Volo’s Guide to Monsters offers a number of new possibilities for deep forest encounters and conjure fey summonees, and today I’m going to look at three of them: darklings, quicklings and redcaps.
Darklings are the rogues of the fey world, inhabiting not just woodlands but also caves and catacombs. They’re high in Dexterity, above-average in Constitution and below-average in Strength, marking them as snipers and shock attackers that must choose their battles carefully. If they can’t manage their mischief with secrecy and stealth, they’ll have to compensate with numbers. But nothing in the Volo’s flavor texts suggests that they’re prolific, so secrecy it is. Fortunately for them, they’re proficient in Acrobatics and Deception and expert in Perception and Stealth.
They have 120 feet of darkvision topped off with 30 feet of blindsight; they’re also light-sensitive, giving them disadvantage on attack rolls and Perception checks in bright light. Dim light is ideal for them, but they can function capably in total darkness—even, to a certain extent, in magical darkness.
They have only one attack: a simple dagger strike, either melee or ranged. Built into this attack, however, is extra damage when they attack with advantage—a partial equivalent of the Sneak Attack feature. The most straightforward way for them to attack with advantage is to strike in darkness against a target who lacks darkvision.
Ideally, they’d attack from range, but if they throw a dagger from more than 20 feet away, they lose their advantage, so a stab in the back it will have to be, or at least a dagger thrown from well within range of the enemy’s ability to close with them. If they’re spotted before they can make that first sneak attack, I think they won’t even go through with the fight—they’ll simply Dash away. If they can’t finish off their targets in two rounds of combat, or if they get surrounded, they’ll also skedaddle, Dashing if within reach of only one enemy, Disengaging if within reach of more than one.
Darklings’ Death Flash feature offers no benefit to a lone darkling, in terms of either their survival or their ability to complete a mission. But multiple darklings, despite their abhorrence of bright light, can take advantage of it, because the flash is instantaneous—after it happens, they’re no longer in bright light, so they no longer suffer disadvantage on their attacks. And even if they’re blinded by the flash, they can still use their blindsight to function, giving them sneak attack opportunities against blinded opponents.
Darkling elders are similar to darklings in all basic respects. They have Multiattack, which lets them attack twice rather than once; carry shortswords, so they do more damage with each strike; and get one more die of sneak attack damage. But their key strength is their Darkness feature, which they can use once per encounter. Remember how I said darklings can function capably even in magical darkness? Boom. Darkness, the feature, shuts down enemies with darkvision while allowing the darkling elder and its allies to ravage largely unimpeded, as long as they aren’t more than 30 feet from their foes.
Also, their Death Burn, beyond merely blinding everyone around them, also does radiant damage. So when they go out in a blaze of glory, it does help them complete their mission. Based on this, I’d say that darkling elders are disciplined enough to fight to the death, while darklings unaccompanied by a darkling elder have enough of a self-preservation instinct that they’ll try to escape when seriously injured (reduced to 5 hp or fewer).
Quicklings are malicious and capricious, though according to the flavor text in Volo’s, they don’t kill just for the sake of killing. Instead, they’re more inclined to perpetrate malevolent pranks. Thus, they won’t carry out ambush attacks, despite their proficiency in Stealth. In fact, they probably won’t fight at all unless they’re cornered. Once you’ve decided to introduce quicklings to your campaign, you should play them as relentless nuisances, disrupting the player characters’ lives and plans, then hightailing it. (Get familiar with the Chases rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, pages 252–55, and impose lots of obstacles.)
Between their moderately high armor class and their Blurred Movement feature, which imposes disadvantage on attacks against them unless they’re incapacitated or restrained, they have little to fear from opportunity attacks, no matter how many opponents they’re surrounded by. Thus, even a cornered quickling won’t stay cornered for long. It will Multiattack with its dagger, then move away through any gap in its enemies’ line at four times their normal movement speed. Once it’s no longer cornered, it’s free to Dash, and forget about any chance of catching it then.
If quicklings are averse to murder, redcaps are just the opposite—they live for it. They have no need of Stealth: they’re vicious little brutes, with exceptional Strength and Constitution. Which is just as well, because their Iron Boots make it hard to miss their presence.
