The yagnoloth is bonkers. What’s more, it’s a very particular and distinctive kind of bonkers—so much so that if I hadn’t done my due diligence and found that it dates back to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual II, I’d be 100 percent convinced that it was a Chris Perkins invention. (Except I also have a strong hunch that Kate Welch is responsible for the flavor text phrase “its brutally powerful giant appendage.”)
Yagnoloths are daemonic contract lawyers and commanders of lower-level yugoloths. Although they’re Large creatures, they possess asymmetrical, mismatched arms, one of them Medium and the other Huge. Ability-wise, they have no real weakness: the nadir of their ability contour is their Dexterity, which is still well above humanoid average. Their Strength and Constitution are highest, making them brutes, but they also possess exceptional Charisma and very high Intelligence. They cast their spells from the front line.
They’re as potent in social interaction as they are in combat, with Deception, Persuasion and Insight modifiers equal to their attack bonuses, and they shamelessly use suggestion, which they can cast innately and at will, to try to compel other parties to accept less-than-favorable terms. Like all yugoloths, they’re immune to acid and poison damage and resistant to cold, fire and lightning damage along with physical damage from nonmagical weapons. They have advantage on saving throws against magic, they can’t be poisoned, they have overlapping blindsight and darkvision, and unless you speak Abyssal or Infernal, they talk directly into your thoughts.
Lots of creatures have Teleport as an action, but the yagnoloth can include Teleport in a Multiattack, a rare combination that I’ve seen only once before, in the nycaloth. This Multiattack combo, of course, allows it to appear right behind an enemy and clout them with its Massive Arm (LOL) or, conversely, make a Massive Arm attack and then blink away.
The yagnoloth has an unusually great number of possible orders of attack, making it not only useful but necessary to examine each one individually, then compare and contrast them.
- Multiattack A: Massive Arm plus Electrified Touch. On average, if both attacks hit, deals 50 damage plus a chance to stun. At least one target must be immediately adjacent to the yagnoloth. The yagnoloth doesn’t have to attack the same target twice, but if it does, it uses its Massive Arm first, since successfully stunning the target grants advantage on the follow-up Electrified Touch attack.
- Multiattack B: Massive Arm plus Teleport (order doesn’t matter). On average, deals only 24 damage on a hit plus a chance to stun, but allows immediate relocation (up to 60 feet) before or after the attack. Target can be up to 15 feet from the yagnoloth.
- Life Leech: On average, deals 36 damage on a hit and grants the yagno 18 temporary hp. If we think of combat as an effort to continually increase the difference between one’s own hp and one’s enemy’s, the average result of this attack action does so by 54 hp. The target can be up to 15 feet from the yagnoloth but must also be incapacitated; the yagno can choose incapacitated targets opportunistically, but more commonly, it’s going to create the incapacitated condition by stunning the target with a Massive Arm hit. Thus, Life Leech is nearly always preceded by a Massive Arm hit.
- Battlefield Cunning: Forgoes attack in favor of allowing two allied yugoloths to attack. This tells us two things. First, yagnos don’t travel alone. This feature is wasted if the yagno isn’t accompanied by at least two other yugoloths. Second, for Battlefield Cunning to be a better choice than Multiattack A, the accompanying yugoloths must be strong enough that they can deal a total of at least 50 damage, on average, by making one successful attack each. But there are only two types of yugoloth that meet this criterion: the canoloth and the more powerful oinoloth, which is going to command yagnoloths, not follow them around acting as their bodyguards. Moreover, even the canoloth doesn’t quite cut the mustard, since its attack bonus is only +7, vs. the yagno’s +8; that 5 percentage point reduction in the likelihood of a hit means two canoloths fall just shy of the necessary total damage. These two facts don’t invalidate Battlefield Cunning as a useful attacking feature, but they do place a condition on it: A yagno uses Battlefield Cunning only when it doesn’t have targets within reach of its Massive Arm and its Electrified Touch, and Life Leech isn’t available to it, and it’s not recharging.
All that being said, aside from the fact that they shut down all teleportation within 60 feet, canoloths seem to be the best sidekicks for a yagnoloth; no other lower-level loth deals nearly as much damage with a single attack. If you want them to do the most damage, they need to deviate from their usual behavior and move within melee reach of enemies (or potential enemies) more than 15 feet away from the yagno, so that they can use their reactions to Bite. (If one has no foe within reach of its teeth, the reaction is wasted.) Alternatively, they can stay by the yagno’s side and use their Tongue attack to yoink enemies from between 20 and 30 feet away to within the yagno’s reach, as well as grapple and restrain them for advantage on subsequent attack rolls.
- Darkness deals no damage, but it creates an overwhelmingly advantageous combat environment for the yagnoloth and its allies if its enemies can’t simply walk out of the murksphere.
