Kraken Tactics

Release the kraken! A high-level boss monster that player characters won’t encounter until they’re masters of the realm (if you, as their dungeon master, have a shred of decency in you), the kraken isn’t so much a creature as it is a natural disaster.

Running a kraken, like running a dragon, requires keeping track of legendary actions and lair actions as well as regular and bonus actions and reactions. One consolation is that, of all boss monsters, the kraken is probably the most likely to be encountered outside its lair, unless the PCs are on a mission to slay it. On the other hand, if the kraken is encountered within six miles of said lair, its regional effects mean that PCs will have to run a gantlet of hostile crocodiles; swarming schools of quippers; giant crabs, frogs, seahorses; sharks of all kinds; and water elementals. They’ll also have to contend with torrential rain and storm-strength winds, imposing disadvantage on navigation checks, Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight or hearing, and ranged weapon attacks. In colder climes, they’ll have to make DC 10 Constitution checks against exhaustion every hour—and saving throws every minute if they fall in the frigid waters—unless they have natural or magical protection.

In its lair or out of it, the kraken is a juggernaut, with only average Dexterity but godlike Strength, Constitution and mental abilities. No, it’s not just a mindless engine of devastation. It’s smarter than anyone in your adventuring party and most likely wiser as well, and its massiveness and majesty are mesmerizing. Its decisions in combat should convey a sense of calculated malice and cruelty. It knows everyone’s weaknesses, and it doesn’t miss an opportunity to exploit them. If it chooses to communicate (via telepathy), it will be only to taunt, belittle and humiliate its victims; there’s nothing a kraken wants that the PCs can tempt it with. (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…)

Medusa Tactics

Medusa: the snake-haired quarry of Herakles, the horror with the petrifying gaze. In the fifth-edition Monster Manual, this unnatural being is explained as one who made an infernal bargain for immortality and beauty, then paid the price when the latter wore off but the former didn’t. There’s no satisfactory natural explanation for the medusa, so in this case, evolutionary imperatives don’t necessarily apply; the medusa seems more like a being driven by compulsion, as undead creatures are.

Medusas have high Dexterity and Constitution, typical of a skirmisher. They have enough Intelligence to plan and lay traps, enough Wisdom to choose targets carefully and avoid battles it won’t win, and more than enough Charisma to parley when it’s advantageous. These abilities are paired with proficiency in Deception and Insight, along with Stealth. Thus, a medusa stays hidden from threats and uses its wiles to lure trespassers to their doom. (The flavor text describes a medusa’s lair as “shadowy ruins . . . riddled with obstructions and hiding places,” meaning it contains lots of places of concealment to take advantage of.)

The medusa has two distinctive features, Petrifying Gaze and Snake Hair. The latter is a simple melee attack that does some poison as well as piercing damage. Petrifying Gaze is more complicated and demands closer examination. (more…)

Harpy Tactics

After all this talk of elementals, fiends and fey, it’s nice to get back to garden-variety monsters. Today I examine the harpy, a foul-tempered predator with an alluring voice. As with all monstrosities, I’m going to assume that it uses its abilities to survive in accordance with evolutionary imperatives.

The harpy has a balanced physical ability profile, with slightly but not significantly higher Dexterity than Strength or Constitution, and it has no ranged attack. Instead, it uses the long-range ability Luring Song to bring prey into melee attack range.

Its Intelligence of 7 indicates that the harpy is instinct-driven, and its Wisdom of 10 indicates that it’s indiscriminate in target selection but knows when to flee. This is consistent with one part of the Monster Manual flavor text: “If a fight turns against a harpy, it lacks the cunning to adapt and will flee and go hungry.” It’s less consistent with this part: “A harpy takes its time dismembering a helpless foe and can spend days torturing a victim.” If this were instinctual to the harpy, it would be disadvantageous to its chances of survival. Granted, Intelligence 7 is the upper bound of instinctual behavior, so I suppose it’s possible that a harpy might toy with its prey or lure it into natural hazards before attacking it. But these feel too sophisticated to me. (more…)

Chimera Tactics

The chimera is a large, mid-level monstrosity whose conglomerate nature is reflected by behavior that thumbs its nose at evolutionary imperatives. According to the Monster Manual flavor text, it has “a vicious, stubborn streak that compels it to fight for the death”; it “often toys with its prey, breaking off an attack prematurely and leaving a creature wounded and terrified before returning to finish it off”; and yet, despite being unable to speak itself and understanding only Draconic, “if offered food and treasure, a chimera might spare a traveler.” Want a monster that puts the “chaotic” in “chaotic evil”? Here you go!

With exceptionally high Strength and Constitution yet merely average Dexterity, the chimera is an out-and-out brute that will close to melee range as quickly as it can; this is reinforced by its Fire Breath feature, which has a range of only 15 feet. Stealth is not in its repertoire, but don’t try to sneak up on it, either: it has a +8 Perception modifier. It has darkvision, so it will often attack at dusk or at night; it may also dwell underground.

Chimeras are stupid (Intelligence 3) as well as brutal. They aren’t the slightest bit choosy about their targets, nor do they recognize whether one player character seems to pose a greater threat than another. They attack whatever happens to be in front of them. That being said, when they first enter combat—with a flying speed of 60 feet—they’ll position themselves, if possible, to catch as many targets as they can within the 15-foot cone of their Fire Breath. If they can’t get at least two, it’s hardly worth it. (more…)