Drow Tactics: Shadowblades

Drow shadowblades are spies and assassins, trained to strike from hiding. With extraordinary Dexterity serving as both their primary offensive ability and primary defensive ability, they’re shock attackers, striking swiftly and hard with the goal of taking out their targets as fast as possible. Their Constitution is high enough that they can handle a protracted battle, but they’d rather not.

With proficiency in all of the “big three” saving throws (Dexterity, Constitution and Wisdom) and with innate advantage against being charmed, shadowblades have little to fear from enemy spellcasters and can assail their desired targets without distraction. Like all drow, they have long-range darkvision plus Sunlight Sensitivity, confining them to nighttime and (more likely) subterranean operations. They also have the standard drow spell package of dancing lights plus one daily casting each of darkness, faerie fire and levitate.

In addition, as a bonus action, shadowblades can use the Shadow Step feature to teleport up to 60 feet between one dimly lit or dark location and another; doing so also grants advantage on “the first melee attack it makes before the end of the turn.” The wording is crucial, because it dictates shadowblades’ turn sequence and mode of striking: the bonus action must be taken before the attack, and the attack must be a melee attack, i.e., either Shadow Sword, grapple or shove.

That’s assuming, however, that a shadowblade needs Shadow Step in order to gain advantage on its attack. Simply attacking while unseen grants advantage, too. If the shadowblade’s target lacks darkvision and is bumbling around in the murk without a decent light source, the sequence is less crucial, and the shadowblade is free to use Shadow Step to slip out of melee rather than to initiate it.

The drow shadowblade’s Multiattack consists of two Shadow Sword attacks that synergize into a nasty combination. By itself, Shadow Sword not only does piercing, necrotic and poison damage on a hit but also creates a patch of magical darkness. Even if the target has a light source that creates bright light, the creation of this magical darkness gives the shadowblade a “teleporter pad” by which it can use Shadow Step to slip away. But with its Multiattack, on any Shadow Sword hit after the first [not quite—see DerangedDerro’s comment below], the shadowblade can direct that darkness into its enemy for a burst of additional necrotic damage. (This stunt can be performed only once per turn, so even if the shadowblade has more than one patch of darkness lingering around, it can’t use both its Shadow Sword attacks to do this extra damage.)

In addition to its melee Multiattack, the shadowblade also has a fairly straightforward ranged attack that does piercing damage and may also impose the poisoned and unconscious conditions. Does initiating combat with this attack offer any advantage over jumping right into melee? Let’s see.

The Hand Crossbow attack, which consumes a full action, does an average of 8.5 damage, far less than a single Shadow Sword attack, let alone a Multiattack. Any comparative advantage is going to have to come from a debilitating condition. Given the shadowblade’s challenge rating of 11, its targets are likely to be high-level adventurers—or NPCs in the presence of high-level adventurers, which is a pretty different kettle of fish. The NPC isn’t likely to have more than a +1 or +2 saving throw modifier—but even this is enough to give him or her a 45 to 50 percent chance of success. A high-level PC is probably going to have a Constitution save mod of between +2 and +8, meaning the shadowblade may have as low as a 30 percent chance of poisoning its target, to say nothing of knocking it unconscious. Moreover, the normal range of a hand crossbow is only 30 feet—less than the range of Shadow Step! This attack is starting to look like a waste of an action.

The most benefit we can wring out of the Hand Crossbow action is this: The shadowblade casts darkness to shroud itself in impenetrable obscurity. Thence, it fires its hand crossbow at a target between 60 and 120 feet away, using unseen-attacker advantage to offset long-range disadvantage. Normally, attacking gives away the attacker’s position, but darkness keeps the shadowblade’s exact position concealed. The shadowblade can continue to snipe in this fashion until the careless target approaches within 60 feet, at which point the shadowblade Shadow Steps up to its target, and the julienning begins. Nope, this doesn’t work, because darkness also foils the shadowblade’s own darkvision. Instead, it has to occupy a position of natural total darkness, shoot, then immediately Shadow Step to a different position of natural total darkness. And if an enemy has darkvision also and happens to be looking in the direction of the location that the shadowblade teleports to, there goes its unseen-attacker advantage, which means there’s nothing to compensate for the disadvantage of shooting at long range.

There’s a hitch in this plan, though, which is that smart targets, once they start taking hits from an attacker hiding in the dark, will immediately seek to illuminate their surroundings, leaving the shadowblade without an adjacent dimly lit or dark location to Shadow Step into. Now, since Shadow Step advantage doesn’t require that the attacker be unseen, the shadowblade can Shadow Step to a dimly lit or dark spot up to 30 feet away from the target, run up and still gain advantage on that first hit. But this presumes that the target’s light source doesn’t extend that far. Consulting the Player’s Handbook, a lamp sheds bright light out to a radius of just 15 feet; a torch, 20 feet; and a bullseye lantern has a 60-foot range but is unidirectional. These offer no protection against a shadowblade. But a hooded lantern sheds bright light out to a radius of 30 feet, leaving the shadowblade no shadow to bamf into. A light spell brightly illuminates a 20-foot radius (no protection), but daylight brightly illuminates a 60-foot radius (total protection), and a shadowblade’s Intelligence isn’t high enough for it to accurately predict which of these spells a target knows how to cast. Its Wisdom, however, is high enough for it to choose its battles carefully and not pick fights it can’t win. And a fight in which it can’t use Shadow Step is a fight it can’t win.

