A couple of readers asked me to look at the balhannoth, and I have to say, this is one of the strangest stat blocks I’ve ever looked at. Not necessarily because it has the most peculiar abilities—although a couple of its abilities are unique and quite interesting—but because it almost seems like two different monsters in one, each with a completely different modus operandi.
Going by its ability scores and its attack actions, the balhannoth is a straightforward brute, with exceptional Strength and Constitution. Its Bite action is a basic melee attack that deals a ferocious four dice of piercing damage at close range. Its Tentacle action does bludgeoning damage (which can be read as “constricting” as well as “whomping”) and also grapples and restrains on a hit. Additionally, the grappled target “is moved up to 5 feet toward the balhannoth.” “Up to 5” includes zero, and this gives the balhannoth the option of either reeling a target in to Bite them or holding them at a safe distance, out of melee attack reach. A balhannoth can grab up to four targets this way.
Its Multiattack offers two choices: Tentacle/Tentacle/Bite (or Tentacle/Bite/Tentacle) and Tentacle × 4. If opponents are rushing the balhannoth, or if they’re clustered too closely together, the latter lets it seize several of them at once. If only a couple of enemies are within reach, it can grab and Bite right away.
As a legendary creature, the balhannoth has three legendary actions, one of which is Bite Attack—a Bite on another creature’s turn. This makes the Tentacle × 4 Multiattack option more appealing, as the balhannoth doesn’t have to forgo biting altogether simply because it wanted to snatch as many foes as possible in its tentacles. It can also Teleport up to 60 feet, which is useful for positioning, because the balhannoth is slow. (Although the illustration in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes seems to suggest that it floats like a grell, it has no flying speed—just walking and climbing, both 25 feet.) I’ll talk about its third legendary action in a moment.
If you knew nothing else about the balhannoth, you’d think it was basically an unusually vicious roper—a brute that snatches foes with its tentacles and holds them in place, restrained, while chomping down on them with advantage.
But then there’s the other half of its kit.
The raison d’être of the balhannoth, a denizen of the Shadowfell, is to sucker lost wanderers into its lair by making it appear and feel like the answer to their deepest longings. It does this by way of its regional effects and lair actions. And this is where the balhannoth gets truly strange, because its lair actions—which take place on initiative count 20, like all lair actions—seem designed specifically to be used outside the context of a combat encounter, when there is no “initiative count 20” or any other initiative count.
Its regional effects work the way other regional effects do, out to a distance of 1 mile: the balhannoth can sense the desires of a humanoid wanderer and can implant in that wanderer the sense that the fulfillment of those desires is nearby. Next comes a circular zone with a radius of 500 feet: at this distance, the balhannoth can sense anything, thanks to its ridiculous blindsight, and can use a lair action to either kidnap a creature (this one doesn’t have to be a humanoid, necessarily) or turn invisible to one creature. Inside this is a square zone, 500 feet on a side—in other words, a distance of 250 to 353 feet from the balhannoth—in which the balhannoth can use another lair action to create an ultra-detailed yet weirdly flawed illusion of a place that fulfills the wanderer’s desires.
The fact that these lair actions take place “on initiative count 20” of a combat encounter that player characters may not even be aware they’re in yet isn’t the only strange part. The reality-distorting lair action also takes 10 minutes to take effect.
Suppose the balhannoth senses the desires of Daria Hrast, a ranger, and starts to reshape the terrain of its lair into her dream campsite. Daria, with her keen sense of direction and harefooted step, immediately begins to zero in on the lair of the aberration. Even if her base movement speed is only 30 feet and she doesn’t Dash, she can still arrive at the balhannoth’s lair nine rounds, or 54 seconds, after it begins remodeling. It’s not even going to be close to done.
So the balhannoth has to be particular about what order it uses its powers in. First, it has to sense its victim’s desires, at a range of 1 mile or less, without foisting a sense of their being close by. Second, it has to use a lair action to design the set. Ten minutes later, once it’s finally ready to show off its handiwork, then it can use its other regional effect to lure its victim in. Finally, it must wait for the victim to approach within 500 feet, at which point it can use another lair action to become invisible to that victim, followed by a third lair action to try to yoink them the rest of the way. Any alarm the abductee experiences is drowned out by the regional effect of the balhannoth’s lair, from which the feelings of being near one’s heart’s desire are overwhelming at ground zero.
Of note here—aside from the incongruity of using lair actions entirely outside initiative order—is the fact that while the balhannoth can’t use the same lair action two rounds in a row, the effects of its first and third lair actions are persistent. It can, and probably will, have both up and running at once, and it can use the second while the first and third are in effect.
What if the balhannoth fails to become invisible to its victim? Then it simply doesn’t bother to yoink. What if the invisibility succeeds, but the yoink fails? Then it waits patiently for the victim to find their way to its lair on their own.
Can the balhannoth use a legendary action outside combat? Legendary actions can be used only “at the end of another creature’s turn,” but lair actions can only be used “on initiative count 20,” and we’re already playing absurdly fast and loose with the definition of combat time here—if we don’t, then half the balhannoth’s kit becomes completely worthless, because it will never be able to reshape its lair in time. In this new “Do what you gotta” regime, as long as the balhannoth’s marks are still on their way to its lair, they’re taking turns, in a sense. And the balhannoth, on one of these turns, uses the Vanish legendary action to turn invisible, not just to its victim but to everyone. That’s where we’ll stop bending the rules; from this point on, the balhannoth does everything by the book.
If it’s lured just one victim to its lair, it gives the victim 30 seconds or so to enjoy and appreciate the rare feeling of being granted their fondest wish, followed by the dawning awareness that the cake is a lie. Having had that satisfaction, the balhannoth attacks. It can use its Multiattack flexibly, making two Tentacle attacks, then deciding whether to Bite (if it’s grappled its victim) or make two more Tentacle attacks (if it failed on its first two tries). Because the balhannoth is invisible, it makes the first attack with advantage. (It may not make it with surprise, however. It lacks Stealth proficiency, and its Dexterity modifier is an infelicitous −1. If its Stealth roll doesn’t beat the victim’s passive Perception, they’ll know something is there, even though they can’t see it.) It attacks to kill and doesn’t let up unless its victim manages to moderately wound it (reduce it to 79 hp or fewer) before it can moderately wound its victim (reduce them to 70 percent or less of their hit point maximum).
If the victim arrives under their own power, with an entourage, the balhannoth has to try to get within 10 feet of as many of them as possible and lash out with every tentacle, like the octopus who plays the drums. It makes its first attack against a target with AC 15 or higher (AC 18 is ideal), to get the most value out of its attack advantage, but this is as sophisticated as its target selection gets.
And now we’re back in brute territory—not just brute territory, but mechanistic brute territory, because the balhannoth’s Intelligence 6 allows it no tactical flexibility. After taking its own turn, it uses its legendary actions as it’s allowed to. It uses Vanish immediately after its last grappled victim escapes, preparing to reposition for another mass grab. It uses Teleport when it has an empty tentacle and no other way to get to the next target it wants to use it on, or to get away from an enemy who deals it 12 damage or more in a single hit. Otherwise, it uses Bite Attack to munch on one of its grappled victims. If it’s grappled any of its victims at a range of 10 feet, it holds them there so that they can’t close in and fight back while it Bites those nearer to it.
Like most predators, the balhannoth doesn’t care much for prey that fights back, but it also doesn’t want to abandon its lair if it can help it. It flees when seriously wounded (reduced to 45 hp or fewer).
Thought I might be able to tackle something easy after the drow matron mother, but no—you guys want me to look at the nagpa, another monster with eleventy billion spells. (OK, it’s got 26. That’s still a lot.)
It’s not like you’ll even find nagpas running around all over the place. According to Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, there are only 13 of them—a coterie of conniving wizards cursed by the Raven Queen and turned into skulking vulture-people scavenging the remnants of lost civilizations for scraps of arcane lore.
Unsurprisingly, nagpas’ ability contour is that of a long-range spellcaster, with extraordinary Intelligence and Charisma, exceptional Wisdom and very high Dexterity. They carry staves, which they somehow are able to use as finesse weapons and deal two dice of damage with, but melee engagement really isn’t their style. If they do get into melee, they want to get back out of it quickly.
They have proficiency in all the mental saving throws, but their Dexterity and Constitution save modifiers are unremarkable. Thus, they don’t have a lot to fear from bards, whose spells tend to emphasize enchantment, illusion and crowd control; but casters who sling damaging evocation, transmutation and necromancy spells pose a threat that they need to neutralize quickly. Taking out these foes is even more important to them than taking out melee fighters.
Although their flavor text says they “work in the shadows” and “emerge [only] when they can deliver a finishing blow,” nagpas lack Stealth proficiency, and their Dex isn’t high enough to allow them to hide effectively. They also lack illusion spells, “trap” spells such as glyph of warding, and scrying spells. Ambush, therefore, isn’t a viable attack strategy; any plan they concoct has to work without their targets’ being surprised. They do, however, have proficiency in Deception, as well as charm person, suggestion and dominate person, which they can use to manipulate others into doing their dirty work for them. Afterward, the nagpas can liquidate the now-expendable marks. Their multiple language proficiencies can enhance the believability of their ruses.
While it doesn’t affect their tactics in any meaningful way, nagpas’ combination of Perception proficiency and truesight is potent. They may not be able to stage an ambush of their own, but on the flip side, hiding from one of them is nearly impossible.
Nagpas have two distinctive features: Corruption and Paralysis. Corruption is a bonus action (read: action economy enhancer) that affects a single creature, imposing the charmed condition until the start of the nagpa’s next turn. As debilitating conditions go, charmed is relatively weak in combat—all it really does is prevent the target from attacking the charmer. (It’s much better in social interaction, when a nagpa can use it to lay the groundwork for subsequent Deception.) But it does have the benefit of preventing an opportunity attack, which a nagpa can use against a melee opponent to disengage without having to take the Disengage action—as long as there’s only one melee opponent it has to get away from. And one opponent not attacking you is one opponent not attacking you, so there’s that as well.
