Alhoon Tactics

Some time ago, a reader asked me to take a look at the alhoon, an undead, spellcasting mind flayer that’s almost a lich but not quite. Instead of becoming effectively immortal, the alhoon lengthens its lifespan through human(oid) sacrifice, tacking on however many years its victim has lived. (It seems to me that the alhoon should get however many years the victim has left, but whatever; I’m not a necromancer.)

Alhoons have a daunting array of features, so strap in—this is going to take a while to analyze. We’ll begin with their ability scores, which, like those of the ordinary mind flayer, are weighted toward the mental end, with Intelligence 19 leading the pack. However, unlike ordinary mind flayers, they also have a very high Constitution, along with proficiency in Constitution saving throws. This, combined with immunity (not resistance!) to physical damage from nonmagical attacks and advantage on saving throws against spells from Magic Resistance means their chief vulnerability is to magic weapons, with spells that require Dexterity saves to avoid damage a distant second. And not just any Dex-save spell: they’re also resistant to cold, lightning and necrotic damage and immune to poison. Fireball OK; lightning bolt bad.

In addition to various intellectual skills, alhoons have proficiency in Perception and Stealth, disposing them toward ambush. Their 120 feet of truesight means they probably know when you’re coming for them, and the first thing an alhoon does when it knows you’re coming is Hide. Continue reading Alhoon Tactics

Vampire Warrior and Spellcaster Tactics

A reader gently reminds me that I made a promise a long time ago that I haven’t fulfilled yet: I analyzed vampires, but I never did get around to analyzing the variant warrior vampire and spellcaster vampire. How do they differ from the stock vampire?

To recap, vampires are highly intelligent and prudent apex predators, both highly attached to and highly dependent on their lairs—of which they maintain several, just in case. They employ multiple levels of security in these lairs and will parley with intruders to size them up, stall for time and look for an opportunity to Charm one or more of them. They use a combination of Unarmed Strike (to grapple) and Bite to subdue opponents, draw sustenance from them and, potentially, transform them into vampire spawn. They value their continued existence very highly and are not going to engage in acts of stupid bravery; if the situation calls for it, they’ll tactically retreat without hesitation. When hunting, they prey on the weak, vulnerable and isolated. Continue reading Vampire Warrior and Spellcaster Tactics

Banshee Tactics

Banshees are curious creatures: accursed undead elves, without any clear explanation of who did the cursing. They’re the “mean girls” of elvenkind, beautiful but cold, shallow and manipulative, who instead of remaining eternally youthful become more and more debased and drained of vitality, and end up wallowing in empty alienation forever.

Banshees have no physical form, so their only movement is flying, at a brisk 40 feet per round. They have above-average Dexterity and very high Charisma, but owing to their lack of substance, they have virtually no Strength. Thus, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever engage in prolonged, toe-to-toe melee combat; instead, they’ll use their ranged powers first, then make hit-and-run attacks. They’re not worried about opportunity attacks, because they’re resistant to physical damage from nonmagical weapons.

In addition to laughing at mundane iron and steel, banshees are also resistant to acid, fire, lightning and thunder damage and outright immune to cold, necrotic and poison damage, along with the vast majority of debilitating conditions. Thus, they have as little to fear from spellcasters as they do from loutish fighters. A magic weapon, on the other hand, puts them on red alert. Continue reading Banshee Tactics

Revenant Tactics

Revenants are undead creatures bent on pursuing revenge against individuals who wronged them in their previous lives. As undead creatures, they have no survival instinct per se; instead, they’re driven by compulsions, in this case the compulsion to avenge themselves.

Now, you might argue, hey, you can’t get revenge if your enemy (or someone else) destroys you. And revenants have high Wisdom, high enough to understand the truth of this—and above-average Intelligence, high enough to understand the fact of it. So you might think a seriously wounded revenant would break off fighting and retreat—that is, unless it was getting too close to its one-year deadline.

But you can’t destroy a revenant. Its Regeneration feature restores 10 hp every round unless it’s taken fire or radiant damage; only if the damage that finally reduces its body to 0 hp is fire or radiant damage will the body it inhabits be destroyed. And even when the body is destroyed, the soul returns 24 hours later in a different body.

