Giant Tactics

Going solely by their extraordinary Strength and Constitution, it would be easy to lump all giants together as brute fighters. If we want encounters with giants to be more than boring bash-fests, we have to look for clues not just in their stat blocks but also in the Monster Manual flavor text.

Take the matter of rock throwing. Every race of giants has this ranged attack alongside its melee attack, and on average, it does more damage. Yet every race of giants also has a Strength much, much higher than its Dexterity, so based on the assumptions I’ve been using all along, they should consistently prefer engaging in melee to attacking from a distance. Also, giants’ Multiattacks apply only to their melee attacks, not to throwing rocks. So why include a ranged attack at all? Continue reading Giant Tactics

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

Naga Tactics

I’ve put off writing about nagas, because to be honest, they’re a pain to analyze: there are three different types, all of them are distinguished primarily by the spells they can cast, and the lists are long. Analyzing specific stats and features is easy. Analyzing the pros and cons of various spells is hard, or at the very least time-consuming. Plus, at least one of the types of naga is lawful good, so player characters won’t often encounter it as an enemy. But I received a request from a reader, and I live to serve.

To simplify as best I can, I’ll start by looking at what they all have in common:

  • They’re shock attackers. Their highest physical stats are Strength and Dexterity, with Constitution significantly lower in each case. This means that they’re melee fighters, but they’ll try to strike fast and do as much damage as they can on their first attack, because they don’t have as much staying power as a skirmisher or brute.
  • Their main weapon is their bite, which does only a modest amount of piercing damage but a lot of poison damage, and this is their default action in combat. They themselves are immune to poison, as well as to being charmed.
  • Their mental abilities are strong across the board, indicating good combat sense and willingness to parley, within reason. Once combat starts, they’ll focus their attacks on their most belligerent enemies, counting on their other opponents’ losing the will to fight once those most eager are taken down.
  • They have darkvision, indicating a preference for nighttime and/or subterranean activity. They won’t be encountered outdoors during the day, at least not randomly.
  • Nothing we can usually say about evolved creatures applies to them. Per the Monster Manual, “A naga doesn’t require air, food, drink or sleep.” On top of that, living nagas (the spirit and guardian varieties) can’t be slain without casting a wish spell: if you “kill” one, it returns to life, with full hit points, in just a few days. Thus, among other things, they never have any reason to flee.
  • Living nagas also have no reason to fear spellcasters, since on top of their already high ability scores, they have proficiency in all the big three saving throws, plus Charisma (guardian nagas have proficiency on Intelligence saving throws as well).

Continue reading Naga 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.

Devil Tactics: Lesser Devils

So far, I’ve steered clear of what fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons categories as “fiends,” and now it’s finally time to dive in. Most fiends fall into one of three groups, depending on their alignments: Devils, belonging to the infernal hierarchy of the Nine Hells, are lawful evil. Demons, inhabitants of the tumultuous Abyss, are chaotic evil. And yugoloths, whose name comes from a Slavic phrase meaning “southern loths,” are what AD&D referred to as “daemons”: neutral evil fiends from the gray waste of Hades. Or Gehenna. Or the “Blood Rift.” Or all the evil Outer Planes. The publishers of D&D can’t seem to make up their minds.

I’ll begin with devils, the embodiment of tyranny and ruthlessness. The driving motivation of a devil is to dominate. In the hierarchy of the Nine Hells, authority is absolute, rules are binding, and obedience is imperative—but within those rules, every devil seeks to maximize its advantage, elevate its position and increase its power over others. Every devil’s bargain looks fair, but no devil will ever accept an agreement that is fair. Agreements between devils, or between a devil and another creature, always contain exploitable loopholes that a devil can use to ensnare the sap foolish enough to accept its terms.

Generally speaking, devils stick to the Nine Hells and their own infernal rat race. Devils encountered on the material plane where the player characters live their lives are there for one of two reasons: either they’ve been summoned magically by some idiot who thinks he or she can benefit from dealing with them, or they’re working to advance the interests of a higher-level devil. Continue reading Devil Tactics: Lesser Devils