Paralysis is the keystone of the nagpa’s kit. It’s also a bonus action, and it can potentially paralyze every creature within 30 feet for up to a full minute. The nagpa’s DC 20 is high enough that even high-level PCs may take a few rounds to shake this effect off. Even so, the time to take advantage of it is immediately. How can a nagpa do the greatest possible damage to a half-dozen paralyzed enemies—who automatically fail Strength and Dexterity saving throws and can be attacked with advantage, for automatic critical hits at close range?
It’s kind of amazing, but among all those 26 spells, there are only three that fill the bill: fireball, wall of fire and prismatic spray. And each of them fills it imperfectly:
Fireball seems like a gimme, but it has only a 20-foot radius and thus may miss targets caught in Paralysis’ 30-foot radius. The smaller circle covers less than half the area of the larger one (four-ninths, to be exact); normally we’d expect it to encompass four targets, but in this case, we’re going to say it can be assured of hitting only three of the six.
Wall of fire has two options: a straight line or a circle with a 10-foot radius. Against paralyzed foes who don’t get to repeat their saving throws until the ends of their turns, these walls are effectively 10 feet wide, rather than 1 foot (although targets they’re drawn directly over take an additional tranche of damage). The circular wall can therefore be either a disc of flame with a 10-foot radius or a ring of flame with a 20-foot radius but a 10-foot-radius cutout in the middle. However the wall is drawn, there’s no guarantee that the distribution of paralyzed targets will match the shape of the wall. On the upside, though, it can be sustained to keep dealing damage for as long as targets are immobilized.
A nagpa can’t be confident that a straight wall will pass through more than two out of six targets paralyzed in a 30-foot-radius circle. A solid circle with a 10-foot radius occupies only one-ninth the area of the larger circle, so on average, it’s probably going to cover only one target; a solid 20-foot-radius circle could be predicted to hit three (as we saw looking at fireball), but subtract the doughnut hole, and we’re down to just two.
Prismatic spray’s area of effect is a 60-foot cone, which seems great: per the “Targets in Area of Effect” table in chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, both a 30-foot-radius circle and a 60-foot cone can be reasonably expected to include six foes. The trouble is, those two shapes don’t overlap very well. Any given distribution of six targets in a 30-foot-radius circle is unlikely to fall entirely within a 60-foot cone no matter where that cone originates from. It’s possible, but it’s unlikely. Let’s say for the sake of argument that out of six targets paralyzed in a 30-foot-radius circle, the most a nagpa can be sure of is that it can find a point of origin wherefrom a 60-foot cone will contain four of them.
The real question here is which of these spells Paralysis does the most to improve. In other words, which deals more damage, and by how much: fireball against three paralyzed targets, or fireball against four unparalyzed targets? Prismatic spray against four paralyzed targets, or prismatic spray against six paralyzed targets? Interestingly, wall of fire—if you go by “Targets in Area of Effect”—can only ever be counted on to strike two targets anyway, so casting it against two paralyzed targets seems like pure win. But by how much still matters.
Normally, to keep it simple, I assume a 50 percent chance of making a saving throw against an area-effect spell for the purposes of calculating expected damage. The nagpa’s spell save DC is high, though, so this time I’m going to assume a one-third chance instead.
Cast at 3rd level, fireball deals 8d6 damage on a failed save, for 23 expected damage per target, or 93 total expected damage against four. Against three paralyzed targets, who automatically fail their saves, fireball deals 84 damage. Boosting this spell to 4th level (or any level) increases both those numbers by the same proportion, and therefore doesn’t change the fact that it’s better for regular field use than as a follow-up to Paralysis.
Wall of fire, cast at 4th level, deals 19 expected damage per target, 22 expected damage per paralyzed target. Plus, when you cast wall of fire on a target who can move, they’re usually smart enough to get the heck out before they take more damage—but a paralyzed target can’t, and the soonest they’ll get to make another saving throw to become un-paralyzed is the end of their turn, at which time they’ll get burned again. So really, it’s 19 expected damage per target, 45 expected damage per paralyzed target. But wait—that assumes that the target succeeds on their second save, when the chance of succeeding on the second after failing the first is only 1 in 3. So now it’s 19 expected damage per target, 60 expected damage per paralyzed target! We could go on, but even if we stop here, assuming two targets in the wall, this combo offers a net gain of 82 damage. Astonishingly effective, given how few targets it affects.
Prismatic spray is tricky, because 62.5 percent of the time it deals 10d6 damage on a failed save, 25 percent of the time it deals no damage (but rather imposes a debilitating condition), and 12.5 percent of the time it does damage equal to or greater than 10d6. Trust me when I say this works out to 23 expected damage per target, or 141 expected damage against six targets. Against four paralyzed targets, who all fail their saves, the expected damage is 28 per target, or a total of 112. Once again, contrary to expectations, Paralysis doesn’t improve the result of an immediately following prismatic spray.
What if the nagpa gets a lucky break, and its targets are arranged just right, so that a fireball or prismatic spray could strike all six targets affected by Paralysis? Then fireball deals a total of 168 expected damage, a gain of 75 over its damage against four targets who are free to make Dex saves, while prismatic spray deals 169 total expected damage, a gain of just 28 over its expected damage against six unparalyzed targets. Wall of fire, amazingly, is still the best spell to combine with Paralysis—and that’s without its targets being arranged so fortuitously that it can hurt more than two.
Paralysis recharges only on a roll of 6. It’s entirely likely that the nagpa will get only one chance to use it in a combat encounter. Consequently, it’s not going to waste it: it uses it only when six or more of its foes, or all of them if there are fewer than six, are within 30 feet of it. If it can position itself within 30 feet of this many opponents without putting itself at undue risk, it does so (movement), then uses Paralysis (bonus action) at the start of its turn and immediately follows it up with wall of fire (action), in whatever configuration incinerates as many paralyzed opponents as possible.
Incidentally, this isn’t a bad way to kick off a combat encounter with a nagpa: If you can pull it off, have it use its various charms and deceits to talk all its soon-to-be opponents into standing in a nice, straight line or a perfect circle! “Ah, that’s excellent. Thank you. Now stay right where you are—I mean it!” *fwoom*
To analyze the rest of the nagpa’s spells, I’m going to divide them between those that require concentration and those that don’t. (Except for counterspell, which is cast as a reaction, all of these spells take an action to cast.)
Dominate person does just what it says on a failed Wisdom saving throw. Obviously not so good against a cleric or druid, but not so bad against a fighter or rogue who can then be sent to beat up a cleric or druid. However, the target gets a new saving throw every time they take damage, so the control may not last long.
Confusion is somewhat weak compared to other things the nagpa can do: its radius is small, generally affecting only two targets, and its results are unpredictable. If the nagpa has many minions, it becomes more effective.
Fly makes the nagpa much faster, allows it free movement over difficult terrain, and can lift it out of an otherwise inescapable pit or other trap. Realistically, though, by the time PCs are high enough level to fight a nagpa, they have ways of flying, too, so it’s a poor escape plan and mainly just makes the nagpa a more attractive target for archers. It does lift it out of melee reach, at least, but the opportunity cost (both in casting time and concentration) is high.
Hold person is always good, though not necessarily for mopping up enemies that made their saves against Paralysis, because it’s the same save. Boosting it to 4th level to paralyze three enemies is an attractive option.
Ray of enfeeblement has the unattractive property of being most useful against those best equipped to resist it. However, the fact that the nagpa’s spell save DC is so high makes it a barely plausible gambit against a melee fighter who’s likely to shake off their paralysis at any moment.
Suggestion and detect magic are not good uses of concentration, given what else the nagpa can do.
Protection from evil and good is situational: a nagpa will cast it only to defend itself against an aberration, celestial, elemental, fey, fiend or undead of CR 6 or higher summoned by its opponents; or against two of CR 5, three of CR 4, four of CR 3, or six or more of CR 2.
Witch bolt might be amusing to boost to 4th level if and only if the nagpa has nothing better to do with its concentration.
Concentration not required
Feeblemind takes an enemy out of the fight for good if they fail their saving throw. Since it calls for an Intelligence save, this one’s bad against wizards and great against nearly everyone else. An irksome sorcerer, warlock, cleric or druid casting evocation, transmutation or necromancy spells is the ideal victim (unless they’re a gnome—Gnome Cunning makes them a hard target).
Etherealness is the nagpa’s escape hatch. It has to be very careful, because it has only one 7th-level spell slot and one 8th-level spell slot. If it casts both prismatic spray and feeblemind, it has no more gas for its getaway vehicle.
Prismatic spray is extremely strong—when the nagpa faces five or six opponents. Against four or fewer, it does no more damage than fireball, at much greater cost. And against seven or more—well, the nagpa may get lucky and hit more than six targets, but it shouldn’t count on it.
Circle of death wasn’t included in the Paralysis discussion because it calls for a Constitution save, not a Strength or Dex save. It deals necrotic damage, the same amount as fireball, but over a much larger radius, so that it can potentially affect many more targets—a cool dozen, according to “Targets in Area of Effect.” A nagpa facing a whole horde of foes breaks out circle of death.
Disintegrate, on the other hand, is the big gun to pull out against a troublesome front-line fighter or skirmisher or an especially annoying support spellcaster. It deals no damage at all on a successful saving throw but an average of 75 damage on a failure, so the best target is one who’s still struggling to shake off Paralysis or is restrained from being hit by prismatic spray’s indigo ray.
Dream and geas both take 1 minute to cast and are therefore part of the nagpa’s scheming kit rather than its scuffling kit.
Hallucinatory terrain, which takes 10 minutes to cast, is the same.
