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

Dinosaur Tactics

“Sophistication” is not the word that leaps to mind when discussing the battle tactics of dinosaurs. Most of these ancient beasts are dumb brutes, with extraordinary Strength and Constitution and rock-bottom Intelligence. They also fall into two main categories, plus one variation:

  • Plant-eaters: These tend to be peaceful unless spooked. They may lash out if you invade their space, and they’ll defend themselves if cornered, but most of the time, they’ll mind their own business. If attacked, they’ll usually run.
  • Meat-eaters: These are predators that will hunt, kill and eat any creature smaller than themselves. If they’re hungry—and they usually are—you can count on them to chase and attack anyone and anything they might construe as food.
  • Flying meat-eaters: These behave like their landbound kin, but the fact that they can fly adds an aerial wrinkle to their attack pattern.

The fifth-edition Monster Manual contains stat blocks for six dinosaurs: allosaurus, ankylosaurus, plesiosaurus, pteranodon, triceratops and tyrannosaurus rex. Volo’s Guide to Monsters contains seven more: brontosaurus, deinonychus, dimetrodon, hadrosaurus, quetzalcoatlus, stegosaurus and velociraptor. (All the dinosaurs in Tomb of Annihilation can be found in these two books.)

I’ll look at these by dietary group, from lowest challenge rating to highest within each. Think of this as the dinosaurs’ pecking order, as any meat-eating dinosaur will attack and eat another dinosaur of a smaller size and lower CR, while a higher CR plant-eater, although it won’t actually attack other plant-eaters with lower CRs, may yet decide to muscle in and chase them off if the grazing in an area is especially good. I’ll also link to images, since they’re not all illustrated in the 5E books. Continue reading Dinosaur Tactics

Yeti Tactics

Scourges of the arctic peaks, yetis are reclusive apex predators renowned for their bloodlust. Being impervious to the cold and having a keen sense of smell, they may be encountered wandering the foggy terrain around a white dragon lair or venturing out to hunt in a swirling blizzard.

With exceptional Strength and Constitution and merely above-average Dexterity, yetis are brute melee fighters, but they do have a couple of features they gain an edge from. One is their proficiency in Stealth, which combined with their Keen Smell and Snow Camouflage features gives them tremendous incentive to ambush prey in low-visibility conditions, such as the darkness of night or the whiteout of a snowstorm. The other is Chilling Gaze, which is part of its Multiattack.

Chilling Gaze requires the yeti to be within 30 feet of its target, so it has to exercise patience, staying hidden until its prey is close enough for it to strike—but that doesn’t mean it leaves this to chance. Yetis have Wisdom 12, high enough for them to exercise care in choosing their targets, and like other predators hunting for a meal, they favor the young, the old, the weak, the isolated and the oblivious. They’ll actively maneuver to bring themselves within strike range of such a target, counting on the combination of their Stealth proficiency, their Snow Camouflage and vision-obscuring conditions to keep themselves from being seen. Continue reading Yeti Tactics