Succubus/Incubus Tactics

What teenage Advanced Dungeons and Dragons player wasn’t fascinated and titillated by the succubus, that naked sex demon leering off the page of the Monster Manual? Mind you, this was the same era when a “harlot encounter table” in the Dungeon Master’s Guide allowed you to determine whether a randomly encountered prostitute was a “saucy tart,” a “cheap strumpet” or a “slovenly trull,” which was great for vocabulary building but not so much for encouraging a healthy understanding of sex roles and interpersonal relationships. You’ve come a long way, D&D. (Now let’s work on the ill-considered conflation of race with personality traits, ’K?)

Originating as a mythological explanation for erotic dreams (and, possibly, sleep paralysis episodes as well), the succubus and its masculine counterpart, the incubus, were imagined as devils who tempted people in their dreams. What did they want? The same thing devils always want: to lay claim to your soul, in their case by getting you to corrupt it of your own free will by giving in to the deadly sin of lust.

Despite including some of the trappings, D&D doesn’t share Christianity’s religious cosmology, but the flavor text in the fifth-edition MM assigns succubi and incubi essentially the same mission: “[W]hen a succubus or incubus has corrupted a creature completely . . . the victim’s soul belongs to the fiend. . . . After successfully corrupting a victim, the succubus or incubus kills it, and the tainted soul descends into the Lower Planes.”

Therefore, we have to take a bigger-picture view of succubus and incubus tactics. They’re not about simply gaining an edge in a happenstance combat encounter. They don’t have happenstance combat encounters. Rather, these tactics are steps toward the fiends’ final goal. (more…)

Shambling Mound Tactics

The shambling mound is an old-school classic: veteran Advanced Dungeons and Dragons players will remember the Monster Manual illustration that looked like a Christmas tree with a carrot for a nose. Viny quasi-zombies of the swamps and rainforests, shambling mounds are brutes that tramp around indiscriminately ingesting whatever organic matter they come across, vegetable or animal. Oh, and also beating people up.

Oddly for such a large, ungainly creature, the shambling mound has proficiency in Stealth, which I have to attribute to its natural camouflage. Being a plant without normal senses, it’s immune to blindness and deafness, along with exhaustion. It has blindsight in a 60-foot radius, is resistant to cold and fire damage (that’s one hardy plant), and not only is immune to lightning but actually absorbs the electrical energy and uses it to regenerate.

According to the Monster Manual flavor text, shambling mounds don’t pursue prey but rather wait for prey to come within reach, but for creatures that must feed all the time—and also have “shambling” in their name—this seems like a dull way to play them. It may not move around much, but why wouldn’t a shambling mound be trudging through the woods when the player characters encounter it? Of course, whether it’s waiting or walking, it does so as stealthily as it can, in order to gain the element of surprise against its prey. (more…)

Will-o’-Wisp Tactics

In my earlier series on undead creatures, I skipped over the will-o’-wisp, the “devil lights” of swamps, marshes and desolate battlefields. In building will-effective o’-wisp encounters, it’s necessary to bear in mind the prime directive of horror: fear of the unknown. To create suspense, it’s best never to name the enemy that the heroes are facing, and to keep them in the dark about what it can do for as long as possible. The No. 1 way to spoil a will-o’-wisp encounter is to tell the players they see will-o’-wisps.

Will-o’-wisps are like fantasy UFOs: they can bob and hover in one place or move up to a zippy 50 feet per round. They’re immune to exhaustion, grappling, paralysis, poison, falling prone, restraint, unconsciousness and lightning damage, and they’re resistant to physical damage from nonmagical weapons along with several types of elemental damage. They have darkvision out to a range of 120 feet but shed their own light out to a range of between 10 and 40 feet, although they can also wink in and out of visibility.

