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…)

Dinosaur Tactics

“Sophistication” is not the word that leaps to mind when discussing the battle tactics of dinosaurs. Most of these ancient beasts are dumb brutes, with extraordinary Strength and Constitution and rock-bottom Intelligence. They also fall into two main categories, plus one variation:

  • Plant-eaters: These tend to be peaceful unless spooked. They may lash out if you invade their space, and they’ll defend themselves if cornered, but most of the time, they’ll mind their own business. If attacked, they’ll usually run.
  • Meat-eaters: These are predators that will hunt, kill and eat any creature smaller than themselves. If they’re hungry—and they usually are—you can count on them to chase and attack anyone and anything they might construe as food.
  • Flying meat-eaters: These behave like their landbound kin, but the fact that they can fly adds an aerial wrinkle to their attack pattern.

The fifth-edition Monster Manual contains stat blocks for six dinosaurs: allosaurus, ankylosaurus, plesiosaurus, pteranodon, triceratops and tyrannosaurus rex. Volo’s Guide to Monsters contains seven more: brontosaurus, deinonychus, dimetrodon, hadrosaurus, quetzalcoatlus, stegosaurus and velociraptor. (All the dinosaurs in Tomb of Annihilation can be found in these two books.)

I’ll look at these by dietary group, from lowest challenge rating to highest within each. Think of this as the dinosaurs’ pecking order, as any meat-eating dinosaur will attack and eat another dinosaur of a smaller size and lower CR, while a higher CR plant-eater, although it won’t actually attack other plant-eaters with lower CRs, may yet decide to muscle in and chase them off if the grazing in an area is especially good. I’ll also link to images, since they’re not all illustrated in the 5E books. (more…)

Vegepygmy Tactics

In yon days of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, TSR published every adventure “module” (as we called them then) with an alphanumeric code, and if you speak the code “S3” to a role-playing gamer of my generation, it’ll be met with a big grin and the reaction, “The one with the spaceship!” Yep, that’s Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, a D&D/science fiction crossover, in which the player characters explore the wreckage of a futuristic craft and stock up on assorted high-tech weaponry and loot.

One of the more memorable monsters from this module is the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing, a carnivorous, tentacled stump with a wiggly appendage at the top that resembles an adorable furry creature. Another—equally memorable but less fondly remembered—is the vegepygmy. Among my D&D friends, I think vegepygmies must have come in for more derision than any other D&D monster except the flumph and the flail snail, although thinking about it now, I couldn’t tell you exactly why we thought vegepygmies were so ridiculous. Maybe it was just the name. Anyway, the last paragraph of the vegepygmy entry in Volo’s Guide to Monsters contains a cheeky shout-out to their origin.

Vegepygmies, essentially, are fungus in a humanoid form, though they differ from myconids in . . . ways. For one thing, they do possess the power of speech, sort of. They’re not telepathic. They’re a little more peoply-looking. They propagate by infecting other creatures with russet mold spores, rather than independently. But ultimately, they’re still just another form of animate fungus. And like myconids, they’re categorized in Volo’s as plants, even though fungi, it turns out, are closer to animals than to plants in the taxonomic tree. As I suggested with myconids, you may choose to categorize them as humanoids or even aberrations instead, then let your players try to solve the riddle of their plant-related spells’ not working on beings that sure do look like plants. (more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

The Flanking Rule: Why Many DMs Hate It and Why I’ll Still Use It

I never realized when I began writing this blog just how big a hot-button issue flanking is. Personally, being a longtime player of not just Dungeons and Dragons but also various war games, including quasi–war games like Sid Meier’s Civilization series, I thought using the optional flanking rule on page 251 of the fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide was a no-brainer. Yeah, D&D is a game in which silly things happen on the regular, but given a choice, I still like to err on the side of verisimilitude, and it’s a simple fact of life that if you’re being attacked by someone in front of you and someone behind you, you’re going to get the tar kicked out of you.

But after getting some negative feedback to my advocacy of the flanking rule (including one Reddit poster who went so far as to say that as far as he was concerned, it invalidated everything else I say!), I decided to put some feelers out to learn why, exactly, some players are vehemently against granting advantage on attacks against a flanked enemy.

The rules of D&D 5E are written with considerable care and meant to be taken absolutely literally, so instead of glossing as I usually do, I’m going to reproduce the exact wording of this rule, in its entirety: (more…)