Dodge, Dash or Disengage?

My post–high school Advanced Dungeons and Dragons group had a running joke—OK, we had about 600 running jokes, but one of them was that for any given encounter situation, there were always a plan A and a plan B. Plan A was “Get ’em!” Plan B was “Run!”

Fifth-edition D&D, with its inclusion of opportunity attacks, has made it curiously challenging to execute plan B.

This isn’t a brand-new concept. It existed in D&D version 3.5 and fourth edition, and many other tactical games, both tabletop and computer, incorporate opportunity attacks. But because of the turn-based nature of these games, a combatant who wants to retreat is confronted with a difficult and unpleasant choice: If the combatant uses his or her action to Disengage, then uses his or her full movement speed to retreat, the opponent can use its full movement speed to close the distance again, then use its action to Attack. But if the combatant uses his or her action to Dash, he or she risks getting struck by an opportunity attack upon leaving the opponent’s zone of control.


Mimic Tactics

Since the days of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the mimic has been one of the dirtiest tricks a dungeon master can pull on incautious players: a “door” or (usually) “treasure chest” that turns out to be a carnivorous monster. How on earth could such a thing evolve? At some point in prehistory, the mimic’s ancestors must have disguised themselves as natural objects, using octopus-like camouflage, only later adopting the forms of manmade objects after exposure to humanoid beings. This suggests a unique, specialized intelligence, akin to the ability of parrots and certain other birds to mimic speech . . . but one that’s used to lure and capture prey.

With strong physical ability scores across the board but especially high Strength and Constitution, the mimic is a “brute” creature adapted to close-range fighting. Yet it also has high proficiency in Stealth, along with darkvision: this is an ambush predator as much at home underground as aboveground. It has a sticky surface with which to ensnare its prey and advantage on attacks against any creature it’s caught this way.

The mimic’s particular combination of features is so calculated, there’s really only one way for it to behave: (more…)

Flameskull Tactics

Flameskulls weren’t among the original undead creatures of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons; they existed only in supplementary material until the fourth edition of D&D, when they first appeared in the Monster Manual. I can’t help thinking of them as being comical and cartoony (It’s a skull! That’s on fire! And hovering! And talking to you!), but in fact they can be a dangerous foe, especially to low-level characters.

Being undead, they have to be saddled with some sort of compulsion. Following the fifth-edition MM flavor text, their compulsion is obedience—specifically, to their duty of protecting a place, item or person. Because they’re bound to this duty, they have no self-preservation impulse; if they must fight, they fight till they’re destroyed.

And as it happens, it’s tough to destroy a flameskull: its Rejuvenation feature causes it to re-form, fully healed, one hour after being reduced to 0 hp, unless its fragments are sterilized with holy water or a dispel magic or remove curse spell. So an unhappy party of adventurers may vanquish a flameskull in order to entire a forbidden area, only to find that they have to fight it again on their way out. (Of course, this raises the question of whether a flameskull that’s sworn to keep them out of a place has any duty to keep them from leaving that place once they’ve already been in it. Play that one as it lies, dungeon master.)


Doppelgänger Tactics

Invasion of the body snatchers! Doppelgängers are shapeshifting humanoids (though the fifth-edition Monster Manual categorizes them not as humanoids but as monstrosities) that take on the appearance of other beings for fiendish purposes.

Doppelgängers have high Constitution and extremely high Dexterity, making them scrappy fighters. Their self-preservation instinct is strong, and they’re unusual among monsters in having a high Charisma, along with proficiency in Deception and Insight. They can’t be charmed, they can Read Thoughts, and they have the Ambusher and Surprise Attack features in addition to their Shapechanger power. All these abilities synergize to make the doppelgänger a sucker-puncher par excellence.


NPC Tactics: Tribal Warriors and Berserkers

I have a bone to pick with the fifth-edition Monster Manual’s description of the tribal warrior, as well as the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide’s description of the Reghed and Uthgardt barbarians. In brief, the repeated insistence that these people defer to a chief (“the greatest or oldest warrior of the tribe or a tribe member blessed by the gods”) is based on ignorance of the difference between bands and tribes on the one hand and chiefdoms on the other, and of the egalitarian nature of traditional societies.

Every dungeon master who aspires to any degree of coherent world-building needs to be a Jared Diamond aficionado. His best-known book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, examines the factors that cause certain societies to advance technologically and socially faster than others (spoiler: abundant access to high-protein staple grains, easily domesticated animals and long east-west trade routes gives a people a major leg up). His book Collapse examines the factors that cause societies to stagnate or go extinct: environmental degradation, changing climate, hostile neighbors, lack of friendly trading partners and overly rigid ideology. And his most recent book, The World Until Yesterday, examines the features of traditional societies that set them apart from modern ones.