Drow Tactics: Matron Mothers

Deepest apologies to all my impatient readers. Between doing revisions on The Monsters Know What They’re Doing: Combat Tactics for Dungeon Masters and taking care of a daughter who’s just starting to get the hang of a nap schedule, I haven’t had time for blogging. And this particular post is a mother.

Literally.

The drow matron mother, CR 20, is second only to Lolth herself in the drow boss hierarchy. She’s a spellcaster first, a skirmisher second, certain to be surrounded by a multitude of minions. She’s also a legendary creature, with legendary actions—one of which she can turn over to a demon ally for its own use, sort of a drowish Commander’s Strike.

Like all drow, the matron mother has Fey Ancestry (passive), Sunlight Sensitivity (no going outside, especially during the day), and the innate spells dancing lights, darkness, faerie fire and levitate. However, she’s got a few additional tricks up her sleeve: She can cast detect magic at will, and once per day, she can cast clairvoyance, detect thoughts, dispel magic and suggestion.

Note that the matron mother can cast dispel magic with or without using a spell slot, but when she casts it innately, it works only against spells of 3rd level or lower. Since she can cast it this way only once per day, she’s going to be finicky about what spells she dispels with it, saving it only for the most important. A very good candidate is invisibility, since dispel magic affects “one creature, object or magical effect” within 120 feet and doesn’t require her to be able to see the target, only to know they’re there. Pop! Haste, slow, hypnotic pattern, enlarge/reduce and spiritual weapon are also top choices. If she wants to dispel anything else, she’ll spend a spell slot on it.

The matron mother has Magic Resistance, so she’s more concerned with what spellcasters can do to her allies than with what they can do to her personally. If she has any weakness, it’s her Armor Class: 17 is on the low side for a boss monster, and by the time player characters are strong enough to encounter her, they’re not going to have much trouble hitting that number. Therefore, as far as target selection is concerned, her main focus is going to be neutralizing ranged weapon and spell attackers—unless a melee attacker blitzes her, in which case she’ll switch her focus to them.

She has no ranged weapon attack, but two melee weapon attacks: Demon Staff and Tentacle Rod. Her Multiattack is an interesting mixed bag, allowing her either two attacks with the staff or three with the rod. Judging from the damage she does with them, the staff is a finesse weapon, and the rod isn’t, so we’d expect her to favor the staff. But the rod has a longer reach, and while it doesn’t do much direct damage, it can impose the same effects as a slow spell if she hits a single target with it three times in one turn. If she doesn’t hit them three times, it’s weaksauce, so I think she’ll avoid it unless she has at least a 2-in-3 chance of hitting three times and the target has at most a 1-in-3 chance of succeeding on the saving throw.

What does this mean? To have a two-thirds chance of hitting three times in a row, she needs an 87.4 percent chance of hitting once. With her +9 to hit, that means the target’s AC must be 12 or lower. As for the saving throw, to beat DC 15 at least one time out of three, the target needs only a +1 Constitution save modifier. That’s not much! The upshot is, Tentacle Rod is a good attack only against frail-looking spellcasters wearing no armor. The matron mother’s Intelligence isn’t high enough for her to “read” targets’ stats; she has to base this judgment on observation.

Before I dive into her spell repertoire, there are two more traits to look at: Lolth’s Fickle Favor and Summon Servant.

Summon Servant calls up a yochlol, just as Summon Demon does for a drow priestess of Lolth. The difference is that for the drow matron mother, it always works. (Alternatively, it can summon a “retriever,” which is not a very faithful and kind of dopey dog but rather a construct, also listed in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, whose primary function is kidnapping.)

Lolth’s Fickle Favor is a bonus action with a 30-foot range which hurts one of her allies—but gives it advantage on one subsequent attack roll. When does this tradeoff make sense?

For starters, she has to give it to an ally that’s making attack rolls (either a weapon or spell attack—it doesn’t matter which) rather than casting a spell or using another ability that’s resisted with a saving throw. Also, the stronger the ally upon which she bestows this “gift,” the less the harm and the greater the benefit—as long as having advantage actually makes a difference. In other words, she wants to give advantage to the toughest of her allies which nevertheless has less than a two-thirds chance to hit, but which will have a greater than two-thirds chance to hit if given advantage. The sweet spot is when the matron mother’s ally has a 45 to 65 percent chance to hit, meaning when the ally needs an unmodified attack roll from 8 to 12.