Counterspell is automatic against a 3rd- or lower-level spell that would require the nagpa to make a Dex or Con save. Against a 4th-level spell that would do the same, the nagpa will upcast it.
Charm person is better used outside combat than in it. Corruption has the same effect (although it does last only one round), has three times the range, targets Charisma instead of Wisdom, costs no spell slot, doesn’t require concentration and uses a bonus action.
Paralysis plus wall of fire is the combo the nagpa is hoping to be able to set up, but if its opponents aren’t in the right places to make it work when it’s ready to kick off combat, it sucker-punches either the most threatening-looking enemy caster with feeblemind or (if there are too many threatening-looking enemy casters to choose from) the entire opposing side with prismatic spray or circle of death. If it chooses prismatic spray, it first positions itself where it can catch six or more enemies in the area of effect, or all of them if there are only five (if there are four or fewer, it doesn’t bother with prismatic spray at all). It chooses circle of death only if there are at least a dozen enemy creatures in the area of effect.
After taking this action, the nagpa uses Corruption (bonus action!) to keep one of its foes from bothering it for a round. Since it targets Charisma, bards, paladins, sorcerers, warlocks and snappily dressed rogues are bad bets, as are all elves and gnomes; barbarians, druids, rangers and wizards are pretty good bets; and clerics, fighters and monks fall somewhere in between. (A nagpa can tell the difference between spellcasting types at a glance.) Again, its top priorities are, primarily, to keep its opponents from casting spells that require Dex or Con saves, and secondarily, to keep them from hitting it with sharp or heavy things.
On subsequent rounds, it keeps maneuvering around until it can use Paralysis/wall of fire the way it wants to, taking the Corruption bonus action to temporarily neutralize an opponent whenever it can’t use Paralysis. It doesn’t cast feeblemind if it’s already cast prismatic spray; it doesn’t cast prismatic spray if it’s already cast feeblemind. It saves disintegrate for a paralyzed opponent, but if its foes are taking too long to get into formation for Paralysis like they’re supposed to, it casts hold person at 4th level, against the three targets with the lowest Wisdom (with Intelligence 23, it knows who these are), to be followed up with disintegrate on its next turn. But it doesn’t just cast hold person to make targets easier to hit, or to keep them from doing anything unneighborly. Having two or three enemies frozen in place makes it easier to bait the rest of one’s enemies into position for Paralysis, and that’s just what the nagpa does. If everyone lines up properly while the nagpa is preparing to cast disintegrate, it’s happy to go ahead and cast that spell (action), use Paralysis while the window of opportunity is open (bonus action) and wait until its next turn to cast wall of fire.
The rest is all cleanup. The nagpa keeps wall of fire going for as long as there are at least two foes taking damage from it. When there aren’t, it drops the spell and switches to hold person (if it hasn’t cast that already) or dominate person (if it has). If a criterion for protection from evil and good is met, that spell trumps any other concentration-required spell except wall of fire. It casts counterspell against enemy magic as described above. Even against fewer than a dozen opponents, it doesn’t mind using circle of death after showing off its Paralysis/wall of fire party piece, but first it takes advantage of any lingering paralysis to cast disintegrate (if it hasn’t already) or fireball or to land auto-crits with its staff (only against enemies it doesn’t have to walk through flames to get at).
Nagpas are both shrewd and prudent, and they have no particular desire to risk their necks. They cast etherealness and retreat when only moderately wounded (reduced to 130 hp or fewer). If etherealness is squelched somehow, they try fly (or Paralysis/wall of fire, if they haven’t gotten to yet). If that’s squelched too, they keep fighting until they’re seriously wounded (reduced to 74 hp or fewer), then flee, casting witch bolt (at 4th level if possible, otherwise at 2nd or 1st), fireball, fire bolt (3d10 fire damage!) and, if truly desperate, suggestion to cover their retreat; and continuing to use Corruption to discourage their pursuers.
Deepest apologies to all my impatient readers. Between doing revisions on The Monsters Know What They’re Doing: Combat Tactics for Dungeon Masters and taking care of a daughter who’s just starting to get the hang of a nap schedule, I haven’t had time for blogging. And this particular post is a mother.
The drow matron mother, CR 20, is second only to Lolth herself in the drow boss hierarchy. She’s a spellcaster first, a skirmisher second, certain to be surrounded by a multitude of minions. She’s also a legendary creature, with legendary actions—one of which she can turn over to a demon ally for its own use, sort of a drowish Commander’s Strike.
Like all drow, the matron mother has Fey Ancestry (passive), Sunlight Sensitivity (no going outside, especially during the day), and the innate spells dancing lights, darkness, faerie fire and levitate. However, she’s got a few additional tricks up her sleeve: She can cast detect magic at will, and once per day, she can cast clairvoyance, detect thoughts, dispel magic and suggestion.
Note that the matron mother can cast dispel magic with or without using a spell slot, but when she casts it innately, it works only against spells of 3rd level or lower. Since she can cast it this way only once per day, she’s going to be finicky about what spells she dispels with it, saving it only for the most important. A very good candidate is invisibility, since dispel magic affects “one creature, object or magical effect” within 120 feet and doesn’t require her to be able to see the target, only to know they’re there. Pop! Haste, slow, hypnotic pattern, enlarge/reduce and spiritual weapon are also top choices. If she wants to dispel anything else, she’ll spend a spell slot on it.
The matron mother has Magic Resistance, so she’s more concerned with what spellcasters can do to her allies than with what they can do to her personally. If she has any weakness, it’s her Armor Class: 17 is on the low side for a boss monster, and by the time player characters are strong enough to encounter her, they’re not going to have much trouble hitting that number. Therefore, as far as target selection is concerned, her main focus is going to be neutralizing ranged weapon and spell attackers—unless a melee attacker blitzes her, in which case she’ll switch her focus to them.
She has no ranged weapon attack, but two melee weapon attacks: Demon Staff and Tentacle Rod. Her Multiattack is an interesting mixed bag, allowing her either two attacks with the staff or three with the rod. Judging from the damage she does with them, the staff is a finesse weapon, and the rod isn’t, so we’d expect her to favor the staff. But the rod has a longer reach, and while it doesn’t do much direct damage, it can impose the same effects as a slow spell if she hits a single target with it three times in one turn. If she doesn’t hit them three times, it’s weaksauce, so I think she’ll avoid it unless she has at least a 2-in-3 chance of hitting three times and the target has at most a 1-in-3 chance of succeeding on the saving throw.
What does this mean? To have a two-thirds chance of hitting three times in a row, she needs an 87.4 percent chance of hitting once. With her +9 to hit, that means the target’s AC must be 12 or lower. As for the saving throw, to beat DC 15 at least one time out of three, the target needs only a +1 Constitution save modifier. That’s not much! The upshot is, Tentacle Rod is a good attack only against frail-looking spellcasters wearing no armor. The matron mother’s Intelligence isn’t high enough for her to “read” targets’ stats; she has to base this judgment on observation.
Before I dive into her spell repertoire, there are two more traits to look at: Lolth’s Fickle Favor and Summon Servant.
Summon Servant calls up a yochlol, just as Summon Demon does for a drow priestess of Lolth. The difference is that for the drow matron mother, it always works. (Alternatively, it can summon a “retriever,” which is not a very faithful and kind of dopey dog but rather a construct, also listed in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, whose primary function is kidnapping.)
Lolth’s Fickle Favor is a bonus action with a 30-foot range which hurts one of her allies—but gives it advantage on one subsequent attack roll. When does this tradeoff make sense?
For starters, she has to give it to an ally that’s making attack rolls (either a weapon or spell attack—it doesn’t matter which) rather than casting a spell or using another ability that’s resisted with a saving throw. Also, the stronger the ally upon which she bestows this “gift,” the less the harm and the greater the benefit—as long as having advantage actually makes a difference. In other words, she wants to give advantage to the toughest of her allies which nevertheless has less than a two-thirds chance to hit, but which will have a greater than two-thirds chance to hit if given advantage. The sweet spot is when the matron mother’s ally has a 45 to 65 percent chance to hit, meaning when the ally needs an unmodified attack roll from 8 to 12.
Once again, she can’t read stats, but here are some rules of thumb she can follow, using intelligence guided by experience:
Regular drow are too weak to confer Lolth’s Fickle Favor on, as a general rule. The psychic damage will mess them up badly enough that they may not survive long enough to use their attack advantage. A matron mother might do it anyway, though, if she has lots of drow minions (like, at least 10 still standing); if they’re taking their turn next, before any opponent does; and if the one she wants to confer favor on is fighting an opponent wearing light or medium armor.
A drow elite warrior is a good candidate if it’s fighting an opponent wearing medium armor and carrying a shield, wearing heavy armor and not carrying a shield, or using Unarmored Defense. (The last case requires the matron mother to see how the opponent is defending, so it won’t happen during the first round of combat. Then again, her first-round bonus action is best spent casting spiritual weapon)
A drow mage is only a good candidate if a melee opponent has managed to close with it, so that it may cast ray of frost, and the opponent is wearing medium or heavy armor or using Unarmored Defense.
A drow priestess of Lolth is never a good candidate, because she only makes melee attacks when she has advantage already.
A drow house captain is a good candidate if it’s fighting an opponent wearing heavy armor (with or without a shield) or obviously magic medium armor.
A drow shadowblade also attacks only when it has advantage already and therefore isn’t a good candidate.
A drow arachnomancer is a good candidate when it’s attacking an opponent wearing heavy armor (with or without a shield) or obviously magic medium armor with either Poisonous Touch, eldritch blast or (in spider form) Bite.
A drow inquisitor is only a good candidate when it’s about to use its Death Lance against a target wearing heavy armor and carrying a shield, one or both of which is preferably magical. Most of the time, it’s a poor candidate, because of its reliance on spells requiring saving throws to resist.
A drow favored consort is a good candidate when it’s about to make a Scimitar attack against a target wearing heavy armor and carrying a shield, one or both of which is preferably magical.
