Ooze Tactics

After all the time I spent trying to figure out tactics for mummy lords and liches, I’m taking it easy on myself today and talking about oozes—those barely intelligent, probably nonsentient, subterranean amoeboids.

The fifth-edition Monster Manual claims that oozes “have no sense of tactics or self-preservation,” but I can’t buy the second half of that. They may be “drawn to movement and warmth,” but even an amoeba will move away from an electric current. Despite the lore that oozes originated as fragments of the demon lord Juiblex, I’m going to treat them as evolved beings, akin to slime molds—scavengers that exist as part of the subterranean ecosystem.

The MM lists four types of oozes: the gray ooze, the ochre jelly, the black pudding and the gelatinous cube. All of them have several things in common: negligible Intelligence and Charisma (the ochre jelly, with Intelligence 2, is the genius of the bunch), low Dexterity and Wisdom, high Constitution, an acidic pseudopod attack and 60 feet of blindsight. Also, all but the gelatinous cube are Amorphous and can climb walls.

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Undead Tactics: Liches

The lich (rhymes with “itch,” not “ick” or German ich) stands out not only as the alpha undead creature going all the way back to the days of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons but also as the only type of undead creature that’s undead because it wanted to be. It’s what you get when a wizard decides he or she wants to be immortal, reads the fine print on the contract, and says, “Yeah, I’m down with that.” To become a lich to begin with, a wizard must necessarily be monomaniacal, as well as malicious, sadistic and/or vengeful, and the transformation of undeath intensifies these traits. A wizard who becomes a lich must also necessarily be a genius and a world-class spellcaster, and the lich retains these traits as well.

Although it’s only as strong as an average humanoid, all of a lich’s other ability scores are exceptional, most of all its Intelligence. It gets sizable bonuses to Constitution, Intelligence and Wisdom saving throws (notice that two of the “big three” are in that bunch); resists cold, lightning and necrotic damage; and is immune to poison damage and to physical damage from nonmagical weapons. It can’t be charmed, frightened, paralyzed or poisoned, and it never suffers from exhaustion. It has truesight—the ability to see in darkness, into the ether, and through illusions, transmutations and invisibility—out to a range of 120 feet, along with a passive Perception of 19. And it’s proficient in both Perception and Insight, so not only does it notice you’re there, it knows what you want.

A lich receives additional, powerful lair actions when it’s encountered in its lair. Why, then, would it ever leave? Good question. It won’t, if it can help it. No lich will ever leave its lair unless it must, in order to do something that it can’t get an agent to do for it. Follow-up question: Who on earth would sign up to be an agent of a lich? Well, who on earth would sign up to be an agent of Adolf Hitler? The answer is, someone of like mind—in the case of a lich, another evil wizard hoping to gain access to its voluminous reservoir of arcane knowledge. Or someone who considers the lich’s long-term goals to be aligned with his or her own. Or someone who fears the lich’s power and hopes that he or she can earn privileged treatment by showing sufficient loyalty and obedience. (Spoiler: Not likely.) Or, barring all that, someone whom the lich has magically dominated. Agents of a lich must be powerful enough for it to consider them useful, and they’ll generally be ambitious enough for service to a lich to seem like a reasonable arrangement.

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Undead Tactics: Vampires

I’m going to begin my discussion of vampires with a digression: Years ago, I read a book titled (I swear I’m not making this up) Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula: The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count. It was written by Loren Estleman in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle, and as I recall, it was less cheesy and far more entertaining than you might assume . . . although I don’t think I’ve read it since I was in college, so take that with a grain of salt.

Anyway, there’s one bit of that novel that sticks in my mind as being particularly cool: At one point, Dracula walks right into Holmes’ room, in the middle of the day, and Holmes expresses surprise that Dracula can go out in broad daylight. Oh, sure I can, Dracula says; it’s just that I don’t have any of my supernatural powers when I do.

