Volo’s Guide to Monsters is thorough in its treatment of beholders, in terms of both tactics and flavor. It contains material on determining a beholder’s appearance and behavior, the layout and contents of its lair, and even where baby beholders come from (it’s suitably weird). Since this blog’s focus is on tactics, I’ll concentrate on that.
For the most part, everything I said in my original analysis of beholders stands, but there is one small, implied contradiction.
Per the beholder stat block in the Monster Manual, “The beholder shoots three of the following magical eye rays at random (reroll duplicates), choosing one to three targets.” Based on this, I concluded that the highly intelligent beholder would aim those randomly selected rays at the opponents least able to resist them.
Volo’s informs us, “A beholder analyzes its opponents, makes note of armor, weapons, and tactics, and adjusts its strategy to eliminate the most dangerous threats as quickly as possible.” That, by itself, is not necessarily a contradiction, but then it goes further: “A beholder can fire multiple eye rays on its turn, and it might use all of them in succession on its most dangerous foe. Even a very tough fighter is going to have second thoughts after taking damage from a disintegration ray, an enervation ray, and a death ray.”
As intelligent as a beholder is, why would it use an enervation ray against “a very tough fighter”? That fighter is going to have a good chance of making a DC 16 Constitution saving throw and halving that damage. Given that a typical adventuring party is made up of characters of comparable ability, why would a beholder forgo the chance to do full damage with that Enervation Ray by aiming at someone unlikely to resist it? Is the fighter really that much more of a threat than the wizard in back? Especially since the beholder can float off the ground, out of the fighter’s reach, but within range of the wizard’s spell attacks?
Also, why would such a mastermind be firing off its eye rays at random? If it really did deem that fighter to be such a threat that it had to focus on her to the exclusion of her companions, why wouldn’t it choose a Sleep Ray to hit her with, rather than an Enervation Ray?
This time, when forced to choose between an implication of the Monster Manual and an implication of Volo’s, I side with the Monster Manual. The stat block says, “at random.” We can construe this as one of the ways in which the beholder, an aberration, behaves aberrantly. But given that the rays fire at random, the beholder can still make intelligent choices about whom to aim them at, and I think it’s going to aim them wherever they have the greatest expected effect. Maybe if the members of a party differ substantially in power—say, if that fighter is level 12, while all her companions are level 10 or below—it will focus an eye ray on her even if she’s not an optimal target of it. But this would be an exception to the rule.
I was also skeptical when I first saw the subsection heading, “Use Antimagic Freely,” but there’s an important insight here. When I first contemplated beholder tactics, I assumed (without even being fully aware of it) that the beholder would identify the best position in its lair and hold it—and that position would be relatively far from its opponents. But especially if the beholder has vertical room to maneuver, keeping it out of reach of melee fighters, it could use its Antimagic Cone as a “fourth eye ray” by repositioning itself so that it could aim that cone at one or more spellcasters while leaving other opponents outside the cone, where they’ll be susceptible to eye rays. (To recap, the issue with the Antimagic Cone is that it can’t be narrowed, so that if the beholder is too far from its targets, the “pie slice” suppresses its own eye rays as well as any magic that its opponents might use. Up close, however, that pie slice is narrower and can be aimed to include just one or two targets.)
The rest of Volo’s treatment of beholder tactics relates to the layout of its lair and the various minions therein. This is useful for planning a larger adventure scenario, but it doesn’t have much to do with the tactics employed in a single combat encounter.
Last week, I mentioned that suspense comes from the unknown—specifically, not knowing what one’s opponent is or what it’s capable of. Thus, the “Variant Abilities” section on page 12 is a fantastic way to mix up what might be, for players with their own copies of the Monster Manual, too predictable an encounter. “Each of these effects is designed to be of the same power level as the one it replaces, enabling you to create a custom beholder without altering the monster’s challenge rating,” Volo’s says, although I think substituting a single use of power word stun for the Antimagic Cone increases the beholder’s power significantly, because of all the instances in which it might forgo the use of its Antimagic Cone in order to maximize the use of its eye rays.
Note also that Volo’s stipulates, “The saving throw for an alternative ability uses the same DC and the same ability score as the spell the eye ray is based on” (emphasis mine). Take, for example, the substitution of banishment for the beholder’s Charm Ray. The Charm Ray calls for a DC 16 Wisdom save, but the banishment spell requires a Charisma save.
Hey, this is how our super-intelligent beholder can tailor its randomly chosen eye rays to the target it wants to facially reconfigure! You rolled an Enervation Ray, but you really want your beholder to aim it at that tough fighter? Make it a polymorph, which calls for a Wisdom saving throw instead of a Con save, and turn her into a goat.
Here’s a little chart of how variant ray saving throws differ from those of their corresponding standard rays (note that Otto’s irresistible dance and blindness/deafness take effect automatically—the saving throws listed are to end the effects):
|Standard Ray||Saving Throw Ability||Variant Ray||Saving Throw Ability|
|Death Ray||Dexterity||circle of death||Constitution|
|Paralyzing Ray||Constitution||modify memory||Wisdom|
|Petrifaction Ray||Dexterity||Otto’s irresistible dance||Wisdom|
|Slowing Ray||Dexterity||bestow curse||Wisdom|
There also several spells (silence, sleet storm, wall of ice, wall of force) that act on the environment, not on specific targets, and thus don’t require saving throws at all. And create undead is a situational alternative to the Enervation Ray, useful only if there’s a corpse or two (or three) handy.
Next: “Beholder-kin”—the death kiss, gauth and gazer.