As I mentioned in my last post, Volo’s Guide to Monsters offers three alternatives to the conventionally witchy hag coven spell repertoire. One is necromantic, one is nature-oriented, and one plays up the divination angle at the expense of the maledictory. These can be used with any variety of hag, although green hags and bheur hags seem more likely to form covens than the other three varieties, which strike me as more exclusively solitary.
Although the Prophecy list seems relatively benign compared with Death, Nature or the default list—and even Nature seems like it could go either way—hags are not your friends. Any prophetic services you get from a hag are going to come at a steep cost, and they’re going to enjoy watching you pay it.
The Prophecy list is distinctive in another way: It offers almost no tactical advantages or combinations. Arcane eye lets the coven hunt down a fleeing or hiding foe, perhaps, and dispel magic’s utility is straightforward, but bane and bless are low-power spells that have to be sustained (and why would a hag want to bless anybody, even one of its sister hags?), and all the other spells in this repertoire are either rituals or strictly divination. Not only are these coven spells more suited to social interaction encounters than combat encounters, a hag coven assembling for this purpose is probably doing so for reasons entirely their own, and they may not even be casting these spells in front of your player characters.
The Nature list, on the other hand, can prove to be a tactical nightmare for the hags’ opponents. About the only thing working in those opponents’ favor is that so many of these spells require concentration. But there are three hags casting these spells, and each one can sustain a separate spell (although they share their spell slots), so combos are possible that would be impossible for a single caster.
- Wall of thorns is a concentration spell that can impede movement and does instantaneous damage when it’s cast, requiring a Dexterity saving throw to reduce.
- Insect plague is a concentration spell that does continuous damage within a spherical area of effect on a failed Constitution save. It also creates difficult terrain, slowing creatures that move through it.
- Tree stride allows a hag to travel up to 500 feet, but as soon as it’s more than 30 feet from its sister hags, the spell ends immediately. Why? Because three hags must all be within 30 feet of one another to have access to coven spells. They can use this spell to confound opponents by popping from tree to tree in a dense wood or orchard, always staying close to their sister hags, but only a seriously wounded hag will use this spell to escape a battle entirely, breaking the coven and abandoning its sisters.
- Dominate beast is about the single meanest thing you can do to a Beastmaster ranger, so of course that’s exactly what a hag will use it for. Alternatively, it might order a mount to throw its rider, a pet to attack its master, etc.
- Grasping vine is a concentration spell that yanks a target creature 20 feet toward the root square or hex on a failed Dex save. It’s also cast as a bonus action, so it can be combined with an Attack action—or with another hag’s spell.
- Call lightning is a concentration spell that does damage each round, requiring a failed Dex save to reduce.
- Plant growth is an instantaneous spell that creates overgrown terrain over an enormous area of effect. This is superb for impeding pursuers.
- Flaming sphere is a concentration spell that enhances the hag’s action economy by providing a damaging bonus action each round; moreover, after the first round, this bonus action can be combined with casting a leveled spell, since flaming sphere has already been cast. A failed Dex save is required to reduce the damage.
- Moonbeam is a concentration spell that does continuous damage within a narrow radius on a failed Con save. It does not enhance the hag’s action economy—on the contrary, it’s a drag on it, because moving the moonbeam requires a full action.
- Spike growth is a concentration spell that creates difficult, damaging terrain over a 20-foot radius. The damage is automatic, not subject to an attack roll or a saving throw.
- Entangle is the combo ingredient we’ve been missing: a concentration spell that creates difficult terrain across a 20-foot square and restrains creatures in that square on a failed Strength save. Restrained creatures have disadvantage on Dex saves, attack with disadvantage and can be attacked with advantage. They also can’t go anywhere.
- Speak with animals is the only spell in this list that isn’t combat-relevant.
