Conjured Creature Tactics

Today’s post is as much for players as it is for Dungeon Masters, because creatures summoned by conjure animals are as often found fighting alongside player characters as against them. And, in fact, the tactics relating to conjured creatures are player tactics as much as they are creature tactics, if not more so.

Conjure animals—along with the closely related spells conjure woodland beings and conjure minor elementals—is sometimes referred to as a “broken” spell. It’s not necessarily that the spell is excessively powerful; in fact, as we’ll see, it comes with a built-in hitch that can have just the opposite effect. Rather, it’s the fact that this hitch encourages casters to summon as many creatures as possible, causing combat to bog down badly—over and over and over again. So one of the things I’ll talk about is how to keep this from happening.

It behooves any player whose PC learns conjure animals (or conjure woodland beings or conjure minor elementals) to read the spell description very closely, because it doesn’t necessarily do what you think it does. Unlike, say, find familiar, these spells don’t give you the privilege of choosing what kind of creature shows up. They don’t even let you dictate how powerful the summoned creature(s) will be. The only thing you’re assured of is how many creatures show up.

Read it closely:

You summon fey spirits that take the form of beasts and appear in unoccupied spaces that you can see within range. Choose one of the following options for what appears:

    • One beast of challenge rating 2 or lower
    • Two beasts of challenge rating 1 or lower
    • Four beasts of challenge rating 1/2 or lower
    • Eight beasts of challenge rating 1/4 or lower

So you can’t say, “I summon eight wolves.” You can only say, “I summon eight beasts.” It’s up to the DM what beasts show up. It could be eight wolves, but it could also be eight spiders—not giant spiders, just regular ol’ house spiders—because challenge rating 0 is technically “challenge rating 1/4 or lower.” For that matter, it’s technically “challenge rating 2 or lower” as well. You could cast this spell hoping to summon a single cave bear or rhino and still end up with a cute, harmless spider. Small wonder, then, that players are inclined to call for eight critters every time. (Not to mention the fact that there’s strength in numbers, as reflected by the encounter multipliers in chapter 3 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.)

It’s of the utmost importance, then, if you’re going to be working with this spell, to have a good relationship with a DM who’s fundamentally on your side, whatever challenges they may throw at you. If the trust isn’t there, this spell can generate all kinds of bad blood. Lay some ground rules in advance, for instance:

  • The DM will choose a creature that might plausibly be found in the environment it’s being summoned into—not something obviously designed to screw the PC over, such as a shark in the desert or a giant elk underwater.
  • Out of the creatures appropriate to this environment, the DM will choose one with a CR as close as possible to the maximum allowed by the PC’s choice.
  • If the DM chooses a creature with a CR below the maximum, it will be a tougher than normal specimen—e.g., one with the greatest possible number of hit points rather than the average.

As the summoner of a horde of creatures, you also have the responsibility to deploy them in a way that’s not going to waste your fellow players’ time. One of the most important things you can do is use mob attack rules (“Handling Mobs,” DMG chapter 8) for any group of four or eight creatures. This will help you in two ways: Not only will it speed things up, it will suggest to you how to optimize the deployment of your creatures.

For instance, let’s say you have in fact summoned eight wolves, and you’re sending them against some trolls. A troll has Armor Class 15, and a wolf has +4 to hit. Therefore, a wolf needs a d20 roll of 11 or better to hit a troll. But wait: Remember that wolves have Pack Tactics, granting them advantage when attacking alongside an ally. So if more than one is going up against the same troll—and they usually will—it’s really more like 7 or better. In a group of attackers that need to roll 7 or better to hit, one of them hits for every two that attack. Therefore, if you’re commanding eight wolves, send them out against those trolls in groups of two. Each of those groups will land one automatic hit. All you have to do is roll damage. (Your DM may go further and say that conjured creatures always deal average damage rather than roll for it, to streamline combat even more.)

