Xvarts are tricky to devise tactics for, because their ability scores, their features and their Volo’s Guide to Monsters flavor text all seem to be at odds with one another. Their ability scores suggest Dexterity-focused sniping and shock attacks. Their Overbearing Pack feature suggests a reliance on shoving opponents prone, presumably to be followed up with melee attacks (both of which depend on Strength). And the flavor text states that they attack primarily to abduct, which implies grappling. There is a solution, but it’s tricky.
Xvarts move at the normal humanoid speed of 30 feet per round. Their Strength is low, and their Constitution merely average, so they’re anti-brutes—averse to melee slugfests. Xvarts will necessarily seek strength in numbers—and allies, specifically giant rats and giant bats. Giant rats make particularly good allies for xvarts, because of their Pack Tactics feature; giant bats, however, are tougher and more challenging. A xvart encounter should include, at a minimum, two xvarts per player character, plus an animal ally for every two xvarts.
Xvarts are neither smart nor wise. They have no ability to adapt if their favored strategy doesn’t work, and they may not be particularly quick to notice that it isn’t working. However, unlike the usual low-Wisdom monster, which waits too long to run away, xvarts are cowardly; if anything, they’ll run away prematurely from encounters that actually favor them. The Low Cunning feature gives them Disengage as a bonus action, but this represents instinctive evasive ability, not discipline.
So how do you create an effective kidnapper out of a low-Strength creature without proficiency in Athletics? You begin with Stealth, which xvarts have proficiency in, and darkvision, which they possess. By attacking only in twilight or (if the party contains PCs who have darkvision themselves) at night, xvarts can minimize their chance of being seen before they attack and thereby initiate combat as unseen attackers, gaining advantage on their first attack rolls.
Remember, fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons doesn’t have “surprise rounds”: advantage comes from being hidden, and an enemy isn’t revealed unless and until it attacks or casts a spell with a verbal component. So xvarts can send their animal allies out first (giant rats have darkvision, and giant bats have blindsight, so visibility isn’t a problem) to distract their enemies, then follow up with attacks of their own—and still have advantage on those attacks.
So let’s say we start with giant rats. The xvarts send in the rats, which lack Stealth proficiency, so they’ll attack in pairs to gain advantage from Pack Tactics. The xvarts wait until their enemies are engaged, then move in on the second combat round.
They have weapons, but the Overbearing Pack feature is distinctive, so we’ll build their strategy around it. It gives a xvart advantage on a shoving attack as long as it has an ally—in this case, a giant rat—within 5 feet of the target. The xvart’s Strength modifier is an unimpressive −1, but advantage jacks this up to an effective +3 or +4, allowing it to compete with stronger or nimbler PCs. The xvart attacks to shove its victim prone, preparing the follow-up grapple attack.
Observant readers will have noticed that, based on my encounter building guidelines, there won’t be enough animal allies to engage every enemy. The rats and bats are for use against the front line. The xvarts themselves, which are numerous, can take care of the rest of their opponents by double- and triple-teaming them.
Example: A level 1 party consists of Áine, a wizard; Daria, a marksman ranger; George, a sword-wielding rogue; Lennie, a front-line fighter; and Tolmac, a druid. These five PCs are ambushed at night by a pack of 10 xvarts, accompanied by five giant rats. When the attack is launched, three of the rats swarm Lennie, while the other two go after either George or Tolmac—let’s say George. (Sending rats to attack a druid would be a mistake, but then again, it’s exactly the sort of mistake a dimwitted xvart might make. Don’t overthink it. The xvarts pick George because George has a sword, while Tolmac just has a big stick.)
Once the rats have engaged their foes, the xvarts move in: one against Lennie—nah, make it two, he’s pretty big; one against George; two against Áine; three against Daria, who looks a little tougher; and two against Tolmac. (Xvarts judge their opponents mainly on the basis of size, armor and armament.) They’re attacking from hiding, and this is crucial: If a xvart is spotted, it does not attack. Instead, it immediately runs for cover and tries to Hide again.