Thus, one hag can cast entangle on two or more enemies (“Targets in Area of Effect,” Dungeon Master’s Guide, page 249) while its sister hags cast call lightning and flaming sphere, which enemies restrained by entangle will be at a disadvantage trying to avoid. (The hag that casts flaming sphere will be at liberty to cast another spell on its next action, though not another one that requires concentration—not if it wants to keep flaming sphere going.) Or one hag can cast entangle and another cast grasping vine to yank an unlucky victim out of the weeds and attack him or her. Or one can cast spike growth and another follow up with plant growth, creating spiky terrain that not only does damage but also takes four times as much effort to escape from. Adding entangle to this combo means that even an enemy who escapes his or her bonds will still have a devil of a time going anyplace else, and the hag that cast plant growth is free to cast call lightning or flaming sphere while its sisters sustain spike growth and entangle. (Plant growth’s area of effect is so large, it completely encloses call lightning’s, so if the hags don’t want you to escape the storm, you’re not going to escape it.)
Moonbeam and insect plague, on the other hand, don’t combine especially well with the other spells on this list and will probably be used singly and situationally. Wall of thorns, because the entire coven has only the one 6th-level spell slot, is more valuable as an exit-strategy spell than as part of a combat combo.
The Death list offers less tactical flexibility:
- Circle of death (which really should be called “sphere of death”) is an instantaneous damaging spell requiring a Constitution save to reduce the damage.
- Contagion is a touch-required spell requiring an attack roll and imposing disadvantage on skill checks and saving throws based on one ability. Obviously, Dexterity, Constitution and Wisdom—the “big three”—have the potential to cause the most harm over subsequent rounds, as well as over the long term.
- Raise dead is a ritual that takes one hour to cast, so it’s not going to be happening in combat. If the PCs encounter a hag coven shortly after they’ve cast this spell, note the penalties that the until-recently deceased suffers on his or her rolls.
- Blight is an instantaneous damaging spell requiring a Constitution save to reduce the damage; unlike circle of death, blight affects only a single target.
- Death ward is a spell a coven hag is unlikely to cast on another creature, unless some kind of bargain is struck, but seems plenty likely to cast on itself. Is pre-casting this spell the best use of a 4th- or 5th-level spell slot? I’m not sure. Perhaps a hag would cast it as a prophylactic measure upon being moderately wounded.
- Animate dead is a ritual that takes one minute to cast and requires the presence of a corpse. Rather than have a hag cast this during combat, it probably makes more sense to simply have it accompanied by a skeleton or zombie from the get-go and subtract the spell slot.
- Revivify might be cast by a hag as part of a bargain, but I doubt it would happen in combat, unless the hags were accompanied by some kind of beast or monster servant that was slain during the encounter.
- Speak with dead has no combat application, unless the objective of the combat is to kill someone to prevent the hag coven from getting information from him or her.
- Gentle repose is a spell the PCs are more likely to want to cast than a hag is.
- Ray of enfeeblement is a concentration spell requiring a ranged spell attack roll. A successful Con save terminates it.
- False life is an oddity that a hag in a death coven might cast prophylactically upon being moderately wounded or worse. The effect is modest, though, and the hag might be better off simply casting . . .
- Inflict wounds, or as we call it, “the Bad Touch.” It requires a spell attack roll and does no damage on a miss, but the damage from a hit is substantial.
Note what’s missing here: anything that directly inflicts a debilitating condition. The closest thing to this is contagion, and since the death coven’s necrotic spells require Con saves to resist, the most logical choice of disease is slimy doom. Now, this does impose a debilitating condition under one narrow circumstance: “In addition, whenever the creature takes damage, it is stunned until the end of its next turn.” A stunned creature can’t take actions or reactions and automatically fails Strength and Dex saves, and attack rolls against the stunned creature have advantage.
Therefore, contagion, in the form of slimy doom, is the death coven hag’s spell of first resort. Against a character who has succumbed to the disease, the other hags in the coven follow up with blight if he or she isn’t stunned yet, inflict wounds (with advantage, and boosted to 3rd level if a slot is available) if he or she is. (Ray of enfeeblement could work in lieu of blight but isn’t nearly as good; a hag will cast ray only if the coven is out of 4th- and 5th-level spell slots, or against a Strength-based melee fighter with Extra Attack.) Circle of death is a last-resort spell that a hag will cast when it’s seriously injured, just before fleeing—and without regard for whether its sister hags are in the area of effect. Hags simply aren’t good team players.
Next: mind flayers, revisited.