Troll Tactics

I mentioned trolls in an earlier post on this blog, but a reader recently brought to my attention that I’ve never given them the full treatment. This is an inexcusable oversight on my part. Trolls are great—if you use the Loathsome Limbs variant. I love this variant because it creates trolls that hark back to my favorite troll combat scene ever, from Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson, and because I once ran a solo adventure for a friend in which he and a couple of NPCs had to fight one such troll without ever being told what it was. The suspense was heightened by the fact that they didn’t know what it could do, and they had to discover its weakness by trial and error.

The vanilla troll isn’t all that interesting. It’s a straightforward brute, with exceptionally high Strength, extraordinarily high Constitution and low-to-middling mental abilities. It’s got darkvision, so it prefers to operate at night or underground. It operates more by smell than by sight, regenerates damage unless it’s been struck by fire or acid, and has a claw/claw/bite Multiattack.

Such a monster would be an uncomplicated opponent: It would close to melee range immediately, slash and chomp away, and retreat only if seriously injured or attacked with fire or acid.

But add in Loathsome Limbs, and trolls become a lot more fun.

In the Loathsome Limbs variant, you can lop off the troll’s arms, legs and head—and they keep fighting independently! Not only that, the troll can grab them and reattach them! This is what Anderson’s troll did, and it adds tons of flavor to the combat encounter.

Fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons is a streamlined affair, compared with earlier editions of D&D (and other role-playing systems such as Pathfinder and GURPS), with little in the way of directed attacks or limp-specific injuries, so when you hit an opponent, you do x damage. What does “x damage” mean? It means you’ve come a certain amount closer to defeating your opponent. It doesn’t mean you’ve crippled its arm, opened a gushing wound or given it a concussion. In fact, unlike in some systems, having taken serious damage doesn’t even reduce a character’s or monster’s efficacy in combat. So the specificity of being able to cut off a troll’s leg is deliciously enlivening. And the fact that the leg keeps kicking you afterward is both hilarious and horrific.

To sever the limb or head of a troll, you have to inflict 15 hp or more of slashing damage. Even then, half the time, nothing special happens. But the other half of the time, you have a 40 percent chance of cutting off a leg, a 40 percent chance of cutting off an arm and a 20 percent chance of cutting off its head. Each arm is responsible for one of the troll’s claw attacks, and the head is responsible for its bite, so if you cut off an arm, you end up with a troll with a claw/bite Multiattack and an arm that can only claw.

A severed leg can move but can’t attack, a severed head can attack but can’t move, and a severed arm can do both. And every part Regenerates independently, so if you cut a troll apart, it actually recovers faster. But a troll would still rather remain intact, so it doesn’t take advantage of this fact.

Most of the time, trolls are indiscriminate in choosing targets: they’ll attack whoever or whatever is closest. Their vulnerability to fire and acid, however, means that such attacks draw their attention. If they’re lightly wounded or less (59 hp or more), these attacks provoke them, and they’ll focus on whoever struck the blow, if they can figure it out easily enough. If they’re moderately wounded (reduced to between 34 and 58 hp), however, they’ll recoil, using their movement to reposition themselves farther away from the source. And if they’re seriously wounded (reduced to 33 hp or fewer), they’ll flee from it, using the Dash action to move away at top speed.

Since a severed leg can’t attack, it will use its 5 feet of movement to move back toward the troll. A severed arm attacks with disadvantage if the troll can’t see both the arm and its target, so in this case, it will also use its 5 feet of movement to drag itself back. If the troll can see both the arm and its target, however, the arm will keep fighting independently until it’s destroyed. A severed head can’t move, so the troll will move toward it instead.

Neither the Loathsome Limbs feature nor the troll’s stat block says anything about the troll’s being able to reattach its limbs, but it does get a mention in the flavor text: “A troll can even reattach severed body parts, untroubled by its momentary disability.” As a dungeon master, I allow a troll to pick up and reattach one severed body part as a bonus action; to do so, it has to be in the same square or hex.

