Undead Tactics: Specters, Wights and Wraiths

Ghouls and ghasts are flesh-eaters; specters, wights and wraiths are life-drainers. Driven by malice, envy and despair, they compulsively consume the vitality they themselves can never possess again. They all possess darkvision and shun the sunlight, so they’re encountered only at night; in some shuttered, haunted locale; or underground.

Specters are incorporeal: they have no material existence and can pass through solid objects and other creatures, although they can be harmed by stopping inside one. They have a very fast flying movement speed of 50 feet per turn. Their only exceptional ability scores are a Dexterity of 14 and a Strength of 1. They’re immune to most debilitating conditions, although they can be blinded, deafened, frightened, incapacitated or stunned. They’re immune to necrotic and poison damage and resistant to other forms of damage, except for radiant damage and physical damage from magical weapons. Being of normal humanoid intelligence and Wisdom, they have the sense to back off from an opponent that starts inflicting these types of damage upon it.

A specter might be expected to identify and zero in on weaker victims, and if it were an evolved creature, it might act that way. But specters operate are driven by their compulsion, not by adaptive survival instincts. When they sense the presence of a living victim, they don’t evaluate how easy or hard it will be to devitalize. They just wanna kill everybody, and it doesn’t matter who’s first.


Undead Tactics: Ghouls and Ghasts

Ghouls and ghasts are a classic pair of flesh-devouring undead creatures dating all the way back to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, ghasts being the more dangerous of the two. Unlike skeletons and zombies, which are created by necromancers casting animate dead, ghouls and ghasts are purported to have demonic origins (although there exists a spell usable by player characters, create undead, to produce them as well—here the lore and the rules contradict each other).

Both ghouls and ghasts are immune to poison and to being charmed or exhausted, and both have darkvision. They have high Dexterity and Strength, in that order, and can either claw or bite. The bite attack does more direct damage, but the claw attack has a greater chance to hit as well as a chance of paralyzing its target, rendering it incapable of action, movement or speech, granting advantage to all attacks against it, and turning all hits on it into crits. (Ghouls’ claw attack doesn’t have this effect on elves, but ghasts’ claw attack does.) Although its chances of success are low, its potential effect is so powerful that it has to be considered the attack of first resort, except against elf PCs. Finally, ghasts have the Turning Defiance feature, which grants advantage on saving throws against turning not just to themselves but to any ghoul within 30 feet of them. (They have resistance to necrotic damage, too, but that’s probably not going to be your players’ first choice against them.)

In my last article, I stated that undead creatures are driven less by survival than by compulsion—whatever compulsion the method of their creation imbues them with. In the case of ghouls and ghasts, this is hunger for the flesh of the living. This, combined with their average-level Wisdom, suggests that they possess a stronger self-preservation instinct than mindlessly obedient skeletons and zombies, since the whole point of eating is to fuel one’s continued existence. It also suggests that their goal is to obtain living flesh to eat, and that once they’ve achieved this goal, they have no particular reason to keep fighting.


Undead Tactics: Skeletons, Zombies and Shadows

The premise of this blog is that evolved creatures know how to use the abilities they were born with. The interesting thing about undead creatures, in this context, is that they’re not evolved creatures—at least, not anymore. The transformation to undead status doesn’t entirely erase what a ghost or zombie was in its previous life, nor does it necessarily come with a set of survival rules that any and every undead creature will adopt. Undeath is a curse, and as such, it creates what I think of as compulsions. That is, whatever spell, influence or event caused a creature to rise from the dead also drives that creature to behave in ways that have nothing to do with its own self-preservation. In fact, since the creature has already experienced death, the concept of “survival” is essentially meaningless to that creature. Consequently, how badly an undead creature is injured has nothing to do with whether it will flee, and the tactics it uses will have less to do with how to effectively guarantee its continued existence and more to do with the particular compulsion that drives it.


Goblin Boss, Hobgoblin and Bugbear Tactics

In an earlier article, I examined the tactics of goblins, which turned out to be significantly more sophisticated than those of your average cannon-fodder humanoid monster. Goblins are low-level, though, and to present more of a challenge to intermediate-level players, large groups of goblins are often accompanied by more advanced goblinoids, such as goblin bosses, hobgoblins and bugbears.

The goblin boss is distinguished from ordinary goblins by its Multiattack and Redirect Attack features and by the fact that it doesn’t use a bow. Additionally, the Redirect Attack action is useful only in a context in which goblins are fighting side-by-side rather than in an ambush or skirmish. Based on this, I conclude that goblin bosses are found only in goblin lairs—caves, ruins, what have you—where large numbers of goblins will fight in close quarters.

By the way, have you read that Redirect Attack feature? The goblin boss uses its reaction to avoid a hit on itself and cause it to land on one of its goblin minions instead. What a jerk! Here’s a critter that’s better suited for fighting than most of its kind—stronger, better at absorbing damage and capable of landing more blows—and yet it possesses no notion of carrying the team. “Aw, sorry about that, Jixto! Send me a postcard from Hades!” (more…)

Gnoll Tactics

I don’t know about your campaigns, but I think I’ve literally gone my entire Dungeons and Dragons–playing life so far without ever once either using (as a dungeon master) or encountering (as a player) a gnoll. So I’m coming at the final monster in my initial series on humanoids with fresh eyes.

Gnolls are described in the Monster Manual as rapacious raiders, scavengers and nomads with hyena-like heads. They have high Strength and low Intelligence; their behavior is driven by their violent and destructive instincts. Like many other humanoid D&D monsters, they have darkvision. They wield spears and longbows, according to the MM, and they have one distinguishing feature, Rampage, which allows them to move half their speed and make a bonus bite attack after reducing a foe to 0 hp in melee.

Honestly, I’d dispense with the longbow—it doesn’t make sense in the context of what else the MM says about gnolls. Their Strength is high enough that they gain little advantage from using one. They aren’t smart enough to craft one or social enough to barter for one. According to the flavor text, gnolls prefer to strike at easy targets; longbows are designed to puncture armor. And gnolls’ single unique feature is melee-oriented.

So my vision of the gnoll is strictly a hand-to-hand fighter. As creatures with high Strength, high-average Dexterity, average Constitution and a respectable five hit dice, gnolls are shock troops. When they spot a vulnerable target, most likely during a nighttime patrol (darkvision provides advantage against PCs who don’t have it), they strike at once. Despite the premise of this blog—that monsters don’t just go “Rrrraaaahhhh, stab stab stab” all the time—this is exactly what gnolls do. They’re fearless and aggressive, using their full movement speed to approach their targets, then Attacking (action) with spears; if one such attack reduces an enemy to 0 hp, the gnoll Rampages toward another enemy within 15 feet and bites it (bonus action).