Once again, she can’t read stats, but here are some rules of thumb she can follow, using intelligence guided by experience:

  • Regular drow are too weak to confer Lolth’s Fickle Favor on, as a general rule. The psychic damage will mess them up badly enough that they may not survive long enough to use their attack advantage. A matron mother might do it anyway, though, if she has lots of drow minions (like, at least 10 still standing); if they’re taking their turn next, before any opponent does; and if the one she wants to confer favor on is fighting an opponent wearing light or medium armor. On second thought, nah. The opportunity cost is too high: her spiritual weapon does more damage.
  • A drow elite warrior is a good candidate if it’s fighting an opponent wearing medium armor and carrying a shield, wearing heavy armor and not carrying a shield, or using Unarmored Defense. (The last case requires the matron mother to see how the opponent is defending, so it won’t happen during the first round of combat. Then again, her first-round bonus action is best spent casting spiritual weapon)
  • A drow mage is only a good candidate if a melee opponent has managed to close with it, so that it may cast ray of frost, and the opponent is wearing medium or heavy armor or using Unarmored Defense.
  • A drow priestess of Lolth is never a good candidate, because she only makes melee attacks when she has advantage already.
  • A drow house captain is a good candidate if it’s fighting an opponent wearing heavy armor (with or without a shield) or obviously magic medium armor.
  • A drow shadowblade also attacks only when it has advantage already and therefore isn’t a good candidate.
  • A drow arachnomancer is a good candidate when it’s attacking an opponent wearing heavy armor (with or without a shield) or obviously magic medium armor with either Poisonous Touch, eldritch blast or (in spider form) Bite.
  • A drow inquisitor is only a good candidate when it’s about to use its Death Lance against a target wearing heavy armor and carrying a shield, one or both of which is preferably magical. Most of the time, it’s a poor candidate, because of its reliance on spells requiring saving throws to resist.
  • A drow favored consort is a good candidate when it’s about to make a Scimitar attack against a target wearing heavy armor and carrying a shield, one or both of which is preferably magical.

The drow matron mother’s spells are the backbone of her kit, and they go all the way up to 9th level. Unlike a lot of spellcasting foes, she has a rich panoply of spells that don’t require concentration, not to mention instantaneous spells that have lasting effects. These spells give her a ton of flexibility and a superior action economy. Add to these the legendary action that lets her cast a spell on another creature’s turn, and you end up with a spellcaster who makes the archmage look like a plodder.

Contagion, death ward, freedom of movement, guardian of faith and spiritual weapon are all instantaneous spells with lasting effects; however, only spiritual weapon is low enough level to cast using a legendary action. And since spiritual weapon is a bonus action and can be combined, if the matron mother wishes, with the sacred flame cantrip, there’s only one reason for her to use a legendary action to cast it: She wants to use her first-turn action to cast an even more powerful spell. But which one?

Let’s look at her spell slots. She has one 9th-level slot, which she’ll only ever use for gate, and one 8th-level slot, which she’ll only ever use for holy aura (which can’t be upcast). She has two 6th-level and two 7th-level slots, but neither of her 6th-level spells can be upcast. Her 1st-level slots can only be used to cast 1st-level spells and are what she’ll cast those spells with. This leaves her 2nd- through 5th-level slots as the ones that are actually fungible, that may be used either to cast spells at their base level or to boost spells of lower levels.

Which ones can be boosted? Banishment (concentration required), bestow curse (concentration required—but see below), dispel magic, spirit guardians (concentration required), hold person (concentration required) and spiritual weapon (takes two spell levels to boost). Boosting banishment is a decent deal: the matron mother gets to banish two enemies instead of one. Spirit guardians’ damage can be raised from 3d8 to 4d8 or 5d8. Hold person can paralyze up to four enemies, which could be extremely powerful. Spiritual weapon can be made to deal 2d8 + 5 damage rather than 1d8 + 5 damage, but is this really worth a 4th-level spell slot? Maybe; it does, after all, deal its damage as a bonus action—and if it’s boosted, it can’t be snuffed out with an off-the-rack dispel magic.

