What teenage Advanced Dungeons and Dragons player wasn’t fascinated and titillated by the succubus, that naked sex demon leering off the page of the Monster Manual? Mind you, this was the same era when a “harlot encounter table” in the Dungeon Master’s Guide allowed you to determine whether a randomly encountered prostitute was a “saucy tart,” a “cheap strumpet” or a “slovenly trull,” which was great for vocabulary building but not so much for encouraging a healthy understanding of sex roles and interpersonal relationships. You’ve come a long way, D&D. (Now let’s work on the ill-considered conflation of race with personality traits, ’K?)
Originating as a mythological explanation for erotic dreams (and, possibly, sleep paralysis episodes as well), the succubus and its masculine counterpart, the incubus, were imagined as devils who tempted people in their dreams. What did they want? The same thing devils always want: to lay claim to your soul, in their case by getting you to corrupt it of your own free will by giving in to the deadly sin of lust.
Despite including some of the trappings, D&D doesn’t share Christianity’s religious cosmology, but the flavor text in the fifth-edition MM assigns succubi and incubi essentially the same mission: “[W]hen a succubus or incubus has corrupted a creature completely . . . the victim’s soul belongs to the fiend. . . . After successfully corrupting a victim, the succubus or incubus kills it, and the tainted soul descends into the Lower Planes.”
Therefore, we have to take a bigger-picture view of succubus and incubus tactics. They’re not about simply gaining an edge in a happenstance combat encounter. They don’t have happenstance combat encounters. Rather, these tactics are steps toward the fiends’ final goal.
Let’s look at the features of the succubus and incubus and how they fit into this plan:
- The Etherealness feature facilitates “reconnaissance, spying on opponents and moving around without being detected” (Dungeon Master’s Guide, page 48).
- Proficiency in Deception, Insight and Persuasion gives them the means to identify a target’s basic fears and desires and play upon them with a calibrated, flattering mixture of truths, half-truths and lies.
- Telepathy allows them the ability to communicate with any creature telepathically up to a range of 60 feet.
- The Charm feature lets them charm a single humanoid for a day. (The DC and the time limit are important to note, and we’ll look at these in detail below.)
- Telepathic Bond gives them the ability to communicate at an unlimited distance with charmed targets, even between different planes of existence.
- The Shapechanger feature lets them assume an ordinary humanoid form of Small or Medium size—all the better to seduce you with, my dear.
- Proficiency in Stealth gives them the ability to approach their victims without being detected by others.
- The Draining Kiss feature lets them suck hit points from a charmed (or willing) target, killing the target if its hit points are reduced to 0 by this method alone. (If the target is taking damage from other sources, a succubus or incubus must use Draining Kiss to drain hit points equal to the target’s maximum before killing the target in this way.)
I list the features in this order because this is the order in which they’ll most likely be put to use.
One of the most helpful (and, occasionally, maddening) features of D&D 5E is how carefully all its rules are written for absolutely literal interpretation. If they don’t mention something, that something doesn’t apply. With this in mind, I note that that nowhere in the rules is it written that a target must be conscious to be charmed! Both the charm person spell and the Charm feature of the succubus and incubus specify only that the target must be visible and within a certain range. (In contrast, the vampire’s Charm feature specifies that the target must also be able to see the vampire, which necessitates being awake.)
The key restrictions on the succubus or incubus’s Charm feature are its DC, which isn’t stupendously high, and the fact that its effect lasts only 24 hours. This means a couple of things: First, the succubus or incubus will typically favor low-Wisdom targets, ideally those with a Wisdom saving throw modifier of 0 or less. (Between their Intelligence 15 and the fact that they do this for a living, we can presume they can “read” a player character’s stats to determine this.) That being said, according to the flavor text, “The more virtuous the fiend’s prey, the longer the corruption takes, but the more rewarding the downfall.” So a particular succubus or incubus might intentionally target a higher-Wisdom PC, just for the pleasure of the challenge. Second, because the charmed condition wears off after 24 hours, the succubus or incubus will have to visit its target repeatedly on successive nights to maintain it.
Here, then, is how I envision a succubus or incubus encounter—and remember, unlike most monster encounters, this isn’t a single scene, it’s a whole act, maybe even a subplot running throughout the whole play:
- The succubus or incubus chooses a target, spying on him or her from the Ethereal Plane.
