Volo’s Guide to Monsters includes an extended treatment of hags, and it heavily emphasizes lore: their scheming and manipulation, their names, their personalities, their use of odd mounts and vehicles and keeping of strange “pets,” their fondness for weird objects. But it also presents two much more powerful varieties, along with new information with the potential to alter hag tactics: lair actions and alternative coven spells.
Arch-hags, called “grandmothers,” gain access to powerful lair actions, and their lairs have regional effects. As with dragons and other powerful enemies, the regional effects are mostly for flavor, and those that do actual damage do so whether the resident hags are present or not. But the lair actions include a few curveballs.
All grandmother hags have access to two of these lair actions. One allows them to pass through solid walls, doors, ceilings and floors. The other allows them to open or close doors and/or windows at will, and a closed door or window may be magically locked against any attempt to force it open. If a battle is taking place in a hag’s lair, this can allow the hag to trap weaker enemies inside the lair—or in a single room within the lair. Or enemies chasing the hag through its lair may be cut off from one another by the sudden slamming of a door (giving the hag—and, by extension, the dungeon master—incentive to create lairs that are mazes of small rooms connected by doors). Or, if a battle is going poorly for the hag, it can make its escape by fleeing through a wall, possibly leaving its would-be pursuers locked inside.
A sea hag normally prioritizes opponents who are engaging it in melee. The simulacrum lair action gives it a free opportunity, on alternating rounds, to engage non-frightened opponents beyond melee reach with a doppelgänger made of seaweed and other coastal trash. Each of these simulacra lasts from initiative count 20 in one round until initiative count 20 in the next round, so it will have only one opportunity to get a hit in before it falls apart. The ideal candidate for a simulacrum is a “glass cannon”—an opponent who can dish out a lot more damage than he or she can take—since the simulacrum gets all the original’s offensive stats (minus those that depend on his or her weapon or other equipment). Alternatively, if the sea hag is about to flee, it may create a simulacrum to run interference while it escapes.
A grandmother sea hag can also obscure an underwater area with ink that she can see through but others can’t, rendering them effectively blinded. But this depends on a couple of things. First, the lair has to be underwater, and the hag’s opponents must be fighting it there. Onshore, this lair action has no effect. Second, it’s no good if the lair is in a river, an ocean or sea, or a lake large enough to experience tides (such as the Great Lakes of North America), because the current will wash the ink away after just half a round. In such circumstances, the sea hag can use the ink to cover its escape only if it takes its turn before initiative count 10.
A grandmother green hag can create an illusory duplicate that can’t take actions or reactions but can interact with physical objects. It must remain within sight of the hag; if line of sight is broken, the double vanishes. This is tactically problematic for a few reasons. First, no one who sees what happens can mistake the double for the original (although the act of handling a physical object may create enough doubt in anyone who observes it to pose the question of whether the double is something more than just an illusion). Second, since the hag must keep it in view, the double can’t stand in for the hag while it makes an escape. Third, the double can’t fight, cast a spell, Dodge an incoming blow or even Dash to move more quickly. Fourth, a single point of damage dispels it. It’s an interesting ability to have, but it’s so situational that I can’t think of a general case that would trigger the use of it. Maybe it could be used to momentarily lead pursuers in the wrong direction?
Grandmother night hags have two extra lair actions. One is to banish a creature to a “prison demiplane” for a single round. The other is to fling up to three creatures through the air. Once again, we have an odd disconnect between the hag’s power and its modus operandi. Of the three basic varieties of hag, the night hag is the one most likely to be encountered outside its lair, as it roams in search of victims to corrupt. A night hag poised over a sleeping victim that’s caught in the act would naturally love to be able to banish that witness to another plane or chuck him or her across the room, but these actions are available to the night hag only on its own turf. So these otherwise fitting abilities are nothing more than a couple of extra home-defense mechanisms, applicable only in one highly specific scenario: The player characters are hunting down a grandmother night hag (not just an ordinary one) in her own lair. And if they’ve pursued it that far, why won’t it just abandon ship altogether with plane shift as soon as it recognizes that the PCs are a real threat?
Man, so much of this is just extra complexity for not much payoff—and I haven’t even started on the alternative coven spell lists yet. The fifth-edition Monster Manual made me appreciate hags as an enemy in a way I never had before. Volo’s is making me think, “They’re interesting, but not this interesting.” It seems to be written for DMs who build entire campaigns around hag encounters. Are there many of those?
Sigh. Digression over. All right, let’s suppose that your PCs are fighting a grandmother night hag in its own lair, and it has some reason not to bug out right away. Banishment: Use it against the opponent who has the most robust action economy (Extra Attack, bonus actions, etc.) in order to stall for time. The night hag’s Intelligence is 16, high enough for it to be able to figure out who this is after just one round of combat, but not high enough for it to be able to make this assessment before combat begins. Therefore, this lair action will be used in round 2 or later. Fling: Use it to scatter melee opponents when surrounded, to make a quick end of frailer foes, or both. Range doesn’t matter. Requires a Con save, so the hag probably won’t try it on dwarves or barbarians. Volo’s doesn’t say this ability can be aimed, but it doesn’t say it can’t, either, so I’d say that flung enemies can and should be flung out windows whenever feasible. Whether those windows are open or not.
The two new hag varieties introduced in Volo’s are the annis hag and the bheur (pronounced vay-ur) hag. These are much more powerful than ordinary hags, even night hags. They’re not for low-level PCs.