The limbs’ movement “decisions” may become scrambled if they’re attacked with fire or acid. Each independent limb, as well as the troll’s body, will react the same way to fire or acid as an intact troll would—except a severed head, which can do nothing but sit there and yowl.  That is, a severed arm that has 8 hp or more after taking fire or acid damage will slash back angrily, one that has 5 to 7 hp will move away from the source at its full movement speed of 5 feet, and one with 4 hp or fewer will Dash away at 10 feet per turn—even if this means it’s not moving back toward its body. But the body, if it hasn’t been burned by fire or acid, won’t react at all to the burning of its severed arm, won’t chase after it, won’t target the source of the fire or acid. If its severed head is being burned, the body will stop moving toward it. However, if the body is struck with fire or acid, any severed leg or arm that’s trying to make its way back to the body will keep doing so.

This fairly simple heuristic creates battles that are far more complex and entertaining than they have any right to be.

Edited to add: I forgot to discuss the fact that player characters, once they see a troll reattaching its severed limbs, will surely try to carry off any subsequent limbs they sever. The limbs fight this! Treat any limb that a PC has picked up as grappled. A leg will try to resist the grapple, using Athletics, rather than Acrobatics, because its Strength is so much higher than its Dexterity. An arm will keep clawing at whoever’s holding it if it would normally attack and will try to struggle free if it would normally be working its way back to its body. A head will try to bite whoever’s holding it.

Next: How to determine tactics for spellcasters.

22 thoughts on “Troll Tactics”

  1. Great, thanks man! Please continue with the regular Monster Manual first, I don’t want to spoil myself until I get Volo’s!

  2. Huh, I’d never thought that much about the Loathsome Limbs trait, but I see now that it might just be the right thing to spice up the troll encounters in my games!

  3. As soon as I read the Loathsome Limbs variant I wondered why it was a variant, because I can’t think of a reason NOT to use it in any Troll encounter.

    I love the idea of severed limbs fighting back against being carried off. Hope I get a chance to employ it!

  4. I’d point out that trolls don’t regenerate faster if split apart, since each individual limb has a maximum HP of 10 and so cannot regenerate more beyond it. The regeneration trait essentially means they’ll always start the turn at full health unless permanently destroyed.

    Also, RAW there’s no mechanism for re-attaching limbs in combat, but I prefer to let trolls do that since it makes for a better fight.

  5. Question – how might you determine where the limbs or head end up after being chopped off? How far away from the body might they land? Etc. They would need to go some distance in order to travel back to the body. Thanks for this – it helped break down the amazing Loathsome Limbs abilities! Cannot wait to try it! I’m thinking of making an encounter with river/swamp trolls! Will add a difficulty for the PCs if the fight is in the water!

    1. I’d say they fall either in the troll’s own space or a neighboring one. Whether they have to travel to get back to the troll has more to do with whether the troll is moving around, I think. However, a PC could pick one up and try to abscond with it. Or, as you suggested, it might be carried away by a river current. (A swamp wouldn’t have a strong enough current to carry it anywhere.)

      1. Makes sense! Thank you for your amazing work on this site. It is so helpful and inspiring – an essential part of session prep for me!

  6. I appreciate the work that you’ve done, but I feel like you’ve left out a number of additional tactical options.

    Loathsome Limb Trolls should be able to remove their own limbs. This gives them a ranged weapon. They only need to throw their head or limb into the space of a PC in order to be able to attack.

    Trolls defending a home might use this tactic, especially if they have a height advantage, knowing their limbs would grow back.

    There are also two other details I feel you’ve overlooked from the Monster Manual. First, Ogres and Orcs routinely work with Trolls to gang up on others. This broaden’s the options for tactics. Simply giving a Troll in an out door setting a horn that it can blow to summon an ogre ally and some orcs with ranged weapons, radically changes the game. Even if the PCs win, it gives them a second wave to deal with while licking their own wounds.

    Secondly, I think the Troll Freaks section warrants some conversation as well. Imagine a 4 armed Loathsome Limbs Troll. Or one who ate a blink dog (its a fey creature) and can teleport. Displacer beasts are not technically fey, but their origin is the feywild, so it could be justified. Imagine Loathsome Limbs that are displaced – 10 damage kills them, but you have disadvantage attacking them. Or a Dryad Troll with magic resistance (sorry, your fire spells just aren’t as effective), and the fey charm (charming trolls!).

    Hag Trolls could look human with illusory appearance or have a death glare. Pixie Trolls and Sprite Trolls could become invisible or even cast spells (sleep makes sense for a Pixie Troll with pixie dust)

    Here’s a disturbing one – Loathsome Limb – Dryder Troll (fey ancestry) – 6 spidery limbs, spider climbing, and sunlight sensitivity.

