In all of fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons, there are only six creatures with a higher challenge rating than an ancient red or gold dragon. Four of them are archdemons. One of them is Tiamat, the five-headed dragon goddess herself. The other one—equal to Tiamat, and superior to Yeenoghu, Orcus or Demogorgon—is the tarrasque.
And yet I got an intriguing e-mail from a reader recently: “In previous editions, people said the tarrasque was actually easy to deal with, so I’m curious to see your take”!
Easy? Let’s see how plausible this is—and figure out whether 5E has turned up the heat.
The tarrasque is basically a kaiju. It’s 50 feet tall and 70 feet long, quadrupedal but walking on its hind legs and using its tail for balance (the Monster Manual compares this to a bird of prey, but a better comparison is to a dinosaur or—let’s be honest—some kind of hellish kangaroo). With Intelligence 3, it’s overwhelmingly a creature of instinct, with no more ability to learn, adapt or strategize than a cat or dog. Its Strength and Constitution peg the meter, but its Dexterity is a merely average 11—unsurprising, given how much mass it has to move. Its Wisdom and Charisma are similarly average, so it’s the tarrasque’s brute Strength and Constitution and very low Intelligence that define its behavior.
Tarrasques are immune to fire and poison damage as well as physical damage from normal weapons. Like many monsters with saving throw proficiencies, the tarrasque has proficiency on only two of the big three: Constitution and Wisdom. This means that Dex saves are the closest thing it has to an Achilles’ heel—but it also has Legendary Resistance, giving it automatic successes on up to three saving throws, and those are always going to be the first three, unless a player character lobs something at it that’s not even worth dodging, such as a fireball spell. And the tarrasque also has Magic Resistance, giving it advantage on saves against spells and other magical effects, and Reflective Carapace, which causes ranged spell attacks, magic missiles and lightning bolts to bounce off it (occasionally, back in the direction of the caster).
So let’s pause here and enumerate what kinds of damage can get through the hide of a tarrasque:
- Physical damage from magic weapons. That, at least, you can depend on.
- Acid. Mundane, undiluted acid flung in its face. Assuming you can obtain enough of it.
- Direct cold, lightning, thunder, radiant or necrotic damage from a magic weapon. These are reliable because they only require attack rolls to convey, not saving throws to resist.
- Radiant damage from sources like the paladin’s Divine Smite feature. Again, it’s direct damage, no saving throw required.
- Certain kinds of magical damage requiring a Dex save if you can somehow restrain, paralyze or stun the tarrasque first, to negate its advantage on the roll. Of course, this will generally require it to have failed a Constitution or Wisdom save, so it’s a slim chance to pin your hopes on.
- The breath weapon of a dragon, which is a biological effect, not a magical one. Acid (black, copper), cold (white, silver) or lightning (blue, bronze) recommended over fire (red, gold) or poison (green, brass). Also the breath weapon of a dragonborn, although that character will get to use it only once, and it will do only about 18 points’ worth of damage on average.
Based on this list, I wouldn’t say dealing with a tarrasque is going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination, although it will be easier for sturdy PCs equipped with the finest in magical weaponry—or for ones who have a good working relationship with the right kind of dragon. Also, they’ll have to do their research first or suffer through some painful trial and error as they try to figure out what works on it and what doesn’t.
How painful? Let’s turn to what the tarrasque can do to its opponents.
With +19 to hit, all its melee attacks are virtually guaranteed to land. Its bite does an average of 36 points of damage per hit, grapples and restrains; its claws do an average of 28 points of damage; its horns do an average of 32 points of damage; and its tail does an average of 24 points of damage and has a good chance of knocking its target down. And its Multiattack incorporates five attacks: two claw attacks and one each with bite, horns and tail. That’s an average of 148 points of damage per turn.
