Will-o’-Wisp Tactics

In my earlier series on undead creatures, I skipped over the will-o’-wisp, the “devil lights” of swamps, marshes and desolate battlefields. In building will-effective o’-wisp encounters, it’s necessary to bear in mind the prime directive of horror: fear of the unknown. To create suspense, it’s best never to name the enemy that the heroes are facing, and to keep them in the dark about what it can do for as long as possible. The No. 1 way to spoil a will-o’-wisp encounter is to tell the players they see will-o’-wisps.

Will-o’-wisps are like fantasy UFOs: they can bob and hover in one place or move up to a zippy 50 feet per round. They’re immune to exhaustion, grappling, paralysis, poison, falling prone, restraint, unconsciousness and lightning damage, and they’re resistant to physical damage from nonmagical weapons along with several types of elemental damage. They have darkvision out to a range of 120 feet but shed their own light out to a range of between 10 and 40 feet, although they can also wink in and out of visibility.

Will-o’-wisps have no physical attack. Their Shock attack is a melee spell attack (Wisdom-based, by mathematical inference), and against unconscious opponents, they can follow it up with the nasty Consume Life feature, which has the potential to kill a player character outright. However, between their many resistances and immunities and their Dexterity of 28, which gives them an armor class of 19, they have nothing to fear from a melee attacker. They’re the rare high-Dex, low-Strength, average-Constitution monster that isn’t a ranged sniper and doesn’t need or even want to be. Continue reading Will-o’-Wisp Tactics

Lycanthrope Tactics

Werebeasts, a.k.a. lycanthropes, are wonderful enemies. A werebeast encounter can be awesome action or tragic drama. Werebeasts lend themselves perfectly to horror-mystery adventures, in which the players have no idea which of the villagers is the true villain. They threaten to transmit their lycanthropic curse to any character who fights them hand-to-hand—monsters who can make the player characters into monsters themselves. Practically by definition, werebeast encounters take place at night, when everything is scarier. And if the werewolf ever seems too clichéd an enemy, werebeasts come in four other varieties.

All werebeasts have proficiency in Perception and immunity to physical damage from nonmagical, nonsilvered weapons. They also have human forms, beast forms and hybrid forms; their human forms are their “true” forms. My sense as a dungeon master is that they take their beast forms to run around and hunt in the wild, but among people, they take their hybrid forms when their curse is upon them—at any rate, the hybrid form makes for more interesting and challenging combat encounters than the beast form, because it allows them to use their Multiattack action feature. (The exception to this pattern is the werebear, which has Multiattack in all its forms.) But if you want to conceal the fact that the PCs are fighting a lycanthrope and not simply a big, ferocious beast, you may opt for the beast form after all, trading a reduction in damage for the increase in likelihood that the PCs will carelessly let themselves fall afoul of the lycanthropic curse.

Although the Shapechanger feature, common to all werebeasts, states that they can use an action to polymorph from one form to another, I’d disregard this, for two reasons. First, there’s generally no advantage to it: any equipment they’re carrying isn’t transformed, so, for example, a humanoid wearing armor and carrying a sword turns into a beast standing in a pile of armor and staring at a sword on the ground; or a hybrid with natural armor turns into a naked, unarmored, unarmed humanoid. Meanwhile, it’s just spent a whole combat round transforming when it could have been, I don’t know, attacking or running away? And second, isn’t the whole point of lycanthropy that the afflicted individual has little or no control over his or her transformations? High opportunity cost, no obvious benefit, contradicts werebeast lore: there’s only one logical situation in which to use this action, and that’s at nightfall or daybreak, when the lycanthrope changes involuntarily. Continue reading Lycanthrope Tactics

Bullywug Tactics

Bullywugs are petty, bad-tempered humanoid frogs, native to swampy areas. The fifth-edition Monster Manual flavor text describes them as “struck with a deep inferiority complex . . . desperately crav[ing] the fear and respect of outsiders” and says they’ll generally prefer to capture trespassers rather than kill them outright, hauling them back to win favor with their rulers first. One way they do this is by taming giant frogs and having them swallow victims whole; however, this works only on Small or Tiny targets, meaning that unless a party of player characters is made up entirely of halflings or gnomes, this isn’t a strategy they can rely on in a typical encounter.

For a creature with only two hit dice, bullywugs aren’t too shabby in combat. All their physical abilities are modestly above average; they have proficiency in Stealth and the Swamp Camouflage feature, which grants them advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks in swampy terrain. It’s fair to say, therefore, that bullywugs won’t venture outside such areas—not when they have such a natural advantage on their home turf.

Moreover, their Standing Leap ability lets them move their full speed of 20 feet per turn as a long jump, when the jumping rule would normally allow them to leap only 6 feet. This allows them to cover distance in difficult marshy terrain without having to halve their movement speed. If you want to be nitpicky about it, you can require them to succeed on a DC 10 Dexterity (Acrobatics) check when they land, per page 182 of the Player’s Handbook, but personally, I’d say that bullywugs, whose natural habitat is the swamp, shouldn’t have to make that check when landing. And for the sake of flavor, I like the idea of having bullywugs bouncing around like a bunch of ornery little superballs during combat rather than trudging around in 2-D as we landbound humanoids must. (Mind you, this does not exempt them from opportunity attacks when they jump out of PCs’ reach.) Continue reading Bullywug Tactics

Kuo-toa Tactics

Old-school Dungeons and Dragons players will recall that the kuo-toa made their debut in the venerated, if somewhat incoherent, D-series of adventure modules, which also introduced the drow. In the world of Greyhawk, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons’ original setting, they and the drow were fierce enemies. In fifth-edition D&D, however, the kuo-toa have been retconned into broken ex-subjects of an empire of mind flayers, their rivalry with the drow now mentioned only in passing.

“Many weapons of the kuo-toa are designed to capture rather than kill,” the Monster Manual flavor text informs us, but it leaves open the question of what they want to capture anyone for. Religious sacrifice, maybe? Interrogation? Found-art pieces? Regardless, I’m going to examine their tactics with the assumption that they are, in fact, trying to kill the player characters. Continue reading Kuo-toa Tactics

Githzerai Tactics

Like their cousins the githyanki, the githzerai are a rigidly disciplined people from another plane of existence. Unlike the warlike githyanki, the githzerai apply their discipline to asceticism and self-defense. Essentially, they’re psychic super-monks, bulwarks against chaos.

The githzerai monk has modestly above-average Strength and Constitution and high Dexterity, usually the physical ability contour of a sniper; a melee combatant with this profile generally has to use movement and surprise to compensate for its reduced ability to take damage and dish it out. The Monster Manual’s solution to this problem is curious: Rather than make the githzerai monk a skirmisher with abilities like Nimble Escape, the MM makes it, for all intents and purposes, a brute. That is, its abilities are tailored to toe-to-toe melee fighting. Continue reading Githzerai Tactics