In an earlier article, I examined the tactics of goblins, which turned out to be significantly more sophisticated than those of your average cannon-fodder humanoid monster. Goblins are low-level, though, and to present more of a challenge to intermediate-level players, large groups of goblins are often accompanied by more advanced goblinoids, such as goblin bosses, hobgoblins and bugbears.
The goblin boss is distinguished from ordinary goblins by its Multiattack and Redirect Attack features and by the fact that it doesn’t use a bow. Additionally, the Redirect Attack action is useful only in a context in which goblins are fighting side-by-side rather than in an ambush or skirmish. Based on this, I conclude that goblin bosses are found only in goblin lairs—caves, ruins, what have you—where large numbers of goblins will fight in close quarters.
By the way, have you read that Redirect Attack feature? The goblin boss uses its reaction to avoid a hit on itself and cause it to land on one of its goblin minions instead. What a jerk! Here’s a critter that’s better suited for fighting than most of its kind—stronger, better at absorbing damage and capable of landing more blows—and yet it possesses no notion of carrying the team. “Aw, sorry about that, Jixto! Send me a postcard from Hades!”
A creature like this, even if it fights in melee, is going to be obnoxiously focused on self-preservation. Fighting in a group, it will begin on the front line with everyone else, using its Multiattack action to attack twice with its scimitar (note that the goblin boss’s Multiattack is nerfed on the second swing). But as soon as it’s taken even one hit, it changes tactics: after its Attack action, it Disengages (bonus action) and moves 15 feet to a position behind the front line where opponents can’t reach it. On subsequent rounds, it moves up to 15 feet into a nearby hole in the front line, Attacks (action), Disengages (bonus action) and moves back behind the front line again. (If there’s no actual hole, remember that it can move through a square occupied by another goblin as if it were difficult terrain. Thus, it has just enough movement speed to go through the front line, and back, if it has to.) If the goblin boss’s minions are wiped out, it’s out of there, and ditto if it’s seriously wounded (reduced to 8 hp or fewer).
Hobgoblins are very different from goblins—they’re natural soldiers, tough and disciplined where goblins are squishy, lazy and craven. They have no physical weakness, they’re intelligent enough to make and use swords and bows and to conduct reconnaissance, and their Martial Advantage feature gives them bonus damage for fighting in close formation. On the other hand, they have no Stealth proficiency and no Nimble Escape.
Hobgoblins will move and attack at night, when their darkvision gives them an advantage over PCs without it; if they don’t have the advantage of darkness, they’ll attack only with at least a 2-to-1 numerical advantage. In groups consisting only of hobgoblins, they’ll move in tight teams of four to six. If there are multiple such teams, one of them will consist of archers, positioned between 60 and 150 feet from the action. With goblin troops, they have to be careful: hobgoblins don’t lack the courage to fight on the front line, but they know that goblins do. Rather than set an example that the goblins won’t follow, they’ll give commands from behind the front line, where they can keep an eye on the goblins, and shoot at opponents with their longbows. Martial Advantage will help them in this instance, even though they’re not engaged in melee themselves, as long as they’re choosing targets that the goblins are engaging in melee.
The more hobgoblin groups are engaged in melee, the more sophisticated tactics they’ll use. For instance, if there are three, one will engage directly, one will shoot from a distance, and one will move to whichever flank looks weaker before engaging. If there are four, one will move to each flank. Five or more will try to encircle the PCs. These movements will take place before the battle begins—hobgoblins are intelligent and disciplined enough to prepare. They’ll also take place at a sufficient distance that their lack of Stealth won’t be a hindrance.
Hobgoblins don’t flee when they’re losing. They execute an orderly retreat. When at least two hobgoblins in a group are seriously injured (reduced to 4 hp or fewer) or killed, the group will begin to fall back, starting with the most injured hobgoblins. These will Disengage (action) and retreat at their full movement speed. On the next round, the two next-most-injured will Disengage (action) and also retreat at their full movement speed, while the previous two fall back only 5 feet, so as to remain in contact with the hobgoblins that are now joining them. Meanwhile, in this round, the hobgoblin archer group, if there is one, notices the retreat and focuses its arrows on any potential pursuers, in order to cover the retreat. On the third round, any hobgoblin(s) left in the group will Disengage (action) and retreat at full movement speed, joining up with those that have already retreated. They carry out this same maneuver repeatedly, until no enemy is engaging with them anymore.