But the two I want to shine a spotlight on are dispel magic and bestow curse. By upcasting dispel magic, the drow matron mother can nullify a 4th- or 5th-level buff—so she can take away not only your invisibility but your greater invisibility as well, not to mention your polymorph, your conjure elemental, your hold monster or your wall of force fire. As for bestow curse, when cast using a 5th-level spell slot, it lasts 8 hours and takes effect instantaneously, without requiring concentration. These are so much classier than simply doing more damage.

On the other hand, doing more damage with spirit guardians compares surprisingly favorably with the basic 5th-level damage option, flame strike, which deals 4d6 fire damage plus 4d6 radiant damage over a 10-foot radius. Against two enemies, which is the minimum that the matron mother will use it against (see “Targets in Area of Effect,” Dungeon Master’s Guide, chapter 8), this is an average of 56 total damage on a failed save, 28 total damage on a success, or roughly 42 expected damage. By comparison, a 5th-level spirit guardians deals 22 damage on a failed save and 11 on a success, or 17 expected damage to each enemy who enters its 15-foot radius. It seems paltry at first glance, until you consider that the radius implies that it’s meant to affect three enemies at once (expected damage: 51); plus, it’s a sustained spell, so it can do even more damage over multiple rounds. Maybe it will do no damage—maybe opponents will simply decline to walk into it. But maybe, as well, this is a case of the threat being stronger than the execution, protecting the matron mother from melee attacks by imposing a cost that foes won’t want to pay.

What about boosting spiritual weapon? Forget it. The matron mother has only three 4th-level slots, and all her 4th-level spells offer something important. In fact, arguably, death ward, freedom of movement and guardian of faith are so important to her supercharged action economy that she’ll cast banishment only with a 5th-level slot, and only when she can banish two foes at once!

Let’s take a look at what her other spells imply:

  • Gate could be a simple escape hatch, like plane shift (which the matron mother has) and dimension door (which she doesn’t). But there are two big differences between gate and plane shift. One is that gate offers precision: you know exactly where you’re going to end up. The other is that plane shift is strictly an exit door, but gate can be an entrance: if you name a specific creature that resides on a different plane, gate snatches it and brings it through. “Oh, have you met my good friend, Lolth? We pledged Pi Beta Phi together. She’s my bestie!”
  • Holy aura offers the substantial benefit of conferring advantage on saving throws and imposing disadvantage on incoming attacks to the matron mother and all her allies within a 30-foot radius—an area of effect that should cover at least half a dozen of them, if not more. But it does need concentration to sustain, preventing her from casting blade barrier, banishment, spirit guardians, hold person, silence or bane. (She can cast bestow curse, but only if she uses a 5th-level slot. If she decides she needs to cast gate, she’ll drop holy aura in a heartbeat.)
  • Divine word, against PCs of a high enough level to be fighting a drow matron mother, is a finishing move. It affects only targets with 50 hp or fewer, and meaningfully affects only targets with 40 hp or fewer. The typical level 20 PC will have maximum hit points somewhere in the 100-to-200 neighborhood, so frailer PCs will have to be seriously wounded, while more robust PCs will have to be seriously seriously wounded, for divine word to be a good bet.
  • Plane shift is an emergency exit that the matron mother can either go through herself, along with up to eight of her allies, or push one opponent through. Prudence suggests saving it for the former application rather than taking a chance on the latter.
  • Blade barrier might be better named “wall of razors,” and it covers a huge area. A particularly confident matron mother might cast it in a ring around herself, forcing foes to either fly over it or take an expected 25 damage attempting to run through it. “I’m not trapped in here with you—you’re trapped in here with me!” If her opponents pose a meaningful threat to the matron mother and her allies, however, holy aura or a boosted hold person is the better play.
  • Harm deals an expected 37 damage, with a good chance of its being unhealable in the current battle. Good against foes who depend on Dexterity for defense rather than Constitution.
  • Contagion requires touch and doesn’t take full effect for three to five rounds, so its value depreciates rapidly after the first round or two of combat. It also requires a melee spell attack to cast, and a drow matron mother would rather hang back and cast spells than engage in melee combat, particularly at the beginning of a fight. And it’s completely useless against paladins and monks of any consequence. If a matron mother does cast it, she’ll choose the Slimy Doom option against a melee fighter and Blinding Sickness against anyone else.
  • Geas takes too long to cast in combat, but it’s fantastic if the matron mother can take an opponent prisoner before the rest of their posse shows up. Charm spells are often poor for making opponents fight one another, but geas is an exception to this rule. If the matron mother casts geas on a prisoner, remember to mark off a 5th-level spell slot before combat begins.
  • Mass cure wounds is as nice for a matron mother as it is for PCs.
  • Death ward is good for 8 hours, and a matron mother who has any reason to suspect that she’ll face mortal danger casts it on herself as a basic precaution. Mark off the slot. (Alternatively, if there’s someone the matron mother must protect, she may cast it on her charge instead. But I think it’s going to be mighty rare that anyone is more of a VIP than the matron mother herself.)
  • Freedom of movement is also good and long-lasting, but more situational. She won’t cast it until she’s certain she needs it. She may know in advance that she’ll need it, though, depending on what intelligence has reached her.
  • Guardian of faith is good for controlling choke points as well as obstructing access to the matron mother herself. Again, when she casts it depends in large part on what she knows is going to happen.
  • Clairvoyance is for pre-combat spying—and a hard spell to justify spending a 3rd-level slot on if the matron mother has any reason to think that combat is going to ensue today. She really needs those slots for dispel magic.
  • Silence has the usual benefit (shuts down bards and all but a handful of spells) and the usual drawback (easy to walk out of). Only useful in confined spaces, and the matron mother prefers not to be in confined spaces, because of the large radii of her abilities.
  • Bane smacks of desperation, but the matron mother may in fact be feeling desperate if her concentration on both holy aura and blade barrier has been broken. Even so, there’s still banishment, spirit guardians and hold person to consider first.
  • Command is chancy, only really useful if the matron mother has a whole lot of minions and the timing is right. But she can make the timing right by using a legendary action.
  • Cure wounds, given that she also has mass cure wounds, is primarily good for making foes feel like they’re wasting their time by using a legendary action to undo the damage they’ve just dealt.
  • Guiding bolt, similarly, is a setup for key allies who are taking their turn next and aren’t gaining advantage from some other source.

