5E Let's Read: Volo's Monsters

As others have said when talking about the book, I really love what they did with hags in VGtM. They went from unused "meh" monsters to something I really want to design at least part of a campaign around. I especially like the flavor text for the annis hag, with the whole "turn an innocent child bad" storyline. Huge kudos to the WotC team for all this!


Possibly a Idiot.
Hags have a huge amount of customization options. I highly recommend going back to chapter one and reading all about them if you want to focus even a part of your campaign around them. It includes several plot hooks, from kidnapping and eating babies, to a hag looking to change into another kind of hag.

Each hag can belong to a Coven, which gives the group access to the spellcasting abilities of a 12th level wizard. The Coven has to share the slots, but it's basically a free licence to add exactly as much complexity to the fight as you want. There is the generic spell list in on MMpg176, which includes goodies such as Lighting Bolt, Hold Person, Polymorph and Eyebite. And there are three alternate spell lists on VGtMpg58 which include both cleric and druid spells, while focusing on a theme. This basically makes hags super-wizards with access to any spell you want them to have for plot or combat reasons.

In addition, every individual hag can be a "Grandmother" which makes them the boss, giving them access to lair actions. The Annis Hag, in particular can summon an acidic smoke cloud to hurt and obscure, literally smoking out any ranged combatants from their sniping positions.

All Hags also have access to regional effects. With Grandmothers, Aunties (the rank below, for those that don't want a super-powerful individual hag but still plot options) and Covens getting to spam multiple effects at the same time, some of which are deadly. Annis Hags can turn stone paths into caltrops, bury intruders in avalanches, and cause small pockets of undead or fay creatures to pop up anywhere in their domain.

Outside of all those options, the Annis hag is still an innate spellcaster, with access to Fog Cloud and Disguise Self. Giving them at least one recourse against ranged opponents beyond charging in at the first opportunity, even if they are encountered alone outside of their home.

Personally, I would never consider the Annis hag simple or boring. Even though they are clearly the "brutes" of the hag tribe, they have more in-combat options than a Sea Hag, the entire library of plot options available to hags in general, and even their own unique narrative gimmick. They might be a little high on the CR scale compared to the other hags, but they work well for what they can do. And given a mixed coven, can blindside any PC's expecting a bunch of frail casters.
The Hags in 5e, much like the Giants, seem to be carefully calibrated to cover many terrains. I don’t know if that is a new thing, but I suspect not. The Bheur Hag is the ‘winter hag’, meaning that she presumably has a box of Turkish Delights lurking somewhere around her personage. Like the Annis, she also has an interesting magical item ‘built in’ to her profile.

Another good picture here, with an overly happy Hag holding her staff up and grinning at the camera. It’s a fairly simple image, but I like it a lot since it very clearly conveys the essential idea of the creature. The wee bells on the top of the staff is a lot of fun as well.

The Bheur Hag lives in wintry lands, like snowy mountains. They look like someone who has frozen to death, and they also get a lot of cold magic, so the theme is strong here. The flavour text focuses on the fact that the Bheur loves to watch people do desperate or stupid things in winter, which I like a lot, but which I think might be a struggle to make use of in game. The only rules for cold weather in 5e are overcome by simply wearing thick clothing. However, this might be the sort of thing to use as an explanation for terrible events that have happened to NPCs, which the players can come across and then have to deal with. Starving and feuding villagers being spurred on by a Hag are something that will provide a roleplaying challenge, good for any Skalds in your group.

The Bheur is actually a surprisingly dangerous creature. She doesn’t look it - medium CR, terrible options under Actions - but then we look at the Greystaff Magic. There are two things to draw your attention to: firstly, the Hag can fly as if on a Broom of Flying, which means 50ft flying movement every turn. She is fast! In addition, she can cast Cone of Cold, an extremely potent combat spell, thrice. Add some other potent options - Ice Storm, Hold Person - and we get something that will cause real problems for your group. As always with caster NPCs, don’t try and use the Bheur alone; definitely add some Winter Wolves, Crag Cats, Ice Toads [1] and the like to the combat, to ensure that the party cannot focus on her that easily.

The Bheur also gets an ability to impose a pretty interesting form of temporary madness, with the Incapacitated condition and random movement, but I’m not sure that she’ll ever get the chance to use it in a fight against PCs. The exception is probably when she is way above the PCs level, and you want to introduce a powerful opponent to be fled from now and fought later. It’s a shame, because the effect itself is really cool! I’m tempted to steal it, and use it in place of the Madness tables for a Demon Lord, when I use one outside of the madness theme of Out of the Abyss.