Some other easy-to-miss details:

  • The summoned creatures “appear in unoccupied spaces,” not in an unoccupied space. These aren’t swarms (unless they are swarms—that is, unless each individual “creature” is a swarm of smaller creatures). Various comments have convinced me that swarms aren’t conjurable, so I’ve struck out all the swarms in the lists below. I have to say, I’m particularly glad to be crossing off swarm of rot grubs. Each one takes up a space of its own, even if it’s Tiny. It’s ambiguous—and therefore, probably, the DM’s call—whether you decide what spaces they appear in or the DM does.
  • The caster rolls initiative for the creatures, and they all take their turns together on the same initiative count.
  • They’re friendly to both the caster and their allies, but they do have to be told what to do. My take: Their understanding of their instructions may be limited by their Intelligence, so keep your commands simple: “Attack that monster.” “Gnaw through that rope.” “Steal the groundskeeper’s keys.”

Most beasts are simple, but some have tactically useful traits that you should be mindful of.

CR 2 Beasts

Only one of these can be summoned at a time, so they fight solo.

Allosaurus. Send it to go maul something 35 to 60 feet away, so that it can Pounce. If it knocks its target prone, it gets an additional Bite as a bonus action. Bite is always preferable to Claws. (Grassland)

Aurochs. A big, bad-tempered prehistoric cow. Send it to go maul something 25 to 50 feet away, so that it can Charge for extra Gore damage. (Grassland, Hill, Mountain)

Cave bear. Functionally identical to the polar bear (see below). (Underdark)

Giant boar. Send it to go maul something 25 to 40 feet away, so that it can Charge for extra Tusk damage. (Forest, Grassland, Hill)

Giant constrictor snake. Constricts to restrain, so that it can then Bite with advantage. You and your allies can attack the restrained target with advantage, too. (Desert, Forest, Swamp, Underdark, Underwater)

Giant elk. Send it to go maul something 25 to 60 feet away, so that it can Charge for extra Ram damage. Hooves is preferable to Ram unless it’s charging. (Forest, Grassland, Hill, Mountain)

Hunter shark. Stupid, simple brute. Attacks with advantage against foes that have already taken damage. (Underwater)

Plesiosaurus. Has Stealth, so if you summon it before a battle, it can hide in the water and strike at an opportune moment. Otherwise nothing special. (Coastal, Underwater)

Polar bear. Basic mauly brute that can chase opponents through, across and into water. Multiattack is always Bite/Claws, so it can’t grapple targets and drag them into the water. (Arctic)

Quetzalcoatlus. Hangs out in the air between turns, 30 to 40 feet above its target’s head. Uses Dive Attack to strike, then Flyby to go airborne again without provoking an opportunity attack. (Coastal, Hill, Mountain)

Rhinoceros. Send it to go maul something 25 to 40 feet away, so that it can Charge for extra Gore damage. (Grassland)

Saber-toothed tiger. Send it to go maul something 25 to 40 feet away, so that it can Pounce. If it knocks its target prone, it gets an additional Bite as a bonus action. Claw is preferable to Bite unless it’s pouncing. Has Stealth, so if you summon it before a battle, it can hide and strike at an opportune moment, but if you want it to run at its target and Pounce, you’ll need to make another Stealth check to see whether it can cover that ground without being spotted by its quarry. (Arctic, Mountain)

Swarm of poisonous snakes. Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? No tactics to speak of, although it can deal poison damage and swim. (Forest, Swamp)

CR 1 Beasts

These can be summoned two at a time. You can send them against two different targets or, if your DM uses the optional Flanking rule (DMG, chapter 8), to attack the same target from two sides for advantage.