Will-o’-wisps have no physical attack. Their Shock attack is a melee spell attack (Wisdom-based, by mathematical inference), and against unconscious opponents, they can follow it up with the nasty Consume Life feature, which has the potential to kill a player character outright. However, between their many resistances and immunities and their Dexterity of 28, which gives them an armor class of 19, they have nothing to fear from a melee attacker. They’re the rare high-Dex, low-Strength, average-Constitution monster that isn’t a ranged sniper and doesn’t need or even want to be. (more…)

Lycanthrope Tactics

Werebeasts, a.k.a. lycanthropes, are wonderful enemies. A werebeast encounter can be awesome action or tragic drama. Werebeasts lend themselves perfectly to horror-mystery adventures, in which the players have no idea which of the villagers is the true villain. They threaten to transmit their lycanthropic curse to any character who fights them hand-to-hand—monsters who can make the player characters into monsters themselves. Practically by definition, werebeast encounters take place at night, when everything is scarier. And if the werewolf ever seems too clichéd an enemy, werebeasts come in four other varieties.

All werebeasts have proficiency in Perception and immunity to physical damage from nonmagical, nonsilvered weapons. They also have human forms, beast forms and hybrid forms; their human forms are their “true” forms. My sense as a dungeon master is that they take their beast forms to run around and hunt in the wild, but among people, they take their hybrid forms when their curse is upon them—at any rate, the hybrid form makes for more interesting and challenging combat encounters than the beast form, because it allows them to use their Multiattack action feature. (The exception to this pattern is the werebear, which has Multiattack in all its forms.) But if you want to conceal the fact that the PCs are fighting a lycanthrope and not simply a big, ferocious beast, you may opt for the beast form after all, trading a reduction in damage for the increase in likelihood that the PCs will carelessly let themselves fall afoul of the lycanthropic curse.

Although the Shapechanger feature, common to all werebeasts, states that they can use an action to polymorph from one form to another, I’d disregard this, for two reasons. First, there’s generally no advantage to it: any equipment they’re carrying isn’t transformed, so, for example, a humanoid wearing armor and carrying a sword turns into a beast standing in a pile of armor and staring at a sword on the ground; or a hybrid with natural armor turns into a naked, unarmored, unarmed humanoid. Meanwhile, it’s just spent a whole combat round transforming when it could have been, I don’t know, attacking or running away? And second, isn’t the whole point of lycanthropy that the afflicted individual has little or no control over his or her transformations? High opportunity cost, no obvious benefit, contradicts werebeast lore: there’s only one logical situation in which to use this action, and that’s at nightfall or daybreak, when the lycanthrope changes involuntarily. (more…)

Bullywug Tactics

Bullywugs are petty, bad-tempered humanoid frogs, native to swampy areas. The fifth-edition Monster Manual flavor text describes them as “struck with a deep inferiority complex . . . desperately crav[ing] the fear and respect of outsiders” and says they’ll generally prefer to capture trespassers rather than kill them outright, hauling them back to win favor with their rulers first. One way they do this is by taming giant frogs and having them swallow victims whole; however, this works only on Small or Tiny targets, meaning that unless a party of player characters is made up entirely of halflings or gnomes, this isn’t a strategy they can rely on in a typical encounter.

For a creature with only two hit dice, bullywugs aren’t too shabby in combat. All their physical abilities are modestly above average; they have proficiency in Stealth and the Swamp Camouflage feature, which grants them advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks in swampy terrain. It’s fair to say, therefore, that bullywugs won’t venture outside such areas—not when they have such a natural advantage on their home turf.

Moreover, their Standing Leap ability lets them move their full speed of 20 feet per turn as a long jump, when the jumping rule would normally allow them to leap only 6 feet. This allows them to cover distance in difficult marshy terrain without having to halve their movement speed. If you want to be nitpicky about it, you can require them to succeed on a DC 10 Dexterity (Acrobatics) check when they land, per page 182 of the Player’s Handbook, but personally, I’d say that bullywugs, whose natural habitat is the swamp, shouldn’t have to make that check when landing. And for the sake of flavor, I like the idea of having bullywugs bouncing around like a bunch of ornery little superballs during combat rather than trudging around in 2-D as we landbound humanoids must. (Mind you, this does not exempt them from opportunity attacks when they jump out of PCs’ reach.) (more…)