Going solely by their extraordinary Strength and Constitution, it would be easy to lump all giants together as brute fighters. If we want encounters with giants to be more than boring bash-fests, we have to look for clues not just in their stat blocks but also in the Monster Manual flavor text.
Take the matter of rock throwing. Every race of giants has this ranged attack alongside its melee attack, and on average, it does more damage. Yet every race of giants also has a Strength much, much higher than its Dexterity, so based on the assumptions I’ve been using all along, they should consistently prefer engaging in melee to attacking from a distance. Also, giants’ Multiattacks apply only to their melee attacks, not to throwing rocks. So why include a ranged attack at all?
Well, let’s start with hill giants. They’re stupid, mean, undisciplined and aggressive. Barely sentient, they’re driven by instinct and impulse. Of course they’re going to charge and bash. But with a speed of 40 feet and a reach of 10 feet, they’re unable to reach an enemy who’s more than 50 feet away.
If you’re a hill giant, and you see a target 100 feet away from you, which would you rather do: Dash toward him or her so that you can bash next round, or pick up a rock and throw it as you approach?
Hill giants don’t have the patience to wait until they’re within melee reach to start fighting. They start walking toward their prey immediately, then pick up a rock (assuming one’s available—if the party is in the hill giant’s own territory, there will be) and throw it. Range is irrelevant: if its target is more than 60 feet away, a hill giant will still throw a rock, even though it attacks with disadvantage, because it’s just that bad-tempered. Once the hill giant starts its turn within 50 feet of its target, though, it switches to bashing.
Stone giants, on the other hand, love throwing rocks. They make an art of it. They’re also much more introverted and less belligerent than other kinds of giants; they’d rather simply drive trespassers off than tangle with them. So a stone giant won’t move any closer to its target, even if it’s at long range and attacking with disadvantage, because its attack is meant mainly as a deterrent. A shot across the bow is as good as one directly into the hull.
Stone giants also have Stone Camouflage, which gives them advantage on Stealth checks to hide in the rocky terrain where they live. A stone giant that spots trespassers, if they haven’t seen it first, will hide until they come within range, then throw its first rock from hiding. This gives it advantage on the attack, which will either enhance a normal-range attack or cancel out the disadvantage of attacking at long range.
Note that when other giants throw rocks, they just do damage, but when stone giants throw rocks, they can knock their targets prone. A prone target is easier to hit with a melee attack but harder to hit with a ranged attack. So when a stone giant knocks a target down, it considers the job done, and it moves on to its next target. It also has enough Intelligence and Wisdom to recognize when something is out of the ordinary—for instance, if there’s a powerful spellcaster or some other exceptional threat among its opponents—and respond accordingly, either by targeting that threat or by shouting for reinforcements, if any are available.
There’s one thing about the stone giant stat block that surprises me, so much that I checked the Monster Manual errata to make sure it wasn’t a mistake, and that’s that the stone giant’s rock attack has the same to-hit modifier as its melee attack. Based on the usual methods of attack modifier calculation (given on page 277 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, if you’re feeling wonky), this is exactly what you’d expect. But the flavor text says of stone giants, “Despite their great size and musculature, stone giants are lithe and graceful. Skilled rock throwers are granted positions of high rank in the giants’ ordning, testing and demonstrating their ability to hurl and catch enormous boulders. . . . A stone giant hurling a rock performs not just a feat of brute strength but also one of stunning athleticism and poise.”
Given that, shouldn’t a stone giant be not just as good, but better, at throwing rocks than at hitting things with a club? And look at that Athletics skill that the stone giant has! Shouldn’t that skill be useful for something? Based on these premises, as dungeon master and therefore god-emperor of my game world, I’d have stone giants make rock attacks using their +12 Athletics skill rather than their normal +9 attack modifier. (If you do this, you may want to bump their challenge rating up from 7 to 8.)
Frost giants are the orcs of giantkind: aggressive brutes not just by nature but also by ideology. They’ll fight more like hill giants, throwing rocks only until they come within 50 feet of their targets, then charging into melee. Like stone giants, they can adapt somewhat if something out of the ordinary happens, but unlike stone giants, they’re indiscriminate in their choice of targets. The one exception to this is that they may specifically target their physically strongest opponent, as a dominance gesture, just to prove that they’re even stronger.
If frost giants are like orcs, fire giants are like hobgoblins, militaristic and disciplined. Although they could throw rocks from as far as 240 feet away, they’ll first close the distance (using the Dodge action if necessary to avoid ranged weapon or spell attacks) until they can attack without disadvantage. At 60 feet away, they’ll initiate combat by hurling a rock; on their next turn, they’ll advance another 20 feet and hurl another. On their third turn, they’ll charge in, using their full movement, and commence melee fighting with a greatsword Multiattack.
Fire giants are savvy in their target selection. If there’s a glass cannon among their opponents, fire giants will zero in on him or her. They can adapt to unexpected situations, and they’ll use terrain to enhance their advantages.
