Volo’s Guide to Monsters’ treatment of the yuan-ti is heavily lore-focused, with a section, useful to dungeon masters, on how to design a yuan-ti temple-city. From a tactical standpoint, the only additions are five new variants (!) and a brief subsection headed “Unusual Abilities.”
Unusual Abilities offers four traits that DMs can use to customize an individual yuan-ti or a group of them:
- Acid Slime gives the yuan-ti a corrosive coating, lasting one minute, that inflicts 1d10 acid damage against a grappled opponent or one who strikes it with a close-range melee attack. It’s a bonus action, and yuan-ti don’t get any other bonus actions, so this is a free supplement to the yuan-ti’s action economy. It’s all benefit and no downside, so the yuan-ti will use this feature on its first turn.
- Chameleon Skin is also a freebie: it’s a passive ability that grants advantage on Stealth Checks. No tactical implication; it just makes the yuan-ti better at what it already does.
- Shapechanger, for the yuan-ti pureblood, comes with the same disadvantages as it has for the yuan-ti malison and yuan-ti abomination. Skip it.
- Shed Skin is another all-benefit, no-downside feature, letting a grappled or restrained yuan-ti slip free without a skill or ability check. It costs only a bonus action, which is no cost at all, since the yuan-ti has no other bonus action to give up. A yuan-ti with this trait will use it anytime it applies.
It also offers four additional action options:
- Bite is an alternative to the yuan-ti pureblood’s scimitar, dealing 1d4 piercing damage plus 1d6 poison damage. It does slightly more damage on average than the scimitar, so it’s sensible to substitute this for one of the yuan-ti’s two scimitar attacks (it can’t substitute for both).
- Polymorph into Snake is a recharge ability usable against an opponent. Here’s the problem with it: Since it works as a polymorph spell, it’s a temporary measure at best, and it gives extra hit points to the target. An opponent polymorphed into a snake turns right back into his or her normal form as soon as the snake is “killed,” with most or all of the hit points he or she had pre-transformation. Also, the tiny polymorphed snake has a +5 attack modifier and has a bite that does an expected 4 hp of poison damage on top of its 1 hp of piercing damage, which is more damage than your average mid-level adventurer can be expected to deal with a longsword. And not only is the snake’s base movement speed the humanoid-standard 30 feet, it has a swimming speed as well! So why use this action, if it doesn’t make the opponent easier to kill, doesn’t reduce the damage he or she can deal and doesn’t even slow the opponent down? I can think of only two reasons, one of which depends on a loophole. The loophole is that the action is described as working “as if affected by the polymorph spell” (emphasis mine), meaning it’s not a polymorph spell, it only affects its target like the spell does, and thus it may not need to be sustained and may be permanent instead of lasting only one minute. I doubt the writers intended this, and it’s a pretty overpowered feature if interpreted this way. (Then again, they specifically note that Sticks to Snakes—see below—lasts only one minute, whereas they don’t say the same about Polymorph into Snake. And the prime directive of fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons is, always take everything absolutely literally.) The other, legitimate reason to use this feature is if the opponent is casting spells or using an item that’s significantly more powerful than anything the opponent can do on his or her own, since polymorphed creatures can’t cast spells, and their equipment morphs with them. (Animal friendship won’t work on a polymorphed opponent, because the opponent isn’t a beast but rather a humanoid in the form of a beast. Nice thought, though.) ETA: There is a terrifying emergent property, though, that appears when you combine this action with the spell divine word. See Another DM’s comment below.
- Snake Antipathy is a “go away” feature. Like the yuan-ti abomination’s ability to cast fear once per day, it makes sense only as a way of driving trespassers away from sacred or otherwise important places, or of stalling pursuit when the yuan-ti is losing the fight.
- Sticks to Snakes costs one action and creates an ally that abides up to 10 rounds. Totally worth it, both tactically and for the ick factor.
The Monster Lore chapter mentions only two new variants, the yuan-ti anathema and the yuan-ti broodguard. But the writers were clearly having so much fun that they threw in three more in the Bestiary chapter: the yuan-ti mind whisperer, the yuan-ti nightmare speaker and the yuan-ti pit master.
The yuan-ti anathema is a super-abomination with extraordinary Strength, Constitution and mental abilities; a repertoire of potent spells, including a once-daily use of divine word; 30 feet of blindsight; and resistance to acid, fire and lightning. Its six heads give it advantage on Perception checks and on saving throws against being blinded, charmed, deafened, frightened, stunned or knocked unconscious. If the yuan-ti abomination is a fitting boss enemy for a party of mid-level adventurers, the yuan-ti anathema is the corresponding boss enemy for a high-level party.