Brown bear. Basic brute; no tactics to speak of. (Arctic, Forest, Hill)

Deinonychus. Send both deinos after a single target 25 to 40 feet away, so that they can Pounce. The first to knock its target prone gets an additional Bite as a bonus action. If that’s also the first one to attack, the second gains advantage on all its attack rolls against the prone target. Use Claw attacks before Bite attack when Multiattacking. (Forest, Grassland, Hill)

Dire wolf. Send both dire wolves after the same target—they have Pack Tactics, so no special positioning is required for them to gain advantage on their attack rolls. (Forest, Hill)

Giant eagle. Send them against targets you can’t easily reach. Also, with Intelligence 8, these are about as smart as beasts come, capable of following fairly complex commands. (Coastal, Grassland, Hill, Mountain)

Giant hyena. Send them against targets that are already seriously wounded, so that they have a chance of invoking Rampage. (Desert, Forest, Grassland, Hill)

Giant octopus. Have Stealth, so if you summon them before a battle, they can hide and strike at an opportune moment. Although they’re fast swimmers, don’t send them against targets you or an ally can’t easily reach yourselves: their tentacle hits grapple and restrain, giving you advantage on attack rolls against their prey (or, more likely, negating the disadvantage you have from attacking underwater). Ink Cloud can be used offensively, to blind opponents—the area of effect is large—or to cover a retreat if a battle is going badly. (Underwater)

Giant spider. Web is a big deal. It’s a recharge ability, and the giant spider always uses it if it’s available. Command giant spiders to Web targets that you or one of your allies are going to follow up with attacks against: attack after they’re restrained and before they break free, and you’ll have advantage on the rolls. Giant spiders can also chase climbing opponents, and they have Stealth, so if you summon them before a battle, they can hide and strike at an opportune moment—and they don’t have to come out into the open to Web. (Desert, Forest, Swamp, Underdark, Urban)

Giant toad. Send them against Medium or smaller targets, so that they can Swallow. Also, they have Standing Leap, so they’re unaffected by difficult terrain. (Coastal, Desert, Forest, Swamp, Underdark)

Giant vulture. Send both giant vultures after the same target—they have Pack Tactics, so no special positioning is required for them to gain advantage on their attack rolls. Unusually for beasts, giant vultures have an alignment—neutral evil—and while conjure animals states that uncommanded creatures do nothing but defend themselves, I’d make an exception in giant vultures’ case. As long as there’s a wounded creature on the field that’s not the caster or one of their allies, giant vultures will attack it opportunistically, whether told to or not. (Desert, Grassland)

Lion. Send both lions after the same target—they have Pack Tactics, so no special positioning is required for them to gain advantage on their attack rolls—25 to 50 feet away, so that they can Pounce. Bite is always preferable to Claw. Good in difficult terrain, thanks to Running Leap: lions’ 50 feet of movement is enough to cover 10 feet over difficult terrain (20 feet of movement consumed) plus a 25-foot leap in a single turn. (Desert, Grassland, Hill, Mountain)

Swarm of quippers. Mindless swarms. Attack with advantage against foes that have already taken damage, so they don’t need to be sent against the same target; send them against two different ones. (Underwater)

Tiger. Send it to go maul something 25 to 40 feet away, so that it can Pounce. If it knocks its target prone, it gets an additional Bite as a bonus action. Bite is always preferable to Claw. Has Stealth, so if you summon it before a battle, it can hide and strike at an opportune moment, but if you want it to run at its target and Pounce, you’ll need to make another Stealth check to see whether it can cover that ground without being spotted by its quarry. (Forest, Grassland)

CR 1/2 Beasts

These can be summoned four at a time, the threshold for switching to mob attacks in order to keep combat moving. In most instances, the d20 roll needed for one of these beasts to hit an opponent will be 6–12, so send them out in pairs unless and until your DM tells you they’re not hitting, in which case switch to four against one.