As I mentioned above, the xvarts’ first attack is a shoving attack, to knock their opponents prone. If two or more xvarts are attacking a single target and the first succeeds in knocking the target prone, the second immediately attacks to grapple—again, with advantage, even if the attacking xvart’s cover has been blown, because the target is now prone, and attacks from within 5 feet of a prone opponent have advantage.
Once the target is grappled, the xvarts remain adjacent to each other as they drag the target off, the auxiliary xvarts always using the Help action to give advantage to the grappling xvarts on their Strength (Athletics) checks, while menacing their victims with their shortswords. Additionally, as the Volo’s flavor text says, they throw nets or sacks over their grappled victims, since probability dictates that a strong victim will get lucky and break the grapple after a few rounds even if the xvarts have advantage on their rolls. You’ll have to use “dungeon master discretion” and combine the restraining effect of the net (Player’s Handbook, page 148) with the xvarts’ advantage on Strength (Athletics) checks to resist escape, or it will be too easy to get out; even so, being restrained imposes disadvantage only on Dexterity checks, not on Strength checks, so in all likelihood, Lennie will still burst his bonds sooner or later. This is OK. Making things fair for the xvarts doesn’t mean making them unfair for the PCs.
Xvarts are team players by necessity, not by nature, and if one is moderately wounded (reduced to 4 hp or fewer), it will run off (using the Disengage bonus action, then the Dash action) and leave its companions to their fate. Xvarts hauling a grappled or restrained enemy who breaks free will also make a run for it, as will their companions, as soon as they notice. So will xvarts abandoned by their “partners” in the initial attack.
The presence of a xvart warlock changes the parameters of the encounter. For starters, xvart warlocks, if they leave their settlements, are usually leading expeditions in search of magical treasure, not sacrificial victims to abduct. In this instance, the xvarts will apportion and comport themselves differently: a giant rat attacks each target, then two xvarts attack that target normally with their shortswords (statistically superior, in terms of expected damage, to giving up one of those two attacks in order to try to knock the target prone). Then both xvarts Disengage (bonus action) and retreat 15 feet from their target; if the target pursues, it will be subject to an opportunity attack from the rat. Moderately wounded xvarts still run away, Disengaging (bonus action), then Dashing (action).
Meanwhile, the xvart warlock first casts mage armor, then keeps its eyes peeled for enemies who are seriously wounded, whom it can finish off. The warlock always wants to try to get in the last blow, because Raxivort’s Blessing gives it 4 temporary hp whenever it reduces an enemy to 0 hp.
The warlock has four offensive spells, two leveled (burning hands and scorching ray) and two cantrips (eldritch blast and poison spray).
Burning hands requires a Dexterity save to resist and does 4d6 fire damage to each enemy in its area of effect who fails his or her save, and half that to each enemy who succeeds; the warlock will want to make sure there are at least two (see “Targets in Area of Effect,” Dungeon Master’s Guide, page 249). Thus, we’re looking at about 21 points of expected damage.
Scorching ray, on the other hand, is a ranged spell attack, and it does only half as much expected damage—but it’s good out to a range of 120 feet, as opposed to burning hands’ 15 feet.
Each of these spells costs a spell slot, of which the warlock has only two—and it wants to save one for either expeditious retreat or invisibility, its escape-hatch spells. Thus, it’s going to save them for moments when it can finish off either two opponents at close range or three at long range.
It has no limit on eldritch blast (ranged spell attack, 120 feet, 1d10 force damage) and poison spray (Constitution save, 10 feet, 1d12 poison damage), but neither of these can be expected to do more than a few points of damage—in fact, if an enemy comes within 5 feet of the warlock, it’s going to take a swing with its scimitar rather than take a chance on poison spray. Poison spray tends not to work so great on the kinds of enemies who’ll charge a warlock.
Expeditious retreat and invisibility both require concentration, so the xvart warlock can cast one or the other but not both. It casts the former if its path of escape includes an abundance of cover, the latter if it has to run away across open terrain. Like other xvarts, the xvart warlock is a coward, and it takes to its heels when it’s only moderately wounded (reduced to 15 hp or fewer).
Next: thoughts on constructing encounters.