Couatl Tactics

The couatl is rarely encountered in Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, partly because of its distinctly Mesoamerican flavor (most campaign settings remain hardily quasi-European) and partly because of its lawful good alignment (good monsters make bad enemies), but the winged, feathered serpent has been part of the game since the first Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual. In fifth edition, it’s categorized as a celestial.

Couatls have exceptional ability scores across the board, but their Dexterity and Wisdom are especially extraordinary. Their mental ability scores are higher on average than their physical ability scores, suggesting a preference for spellcasting over messy tooth-and-claw conflict (though their spell repertoire turns out not to support this preference especially well). Their 30-foot slithering speed is put to shame by their 90-foot flying speed; this, plus an awesome natural armor class of 19 and an immunity to physical damage from nonmagical weapons, implies that if they do engage in physical combat, they’ll most often hover in the air, dive-bomb their targets, then fly back out of reach without concern for opportunity attacks. Continue reading Couatl Tactics

Barghest Tactics

I picked the barghest to examine out of Volo’s Guide to Monsters, recognizing it as a monster that’s been around a long time, but not one I’d ever made use of. Then I read the flavor text. What the what? A monster that only eats goblins? That couldn’t be how this creature was originally conceived.

So I did a little follow-up. Barghests come from Northern English folklore, in which they take the form of huge, black dogs, either possessed by evil spirits or being spirits themselves. The second half of the name is related etymologically to “ghost” and “ghast,” while the first half may mean “city,” “mountain” or even “bear”; no one’s sure. They prey on lone travelers and vagrants, they often have the power to change shape or pass invisibly, and the appearance of a barghest is considered an omen of death.

That’s popular lore. In Dungeons & Dragons lore, barghests began as fiends (as they still are) associated with goblins (as they still are) and often taking a canine shape (as they still do), but the ones that prowled the material plane were the young of those that resided—and ruled their own lands—in Gehenna. The current origin story, in which they’re created by the General of Gehenna to hunt goblins, is a new fifth-edition twist. And, frankly, a preposterous one.

So here’s how I’d interpret the flavor text in the barghest entry: It’s what goblins believe. Continue reading Barghest Tactics

Banshee Tactics

Banshees are curious creatures: accursed undead elves, without any clear explanation of who did the cursing. They’re the “mean girls” of elvenkind, beautiful but cold, shallow and manipulative, who instead of remaining eternally youthful become more and more debased and drained of vitality, and end up wallowing in empty alienation forever.

Banshees have no physical form, so their only movement is flying, at a brisk 40 feet per round. They have above-average Dexterity and very high Charisma, but owing to their lack of substance, they have virtually no Strength. Thus, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever engage in prolonged, toe-to-toe melee combat; instead, they’ll use their ranged powers first, then make hit-and-run attacks. They’re not worried about opportunity attacks, because they’re resistant to physical damage from nonmagical weapons.

In addition to laughing at mundane iron and steel, banshees are also resistant to acid, fire, lightning and thunder damage and outright immune to cold, necrotic and poison damage, along with the vast majority of debilitating conditions. Thus, they have as little to fear from spellcasters as they do from loutish fighters. A magic weapon, on the other hand, puts them on red alert. Continue reading Banshee Tactics

Construct Tactics: Scarecrows, Helmed Horrors and Shield Guardians

Time for more things that will kill you even though they have no business moving around at all. The scarecrow and the helmed horror are much more capable of operating independently than animated objects; the shield guardian, on the other hand, is little more than an anthropomorphic drone. Continue reading Construct Tactics: Scarecrows, Helmed Horrors and Shield Guardians

Lamia Tactics

Personally, I’ve always tended to go in one of two directions with my Dungeons and Dragons adventures: either totally far-out, never-before seen, otherworldly strangeness; or the consequences of straightforward humanoid motivations—ambition, desperation, greed, envy, benevolence, revenge—played out on a fantasy backdrop. Consequently, I haven’t tended to incorporate many monsters that have been imported into D&D straight from classical or medieval mythology.

The lamia is one of those: originally a queen who dallied with Zeus and was cursed by Hera to devour first her own children and then the children of others; later a monster with the torso of a woman and the lower body of a serpent; and in the depiction of Edward Topsell, a 17th-century clergyman who fancied himself a naturalist, a creature with a woman’s head on a lion-like body covered with serpentine scales, finished off with human breasts and what looks like a horse’s tail. Recurring themes in lamia myths include seduction, gluttony, filth and bloodlust.

D&D’s lamias have their roots in Topsell’s interpretation. In Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the lamia was drawn as having leonine paws in front and cloven hooves in back, and was vaguely described as having the lower body of “a beast.” After several evolutions (including a mystifying fourth-edition departure in which it became a corpse animated by devoured souls transformed into insects), the fifth-edition lamia has returned to something near the original concept, with the nonspecific “beast” body now specifically the body of a lion, sans horse tail. These lamias, rather than slovenly and gluttonous, are smooth seducers, corrupters of virtue, and admirers of beauty and power. Continue reading Lamia Tactics