Skull Lord Tactics

I’ve been procrastinating on analyzing the skull lord, because it’s another damn monster with a spellbook three inches thick. Spells are all right, but if you ask me, the way to make a monster interesting is to give it interesting features. A plethora of spells just creates analysis paralysis.

So what makes a skull lord different from a lich? Quite a lot, actually, but let’s start with the lore. Liches are megalomaniacal wizards who became undead in the pursuit of immortality and boundless power. Skull lords aren’t wizards but warlords—more correctly, agglomerations of warlords, former squabbling rivals now forced to share a single wasted body with three skinless heads.

Undead creatures are driven by compulsions, not survival instincts or rational motives. To run one, you have to know what its compulsion is. Here, it seems, the lore indicates two compulsions: to conquer and . . . to bicker. We’re gonna have some fun with this one. Continue reading Skull Lord Tactics

Devil Tactics: Abishais

I’ve got Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes in my hot little hands, and the first request I’ve gotten is for abishais, a kind of devil-dragon hybrid. It would be lovely if they followed a nice, regular pattern of features, as dragons do, but unfortunately, they’ve inherited their fiendish progenitors’ all-over-the-place-ness.

There are certain things all abishais have in common, though:

  • Impressive natural armor, with ACs ranging from 15 up to 22.
  • Brisk flying speeds.
  • Above-average abilities across the board, with peaks varying according to type.
  • Resistance to physical damage from nonmagical, non-silvered weapons, along with cold damage (except for white abishai, which are fully immune to cold).
  • Immunity to fire and poison damage, along with the types corresponding to their draconic progenitors’ breath weapons (this means that red and green abishai don’t get an extra type), and immunity to being poisoned.
  • Long-range darkvision and telepathy.
  • Devil’s Sight (the ability to see through magical darkness), Magic Resistance and Magical Weapons.
  • At least two attacks per Multiattack action, along with additional elemental damage when they claw or bite.

So here are a few things we can already infer about abishais in general: fearlessness toward most other beings; tactics built around aerial attacks (since opportunity attacks pose little threat to them); and a strong preference for operating underground, at night or in artificial darkness. Continue reading Devil Tactics: Abishais

Vampire Warrior and Spellcaster Tactics

A reader gently reminds me that I made a promise a long time ago that I haven’t fulfilled yet: I analyzed vampires, but I never did get around to analyzing the variant warrior vampire and spellcaster vampire. How do they differ from the stock vampire?

To recap, vampires are highly intelligent and prudent apex predators, both highly attached to and highly dependent on their lairs—of which they maintain several, just in case. They employ multiple levels of security in these lairs and will parley with intruders to size them up, stall for time and look for an opportunity to Charm one or more of them. They use a combination of Unarmed Strike (to grapple) and Bite to subdue opponents, draw sustenance from them and, potentially, transform them into vampire spawn. They value their continued existence very highly and are not going to engage in acts of stupid bravery; if the situation calls for it, they’ll tactically retreat without hesitation. When hunting, they prey on the weak, vulnerable and isolated. Continue reading Vampire Warrior and Spellcaster Tactics

Dragon Tactics, Part 2

“Metallic” dragons are the good complements to the evil “chromatic” dragons. Looking just at their statistics, they’re identical in most ways: Their physical abilities follow the high-Strength, high-Constitution “brute” profile. They have proficiency bonuses on all of the “big three” saving throws, plus Charisma. They have blindsight, darkvision, flying movement and one alternative movement mode (burrowing, swimming or climbing)—although I have to put an asterisk by this last one, because the editors of the fifth-edition Monster Manual seem to have forgotten to give silver dragons an alternative movement mode. Adult and ancient metallic dragons have the same legendary actions as chromatic dragons of those ages, and they share the chromatic dragons’ Legendary Resistance and Frightful Presence features. In addition, young, adult and ancient metallic dragons have the same Claw/Claw/Bite Multiattack. And, of course, they all have breath weapons.

Metallic dragons differ from chromatic dragons in four ways:

  • Young, adult and ancient metallic dragons all have social skill proficiencies in addition to Perception and Stealth.
  • Ancient brass and copper dragons, and adult and ancient bronze, gold and silver dragons, can Change Shape.
  • Adult and ancient metallic dragons have only two lair actions available to them, rather than three.
  • Each metallic dragon has two types of breath weapon, one of which is nonlethal and can be used to subdue without injury.

Given that these are good creatures—most of the monsters we’ve looked at so far are either evil creatures or unaligned predators—an encounter with a metallic dragon is going to play out very differently from an encounter with a chromatic dragon. Rarely will it begin with the dragon attacking the player characters—or, for that matter, with the PCs attacking the dragon. Continue reading Dragon Tactics, Part 2

Dragon Tactics, Part 1

The Monster Manual’s section on dragons is one of the longest in the book and, at first glance, one of the most complicated. But unlike, say, demons, which are all over the place in terms of what they can do, dragons are easy to work with, because they all follow the same pattern. I’ll begin today with the “chromatic” (evil) dragons, then continue with the “metallic” (good) dragons tomorrow.

First, there are certain things that all dragons have in common. They all fly, at twice their land movement speed, and all have one additional movement ability, depending on their color. They all have high Strength and Constitution. They all have bonuses on the “big three” saving throws (Dexterity, Constitution and Wisdom), plus Charisma. They all have proficiency in Perception and Stealth. They all have blindsight and darkvision, suiting their subterranean dwelling preferences. They all begin as uncomplicated “wyrmlings,” then gain abilities and features as they age and grow. And they all have breath weapons.

This last feature is dragons’ defining characteristic. Every dragon, even a wyrmling, has a breath weapon, with effects depending on the dragon’s color. The breath weapon does powerful damage over a cone-shaped area of effect. Because of its power, it has to recharge: At the start of each of its turns, roll a d6 for the dragon. If you roll a 5 or a 6, it has access to its breath weapon again. On average, this means the dragon will get to use its breath weapon once every three turns. But dice are fickle. My players recently fought a dragon that got to use its breath weapon three rounds in a row because the dice happened to fall that way. (They beat it anyway, very cleverly, I’m happy to say.)

Taking high Strength and Constitution as indicative of a “brute” profile, a tough creature with a strong preference for toe-to-toe fighting, most dragons are brutes, even at the wyrmling stage. Of the chromatic dragons, only black and green wyrmlings lack the Constitution to take on any comer in melee. These, despite their Strength, may prefer simply to use their Stealth to avoid combat unless they’re attacked. Dragons of every other color and age won’t hesitate to get directly up in your grille. Continue reading Dragon Tactics, Part 1