I thought that was an interesting spin on vampire abilities. One of the crucial elements of horror is exploiting the fear of the unknown: we’re most afraid of a monster when we’re not sure what it is, what it can do or how far it can pursue us. One of the best ways to spice up a D&D game is to take familiar monsters and give them unfamiliar powers, or have the familiar powers manifest in unfamiliar ways. Trolls, for example, are great for this: use the variant that allows severed limbs to keep moving and even fighting independently, and have the troll periodically pick up its limbs and stick them back onto itself, and watch your players wig out. (You may already be aware that this version of the troll originated with a scene in Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson.)

It’s so taken for granted in our popular culture that vampires are burned by sunlight, the thought of a vampire who’s merely weakened by it, not hurt—let alone destroyed—would never occur to most of us. The vampire in the Monster Manual is the conventional burned-by-sunlight variety, but what if you removed that weakness and substituted one that merely disabled the vampire’s special features in daylight?

Try this sort of variation out—if not with a vampire, then with some other monster whose powers players assume they already know.

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Undead Tactics: The Mummy Lord

So, yeah, mummy lords. This is a totally different league of monster from your rank-and-file mummy—and the power difference between a mummy and a mummy lord is much wider than that between an orc and an orc war chief, a hobgoblin and a hobgoblin warlord, or a gnoll and a gnoll Fang of Yeenoghu. Mummy lords are bosses on par with adult dragons and tougher than giants. Only experienced adventurers need apply.

Their array of powers makes them complicated to run, so this is going to be a long and thorough breakdown.

  • Abilities: Average Dexterity and Intelligence; very high Strength, Constitution, Wisdom and Charisma. They’re brutes, but they’re not fools. And they have personality. Conceited, toxic personality, but personality nonetheless.
  • Damage and Condition Immunities: same as regular mummies but with an added immunity to physical damage from nonmagical weapons. They’re not the slightest bit afraid of your pigsticker unless it’s got a plus in front of it.
  • Damage Vulnerability: Fire, same as regular mummies.
  • Saving Throws: Hefty bonuses on Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma saves. That’s two of the big three and two of the little three, and with Strength 18, it doesn’t need to worry about that one, either. The only gap in this fortification is Dexterity. However . . .
  • Magic Resistance: Even its lower (only in relative terms) Dexterity isn’t too much of a hindrance, because it makes all its saving throws against magic with advantage. Whoo.
  • Rejuvenation: You can’t even kill it unless you jump through the extra hoop of destroying its heart. (For this purpose, I recommend fire.)
  • Spellcasting: More on this in a moment.
  • Legendary Actions: Every turn, it can perform up to three legendary actions on other characters’ turns. These include an out-of-turn Attack, an area-effect blinding, an area-effect stun attack, suppression of healing and turning momentarily incorporeal.
  • Lair Actions and Regional Effects: All the preceding applies if you happen to encounter a mummy lord on the way to the bodega to get milk. A mummy lord in its lair is even more powerful, conveying advantage on saving throws to other undead creatures in the lair, providing them with the equivalent of radar, and giving anyone else who tries to cast a spell a punishing necrotic jolt.

Like I said, a boss. With the attitude of a boss to boot. The mummy lord’s rational and justifiable assumption is that you ain’t jack.

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Undead Tactics: Ghosts and Mummies

We now return to two of our more cinematic undead creatures: ghosts and mummies. Aside from being horror-film staples, they don’t have a lot in common with each other, except for one thing: each is bound to a specific location. A ghost has “unfinished business” and haunts an area closely related to whatever trauma it needs to resolve; it’s compelled by the urge to resolve this trauma. A mummy is the guardian of a tomb or other burial place, compelled to punish transgressors against either the tomb itself or, sometimes, the person buried there. (In the latter case, the mummy may leave the tomb to hunt down the transgressor. In the former, it always stays put.)

Ghosts may be malicious, but they don’t have to be. (A malicious ghost that for some reason is permanently prevented from resolving the trauma connected with its death may end up as a poltergeist instead.) They may want to punish people who wronged them in their previous lives, but they may also be sorrowful, lonely, lost or even deceiving themselves that they’re still alive. Revenge against those who wronged them might satisfy them, but so might making amends to those whom they wronged. You really can’t have a decent ghost without a backstory.

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