NPC Tactics: Magical Specialists

Volo’s Guide to Monsters includes stat blocks for 11 different magic-using specialists: wizards from eight different schools and warlocks of three different patrons. The wizards are all at least level 7; the warlocks, even higher. There are also a level 9 war priest, a level 10 blackguard (antipaladin) and a level 18 archdruid. Every one of these spellcasters has a different repertoire of spells. To come up with individual tactics for each of them would take me the next two weeks.

Rather than tackle each one separately, then, I’m going to share some rules of thumb for developing tactics for a spellcasting NPC. Continue reading NPC Tactics: Magical Specialists

Beholder-Kin Tactics

The Monster Manual lists two variants of the beholder: the death tyrant, a more powerful, undead variant; and the spectator, a less powerful, not-really-evil variant. Volo’s Guide to Monsters lists three: the death kiss, the gauth and the gazer. Together, these are referred to as “beholder-kin.” All three variants are evil.

The death kiss is the most powerful of the three, though not as powerful as a standard beholder. In lieu of ray-projecting eyestalks, its body is covered with long, waving tentacles that end in spines and toothy mouths. It has the extremely silly feature Lightning Blood (which I can’t even type without laughing ruefully), which inflicts lightning damage against any opponent that strikes it with a piercing or slashing weapon. That’s right: Its blood is electrically charged. This is ridiculous even for an aberration. I mean, I can almost buy the flavor text explanation, “A death kiss survives solely on ingested blood, which it uses to generate electrical energy inside its body,” with the usual suspension of disbelief that Dungeons and Dragons demands, but to suggest that the death kiss’s blood itself is what carries the stored electrical charge, and not some other organ in the death kiss’s body . . . whatever, man, I can’t even with this. You hit it, you get shocked. That’s what it says.

Sigh. Continue reading Beholder-Kin Tactics

Bodak Tactics

Today I go from talking about my greatest disappointment in Volo’s Guide to Monsters (so far) to one of my happiest finds. A couple of weeks ago, I had to quickly build a last-minute encounter to fill a plot hole for my mid-level players. One thing I recall from a class I took in fantasy fiction years ago is that the suspense in horror fiction comes from not knowing what the heroes are up against or what it can do, so I needed an unfamiliar monster to build the encounter around. I found it in the bodak.

The bodak is a CR 6 undead creature, immune to lightning, poison, and being charmed or frightened. It’s resistant to cold, fire and necrotic damage, along with physical damage from nonmagical weapons. It’s proficient in Perception and Stealth, has 120 feet of darkvision and is hypersensitive to sunlight, so it’s strictly nocturnal and/or subterranean. Its physical abilities are uniformly high; its Wisdom and Charisma are above average, but its Intelligence is low, so its behavior is mechanistic and compulsive.

It has an unarmed melee attack, but its real power comes in the combination of its distinctive features: Aura of Annihilation, Death Gaze and Withering Gaze. Death Gaze and Aura of Annihilation, in particular, are a nasty combination. Death Gaze hits at the beginning of an opponent’s turn; Aura of Annihilation, at the end of it. Continue reading Bodak Tactics

Medusa Tactics

Medusa: the snake-haired quarry of Herakles Perseus, the horror with the petrifying gaze. In the fifth-edition Monster Manual, this unnatural being is explained as one who made an infernal bargain for immortality and beauty, then paid the price when the latter wore off but the former didn’t. There’s no satisfactory natural explanation for the medusa, so in this case, evolutionary imperatives don’t necessarily apply; the medusa seems more like a being driven by compulsion, as undead creatures are.

Medusas have high Dexterity ansd Constitution, typical of a skirmisher. They have enough Intelligence to plan and lay traps, enough Wisdom to choose targets carefully and avoid battles they won’t win, and more than enough Charisma to parley when it’s advantageous. These abilities are paired with proficiency in Deception and Insight, along with Stealth. Thus, a medusa stays hidden from threats and uses its wiles to lure trespassers to their doom. (The flavor text describes a medusa’s lair as “shadowy ruins . . . riddled with obstructions and hiding places,” meaning it contains lots of places of concealment to take advantage of.)