Annis hags have mental abilities comparable to green hags’, but physically, they’re much stronger—even stronger than night hags. They have resistance to physical damage from nonmagical weapons as well as to cold damage. In their normal form, they’re Large creatures, but they can disguise themselves to appear Medium-size. (This is an innately cast disguise self spell, not the night hag’s Change Shape feature, so it takes no time to drop if the annis hag chooses.)
Annis hags aren’t stealthy. They are thick-skinned (natural AC 17!), but their standout ability is their extraordinary Strength. Their preference is to end a fight as fast and violently as possible. Consequently, they’ll favor their ferocious claw/claw/bite Multiattack over the slower Crushing Hug.
Crushing Hug requires a close read, because it doesn’t act the same way that some grappling attacks do. An enemy caught by Crushing Hug is not restrained, only grappled. Its movement speed is 0, but it can fight back, without disadvantage. Nor does the annis hag have advantage on attacks against a Crushing Hug victim—in fact, it can’t attack at all while it’s crushing a foe. It can only continue the Crushing Hug. If it wants to claw or bite the victim, or someone else, it has to let go first. There’s no combo attack here.
However, the annis hag is surprisingly fast. Its base movement speed is 40 feet, so it can close unexpectedly with opponents who might believe themselves to be out of reach. In this case, an annis hag may choose to bust out a surprise Crushing Hug against an elusive or otherwise annoying opponent before he or she can get away. Oh, also, this grapple works against Large creatures as well as Medium and Small, and an annis hag isn’t above giving a Crushing Hug to a rider’s mount. Yep. The annis hag will attack Horsey—and probably kill Horsey in one hug. What part of “chaotic evil” was unclear?
With their high AC and resistance to normal weapons, they’re not going to have any fear of fighters, even those with Extra Attacks. They’ll have it in for spellcasters, though, and this includes paladins, who like to cast smite spells and enchant people’s weapons and stuff. In fact, annis hags will probably target those goody-two-shoes crusaders out of spite and malice as well as threat assessment.
The fact that they’re violent brutes doesn’t mean they’re mindless or reckless, however. Their Wisdom, at 14, is high enough for them to know when the odds are against them, and they won’t willingly fight such a battle—alone. If they’re not caught by surprise, they’ll come to the fight with enough ogre or troll minions to tilt the encounter in their favor. And if they’re moderately wounded (reduced to 52 hp or fewer) despite the favorable odds, they’ll cast fog cloud to cover their retreat—and leave their stupid minions behind.
Bheur hags are different from other hags. Most distinctively, they’re not brutes. With their high Dexterity and merely above-average Strength, and with no resistance to bludgeoning, piercing or slashing damage, bheur hags prefer to keep their distance from their opponents. They’re proficient in Stealth and can walk and climb across ice without inconvenience or penalty, and they’ll take advantage of this, engaging with their opponents on treacherous, icy ground whenever possible.
With its graystaff, a bheur hag can fly (speed: 50 feet), or it can cast one of several extra spells, but it can’t do both at the same time: it has to be seated on the staff to fly on it, and it has to hold the staff in its hands to cast spells with it. There are loopholes here, though. For instance, there’s nothing stopping a bheur hag from flying 50 feet, landing and using the staff to cast a spell within a single round, or from casting a spell, mounting the staff and flying 50 feet on it. It can also Dash while airborne, flying twice as far; use another object; or even make a Slam attack. What it can’t do is fly 50 feet, remain in the air and cast a spell before flying another 50 feet. If it’s going to cast a spell with the graystaff, it has to land first.
The bheur hag always has access to ray of frost, but this does only 1d8 damage, less than its melee attack, so it strongly prefers to use its graystaff to cast spells. Cone of cold is the gold standard here: the bheur hag will always prefer this spell as long as it can catch six of its foes (or all of them, if there are fewer than six) within the area of effect. If it has five or more opponents, and it can catch four of them within a 20-foot radius, it will cast ice storm. A pair of particularly threatening melee opponents less than 20 feet from each other will be trapped under a dome-shaped wall of ice, whereas if there’s only one opponent who seems dangerously chargy-bashy, the bheur hag will use hold person on him or her.
A note about Maddening Feast: The flavor text notes, “When a bheur hag his fully in the throes of combat and has recently slain one of her foes, she often forgoes a direct attack on her remaining enemies and instead takes a moment to feed on the corpse.” OK, but look carefully at the stat block wording: “The hag feasts on the corpse of one enemy within 5 feet of her that died within the past minute” (emphasis mine). A PC reduced to 0 hp is not necessarily dead, merely unconscious (Player’s Handbook, page 197). The bheur hag won’t swoop in and start snacking unless the PC has been instantly killed or until he or she has failed three death saving throws. Consequently, you won’t often use this feature, unless the unfortunate meal-to-be is a non-player character destined to die for this purpose. And when you do, it needn’t last more than one turn.
Bheur hags in a coven that cast eyebite will favor the panic option, since they want to keep their opponents at a distance. That the frightened opponent has disadvantage on attacks against the hag casting the spell is icing on the cake. Aside from counterspell, however, they’ll generally eschew their coven spells in favor of their graystaffs’ spells, with one exception: one bheur hag in the coven may cast hold person, boosted to 5th level, to pin clustered opponents in place so that its sister hags can repeatedly pelt them with cone of cold or ice storm.
A bheur hag will flee when seriously injured (reduced to 36 hp or fewer), mounting its graystaff and flying away, using the Dodge action to avoid incoming attacks.
This is already awfully long, so I’m going to save my look at alternative coven spells for a subsequent post.