Thoughts on Building Encounters

If you’re a dungeon master, you have a choice of running your players through published adventures such as Storm King’s Thunder, Curse of Strahd and the Tyranny of Dragons duology, or writing your own material from scratch. I’ve usually taken the latter approach, although with my current players—a group of mostly newcomers to Dungeons and Dragons—I’ve opted for a mix, starting them off with The Lost Mine of Phandelver, then a homebrew quickie, then Tyranny of Dragons peppered with personal sidequests.

Published adventures often give little or no guidance on how monsters—especially ones in random encounters—ought to behave, and occasionally, what guidance they give is inconsistent with what would be optimal, given a monster’s abilities and features. So a large part of my motivation behind writing this blog has been to provide that guidance, so that other DMs don’t have to figure it out on the fly, potentially resulting in lackluster encounters.

But when you’re writing your own material, you have all kinds of freedom. You decide what environments the player characters will travel through. You decide what villains they’ll fight, what those villains’ plans are and what kind of minions those villains will have. You decide what kind of help and hindrances the PCs will encounter along the way. And here’s a point of underrated importance: You draw the maps. (more…)

Xvart Tactics

Xvarts are tricky to devise tactics for, because their ability scores, their features and their Volo’s Guide to Monsters flavor text all seem to be at odds with one another. Their ability scores suggest Dexterity-focused sniping and shock attacks. Their Overbearing Pack feature suggests a reliance on shoving opponents prone, presumably to be followed up with melee attacks (both of which depend on Strength). And the flavor text states that they attack primarily to abduct, which implies grappling. There is a solution, but it’s tricky.

Xvarts move at the normal humanoid speed of 30 feet per round. Their Strength is low, and their Constitution merely average, so they’re anti-brutes—averse to melee slugfests. Xvarts will necessarily seek strength in numbers—and allies, specifically giant rats and giant bats. Giant rats make particularly good allies for xvarts, because of their Pack Tactics feature; giant bats, however, are tougher and more challenging. A xvart encounter should include, at a minimum, two xvarts per player character, plus an animal ally for every two xvarts.

Xvarts are neither smart nor wise. They have no ability to adapt if their favored strategy doesn’t work, and they may not be particularly quick to notice that it isn’t working. However, unlike the usual low-Wisdom monster, which waits too long to run away, xvarts are cowardly; if anything, they’ll run away prematurely from encounters that actually favor them. The Low Cunning feature gives them Disengage as a bonus action, but this represents instinctive evasive ability, not discipline. (more…)

Sahuagin Tactics

Sahuagin are fierce, amphibious fish-men that live underwater but emerge periodically to raid coastal settlements. Although the Monster Manual says they “dwell in the deepest trenches of the ocean,” that’s a bit far for even a creature with a 40-foot swimming speed. Those ocean trenches are as far from the coasts as the highest mountains are, and you don’t often hear about the yeti of the Himalayas spending an afternoon staging a raid on Kolkata, or the Tatzelwürmer of the Alps popping down to Genoa for some late-night ravaging. These are distances of hundreds of miles we’re talking about. So chances are, any sahuagin that player characters encounter are going to be denizens of shallower depths. Maybe they’re the border reivers of the ocean kingdom.

When they come ashore to raid, they do so at night, as implied by their 120 feet of darkvision. They can’t come far inland, since their Limited Amphibiousness gives them only four hours of air breathing before they have to return to the water. Unlike, say, merrows, sahuagin can move about on land as easily as any other humanoid.

In this environment, they’re basic brutes. Their Multiattack gives them one weapon or claw attack and one bite attack. Since their armor class doesn’t include a shield, we can presume that they wield their spears two-handed for the greater damage. (more…)

Kirin Tactics

The kirin (inexplicably hyphenated “ki-rin” in Dungeons and Dragons products going all the way back to the original D&D book Eldritch Wizardry, which preceded even Advanced Dungeons and Dragons—kirin, unhyphenated, is a Japanization of the Chinese 麒麟 qílín) is a mythical creature whose appearance portends the births and deaths of great rulers and sages. A deerlike beast with scaly skin, grand antlers and dragonish facial features, the kirin is often characterized in Western writing as the “Japanese unicorn” or “Chinese unicorn” because of its virtuousness and standoffishness and because it’s sometimes depicted as having a single horn rather than a pair of antlers. The link is reinforced in fifth-edition D&D, as both unicorns and kirin are categorized as celestials.

Kirin are reclusive, and being lawful good, they prefer to avoid violent encounters. Combat with a kirin is going to take place in only two instances: Either a player character has attacked the kirin, or the kirin is fending off an intrusion by an intrinsically evil creature, such as a fiend or undead.

A kirin’s extraordinary Strength is nearly matched by its Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma, making it one of the few creatures that’s equally well-suited to melee combat and spellcasting. With proficiency in Perception, it’s hard to catch by surprise, and with proficiency in Insight, it knows which of its opponents are genuinely hostile and which are simply misguided. (more…)

Couatl Tactics

The couatl is rarely encountered in Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, partly because of its distinctly Mesoamerican flavor (most campaign settings remain hardily quasi-European) and partly because of its lawful good alignment (good monsters make bad enemies), but the winged, feathered serpent has been part of the game since the first Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual. In fifth edition, it’s categorized as a celestial.

Couatls have exceptional ability scores across the board, but their Dexterity and Wisdom are especially extraordinary. Their mental ability scores are higher on average than their physical ability scores, suggesting a preference for spellcasting over messy tooth-and-claw conflict (though their spell repertoire turns out not to support this preference especially well). Their 30-foot slithering speed is put to shame by their 90-foot flying speed; this, plus an awesome natural armor class of 19 and an immunity to physical damage from nonmagical weapons, implies that if they do engage in physical combat, they’ll most often hover in the air, dive-bomb their targets, then fly back out of reach without concern for opportunity attacks. (more…)