The variations on the drow are capped off by a high-challenge spellcasting variant, the drow priestess of Lolth. The priestess’s physical ability scores are unexceptional, although her Constitution is slightly higher than that of a regular drow, making her less exclusively a sniper and more willing and able to get scrappy. Her mental ability scores are all high, however, especially Wisdom and Charisma. She’s distinguished first by her spellcasting ability, second by her Summon Demon ability (which, oddly, is less reliable than that of the drow mage) and third by her use of a melee weapon, a poisoned scourge.
The drow priestess’s Summon Demon ability doesn’t offer the choice between a consistent, lower-power version and a chancier, higher-power version. It offers only one version, which summons a CR 10 yochlol, has only a 30 percent chance of success and deals 1d10 of psychic damage to the priestess if it fails. The drow mage’s summonable demons were low- and medium-challenge fiends, but the yochlol is powerful—more powerful, in fact, than the priestess trying to summon it. The question is whether this gamble is worth spending an entire combat action on. The drow priestess has 71 hp, no more than the drow elite warrior, and her chief strength lies in her spellcasting. Spellcasting takes time.
Here are three possible reasons why the drow priestess might choose to try to summon a yochlol anyway: First, assuming that a +6 attack modifier gives a roughly 60 percent chance to hit, it does an expected 16 hp of damage per round without costing the priestess a single action. Second, it can cast dominate person once per day and web at will. Third, it has 136 hp, allowing it to act as a rearguard to cover the priestess’s escape.
Given that the chance of a successful summoning is only 30 percent, we have to calculate that it will take four or more rounds of combat after the summoning for it to pay off in full. Does the priestess have enough resources at her disposal to last that long? Not if the player characters can do 15 hp or more of damage to her each round.
Let’s see what spells she has at her disposal to keep that from happening:
- Insect plague fills a 20-foot-radius sphere with biting insects that do 4d10 damage on a failed Constitution saving throw and half that on a success (an expected 11 hp damage per target per round). This can put a real hurt on a party with a lot of squishy characters in it, but it requires concentration.
- Mass cure wounds lets her restore 3d8 + 3 hp (16 hp on average) of damage to up to six creatures in a 30-foot-radius sphere, including herself. That’ll keep a fight going.
- Divination is irrelevant in combat.
- Freedom of movement is defensively useful but also highly situational.
- Conjure animals brings two CR 1 giant spiders into the fray—more independent damage-dealing allies for the priestess, each of which deals an expected 8 hp of damage per round and can trap the PCs in webs. This may be just as good as trying to summon the yochlol, and it certainly presents itself as plan B if the summoning fails. However, it also requires concentration.
- Dispel magic is handy for removing buffs and nerfs, but it does no damage on its own, so it’s really useful only if the priestess has allies fighting alongside her.
- Lesser restoration lets her shake off blindness, deafness, paralysis or poison. Frankly, these seem like conditions she’s more likely to be subjecting the PCs to than to be suffering herself.
- Protection from poison: Ditto.
- Web is good for restraining several PCs, then subjecting them to melee and ranged attacks and spells that require Dexterity saving throws to resist. But how many of these have we seen so far?
- Animal friendship—seriously? Aside from negotiating an under-the-table truce with a ranger’s beast companion or a wizard’s familiar, this spell offers nothing.
- Cure wounds is a last-ditch time buyer that in all likelihood will undo no more than a single round’s worth of damage.
- Detect poison and disease OH LOOK I HAVE THOSE RIGHT HERE IN MY POCKET
- Ray of sickness—finally, another spell that makes sense! A solid chance of dealing 2d8 poison damage (approximate expected damage: 5 hp) and imposing the poisoned condition, giving the enemy disadvantage on its attacks. Also boostable, doing approximately 3 hp more expected damage for each level it’s boosted by: at 4th level, its expected damage is 14 hp. And against a restrained foe, the expected damage is increased by 40 percent, thanks to having advantage on the attack.
- Guidance and resistance require concentration and don’t compare favorably to the priestess’s other spells that require concentration.
- Poison spray does 2d12 poison damage on a failed Constitution saving throw, nothing on a success. It’s a cantrip and therefore no worse than a melee weapon attack, which can miss. But the drow priestess’s actual melee weapon attack is more impressive, thanks to its poison damage, and she gets two attacks with it per round. The only advantage poison spray has over the scourge is that it can be thrown from 10 feet away.
- Spare the dying sounds exactly like something a drow would do. Or not.
