Personally, I’ve always tended to go in one of two directions with my Dungeons and Dragons adventures: either totally far-out, never-before seen, otherworldly strangeness; or the consequences of straightforward humanoid motivations—ambition, desperation, greed, envy, benevolence, revenge—played out on a fantasy backdrop. Consequently, I haven’t tended to incorporate many monsters that have been imported into D&D straight from classical or medieval mythology.
The lamia is one of those: originally a queen who dallied with Zeus and was cursed by Hera to devour first her own children and then the children of others; later a monster with the torso of a woman and the lower body of a serpent; and in the depiction of Edward Topsell, a 17th-century clergyman who fancied himself a naturalist, a creature with a woman’s head on a lion-like body covered with serpentine scales, finished off with human breasts and what looks like a horse’s tail. Recurring themes in lamia myths include seduction, gluttony, filth and bloodlust.
D&D’s lamias have their roots in Topsell’s interpretation. In Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the lamia was drawn as having leonine paws in front and cloven hooves in back, and was vaguely described as having the lower body of “a beast.” After several evolutions (including a mystifying fourth-edition departure in which it became a corpse animated by devoured souls transformed into insects), the fifth-edition lamia has returned to something near the original concept, with the nonspecific “beast” body now specifically the body of a lion, sans horse tail. These lamias, rather than slovenly and gluttonous, are smooth seducers, corrupters of virtue, and admirers of beauty and power.
Although its high Strength and Constitution, compared with its merely above-average Dexterity, suggest a brute, the lamia has high mental abilities as well; in fact, its ability contour strikes me as possibly the least spiky of any creature I’ve looked at, aside from the humanoid commoner. The fact that its two highest ability scores are in Strength and Charisma should make us consider that the lamia, behaviorally, is in a class by itself.
Lamias have proficiency in Insight and Stealth and double proficiency in Deception. This, together with their Charisma, implies that lamias are inclined to employ guile as much as brute force. It’s sort of a given that it’s easier to punch someone after fooling him has failed than it is to fool someone after punching him has failed, so manipulation is plan A, and melee combat is plan B.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the lamia’s unique feature, Intoxicating Touch. For one hour, a creature struck by this attack has disadvantage on Wisdom saving throws and all ability checks. The obvious application of this effect is to increase the target’s susceptibility to the lamia’s Deception and Insight skills and to charm person, suggestion and geas. (It reduces resistance to disguise self, too, but I’ll talk about the hitch in that in a moment.)
The funny thing is, the lamia’s Multiattack allows it to attack once with its claws and once with either its dagger or its Intoxicating Touch. It seems to me that if a lamia is attacking someone with its claws, it’s probably too late for it to get much mileage out of Intoxicating Touch. Much more likely is that it will use Intoxicating Touch by itself, well in advance of any outbreak of violence. Once combat has already ensued, what use can Intoxicating Touch have? It can impose disadvantage on grappling or on a rogue’s attempts to Hide. If the lamia has an ally with the command spell, it can make the target more susceptible to that. But really, if the lamia is already in melee combat with someone, the goal is no longer to bend him or her to its will. The goal at this point is to slash and stab.
Back to the lamia’s spellcasting—which is Innate Spellcasting, so there’s no boosting charm person to affect more than one target. Similarly, suggestion and geas affect only one target apiece. And you can’t really get away with casting any of these spells on someone when his or her friends are around. The upshot is, a lamia has to carefully control access to its presence.
The flavor text tells us, “These decadent monsters take what has been forgotten and make it the seat of their hedonistic rule, surrounding themselves with sycophants.” This means they’ll often be in a position to decide who gets to see them and who doesn’t. We can therefore conclude that a lamia will grant an audience to only one player character at a time. It will use disguise self to hide its monstrous nature, Deception to make it seem perfectly plausible that it’s walking up to the PC and caressing his or her face, Intoxicating Touch to lower the PC’s resistance, Insight to glean his or her intentions, and finally charm person or geas to bend the PC to its will. Once the PC is securely under the lamia’s control, it may then invite another PC in to receive the same treatment.
Disguise self can change a creature’s apparent height by no more than a foot, and lamias are Large creatures. This may be more a reflection of their length than their height; on the other hand, the Player’s Handbook explicitly describes Medium creatures as “roughly 4 to 8 feet tall,” implying that a Large creature must be larger than this.
Well, let’s think about it. A full-grown, real-life lion is between 4½ and 9 feet long, with the average adult lion being about 6 feet in length, more or less. This is long enough for the Monster Manual to characterize the lion as a Large beast (makes sense, since a single square or hex on a map grid is only 5 feet across), so we don’t need to assume that the leonine part of the lamia’s body is any larger than average for that animal.
An average lion is about 4 feet high at the shoulder, which is where the lamia’s torso joins the lion’s body. Based on the MM illustration, the torso joins the lion’s body about halfway between navel and crotch—almost exactly the vertical midpoint of the human figure. And based on that, it’s reasonable to imagine that if the bottom half of the lamia’s body is 4 feet high, so is the top half. Conclusion: The average lamia is 8 feet tall. The important thing to take away from this is that a lamia using a disguise self spell to appear as short as possible will still be around 7 feet tall, and that’s going to stand out.
So at least our PCs have a fair chance to figure out that there’s something unusual about this reclusive potentate. But they’d better make their DC 13 Intelligence (Investigation) check to figure out what exactly isn’t right about the situation before the lamia puts the whammy on them, because once its Intoxicating Touch takes effect, they’ll have to make that check with disadvantage.
A lamia resorts to violence only when its cover is irreparably blown, and even then, it has the Wisdom to try bargaining first if it sees that it’s outmatched. Its first action in combat is to cast mirror image, just because it can—if you can reduce incoming damage by 75 percent, surely that’s worth the cost of one turn’s worth of attacks. When the third duplicate is destroyed, the lamia casts mirror image again, and when the third of those duplicates is destroyed, it casts mirror image for the third and final time.
On every other of its turns, it makes a straightforward claw/dagger Multiattack (there’s no longer any point to using Intoxicating Touch). Lamias have enough Intelligence to assess opponents’ strengths and weaknesses accurately. Their own armor class is unexceptional, so opponents with Extra Attack are high priorities. Glass-cannon spellcasters are also attractive targets if they can be reached, since lamias deal an average of 20 hp of damage in a turn if both their hits land. Lamias will also want to destroy high-Wisdom opponents out of spite, but their Intelligence and Wisdom are high enough not to let this urge overcome their battlefield judgment.
Lamias will often be accompanied by minions, and as the battle unfolds, they’ll direct these minions wherever the need is greatest, i.e., at whichever opponents are attacking most effectively.
A lamia that’s seriously wounded (reduced to 38 hp or fewer) will attempt to surrender and bargain for its life. At this point, it’s worth considering what a lamia values most: beauty and power. Beauty is easy to come by, but power isn’t. A lamia will give up a great deal of treasure in order to keep its influential position. It’s more than willing to trade favors—scrying services, for example, or manpower from among its minions. It absolutely will not agree to even the smallest degree of public abasement, and it will yield control of territory only with the greatest reluctance. It also won’t readily release a slave or thrall, and it will offer all kinds of generous alternative proposals to avoid doing so. And remember, at bottom, lamias are covetous, unprincipled and scheming. If a lamia can avoid fulfilling its end of the bargain—or if it has any opening in which to turn the tables on the PCs—it will.
Finally, don’t assume that a lamia has to be feminine in appearance. Masculine lamias exist—and can be good fakeouts, if the PCs or their players don’t know they exist.