The anathema is a brute melee fighter, and its Multiattack is cut-and-dried. The only decision required is which enemy to grapple, and the anathema will prioritize the same targets as an abomination will: strong and tough opponents, effective ranged fighters, opponents dealing radiant or necrotic damage, and clerics and paladins of rival gods (out of spite).
Ophidiophobia Aura is a modified version of fear, used for the same reasons, and Shapechanger is as pointless for the anathema as it is for all other yuan-ti variants. This leaves the anathema’s Innate Spellcasting as the feature that most sets it apart.
- Divine word is a coup de grâce, delivered in the third round of combat. Why the third? Because one of the premises of D&D 5E is that the typical combat encounter lasts three rounds, so if things are properly balanced, the third round should be the last round most of the time, and if it wouldn’t be the last round otherwise, casting divine word makes it more likely that it will be. Plus, I’m assuming that you don’t want to kill your players, and waiting past the third round makes it more likely that at least one of them will be down to fewer than 20 hp. This is an underhanded meta-analysis rather than an honest assessment of how the yuan-ti anathema would use this spell to maximum effect, but I’m going to retroactively rationalize it by noting that an anathema would expect to destroy or subdue most of its foes instantly, and if it hasn’t managed to do so already after two rounds, it’s going to decide that a more drastic measure is called for.
- Darkness is a concentration spell that’s highly advantageous to the anathema, which has blindsight, but not so much to its allies, which don’t (except for the three yuan-ti malison variants in Volo’s—see below—whose superior darkvision can penetrate magical darkness). Cast when the anathema is encountered alone or its allies have already been taken out.
- Entangle, in contrast, is better when the anathema has allies who can take maximum advantage of its opponents’ restrained condition. A 20-foot square area of effect means it should cast this spell when it can trap four or more enemies (see “Targets in Area of Effect,” Dungeon Master’s Guide, page 249). Also a concentration spell.
- Haste turns the anathema’s strongest lieutenant into a yuan-ti Cuisinart. Also a concentration spell.
- Suggestion’s most promising application is to turn a low-Wisdom, non-elven opponent into a thrall of the yuan-ti, since no suggestion that the opponent turn on his or her allies is going to seem reasonable. Also a concentration spell.
- Fear and polymorph are redundant to the anathema’s other features. Don’t waste spell slots on them.
As a DM, you should figure out before combat begins whether situational factors are going to favor the use of darkness, entangle, haste or suggestion, because the anathema can keep only one of these spells going at a time. Pick a plan A and a plan B.
The yuan-ti anathema is both fanatical and megalomaniacal, and its ritual of transformation will have burned out any survival instinct its species possesses. However, it’s also ageless and effectively immortal as long as it doesn’t get itself killed, and that’s a persuasive reason to stay alive. Split the difference: the anathema retreats when seriously wounded (reduced to 75 hp or fewer), choosing the Disengage action because of its discipline, its high base movement speed, and its ability to climb and swim.
Yuan-ti broodguards, in contrast, are dumb, instinct-driven berserkers that ferociously attack trespassers. They’re the product of magical transformation, not evolution, so they have no survival instinct, only a protective instinct, and they fight to the death. They use the Reckless feature all the time—they’re not smart enough to realize that it’s a bad idea when your opponent has one or more Extra Attacks. They’re completely indiscriminate in choosing targets. No sophistication here; just aim them at the player characters and let them go.
The final three variants—the yuan-ti mind whisperer, the yuan-ti nightmare speaker and the yuan-ti pit master—are all slightly more powerful, spellcasting variants of the yuan-ti malison, and each is a malison of a specific type. In my initial analysis of yuan-ti, I expressed my strong preference for the type 3 malison (humanoid upper body, serpentine lower body), because of its tactically elegant ability to restrain foes with its lower body and attack them with advantage while holding them restrained, and my scorn for the silly type 2 malison (humanoid body with snakes for arms). According to the flavor text and illustrations in Volo’s, the mind whisperer is a type 1 malison (humanoid body with snake head), the nightmare speaker is a type 3, and the pit master is a type 2. Does it have to be this way? Could you have, for example, a type 3 mind whisperer or pit master? I think you probably could; just use the nightmare speaker’s Multiattack and Constrict actions and scimitar attack.
Each of the three variants has a twice-per-day 3d10 damage boost, usable on its first hit in a turn: the mind whisperer’s Mind Fangs (psychic damage), the nightmare speaker’s Death Fangs (necrotic damage) and the pit master’s Poison’s Disciple (poison damage). This is advantageous enough that there’s no reason to save it rather than use it right away. Plus, after the yuan-ti uses it in rounds 1 and 2, your players won’t necessarily know that the feature isn’t available anymore on round 3, so it’s a great scare inducer.
