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

Vampiric Mist Tactics

Alas, there isn’t much to say about vampiric mist, which is what you end up with when the body of a vampire is destroyed but its essence isn’t. With no way to form a new body, it floats around aimlessly, feeding off victims by employing a sort of necrotic vacuum effect to pull blood out of victims’ pores and facial orifices.

I normally begin by looking at a creature’s ability contour, but in this case, there’s not much point. There’s only one stat that matters, and that’s its Intelligence, which is subsapient. Vampiric mist has no judgment, only instinct. Moreover, it has no attack action per se, only Life Drain, an effect that requires a saving throw to resist. Vampiric mist isn’t so much a creature as it is a punishment.

Because of their Sunlight Sensitivity, vampiric mists come outside only after dark, and they don’t mess around with civil, nautical or astronomical twilight. It’s nighttime or nothing.

Also, thanks to the Forbiddance feature, one is safe from vampiric mist as long as one is inside a residential building, either one’s own home or someone else’s. (“The mist can’t enter a residence without an invitation from one of the occupants,” but seriously, who’s going to invite a grayish-crimson, foul-smelling cloud of vapor to come inside, especially one that can’t even knock on the door or answer the question, “Who’s there?”) Inns are a gray area: If you’ve ever read a zoning ordinance, you know that inns are commercial, not residential. On the other hand, a rented room at an inn can be an individual’s primary place of residence and therefore, in a legal sense, their home. As Dungeon Master, you make the call regarding whether a player character has a permanent enough arrangement with an inn to construe their room as a residence. There’s no ambiguity around monasteries and convents: as both permanent residences and hallowed ground, they’re safe. But adventurers spend a lot of time on the road, and a tent is not a building, period. Continue reading Vampiric Mist Tactics

Spawn of Kyuss Tactics

A couple of months ago, a reader asked me to take a look at the spawn of Kyuss in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. Reader, I hope you’re not too disappointed.

Both the flavor text and the ability contour tell us the same thing: The spawn of Kyuss is a largely mindless brute. Its Strength is very high; its Constitution exceptional; its Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma dismal. This is a creature without any flexibility or independent judgment, or even much of a self-preservation instinct.

As an undead being, the spawn of Kyuss is driven by a compulsion—in its case, the desire to spread its parasitic infection to other beings. This is all the spawn of Kyuss does; it’s all it can do. Other than its attack actions, all of its traits are passive. One of its attacks, Claw, is just an ordinary melee attack that happens to do some extra necrotic damage. The other, Burrowing Worm, is an attempt to infect another creature by propelling a parasitic maggot at them. If the target fails their saving throw, the Burrowing Worm continues to deal damage to them. The spawn of Kyuss’s Multiattack action comprises two Claw attacks and one use of Burrowing Worm.

That’s it. Continue reading Spawn of Kyuss 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

Nightwalker Tactics

It took me a couple of tries to get through the flavor text on the nightwalker in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, but here’s what it seems to boil down to: If some schmuck is dumb enough to try to visit the Negative Plane, which has even less to recommend it as a destination than Philadelphia International Airport (Update: To be fair, I traveled through PHL recently, and it’s much improved from what it was like in the ’90s, so I apologize for the cheap dig, PHL), the tradeoff is that a nightwalker is released into the material plane, and the visitor can’t leave the Negative Plane until the nightwalker is somehow persuaded to go back. How can it be persuaded to go back? “By offerings of life for it to devour.” How many such offerings are necessary? It doesn’t say. What do nightwalkers want? “To make life extinct.” So the idea here is to convince a nightwalker to abandon the place where it has plenty of life energy to devour by giving it life energy to devour? Try throwing bagels to raccoons and see how quickly they go away.

As if this arrangement weren’t bad enough for our traveler, destroying the nightwalker traps the traveler on the Negative Plane forever. In short, in an entire universe of bad ideas, going to the Negative Plane for any reason is quite possibly the worst. If you’re creating a nightwalker encounter, though, someone went through with this execrable half-baked plan, and now your player characters are the ones who have to deal with the consequences.

With extraordinary Strength and Constitution, nightwalkers are brutes, but they’re some of the nimblest brutes in the Dungeons and Dragons menagerie: their Dexterity is also extraordinary, though not quite as high as their Strength and Con. Their mental abilities, in contrast, are weak, with below-average Wisdom the highest of the three. They’re indiscriminate in their target selection and operate on instinct, without any flexibility in their tactics. Continue reading Nightwalker Tactics

Eidolon Tactics

Eidolons are intriguing creatures, because despite being undead, they’re not necessarily evil—they may even be good. Spirits honored by the gods for their zealous devotion, eidolons spend their afterlives guarding those gods’ sacred places and protecting them from defilers. Their compulsion—which every undead creature must have—is to protect. Not necessarily a bad thing!

