Hags, as monsters, never interested me much, but fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons has made it possible to build some very cool encounters around them. Evil fey creatures, hags rely on magic and deceit to befoul everything and destroy everyone around them. In many cases, by the time players realize that one or more hags are what their characters are up against, it’s already too late to avoid the encounter.
All hags possess very high Strength and Constitution, and they can do fierce damage with their claws, suggesting that they won’t shy away from toe-to-toe melee combat. When they come together in covens, they also gain access to a powerful repertoire of spells. To cast these spells, they must all be within 30 feet of one another, which limits their mobility somewhat. So that they’re not forced to retreat out of range, we can suppose that they fight facing outward, their backs toward one another. Thus, if they’re knocked back, for instance, they fall toward the others rather than away from them. This leaves them vulnerable to being surrounded, but it also offers some protection against flanking, since most player characters won’t want to run right into the midst of the trio.
Hag covens can also create hag eyes, little surveillance cameras they can all see through. The Monster Manual flavor text says a hag eye “is usually entrusted to a minion for safekeeping and transport,” but it can also be hung in an unobtrusive location that allows a hag coven to spot creatures approaching its lair. If they do this, however, they’ll be careful to conceal it, because if it’s destroyed, they’ll not only suffer minor to moderate damage but also be temporarily blinded.
Let’s look at the spells available to a hag coven:
- Eyebite is a sustained spell requiring concentration which can impose a debilitating condition (unconscious, frightened or “sickened”—effectively poisoned) on a succession of targets who fail their Wisdom saving throws.
- Contact other plane and scrying apply less to combat than to social interaction scenarios in which the PCs might be petitioning the hags for otherworldly wisdom.
- Phantasmal killer is weaksauce, requiring not one but two failed Wisdom saving throws for a target to take any damage, and it requires concentration as well. Sea hags might use it anyway, however, because all they require to set up their Death Glare is that the target be frightened, and that requires only one failed save.
- Polymorph can turn a PC into a newt. They’ll get better, but not for an hour, or until the spell is dropped or disrupted. In the meantime, the hag who casts it can’t use any other sustained spell.
- Bestow curse is yet another sustained spell—unless it’s cast using a 5th- or higher-level spell slot, and it just so happens that our hags have two 5th-level spell slots that they’re probably not going to use in combat! So if they use bestow curse, they’ll do it with one of those slots, meaning they won’t have to concentrate to sustain it, and the effect will last 8 hours. What kind of curse should they bestow? If a hag is likely to land more hits than its target, it should go for the necrotic damage boost option. If the target is likely to land more hits, it should go for the attack disadvantage option. (There’s an easy way to predict who’s likely to land more hits, the hag or the target: whichever one gets the lower result from subtracting his/her/its own attack modifier from the opponent’s armor class.) In either case, however, if the target has the Extra Attack class feature, the hag should go for the wasted action option, because this has a much greater effect on the action economy of an opponent who can attack more than once in a single action. All this being said, the Wisdom save DC of 14 (13 for a sea hag) is not that tough to beat for a PC with a decent Wisdom score or proficiency in that particular saving throw. A hag generally will try bestow curse only against an opponent with a zero or negative Wisdom saving throw modifier, and absolutely won’t bother against an opponent with a modifier of more than +3.
- Counterspell is an automatic reflex against any incoming damaging spell. It uses a reaction, so the hag doesn’t have to spend an action on it—but it does also cost a 3rd-level spell slot.
- Lightning bolt competes with counterspell for the use of that 3rd-level slot. If the hags in a coven spot an opportunity to nail three or more opponents in lightning bolt’s linear area of effect, have already gotten as many targets as they’re going to with bestow curse and still have a 5th-level spell slot left, they’ll cast it at that level. But if there’s no 5th-level spell slot available, or if they’re going to want to cast bestow curse again, they’ll cast lightning bolt using a 3rd-level slot only if all spellcasters in the PCs’ party are already shut down. Otherwise, they’ll want to keep that slot free for counterspell.