The drow matron mother’s spells are the backbone of her kit, and they go all the way up to 9th level. Unlike a lot of spellcasting foes, she has a rich panoply of spells that don’t require concentration, not to mention instantaneous spells that have lasting effects. These spells give her a ton of flexibility and a superior action economy. Add to these the legendary action that lets her cast a spell on another creature’s turn, and you end up with a spellcaster who makes the archmage look like a plodder.
Contagion, death ward, freedom of movement, guardian of faith and spiritual weapon are all instantaneous spells with lasting effects; however, only spiritual weapon is low enough level to cast using a legendary action. And since spiritual weapon is a bonus action and can be combined, if the matron mother wishes, with the sacred flame cantrip, there’s only one reason for her to use a legendary action to cast it: She wants to use her first-turn action to cast an even more powerful spell. But which one?
Let’s look at her spell slots. She has one 9th-level slot, which she’ll only ever use for gate, and one 8th-level slot, which she’ll only ever use for holy aura (which can’t be upcast). She has two 6th-level and two 7th-level slots, but neither of her 6th-level spells can be upcast. Her 1st-level slots can only be used to cast 1st-level spells and are what she’ll cast those spells with. This leaves her 2nd- through 5th-level slots as the ones that are actually fungible, that may be used either to cast spells at their base level or to boost spells of lower levels.
Which ones can be boosted? Banishment (concentration required), bestow curse (concentration required—but see below), dispel magic, spirit guardians (concentration required), hold person (concentration required) and spiritual weapon (takes two spell levels to boost). Boosting banishment is a decent deal: the matron mother gets to banish two enemies instead of one. Spirit guardians’ damage can be raised from 3d8 to 4d8 or 5d8. Hold person can paralyze up to four enemies, which could be extremely powerful. Spiritual weapon can be made to deal 2d8 + 5 damage rather than 1d8 + 5 damage, but is this really worth a 4th-level spell slot? Maybe; it does, after all, deal its damage as a bonus action.
But the two I want to shine a spotlight on are dispel magic and bestow curse. By upcasting dispel magic, the drow matron mother can nullify a 4th- or 5th-level buff—so she can take away not only your invisibility but your greater invisibility as well, not to mention your polymorph, your conjure elemental, your hold monster or your wall of force fire. As for bestow curse, when cast using a 5th-level spell slot, it lasts 8 hours and takes effect instantaneously, without requiring concentration. These are so much classier than simply doing more damage.
On the other hand, doing more damage with spirit guardians compares surprisingly favorably with the basic 5th-level damage option, flame strike, which deals 4d6 fire damage plus 4d6 radiant damage over a 10-foot radius. Against two enemies, which is the minimum that the matron mother will use it against (see “Targets in Area of Effect,” Dungeon Master’s Guide, chapter 8), this is an average of 56 total damage on a failed save, 28 total damage on a success, or roughly 42 expected damage. By comparison, a 5th-level spirit guardians deals 22 damage on a failed save and 11 on a success, or 17 expected damage to each enemy who enters its 15-foot radius. It seems paltry at first glance, until you consider that the radius implies that it’s meant to affect three enemies at once (expected damage: 51); plus, it’s a sustained spell, so it can do even more damage over multiple rounds. Maybe it will do no damage—maybe opponents will simply decline to walk into it. But maybe, as well, this is a case of the threat being stronger than the execution, protecting the matron mother from melee attacks by imposing a cost that foes won’t want to pay.
What about boosting spiritual weapon? Forget it. The matron mother has only three 4th-level slots, and all her 4th-level spells offer something important. In fact, arguably, death ward, freedom of movement and guardian of faith are so important to her supercharged action economy that she’ll cast banishment only with a 5th-level slot, and only when she can banish two foes at once!
Let’s take a look at what her other spells imply:
Gate could be a simple escape hatch, like plane shift (which the matron mother has) and dimension door (which she doesn’t). But there are two big differences between gate and plane shift. One is that gate offers precision: you know exactly where you’re going to end up. The other is that plane shift is strictly an exit door, but gate can be an entrance: if you name a specific creature that resides on a different plane, gate snatches it and brings it through. “Oh, have you met my good friend, Lolth? We pledged Pi Beta Phi together. She’s my bestie!”
Holy aura offers the substantial benefit of conferring advantage on saving throws and imposing disadvantage on incoming attacks to the matron mother and all her allies within a 30-foot radius—an area of effect that should cover at least half a dozen of them, if not more. But it does need concentration to sustain, preventing her from casting blade barrier, banishment, spirit guardians, hold person, silence or bane. (She can cast bestow curse, but only if she uses a 5th-level slot. If she decides she needs to cast gate, she’ll drop holy aura in a heartbeat.)
Divine word, against PCs of a high enough level to be fighting a drow matron mother, is a finishing move. It affects only targets with 50 hp or fewer, and meaningfully affects only targets with 40 hp or fewer. The typical level 20 PC will have maximum hit points somewhere in the 100-to-200 neighborhood, so frailer PCs will have to be seriously wounded, while more robust PCs will have to be seriously seriously wounded, for divine word to be a good bet.
Plane shift is an emergency exit that the matron mother can either go through herself, along with up to eight of her allies, or push one opponent through. Prudence suggests saving it for the former application rather than taking a chance on the latter.
Blade barrier might be better named “wall of razors,” and it covers a huge area. A particularly confident matron mother might cast it in a ring around herself, forcing foes to either fly over it or take an expected 25 damage attempting to run through it. “I’m not trapped in here with you—you’re trapped in here with me!” If her opponents pose a meaningful threat to the matron mother and her allies, however, holy aura or a boosted hold person is the better play.
Harm deals an expected 37 damage, with a good chance of its being unhealable in the current battle. Good against foes who depend on Dexterity for defense rather than Constitution.
Contagion requires touch and doesn’t take full effect for three to five rounds, so its value depreciates rapidly after the first round or two of combat. It also requires a melee spell attack to cast, and a drow matron mother would rather hang back and cast spells than engage in melee combat, particularly at the beginning of a fight. And it’s completely useless against paladins and monks of any consequence. If a matron mother does cast it, she’ll choose the Slimy Doom option against a melee fighter and Blinding Sickness against anyone else.
Geas takes too long to cast in combat, but it’s fantastic if the matron mother can take an opponent prisoner before the rest of their posse shows up. Charm spells are often poor for making opponents fight one another, but geas is an exception to this rule. If the matron mother casts geas on a prisoner, remember to mark off a 5th-level spell slot before combat begins.
Mass cure wounds is as nice for a matron mother as it is for PCs.
Death ward is good for 8 hours, and a matron mother who has any reason to suspect that she’ll face mortal danger casts it on herself as a basic precaution. Mark off the slot. (Alternatively, if there’s someone the matron mother must protect, she may cast it on her charge instead. But I think it’s going to be mighty rare that anyone is more of a VIP than the matron mother herself.)
Freedom of movement is also good and long-lasting, but more situational. She won’t cast it until she’s certain she needs it. She may know in advance that she’ll need it, though, depending on what intelligence has reached her.
Guardian of faith is good for controlling choke points as well as obstructing access to the matron mother herself. Again, when she casts it depends in large part on what she knows is going to happen.
Clairvoyance is for pre-combat spying—and a hard spell to justify spending a 3rd-level slot on if the matron mother has any reason to think that combat is going to ensue today. She really needs those slots for dispel magic.
Silence has the usual benefit (shuts down bards and all but a handful of spells) and the usual drawback (easy to walk out of). Only useful in confined spaces, and the matron mother prefers not to be in confined spaces, because of the large radii of her abilities.
Bane smacks of desperation, but the matron mother may in fact be feeling desperate if her concentration on both holy aura and blade barrier has been broken. Even so, there’s still banishment, spirit guardians and hold person to consider first.
Command is chancy, only really useful if the matron mother has a whole lot of minions and the timing is right. But she can make the timing right by using a legendary action.
Cure wounds, given that she also has mass cure wounds, is primarily good for making foes feel like they’re wasting their time by using a legendary action to undo the damage they’ve just dealt.
Guiding bolt, similarly, is a setup for key allies who are taking their turn next and aren’t gaining advantage from some other source.
Whoooo. OK, it’s finally time to put it all together.
Round 1 is easy: Spiritual weapon as a bonus action and Summon Servant, which always works, as an action. That’s two more allies on the field. The drow matron mother hangs back, letting her minions handle the front line for the time being. As other creatures take their turns, she uses her legendary actions to gradually spend down her low-level spell slots. Remember the good old Tower of Hanoi puzzle? That’s how she spends her low-level slots: 1st, 2nd, 1st, 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 1st. This keeps her from burning all her 1st-level slots at once. What if there’s no 2nd-level spell she wants to cast at the moment (which is likely, given that spiritual weapon is already up and hold person is better boosted)? Then she’ll upcast guiding bolt. One exception to this pattern: She’ll always cast dispel magic to erase a spell of 3rd level or lower that’s important enough to erase.
Round 2 is where it gets more complicated. Depending on the deployment of her own side and on the nature of the terrain and her opposition, she’ll cast one of her concentration-required spells: holy aura (clustered, on defense), blade barrier (clustered, on offense, setting an ambush for opponents to walk into), spirit guardians (spread out, on defense, melee-heavy opposition) or 5th-level hold person (spread out, only four opponents—gotta paralyze ’em all!). If an enemy rushes her, she casts contagion instead. Her bonus action is to strike with spiritual weapon unless one of the specific favorable conditions of Lolth’s Fickle Favor exists. As for positioning, she tries to stay behind and within 30 feet of her allies.