Despite being the very model of discipline otherwise, according to the MM, hobgoblins flip their lids when they see an elf. They attack elves first, “even if doing so would be a tactical error.” Does this mean they’ll charge into combat prematurely, during daylight, with inadequate reconnaissance, just because they see an elf in the party’s camp? That’s the DM’s call. You could play them this way, but given the extent to which they’re built up as being militarily savvy, I’d say that before the action starts, their disciplined nature prevails—they simply construct their battle plans around taking out the elves first. Once the battle commences, though, maybe they allow a human fighter to score free hits on them while they concentrate their attacks on an elf fighter. Maybe the hobgoblin archers keep shooting at an elf mage when they should be covering their fellow hobgoblins’ retreat. Maybe the sudden appearance of an elf rogue in its midst causes a hobgoblin melee group to forget what it was doing entirely and fixate on getting that elf.
A hobgoblin captain is an extra-tough hobgoblin with Multiattack and Leadership. The Leadership feature is incredible: for one minute (that is, 10 rounds), as long as the hobgoblin captain isn’t incapacitated, every allied creature within 30 feet of it gets a 1d4 buff on attack rolls and saving throws. It will activate this feature just before melee combat begins, so as not to pass up its own Attack action. In other respects, it fights as an ordinary hobgoblin. If there are multiple hobgoblin groups but only one hobgoblin captain, it will be attached to the main melee group. Hobgoblin captains don’t wield bows, but they do carry javelins, and they’ll hurl one of these at a fleeing opponent rather than break ranks to give chase.
A hobgoblin warlord is everything a hobgoblin captain is and more. It can Shield Bash to knock an opponent prone, and it can Parry a melee blow.
Parry adds +3 to AC as a reaction, so the decision when to use it is easy: when a player rolls between 20 and 22 on his or her attack. (Assuming the hobgoblin warlord hasn’t already used its reaction on something else, of course.)
Shield Bash requires a little math to analyze. The hobgoblin warlord’s Multiattack allows three consecutive melee swings in one Attack action. The longsword attack does the most damage, so it’s the default, but when is Shield Bash a reasonable alternative? Assuming a hit, Shield Bash does, on average, 2 hp less damage than a longsword attack, so the crux is whether the chance to knock the opponent prone is worth these forfeited points. Attacks against a prone opponent have advantage, which raises to-hit percentage by an average of about 20 percent. If the hobgoblin warlord uses the Attack sequence bash/longsword/longsword, this means it will have advantage on two longsword attacks after a successful bash. The longsword does an average of 7.5 hp damage on a hit, 15 hp damage on two. Twenty percent of that is 3, so using Shield Bash before striking twice with a longsword increases the expected damage by 3 hp—if it works.
The trouble is, the DC 14 for Strength saving throws against a Shield Bash isn’t very high. Unmodified, the hobgoblin warlord has just shy of a two-thirds chance of knocking its opponent down. Modified by the opponent’s Strength—and keep in mind that it’s probably the party’s toughest fighters who’ll be confronting the hobgoblin warlord—the chance of success recedes to the neighborhood of 50/50, even less against PCs who get to add their proficiency modifiers to their Strength saves.
Hobgoblins aren’t dumb; hobgoblin warlords, even less so. They know from experience what opponents will withstand a Shield Bash and what opponents won’t. For a hobgoblin warlord to forgo its third longsword attack in favor of a Shield Bash, one of two conditions will have to apply: either the opponent must be weak (negative Strength modifier), or one or more of the hobgoblin warlord’s allies must also be able to land attacks on the prone PC before he or she gets up. If the advantage on attack against a prone individual applies not just to the hobgoblin warlord’s two longsword attacks but also to other attacks, then the value of Shield Bash exceeds its opportunity cost.
Bugbears are even stronger than hobgoblins, but they lack hobgoblins’ intelligence and discipline. They do formidable melee damage, thanks to their Brute feature (which is like landing a crit with every hit), and their Surprise Attack ability allows them to nova on the first PC they engage. Bugbears are quite stealthy, too (+6!), so despite being brutes, they fit in well with the ambush strategy that goblins employ. The difference is, while goblins engage in hit-and-run sniper attacks, the bugbear lies hidden until its foe comes within 30 feet of it (or creeps up on its foe until it comes within 30 feet), then springs out and smashes it to a pulp. It’s indiscriminate in its target selection: it will attack whoever first comes within reach of it. It doesn’t distinguish between targets that look weaker and targets that look stronger. To the bugbear, they all look weak.
