For some reason I thought I recalled the cloaker from the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual, but I must have gotten it confused with the lurker, because according to the cloaker’s Wikipedia biography, its first appearance in a core book was in the second-edition Monstrous Compendium, in which it was (hilariously) described as “impossible to distinguish from a common black cloak.” Fashion mimic! Wisely, later editions have depicted it in more evolutionarily plausible terms, although it’s still categorized as an aberration rather than a monstrosity.
Cloakers have exceptionally high Strength and high Dexterity but merely above-average Constitution, a rare contour that I generally associate with shock attacks; combined with their proficiency in Stealth and their False Appearance feature, this contour indicates an ambush predator that seeks to take down its prey in a single strike, if possible. A fight that lasts more than a couple of rounds won’t be to a cloaker’s liking.
Their Intelligence and Wisdom are above-average, but not unusually so, so while they’re selective about their targets, their judgment may sometimes be off. (And then there’s that strangely high Charisma. What’s that for? Resistance to banishment? I have no good explanation.) They have 60 feet of darkvision and Light Sensitivity and speak Deep Speech and Undercommon, so obviously, they’re subterranean dwellers that have little or no reason to venture aboveground.
Attacking cloakers wrap themselves around the heads and upper bodies of their prey, and their Damage Transfer feature causes half of all incoming damage to go right through their thin bodies and into the unfortunate saps they’re suffocating, but this added staying power doesn’t necessarily make them any more inclined to stay around.
The cloaker’s Multiattack is a bite/tail combination. The tail attack has a long reach but otherwise is simple, straightforward damage. The bite employs the common fifth-edition practice of adding a “rider” to a successful hit, but this time with an unusual qualifier: the initial attack must be made with advantage. Attacking while unseen isn’t just beneficial for the cloaker—it’s practically mandatory.
The cloaker’s prey is not only blinded but also unable to breathe. The side effect of being blinded is simple—disadvantage on the creature’s own attacks, advantage on attacks against the creature—but the MM stat block doesn’t elaborate on the effects of suffocation. For that, we have to refer to page 183 of the Player’s Handbook. Turns out, it’s not that serious: “A creature can hold its breath for a number of minutes equal to 1 + its Constitution modifier (minimum of 30 seconds).” Since a combat encounter with a cloaker isn’t going to last five rounds, let alone 10 or more, we can safely disregard this detail, except in one respect: If you can’t breathe, you can’t speak, and if you can’t speak, you can’t yell for help.
You also can’t cast a spell that requires a verbal component while you’re suffocating. Between the PH and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, that reduces the number of spells you can cast with a cloaker wrapped around your head to eight—one of which is a ritual, and two of which require you to be able to see your targets. But hey, at least you can still cast friends, hypnotic pattern, ice knife, minor illusion or snare.
ETA: Reader Siloth notes that the PH draws a distinction between holding one’s breath and suffocating and that the latter is far more serious. I’m not entirely sure which side of the fence to come down on. The stat block says only that an enveloped target is “unable to breathe,” not that it’s “suffocating.” Absolute literalism is always the way to go in 5E, but in this case, it offers us no guidance. However, thinking about this as a dungeon master, I think there‘s a fair distinction to be made between using an action to hold one‘s breath (that is, preparing with a deep inhalation) and suddenly finding oneself unable to breathe without having had a chance to prepare. (A tweet by Mike Mearls seems to support this interpretation.) In the case of the cloaker, I see nothing wrong with cutting straight to suffocation: it takes an aspect of the feature that’s of questionable use and value and turns it into something meaningfully threatening.
The last two actions in the cloaker’s arsenal are Moan and Phantasms. Phantasms is the cloaker’s version of the mirror image spell, and there’s no good reason whatsoever for the cloaker not to use this action before it makes its first attack: being neither a spell nor an attack, it doesn’t give away the cloaker’s position. It functions only in dim light or darkness; bright light dispels it.
Moan frightens most creatures within a 60-foot radius. What’s the effect of the frightened condition? It imposes disadvantage on attacks against the source of fear, and it prevents one from moving any closer to that source. This is a great way for the cloaker to make sure that no one comes to rescue its prey. But the timing is tricky. A hidden creature is revealed when it makes a sound (PH 177), so it’s unwise to use this feature before attacking unless the cloaker has some means of attacking with advantage other than stealth. After it attacks, however, it wants to finish its prey off, not spend a whole action trying to scare his or her friends away. Plus, that saving throw DC isn’t high, the effect doesn’t last long, and once another creature has engaged the cloaker in melee already, it loses a lot of its usefulness.
How can we make this feature work? Here’s what I’ve come up with:
First, the cloaker selects its prey. In the manner of other ambush predators, it chooses someone old, young, weak, wounded, isolated or oblivious. (Looks can be deceiving, however, and the cloaker can be deceived. It doesn’t know that an elderly halfling can also be a level 7 Way of Shadow monk, for instance.)
Second, it uses the Hide action and begins to stealthily stalk its prey.
Third, it uses the Phantasms action and closes to a distance of 40 feet.
Fourth—the first chance its prey and its prey’s allies have to realize what’s going on, unless the cloaker has screwed something up in the first three steps—the cloaker glides up and strikes. It bites first, because a successful bite/envelop means it makes its follow-up tail strike with advantage.
Fifth, on its next turn, if it hasn’t been driven off (see below), it Multiattacks again, only this time it uses its tail against an ally of its prey if it needs to.
Finally, the moment of truth arrives. If the cloaker hasn’t at least seriously injured its prey at this point, it’s smart enough to realize it’s not going to get a meal out of this, detaches itself and withdraws. If it has, it’ll take one last bite. Either way, when it decides it’s time to leave, that’s when it Moans, because this is its most effective way to keep anything from following it.
Why doesn’t it try to drag its prey away with it? Normally, I’d say it would. But here’s the problem: The cloaker’s bite attack doesn’t grapple, as so many other predators’ attacks do. Whoops. No taking its leftovers to go.
So what makes a cloaker decide discretion is the better part of survival?
- A moderate injury or worse (reduced to 54 hp or fewer). Opportunistic predators have little tolerance for armed resistance.
- Bright light shoved in its face. Nope nope nope nope nope nope.
- Melee engagement by three or more opponents other than its prey.
On the other hand . . . if, by some fluke, the allies of the cloaker’s prey don’t come to his or her rescue at all, it will happily stick around long enough to finish its meal, even if it takes three or more rounds.