- Having chosen a target, it comes up with a marketing plan based on the target’s fears and desires. (You can infer these from a PC’s Ideal, Bond and Flaw.)
- Using Etherealness to travel to the target’s location, then Stealth so that its presence won’t be detected, it approaches the target while he or she is sleeping, then attempts to Charm the target. If it succeeds, mwahahaha! If it fails, it uses Etherealness again and slips away, to try again the next night.
- During the day, it may transmit telepathic suggestions to its charmed victim, compelling him or her to behave in sinful ways. (In case you’re not familiar with the “Peg’s Law” mnemonic, the traditional seven deadly sins are pride, envy, gluttony, sloth, lust, avarice and wrath.) Or it may shapechange into a form alluring to the target, stroll right up to him or her, and use its feminine or masculine wiles to wheedle the target into acting against his or her better judgment. Or both.
Now, if a PC is suddenly smitten with a gorgeous stranger who shows up out of nowhere, and that stranger starts encouraging that normally strait-laced PC to, say, engage in public displays of affection, steal coins from blind beggars’ bowls, etc., other PCs are going to figure out right quick that things ain’t right. So a succubus or incubus visiting a PC in the flesh will probably avoid being seen by others and will absolutely discourage the PC from revealing their involvement to others (“What we have is so special . . . how about we keep it our little secret?”). But then again, a succubus or incubus may lead a public life, perhaps even as a prominent figure, so that no one would question a PC’s involvement with it. Only behind closed doors does it give free rein to its fiendish identity.
- Once the succubus or incubus has wormed its way into a PC’s affinity, and once that PC has debauched himself or herself to its satisfaction, it makes one final nighttime visit, during which it goes in for the kill with its Draining Kiss. Note that, since this does harm to the PC, he or she gets to make an additional Wisdom saving throw to resist its Charm with each use of Draining Kiss. For this reason, ideally, the succubus or incubus will have established a level of trust with the PC that will cause him or her to accept the kiss willingly at first, without being Charmed. In other words, the succubus or incubus will use Draining Kiss first, then attempt to Charm the target again, then—if it succeeds—use Draining Kiss a second time. Depending on how committed your players are to roleplaying, a succubus or incubus who flubs the re-Charm might endeavor to simply persuade the PC that he or she is already so morally compromised, there’s nothing more worth living for, and he or she should accept the final Draining Kiss as the inevitable consummation of his or her downfall.
- If the re-Charm fails, or if the second Draining Kiss isn’t enough to finish off the PC, the succubus or incubus has failed in its mission, because it’s not likely ever to get a second chance to execute this combo. It spends one action reverting to its true, fiendish form—which offers no tactical benefit, only artistic effect—then, on its next action, makes its getaway via the Ethereal Plane.
There’s always a chance that the succubus or incubus will get busted before it has a chance to carry out its nefarious plan. As a dungeon master, how do you handle this situation? The Etherealness feature offers a mostly foolproof escape hatch, but you might decide, for the sake of showmanship, to have the succubus or incubus reveal its fiendish nature before skedaddling. If ethereal escape is somehow prevented, and the succubus or incubus is forced to fight rather than flee, it will revert to its fiend form to gain access to its claw attack, since its humanoid form isn’t built for fighting.
Since taking the Shapechange action means not being able to attack in the same turn, a succubus or incubus will generally want to be out of reach of melee attacks when it takes this action. On the other hand, its humanoid speed is no better than most PCs’; its flying speed is superior, but it can fly only in fiend form. However, according to the Players’ Handbook (“Using Different Speeds,” page 190), it can move 30 feet normally, transform from humanoid form to fiend form, then fly another 30 feet, so that’s what it does, maneuvering out of reach of any PC who might chase after it.
Will an unmasked succubus or incubus stick around and fight? Not if it has a choice, I’d say. It’s a creature of subterfuge, not direct aggression (Dexterity 17, Strength 8), and even though it has resistance to physical damage from nonmagical weapons, it’s not immune to them, nor does it have any protection from acid, force, necrotic, radiant or thunder damage. It has no territory to guard, no family to say goodbye to—nothing it values more than its own life, and it’s very attached to that. It will escape via the Ethereal Plane if it can, fly away if it must and use its claw attack only if inescapably cornered.