- Hold person requires concentration and, like every such spell we’ve looked at so far, a failed Wisdom saving throw. But it ain’t half bad, and if it’s cast using a 5th-level slot (see above), it can paralyze up to four opponents.
- Locate object and identify are more divination spells, not appropriate for combat.
- Ray of sickness is the one ranged spell that all hags in the coven possess. It requires a ranged spell attack roll to hit rather than a saving throw to resist, which makes it useful against low–armor class, high-Wisdom opponents. It’s also an instantaneous spell, no concentration required. If cast using a 5th-level spell slot, it deals 6d8 damage on a hit, which is about as good as a 3rd-level lightning bolt, and may poison the target as well. This can cripple a low- to mid-level wizard or sorceror, if not take him or her out of the game completely. Just be sure you don’t need that 5th-level slot for bestow curse.
Note the preponderance of spells that call for Wisdom saving throws. A hag coven can wreck a low-Wisdom party, but against a high-Wisdom party, they’ll have to rely on claw attacks, ray of sickness and whatever other features they possess.
Now let’s look at the three types of hag:
Sea hags are the weakest type, unable to disguise their hideousness; at best, they can appear as normal humanoids who happen to be very ugly. Nevertheless, they’ll maintain this illusion unless and until they attack or are attacked, in the hope of luring their victims close (close enough to use their Horrific Appearance feature) and gaining the element of surprise.
When all the PCs are within 30 feet of one or more sea hags, they’ll revert abruptly to their true, horrible appearance (bonus action), at which point the PCs must make a DC 11 Wisdom saving throw or be frightened, giving them disadvantage on all ability checks and attack rolls as long as the hags are within view. Each hag then directs a Death Glare at a frightened opponent, starting with the one who seems like he or she ought to have the lowest Wisdom saving throw modifier. (Sea hags are smart enough to make good guesses about this, but not so intelligent that they can “read” PCs’ stats infallibly.) If no one was frightened, they attack the nearest PCs with their claws; if they’re in a coven, one will cast phantasmal killer (not eyebite, because this would cause opponents to Dash out of Death Glare range) and try again to frighten a PC who resisted the sea hags’ Horrific Appearance.
The following round, the sea hags’ actions depend on whether or not they’re in a coven and whether or not they’re close to a frightened opponent. A sea hag that isn’t sustaining phantasmal killer and is close to a frightened opponent will hit it with a Death Glare. One that isn’t close to a frightened opponent but is near one who might botch a Wisdom save will try eyebite (to sicken), bestow curse, polymorph or hold person (in that order, depending on what spell slots are available), prioritizing opponents who are engaging it in melee. One that isn’t close to a frightened opponent but has no realistic chance of getting a spell past an opponent’s Wisdom save will attack with its claws if an opponent is within easy melee reach and ray of sickness if not. If a hag isn’t in a coven, it’s a far simpler decision: Death Glare if there’s a frightened opponent within 30 feet, claws if not. (Unlike Horrific Appearance, Death Glare can be repeated on a target who’s already made a successful saving throw if that target is still frightened.)
In the third round of combat, the hags will attempt other spells, such as bestow curse, hold person and lightning bolt, although by this point they’ll know better than to try the first two if all their other Wisdom-save spells have been fizzling.
A sea hag who’s seriously wounded (reduced to 20 hp or fewer) will flee, Dashing away (by water, if possible, so that it can use its superior swimming speed). If the seriously wounded hag happens to a member of a coven, the coven is broken. At that point, if any of the three sea hags still has 37 hp or more while another on the field of battle is seriously wounded, it will turn against the seriously wounded hag and try to kill it. Once one member of the coven is killed, the other two will cease to cooperate and will fight as individuals.
Green hags are able to disguise themselves as normal, even attractive, humanoids, and they’ll use this disguise to lure victims to them. Green hags don’t have any features that lend themselves to tactical combinations, so they’ll almost always be found in covens. They’ll use eyebite to put tough melee fighters to sleep, sicken ranged attackers and skirmishers, and panic spellcasters. They won’t bother with phantasmal killer, cutting straight to bestow curse instead, followed by polymorph and hold person if needed, though they too will give up on Wisdom-save spells if they’re obviously not working and switch to claw attacks and ray of sickness.
