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
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
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
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
Volo’s Guide to Monsters’ treatment of the yuan-ti is heavily lore-focused, with a section, useful to dungeon masters, on how to design a yuan-ti temple-city. From a tactical standpoint, the only additions are five new variants (!) and a brief subsection headed “Unusual Abilities.”
Unusual Abilities offers four traits that DMs can use to customize an individual yuan-ti or a group of them:
- Acid Slime gives the yuan-ti a corrosive coating, lasting one minute, that inflicts 1d10 acid damage against a grappled opponent or one who strikes it with a close-range melee attack. It’s a bonus action, and yuan-ti don’t get any other bonus actions, so this is a free supplement to the yuan-ti’s action economy. It’s all benefit and no downside, so the yuan-ti will use this feature on its first turn.
- Chameleon Skin is also a freebie: it’s a passive ability that grants advantage on Stealth Checks. No tactical implication; it just makes the yuan-ti better at what it already does.
- Shapechanger, for the yuan-ti pureblood, comes with the same disadvantages as it has for the yuan-ti malison and yuan-ti abomination. Skip it.
- Shed Skin is another all-benefit, no-downside feature, letting a grappled or restrained yuan-ti slip free without a skill or ability check. It costs only a bonus action, which is no cost at all, since the yuan-ti has no other bonus action to give up. A yuan-ti with this trait will use it anytime it applies.
Continue reading Yuan-ti Revisited