Ape. They can throw rocks, but not from a great distance, and they can only throw one per turn. Stick to melee and Multiattack. (Forest)

Black bear. Basic brute; no tactics to speak of. (Forest)

Crocodile. Have Stealth, so if you summon them before a battle, they can hide and strike at an opportune moment. Their Bite grapples and restrains, so send them against targets that you or an ally are going to follow up with attacks against. (Swamp, Urban)

Giant goat. Send them against targets 25 to 40 feet away, so that they can Charge. (Grassland, Hill, Mountain)

Giant sea horse. Send them against targets 25 to 40 feet away, so that they can Charge. (Underwater)

Giant wasp. They’re fast fliers, so send them at the opponents’ backline or to chase after skirmishers. (Forest, Grassland, Urban)

Reef shark. Have Pack Tactics, so subtract 4 from the d20 roll needed to hit. (Underwater)

Swarm of insects. Mindless swarms; no tactics to speak of. (Desert, Forest, Grassland, Hill, Swamp, Underdark, Urban)

Swarm of rot grubs. Sweet Christmas, this one is cruel. A swarm of rot grubs can’t move can barely move (thanks, Solus), and it can only be summoned into an unoccupied space, so all you can do is hope your foe stumbles into it—unless your party includes PCs with class features or spells that can push or pull opponents around. Then it’s practically a war crime. (Swamp, Underdark)

Warhorse. If you summon four of these, the best thing you and your companions can do with them is ride them. Since they’re friendly creatures that obey verbal commands (which require none of your action economy to issue), you can use them as independent mounts with total confidence that they’ll do exactly what you want them to. They’re twice as fast as the average humanoid, and Trampling Charge is tremendous. Read up on Mounted Combat (Player’s Handbook, chapter 9), then go forth with the warm feeling of knowing that your DM loves you if they gave you these. (Urban)

CR 1/4 Beasts

These can be summoned eight at a time, and using “Handling Mobs” to manage their attacks is essential. As with CR 1/2 beasts, if you don’t know what d20 roll you need to hit, assume it’s 6–12 unless and until two of your beasts attacking together don’t land an automatic hit; then switch to four and four, then all eight if necessary. If your DM uses Flanking, assume that all these beasts are doing it unless otherwise specified, and subtract 4 from the d20 roll needed to hit. Note that eight Medium or smaller attackers on a square grid will completely surround a Medium or smaller opponent, and six will do it on a hex map. If your critters have every path to your foe blocked off, you won’t be able to attack it yourself, unless you’re wielding a ranged weapon or a melee weapon with a long reach.

Axe beak. Large, so eight of them take up a lot of space. Four will completely surround a Medium or smaller opponent on a square map, but with clever tessellation, you can still get six around one on a hex map. Aside from that, no tactics to speak of. (Grassland, Hill)

Boar. Send them against targets 25 to 40 feet away, so that they can use Charge—then be prepared to move in after them and make melee attacks against the ones they knock prone. (Forest, Grassland, Hill)

Constrictor snake. As with the giant constrictor snake, Constrict first, then Bite the grappled and restrained target with advantage—and attack the target yourself as well, along with your allies. Large, so eight of them take up a lot of space. (Desert, Forest, Swamp, Underwater)

Cow/ox. Send them against targets 25 to 30 feet away, so that they can use Charge for extra Gore damage. Large, so eight of them take up a lot of space. (Grassland)

Deep rothé. A “stunted Underdark variant” of cattle, these have darkvision and can innately cast dancing lights at will—although it still takes an action for them to cast. Use them as you would a cow that can cast dancing lights. (Underdark)

Dimetrodon. No tactics to speak of. (Coastal, Swamp)

Draft horse. If the warhorse is how your DM shows you they love you, this is how they show you they hate you. Large, slower than a riding horse or warhorse, with no tactics to speak of. (Urban)

Elk. Send them against targets 25 to 50 feet away, so that they can use Charge. Hooves is preferable to Ram when not charging but can be used only against prone targets. Large, so eight of them take up a lot of space. (Forest, Grassland, Hill)

Giant badger. Basic brutes with Multiattack; no tactics to speak of. Burrowing speed is too slow to use tactically. (Forest)

Giant bat. One of the few creatures you can summon that performs best in total darkness—even the magical darkness of a darkness spell. A fast flier, good against your opponents’ backline. (Forest, Underdark)

Giant centipede. Mindless brutes; no tactics to speak of. (Underdark, Urban)

