NPC Tactics: Scouts and Spies

OK, here’s a quickie post in response to a reader who pointed out that I haven’t yet taken a look at two non-player characters from the Monster Manual: the scout and the spy.

Scouts are spotters and lookouts. With proficiency in Perception and Stealth, they could be effective ambush attackers, but that’s not their job. Their job is to gather information and return with it; combat is an undesirable complication. Consequently, if they attack at all, they prefer strongly to do so at range.

Eighty percent of the humanoids they encounter will have a speed of 30 feet. Of the remainder, most will have a speed of either 25 or 35 feet. Therefore, they don’t position themselves any closer than 75 feet to their targets unless they absolutely have to, and if they have a good view, they’re content to stay as far as 150 feet away. They can attack at these distances without disadvantage, but they’re not assassins. They attack only in self-defense.

Whether they do even this much depends on the speed of any foe who sees and pursues them. If the subjects of their reconnaissance have a speed of 30 feet or slower, they take potshots (Multiattack, Longbow × 2) at pursuers who are still more than 75 feet away at the start of the scouts’ turn. If the pursuers are closer or faster, scouts Dash away. If more than one opponent manages to get within melee reach, or if they can’t afford to take even a single hit, they Disengage—they have the training to do so.

Scouts only drop their bows and draw their swords when they’re surrounded, with no avenue of escape. If they have no reason to think they’ll be killed if they’re captured, they may choose to surrender rather than fight. Continue reading NPC Tactics: Scouts and Spies

Conjured Creature Tactics

Today’s post is as much for players as it is for Dungeon Masters, because creatures summoned by conjure animals are as often found fighting alongside player characters as against them. And, in fact, the tactics relating to conjured creatures are player tactics as much as they are creature tactics, if not more so.

Conjure animals—along with the closely related spells conjure woodland beings and conjure minor elementals—is sometimes referred to as a “broken” spell. It’s not necessarily that the spell is excessively powerful; in fact, as we’ll see, it comes with a built-in hitch that can have just the opposite effect. Rather, it’s the fact that this hitch encourages casters to summon as many creatures as possible, causing combat to bog down badly—over and over and over again. So one of the things I’ll talk about is how to keep this from happening.

It behooves any player whose PC learns conjure animals (or conjure woodland beings or conjure minor elementals) to read the spell description very closely, because it doesn’t necessarily do what you think it does. Unlike, say, find familiar, these spells don’t give you the privilege of choosing what kind of creature shows up. They don’t even let you dictate how powerful the summoned creature(s) will be. The only thing you’re assured of is how many creatures show up. Continue reading Conjured Creature Tactics

Clockwork Tactics

The clockwork constructs in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes are a collection of machines used by rock gnomes to defend their turf. Combining trickery with extraordinary durability and disproportionate damage-dealing capacity, they share a range of condition and damage immunities along with darkvision and the ability to understand their controllers’ commands—but also a rigidity in their behavior that can only be compensated for by active, real-time control. If they’re sent off to do their work on their own, they do it mechanistically, with no adaptation to what’s going on around them.

First up is the bronze scout, which isn’t particularly strong, but it doesn’t need to be, because it’s basically a self-guided mobile land mine. The key things to note are its burrowing movement, its double proficiency in Stealth, its Earth Armor trait, its Lightning Flare action, and one more trait that’s mentioned in the flavor text but unpardonably omitted from its stat block: “telescoping eyestalks” that let it see aboveground while it burrows below. These eyestalks are crucial, because the bronze scout lacks tremorsense or any other listed way to detect the presence of creatures above it.

This combination of features makes the bronze scout the ideal ambush initiator: Using Stealth to muffle its approach, it scuttles along the ground until it sees movement, then tunnels into the earth and heads toward it. Once it’s approximately in position, it pokes its eyestalks up and looks around, checking to see if its position is correct—that is, if at least three enemies are within 15 feet of it (see “Targets in Area of Effect,” Dungeon Master’s Guide, chapter 8). If it’s not, it retracts its eyestalks and repositions. If it is, it sets off its Lightning Flare, whereupon its waiting allies launch their attack. Since it’s immune to physical damage from nonmagical, non-adamantine weapons, it can take a hell of a beating, Biting back at whatever attacks it. But if it’s seriously damaged (reduced to 7 hp or fewer), it dives back underground, provoking no opportunity attack thanks to Earth Armor, and scuttles away.

