Mephit Tactics

I’ve been asked to take a look at mephits, wicked little critters that maliciously embody the para-elements of dust, ice, magma, mud, smoke and steam. The Monster Manual characterizes them as “tricksters,” but every one of them is of neutral evil, not chaotic, alignment, so their “trickery” is of a decidedly baleful sort. I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t behave as evolved creatures with respect to their self-preservation instinct, but if survival is their No. 1 priority, causing gratuitous harm and annoyance to others is No. 2.

Mephits aren’t tough—half of them are CR 1/4, and the other half are CR 1/2. All of them have low Strength, all of them can fly, and all of them have darkvision (meaning they either live underground or are active primarily at night) and the Death Burst feature, which does something when they’re killed, although that something depends on the type of mephit. And they all have a simple melee attack, along with a breath weapon that has only a 1 in 6 chance to recharge, so in all likelihood, they’ll get to use it only once. Most (but not all) of them are proficient in Stealth, suggesting that they like to ambush their victims, and their low Strength suggests that they’ll usually be encountered in decent-size groups; a lone mephit wouldn’t dare pick a fight with more than a couple of enemies at once.

Beyond that, though, every type of mephit is a little bit different, and there’s nothing for it but to look at each type individually. (more…)

Minotaur Tactics

Everyone who took sixth-grade social studies knows the story of the minotaur—literally, the Bull of King Minos, that inhabited the labyrinth into which the tyrant threw his prisoners. In the myth, the minotaur (there was only one) was the cursed offspring of a bull and Minos’s wife, Pasiphae (ew), and the labyrinth was built by Daidalos to contain it so that it didn’t rampage among the populace, devouring the king’s subjects. In Dungeons and Dragons, minotaurs (plural) are a humanoid species with bovine heads and hooves.

So . . . evolved creature or not? The Monster Manual flavor text seems to want to have it both ways:

Minotaurs are the dark descendants of humanoids transformed by the rituals of cults . . . [who] come to the cult seeking a life free from authority’s chains—and are liberated of their humanity instead as [the demon lord] Baphomet transforms them into the minotaurs that echo his own savage form. Although they begin as creations of the Horned King, minotaurs can breed true with one another, giving rise to an independent race of Baphomet’s savage children in the world.

If the MM can’t commit to one explanation or the other, maybe we can’t, either. Maybe we have to accept that some minotaurs are evolved beings, and some aren’t. Maybe the logical extension of this premise is that some minotaurs behave as an evolved creature would, while others don’t, depending on whether they’re born as minotaurs or transformed by a curse. In other words, if your adventure includes a minotaur, in order to know how it will behave, you need to give it a backstory. (more…)

Sphinx Tactics

Sphinxes are bosses. Probably somewhat underutilized bosses, since you can only employ the solve-the-riddle, access-the-vault trope so many times before it gets tiresome (and that number of times is generally one, if not zero), so the first challenge you have to overcome as a dungeon master, before dealing with its tactics, is figuring out a way to make a sphinx encounter feel fresh. I’ll be honest: I have no useful advice on this. If you have any, share it in the comments below.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons had four varieties of sphinx; the number peaked in version 3.5 (the “More is always better” edition) at nine. But the fifth-edition Monster Manual includes only two: the androsphinx and the gynosphinx. The androsphinx remains the more powerful of the two, because patriarchy. (The gynosphinx, strangely, seems to have a mane, although on closer inspection, it may just be a wig.)

Androsphinxes and gynosphinxes have many features in common. Physically, they’re brute fighters; mentally, they’re champs across the board, though the masculine androsphinxes have less Intelligence and more Charisma. (If you think this makes them sound like the types who typically get promoted to management, you’re not alone.) They’re hyper-Perceptive, with 120 feet of truesight; they can’t be charmed or frightened, and they’re immune to psychic damage. At a minimum, they’re resistant to physical damage from nonmagical weapons (androsphinxes are fully immune). They can fly, at a speed greater than their normal movement. Their claw attacks are magical, and they get two per action. They have three legendary actions, which they take on other creatures’ turns: a single claw attack, teleportation and casting one spell. (Since this last costs three actions, they’ll use it only in case of dire emergency.) They have the Inscrutable feature, an ability primarily applicable to social interaction, which shields them from mind-reading. And they have a repertoire of spells they can cast at high levels. (more…)

Cambion Tactics

The more I leaf through the Monster Manual looking for material, the less interested I am in monsters that follow a straightforward brute profile (high Strength, high Constitution) and have no distinctive feature that gives them a reason to do anything other than run up and munch you. For this reason, the cambion deserves some attention. Even though the concept of the cambion, as a creature, isn’t that appealing to me (offspring of a fiend and a humanoid, naughty by nature), its particular combination of abilities and features is intriguing. This is not a straightforward monster. On the contrary, it offers more flexibility than most.

First, although its physical abilities are all very high, its two highest are Strength and Dexterity. The cambion is neither a stereotypical brute (Strength and Constitution) nor a stereotypical skirmisher (Dexterity and Constitution) but rather a shock attacker, optimized for moving fast and hitting hard, for quick and decisive battles rather than drawn-out slugfests. But it also has high Intelligence and even higher Charisma, meaning it has the option to talk its way out of a fight that’s dragging on too long—and so do its opponents.

It has proficiency in several saving throws, but of them, only Constitution is one of the big three—the ones that most damaging or debilitating spells require. It’s got a good enough Dexterity to compensate, maybe, but not Wisdom. So despite its other advantages, the cambion does have reason to be apprehensive around spellcasters, especially bards, sorcerers and wizards with a lot of mind-controlling or restraining spells in their repertoires. (more…)

Reader Questions: Flying Tactics and Opportunity Attacks

Q: What are the generic tactics of any flying character?

A: Any mode of movement other than moving normally over land offers the advantage of being able to go where one’s opponent(s) can’t. A creature with climbing movement, for example, can scale a vertical surface without being subject to any speed penalty or having to succeed on an ability check. In the case of flying, a creature has access to the air. It can hover out of reach; it can also launch itself airborne in order to flee.

Since the reach of most humanoids, armed or unarmed, is only 5 feet, a creature with 30 feet of flying movement can station itself 15 feet above its opponents’ heads, fly down, attack and fly back up using just its normal movement and action. A creature like the peryton, which has the complementary Dive Attack and Flyby features, will always use a tactic like this, because the combination does extra damage, and the peryton isn’t subject to an opportunity attack when it does so.

Opportunity attacks are the hitch with this tactic. Whenever a creature leaves its opponent’s reach, that opponent may use its reaction (if available) to make an opportunity attack against it. If the peryton didn’t have Flyby, for example, then every time it dove, its victim might get a free swing at it. (more…)