Whoooo. OK, it’s finally time to put it all together.

Round 1 is easy: Spiritual weapon as a bonus action and Summon Servant, which always works, as an action. That’s two more allies on the field. The drow matron mother hangs back, letting her minions handle the front line for the time being. As other creatures take their turns, she uses her legendary actions to gradually spend down her low-level spell slots. Remember the good old Tower of Hanoi puzzle? That’s how she spends her low-level slots: 1st, 2nd, 1st, 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 1st. This keeps her from burning all her 1st-level slots at once. What if there’s no 2nd-level spell she wants to cast at the moment (which is likely, given that spiritual weapon is already up and hold person is better boosted)? Then she’ll upcast guiding bolt. One exception to this pattern: She’ll always cast dispel magic to erase a spell of 3rd level or lower that’s important enough to erase.

Round 2 is where it gets more complicated. Depending on the deployment of her own side and on the nature of the terrain and her opposition, she’ll cast one of her concentration-required spells: holy aura (clustered, on defense), blade barrier (clustered, on offense, setting an ambush for opponents to walk into), spirit guardians (spread out, on defense, melee-heavy opposition) or 5th-level hold person (spread out, only four opponents—gotta paralyze ’em all!). If an enemy rushes her, she casts contagion instead. Her bonus action is to strike with spiritual weapon unless one of the specific favorable conditions of Lolth’s Fickle Favor exists. As for positioning, she tries to stay behind and within 30 feet of her allies.

Once she has a concentration spell up and running, she can start to choose between casting more spells and venturing forth to smack vulnerable opponents with her Demon Staff (using the Multiattack action). She does the latter only when conditions are favorable: when she can attack with advantage, or when she can help gang up on a foe who’s already been put back on their heels, and she wields the staff two-handed. She uses her Tentacle Rod only within the Multiattack action, and only against the aforementioned frail-looking, unarmored spellcaster. (She knows what mage armor looks like, by the way; she’s not dumb.) Since she doesn’t have an effective way to disengage from melee except spending an action to Disengage, once she engages, she uses her Demon Staff legendary action to bludgeon the stuffing out of her foe until they have to disengage. Also remember, if she’s sustaining spirit guardians, her little cloud of demonic, necrotic spider-spirits comes along with her—as does her spiritual weapon, if she wishes.