Giant frog. Send them against Small or smaller targets, so that they can Swallow. They’re not unaffected by difficult terrain, but Standing Leap is slightly better in difficult terrain than basic ground movement. (Forest, Swamp)

Giant lizard. Large, dumb brutes. No tactics to speak of. (Coastal, Desert, Forest, Swamp, Underdark)

Giant owl. Large, fast fliers with Flyby, these hang out in the air between turns, up to 30 feet above their opponents’ heads. They fly down, strike with Talons, then fly back up without provoking opportunity attacks. Have Stealth, so if you summon them before a battle, they can hide and strike at an opportune moment, but if you want them to dive their targets without being spotted by their quarry, you’ll need to make another Stealth check. Also, with Intelligence 8, these are about as smart as beasts come, capable of following fairly complex commands. (Arctic, Forest, Hill)

Giant poisonous snake. No tactics to speak of. (Desert, Forest, Grassland, Swamp, Underdark, Urban)

Giant wolf spider. Have Stealth, so if you summon them before a battle, they can hide and strike at an opportune moment; also have darkvision and 10 feet of blindsight, so they’re good in the dark. Finally, they’re fast and can climb, making them good for chasing down fleeing enemies. But as far as attacking features go, all they have is Bite. (Coastal, Desert, Forest, Grassland, Hill)

Hadrosaurus. Large, dumb brutes. No tactics to speak of. (Grassland, Swamp)

Panther. Send them against targets 25 to 50 feet away, so that they can Pounce. Bite is always preferable to Claw. Have Stealth, so if you summon them before a battle, they can hide and strike at an opportune moment, but if you want them to run at their targets and Pounce, you’ll need to make another Stealth check to see whether they can cover that ground without being spotted by their quarry. (Forest, Grassland, Hill)

Pteranodon. Large, fast fliers with Flyby, these hang out in the air between turns, up to 30 feet above their opponents’ heads. They fly down, strike with Bite, then fly back up without provoking opportunity attacks. (Coastal, Grassland, Mountain)

Riding horse. They’re not as good as warhorses, but you can still use them as reliable independent mounts. Large. (Grassland, Urban)

Stench kow. Large, so eight of them take up a lot of space, and constantly require adjacent creatures to make Constitution saving throws against being poisoned. Send them against targets whose attacks you want to shut down. (Grassland)

Swarm of bats. A swarm that’s good in total darkness but otherwise unremarkable. (Hill, Mountain, Underdark, Urban)

Swarm of rats. A swarm that’s good in dim light, or in darkness in tight quarters. (Swamp, Urban)

Swarm of ravens. A swarm that can fly at a good clip and is smarter than most swarms, so it can understand slightly more complex commands. Good if you want to not just attack your opponents’ backline but steal things from it. (Forest, Hill, Swamp, Urban)

Velociraptor. Have Pack Tactics, so subtract 4 from the d20 roll needed to hit. (Forest, Grassland)

Wolf. Have Pack Tactics, so subtract 4 from the d20 roll needed to hit. Have Stealth, so if you summon them before a battle, they can hide and strike at an opportune moment, but if they have to run to reach their targets, you’ll need to make another Stealth check to see whether they can cover that ground without being spotted by their quarry. (Forest, Grassland, Hill)

Next: spawn of Kyuss.

15 thoughts on “Conjured Creature Tactics

  1. Note that giant eagles also have an alignment: neutral good. Do you think they would do anything helpful to the allies in the battle through instinct, like using the Help action to distract enemies if they weren’t commanded to do anything?

  2. “If your critters have every path to your foe blocked off, you won’t be able to attack it yourself, unless you’re wielding a ranged weapon or a melee weapon with a long reach.”

    I’m not sure this is true – PHB (p191) states the following:

    “You can move through a nonhostile creature’s space. […] another creature’s space is difficult terrain for you. Whether a creature is a friend or an enemy, you can’t willingly end your move in its space.”

