Live to Tell the Tale: An Introduction to Combat Tactics for D&D Players

In writing this blog, I’ve unleashed a wave of clever, highly evolved monsters upon the D&D world. It’s only fair that I now give players the tools they need to fight back . . . and live.

Live to Tell the Tale: An Introduction to Combat Tactics for Dungeons and Dragons Players is a 67-page e-book that examines combat roles, class features, party composition, positioning, debilitating conditions, attacking combinations, action economy, and the ever-important consideration of the best ways to run away. If you’re a beginning D&D player unsure what to do when you get into a fight, this e-book will point you in the right direction; if you’re an intermediate player, it will help you win more and die less. If you’re a dungeon master with a group of new players, buy a copy and share it with them. Although it’s a PDF download, it’s formatted to be printed as a booklet, if you care to do that. (In Adobe Reader’s Print menu, under Page Sizing and Handling, select Booklet.)

One thing I want to be clear about: This is not a book about how to create a fully optimized character from square one. Just the opposite. “Real roleplayers” are my people. If you want to create an idiot savant sorcerer, a half-orc cleric/bard or a gnome ranger, I wholeheartedly support that. Do what you love. But, that being said, if you love that character, you need to keep him or her alive!

Here’s the secret: Viability doesn’t depend on stats. It depends on behavior. That’s what this book is about: how to get the most from your creation in combat, so that he or she lives long enough to retire and tell boring stories about the old days. (more…)

Wood Woad Tactics

Wood woads are lawful neutral living plants, basically meaning, don’t start none, won’t be none. The only way you’re going to get in a fight with one is either to trespass on the territory it guards and initiate ruckus, or to attack it outright. Otherwise, they’re likely to remain indifferent to your presence. Not friendly—indifferent.

Wood woads are tough. They have 10 hit dice, exceptionally high Strength and Constitution, and a two-swing Multiattack with a Magic Club that does considerable whomp damage. However, they also have proficiency in Perception and Stealth—and advantage on Stealth checks in “terrain with ample obscuring plant life,” i.e., any kind of forest, wild or cultivated, or even a tall-grass prairie—so they won’t run straight at you as soon as they see you. Instead, they’ll blend in quietly, waiting to attack until trespassers come within reach—or, if they need to put an immediate end to a disturbance, closing the distance with Tree Stride, then attacking. Thus, their first attack will always be an ambush, with unseen-attacker advantage.

However, this ambush won’t necessarily be an attack with intent to harm. They’re lawful neutral, not lawful evil. They have proficiency in Athletics as well, and in combat, that usually means grappling or shoving. If they’re not outnumbered, rather than try to pummel trespassers, they may simply try to bounce them: grapple them, carry them to the edge of their territory and dump them there. Or they might shove a trespasser into a pit or trap, but chances are, it won’t be they who’ll dig that pit or build that trap. Shoving is a tactic they’ll generally use only when they’re henchmen of something or somebody else—though a roaming wood woad, if antagonized, might choose to shove an enemy into a ravine, if one happened to be nearby. (more…)

Thoughts on Building Encounters

If you’re a dungeon master, you have a choice of running your players through published adventures such as Storm King’s Thunder, Curse of Strahd and the Tyranny of Dragons duology, or writing your own material from scratch. I’ve usually taken the latter approach, although with my current players—a group of mostly newcomers to Dungeons and Dragons—I’ve opted for a mix, starting them off with The Lost Mine of Phandelver, then a homebrew quickie, then Tyranny of Dragons peppered with personal sidequests.

Published adventures often give little or no guidance on how monsters—especially ones in random encounters—ought to behave, and occasionally, what guidance they give is inconsistent with what would be optimal, given a monster’s abilities and features. So a large part of my motivation behind writing this blog has been to provide that guidance, so that other DMs don’t have to figure it out on the fly, potentially resulting in lackluster encounters.

