Recently, I was asked by a reader to look at ogre tactics. There’s a reason why I haven’t touched on ogres before now, and that’s that ogres basically have no tactics. They’re dumb, simple brutes. With many monsters, simply throwing them at player characters and having them go “Rrrraaaahhhh, stab stab stab” (or in this case, “bash bash bash”) falls far short of what those monsters are capable of at their best. With ogres, at least ordinary ones, it’s all they’re capable of.
But Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes includes several ogre variants that are, in fact, worth examining. What you have to remember, though, is that these ogres are never going to appear on their own, nor solely in the company of other ogres. These are semi-domesticated ogres used by other species as trained warbeasts. They use their special features only when commanded to. Thus, it’s the Intelligence of the trainer, not of the ogre, that influences how effectively they’re used.
In the stat block of the basic ogre, there are only two details that a dungeon master not accustomed to tactical thinking might overlook (by now, they should be obvious to any regular reader of this blog).
First, they have 60 feet of darkvision. This means that an ogre will prefer to fight in dim light or darkness. It doesn’t mean that an ogre won’t fight in daylight, or even that it won’t start a fight in daylight. But it only goes hunting at night. If an ogre encounter happens at night, it’s because the ogre found the PCs. If it happens outside during the day, it’s because the PCs found the ogre.
Second, they do have both a melee attack and a ranged attack. But with extraordinary Strength, very high Constitution and subpar Dexterity, ogres are melee fighters by both nature and inclination. Plus, their melee greatclub does more damage than their ranged javelin. Therefore, an ogre will use a javelin only when it has enough movement to get between 10 and 30 feet from an opponent, but no closer.
Despite being categorized as giants, ogres are basically predatory beasts in a vaguely humanoid shape. If they have the chance to choose a target—all other things being approximately equal, that is—they’ll try to pick off the smallest and weakest first, or one who’s isolated from his or her companions. Otherwise, they’re indiscriminate.
The ogre battering ram variant has two actions, Bash and Block the Path. Bash, a straightforward melee attack that also includes pushback, is the default. Block the Path is a situational action used to lock down chokepoints, forcing opponents to approach within the ogre’s reach to get past it. It confers disadvantage on attempts to attack the ogre, but more important, once an enemy creature comes within reach of the ogre, it possesses a Sentinel-like ability to keep that creature from getting away, plus massive bonus damage on its opportunity attacks. You come at the ogre battering ram, you best not miss. (Curiously, despite the name, this variant appears to be more suited to defense than to offense.)
The ogre bolt launcher variant can attack with its fists or employ a ranged weapon attack that does impressive damage from an impressive distance. The trouble is, even with its increased Dex, it’s still a brute at heart. If a single, unaccompanied enemy happens to come within the ogre bolt launcher’s sight, have it make a Wisdom saving throw. If it succeeds, it stays on task. If it fails, it forgets its job, drops its weapon, Dashes at the enemy and starts pummeling him or her.
The ogre chain brute is for area control, and its handlers have to be careful, because when it starts whirling its chain around, every creature within 10 feet of it has a chance of getting smacked. The preferred attack action, by far, is Chain Smash: it does the most damage and can knock an enemy unconscious. But it recharges only on a 6, so it’s kind of a waste to use it without setting it up first, and the way to set it up is Chain Sweep. On the other hand, Chain Sweep is kind of a waste if the chain brute can’t hit at least two enemies with it. Finally, there’s Fist, a simple melee attack that does marginally more damage, on average, against a single opponent than Chain Sweep does. But Fist puts the burden of proof on the attacker and does no damage on a miss, while Chain Sweep puts it on the defender and does damage even on a success.
If the chain brute’s handler is none too bright, you can use these abilities however. But if it knows what it’s doing, it will command the chain brute to use Chain Sweep only when it can strike two or more non-prone enemies with it and Chain Smash only when it can use it against a prone opponent, to maximize its chance to hit. Under any other circumstance, it commands the chain brute to attack with its fist. If the chain brute runs out of conscious enemies, it keeps pummeling the unconscious ones as long as it isn’t commanded to move.
The ogre howdah’s only weapon is its mace. This variant’s unique feature is Howdah, which grants several Small creatures the ability to ride on its back and attack from three-fourths cover. As the illustration in Mordenkainen’s suggests, these are most likely to be goblins, but other options include kobolds, derro, deep gnomes, grungs and xvarts (although, personally, I think it would be out of character for grungs or xvarts to employ an ogre in this way). The riders can make ranged attacks from the ogre howdah’s back, but the ogre wants to smash, so have it make a Wisdom save, as described above, to see whether it can resist the urge to charge. If the riders want to make melee attacks from its back, they have to use either polearms, lances, whips or spears, and they can’t reach beyond the ogre howdah’s immediate vicinity. In this instance, they direct the ogre howdah where they want to go, and the ogre attacks opportunistically.
With a Wisdom of only 7, an ogre—even a trained one—doesn’t have the good sense to run away when it’s seriously wounded. Once it starts fighting, it keeps fighting until it’s dead.