In a coven, green hags use Invisible Passage to try to knock off isolated enemies who are causing them trouble, converging on them and reappearing all at once to attack with their claws. They all take the action of turning invisible at the same time and move together, in order to stay within 30 feet of one another. One green hag in a coven won’t use Invisible Passage alone—unless it’s seriously wounded.
A green hag who’s reduced to 32 hp or fewer will flee, using Invisible Passage to vanish and run—if possible, in the direction of the coven’s hag eye, which the wounded hag will try to secure. Successful retrieval of the hag eye will keep the coven intact for the time being. But if it can’t do this, for whatever reason, then just as with sea hags, a green hag with 58 hp or more will turn against a seriously wounded sister hag who’s still within range, and once any one of the three is dead, the other two no longer cooperate.
Night hags are categorized not as fey but as fiends; like succubi and incubi, they delight in corrupting mortal humanoids and laying claim to their souls. Unlike sea hags and green hags, which can disguise their appearance visually but not to the touch, night hags Change Shape, physically transforming into humanoid guise. (This transformation takes an action to undo, so a night hag can’t use it to gain surprise as sea hags or green hags can.)
Night hag tactics revolve around the combination of Etherealness and Nightmare Haunting. Etherealness allows a night hag to travel to a victim’s place of rest, while Nightmare Haunting allows it to cause the victim to have brutal dreams that disrupt his or her rest, not only denying the restoration of hit points that comes with resting but also reducing his or her hit point maximum. The night hag’s goal is to bring that maximum to zero at a moment when the victim has been sufficiently corrupted by the commission of evil deeds; the night visions can themselves help bring about these deeds, such as by deceiving a decent character into suspecting innocent others of having committed foul crimes.
In short, a night hag “encounter” is more like a long-running subplot, just as succubus and incubus encounters are. They’ll share many of the same elements—possibly including the cultivation of a daytime relationship with the night hag in disguise, definitely including nightly stealth visits while the victim is asleep—and the only reason for a night hag to fight is if its cover is blown.
Night hags may or may not belong to covens; I’m inclined to believe that they’re more likely to work alone, since they wouldn’t be able to agree on who’d get to take the soul of a single target. If they did work together as a coven, they’d have to target three different victims, and those victims would have to be physically near each other as well, so that the coven members would be able to support one another with spellcasting if something went wrong.
This seems like a high bar to clear, and I’m not sure they’d consider it worth the trouble. But if they did, they’d prioritize their spells in much the same way that green hags do. Other than plane shift, the night hag’s innate spells don’t add much to the package and are useful only if it doesn’t have access to coven spells:
- Magic missile offers a modicum of guaranteed-hit ranged damage but nothing more, and it probably isn’t even worth throwing at wizards or sorcerers, who are likely to have shield.
- Ray of enfeeblement is a low-budget quasi–bestow curse that has to be sustained, and whose only saving grace is that it’s a ranged spell attack rather than a spell that requires a Wisdom save.
- Sleep probably won’t take out a single PC at the level where they’re likely to encounter even one night hag.
Given the weakness of all these spells (an astonishing level of weakness for a CR 5 creature with 15 hit dice), a lone night hag is not going to be engaging in any epic magical duels. If push comes to shove, its only real asset is its claws. A far superior asset is its ability to keep push from coming to shove in the first place.
A night hag knows that if it’s caught before collecting the soul it’s after, the mission is a failure, and there’s no point in hanging around, so all it takes is a light wound (12 hp of damage or more) for the unmasked night hag to cut and run, making its escape via the Ethereal Plane or a casting of plane shift. Only if somehow chased and cornered does it have any reason to stand and fight, and in order to have the use of its claws in combat, it Changes Shape back to its true form while being pursued if it hasn’t done so already.