The only way to keep this from happening is to banish the revenant’s soul to its appropriate afterlife while it’s disembodied, using a wish spell. Only the most powerful wizards and sorcerers—veritable masters of the world—will have access to that. What kind of favor do you think you’d have to do for one of them to get him or her to cast a wish spell on your behalf? (The Monster Manual doesn’t mention this possibility, but I think you could probably also stop a revenant by bringing it back to life with a true resurrection spell. But this is also a 9th-level spell; instead of wheedling a favor out of Saruman, you’ve got to get it from the pope.) Continue reading Revenant Tactics

Bodak Tactics

Today I go from talking about my greatest disappointment in Volo’s Guide to Monsters (so far) to one of my happiest finds. A couple of weeks ago, I had to quickly build a last-minute encounter to fill a plot hole for my mid-level players. One thing I recall from a class I took in fantasy fiction years ago is that the suspense in horror fiction comes from not knowing what the heroes are up against or what it can do, so I needed an unfamiliar monster to build the encounter around. I found it in the bodak.

The bodak is a CR 6 undead creature, immune to lightning, poison, and being charmed or frightened. It’s resistant to cold, fire and necrotic damage, along with physical damage from nonmagical weapons. It’s proficient in Perception and Stealth, has 120 feet of darkvision and is hypersensitive to sunlight, so it’s strictly nocturnal and/or subterranean. Its physical abilities are uniformly high; its Wisdom and Charisma are above average, but its Intelligence is low, so its behavior is mechanistic and compulsive.

It has an unarmed melee attack, but its real power comes in the combination of its distinctive features: Aura of Annihilation, Death Gaze and Withering Gaze. Death Gaze and Aura of Annihilation, in particular, are a nasty combination. Death Gaze hits at the beginning of an opponent’s turn; Aura of Annihilation, at the end of it. Continue reading Bodak Tactics

Gnolls Revisited

I hate to say it, but Volo’s Guide to Monsters has managed to make gnolls even less interesting to me than they were before.

That’s unfortunate. They were already an unsophisticated, “Rrrrraaaahhhh, stab stab stab” kind of monster, aside from the gnoll Fang of Yeenoghu, which at least had the brains to identify weaker party members and go out of its way to get them. Here’s what we learn about them from Volo’s:

  • They’re not evolved creatures, but rather hyenas transformed by the power of the demon lord Yeenoghu.
  • They’re driven solely by the desire to kill and eat.
  • That’s pretty much it.

And yet, inexplicably, Volo’s contains a section on “Gnoll Tactics.” It doesn’t provide any such section for goblinoids, whose features make possible some really interesting tactics. (In particular, hobgoblins are supposed to be savvy tacticians.) It provides one for kobolds, which is great, because kobold tactics aren’t obvious without a fair amount of analysis. But the “Gnoll Tactics” in Volo’s aren’t tactics so much as reiterations of gnolls’ fundamentally brutal and unimaginative nature. (They don’t set up permanent camps. They leave no survivors. They like weak, easy targets. They attack tougher creatures “only when the most powerful omens from Yeenoghu compel them to do so,” i.e., when the dungeon master decides they will.) Continue reading Gnolls Revisited

Naga Tactics

I’ve put off writing about nagas, because to be honest, they’re a pain to analyze: there are three different types, all of them are distinguished primarily by the spells they can cast, and the lists are long. Analyzing specific stats and features is easy. Analyzing the pros and cons of various spells is hard, or at the very least time-consuming. Plus, at least one of the types of naga is lawful good, so player characters won’t often encounter it as an enemy. But I received a request from a reader, and I live to serve.

To simplify as best I can, I’ll start by looking at what they all have in common:

  • They’re shock attackers. Their highest physical stats are Strength and Dexterity, with Constitution significantly lower in each case. This means that they’re melee fighters, but they’ll try to strike fast and do as much damage as they can on their first attack, because they don’t have as much staying power as a skirmisher or brute.
  • Their main weapon is their bite, which does only a modest amount of piercing damage but a lot of poison damage, and this is their default action in combat. They themselves are immune to poison, as well as to being charmed.
  • Their mental abilities are strong across the board, indicating good combat sense and willingness to parley, within reason. Once combat starts, they’ll focus their attacks on their most belligerent enemies, counting on their other opponents’ losing the will to fight once those most eager are taken down.
  • They have darkvision, indicating a preference for nighttime and/or subterranean activity. They won’t be encountered outdoors during the day, at least not randomly.
  • Nothing we can usually say about evolved creatures applies to them. Per the Monster Manual, “A naga doesn’t require air, food, drink or sleep.” On top of that, living nagas (the spirit and guardian varieties) can’t be slain without casting a wish spell: if you “kill” one, it returns to life, with full hit points, in just a few days. Thus, among other things, they never have any reason to flee.
  • Living nagas also have no reason to fear spellcasters, since on top of their already high ability scores, they have proficiency in all the big three saving throws, plus Charisma (guardian nagas have proficiency on Intelligence saving throws as well).