The yuan-ti mind whisperer has a passive feature, Sseth’s Blessing, that gives it a pool of 9 temporary hit points whenever it reduces an enemy to 0 hp. These temporary hit points
stack top up (per Wizards of the Coast, they do not stack) if the mind whisperer takes down another enemy before its pool is fully depleted. For this reason, the mind whisperer will favor targets who are already wounded—the more badly injured, the more attractive the target—and try to finish them off. In some cases, this will look like single-mindedness; in others, opportunism.
In contrast, the nightmare speaker’s and pit master’s corresponding special abilities are single-use actions. The nightmare speaker’s Invoke Nightmare is handy for both battering and repelling an enemy, but because it requires concentration, it prevents the use of sustained spells, so it’s not that good in combat. The pit master’s Meershaulk’s Slumber, on the other hand, is a great burst-incapacitation ability that can potentially drop every non-elven spellcaster within view. Use this one in the first round of combat or don’t bother.
These three variants have the same ability scores as a standard yuan-ti malison, so they’ll share the same fast-and-furious assault style of combat, but they won’t necessarily rush into melee. Because they can cast spells, they may choose to lead with these instead, if they can do more damage this way. And that’s where we come to the analysis of their spell repertoires. It’s worth emphasizing that these “priests” aren’t clerics, nor are they wizards. They’re warlocks, and they cast their spells at 3rd level, even if they’re 1st- or 2nd-level spells; they also have only two spell slots, period. Since their spells are what set them apart from ordinary yuan-ti malisons, we can assume that they’ll use at least the first round of combat to cast spells, assuming there’s no compelling reason for them to do otherwise, before running in and filleting the opposition.
For the yuan-ti mind whisperer, the choice is easy: On its first turn, if it’s fighting alongside allies, it opens with hypnotic pattern, which is both highly effective and thematically appropriate for the spellbinding yuan-ti. Other than that, eldritch blast is decent for landing solid damage at long range, but it’s a ranged spell attack, so it doesn’t always hit; may as well close in for the more damaging melee Multiattack instead, and save the remaining spell slot for fly or expeditious retreat, or maybe charm person if the right opportunity presents itself.
The yuan-ti nightmare speaker has a wicked array of appropriately nightmarish spells, but most of the good ones require concentration, so it can use only one of them at any given time. Hex is like a warlock’s hunter’s mark, best cast when the nightmare speaker intends to engage one foe in single combat while its allies deal with the rest of the opposition. Hold person paralyzes a
single foe pair of foes, useful when the nightmare speaker’s allies can gang up on him or her them. Hunger of Hadar, if the nightmare speaker can nab four or more opponents in the 20-foot-radius area of effect, creates a freezing, terrifying void that does cold damage and possibly acid damage as well, and is useful either to keep opponents from passing through an area or—if in an enclosed space of the right size—to trap them in it. (The nightmare speaker must make sure, however, that neither it nor its allies are in that space or need to pass through it.) If it’s fighting alone, or with a phalanx of archers, arms of Hadar turns the nightmare speaker into a walking bomb: it can charge into the midst of its foes, deal an expected 10 hp of damage to each of them, then switch to melee fighting. It’s worthwhile even if the nightmare speaker can get within 10 feet of just two of its enemies, but if there are more, so much the better. Like the mind whisperer, it’s better off in melee than lobbing eldritch blast from a distance, especially since the nightmare speaker is a type 3 malison and therefore has the Constrict-scimitar combo.
Except for invisibility, the pit master’s spells are somewhat suboptimal, and it’s better off leading with Meershaulk’s Slumber. On its second turn, it will close to melee range and fight hand-to-hand. After taking moderate damage (reduced to 61 hp or fewer), it will cast vampiric touch to regain some of its lost hit points. If it’s completely surrounded, it will cast misty step to break the siege, and if an enemy spellcaster hurls fireball or lightning bolt its way, it will snuff it out with counterspell; this is the only thing it will use counterspell for, because its slots are scarce, and those are the only two spells of 3rd level or below that can do truly significant damage to it and its allies. Aside from these two circumstances, it will save its second spell slot until round 4 or later, and most likely use it for a second casting of vampiric touch.
These three variants all possess the normal yuan-ti survival instinct and will retreat when seriously wounded (reduced to 35 hp or fewer), using the Disengage action if they have allies present and the Dash action if they don’t.
Next: hags, revisited.