Cloud giants aren’t as stupid as hill giants, as reclusive as stone giants, as aggressive as frost giants nor as disciplined as fire giants. What they are is shrewd. Before they engage in combat, they ascertain whether those they encounter are really a threat. They’re willing to parley, maybe even curious as to trespassers’ motives. Their Insight proficiency gives them a window into what their interlocutors are after. But they also won’t hesitate to initiate combat if they conclude that someone is out to get them—or their treasures.
Consequently, cloud giants won’t often have occasion to throw rocks. By the time combat breaks out, they’ll generally be within melee range already, or at least close enough (50 feet or less) to close and engage. With them, the question isn’t when they’ll choose to throw a rock but rather when they’ll choose to cast a spell. They can cast control weather and gaseous form once per day; feather fall, fly, misty step and telekinesis three times per day; and detect magic, fog cloud and light at will. From these spells, misty step is the one that leaps out, for two reasons: first, because it’s cast as a bonus action and therefore enhances the cloud giant’s action economy, and second, because it’s consistent with the cloud giant’s trickster nature. Glass cannons beware—a cloud giant won’t hesitate to misty step behind you and give you two good clouts with its morning star. Cloud giants will also use misty step to escape being surrounded by enemies or to get up in an archer’s face—ranged attacks have disadvantage at a distance of 5 feet or less. You can try to back up to 10 feet away, which is still within the storm giant’s melee reach, so it won’t provoke an opportunity attack. But that’ll be hard if the cloud giant uses its action—and its +8 Strength modifier—to grapple you first.
The rest of the cloud giant’s spell repertoire is underwhelming. Feather fall will most likely come into play only if a cloud giant and the player characters are on the same side, fighting against other giants. Fly consumes an action and doesn’t offer a lot in return, since a cloud giant rarely has any reason to fear on-the-ground melee engagement. True, its armor class is a little on the low side, so maybe it might like to hover 10 feet up in the air, where it can reach its opponents with melee strikes but its opponents can’t reach it—but it’s not going to find rocks up there to throw. The only concrete plus is that the cloud giant’s speed is improved from 40 feet to 60 feet, which may make a difference if the fight is out in the open and the giant’s opponents are widely spread out. Telekinesis is iffy for moving other creatures, since it’s just a contest between their Strength and the cloud giant’s Charisma; as for objects, since the spell’s range is only 60 feet, and the cloud giant has 40 feet of movement, it might as well just Dash over and pick the thing up. Gaseous form is an escape hatch, control weather is a 10-minute ritual, fog cloud impedes the cloud giant as much as it does its opponents (the fog may only reach up to its neck, but it still has disadvantage on attacks against foes obscured by the cloud), and detect magic and light are fluff.
Storm giants are generally good guys, and they won’t fight unless they have no other choice. When they do, though, their go-to is Lightning Strike, a highly damaging area-effect attack with a 10-foot radius. Because of the radius, they’ll greatly prefer to hurl it where they can strike two or more enemies with it at once, but they won’t pass it up if they can’t, because even against just one target, it still does more damage than two greatsword hits. Like most other giants, they’ll prefer melee attacks over throwing rocks, and they’ll only do the latter when there’s no reachable melee target and Lightning Strike is still recharging.
Their spell repertoire is entirely cosmetic, except for control weather—as mentioned before, a ritual spell, not castable in combat. However, we can posit that storm giants (and cloud giants as well) cast and sustain control weather in order to set up the conditions in which combatants will find themselves. Most likely, they’ll choose torrential rain and either a strong wind, a gale or a storm. This combination imposes disadvantage on all ranged attacks and on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight or hearing, douses open flames such as torches, and inhibits flying, requiring airborne creatures to touch down at the end of each turn or fall out of the sky (“Wilderness Survival: Weather,” DMG 109–10). If they aren’t anticipating a fight but simply want to confuse trespassers, they may instead prefer to blanket the entire area in heavy fog, effectively blinding everyone in it.
Do giants ever run away? Depends on the giant:
- Hill giants, which are basically animals, Dash away when severely injured (reduced to 42 hp or fewer).
- Stone giants will tactically withdraw when only moderately injured (reduced to 88 hp or fewer), continuing to throw rocks as they do so, and flee when seriously injured (reduced to 50 hp or fewer), Dodging any additional incoming attacks.
- Frost giants view retreat as cowardice and will fight to the death.
- Fire giants have the discipline to Disengage when seriously injured (reduced to 64 hp or fewer) in melee combat; if they’re seriously injured and out of melee range, they’ll Dodge while retreating.
- Depending on what spells they’re sustaining or still have available, cloud giants fly off, go into gaseous form, or enshroud their enemies in a blinding fog cloud and walk away.
- A storm giant who’s seriously injured (reduced to 92 hp or fewer), believe it or not, will surrender and seek to negotiate terms. If it has any reason at all to believe that its foes will negotiate in good faith, this is far preferable to the risk of being finished off as it flees. Storm giants didn’t get to the top of the ordning by being rash.