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.)

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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.

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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.

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NPC Tactics: Archmages

The mage was complicated; the archmage, even more so. Strap in.

As with the mage, the archmage’s ability scores imply an aversion to melee combat, a strong self-preservation impulse, and a strategically and tactically savvy view of the battlefield. We can also determine, by reading between the lines, that the archmage is a wizard of the abjuration school, because Magic Resistance is a feature that abjuration wizards obtain at level 14. Mechanically, that doesn’t mean much, since Magic Resistance is the only abjuration feature the Monster Manual gives the archmage; still, this inference adds a dash of flavor to our archmage’s personality. Abjuration is the magic of prevention. All other things being equal, the archmage’s primary impulse is to shut you down.

The mage’s spells topped out at 5th level, but the archmage’s go all the way up to 9th, with only one slot each of the top four levels. I assume this was to simplify an already extremely complicated and powerful enemy. What it means for us is that those four slots are reserved exclusively for the archmage’s four highest-level spells: time stop, mind blank, teleport and globe of invulnerability. And mind blank, according to the MM, is pre-cast before combat begins—along with mage armor and stoneskin—so that slot isn’t even available. (How does the archmage know to combat is about to begin? Dude, 20 Intelligence. “Nolwenn an Gwrach, Supra-genius!”)

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NPC Tactics: Mages

Figuring out tactics for spellcasters is always complicated by the need to assess the relative merits of their spells, which requires application of game-theory math along with examination of their action economy. I’ll start with the mage non-player character, basically a level 9 wizard.

Before looking at spells, let’s look at abilities. Strength is below average, Dexterity above average: a mage is a ranged attacker by preference. Intelligence is very high: a mage knows which enemies to target with which spells. Wisdom is above average: a mage prioritizes self-preservation. In fact, given the amount of training and education a wizard has to undergo in order to do what he or she does, and also given how squishy magic-users typically are, I’d say the mage has an above-average interest in self-preservation and will commence escape protocols after taking only moderate damage (reduced to 28 hp or fewer).

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