The Ironbound Pursuit action is similar to other monsters’ Charge and Pounce features, enabling a redcap to knock its enemy prone, but it also incorporates the equivalent of a Dash action. Although redcaps have a Speed of only 25 feet, they can close a distance of 50 feet in a single round and still attack using the Ironbound Pursuit action. This, therefore, is how they’ll initiate combat.
Once they’re engaged with an enemy, their Multiattack action gives them three melee attacks. Having drawn blood, they’re relentless: any enemy that tries to run away, they’ll pursue, using Ironbound Pursuit if their normal movement isn’t enough. (Once again, familiarity with Chases is essential, except this time, it’s the PCs who’ll be trying to get away, because redcaps won’t give up until their quarry eludes them.)
That leaves the Outsize Strength feature. Half of it is so situational that it leaves one wondering why it was even included—I’m referring to the fact that wielding a heavy weapon doesn’t impose disadvantage on their attacks. Their stat block doesn’t give them a heavy weapon, and their Multiattack specifically includes only attacks with their Wicked Sickles. So when, exactly, is a redcap going to be using a heavy weapon? I suppose an opponent could disarm it somehow, and the nearest weapon lying around might be a halberd or something. But three successful sickle hits do an average total of 26 points of damage, while one halberd hit would do only 10 points of damage on average. Meh. Disregard this aspect of Outsize Strength.
It’s the other part that really matters: while grappling, the redcap is considered to be Medium. What does this imply? Redcaps are Small creatures, and a creature can grapple an enemy up to one size larger than itself. But PCs are Medium size, if not Small themselves. Outsize Strength lets redcaps grapple Large creatures. This means they can grapple a horse. They can also grapple a druid who’s Wild Shaped into a lion, tiger or brown bear.
But then again . . . so what? Multiattack gives a redcap three Wicked Sickle attacks, period. It can’t substitute grappling for any of those attacks. It would have to substitute grappling for the entire Multiattack. Nor can any creature grapple as an opportunity attack.
Here’s what I think we need to keep in mind: Redcaps, while vicious, aren’t very fast. Their base movement is only 25 feet. Any opponent who Dashes can outdistance them easily. So to make any use of Outsize Strength, here’s what needs to happen:
- On its first turn, the redcap uses Ironbound Pursuit to close distance, attack and (hopefully) knock its opponent prone. Presumably, the opponent will get up—which it must use half his or her movement to do—then either engage in melee or back away using the remainder of his or her movement. If the opponent Dashes rather than Disengage, the redcap gets an opportunity attack.
- On its second turn, if the opponent didn’t engage in melee or Dash away, the redcap uses its normal movement to close the distance again, then uses its action to grapple the opponent, reducing its movement to 0.
- Then, on its third turn, the redcap Multiattacks its grappled opponent. (If the opponent didn’t try to get away, the redcap Multiattacks on its second turn, and it only grapples the enemy when he or she attempts to retreat.)
This is slow, and I don’t love it. But the alternative is that the Outsize Strength feature never gets any use at all. Since redcaps have this feature, they’re presumably going to use it somehow. Preemptively grappling opponents to make sure they can’t escape seems like the most plausible application.
Here’s a tricky question: Does a redcap ever flee when injured? Exhibit A: “From the moment it awakens, a redcap desires only murder and carnage, and it sets out to satisfy these cravings.” Redcaps are magically created, not evolved, and there’s something of a cousin to ideology here which may override a survival instinct. On the other side of the coin, exhibit B: “To sustain its unnatural existence, a redcap has to soak its hat in the fresh blood of its victims. . . . A redcap’s desire to slay is rooted in its will to survive.” So there is a survival instinct here, a strong one. Once created, a redcap wants to stick around.
The resolution, I think, is that the redcap has just barely enough Wisdom to recognize when it’s outmatched. It wants to murder, but it also grasps that it’s not going to get the blood it needs from a “victim” who’s going to kill it first. After any round of combat that ends with the redcap seriously wounded (reduced to 18 hp or fewer) while its opponent still has 40 percent or more of his or her full hit points, or with the redcap moderately wounded (reduced to 31 hp or fewer) while its opponent still has 70 percent or more of his or her full hit points, the little monster reads the writing on the wall, hisses nastily and Dashes away.