Skull Lord Tactics

I’ve been procrastinating on analyzing the skull lord, because it’s another damn monster with a spellbook three inches thick. Spells are all right, but if you ask me, the way to make a monster interesting is to give it interesting features. A plethora of spells just creates analysis paralysis.

So what makes a skull lord different from a lich? Quite a lot, actually, but let’s start with the lore. Liches are megalomaniacal wizards who became undead in the pursuit of immortality and boundless power. Skull lords aren’t wizards but warlords—more correctly, agglomerations of warlords, former squabbling rivals now forced to share a single wasted body with three skinless heads.

Undead creatures are driven by compulsions, not survival instincts or rational motives. To run one, you have to know what its compulsion is. Here, it seems, the lore indicates two compulsions: to conquer and . . . to bicker. We’re gonna have some fun with this one. Continue reading Skull Lord Tactics

Undead Tactics: Demiliches

A couple of months ago, a reader noted that I’d analyzed liches but not “their degraded selves,” demiliches. I have to confess, I’ve been putting it off, because analyzing liches was a lot of work. Fortunately, demiliches don’t have such a large repertoire of spells to analyze, so that reduces the complexity.

Demiliches have the same compulsion—the will to power and immortality—as liches, but unless they’ve shed their bodies willingly, there’s an additional element to their character: frustration. They’ve forgotten to feed their phylacteries, or they’ve been prevented somehow from doing so. As a result, the immortality they worked so hard to attain has cheapened. They’ve lost their sense of purpose and their ability to cast spells. They may even have forgotten that they can regain their physicality by feeding new souls to their phylacteries. If reminded of this fact, they’ll forget every other concern and fixate on restoring themselves to lichdom. (Strangely, neither the demilich’s stat block nor its flavor text explains how a soul is fed to its phylactery. Seems like kind of an important omission.) As long as this memory is lost to them, however, they’ll act with malice, tinged with the occasional random miscalculation that stress produces.

Aside from the lack of spellcasting, a demilich differs from a lich in the following ways: Continue reading Undead Tactics: Demiliches

Death Knight Tactics

When a corrupted paladin dies without making amends for his or her misdeeds, he or she may be raised as a death knight, an undead warrior that retains a tenuous connection to its former divine link. Like all undead, death knights are motivated by compulsion rather than survival.

What kind of compulsion might drive a former paladin, particularly one who strayed from the path of good? One leaps out at me as so obvious that it hardly seems worth considering any other: the desire to punish. Punish whom, for what? Does it matter?

The death knight is a brute, with extraordinary Strength and Constitution and a large reservoir of hit points, but not an unthinking one: all its mental ability scores are above average, and its Charisma in particular is exceptional. It has proficiency on Dexterity and Wisdom saving throws, two of the “big three,” plus advantage on spells saves in general from Magic Resistance. It’s immune to necrotic and poison damage and can’t be poisoned, exhausted or frightened. It doesn’t possess any resistance or immunity to physical damage from normal weapons, however. Continue reading Death Knight Tactics

Alhoon Tactics

Some time ago, a reader asked me to take a look at the alhoon, an undead, spellcasting mind flayer that’s almost a lich but not quite. Instead of becoming effectively immortal, the alhoon lengthens its lifespan through human(oid) sacrifice, tacking on however many years its victim has lived. (It seems to me that the alhoon should get however many years the victim has left, but whatever; I’m not a necromancer.)

Alhoons have a daunting array of features, so strap in—this is going to take a while to analyze. We’ll begin with their ability scores, which, like those of the ordinary mind flayer, are weighted toward the mental end, with Intelligence 19 leading the pack. However, unlike ordinary mind flayers, they also have a very high Constitution, along with proficiency in Constitution saving throws. This, combined with immunity (not resistance!) to physical damage from nonmagical attacks and advantage on saving throws against spells from Magic Resistance means their chief vulnerability is to magic weapons, with spells that require Dexterity saves to avoid damage a distant second. And not just any Dex-save spell: they’re also resistant to cold, lightning and necrotic damage and immune to poison. Fireball OK; lightning bolt bad.

In addition to various intellectual skills, alhoons have proficiency in Perception and Stealth, disposing them toward ambush. Their 120 feet of truesight means they probably know when you’re coming for them, and the first thing an alhoon does when it knows you’re coming is Hide. Continue reading Alhoon Tactics

Vampire Warrior and Spellcaster Tactics

A reader gently reminds me that I made a promise a long time ago that I haven’t fulfilled yet: I analyzed vampires, but I never did get around to analyzing the variant warrior vampire and spellcaster vampire. How do they differ from the stock vampire?

To recap, vampires are highly intelligent and prudent apex predators, both highly attached to and highly dependent on their lairs—of which they maintain several, just in case. They employ multiple levels of security in these lairs and will parley with intruders to size them up, stall for time and look for an opportunity to Charm one or more of them. They use a combination of Unarmed Strike (to grapple) and Bite to subdue opponents, draw sustenance from them and, potentially, transform them into vampire spawn. They value their continued existence very highly and are not going to engage in acts of stupid bravery; if the situation calls for it, they’ll tactically retreat without hesitation. When hunting, they prey on the weak, vulnerable and isolated. Continue reading Vampire Warrior and Spellcaster Tactics