But when you’re writing your own material, you have all kinds of freedom. You decide what environments the player characters will travel through. You decide what villains they’ll fight, what those villains’ plans are and what kind of minions those villains will have. You decide what kind of help and hindrances the PCs will encounter along the way. And here’s a point of underrated importance: You draw the maps. (more…)

Xvart Tactics

Xvarts are tricky to devise tactics for, because their ability scores, their features and their Volo’s Guide to Monsters flavor text all seem to be at odds with one another. Their ability scores suggest Dexterity-focused sniping and shock attacks. Their Overbearing Pack feature suggests a reliance on shoving opponents prone, presumably to be followed up with melee attacks (both of which depend on Strength). And the flavor text states that they attack primarily to abduct, which implies grappling. There is a solution, but it’s tricky.

Xvarts move at the normal humanoid speed of 30 feet per round. Their Strength is low, and their Constitution merely average, so they’re anti-brutes—averse to melee slugfests. Xvarts will necessarily seek strength in numbers—and allies, specifically giant rats and giant bats. Giant rats make particularly good allies for xvarts, because of their Pack Tactics feature; giant bats, however, are tougher and more challenging. A xvart encounter should include, at a minimum, two xvarts per player character, plus an animal ally for every two xvarts.

Xvarts are neither smart nor wise. They have no ability to adapt if their favored strategy doesn’t work, and they may not be particularly quick to notice that it isn’t working. However, unlike the usual low-Wisdom monster, which waits too long to run away, xvarts are cowardly; if anything, they’ll run away prematurely from encounters that actually favor them. The Low Cunning feature gives them Disengage as a bonus action, but this represents instinctive evasive ability, not discipline. (more…)

Sahuagin Tactics

Sahuagin are fierce, amphibious fish-men that live underwater but emerge periodically to raid coastal settlements. Although the Monster Manual says they “dwell in the deepest trenches of the ocean,” that’s a bit far for even a creature with a 40-foot swimming speed. Those ocean trenches are as far from the coasts as the highest mountains are, and you don’t often hear about the yeti of the Himalayas spending an afternoon staging a raid on Kolkata, or the Tatzelwürmer of the Alps popping down to Genoa for some late-night ravaging. These are distances of hundreds of miles we’re talking about. So chances are, any sahuagin that player characters encounter are going to be denizens of shallower depths. Maybe they’re the border reivers of the ocean kingdom.

When they come ashore to raid, they do so at night, as implied by their 120 feet of darkvision. They can’t come far inland, since their Limited Amphibiousness gives them only four hours of air breathing before they have to return to the water. Unlike, say, merrows, sahuagin can move about on land as easily as any other humanoid.

In this environment, they’re basic brutes. Their Multiattack gives them one weapon or claw attack and one bite attack. Since their armor class doesn’t include a shield, we can presume that they wield their spears two-handed for the greater damage. (more…)

Kirin Tactics

The kirin (inexplicably hyphenated “ki-rin” in Dungeons and Dragons products going all the way back to the original D&D book Eldritch Wizardry, which preceded even Advanced Dungeons and Dragons—kirin, unhyphenated, is a Japanization of the Chinese 麒麟 qílín) is a mythical creature whose appearance portends the births and deaths of great rulers and sages. A deerlike beast with scaly skin, grand antlers and dragonish facial features, the kirin is often characterized in Western writing as the “Japanese unicorn” or “Chinese unicorn” because of its virtuousness and standoffishness and because it’s sometimes depicted as having a single horn rather than a pair of antlers. The link is reinforced in fifth-edition D&D, as both unicorns and kirin are categorized as celestials.

Kirin are reclusive, and being lawful good, they prefer to avoid violent encounters. Combat with a kirin is going to take place in only two instances: Either a player character has attacked the kirin, or the kirin is fending off an intrusion by an intrinsically evil creature, such as a fiend or undead.

A kirin’s extraordinary Strength is nearly matched by its Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma, making it one of the few creatures that’s equally well-suited to melee combat and spellcasting. With proficiency in Perception, it’s hard to catch by surprise, and with proficiency in Insight, it knows which of its opponents are genuinely hostile and which are simply misguided. (more…)