The bronze scout doesn’t have to be used in this way, though. It can be used, as its name suggests, simply as a scout, which doesn’t attack at all unless it’s discovered. In this instance, the bronze scout Readies the Lightning Flare action, with the triggering condition “when any creature winds up to make a melee attack against it.” Including the wind-up in the trigger condition is key, because it’s a perceivable circumstance allows the bronze scout to use Lightning Flare as an interrupt, occurring before the opponent follows through with the attack, whereas if the condition were “when any creature makes a melee attack,” the reaction would have to wait until after the attack either hit or missed. Continue reading Clockwork Tactics

Duergar Tactics: Mordenkainen’s Duergar, Part 1

The central question in running duergar—which otherwise are simple and straightforward brute fighters—is when to use Enlarge and when to use Invisibility, the complication being that Enlarge both breaks invisibility and takes an action to execute, preventing a duergar from attacking on the same turn. Thus, any additional damage it deals from being Enlarged has to make up for the round in which it deals no damage at all. As I note in an earlier post, the break-even point for ordinary duergar is in the third round of combat. Over just one or two rounds, Enlarging doesn’t add enough damage to make up for the lost round. Over four or more, it offers a clear advantage. Thus, the more likely a fight is to drag out—in other words, the more evenly matched the two sides—the greater the benefit of Enlarge. Invisibility, meanwhile, is really useful only for either ambush or flight, since it’s a once-per-combat feature that’s disrupted by attacking, casting a spell or Enlarging.

Interestingly, not all the duergar in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes possess Enlarge and Invisibility. In fact, only four of the seven duergar variants in Mordenkainen’s have these two features, and one of them has Invisibility on a 4–6 recharge, resulting in a big increase in the breadth of its usefulness. Also, while most of the variant duergar are also brutes, one is a quasi-spellcaster (it has no spells to cast, but it does have an Intelligence-based long-distance offensive ability), and one is a shock trooper. Finally, alongside those seven variants, there are two profiles of constructs that duergar employ. As I go through the various stat blocks, I’m going to focus primarily on how these variants differ from run-of-the-mill duergar. Continue reading Duergar Tactics: Mordenkainen’s Duergar, Part 1

Demon Tactics: Shoosuvas, Maw Demons and Babaus

A reader asked me to look into the shoosuva, and I just now notice that it shares an entry in Volo’s Guide to Monsters with the babau and the maw demon, so congrats, readers, today you get three for the price of one.

Shoosuvas, creations of the demon lord Yeenoghu, are fiends that function sort of like a ranger’s beast companion, except for gnolls that have distinguished themselves in battle with exceptional ferocity. They’re big and brutish, with exceptional Strength and Constitution and high Wisdom, indicating some shrewdness in target selection. They hold the rare distinction of being proficient in all of the “big three” saving throws: Dexterity, Constitution ahnd Wisdom. They’re immune to poison, can’t be charmed or frightened, and are resistant to cold, fire, lightning and physical damage from mundane weapons. Although their low Intelligence indicates a lack of adaptability and a reliance on instinctive behavior, they can speak, both normally (in Abyssal and Gnoll) and telepathically. A chaotic evil monster that can speak is a monster that taunts. Going up against one of these should terrify your players.

The shoosuva’s basic attack is a bite–tail stinger combo. The bite is a straightforward melee attack, but one that does unbelievable damage—like being bitten by a mouthful of glaives. The tail stinger does base damage more in line with what you’d expect from a Large creature, but it also delivers a venom that paralyzes targets who fail their saving throws, and it has a reach of 15 feet, allowing it to strike a second enemy farther away. Continue reading Demon Tactics: Shoosuvas, Maw Demons and Babaus