Bugbears carry two weapons: morningstar and javelin. They don’t fear in-your-face confrontation, and the morningstar does more damage, so the only reason for them to use javelins is if for some reason they can’t get close enough to whomever they want to attack.
Bugbears are monsters of the “Rrrrraaaaahhhh, stab stab stab” (or in this case, “bash bash bash”) variety. They love mayhem and will chase down a fleeing opponent. Their survival instinct, however, is powerful. If one is seriously wounded (reduced to 10 hp or fewer), it will become confused and flee, using the Dash action and potentially exposing itself to one or more opportunity attacks. If by some miracle a group of PCs captures a bugbear alive, it will be humiliated, traumatized and willing to do just about anything to preserve its own life.
A bugbear chief is an exceptional member of the species, with Multiattack (bash more!) and the Heart of Hruggek feature, which gives it advantage on saving throws against a variety of conditions. It also has Intimidation +2, so one might suppose that, like orcs, a group of bugbears led by a bugbear chief would initiate a “parley” at the beginning of an encounter. But since their Stealth proficiency is one of bugbears’ advantages, why would they blow their cover simply to hurl taunts and threats? Bugbear chiefs have Intelligence 11 and Wisdom 12, so that’s not the sort of mistake they’d make. There can’t be many circumstances in which a party of adventurers and a bugbear chief would have anything like a purposeful conversation, but I can think of a couple: Maybe, somehow, the party has managed to surprise the bugbears rather than vice versa. Maybe one side is besieging the other, and they’ve reached a stalemate. Maybe the PCs are high-level enough that the bugbear chief realizes it will be hard to win a fight against them, yet they still have something the bugbears want. (Of course, the bugbear chief’s idea of “negotiation” will still consist mainly of demands, threats and insults.)
- Goblin bosses will begin combat in front-line melee, but as soon as they’re injured, they retreat behind the front line. On subsequent turns, they dart out to Attack (action), then Disengage (bonus action) and dart back. They use Redirect Attack to avoid damage to themselves and assign it to other, weaker goblins. They flee if reduced to 8 hp or fewer or if their goblin minions are wiped out.
- Hobgoblins band together and fight in disciplined groups, attacking at night. They maintain tight formation in order to enhance their melee damage with Martial Advantage. Hobgoblins commanding goblin troops will stay behind the front line and attack at range. They carefully move their troops into position, flanking the enemy if possible, before launching their attack.
- When two or more hobgoblins in a group of four to six are seriously wounded (reduced to 4 hp or fewer), those hobgoblins Disengage (action) and retreat their full movement distance, and the rest of their group follows suit over the next one or two rounds. Any hobgoblin archers on the scene cover their retreat, starting the round after the retreat begins.
- Hobgoblins’ intense loathing of elves may cause them to make suboptimal decisions on the battlefield as they fixate on destroying them.
- A hobgoblin captain activates its Leadership feature just before melee combat begins, buffing every one of its allies’ attacks and saving throws by 1d4. In other respects, it fights as an ordinary hobgoblin. If an enemy it’s fighting retreats, it won’t give chase, but if it doesn’t have another melee target, it will throw javelins at the retreating enemy.
- A hobgoblin warlord will Parry melee blows (reaction) on an attack roll of 20 to 22, and it will use Shield Bash/longsword/longsword as its Attack (action) sequence if its opponent has a negative Strength modifier or if one or more of the hobgoblin warlord’s troops will also get to attack the opponent before he or she can get back up. Otherwise, it attacks three times with its longsword.
- A single hobgoblin captain or hobgoblin warlord will be attached to the hobgoblins’ main melee group. Any additional hobgoblin captains will be attached to other groups, one captain per group.
- Bugbears attack from hiding as goblins do, but they favor melee fighting. If an enemy approaches within 30 feet without detecting it, a bugbear will initiate combat with a Surprise Attack. It will keep attacking until it’s seriously wounded or the enemy is killed. When a bugbear is seriously wounded (10 hp or fewer), it will Dash (action) away, potentially provoking one or more opportunity attacks.
- A bugbear chief may, under rare circumstances, try to Intimidate the PCs into giving it something it wants, but it won’t do this if it thinks its chances of ambushing the PCs and winning the ensuing fight against them are at all favorable.
Next week: The undead.