The medusa has two distinctive features, Petrifying Gaze and Snake Hair. The latter is a simple melee attack that does some poison as well as piercing damage. Petrifying Gaze is more complicated and demands closer examination. Continue reading Medusa Tactics

Demon Tactics: Type 2 and Type 3 Demons

More demons! Today we’ll look at the middle of the demonic hierarchy, the type 2 and type 3 demons: chasmes, hezrous, glabrezus and yochlols.

To recap, demons can’t be killed on the prime material plane—or on any other except their home plane, the Abyss. Any demon killed elsewhere simply re-forms there. Tactical implication: Demons don’t fear death. They came to chew bubble gum and wreck stuff, and they’re all out of bubble gum, and they’re not going to stop wrecking stuff until they’re destroyed.

Also, all demons are (at a minimum) resistant to cold, fire and lightning damage and immune to poison, and they have either darkvision or truesight, giving them home-field advantage at night and underground.

A chasme (kaz-mee) is a four-legged, demonic mosquito the size of a horse. Chasmes most often go forth to retrieve escaped demons and return them to their overlords, but they’re not above attacking adventurers for the heck of it. As high-Strength, high-Dexterity creatures, they’re built for high-damage strikes. Having a flying speed of 60 feet, they maneuver into the midst of their foes, holding position in the air within 30 feet of as many of them as possible, so that they’re affected by its sleep-inducing Drone. This is one of those many features that affect an enemy either right away or not at all, so once they’ve had a chance to lull everyone in the player characters’ party, they no longer have any need to stay in one particular spot.

They’re indifferent in their selection of targets (except that they attack conscious targets before unconscious ones), but once they’ve chosen one, they focus their attacks on that target alone. Although they could fly in, stab the target with their proboscises and fly away again, this would incur at least one opportunity attack every time, and chasmes don’t have resistance to damage from normal weapons, so getting hit by an opportunity attack would actually bother them some. Instead, they’ll just stay within reach and take their licks. It’s not so bad—they themselves can do severe damage with just a single attack. They do have magic resistance and proficiency in Dexterity and Wisdom saving throws—two of the big three—so spellcasters don’t impress them as uniquely dangerous.

A hezrou is a foul-smelling brute that can overwhelm nearby enemies with its stench. That’s it. It’s dumb and tough and limited to melee attacks. It’s a “Rrraaaahhhhh, stab stab stab” (or, in this case, “Rrraaaahhhhh, claw claw bite”) monster with operating instructions you could fit in a fortune cookie.

The glabrezu is the first type of demon that’s interesting from a noncombat perspective, because its goal, according to the Monster Manual flavor text, is to tempt mortals to their own destruction. It’s also one of the types of demon more likely to be summoned by a spellcaster looking for an ally or servant. Glabrezus make very bad allies and servants. Jeez, people, you’re summoning a demon—what do you expect, your next employee of the month?

Anyway, based on this description, a glabrezu is more likely to initiate an encounter with parley than with fisticuffs. Glabrezus don’t have proficiency in any social skill, but they do have Charisma 16, which gets them off to an adequate start. With 120 feet of truesight and telepathy, they can detect approaching creatures and open negotiations before those creatures even know whom or what they’re talking to.

In fluent doubletalk, it will make grandiose, ambiguous promises of unparalleled power, riches and experiences in exchange for the PCs’ pledge to perform tasks for it—tasks calculated to bring them to ruin. For example, a character motivated by a need to prove himself may be sent to fight a creature he cannot defeat, while the rest of the party is made to appear to betray him. A character may be sent undercover for a job and lose her true self—no one will ever remember who she is, recognize her or remember her name. A character motivated by a search for knowledge may be sent off on a solo journey and driven mad. An experience-seeking character may be granted whatever she wants, in a way that will bring her pain and unhappiness and destroy her capacity to enjoy or even feel life—turn her into a specter. A character seeking harmony and purpose may be sent to heal refugees with a magic staff that will trap her soul.

