Rakshasa Tactics

Hands down, the rakshasa had the coolest illustration in the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual; I can’t help but think that the current illustration is in part a tribute to that original David A. Trampier drawing. Rakshasas were rarely encountered, but when they were, you knew the encounter would be memorable, because it had to live up to that illustration.

The fifth-edition rakshasa is likely to be another rarity, because its challenge rating is a high 13—too difficult a boss for low- or mid-level player characters. Rakshasas aren’t on the level of fully grown dragons, but they’re as tough as a beholder or master vampire, and tougher than genies, which should give you a sense of the kind of status they should have in a campaign.

The rakshasa’s highest physical ability scores are Dexterity and Constitution, but these are exceeded by its Charisma. What we have here is a creature that, while built to survive a battle of attrition, would rather fight using magic than using its claws. But that doesn’t mean it gets its way. (more…)

Vargouille Tactics

So imagine that you’re talking to someone, and as you’re talking to him, his face sprouts horns, his mouth sprouts fangs, and his ears transform into bat wings, and they start flapping, and his head tears right off its body, turns around and starts drinking the blood that’s fountaining from his former neck-place. You’ve just witnessed the birth of a vargouille, a silly and horrible little fiend that’s the extraplanar personification of cooties.

Vargouilles are stupid and possess an underdeveloped survival instinct. Though birthed in solitude, they flock together as quickly as possible for the safety of numbers. They can drag themselves along the ground only feebly, but they can fly faster than the average humanoid can jog. They’re resistant to cold, fire and lightning damage and immune to all forms of poison, including the poisoned condition. They have 60 feet of darkvision and detest sunlight (although it doesn’t do them any actual harm, as it does to, say, kobolds).

With above-average Dexterity and Constitution (and nothing else), vargouilles are skirmishers; moreover, they’re flying skirmishers, which means they’ll often keep station 10 or 15 feet in the air, fly down to attack, then fly back out of reach. This makes them subject to opportunity attacks, which should matter, but with a Wisdom of only 7, they’re not prudent enough to try to avoid it. (more…)

Barghest Tactics

I picked the barghest to examine out of Volo’s Guide to Monsters, recognizing it as a monster that’s been around a long time, but not one I’d ever made use of. Then I read the flavor text. What the what? A monster that only eats goblins? That couldn’t be how this creature was originally conceived.

So I did a little follow-up. Barghests come from Northern English folklore, in which they take the form of huge, black dogs, either possessed by evil spirits or being spirits themselves. The second half of the name is related etymologically to “ghost” and “ghast,” while the first half may mean “city,” “mountain” or even “bear”; no one’s sure. They prey on lone travelers and vagrants, they often have the power to change shape or pass invisibly, and the appearance of a barghest is considered an omen of death.

That’s popular lore. In Dungeons & Dragons lore, barghests began as fiends (as they still are) associated with goblins (as they still are) and often taking a canine shape (as they still do), but the ones that prowled the material plane were the young of those that resided—and ruled their own lands—in Gehenna. The current origin story, in which they’re created by the General of Gehenna to hunt goblins, is a new fifth-edition twist. And, frankly, a preposterous one.

So here’s how I’d interpret the flavor text in the barghest entry: It’s what goblins believe. (more…)

Nightmare Tactics

When I picked the nightmare to look at in this post, I was thinking back to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, in which it was simply the equine equivalent of the hell hound—an infernal horse, ridden by devils. Apparently, the lore has changed. Have you read the fifth-edition Monster Manual’s description of the nightmare? It’s not just some devil-horse anymore—now it’s what you get when you rip the wings off a pegasus. Seriously. That’s some sick stuff, man.

Give me a few minutes for the ick to wear off.

OK . . . whichever origin story you prefer, nightmares are clearly not evolved creatures, so they’re not going to possess the same survival instincts as most other monsters. They’re not undead, either, so there’s not necessarily any compulsion driving them. They’re categorized as fiends, so their primary motivation, underlying any other they may have, is malevolence. Their job is to transport devils and demons, and it suits them. (more…)

Gnolls Revisited

I hate to say it, but Volo’s Guide to Monsters has managed to make gnolls even less interesting to me than they were before.

That’s unfortunate. They were already an unsophisticated, “Rrrrraaaahhhh, stab stab stab” kind of monster, aside from the gnoll Fang of Yeenoghu, which at least had the brains to identify weaker party members and go out of its way to get them. Here’s what we learn about them from Volo’s:

  • They’re not evolved creatures, but rather hyenas transformed by the power of the demon lord Yeenoghu.
  • They’re driven solely by the desire to kill and eat.
  • That’s pretty much it.

And yet, inexplicably, Volo’s contains a section on “Gnoll Tactics.” It doesn’t provide any such section for goblinoids, whose features make possible some really interesting tactics. (In particular, hobgoblins are supposed to be savvy tacticians.) It provides one for kobolds, which is great, because kobold tactics aren’t obvious without a fair amount of analysis. But the “Gnoll Tactics” in Volo’s aren’t tactics so much as reiterations of gnolls’ fundamentally brutal and unimaginative nature. (They don’t set up permanent camps. They leave no survivors. They like weak, easy targets. They attack tougher creatures “only when the most powerful omens from Yeenoghu compel them to do so,” i.e., when the dungeon master decides they will.) (more…)