The drow matron mother isn’t one of those cocky boss casters who underestimates the opposition and only breaks out the big guns when it becomes evident how strong they are. She gets stuff done. The faster she can deal with her opponents, the better, and she’ll readily start at the top of her spell list and work her way down, with the round 1 and round 2 exceptions described above plus three more: She doesn’t cast divine word until one of her opponents is looking exceptionally ragged; she doesn’t cast gate to summon Big Sister unless either she’s seriously wounded (reduced to 104 hp or fewer) or she’s lost at least half her minions; and she doesn’t cast plane shift unless she and her allies are clearly, irremediably defeated.

Next: nagpas.

15 thoughts on “Drow Tactics: Matron Mothers

  1. Wonderful post! I’m a big fan of your work 🙂
    One note: Wall of Force can’t be dispelled by Dispel Magic. It takes a Disintegrate to get rid of it.

  2. So **Dispel Magic** when cast on an object or creature isn’t selective. If I put a **Shield of Faith** on myself, and the Wizard puts **Haste** on me, **Dispel Magic** will take out both. If anyone has stacked buffs then they become priority dispel targets.

  3. Love your stuff! Two Questions:

    Which creature would the mother summon? The Retriever seems better, but the Yochlol might have synergy I’m missing.

    Second, this applies to many of your analyses. Why do you use the Targets in Areas of Effect table for determining strategies? CR calculation indicates a creature wants two targets, as that is what their damage per round is based on.

    1. I don’t see where it says to use two targets for all AoE calculations. I only see the example of a young white dragon that “probably will” hit two targets as opposed to one with its breath weapon. In any event, I’ve always used “Targets in Area of Effect” to calculate these things, because there’s no better yardstick. Certainly there’s no reason to think a creature would catch only two enemies in a cone of cold, for example.

      As for which creature the matron mother would summon, I think it depends on the nature of the mission. Synergy comes from the matron mother’s Compel Demon legendary action, which doesn’t work on the retriever, because it’s a construct.

  4. Is contagion worth it if an enemy rushes her? It takes several rounds to take effect. Wouldn’t she do something like bestow curse at 5th or harm? (I don’t have the stat block in front of me, so I can’t recall. Though she is a divine caster so it could be an easy swap)

    1. It’s only worth it if an enemy rushes her. As you say, it takes several rounds to take full effect, but it doesn’t require concentration to sustain, so she’s not precluded from doing other things while it either settles in or doesn’t. If she waits to cast it, there’s no way it’s going to have any effect on the battle. Meanwhile, the target is poisoned, imposing disadvantage on attacks against her.

  5. Who exactly is “Big Sister” in this Gate scenario? You also mentioned her being able to just call Lolth. Are you sure you can just kidnap deities like that? I think Lolth would be super upset if one of the Mothers just popped her out of a portal randomly.

      1. Nah. Gods have the specific ability to prevent Gate from working in their domains if they don’t want it to (as do other creatures of similar power, like archdevils and demons). A matron mother with the gall to attempt this would likely find themselves with a broken Holy symbol and a wasted 9th level slot, given Lolth’s history of viciously punishing Drow that presume too much. That said, there’s nothing to say she can’t have communed with Lolth to learn the name of a favored Balor or Goristro and summon them instead.

  6. When I ran Eclavdra as a Matron Mother, I had a back pocket pit fiend pledged to her service because she knew his true name. Seemed like a powerful yet relatively simple-to-run monster, because there aren’t legendary actions IIRC.

  7. Do you think a Drow Matron Mother would ever stick some 9th Level Geas’s on a prisoner? I’ve always thought perma-Geas’ing someone would be fun.

    1. Absolutely. Consider it a way to flavor the encounter; halflings and humans fighting in the matron mother’s retinue, completely baffling the PCs, until they use Dispel Magic on one with Blur cast on itself and roll a 19 ability check. Sudden new ally!

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