Once she has a concentration spell up and running, she can start to choose between casting more spells and venturing forth to smack vulnerable opponents with her Demon Staff (using the Multiattack action). She does the latter only when conditions are favorable: when she can attack with advantage, or when she can help gang up on a foe who’s already been put back on their heels, and she wields the staff two-handed. She uses her Tentacle Rod only within the Multiattack action, and only against the aforementioned frail-looking, unarmored spellcaster. (She knows what mage armor looks like, by the way; she’s not dumb.) Since she doesn’t have an effective way to disengage from melee except spending an action to Disengage, once she engages, she uses her Demon Staff legendary action to bludgeon the stuffing out of her foe until they have to disengage. Also remember, if she’s sustaining spirit guardians, her little cloud of demonic, necrotic spider-spirits comes along with her—as does her spiritual weapon, if she wishes.
The drow matron mother isn’t one of those cocky boss casters who underestimates the opposition and only breaks out the big guns when it becomes evident how strong they are. She gets stuff done. The faster she can deal with her opponents, the better, and she’ll readily start at the top of her spell list and work her way down, with the round 1 and round 2 exceptions described above plus three more: She doesn’t cast divine word until one of her opponents is looking exceptionally ragged; she doesn’t cast gate to summon Big Sister unless either she’s seriously wounded (reduced to 104 hp or fewer) or she’s lost at least half her minions; and she doesn’t cast plane shift unless she and her allies are clearly, irremediably defeated.
This book will feature all the creatures I’ve analyzed from the Monster Manual, along with exclusive analyses of un-blogged monsters including aarakocra, basilisks, cockatrices, dinosaurs, griffons and hippogriffs, kenku, merfolk, quaggoths and xorn, and will be available in both hardcover and e-book formats.
Click here to pre-order The Monsters Know What They’re Doing from your favorite independent bookseller. I’m a strong believer in independent booksellers as community anchors, promoting the free expression and sharing of ideas, enriching the cultural life of communities, and keeping money circulating in the local economy. If you don’t already have a favorite independent bookseller, maybe it’s time to get to know one!
Or, I guess, you could pre-order from one of these online retailers:
The drow favored consort—emphasis on “favored”—is not just arm candy but also an adviser with advanced arcane abilities. While the favored consort occupies a privileged place in drow society, it’s not part of the ruling hierarchy; it’s still effectively a second-class citizen, high-status only as second-class citizens go. One likely upshot of this is that it’s not going to share the zealotry of broader drow society. Unlike, say, a drow inquisitor, which has an example to set and will fight to the death in the line of duty, a drow favored consort is quite keen to preserve its existence, which is probably the only reason it took the job of favored consort in the first place.
The recurring Perception-Stealth proficiency combo is here, along with the drow-standard long-range darkvision, Fey Ancestry and Innate Spellcasting. All its ability scores are well above average, but in particular, its Dexterity is extraordinary, and its Intelligence and Charisma are exceptional. Because its Dex is higher than its mental abilities, we have an interesting hybrid of long-range spellcaster, sniper, and shock attacker, and we should look for ways in which the favored consort can easily slip into and out of melee. Its advanced proficiency in Acrobatics and Athletics may help with that; we’ll see.
Looking over its extensive list of spells for mobility enhancements, we find only two: haste and misty step. Haste requires concentration—and this is interesting, because the drow favored consort is one of very few high-level spellcasting monsters I’ve looked at that aren’t heavily laden with concentration-required spells. In fact, aside from mage hand and its innate spells, the only other two I find are gust of wind and Otiluke’s resilient sphere. So there’s very little reason for the favored consort not to cast haste right out of the gate, unless it has a specific reason to want to trap an enemy with resilient sphere—maybe its priestess has commanded it—or is being blitzed by melee fighters and needs to throw on some mage armor. (A favored consort that has reason to anticipate a combat encounter will always have cast this spell already, putting it one 1st-level spell slot down.) However, the favored consort may not necessarily cast haste on itself—not if there’s a drow shadowblade, house captain or elite warrior in its group, or perhaps a yochlol already on the scene.
But suppose it does choose to cast haste on itself. Haste doesn’t allow the favored consort to cast a second spell in the same turn: it can only Attack, Dash, Disengage, Hide or Use an Object as its second action. Disengage is obviously useful when leaving melee, but Dashing into melee usually isn’t practical if it can’t be followed up immediately with an attack. Attack doesn’t necessarily have to be a melee attack: it can be an attack with the favored consort’s poisoned hand crossbow. DC 13 isn’t a high bar to clear, but a failure inflicts the poisoned condition, rendering the target less effective at fighting back, and has a small chance of taking the target out of the fight entirely by knocking it unconscious. And on the turn when it casts haste, the favored consort gets to make two additional attacks, not just one, thanks to the War Magic trait: one as an additional action conferred by haste, the other as a bonus action. Even the hand crossbow can be used twice this way, because the loading property grants one shot per action or bonus action: here, the favored consort is using one of each.
Misty step is a bonus action, which means it doesn’t work with War Magic, which requires a spell to be cast as an action. It also prevents the favored consort from using its action to cast a different leveled spell in the same turn. However, while affected by haste, a favored consort can cast misty step, use its action to Multiattack, and still have a second action available for either one more attack or a Disengage action followed by movement. Or it can use its Multiattack action, then make an additional single attack, then misty step away; or Multiattack, misty step away, then Hide.
The scimitar Multiattack is the drow favored consort’s true shock attack: a triple attack, each hit slathering 4d8 poison damage on top of the already substantial base damage of the blade. (The favored consort does not come to play.) Under a haste spell, however, Multiattack can only be the favored consort’s main action, not its additional action. Nowhere is it written that the main action must come first (except when the spell is first cast, when, implicitly, the main action is to cast the spell), so as early as the second round of a haste spell, the favored consort can Dash up to an enemy, then Multiattack; or Disengage from one enemy, use its full movement to run up on another, then Multiattack that one; or Hide (in fog or pitch-blackness), use its movement to get within reach of an enemy, then Multiattack with unseen-attacker advantage.
The drow favored consort’s Scimitar attack also imposes disadvantage on the target’s next saving throw against a spell cast by the favored consort before the end of its next turn. These are the spells against which the target might have to make such a save: chain lightning, cone of cold, Otiluke’s resilient sphere, fireball, gust of wind, shatter, burning hands, faerie fire. All of these except resilient sphere are area-effect spells. Thus, we’re not necessarily likely to see the favored consort follow up a scimitar Multiattack by immediately casting a nasty spell against its target while they’re at a disadvantage to resist it. The only real candidate for this maneuver is burning hands, whose area of effect is fairly small—a 15-foot cone, unlikely ever to encompass more than two enemies—but which does far less damage, on average, than a single scimitar hit. (Or, I guess, resilient sphere, but if the favored consort were going to do that, it probably would have done it already.) Instead, the favored consort casts spells when it casts them, and the scimitar-induced disadvantage just happens to make things worse for that one target.
With only one 6th-level spell slot, the drow favored consort uses it to cast chain lightning and only chain lightning. Similarly, it uses its two 5th-level spell slots only for cone of cold—unless it knows that its targets are resistant or immune to cold damage. It has Intelligence 18, so this is something it might know in advance and certainly will know once it sees how they react to its first cone of cold spell. If this is the case, and only if this is the case, it will use one or both of its 5th-level slots to boost fireball.
These are spells that cover a lot of area: cone of cold is best against six or more opponents, fireball against four or more, per “Targets in Area of Effect” (Dungeon Master’s Guide, chapter 8); and chain lightning against exactly four, per that table and also how chain lightning works. Using any of these against just two or three targets, let alone one, is massive overkill. That’s where shatter comes in. It’s ideal for use against two—and also targets Constitution rather than Dexterity, in case the favored consort’s enemies are more slippery than tough.
A drow favored consort that’s sustaining a haste spell on an ally, rather than on itself, is more limited in what it can do, but it still has strong options. It can still combine misty step (bonus action) with Multiattack (action); or, thanks to War Magic, make a single weapon attack of either type (bonus action) and then vanish with invisibility (action); or accompany a hand crossbow shot (bonus action) with a magic missile entourage (action). (It could also Scimitar/magic missile, for that matter, but that would be inferior to Multiattack.)
Counterspell and shield are applied in the usual fashion for the usual reasons, and the favored consort makes an effort to keep spell slots in reserve for them; gust of wind is useful only for blowing out torches and deterring pursuit; and dimension door is the favored consort’s emergency exit. It always reserves one 4th-level spell slot for this spell, but if it’s not going to cast Otiluke’s resilient sphere, it can use its other two 4th-level slots to boost fireball, shatter or (if need be) counterspell.
As for innate spells, it’s unlikely that a drow favored consort will ever have reason to cast faerie fire, because all drow can cast this spell, and one of its allies is sure to do so, if not more than one. Similarly, forget darkness and levitate: they require concentration and offer the favored consort no tactical benefit, and darkness can also be cast by other drow. And the favored consort has better things to do than to cast dancing lights, even if it can do so at no cost except to its action economy.
Because it can shift smoothly from spellcasting to sniping to hard-hitting melee—and even engage in more than one of these at a time—the astute favored consort takes careful note of what every one of its enemies does in the first round of combat and plans accordingly. It uses chain lightning and fireball against tanky fighters and their support casters; shatter against more fragile targets, along with any constructs its enemies command; its melee Multiattack against glass-cannon spellcasters and archers in the back row; its hand crossbow against enemies who are themselves hard to pin down; and cone of cold against, well, everybody, if possible.
I mentioned at the start of this analysis that the drow favored consort is emphatically not a zealot, just an underling doing what it takes to survive. That extends to combat. The favored consort is all about playing it safe, dealing as much damage as possible while exposing itself to as little blowback as possible. When a favored consort is moderately wounded (reduced to 157 hp or fewer), it casts dimension door and decamps as soon as there’s no more important drow watching it. Favored consorts are also quite amenable to parley, although they won’t initiate it themselves, and will sell their side out in a heartbeat for a deal that offers them protection, along with enough additional incentive, in return. Even house slaves can be tempted by the prospect of escape.