Continue reading Naga Tactics

Reader Questions: Flying Tactics and Opportunity Attacks

Q: What are the generic tactics of any flying character?

A: Any mode of movement other than moving normally over land offers the advantage of being able to go where one’s opponent(s) can’t. A creature with climbing movement, for example, can scale a vertical surface without being subject to any speed penalty or having to succeed on an ability check. In the case of flying, a creature has access to the air. It can hover out of reach; it can also launch itself airborne in order to flee.

Since the reach of most humanoids, armed or unarmed, is only 5 feet, a creature with 30 feet of flying movement can station itself 15 feet above its opponents’ heads, fly down, attack and fly back up using just its normal movement and action. A creature like the peryton, which has the complementary Dive Attack and Flyby features, will always use a tactic like this, because the combination does extra damage, and the peryton isn’t subject to an opportunity attack when it does so.

Opportunity attacks are the hitch with this tactic. Whenever a creature leaves its opponent’s reach, that opponent may use its reaction (if available) to make an opportunity attack against it. If the peryton didn’t have Flyby, for example, then every time it dove, its victim might get a free swing at it. Continue reading Reader Questions: Flying Tactics and Opportunity Attacks

Will-o’-Wisp Tactics

In my earlier series on undead creatures, I skipped over the will-o’-wisp, the “devil lights” of swamps, marshes and desolate battlefields. In building will-effective o’-wisp encounters, it’s necessary to bear in mind the prime directive of horror: fear of the unknown. To create suspense, it’s best never to name the enemy that the heroes are facing, and to keep them in the dark about what it can do for as long as possible. The No. 1 way to spoil a will-o’-wisp encounter is to tell the players they see will-o’-wisps.

Will-o’-wisps are like fantasy UFOs: they can bob and hover in one place or move up to a zippy 50 feet per round. They’re immune to exhaustion, grappling, paralysis, poison, falling prone, restraint, unconsciousness and lightning damage, and they’re resistant to physical damage from nonmagical weapons along with several types of elemental damage. They have darkvision out to a range of 120 feet but shed their own light out to a range of between 10 and 40 feet, although they can also wink in and out of visibility.

Will-o’-wisps have no physical attack. Their Shock attack is a melee spell attack (Wisdom-based, by mathematical inference), and against unconscious opponents, they can follow it up with the nasty Consume Life feature, which has the potential to kill a player character outright. However, between their many resistances and immunities and their Dexterity of 28, which gives them an armor class of 19, they have nothing to fear from a melee attacker. They’re the rare high-Dex, low-Strength, average-Constitution monster that isn’t a ranged sniper and doesn’t need or even want to be. Continue reading Will-o’-Wisp Tactics

Dragon Tactics, Part 2.5

The fifth-edition Monster Manual includes listings for two “dragons” that aren’t individual creatures per se but rather templates that can be overlaid on any chromatic or metallic dragon stat block. Shadow dragons are dragons that have made lairs in the Shadowfell—a parallel plane of existence full of negative energy, dreary and desolate—and suffered the sorts of effects you’d expect from living for decades or centuries in such a place. Dracoliches are dragons that, like humanoid liches, have turned themselves into undead horrors in the misguided pursuit of immortality.

Shadow dragons and dracoliches are created by applying certain modifications to the stat block of an adult or ancient dragon of another type, either chromatic or metallic. (Yes, it seems that even metallic dragons can become shadow dragons or dracoliches, supposing that they were subjected to some sort of sufficiently powerful corrupting influence or curse.) Let’s look at what effects these modifications might have on their combat tactics. Continue reading Dragon Tactics, Part 2.5