Reader Questions: Flying Tactics and Opportunity Attacks

Q: What are the generic tactics of any flying character?

A: Any mode of movement other than moving normally over land offers the advantage of being able to go where one’s opponent(s) can’t. A creature with climbing movement, for example, can scale a vertical surface without being subject to any speed penalty or having to succeed on an ability check. In the case of flying, a creature has access to the air. It can hover out of reach; it can also launch itself airborne in order to flee.

Since the reach of most humanoids, armed or unarmed, is only 5 feet, a creature with 30 feet of flying movement can station itself 15 feet above its opponents’ heads, fly down, attack and fly back up using just its normal movement and action. A creature like the peryton, which has the complementary Dive Attack and Flyby features, will always use a tactic like this, because the combination does extra damage, and the peryton isn’t subject to an opportunity attack when it does so.

Opportunity attacks are the hitch with this tactic. Whenever a creature leaves its opponent’s reach, that opponent may use its reaction (if available) to make an opportunity attack against it. If the peryton didn’t have Flyby, for example, then every time it dove, its victim might get a free swing at it. Continue reading Reader Questions: Flying Tactics and Opportunity Attacks

Will-o’-Wisp Tactics

In my earlier series on undead creatures, I skipped over the will-o’-wisp, the “devil lights” of swamps, marshes and desolate battlefields. In building will-effective o’-wisp encounters, it’s necessary to bear in mind the prime directive of horror: fear of the unknown. To create suspense, it’s best never to name the enemy that the heroes are facing, and to keep them in the dark about what it can do for as long as possible. The No. 1 way to spoil a will-o’-wisp encounter is to tell the players they see will-o’-wisps.

Will-o’-wisps are like fantasy UFOs: they can bob and hover in one place or move up to a zippy 50 feet per round. They’re immune to exhaustion, grappling, paralysis, poison, falling prone, restraint, unconsciousness and lightning damage, and they’re resistant to physical damage from nonmagical weapons along with several types of elemental damage. They have darkvision out to a range of 120 feet but shed their own light out to a range of between 10 and 40 feet, although they can also wink in and out of visibility.

Will-o’-wisps have no physical attack. Their Shock attack is a melee spell attack (Wisdom-based, by mathematical inference), and against unconscious opponents, they can follow it up with the nasty Consume Life feature, which has the potential to kill a player character outright. However, between their many resistances and immunities and their Dexterity of 28, which gives them an armor class of 19, they have nothing to fear from a melee attacker. They’re the rare high-Dex, low-Strength, average-Constitution monster that isn’t a ranged sniper and doesn’t need or even want to be. Continue reading Will-o’-Wisp Tactics

Flameskull Tactics

Flameskulls weren’t among the original undead creatures of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons; they existed only in supplementary material until the fourth edition of D&D, when they first appeared in the Monster Manual. I can’t help thinking of them as being comical and cartoony (It’s a skull! That’s on fire! And hovering! And talking to you!), but in fact they can be a dangerous foe, especially to low-level characters.

Being undead, they have to be saddled with some sort of compulsion. Following the fifth-edition MM flavor text, their compulsion is obedience—specifically, to their duty of protecting a place, item or person. Because they’re bound to this duty, they have no self-preservation impulse; if they must fight, they fight till they’re destroyed.

And as it happens, it’s tough to destroy a flameskull: its Rejuvenation feature causes it to re-form, fully healed, one hour after being reduced to 0 hp, unless its fragments are sterilized with holy water or a dispel magic or remove curse spell. So an unhappy party of adventurers may vanquish a flameskull in order to entire a forbidden area, only to find that they have to fight it again on their way out. (Of course, this raises the question of whether a flameskull that’s sworn to keep them out of a place has any duty to keep them from leaving that place once they’ve already been in it. Play that one as it lies, dungeon master.)

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Undead Tactics: Liches

The lich (rhymes with “itch,” not “ick” or German ich) stands out not only as the alpha undead creature going all the way back to the days of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons but also as the only type of undead creature that’s undead because it wanted to be. It’s what you get when a wizard decides he or she wants to be immortal, reads the fine print on the contract, and says, “Yeah, I’m down with that.” To become a lich to begin with, a wizard must necessarily be monomaniacal, as well as malicious, sadistic and/or vengeful, and the transformation of undeath intensifies these traits. A wizard who becomes a lich must also necessarily be a genius and a world-class spellcaster, and the lich retains these traits as well.

Although it’s only as strong as an average humanoid, all of a lich’s other ability scores are exceptional, most of all its Intelligence. It gets sizable bonuses to Constitution, Intelligence and Wisdom saving throws (notice that two of the “big three” are in that bunch); resists cold, lightning and necrotic damage; and is immune to poison damage and to physical damage from nonmagical weapons. It can’t be charmed, frightened, paralyzed or poisoned, and it never suffers from exhaustion. It has truesight—the ability to see in darkness, into the ether, and through illusions, transmutations and invisibility—out to a range of 120 feet, along with a passive Perception of 19. And it’s proficient in both Perception and Insight, so not only does it notice you’re there, it knows what you want.

A lich receives additional, powerful lair actions when it’s encountered in its lair. Why, then, would it ever leave? Good question. It won’t, if it can help it. No lich will ever leave its lair unless it must, in order to do something that it can’t get an agent to do for it. Follow-up question: Who on earth would sign up to be an agent of a lich? Well, who on earth would sign up to be an agent of Adolf Hitler? The answer is, someone of like mind—in the case of a lich, another evil wizard hoping to gain access to its voluminous reservoir of arcane knowledge. Or someone who considers the lich’s long-term goals to be aligned with his or her own. Or someone who fears the lich’s power and hopes that he or she can earn privileged treatment by showing sufficient loyalty and obedience. (Spoiler: Not likely.) Or, barring all that, someone whom the lich has magically dominated. Agents of a lich must be powerful enough for it to consider them useful, and they’ll generally be ambitious enough for service to a lich to seem like a reasonable arrangement.

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Undead Tactics: Vampires

I’m going to begin my discussion of vampires with a digression: Years ago, I read a book titled (I swear I’m not making this up) Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula: The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count. It was written by Loren Estleman in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle, and as I recall, it was less cheesy and far more entertaining than you might assume . . . although I don’t think I’ve read it since I was in college, so take that with a grain of salt.

Anyway, there’s one bit of that novel that sticks in my mind as being particularly cool: At one point, Dracula walks right into Holmes’ room, in the middle of the day, and Holmes expresses surprise that Dracula can go out in broad daylight. Oh, sure I can, Dracula says; it’s just that I don’t have any of my supernatural powers when I do.

I thought that was an interesting spin on vampire abilities. One of the crucial elements of horror is exploiting the fear of the unknown: we’re most afraid of a monster when we’re not sure what it is, what it can do or how far it can pursue us. One of the best ways to spice up a D&D game is to take familiar monsters and give them unfamiliar powers, or have the familiar powers manifest in unfamiliar ways. Trolls, for example, are great for this: use the variant that allows severed limbs to keep moving and even fighting independently, and have the troll periodically pick up its limbs and stick them back onto itself, and watch your players wig out. (You may already be aware that this version of the troll originated with a scene in Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson.)

It’s so taken for granted in our popular culture that vampires are burned by sunlight, the thought of a vampire who’s merely weakened by it, not hurt—let alone destroyed—would never occur to most of us. The vampire in the Monster Manual is the conventional burned-by-sunlight variety, but what if you removed that weakness and substituted one that merely disabled the vampire’s special features in daylight?

Try this sort of variation out—if not with a vampire, then with some other monster whose powers players assume they already know.

Continue reading Undead Tactics: Vampires