Looking at the ability contour of the drow inquisitor, a high-level cleric, we see a heavy emphasis on the mental abilities, particularly Wisdom and Charisma, which are extraordinary. Intriguingly, reverse-engineering its Death Lance attack, it appears that this attack is made using either Wisdom or Charisma rather than Strength or Dexterity, so the usual rules of thumb governing fighting style don’t apply. If we take Dexterity, the highest of the inquisitor’s physical ability scores, as its primary defensive ability, we get a spellcasting quasi–shock attacker. Combine this with the obligatory drow proficiency in Perception and Stealth and 120 feet of darkvision, and we have the makings of a nasty ambush.
The drow inquisitor is unafraid of spellcasters, having Magic Resistance, Fey Ancestry, and proficiency in two of the “big three” saving throws (Constitution and Wisdom), plus Charisma. Which opponents does it prioritize, then? For ideological reasons, devout worshipers of gods other than Lolth, along with non-drow elves; for resource competition reasons, dwarves; and for practical reasons, anyone who’s showing him- or herself to be particularly dangerous. Drow inquisitors are adaptable.
They also have proficiency in Insight, so if the odds of victory don’t look so hot, inquisitors won’t hesitate to parley—even if it means giving up an ambush opportunity. Why launch an ambush if even that isn’t enough to give your side a comfortable advantage? The inquisitor isn’t uniquely good at getting others to do what it wants, but it’s very good at figuring out what others want—and whether this is compatible with its own interests. This ability is enhanced by Discern Lie, a trump card it can play on any attempt at Deception.
At the top of the drow inquisitor’s spell repertoire are two 6th-level spells, harm and true seeing—but only one 6th-level spell slot, so it can’t cast both. Prudence dictates that it has to wait to spend this slot until it can judge whether true seeing is necessary, e.g., if an enemy goes invisible or ethereal. The inquisitor also knows better than to cast harm against an enemy who looks too tough.
At 5th level, the inquisitor has three choices—contagion, dispel evil and good and insect plague—of which it can choose two. Insect plague requires concentration and covers a circular area with a 20-foot radius, suiting it for use against four or more enemies (per “Targets in Area of Effect” in chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide). Assuming they don’t have exceptionally high Constitution, 4d10 damage against four enemies, halved on a saving throw, produces a total of 66 expected damage. Dispel evil and good doesn’t do much against player characters, only against conjured allies. That leaves contagion, which is most useful against low-to-average-Constitution enemies making weapon or spell attacks. Slimy Doom can increase susceptibility to insect plague, harm or blindness/deafness, but combat may well be over before the disease takes effect, so for other reasons, the inquisitor may opt for a different disease that saps the enemy’s primary offensive ability, at which it makes an educated guess.)
Second through 4th level are the inquisitor’s more fungible spell slots. Spiritual weapon is a no-brainer, cast at 4th level because why not? (It takes the form of a dagger with a spider-shaped pommel.) Banishment, bestow curse and silence all require concentration, making them incompatible with insect plague (and one another). Silence can’t be boosted, and there’s not much point in boosting bestow curse only to 4th level. Banishment is only good for bouncing one extremely troublesome or reviled enemy, and bestow curse is only good against a single opponent, so the inquisitor will consider these only if its enemies simply refuse to group up so that they can get eaten alive by locusts; silence, meanwhile, has the same area of effect as insect plague, so there just isn’t all that much to recommend it in combat. If anything, it’s better before combat—to further conceal an ambush party.
Freedom of movement is situational, and the drow inquisitor will keep one 4th-level slot in reserve for it, just in case it becomes necessary. Otherwise, it tries to save at least one 3rd-level and one 4th-level slot for dispel magic, the most crucial all-purposes defensive spell it has in this power range. Since magic circle is a ritual and divination has no combat application, this leaves blindness/deafness as the default application for its remaining 2nd-level spell slots. However, this isn’t really a spell that one wants or needs to cast more than once in a combat encounter.
As it happens, we have a couple of 1st-level spells—cure wounds and inflict wounds—that benefit from being boosted. But why cast inflict wounds at all when you have a Death Lance Multiattack, which is so much better? As for bane, even though it’s a good spell, monopolizing the drow inquisitor’s concentration with it is a waste of power. The same is true of the inquisitor’s Innate Spellcasting repertoire; its drow allies can handle those responsibilities. (The exception is suggestion, which it uses during parley rather than combat.)
Once combat kicks off, the drow inquisitor immediately casts spiritual weapon as a bonus action. Its action depends on whether or not it can close and engage in melee with an opponent. If it can, it may as well Multiattack as well. If not, it can try poison spray (for 3d12 poison damage, thanks to the inquisitor’s level), Dodge, Search for a hidden enemy or Help an ally.
In round 2, the inquisitor must choose between casting a spell or engaging in melee. With +10 to hit, it has an 80 percent chance of hitting an AC 15 opponent, so its triple Multiattack does an expected 79.5 damage! That’s impressive, even more so than insect plague. Combined with spiritual weapon, this is such a good nova attack that the inquisitor uses it without a second thought against an opponent wearing any less armor than chain mail and a shield, unless its foes are grouped up so neatly as to make insect plague irresistible.
The usual modus operandi of a shock attacker is to strike, then slip away, but the inquisitor’s is slightly different. Lacking any unique escape ability such as misty step, the inquisitor simply does its ridiculous damage, then remains engaged, as if to say, “You want some more?” Rather than move away itself, it counts on its opponent’s moving to get away from it, potentially giving it a chance to add insult to injury with an opportunity attack.
Because of true seeing, if there’s an invisible or ethereal opponent on the field, the drow inquisitor takes on the responsibility of hunting him or her down. If not, and if there’s a particularly troublesome enemy to deal with, the inquisitor may cast harm as its round 2 or 3 action, intending to follow up with a Multiattack in the next round. Alternatively, if its allies are handling the more lightly armored opposition just fine and the inquisitor has to go after a foe in a tin can, it casts bestow curse before closing with him or her, choosing the wasted action option, since a heavily armored front-line fighter is almost certain to have Extra Attack, and the possibility of an entirely wasted action has a much greater effect on the action economy of an opponent who can attack more than once in a single action than it does on one who can’t.
The drow inquisitor, as astute as it is, is a zealot among zealots. It fights to the death, if that’s where things are headed. It simply knows better than to start a fight in which this is a likely outcome.
Drow shadowblades are spies and assassins, trained to strike from hiding. With extraordinary Dexterity serving as both their primary offensive ability and primary defensive ability, they’re shock attackers, striking swiftly and hard with the goal of taking out their targets as fast as possible. Their Constitution is high enough that they can handle a protracted battle, but they’d rather not.
With proficiency in all of the “big three” saving throws (Dexterity, Constitution and Wisdom) and with innate advantage against being charmed, shadowblades have little to fear from enemy spellcasters and can assail their desired targets without distraction. Like all drow, they have long-range darkvision plus Sunlight Sensitivity, confining them to nighttime and (more likely) subterranean operations. They also have the standard drow spell package of dancing lights plus one daily casting each of darkness, faerie fire and levitate.
In addition, as a bonus action, shadowblades can use the Shadow Step feature to teleport up to 60 feet between one dimly lit or dark location and another; doing so also grants advantage on “the first melee attack it makes before the end of the turn.” The wording is crucial, because it dictates shadowblades’ turn sequence and mode of striking: the bonus action must be taken before the attack, and the attack must be a melee attack, i.e., either Shadow Sword, grapple or shove.
That’s assuming, however, that a shadowblade needs Shadow Step in order to gain advantage on its attack. Simply attacking while unseen grants advantage, too. If the shadowblade’s target lacks darkvision and is bumbling around in the murk without a decent light source, the sequence is less crucial, and the shadowblade is free to use Shadow Step to slip out of melee rather than to initiate it.
The drow shadowblade’s Multiattack consists of two Shadow Sword attacks that synergize into a nasty combination. By itself, Shadow Sword not only does piercing, necrotic and poison damage on a hit but also creates a patch of magical darkness. Even if the target has a light source that creates bright light, the creation of this magical darkness gives the shadowblade a “teleporter pad” by which it can use Shadow Step to slip away. But with its Multiattack, on any Shadow Sword hit after the first, the shadowblade can direct that darkness into its enemy for a burst of additional necrotic damage. (This stunt can be performed only once per turn, so even if the shadowblade has more than one patch of darkness lingering around, it can’t use both its Shadow Sword attacks to do this extra damage.)
In addition to its melee Multiattack, the shadowblade also has a fairly straightforward ranged attack that does piercing damage and may also impose the poisoned and unconscious conditions. Does initiating combat with this attack offer any advantage over jumping right into melee? Let’s see.
The Hand Crossbow attack, which consumes a full action, does an average of 8.5 damage, far less than a single Shadow Sword attack, let alone a Multiattack. Any comparative advantage is going to have to come from a debilitating condition. Given the shadowblade’s challenge rating of 11, its targets are likely to be high-level adventurers—or NPCs in the presence of high-level adventurers, which is a pretty different kettle of fish. The NPC isn’t likely to have more than a +1 or +2 saving throw modifier—but even this is enough to give him or her a 45 to 50 percent chance of success. A high-level PC is probably going to have a Constitution save mod of between +2 and +8, meaning the shadowblade may have as low as a 30 percent chance of poisoning its target, to say nothing of knocking it unconscious. Moreover, the normal range of a hand crossbow is only 30 feet—less than the range of Shadow Step! This attack is starting to look like a waste of an action.
