Umber Hulk Tactics

“I would love it if you could take a look at the umber hulk,” a reader writes. “It’s such an interesting monster to fight against.” I don’t know whether I agree with that—certainly, from a dungeon master’s perspective, it’s not that interesting a monster to run—but maybe the experience is different from the player’s point of view. Either way, the reader’s final point is beyond dispute: “Also, it penalizes characters who ignore Charisma.”

Based on its ability contour, the umber hulk is a straightforward brute: extraordinary Strength, very high Constitution, comparatively lower (though still above-average) Dexterity; its mental abilities are unremarkable.

It has nothing in the way of special skills, such as Stealth, but it has 120 feet of darkvision and 60 feet of tremorsense—the ability to detect vibrations through earth—and it can burrow at a speed of 20 feet per round. Even solid rock is merely difficult terrain as far as the umber hulk is concerned, thanks to its Tunneler feature. So a burrowing umber hulk can lie beneath the ground, unseen, waiting for prey to pass overhead, then make its first strike with advantage as an unseen attacker. Most likely, though, that first attack from hiding is the only one it will get.

It has a fierce melee Multiattack: two attacks with its claws and one with its jaws. But there’s no decision to be made there. The only thing that makes the umber hulk unique from a combat perspective is its Confusing Gaze. (more…)

Remorhaz Tactics

One reason I haven’t addressed the remorhaz (pronounced rem-o-raz) yet is that I’ve tried to emphasize creatures that are likely to have fighting styles more complex than “Rrrrraaaaahhhhh, stab stab stab” (or “chomp chomp chomp”). Generally, that’s meant skipping over monsters with simple brute profiles—high Strength, high Constitution, low-to-middling everything else, without much in the way of tactics that might modify this—and the remorhaz is one of those. However, a reader asked me to take a look at it, so let’s see what there is in its stat block that might liven it up:

  • Burrowing movement. Remorhazes aren’t stealthy, but it doesn’t take proficiency in Stealth to sit in a hole in the ground and wait for prey to stroll by. (I love how the Monster Manual handwaves the combination of their arctic habitat and their Heated Body feature by declaring, “While hidden under the ice and snow, it can lower its body temperature so that it doesn’t melt its cover.” Well, isn’t that convenient!)
  • Sixty feet of tremorsense. OK, this I like, because basically it works the same way as the sandworms in Dune. It doesn’t have to see you walking overhead: it can feel you.
  • Heated Body. Touch a remorhaz, or hit it with a close-range melee attack, and you take fire damage.
  • The Swallow action. This is where the remorhaz gets interesting.


Lamia Tactics

Personally, I’ve always tended to go in one of two directions with my Dungeons and Dragons adventures: either totally far-out, never-before seen, otherworldly strangeness; or the consequences of straightforward humanoid motivations—ambition, desperation, greed, envy, benevolence, revenge—played out on a fantasy backdrop. Consequently, I haven’t tended to incorporate many monsters that have been imported into D&D straight from classical or medieval mythology.

The lamia is one of those: originally a queen who dallied with Zeus and was cursed by Hera to devour first her own children and then the children of others; later a monster with the torso of a woman and the lower body of a serpent; and in the depiction of Edward Topsell, a 17th-century clergyman who fancied himself a naturalist, a creature with a woman’s head on a lion-like body covered with serpentine scales, finished off with human breasts and what looks like a horse’s tail. Recurring themes in lamia myths include seduction, gluttony, filth and bloodlust.

D&D’s lamias have their roots in Topsell’s interpretation. In Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the lamia was drawn as having leonine paws in front and cloven hooves in back, and was vaguely described as having the lower body of “a beast.” After several evolutions (including a mystifying fourth-edition departure in which it became a corpse animated by devoured souls transformed into insects), the fifth-edition lamia has returned to something near the original concept, with the nonspecific “beast” body now specifically the body of a lion, sans horse tail. These lamias, rather than slovenly and gluttonous, are smooth seducers, corrupters of virtue, and admirers of beauty and power. (more…)

Myconid Tactics

Before I get into material from Volo’s Guide to Monsters, I promised I’d look at myconids: vaguely humanoid fungus creatures, categorized by the Monster Manual as “plants” in defiance of our current understanding of fungi as less closely related to plants than to animals. Granted, we shouldn’t be surprised when anything in Dungeons and Dragons defies science—but if, as a dungeon master, you feel like honoring science and being perversely difficult toward your players, you might choose to reclassify them as beasts, monstrosities or even aberrations. The last category might fit best, as they’re intelligent, but they’re certainly not a humanoid intelligence, or even an animal intelligence.

As subterranean creatures, all myconids share 120 feet of darkvision, plus the features Sun Sickness, Distress Spores and Rapport Spores. Sun Sickness penalizes myconids for venturing aboveground during the day: it gives them disadvantage on all ability checks, attack rolls and saving throws while in sunlight, and if they spend more than an hour out in it, it kills them. (They dry up or something, I guess.) Distress Spores gives them a form of telepathic communication with other myconids, informing them when they’re injured. Rapport Spores are interesting: they give all living creatures exposed to them the ability to share thoughts over a limited distance. Which is useful, because otherwise, myconids have no form of verbal communication.

Myconids are lawful neutral, not evil. Although not automatically friendly, they’re not automatically hostile, either; their default disposition is indifferent. But they are lawful, which means that being a troublemaker in their vicinity may provoke a hostile response from them. The more chaos-muppety your player characters are, the less likely myconids are to appreciate their presence. (more…)

Naga Tactics

I’ve put off writing about nagas, because to be honest, they’re a pain to analyze: there are three different types, all of them are distinguished primarily by the spells they can cast, and the lists are long. Analyzing specific stats and features is easy. Analyzing the pros and cons of various spells is hard, or at the very least time-consuming. Plus, at least one of the types of naga is lawful good, so player characters won’t often encounter it as an enemy. But I received a request from a reader, and I live to serve.

To simplify as best I can, I’ll start by looking at what they all have in common:

  • They’re shock attackers. Their highest physical stats are Strength and Dexterity, with Constitution significantly lower in each case. This means that they’re melee fighters, but they’ll try to strike fast and do as much damage as they can on their first attack, because they don’t have as much staying power as a skirmisher or brute.
  • Their main weapon is their bite, which does only a modest amount of piercing damage but a lot of poison damage, and this is their default action in combat. They themselves are immune to poison, as well as to being charmed.
  • Their mental abilities are strong across the board, indicating good combat sense and willingness to parley, within reason. Once combat starts, they’ll focus their attacks on their most belligerent enemies, counting on their other opponents’ losing the will to fight once those most eager are taken down.
  • They have darkvision, indicating a preference for nighttime and/or subterranean activity. They won’t be encountered outdoors during the day, at least not randomly.
  • Nothing we can usually say about evolved creatures applies to them. Per the Monster Manual, “A naga doesn’t require air, food, drink or sleep.” On top of that, living nagas (the spirit and guardian varieties) can’t be slain without casting a wish spell: if you “kill” one, it returns to life, with full hit points, in just a few days. Thus, among other things, they never have any reason to flee.
  • Living nagas also have no reason to fear spellcasters, since on top of their already high ability scores, they have proficiency in all the big three saving throws, plus Charisma (guardian nagas have proficiency on Intelligence saving throws as well).