher par excellence.
Continue reading Doppelgänger Tactics
I’m going to begin my discussion of vampires with a digression: Years ago, I read a book titled (I swear I’m not making this up) Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula: The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count. It was written by Loren Estleman in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle, and as I recall, it was less cheesy and far more entertaining than you might assume . . . although I don’t think I’ve read it since I was in college, so take that with a grain of salt.
Anyway, there’s one bit of that novel that sticks in my mind as being particularly cool: At one point, Dracula walks right into Holmes’ room, in the middle of the day, and Holmes expresses surprise that Dracula can go out in broad daylight. Oh, sure I can, Dracula says; it’s just that I don’t have any of my supernatural powers when I do.
I thought that was an interesting spin on vampire abilities. One of the crucial elements of horror is exploiting the fear of the unknown: we’re most afraid of a monster when we’re not sure what it is, what it can do or how far it can pursue us. One of the best ways to spice up a D&D game is to take familiar monsters and give them unfamiliar powers, or have the familiar powers manifest in unfamiliar ways. Trolls, for example, are great for this: use the variant that allows severed limbs to keep moving and even fighting independently, and have the troll periodically pick up its limbs and stick them back onto itself, and watch your players wig out. (You may already be aware that this version of the troll originated with a scene in Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson.)
It’s so taken for granted in our popular culture that vampires are burned by sunlight, the thought of a vampire who’s merely weakened by it, not hurt—let alone destroyed—would never occur to most of us. The vampire in the Monster Manual is the conventional burned-by-sunlight variety, but what if you removed that weakness and substituted one that merely disabled the vampire’s special features in daylight?
Try this sort of variation out—if not with a vampire, then with some other monster whose powers players assume they already know.
Continue reading Undead Tactics: Vampires