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…)

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…)

Yugoloth Tactics

Finally, as promised! In Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the neutral evil analogues to lawful evil devils and chaotic evil demons were daemons, but since midway through second-edition D&D—perhaps to avoid confusion with demons, or perhaps to avoid confusing Philip Pullman fans—they’ve been called “yugoloths.” Yugoloths are neither as obedient as devils nor as recalcitrant as demons: they have a mercenary mind-set, and in fact are often used as mercenary warriors by archdevils and demon lords, according to the Monster Manual flavor text.

There’s little reason for a yugoloth to be encountered in any other context, and therefore little likelihood that player characters will run into one on their home material plane. But I can imagine a scenario in which an evil ruler asks a court wizard to summon a yugoloth for aid in battle against a rival, figuring that it might be easier to control than a demon and less likely to demand something unacceptable in return than a devil.

There are four types of yugoloth listed in the MM. From weakest to strongest, they’re the mezzoloth, the nycaloth, the arcanaloth and the ultroloth. (Given this naming pattern, I’m not sure why they’re called “yugoloths” instead of just “loths.” The “yugo-” prefix is never explained.) However, even mezzoloths have a challenge rating of 5. These are not opponents for low-level adventurers. (more…)