The most benefit we can wring out of the Hand Crossbow action is this: The shadowblade casts darkness to shroud itself in impenetrable obscurity. Thence, it fires its hand crossbow at a target between 60 and 120 feet away, using unseen-attacker advantage to offset long-range disadvantage. Normally, attacking gives away the attacker’s position, but darkness keeps the shadowblade’s exact position concealed. The shadowblade can continue to snipe in this fashion until the careless target approaches within 60 feet, at which point the shadowblade Shadow Steps up to its target, and the julienning begins. Nope, this doesn’t work, because darkness also foils the shadowblade’s own darkvision. Instead, it has to occupy a position of natural total darkness, shoot, then immediately Shadow Step to a different position of natural total darkness. And if an enemy has darkvision also and happens to be looking in the direction of the location that the shadowblade teleports to, there goes its unseen-attacker advantage, which means there’s nothing to compensate for the disadvantage of shooting at long range.
There’s a hitch in this plan, though, which is that smart targets, once they start taking hits from an attacker hiding in the dark, will immediately seek to illuminate their surroundings, leaving the shadowblade without an adjacent dimly lit or dark location to Shadow Step into. Now, since Shadow Step advantage doesn’t require that the attacker be unseen, the shadowblade can Shadow Step to a dimly lit or dark spot up to 30 feet away from the target, run up and still gain advantage on that first hit. But this presumes that the target’s light source doesn’t extend that far. Consulting the Player’s Handbook, a lamp sheds bright light out to a radius of just 15 feet; a torch, 20 feet; and a bullseye lantern has a 60-foot range but is unidirectional. These offer no protection against a shadowblade. But a hooded lantern sheds bright light out to a radius of 30 feet, leaving the shadowblade no shadow to bamf into. A light spell brightly illuminates a 20-foot radius (no protection), but daylight brightly illuminates a 60-foot radius (total protection), and a shadowblade’s Intelligence isn’t high enough for it to accurately predict which of these spells a target knows how to cast. Its Wisdom, however, is high enough for it to choose its battles carefully and not pick fights it can’t win. And a fight in which it can’t use Shadow Step is a fight it can’t win.
That being said, there’s also a way to overcome this hitch: The drow shadowblade doesn’t have to work alone! Just one confederate that can cast darkness—which all drow can, even the lowliest mook—is enough to create a sphere of magical obscurity around a target, snuffing his or her light source (unless it’s daylight) and giving the shadowblade a way to teleport in when the time comes.
So when is that time? That depends on the value of the shadowblade’s Multiattack. On average, one Shadow Sword hit does 33.5 total damage. Two Shadow Sword hits therefore do 67 damage, and the second hit gets a nice additional 21 bonus necrotic damage as a rider, for a total of 88. Mind you, this presumes two hits in a row. With a +9 attack modifier and advantage on at least the first strike, the shadowblade’s chances are very good, but they’re not perfect, especially against a heavily armored target. Against a middle-of-the-road Armor Class 15, +9 means a 75 percent chance to hit; with advantage, it’s 93.75 percent. Multiplying each average damage figure by the chance to hit, our new total expected damage is about 72. Against AC 20, +9 means a 50 percent chance to hit, 75 percent with advantage; expected damage against a fighter in a tin can is therefore roughly 52, still pretty solid but less imminently life-threatening.
Now let’s take a look at our target. Figure that our middle-of-the-road high-level adventurer has a d8 hit die and a +2 Con mod. At level 11, he or she will have somewhere in the ballpark of 75 hp. Our fighter, who specializes in taking beatings, has a d10 hit die and, by this point in his or her career, a +4 Con mod, for somewhere around 109 hp.
What this tells us is that, against PCs equipped to confront a drow shadowblade, a single round’s Multiattack is unlikely to deliver a one-hit kill—not unless the target is a squishy wizard or sorcerer. Even two rounds may prove insufficient to finish off a well-armored fighter. Especially if a shadowblade is working alongside allies, which means there’s no good reason to take silly risks, most targets will have to be tenderized before a shadowblade is ready to engage in mano-a-mano homicide. A nice, dramatic pace of combat has the shadowblade’s allies engaging their foes directly while the shadowblade snipes from darkness for the first round or two; then, the following round, the shadowblade suddenly appears in their midst, and the real carnage commences.
If a shadowblade is working alone, on the other hand, it can’t afford to play games: It has to jump in right away and do as much damage as it can, as fast as it can. If it hasn’t accomplished its mission either within three rounds or before being seriously injured (reduced to 60 hp or fewer), whichever comes first, it takes the L and skedaddles.
The drow shadowblade has no good reason to cast any of its spells, other than darkness. All of them require concentration, which means that no two can be sustained at the same time; all of them take a full action to cast; and none of them offers the kind of value that the shadowblade’s Multiattack does.
What about the variant rule that allows a shadowblade to summon a shadow demon? Sometimes these summoning rules have something to offer, but I’ve grown skeptical of them, because in a game to which action economy is so central, the chance of failure imposes enormous risk. In this case, the shadowblade has a 50 percent chance of summoning a shadow demon ally—and a 50 percent chance of doing nothing but psychic damage to itself for an entire action. When the alternative is such a powerful Multiattack, there’s zero reason for the shadowblade to gamble with its action.
As one dungeon master to another, my advice is, script it the way you want it to play. Don’t leave it up to chance. If you want the shadow demon there, then write the shadow demon into the encounter. Have the demon already summoned before the player characters know the shadowblade is there. Then have the shadowblade send the demon in first to harass the PCs—and finally, while they’re occupied, have the shadowblade leap into the fray.
Gonna do my best here with the drow arachnomancer, but please forgive me if I screw up, like, half a dozen different things. I’m operating with two levels of exhaustion, and I’m not even the one doing most of the work. My wife is a boss.
Arachnomancers are drow warlocks that can shapeshift into or out of a Large giant spider form as a bonus action and can continue to speak and cast spells in their spider form. Because they’re warlocks, unlike most monsters with spellcasting ability, they cast all their spells as if using a 5th-level spell slot, but they’re also limited to three leveled spells per encounter (not counting darkness, dominate monster, etherealness, eyebite, faerie fire and levitate, each of which they can cast once per day without spending a slot, and dancing lights, which they can cast at will). Concentration, of course, is going to govern which of these spells they can cast, so we’re going to look for sustained spells that synergize with multiple instantaneous spells.
Also, since these are warlocks we’re talking about, we want to find out what works well with eldritch blast. Although it isn’t stated explicitly in the stat block, because the drow arachnomancer is a 16th-level spellcaster, eldritch blast fires three bolts per casting, for a total of 3d10 force damage. In terms of damage dealt, this can’t compete with either its humanoid-form Poisonous Touch attack or its spider-form Bite attack. However, based on its ability contour—extraordinary Intelligence, very high Dexterity and Charisma, merely above-average Constitution, average Strength—we can infer that the arachnomancer is a long-distance spellslinger that would much prefer to stay out of melee if it can. Thus, Poisonous Touch and Bite are primarily self-defense measures, secondarily shock attacks.
The arachnomancer has proficiency in Constitution, Intelligence and Charisma saving throws, but not Dexterity or Wisdom. It has advantage on saving throws against being charmed, but not against other forms of will-focused magical manipulation, such as hold person or confusion. Thus, it has good reason to feel nervous around other spellcasters and will try to kill or shut them down first.
It also has proficiency in Perception and Stealth, the classic drow ambush combo. Its Wisdom is high enough that it’s going to intuit when a band of trespassers is too strong for it and its squad to wreck quickly in such an attack, but its Intelligence is high enough that it knows exactly which glass cannon to smash in order to swing the odds in its own favor. Any ambush led by an arachnomancer should feel like a worst-case scenario to its enemies. An arachnomancer will parley, but only to the extent that it will accept its enemies’ surrender rather than insist on systematically slaughtering them.
The drow arachnomancer, like all drow, has 120 feet of darkvision and Sunlight Sensitivity and thus operates strictly at night and underground. It also has blindsight, so darkness is highly advantageous to it. On the other hand, it’s well aware that most of its likely companions lack blindsight and will be just as hobbled by darkness as its enemies are, making it a highly situational spell for the arachnomancer to use.
Intriguingly, the arachnomancer possesses its climbing speed and Spider Climb and Web Walker features regardless of whether it’s in humanoid or giant spider form. This gives it some interesting positioning options as well as an incentive to spam an entire battle zone with webs, created by itself, its companions or both. It also means that which shape it assumes is largely a function of which of its attack actions is more desirable, given the circumstances. The one unalloyed advantage of its giant spider form is that it can spin webs as a targeted action that doesn’t require concentration, rather than as an area-effect spell that does—good for setting up combos with allies.
Examining which spells require concentration and which ones don’t, we come to the unpleasant discovery that the vast majority of the arachnomancer’s spells do require it; the only ones that don’t are etherealness, dimension door, dispel magic, chill touch, eldritch blast and poison spray. Etherealness and dimension door are transportation spells, used at the beginning or end of a fight, not in the middle. Dispel magic is crisis response. Poison spray is an all-or-nothing cantrip targeting Constitution, offering little or no opportunity for a tactical combination. Therefore, any synergy we find is going to have to involve chill touch, eldritch blast, Poisonous Touch, Bite and/or the attacks of the arachnomancer’s allies.
Dominate monster targets Wisdom; is weak against elves, gnomes, berserker barbarians, and Devotion paladins and their companions; and only ever affects one target. This is a high-risk spell with not a lot of upside, except as a narrative excuse to have a non-drow, non-spider monster fighting on the arachnomancer’s side. And that usage offers no synergy.
Eyebite also targets Wisdom, but it doesn’t charm its target. It allows the arachnomancer some synergy of its own or to take down multiple enemies, one by one, but not both. It seems most useful either for guarding a location (frightened effect) or for dropping foes unconscious for subsequent capture (asleep effect), and remember, the latter effect doesn’t work on elves.
Conjure animals summons only spiders with a challenge rating between 1/4 and 2, which means either 16 giant wolf spiders or two regular giant spiders (remember, it’s being cast at 5th level). If the arachnomancer has an ally that can blanket the area with webs, go with the giant wolf spiders to get loads of attacks with advantage. If not, two lousy giant spiders aren’t worth it.