If a tarrasque holds an opponent in its jaws, it can Swallow, which inflicts an additional bite attack (with advantage, since the target is restrained, although the tarrasque’s attack modifier is so great, this will hardly make a difference) and transports the opponent to its gut, where said opponent will be rapidly digested if he or she can’t inflict 60 points of internal damage in a single turn while blinded and restrained. As part of its Multiattack, it can substitute Swallow for its bite.
And the tarrasque has legendary actions—actions that let it act on other creatures’ turns. It can make a single attack with its claws (target in front of it) or its tail (target behind it), it can put on a burst of speed, or it can make a single bite or Swallow attack at the cost of two of its legendary actions. So add another average 84 points of damage to the amount it can potentially dish out on its turn.
If all this damage were directed at a single character, that character would have to be a 20th-level barbarian with Constitution 20 to have a chance of surviving.
So no, this monster is not going to be easy to deal with.
In fact, a party of six level 20 PCs will have an extraordinarily difficult time taking it down. To do so will require them to dish out 676 points of damage in, well, six rounds or fewer, basically, with each round diminishing the amount of damage they can deal.
There are silver linings, though. First, a tarrasque isn’t going to direct all its attacks at a single target, ever. It will use its bite, horns and claws against opponents in an arc in front of it, but its tail attacks will be directed at targets behind it. (Tarrasques have 120 feet of blindsight, so don’t count on their not seeing you creeping up on them.)
Second, tarrasques choose their targets indiscriminately. They’re so massive that their hunting instincts don’t have to be fine-tuned, which means they’re not singling out weak or isolated targets. In fact, they’re more reactive than anything else. Whoever does the most damage to them in a given round is likely to be their main target in the next one—provided that they know where the damage came from.
Third, they want to liiiiive! That means you don’t have to kill a tarrasque to drive it off. If you can get it down to 270 hp or fewer, Godzilla will return to the ocean.
Fourth, a tarrasque is less likely to attack creatures who are fleeing its Frightful Presence—that is, unless one of those creatures is directly in front of it. Then, like a dog, it instinctively chases that target.
And fifth, if it’s being fought from a fortified position, the tarrasque is as likely to direct its own attacks (specifically, claw and horn attacks) at the fortification itself as it is at the opponents inside.
The tarrasque’s Multiattack sequence will generally follow the order claw, claw, horn, bite, with any tail attack (if applicable) occurring at a random point in that sequence, but if it has a grappled victim in its teeth, it will Swallow first, then use its move, then finish its Multiattack with claw, claw, horn. Claw and bite attacks will be directed against the same target, but the horn attack may be directed elsewhere, depending on who’s in front of the tarrasque and how much they’re bothering it.
It will use its Chomp legendary action anytime it has a victim in its jaws on another creature’s turn. This is reflexive behavior, not necessarily optimal behavior—and since Chomp consumes two legendary actions, this may also be construed as a silver lining for everyone other than the living snack. If the tarrasque has no grappled opponent in its jaws, but there’s an opponent within reach directly in front of it, it will make a legendary claw attack; if there’s no one within reach in front but there is someone within reach behind, it will make a tail attack. If there’s no one within reach in front or behind, it uses its Move legendary action to get closer to whomever it’s chasing, or to the nearest potential target.
The tarrasque’s behavior is very random, and cynically, the best place for PCs to encounter one is in, say, a crowded city, where there are lots of innocent bystanders for the tarrasque to attack while the PCs get their first licks in against it. If they confront it in the wilderness, in contrast, its full attention will be on them and them alone. However easily distracted it may be at first, once a tarrasque is lightly wounded (reduced to 608 hp or fewer), it stops attacking bystanders and focuses its attention on whoever’s hurting it. When it’s moderately wounded (reduced to between 473 and 271 hp), it becomes very aggressive and focuses all its forward-facing attacks on whichever single opponent has done the most damage to it. And when it’s seriously wounded (reduced to 270 hp or fewer), it lumbers away, using the Dash action on its own turn unless there’s a pursuer within reach of its tail, in which case it attacks with its tail. It also uses its Attack legendary action to take tail swipes whenever a pursuer gets too close.