    I wouldn’t use these a lot, they’re supposed to be rare, but as a mini-boss, one of these could be great, depending on the level of your group.

    Finally, the rules specifically speak against it, yet I cannot help but imagine the idea of Loathsome Trolls whose limbs do not die off eventually. Only the body regenerates limbs. So you come upon a field, littered with bodies (difficult terrain), and a Troll waits for you at the rim of the cave. It turns and goes into the cave. Half way across the field of bodies, it comes charging out of the cave, roaring. Suddenly, arms from within the masses of bodies and bits begin to attack!

    1. 1.) No, that wouldn’t work. The troll might only reattach it’s own limbs, but rip off it’s own arm would newer occur to it — troll is stupid, but not insane. Also this would deal damage to troll.
      2.) A horn? Troll will newer use a call to blow for help. In fact, if the troll is roaming alone, it’s “wild”. A “domesticated” troll will accompany a group of orcs or ogres, but it can only obey they orders.
      3.) Hmmm… A Mordekainen Tome of foes include an venomous troll which have the poison blood, the rotten troll without regeneration but with necrotic aura of putridation, the spirit troll blasted by psychic energy and the dire troll who has EATEN AN OTHER TROLL and grow extra limbs and heads. A Wraith of a Storm King have scragg, water troll and frost troll. But the idea of fairy troll is awesome…
      Also, I do miss a DEMON TROLL. Like any spawn of Vaprak, the troll deity. Simular to the Fang of Yeenoghu, but Vaprak instead.

  7. Is it kosher to replace one damage vulnerability with another? I have a party of Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard and Rogue who automatically go to Fire all the time. Couldn’t I make the troll regenerate unless exposed to, say, acid or lightning damage? Or Radiant?

    1. TL;DR – Go for it, but consider why and how you do so

      While trolls do usually have vulnerability to fire the biggest asset in the DM’s arsenal is the ability to modify/create features for what is already provided. If you were to go in and change what they are vulnerable to I would consider two things (and I hope Keith would agree with me):

      1- Why is this troll different from other trolls? With this question I don’t mean “My players are all fire-happy”, but rather what processes in your world is the cause for this troll being different than the average troll. Alternatively, are all of the trolls vulnerable to something other than fire? What caused this?

      2- How would this change in vulnerability affect the way that the troll is encountered and fought? A troll vulnerable to acid would likely avoid swamps at all costs due to the increased possibility of encountering a black dragon or a batch of hostile hags. Such a troll may be more cautious of unknown bodies of liquid in general until it knows that it isn’t acidic in nature, or it may be more careless and reckless depending on how you want to play with its Intelligence of 7

      1. I’m a totally obsessive over-analyzer when it comes to my own world, so this is definitely something I would do. Except that it would just be a thing for all trolls in my world – they haven’t fought one yet, so I need to be able to surprise them at least a little. Half of my party are accomplished DMs themselves, they know the Monster Manual front to back, so that’s not so easy. I’ve built a few monsters from scratch, but mostly I modify them a little, or put them in offbeat combinations. If anyone objects – “hey, I thought trolls would stop regenerating if I hit them with fire!” – I can just say “In my setting, it takes radiant, since they only live underground” or something equivalent.

        1. Actually, in some media, monsters that regenerate quickly use fire as a catalyst for rapid cell growth. I was thinking of making some luminescent trolls that are mutants from eating only glowing cave moss/mushrooms. Therefore changing their vulnerability to “antifungal” poisons.

  8. This is opening more and more questions in my mind the more I think about it. Can multiple trolls mix and match reattached limbs (intentionally, circumstance, accident or sheer dumbness)? If so, a follow up question is, can they attach arms for legs, heads for arms, etc? Shoulder to an elbow for longer reach? Can trolls inherit new traits by getting new limbs, in the way we create hybrid fruit trees?

    This opens up so much creative troll-crafting fun that I know I would have to allow it.

  9. Would you increase the difficulty level/CR of the troll when using loathsome limbs? Or does it all work out at the current CR 5?

  10. Remember, too, that just a quick environmental shake up can add a lot to the battle. For instance, if your party knows “kill trolls with fire,” then have them encounter it during a downpour, where the flames keep getting dowsed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.