Crown of madness doesn’t scale with level and has the same drawbacks as dominate monster, and unless the arachnomancer’s enemies are in a confined space, it’s too easy for them to get out of the target’s reach. Pass.
Fear isn’t so good for hurting enemies, but it’s excellent for driving them away—or, if they’re trapped in a confined space, for making it hard for them to fight back. Still, this one doesn’t scale, either.
Fly can be used on up to three creatures, but it’s mainly useful as a speed doubler for drow elite warriors and shadowblades, since the arachnomancer already has nifty movement abilities of its own.
Giant insect has no meaningful advantage over conjure animals. You can get three giant spiders with it rather than two. Whooooooo.
Hold monster cast at 5th level might as well be hold person cast at 2nd level. Don’t get me wrong: Hold [entity] is the best spell since Pepperidge’s apportioned loaf, synergizing with eldritch blast, Poisonous Touch, Bite and pretty much every other attack the arachnomancer’s allies might have. But as hold monster, it paralyzes only one target, whereas as hold person, it could have paralyzed four. Feh.
Insect plague is simply an area-effect meat grinder that imposes no debilitating condition. Good for stacking damage on damage, but it can’t be used to set up a tactical combination. It can, however, be used as the second part of a tactical combo if the first part grapples or restrains its targets, so that they can’t get out of the area of effect. An ally with a web spell could fill this part of the bill.
Invisibility is good for a first attack that’s guaranteed to come from hiding, but it does nothing beyond that.
Vampiric touch is a nasty substitute for Poisoned Touch: it does 5d6 necrotic damage rather than 8d6 poison damage, but on the flip side, it also heals the arachnomancer. In the best-case scenario, the arachnomancer uses it against a paralyzed opponent, but the only likely source of that condition is its own hold monster, which it can’t cast at the same time. (Well, there is one other possible case: if a spider ally has reduced an enemy to 0 hp with its poisoned bite, thereby also paralyzing him or her. In this scenario, vampiric touch seems like massive overkill—literally.)
Web is more useful to the drow arachnomancer than it often is for other spellcasters, thanks to its movement abilities. Surprisingly, this unboostable 2nd-level spell may be one of the arachnomancer’s best sources of tactical synergy, since it imposes the restrained condition on targets who fail their saving throws. This gives the arachnomancer and its allies advantage on all their attacks, including chill touch, eldritch blast, Poisonous Touch and Bite.
Witch bolt could be described as “concentration optional” if not for one thing: casting it nevertheless requires the arachnomancer to drop any other sustained spell it’s concentrating on. Bogus.
Darkness, as mentioned elsewhere, is fine for the drow arachnomancer but problematic for most of its allies, so it will use this spell only if it can cover an area that includes itself, any enemy or enemies it wants to attack, none of its allies, and no enemy that it needs its allies to attack. This makes it highly situational.
Faerie fire is always super-useful; it’s also an innate ability of every drow. One of the arachnomancer’s allies can cast this instead.
Levitate and dancing lights are wastes of the arachnomancer’s limited concentration.
Concentration not required
Etherealness and dimension door are primarily escape hatches, since the arachnomancer can’t bring its whole squad along. If it’s accompanied by a drow VIP, it will favor dimension door over etherealness and bring the VIP along.
Dispel magic can be used to auto-negate a spell of 5th level or lower, which is handy, although it does mean the arachnomancer can’t use its action to deal damage instead. For this reason, it casts dispel magic only to eliminate an effect that’s causing it very serious trouble, with respect to either its ability to deal damage or the ability of it and its allies to survive.
Chill touch, at the arachnomancer’s level, does 3d8 necrotic damage. This is only 3 less, on average, than eldritch blast, and it comes with the benefit of suppressing healing. If the arachnomancer is out to straight-up assassinate a single spellcaster, it uses this damaging cantrip instead of eldritch blast.
Eldritch blast, in contrast, is better against targets of opportunity, or against a force that lacks healing capability. With its Intelligence 19, the drow arachnomancer can size up its foes and know whether or not this capability exists.
Poison spray compares favorably with chill touch and eldritch blast only against low-Constitution, non-dwarf, non-high-level-monk targets. With DC 16, the saving throw is just a little too easy for higher-Constitution enemies to succeed on. Also, because it’s resisted with a Con save rather than a Dex save, there’s no way to work it into a tactical combo.
So we have a few different possible game plans for the drow arachnomancer. If it needs to take out a single powerful but fragile spellcaster fast, it can cast hold monster as its first action, then rush in and deliver a vicious shock attack with Poisonous Touch or Bite while its allies keep other enemies tied up. If there are multiple spellcasters that need to be confronted at once, it can web them, granting itself and its allies advantage on all weapon and spell attacks. If it’s accompanied by other drow mages, it can let them web up the area, then cast insect swarm on top of its restrained enemies, then attack targets of opportunity from afar with chill touch or eldritch blast (the three energy beams can be aimed all at the same enemy or at different ones). Or, after its allies blanket the combat zone with webs, it can cast conjure animals and summon a pack of speedy and fierce giant wolf spiders, which attack as a mob and all gain advantage against restrained targets, and only then start lobbing its cantrips. Finally, fighting primarily non-spellcasters in a confined space, it can cast fear as its first action to hobble their counterattacks while its allies engage them in melee, then take potshots with chill touch or eldritch blast.
Drow arachnomancers, like other drow, are zealots, but they’re highly intelligent zealots who keep their objective front and center in their minds. Damage won’t cause them to flee, but if their objective can no longer be achieved, retreat is a reasonable alternative, especially if it allows them to warn of coming dangers and/or summon reinforcements. Being highly hierarchical and having the kind of contempt for their underlings you’d expect from chaotic evil creatures, an arachnomancer that decides it’s time to leave won’t hesitate to do so on its own, leaving its erstwhile allies behind.
Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes introduces a whole passel of drow variants, all of them boss-grade, one of them legendary, the weakest of them having a challenge rating of 9. Not only that, four of the five have extensive spell repertoires, and even the fifth can cast the same few spells that all drow know. This means a lot of variables to look at, so my examination of these variant drow is going to be spread over multiple posts.
At CR 9, suitable for mid-level player characters, we have the drow house captain. This is a finesse fighter with decent staying power and an unusual Multiattack that combines two melee weapon attacks with either a ranged crossbow attack or attack with a whip. The whip attack is also unusual, because it seems designed to be used against the captain’s allies!
With their high Wisdom, drow house captains are keen assessors of their enemies’ threat level, and they have the Charisma to parley as needed, though no particular aptitude with any social skill. Aside from their Multiattack, which incidentally implies that they always wield a weapon in each hand, their most distinctive features are Battle Command, Parry (which we also see in the comparable knight and hobgoblin warlord) and its proficiency in all of the “big three” saving throws. This last feature implies a lesser degree of fear of enemy spellcasters.
Like all drow, the house captain is an ambush attacker—in this case, a leader of ambush attackers—with long-range darkvision and proficiency in Perception and Stealth. Although it can cast dancing lights, darkness, faerie fire and levitate the same as any other drow, it’s inclined to leave the casting of these spells to one of its underlings, since its Multiattack offers it more bang for its action buck; also, compared with other drow spellcasters, its Charisma isn’t especially impressive.
Battle Command is an enhancement to the drow house captain’s action economy—or, more correctly, an enhancement to the action economy of the house captain’s side, since the bonus action the house captain spends is used by one of its allies. The Hide option is conferred on an allied ranged attacker that’s in a good position to attack from hiding on its next turn. The melee attack option has to be conferred on an allied melee attacker, obviously. The Dodge option is conferred on an allied melee attacker that’s engaged with multiple enemies or with one enemy who has Extra Attack; or on an allied ranged attacker that’s being focused down by multiple ranged attacks itself.
Positioning-wise, the drow house captain leads from front and center: Battle Command is a passive, area-effect feature centered on the house captain, so it benefits the captain to have allies to either side as well as behind it; and its Multiattack and Parry features presume melee engagement.
As dungeon master, you should have some sense of what kind of leader your drow house captain is: a champion that leads by example, or a tyrannical martinet? If it’s the former, give it the hand crossbow and have it take potshots at enemy spellslingers and marksmen. If it’s the latter, give it the whip. I have to say, I think this is the most unexpected thing I’ve ever found in a stat block: The drow house captain’s Whip action stipulates, “If the target is an ally, it has advantage on attack rolls until the end of its next turn.” (My wife: “You mean it can beat someone into fighting better?” Me: “Yes!” My wife: “I don’t particularly want to be in the lower hierarchy of the drow, then.”)
Any ally will do for the purposes of this feature, but if you want to be wickedly clever, try to anticipate which of the drow’s melee foes may try to relocate without Disengaging, and give the Whip advantage to whichever drow is fighting that foe. This way, the drow may get to use its reaction to make an opportunity attack before it takes its own turn, giving it two opportunities to attack with advantage rather than just one. Also, if the house captain’s side includes other drow with Multiattack, giving the Whip advantage to one of those drow will increase its value, since the advantage will apply to every attack roll it makes on (or before) its turn.
The drow house captain is a savvy judge of odds. It won’t launch an attack unless it believes its side’s chances are very good, meaning that encounters with groups of drow that include a house captain should always be Deadly (although you can cut your players some slack by including terrain or other environmental features that the PCs can exploit). Drow tend to be zealots to begin with, and drow house captains, according to the flavor text, are selected based on family connections and given extensive military training. Thus, while a drow house captain might order a retreat if its side starts to take major losses (say, half or more of its number seriously wounded), the house captain itself will never retreat based on its own injuries alone.
I hope no one has been too disappointed by my sudden slowdown in posting. The past week has been taken over by the arrival in this adventure setting of my daughter, Johanna, who I anticipate will grow up to be a legendary boss. More posts when I can get to them.