Overall, the two new Hags fill interesting roles - the Annis as the melee brute, the Bheur as the flying artillery - and you can use them with the prior three types to craft a really fun Coven combat. A trio of Hags is no little opposition, and it isn’t hard to imagine an adventure where the players have to uncover and rectify the manipulations of three different kinds of Hags, before taking them on directly. It would probably be quite similar to Lost Mine of Phandelver, with a small village beset on all sides, and a lot of wandering around by the players trying to find out who is behind everything. If someone could write it for me and put it on DMsGuild, I’d be pretty happy to buy it! :D

[1] The latter two are found in Storm King’s Thunder and Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

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Another way you could use the Bheur Hag is to put her in a frost giant lair and have the big guys treat her with the same reverence that you would expect to be given to a great-grandmother at a family reunion.

For added fun, perhaps the ruler of the tribe was actually raised by the hag, so when the adventurers reach the throne room, they find not only the Jarl, but the hag as well.

A sort of "get your murderous hands off my grandson, you vile adventurers!" moment.
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That's pretty similar to how Baba Lysaga works in Curse of Strahd; she isn't a Hag, but is the most Haglike person ever not to have Haged, and she functions as this weird and creepy encounter in a marsh. During it, she plays up the idea of Strahd being her misunderstood son, as she flies around in a skull and her hut stamps the players down. I loved the encounter so much, I dropped it wholesale into my homebrew world, with one of the players encountering her in downtime, full of anger at him helping to slay Strahd at the end of I:6.

Like many of the 'mastermind' monsters, Hags are indeed going to work best when they have a more brutish ally to hide behind - especially if the players do some negotiating first, since the Hag is a perfect opportunity for a Grand Vizier sort of roleplaying moment.


Possibly a Idiot.
The Bhuer Hag is formidable enemy with oodles of tricks and synergies, but she doesn't have a printed caster level, which is something I would assume needs some errata. Going by the fact she can use Control Weather, it would be safe to go with a 15th level caster.

Additionally, the Bhuer Hag suffers in the same way all casters from Volo's Suffer: They don't get the cool spells from the SCAG or PotA which would make them awesome. So here is a handy list of spells that could or should be in the Bheur Hag stat block, but can't be due to the WotC rule about characters (apparently including npcs/monsters) only being able to use one rulebook outside of the core books for their stat block:

Elemental Evil Players Guide (it's a free PDF!)

Frostbite: It's basically Vicious Mockery but it deals cold damage, a good alternative to Ray of Frost against more agile targets.
Shape water: The water-themed prestidigitation, can be used to make nifty ice sculptures. Mostly for plot, but it can be used to make a mini-wall of ice on demand.

1st level:
Absorb elements: Naturally, the PC's are going to use fire spells against the ice monster, this punishes them for their arrogance, twice.
Ice Knife: Throw a chunk of ice and have it explode into shards. A Low level AoE that can hit the same target twice. Something to use once all the other spells run dry maybe.

2nd Level:
Snilloc’s snowball swarm: Basically a fireball made out of snow. Maybe just stick with Ice Storm, it has more bite, and you will be lucky to get 4 rounds in combat.

4th Level:
Elemental Bane: So your PC has resistance to Cold damage? Not anymore! Also you take extra damage from cold just to rub salt in the wound. Can be cast at a higher level effect multiple targets. And did I mention it has no saving throw? Because it has no saving throw.

6th level:
Investiture of ice: Bhuer Hag's already have most of the abilities of this spell inherently, or via other means. However, it would be useful for other hags in the coven. Annis Hags, in particular, benefit greatly from being immune to the cold damage that a Bhuer will wash over the battlefield, and keeping enemies from escaping melee range.
Investiture of flame: This spell is actually perfect for the Bhuer Hag. It is sadistically cruel that the only source of warmth in the area is a deadly inferno. It makes the Hag immune to fire, and punishes anyone who tries to melee her.
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Most of those seem fairly minor additions - as you note, combat is unlikely to last long enough for it to matter. That's the thing about 5e combat - you'll only get three rounds, so fallback options for NPCs are generally not going to matter.


Possibly a Idiot.
Well, other monsters will benefit more, for sure. But Elemental Bane, and Absorb Elements are extremely effective counters to some of the most common of PC tactics regarding elemental encounters.

And I just like the new cantrips, especially the blade cantrips and the elemental ones, they are fun.
Absorb Elements is such a great spell, it wouldn't be amiss to just give it to every caster that you want to appear tough.