    The fact that you cannot end your move in an ally’s space does not prohibit you from moving into an ally’s space, using the Attack action, then moving out of the ally’s space – assuming that this maneuver does not require more movement that you possess. See Sage Advice (www.sageadvice.eu/2016/04/23/can-i-move-into-an-allys-space-attack-from-there-then-move-out/)

    In fact, the larger constraint rests on ranged weapons to the extent that the surrounding creatures may form half-cover if they cover half the body of the target from the point of view of the ranged attacker.

  3. While there is no Sage Advice addressing the subject, and while D&D Beyond’s staff seems to have overlooked the issue, the spells mentioned can’t summon swarms. Swarms are specifically multiple creatures, many, many more than could ever be summoned by Conjure Animals. Crawford’s explanation of the interaction between a Trident of Fish Command and a swarm of quippers should be taken as a guide to the interaction between all swarms and any effect that interacts with a specific number of beasts. https://mobile.twitter.com/JeremyECrawford/status/552612829597929472

  4. Remember that creatures acting on the same initiative complete their turns one by one, so typically only the second and subsequent attackers can use Pack Tactics or flanking. Flanking additionally requires fighters to be exactly opposite one another to gain Advantage. So, typically, only the second, fourth etc can flank. However if there is movement left after attacking, you can move around the target to provide a new flanking position.

    A few weeks ago I was applying your principles to some NPCs and animals. I found myself looking at animals that can charge enemies, and thinking about which, if any, might repeatedly charge an opponent, and how savvy they’d be about it, eg. whether they’d back off between charges, and how far.

    I mention it here because verbal commands enable it even in stupid animals.

    I focused on the Elephant. My intuition is that they’re the smartest. The MM drastically underestimates the intelligence of (some) animals (in accord with millennia of Western tradition).

    Long story short, I decided that elephants’ tactics are, like those of humans, a function of experience and learning. I decided that older males are more likely to play Head Minigolf, especially if they’ve been dealing with humanoid predators. It’s a question of personality (and musth) whether they fight to kill or just drive off. They are smart enough to knock an opponent down then stay within range to charge and back off again.

    Females with young are likely to charge then immediately back off to stay between the young and the intruder.

    Younger males may be inexperienced, but they’re learning. Elephant males get together and fight near-constantly (mostly just wrestling). A young male might knock an opponent down and move to somewhere arbitrary within 10-15 feet. This may not be enough distance to get another charge, depending on intruder‘s movement.

    Anyway, I mostly bring it up to suggest that some players might like to go beyond the MM when it’s describing how simple animals are.

    1. I wouldn’t be a stickler about turn order when it comes to Pack Tactics and flanking by conjured creatures—either for the DM or for the players. When there are enough creatures on the field to merit using mob attacks, simplicity is by far the most important thing. You want to keep it high-speed, low-drag.

  5. I know the wording of this spell is contentious, but I feel like it’s too vague to say with certainty who’s supposed to pick the creatures by RAW.

    “Choose one of the following options for what appears:
    * One beast of challenge rating 2 or lower…”

    It seems reasonable to me to interpret this as the text giving you the option to choose one beast of CR 2 or lower. Really, this spell should have been rewritten to remove the ambiguity. Also, note that Polymorph doesn’t specify who chooses the creature either.

    “The new form can be any beast whose challenge rating is equal to or less than the target’s (or the target’s level, if it doesn’t have a challenge rating).”

    So I try to err on the side of letting the caster choose, when a spell is vague on what option manifests. In this case, it’s arguably preferable for me to let my players pick the creatures, since they can be confident that they won’t get short-changed and I don’t have to stop what I’m doing and look up beasts.

  6. Not really relevant to the tactics, and the RAW is clear, but as a GM I usually let the players choose what they summon so long as it makes sense.

    It’s not really fair that, as GM, I can have an enemy summoner always get what they want, but can “gotcha!” the players into getting something suboptimal. Besides, if they’ve got a plan depending on particular summons, I see no reason to slow the game down forcing them to work around getting something else.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.