Even more intriguing is that eidolons can hop into inanimate objects and animate them for the purpose of carrying out their eternal mission. Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes offers, as an example, a stat block for an animated statue.

But first, let’s look at what an eidolon can do on its own. The flavor text says, “An eidolon has few methods for protecting itself beyond its ability to awaken its sacred vessels.” How true is this? Continue reading Eidolon Tactics

Boneclaw Tactics

What if you’re a wizard with the ego, ambition and power to pursue immortality through self-enlichment, and you start the grueling process but fail to pace yourself properly? You could end up as a boneclaw, the powerful undead servant of a random individual who certainly didn’t ask for one and may or may not have any use for it.

Figuring that only the most brilliant mages even have a chance at becoming liches, the boneclaw’s Intelligence of 13 is surprisingly low, and I ascribe this to the trauma of failure. Something about the process of becoming a boneclaw damages the erstwhile wizard’s intellect, surely a sore spot. It’s not stupid by any stretch, just unable to soar to its previous heights of brilliance. Its Intelligence is now outshone by its extraordinary Strength and very high Dexterity, Constitution and Wisdom.

Those latter three high stats are accompanied by proficiencies in their respective saving throws, meaning that the boneclaw possesses exceptional resistance to the vast majority of attacks that require saving throws to resist. It may not be able to perform the kind of magic it once did, but your magic isn’t going to impress it one bit. Continue reading Boneclaw Tactics

Skull Lord Tactics

I’ve been procrastinating on analyzing the skull lord, because it’s another damn monster with a spellbook three inches thick. Spells are all right, but if you ask me, the way to make a monster interesting is to give it interesting features. A plethora of spells just creates analysis paralysis.

So what makes a skull lord different from a lich? Quite a lot, actually, but let’s start with the lore. Liches are megalomaniacal wizards who became undead in the pursuit of immortality and boundless power. Skull lords aren’t wizards but warlords—more correctly, agglomerations of warlords, former squabbling rivals now forced to share a single wasted body with three skinless heads.

Undead creatures are driven by compulsions, not survival instincts or rational motives. To run one, you have to know what its compulsion is. Here, it seems, the lore indicates two compulsions: to conquer and . . . to bicker. We’re gonna have some fun with this one. Continue reading Skull Lord Tactics

Undead Tactics: Demiliches

A couple of months ago, a reader noted that I’d analyzed liches but not “their degraded selves,” demiliches. I have to confess, I’ve been putting it off, because analyzing liches was a lot of work. Fortunately, demiliches don’t have such a large repertoire of spells to analyze, so that reduces the complexity.

Demiliches have the same compulsion—the will to power and immortality—as liches, but unless they’ve shed their bodies willingly, there’s an additional element to their character: frustration. They’ve forgotten to feed their phylacteries, or they’ve been prevented somehow from doing so. As a result, the immortality they worked so hard to attain has cheapened. They’ve lost their sense of purpose and their ability to cast spells. They may even have forgotten that they can regain their physicality by feeding new souls to their phylacteries. If reminded of this fact, they’ll forget every other concern and fixate on restoring themselves to lichdom. (Strangely, neither the demilich’s stat block nor its flavor text explains how a soul is fed to its phylactery. Seems like kind of an important omission.) As long as this memory is lost to them, however, they’ll act with malice, tinged with the occasional random miscalculation that stress produces.

Aside from the lack of spellcasting, a demilich differs from a lich in the following ways: Continue reading Undead Tactics: Demiliches

Death Knight Tactics

When a corrupted paladin dies without making amends for his or her misdeeds, he or she may be raised as a death knight, an undead warrior that retains a tenuous connection to its former divine link. Like all undead, death knights are motivated by compulsion rather than survival.

What kind of compulsion might drive a former paladin, particularly one who strayed from the path of good? One leaps out at me as so obvious that it hardly seems worth considering any other: the desire to punish. Punish whom, for what? Does it matter?

The death knight is a brute, with extraordinary Strength and Constitution and a large reservoir of hit points, but not an unthinking one: all its mental ability scores are above average, and its Charisma in particular is exceptional. It has proficiency on Dexterity and Wisdom saving throws, two of the “big three,” plus advantage on spells saves in general from Magic Resistance. It’s immune to necrotic and poison damage and can’t be poisoned, exhausted or frightened. It doesn’t possess any resistance or immunity to physical damage from normal weapons, however. Continue reading Death Knight Tactics