- Lightning bolt, to be used to best effect, requires at least three opponents to be lined up just so, in which case you can expect it to deal a total of around 63 damage (assuming a 50 percent chance of success on the save). Two are trivially easy to line up—any two points define a line—but three are harder to get. Since the yagno can cast lightning bolt only 3 times per day, and since striking two enemies rather than three deals only 42 total expected damage, less than Multiattack A, the yagno would prefer not to waste this spell against just two and does so only when it’s getting desperate—say, it’s already moderately wounded (reduced to 102 hp or fewer)—and doesn’t have a better option available.
- Dispel magic, because it’s cast innately, can’t be boosted beyond its base level, so its effect against spells of 4th level and above is uncertain. It opposes them with a Charisma check, using its +4 modifier against a DC of 10 plus the spell’s level, so unless it can somehow gain advantage on the check, there’s no way to improve its chance of success above 55 percent—and that’s only against a 4th-level spell. But have you already realized that the Help action can confer advantage on this check? All the yagno needs is an ally that can also cast dispel magic (the mezzoloth, nycaloth, hydroloth, merrenoloth and oinoloth can all do this) and can afford to forgo its own attack in order to take the Help action instead, and dispel magic becomes a not-stupid countermeasure against a spell of 4th through 6th level. That said, how many such spells are worth forgoing an attack to dispel? A few that come to mind are circle of power, greater invisibility, confusion, hold monster, dispel evil and good, holy weapon and globe of invulnerability, but generally speaking, the only spells worth the action it costs to dispel them—not to mention the chance of failure—are ones that significantly weaken the yagnoloth or its allies or significantly strengthen the opposition (e.g., by giving extra damage or protection against fiends) and that the yagnoloth can’t simply Teleport past.
- Detect magic isn’t really a combat-oriented spell, but since the yagnoloth treats social interaction as if it were a form of combat, just assume that when you first meet a yagno, it’s got detect magic on and keeps it on all the time. You think you can enter a negotiation with a yagno and get away with giving yourself a little magical edge? Nice try, meat. Once it’s confirmed that the other party isn’t trying to pull any arcane tricks, it may let detect magic drop in order to try to gain an unfair edge over them with suggestion.
So here’s how our order of battle is looking, from strongest to weakest direct-damage attack:
- Lightning bolt against three targets.
- Life Leech (target must be incapacitated; stunned includes incapacitation; Massive Arm can stun).
- Multiattack (Massive Arm, Electrified Touch) against one target 15 feet away or closer and one 5 feet away or closer.
- Battlefield Cunning (two canoloths).
- Lightning bolt against two targets.
- Multiattack (Massive Arm, Teleport).
Darkness is at least as good as Battlefield Cunning if the battle takes place in a confined area, and dispel magic is at least as good as Multiattack B if there’s magic that really needs dispelling. Despite dealing less damage, the yagnoloth will favor Multiattack B over lightning bolt vs. two targets, because lightning bolt is limited-use, and Multiattack isn’t. Only if there’s no enemy within reach of its Massive Arm even if it Teleports does it fall back on lightning bolt against just two.
With respect to target selection, a yagnoloth is a good problem-solver, and combat, at its core, is a problem to solve. It looks for the linchpin among its opponents, the one who holds the team together. This might be the strongest fighter, most powerful spellcaster or most selfless healer, but it also might be the bard who’s giving everyone buffs or the paladin with the protective aura. It strikes not at the most vulnerable individual per se but at the point where the group is most vulnerable. It also distinguishes between the deed and the doer: If the bard’s buff spell is providing the party a key advantage but the bard themself doesn’t have much power beyond that one spell, negating the spell will suffice, and the yagnoloth can then move on to a different target. It doesn’t need to keep abusing the bard.
Mind you, a yagnoloth, despite being evil to the core, probably isn’t going to pick a fight. Fighting is work, and that’s not the job it’s getting paid to do. (Unless it is the job it’s getting paid to do.) Especially for a clever and charismatic fiend, talking is easier than fighting—much easier. With Wisdom 15, it’s not going to let itself get taunted into a fight, either. If the punks who are taunting it are weaker (i.e., the encounter is Deadly), it may give them a taste of its “brutally powerful giant appendage” (get your mind out of the gutter—we’re talking about the Massive Arm here) to teach them some humility. But if it seems likely that they’re stronger (i.e., the encounter is Easy, Medium or Hard), it won’t take the bait. Most of the time, a yagnoloth will fight only in defense of itself or the yugoloths under its command.
Once it does deign to fight, its persistence depends on where it is. Outside Gehenna and Hades, it has no reason ever to retreat: if its physical vessel is destroyed, its soul returns to its home plane for a new one. But when a yagnoloth is on its home plane, it has to mind its skin more assiduously. Being moderately wounded (reduced to 102 hp or fewer) on its home plane will put it in a mood to parley—but remember, yagnoloths have read Getting to Yes cover to cover and are exceptional dirty tricksters. Being seriously wounded (reduced to 58 hp or fewer) on its home plane will induce a yagnoloth to surrender—on the most favorable terms it can get its foes to accept.
Next: oinoloths. Or is it “oinoloth”—singular?