If the characters express doubt (as opposed to outright refusal), the glabrezu raises the stakes (“What fool would take such promises without proof? Look well at what I offer”), presenting beautiful magic items to tempt the PCs, each one tailored to a particular character. It will not give the PCs these items, however, unless they agree to do its bidding. If the glabrezu is slain, these items will remain behind. Need I mention that every one of them will be cursed? (I like to have the curse trigger after a delay, with players making a saving throw every 10 days against a DC equal to the number of tendays they’ve owned the cursed item. When they fail a save, the bomb goes off.)

If the PCs refuse to be tempted, then the glabrezu will dismiss them irritably (“Weakling creatures—if you hunger for nothing, then be food for the worthy yourselves!”) and attack, beginning with the weakest character within reach. With Intelligence 19 and Wisdom 17, a glabrezu can “read” characters’ stats to assess their relative power, along with their susceptibility to confusion (Wisdom save) and power word stun (Constitution save).

A glabrezu can cast darkness at will, obscuring a sphere with a 15-foot radius. Darkness overcomes darkvision, as well as any light-producing spell of 2nd level or less. In this magical darkness, every PC unassisted by magic will be blinded and therefore have disadvantage on attacks against the glabrezu, while the glabrezu will have advantage on every attack against a blinded opponent. Clearly, then, this is the very first thing the glabrezu will do, and the PCs are hosed if they don’t have daylight or a higher-level illumination spell.

The four-limbed glabrezu has an unusual Multiattack: it can either make two pincer attacks and two fist attacks or make two pincer attacks and cast a single spell. It can seize and hold a single target creature with each of its two pincers, which have a 10-foot reach, and it has a speed of 40 feet. Thus, its first attack will be to try to seize the weakest opponent it can get to; if it succeeds, it will try to seize a second. Then it will pull these opponents into adjacent squares or hexes (no movement required to do this) and pummel them with its fists.

This is the glabrezu’s default tactic, but it has others:

  • Against two or more clustered, ungrappled opponents within 90 feet of it, it can cast confusion. This spell and darkness both require concentration, so they can’t be sustained at the same time; the deciding factor is whether darkness alone is sufficient to shut those characters down, or more drastic measures are required. Confusion is useful against strong melee fighters and especially useful against strong melee fighters with Extra Attack, because it has a 60 percent chance of denying their action entirely (brutal to the action economy of a character with Extra Attack or a bonus action) and a 20 percent chance of redirecting it at another opponent.
  • Against a single irritating ungrappled opponent within 60 feet, power word stun shuts him or her down temporarily, as long as he or she has 150 hp or fewer and fails a Con save. The glabrezu can tell whether an opponent has more than 150 hp or a Constitution saving throw modifier of more than +1 (it will be reluctant to use this once-per-day power without at least a 2-to-1 chance of success, although it will do it anyway if necessary to clear the field).
  • And finally, if any of its opponents are getting buffed by one or more sustained spells, it can cast dispel magic at will to put an end to that. Woe to the PC who casts daylight using only a 3rdlevel spell slot.

Without question, despite being merely a type 3 demon, the glabrezu is a boss enemy. Build your adventure accordingly.

A yochlol, in contrast, is most likely to appear as part of an encounter with a drow priestess of Lolth who summons it. In this scenario, she’s the boss; the yochlol will appear in giant spider form and use its abilities to synergize with hers. This means first using its innate ability to cast dominate person on the PC with the highest Strength-to-Wisdom ratio. Once that PC makes a saving throw to shake this spell off, the yochlol then casts web on any unrestrained PCs, favoring melee fighters first. Any turn on which it’s not casting a spell, it’s using its two-bite Multiattack action.

The yochlol’s Mist Form feature is of somewhat limited usefulness, since it obviates the demon’s ability to deal direct damage. It can potentially incapacitate a single character, but this is only useful if the yochlol has one or more allies that can follow up with an attack against the incapacitated character—or, conversely, if the yochlol needs to rescue its allies from attacks by the incapacitated character. The thing is, with only a DC 14 Con save needed to resist being poisoned and incapacitated, the target has to have a Con save modifier of −1 or worse to give the yochlol 2-to-1 odds of success. Under most circumstances, it simply isn’t that effective.

Next: even bigger, badder demons.