Beholder Tactics

Our current Dungeons and Dragons group got together after one of my wife’s coworkers cattily referred to a client as “someone who looks like he’d play Dungeons and Dragons in his mom’s basement,” and another of them retorted, “I would totally play Dungeons and Dragons.” He ended up being the host of our weekly sessions.

Why do I mention this? Because the beholder is such an iconic D&D monster that our host—who knew hardly anything about the game before we began playing—told me near the beginning of our campaign, “All I want is to run into an ‘eye of the beholder,’ and I’ll be happy.”

The beholder is an aberration—a magically summoned creature of extraplanar origin—with a hateful, avaricious and territorial temperament. It has little purpose in life beyond guarding its chosen turf. Though not strong, it has powerful mental abilities along with a high Dexterity and very high Constitution, protecting it against all of the “big three” types of saving throws. As you’d expect from a floating blob with a giant central eye, its Perception skill is through the roof; it also has darkvision out to 120 feet. It has an innate ability to hover, so it can never be knocked prone.

At melee range, it has a bite attack, but the beholder’s trump card is its Eye Rays, which emanate from the many smaller eyes at the end of stalks extending from its body. These rays have a range of 120 feet, enough to keep trespassers at a distance for two to five combat rounds. It can also project an Antimagic Cone from its central eye, but this ability is problematic, as we’ll see in a moment.

Finally, a beholder in its lair has access to three lair actions: slippery slime on the floor, grasping appendages flailing from the walls and random beholder eyes appearing on nearby surfaces. And a beholder encounter almost always happens in its lair.

The beholder is aggressive, malicious and antisocial, so when trespassers appear, it’s not going to indulge any attempt to negotiate passage—it’s going to attack immediately.


Nothic Tactics

In fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, “aberrations” are monsters that come from somewhere other than the material world that the player characters inhabit—from other planes or even other universes. We can still presume that they’ve evolved, although the conditions they’ve evolved in may be very different from our own, and that they still behave in ways that further their own survival, whatever powers or alien thought processes they may possess.

The nothic is categorized in the 5E Monster Manual as an aberration, although based on its flavor text, it seems like it belongs more in the category of “monstrosity,” which includes beings created by magic: nothics are described as onetime wizards whose avarice for secret knowledge led to their being cursed by the lich Vecna. This “origin story” seems to make them cousins to the undead as well. Since monstrosities and undead are not evolved creatures, it’s hard to say whether nothics should play by the usual rules of natural selection or not. I’m going to examine them as weird hybrids that follow those rules sometimes but are also subject to undead-esque compulsion.


Ooze Tactics

After all the time I spent trying to figure out tactics for mummy lords and liches, I’m taking it easy on myself today and talking about oozes—those barely intelligent, probably nonsentient, subterranean amoeboids.

The fifth-edition Monster Manual claims that oozes “have no sense of tactics or self-preservation,” but I can’t buy the second half of that. They may be “drawn to movement and warmth,” but even an amoeba will move away from an electric current. Despite the lore that oozes originated as fragments of the demon lord Juiblex, I’m going to treat them as evolved beings, akin to slime molds—scavengers that exist as part of the subterranean ecosystem.

The MM lists four types of oozes: the gray ooze, the ochre jelly, the black pudding and the gelatinous cube. All of them have several things in common: negligible Intelligence and Charisma (the ochre jelly, with Intelligence 2, is the genius of the bunch), low Dexterity and Wisdom, high Constitution, an acidic pseudopod attack and 60 feet of blindsight. Also, all but the gelatinous cube are Amorphous and can climb walls.


Undead Tactics: Liches

The lich (rhymes with “itch,” not “ick” or German ich) stands out not only as the alpha undead creature going all the way back to the days of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons but also as the only type of undead creature that’s undead because it wanted to be. It’s what you get when a wizard decides he or she wants to be immortal, reads the fine print on the contract, and says, “Yeah, I’m down with that.” To become a lich to begin with, a wizard must necessarily be monomaniacal, as well as malicious, sadistic and/or vengeful, and the transformation of undeath intensifies these traits. A wizard who becomes a lich must also necessarily be a genius and a world-class spellcaster, and the lich retains these traits as well.

Although it’s only as strong as an average humanoid, all of a lich’s other ability scores are exceptional, most of all its Intelligence. It gets sizable bonuses to Constitution, Intelligence and Wisdom saving throws (notice that two of the “big three” are in that bunch); resists cold, lightning and necrotic damage; and is immune to poison damage and to physical damage from nonmagical weapons. It can’t be charmed, frightened, paralyzed or poisoned, and it never suffers from exhaustion. It has truesight—the ability to see in darkness, into the ether, and through illusions, transmutations and invisibility—out to a range of 120 feet, along with a passive Perception of 19. And it’s proficient in both Perception and Insight, so not only does it notice you’re there, it knows what you want.

A lich receives additional, powerful lair actions when it’s encountered in its lair. Why, then, would it ever leave? Good question. It won’t, if it can help it. No lich will ever leave its lair unless it must, in order to do something that it can’t get an agent to do for it. Follow-up question: Who on earth would sign up to be an agent of a lich? Well, who on earth would sign up to be an agent of Adolf Hitler? The answer is, someone of like mind—in the case of a lich, another evil wizard hoping to gain access to its voluminous reservoir of arcane knowledge. Or someone who considers the lich’s long-term goals to be aligned with his or her own. Or someone who fears the lich’s power and hopes that he or she can earn privileged treatment by showing sufficient loyalty and obedience. (Spoiler: Not likely.) Or, barring all that, someone whom the lich has magically dominated. Agents of a lich must be powerful enough for it to consider them useful, and they’ll generally be ambitious enough for service to a lich to seem like a reasonable arrangement.


Undead Tactics: Vampires

I’m going to begin my discussion of vampires with a digression: Years ago, I read a book titled (I swear I’m not making this up) Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula: The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count. It was written by Loren Estleman in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle, and as I recall, it was less cheesy and far more entertaining than you might assume . . . although I don’t think I’ve read it since I was in college, so take that with a grain of salt.

Anyway, there’s one bit of that novel that sticks in my mind as being particularly cool: At one point, Dracula walks right into Holmes’ room, in the middle of the day, and Holmes expresses surprise that Dracula can go out in broad daylight. Oh, sure I can, Dracula says; it’s just that I don’t have any of my supernatural powers when I do.

I thought that was an interesting spin on vampire abilities. One of the crucial elements of horror is exploiting the fear of the unknown: we’re most afraid of a monster when we’re not sure what it is, what it can do or how far it can pursue us. One of the best ways to spice up a D&D game is to take familiar monsters and give them unfamiliar powers, or have the familiar powers manifest in unfamiliar ways. Trolls, for example, are great for this: use the variant that allows severed limbs to keep moving and even fighting independently, and have the troll periodically pick up its limbs and stick them back onto itself, and watch your players wig out. (You may already be aware that this version of the troll originated with a scene in Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson.)

It’s so taken for granted in our popular culture that vampires are burned by sunlight, the thought of a vampire who’s merely weakened by it, not hurt—let alone destroyed—would never occur to most of us. The vampire in the Monster Manual is the conventional burned-by-sunlight variety, but what if you removed that weakness and substituted one that merely disabled the vampire’s special features in daylight?

Try this sort of variation out—if not with a vampire, then with some other monster whose powers players assume they already know.