Yugoloth Tactics: Merrenoloths

The lowest-level of the yugoloths in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is the merrenoloth, and it’s something I haven’t come across before: a low-level monster that nevertheless has lair actions with regional effects. Merrenoloths normally pilot ferryboats on the River Styx (meaning, I suppose, that Charon is the head of their guild), but they can be summoned and hired to captain vessels on other planes. When a merrenoloth accepts such a contract, the vessel becomes its lair.

The lair actions don’t do much to protect the merrenoloth itself; rather, they protect the vessel under its command, allowing the merrenoloth to restore hit points to a damaged vessel, speed it away from pursuers (or toward another vessel it’s pursuing) or interfere with flying attackers. The merrenoloth itself, in fact, would rather not fight at all—it would rather just do its job. Consequently, it will never come to the aid of another creature. It engages in combat only if threatened directly.

When it is threatened, it defends itself partly by spellcasting and partly by striking with an oversize oar, which it seems to wield as a finesse weapon, judging by its attack bonus and damage. Its ability contour is interesting: part spellslinger, part melee shock attacker. But it doesn’t have much in the way of damaging ranged spells; its strongest offensive gambit is gust of wind, which it can use to try to shove enemies overboard. I say “try to,” because its spell save DC of 13 is not impressive; even low-level fighting classes will beat it at least half the time. On the other hand, it affect an area 60 feet long and 10 feet wide, so it’s usable against several foes at once, at least one of whom is likely to fail their save. Continue reading Yugoloth Tactics: Merrenoloths

Deep Scion Tactics

Holy heck. The entire month of May got away from me. Sorry about that, readers.

Anyway, today it’s back to business, with the deep scion from Volo’s Guide to Monsters. Technically a humanoid but giving off serious aberration vibes, the deep scion is the product of a pact with a great undersea power—one made under duress, at the point of drowning, so the terms aren’t nearly as favorable as those granted to warlocks. Not only transformed but brainwashed as well, the deep scion can take the form of its previous self, but it no longer considers its previous self to be its true self; that identity is lost.

Deep scions have two forms, “humanoid” and “hybrid.” The hybrid form is its “true” form, having humanoid torso, legs and arms but crustacean claws, tentacles (non-prehensile) emerging from its head and a mouth that DEAR GOD WHAT IS THAT THING? In its humanoid form, it moves at a humanoid-typical 30 feet on land and, like other landbound creatures, swims at only half that speed. In its hybrid form, its walking speed is 20 feet, but its swimming speed is 40 feet. If it can, a deep scion maximizes its movement by using its Shapechanger action in the middle of the turn in which it travels from land to water or vice versa, taking this action at the moment it reaches the shoreline. This way, even if it’s used its full walking movement to reach water, once it transforms, it still has another 10 feet of swimming movement left to go.

In combat, deep scions are pure brutes, with exceptional Strength and very high Constitution. However, their expertise in Deception makes this as formidable a weapon in social encounters as their battle axes are in melee. They also have proficiency in Insight, Sleight of Hand and Stealth. Deep scions are spies as well as warriors; they fight only when their cover is blown. As I’ve said before, it’s easier to punch someone after fooling them has failed than it is to fool them after punching them has failed. Continue reading Deep Scion Tactics

Ogre Tactics

Recently, I was asked by a reader to look at ogre tactics. There’s a reason why I haven’t touched on ogres before now, and that’s that ogres basically have no tactics. They’re dumb, simple brutes. With many monsters, simply throwing them at player characters and having them go “Rrrraaaahhhh, stab stab stab” (or in this case, “bash bash bash”) falls far short of what those monsters are capable of at their best. With ogres, at least ordinary ones, it’s all they’re capable of.

But Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes includes several ogre variants that are, in fact, worth examining. What you have to remember, though, is that these ogres are never going to appear on their own, nor solely in the company of other ogres. These are semi-domesticated ogres used by other species as trained warbeasts. They use their special features only when commanded to. Thus, it’s the Intelligence of the trainer, not of the ogre, that influences how effectively they’re used.

In the stat block of the basic ogre, there are only two details that a dungeon master not accustomed to tactical thinking might overlook (by now, they should be obvious to any regular reader of this blog). Continue reading Ogre Tactics

Derro Tactics

A long while back, a reader asked me to look at the derro, a creature featured in Out of the Abyss. I didn’t have Out of the Abyss (and still don’t), so I had to table the request. But since Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes includes the derro, I can finally—belatedly—fulfill it.

Derro are small humanoids native to the Underdark. “Equal parts fearful and vicious,” Mordenkainen’s says, “[they] prey on those weaker than themselves, while giving simpering obeisance to any creatures they deem more powerful.” No doubt they want to make the Underdark great again.

With high Dexterity and above-average Constitution but merely average Strength, derro are skirmishers, but not especially mobile ones. Their Intelligence is average, but their Wisdom, for some reason, is in the cellar. This is unusual; the reverse is far more common, especially since Wisdom supports the Perception skill. Not only are they easy to get the drop on, they also have an underdeveloped survival instinct, making them more likely to fight to the death. They are, however, proficient in Stealth, predisposing them toward an ambush strategy.

They have excellent darkvision and Sunlight Sensitivity, so they’ll rarely venture aboveground for any reason, and absolutely never during the day. This, plus their innate paranoia, combine to suggest an intense territoriality—which is to say, not only will they defend their turf viciously, they’ll hardly ever leave it at all, except to try to conquer an adjoining sliver of new territory.