- Thaumaturgy: smoke and mirrors, dogs and ponies. Useful before the battle, not during.
On top of these, she has the same innate spellcasting abilities as other drow: dancing lights, darkness, faerie fire and levitate. Unfortunately, she doesn’t really have time to use them.
You know what’s missing here? Bonus actions. Other clerical spellcasters we’ve seen have been able to bolster their action economy with spiritual weapon; not the drow priestess of Lolth. She has to get by with a little help from her friends, and by “friends,” I mean shapeshifting demons and giant fey spiders.
Before I get into nuts-and-bolts tactics, I want to call attention to her skills, specifically two: Insight and Stealth. Let’s stipulate that ambuscade is a way of life among the drow: whenever any kind of drow, from the lowliest commoner to the highest priestess, perceives the presence of an unknown creature, its instinctual reflex is to hide, observe and, if the creature turns out to be a trespasser, attack with surprise. The difference with the drow priestess of Lolth is that if her observation tells her that the trespasser poses a substantial threat—or, alternatively, no threat at all—she’ll parley.
This is important because she’s as strong in social interaction as she is in combat, if not stronger. Her Insight proficiency gives her an understanding of what the PCs want and are motivated by, which in turn gives her bargaining power. Her high Wisdom makes her hard to deceive; her high Charisma makes her a savvy negotiator. Note well: Even without proficiency in Persuasion, Intimidation or Deception, her modifier in those skills is +4, just because of her Charisma. Any and all interaction with a drow priestess of Lolth should be slippery and treacherous; the PCs should always have the feeling that they’re being outmaneuvered. On a successful Insight contest, she’ll zero right in on the PCs’ psychological Achilles’ heels—pity, ego, insecurity, curiosity, greed, grandiosity, complaisance, scruples—and present credible-sounding reasons why they should forget about what they came there for and do things that serve her interests instead.
As soon as the PCs balk, she calls that demon. If that doesn’t work, then it’s either insect plague or conjure animals, depending on whether there are at least four non-fighter (non-barbarian, non-paladin, non-ranger) PCs within 40 feet of one another. If so, insect plague on those PCs, which she sustains for as long as there are at least two PCs in the swarm; if not, conjure animals. If she does succeed in summoning the yochlol demon, she casts one or the other of these spells the following round. Also, if she casts insect plague, then drops it, she immediately casts conjure animals next.
Once she’s got a sustained spell up and running, the next goal is to restrain as many enemies as she can.
If she’s on her own, this means she casts web, prioritizing targets that seem less dexterous. [A reader correctly points out that the priestess’s web ability is a spell, not a ranged weapon attack like the spiders’, and it also requires concentration, so the priestess can’t cast it at the same time as insect plague or conjure animals.] If she has giant spider allies, this means they spin webs. Both she and They do this again whenever there are enemies who aren’t webbed (note, though, that the giant spiders’ Web ability must recharge). Then the priestess aims ray of sickness at those trapped, prioritizing those who are most likely to break free, and boosting it to level 4 because her 4th-level spells are largely useless. Once she’s out of 4th-level spell slots, she switches to melee weapon attacks against webbed opponents, resorting to 1st-level ray of sickness —or another web—against unwebbed opponents who are out of melee range but are headed her way.
Meanwhile, if the yochlol is on the scene, it picks out the PC with the highest Strength-to-Wisdom ratio and busts out dominate person on it, giving the drow priestess her final ally in the fight (or not, if the PC makes his or her saving throw). Once it’s done that, it also casts web on any unrestrained PC—favoring melee fighters first—then goes to town on him or her with melee attacks. It changes into Mist Form only if the PCs flee into an enclosed area and close the door behind them or something like that.
The drow priestess of Lolth has high Wisdom and a respectable career, which argues for a strong self-preservation impulse—but she’s also a fanatic, which argues for fighting to the death. Like advantage and disadvantage, these cancel each other out, and her flight reflex kicks in when she’s seriously injured (reduced to 28 hp or fewer). She Disengages and retreats if she has allies to run interference for her; otherwise, she Dashes, potentially incurring one or more opportunity attacks.
Incidentally, all this assumes that the drow priestess is encountered on her own. It’s likely, though, that she won’t be on her own but rather will be accompanied by a drow elite warrior bodyguard, at the very least, and possibly a full honor guard of four to six. When this is the case, she’ll place more emphasis on casting control spells so that the elite warriors can do the melee fighting against restrained opponents and less on engaging in melee herself.