That being said, there’s also a way to overcome this hitch: The drow shadowblade doesn’t have to work alone! Just one confederate that can cast darkness—which all drow can, even the lowliest mook—is enough to create a sphere of magical obscurity around a target, snuffing his or her light source (unless it’s daylight) and giving the shadowblade a way to teleport in when the time comes.

So when is that time? That depends on the value of the shadowblade’s Multiattack. On average, one Shadow Sword hit does 33.5 total damage. Two Shadow Sword hits therefore do 67 damage, and after the first attacking turn, the second hit gets a nice additional 21 bonus necrotic damage as a rider, for a total of 88. Mind you, this presumes two hits in a row. With a +9 attack modifier and advantage on at least the first strike, the shadowblade’s chances are very good, but they’re not perfect, especially against a heavily armored target. Against a middle-of-the-road Armor Class 15, +9 means a 75 percent chance to hit; with advantage, it’s 93.75 percent. Multiplying each average damage figure by the chance to hit, our new total expected damage is about 72 55 on the first turn and 72 on subsequent turns. Against AC 20, +9 means a 50 percent chance to hit, 75 percent with advantage; expected damage against a fighter in a tin can is therefore roughly 52 43 on the first turn and 52 on subsequent turns, still pretty solid but less imminently life-threatening.

Now let’s take a look at our target. Figure that our middle-of-the-road high-level adventurer has a d8 hit die and a +2 Con mod. At level 11, he or she will have somewhere in the ballpark of 75 hp. Our fighter, who specializes in taking beatings, has a d10 hit die and, by this point in his or her career, a +4 Con mod, for somewhere around 109 hp.

What this tells us is that, against PCs equipped to confront a drow shadowblade, a single round’s Multiattack is unlikely to deliver a one-hit kill—not unless the target is a squishy wizard or sorcerer. Even two rounds may prove insufficient to finish off a well-armored fighter. Especially if a shadowblade is working alongside allies, which means there’s no good reason to take silly risks, most targets will have to be tenderized before a shadowblade is ready to engage in mano-a-mano homicide. A nice, dramatic pace of combat has the shadowblade’s allies engaging their foes directly while the shadowblade snipes from darkness for the first round or two; then, the following round, the shadowblade suddenly appears in their midst, and the real carnage commences.

If a shadowblade is working alone, on the other hand, it can’t afford to play games: It has to jump in right away and do as much damage as it can, as fast as it can. If it hasn’t accomplished its mission either within three rounds or before being seriously injured (reduced to 60 hp or fewer), whichever comes first, it takes the L and skedaddles.

The drow shadowblade has no good reason to cast any of its spells, other than darkness. All of them require concentration, which means that no two can be sustained at the same time; all of them take a full action to cast; and none of them offers the kind of value that the shadowblade’s Multiattack does.

What about the variant rule that allows a shadowblade to summon a shadow demon? Sometimes these summoning rules have something to offer, but I’ve grown skeptical of them, because in a game to which action economy is so central, the chance of failure imposes enormous risk. In this case, the shadowblade has a 50 percent chance of summoning a shadow demon ally—and a 50 percent chance of doing nothing but psychic damage to itself for an entire action. When the alternative is such a powerful Multiattack, there’s zero reason for the shadowblade to gamble with its action.

From one dungeon master to another, my advice is, script it the way you want it to play. Don’t leave it up to chance.  If you want the shadow demon there, then write the shadow demon into the encounter. Have the demon already summoned before the player characters know the shadowblade is there. Then have the shadowblade send the demon in first to harass the PCs—and finally, while they’re occupied, have the shadowblade leap into the fray.

Next: drow inquisitors.

9 thoughts on “Drow Tactics: Shadowblades

  1. It was way too far into my DM career when I finally realized I could make calls like assuming the shadow demon summoning was successful. I think if I was sending a shadow blade assassin against a prominent NPC, I’d telegraph its MO with tavern rumours, then assume consecutive hits on the multiattack. Nothing breaks the flow of an assassination like stopping to roll dice while describing the mystery attacker teleporting in out of nowhere… and then missing.

    1. I’m still old-school enough that I’d roll the dice, but I also flavor “miss” results by distinguishing between attacks that miss completely (< 10), attacks that the target dodges (10 to 10 + Dex mod if wearing light armor or none, or 10 to 12 if wearing medium armor) and attacks that hit but are absorbed by armor (neither of the above, up to AC − 1). An assassin who teleports in out of nowhere, slashes at you, but fails to do damage either because your armor ate it or because you leaped aside just in time is just as dramatic as one who hits for damage, IMO. Only an outright miss would be laughable.

      1. That seems right. I’d still roll for damage, too, so the possibility of failure is still there. I did play under a DM who would kill your character in front of everyone if you weren’t there, so I know how important it is to be fair.

    1. You’re right—they don’t. However, a shadowblade only needs magical darkness long enough to Shadow Step up to its target. As soon as it arrives, its ally can drop the spell.

      1. Got it, thanks. I was more specifically thinking about the example of using it for sniping in the first couple rounds before the Shadow Step – in practice though any encounter with a Shadowblade probably takes place on terrain where they can establish a firing position (if that’s their plan) that has mundane darkness/cover anyway, as any assassin should.

  2. This bit: “But with its Multiattack, on any Shadow Sword hit after the first, the shadowblade can direct that darkness into its enemy for a burst of additional necrotic damage.” is a little misleading, because the Shadowblade can only trigger the extra damage if the cube of shadow was already there.
    From the state block: “If either attack hits and the target is within 10 feet of a 5-ft. cube of darkness created by the shadow sword on a *previous turn,* […]” (emphasis mine).

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