Derro have two weapon attacks, hooked spear and light crossbow. One option with the spear is to knock an enemy prone (presumably by hooking and tripping him or her), which would give an adjacent melee attacker advantage on a follow-up attack. However, a ranged attacker has disadvantage against a prone target, so this doesn’t help the crossbow-wielding derro at all. Even worse: It turns out, if you run the numbers, that even if the first derro in a group successfully hooks and trips an enemy, its allies nearly always do less expected damage, despite having advantage on their to-hit rolls, than the group would do if all of them simply attacked to do damage.

This holds true for any group of two five derro. It takes six or more derro attacking a single opponent in melee for the advantage from hooking and tripping to produce an increase in overall damage, and at that threshold, it only works against unarmored, lightly armored or moderately armored opponents.

Reflecting on this, I think you should consider the hook-and-trip to be an “advanced” derro tactic. Derro have a challenge rating of only 1/4, so you can throw them against even level 1 player characters. Against these PCs, they won’t appear in great enough numbers to do anything but stab. But once your PCs are up around level 5 and higher, they’re going to be fighting hordes of derro, not just patrols and platoons, and in that instance, the first in each group of attackers will hook and trip to try to give the rest advantage. (For the sanity of your players and yourself, use the “Handling Mobs” rule on page 250 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and assume that advantage gives +4 to hit.) Assuming they all share the same initiative count, derro wielding crossbows will all shoot first, before any of their enemies fall prone; then the derro with spears will attack.

Alternatively, if you’re more interested in flavor than in optimization, always have the first derro in a group of three or more wielding spears attack to hook and trip. The average difference in damage is less than 1 point, and your players probably won’t do the math on the fly and realize that being flat on their prats doesn’t put them in any more danger than they were in standing up.

After all that, it seems almost anticlimactic to point out that the light crossbow does significantly more damage than the spear—86 percent more, on average. So rather than divide up a derro unit between crossbowmen and spearmen, assume that every derro carries both a crossbow and a spear; that they prefer to use their crossbows over their spears; but that when an enemy rushes them, they switch, and so do their immediate neighbors. Also, if at all possible, they launch their first crossbow volley from hiding, to gain unseen attacker advantage.

Derro paranoia and low Wisdom mean they don’t flee when seriously wounded but rather keep on fighting until they’re down to 1 or 2 hp. At that point, the gravely wounded derro will run, baiting out opportunity attacks—and their erstwhile allies will seize that opportunity to retreat out of melee range themselves and go back to attacking with their higher-damage crossbows. If combat drags on beyond three rounds, all derro will flee the scene, Dashing away. But this is simply a strategic retreat. They‘ll gather some more allies, stalk their opponents and ambush again as soon as they get the chance.

Derro savants are derro with sorcerous ability. Aside from having high Charisma and slightly below-average Strength, they have exactly the same ability contour as a regular derro. Because that below-average Strength makes them even less effective in melee, however, they’ll always attack from range, and other derro will run interference for them in case an enemy tries to close to melee distance.

Lightning bolt is the big gun in the derro savant’s arsenal, but it has the drawback of affecting only a narrow, straight line. Invisibility, however, gives the derro savant the freedom to position itself where it can cast a lightning bolt that nails three or more enemies, if they’re properly lined up. It’s most likely to get this chance if the battle has a well-defined front line. In a more all-over-the-place battle, though, there may never be a good opportunity to cast lightning bolt.

Normally, I’d say, the derro savant should use its 3rd-level spell slots for lightning bolt and nothing else. But I’d also say that because of the length of its area of effect, it’s practically wasted if cast against just one or two enemies. So what about, say, boosting chromatic orb with a 3rd-level spell slot? That would make it do 5d8 damage (22 points, on average) against a single enemy with a ranged spell attack roll, vs. 8d6 damage (28 points, on average) against one or two enemies, with the burden on them to make a Dexterity saving throw, and half damage done even if they succeed. There’s no comparing the two. Chromatic orb falls far short.

Burning hands? At least that one requires a Dex save, does half damage on a success and can affect a second target, but even when boosted to 3rd level, the base damage is only 5d6 (17 points, on average). This one’s a self-defense measure for when the derro savant gets sacked, nothing more. And sleep just doesn’t scale well. So save those 3rd-level spell slots, even if the opportunity to cast lightning bolt doesn’t seem to present itself. The derro savant holds out hope that the moment will eventually come, and when it does, it will be ready.

As for cantrips, the derro savant has two that do damage: acid splash and ray of frost. Ray of frost is better, but neither is that great. The derro savant will use up its lightning bolts and chromatic orbs before resorting to cantrips. Spider climb is useful for escaping in a high-verticality environment, and not much else—and since the derro savant is as unlikely to flee as any other derro, this spell won’t get much use. Ditto sleep, once the PCs are past level 4 or so.

Next: star spawn. No, really, I mean it this time.

Phase Spider Tactics

I’m puzzled as to why certain creatures are included in the “Miscellaneous” Appendix A of the fifth-edition Monster Manual, which consists mostly—but not entirely—of regular animals, such as apes, bears, crocodiles and so forth. Why, alongside this menagerie of mundane beasts and their oversize cousins, do we also find awakened trees and shrubs, blink dogs, death dogs, wargs (excuse me, “worgs”) and phase spiders? Why didn’t these monsters (none of them is categorized as a “beast”) rate their own listings in the body of the book? So odd.

Phase spiders differ from giant spiders in a variety of minor respects and two significant ones. First, while they have the Web Walker feature, they don’t spin webs. This struck me as so peculiar that I checked the MM errata to confirm that it wasn’t a mistake. Second, they have the Ethereal Jaunt feature, which lets them phase back and forth between the material plane and the ethereal plane.

I’m going to take a quick look at its other traits and then come back to these, because I think the phase spider is in need of some flavor text that explains what it’s all about. Continue reading Phase Spider Tactics