The Hobgoblins get a pair of new entries in Volo’s that demonstrate their unique approach to some of the traditional fantasy roles. The Hobgoblin Devastator is their wizard, a blunt instrument of arcane power used to blast apart enemy formations.

The image in the book is really great, and one of my favourite. With a similar Japanese aestetic to the ones in the Monster Manual, the Devastator has a very characterful image, with loads of little tokens hanging on his chest, a cloak tied around his shoulders, and a haughty, cruel expression. I’d use this as the basis for an NPC in an instant.

The flavour text tells us that the Hobgoblins regard arcane magic as a tool, not a form of study and self-growth. One wonderful idea illustrates this: a warrior doesn’t need to know metallurgy to swing a sword, so neither does a wizard need to know how magic works to cast fireball. Another interesting insight into the Hobgoblin mind is that the Devastator is shown great respect by others, with their exploits likely to win greater glory than any one warrior - the Hobgoblins don’t take the view that swinging a sword is somehow better than casting a spell, unlike the martial culture of Frost Giants and Uthgart Barbarians, for example. Much of this is more interesting for the insights into the Hobgoblin mindset as a whole, than into the Devastator himself; but the Hobgoblins are a very easy race to make into a neutral bad-guys-but-we-can-work-with-them faction in your campaign, and if so then you can use one or more of these as great recurring NPCs, just using the ideas present here.

The Devastator has a statblock that will look very familiar to anyone who has DMed for an Evoker Wizard. They get a bunch of top-tier combat spells - Fireball, Thunderwave, Fly, Fire Bolt and Lightning Bolt - and an improved version of an Evoker’s Sculpt Spells ability, here called Army Arcane. This lets them really toss the fireworks around without worrying about spell placement, and I am confident that players will really hate seeing that ability used against them. A further nasty trick is that the Devastator can add bonus damage to a spell if there is an ally in melee range of the target - it doesn’t work on everyone, just one person per turn, but it is still very nasty.

I’m a big fan of the spellcaster statblocks in Volo’s, since I think that they have a lot of cool tricks without being overbearing, and they use the spell lists to create very cool themes for the combat. This guy is great, and definitely a reason to bring Hobgoblins into your mid-level campaign, as they act as a huge force multiplier for normal Hobgoblins, not to mention their utility as ‘boss monsters’ who can reasonably be encountered in groups.

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The Bhuer Hag is formidable enemy with oodles of tricks and synergies, but she doesn't have a printed caster level, which is something I would assume needs some errata.
Creatures with only innate casting do not get assigned caster levels, and their spells, unless specifically noted otherwise, are always cast at the lowest level.


Possibly a Idiot.
Creatures with only innate casting do not get assigned caster levels, and their spells, unless specifically noted otherwise, are always cast at the lowest level.
I think the Bhuer Hag's Ray of Frost only dealing 1d8 damage is an unintentional oversight. You can feel free to disagree, and I admit it is a very trivial point considering the hag is almost never going to run out of more potent spells. But heck, even the Hobgoblin Devastator deals more damage with their Ray of Frost.

Speaking of which, the Hobgoblin Devastator is the perfect example of a t1-t2 fireball flinging artillery battlemage. Dealing oodles of damage to enemy formations being flanked and infiltrated by bugbears while flying behind a front line of hobgoblin soldiers. Which is a bit odd actually, I would imagine hobgoblins to be more inclined to be something like a spellblade. Then again, the Blade line of cantrips are printed in another book. Back on topic, this is such a perfect example of a cr4 evoker, that I like it more than the actual cr 9 evoker in the NPC stat block section. Not much in the way of support magic other than Fog Cloud and Fly, but really they just exist to blow stuff up, and that's ok for something that is supposed to function as part of an army, anything more would be too complex.
Fortunatly for the Devastator, there are plenty of goblinoid units that can get mixed into enemy ranks easily, so they can reap that sweet bonus damage. Bugbears are surprisingly good at ambushes, and goblins can disengage around the fight as a bonus action. Additionally both Goblins and Hobgoblins have a Cavalry that employs wargs, allowing them to engage at high speeds, forcing the front line to form as far away from the Devastator as possible.

That said, guys could really benefit from having Shield, as the PC's and their ally archers are going to rain pointy death on the devastator at first sight.


I think the Bhuer Hag's Ray of Frost only dealing 1d8 damage is an unintentional oversight. You can feel free to disagree, and I admit it is a very trivial point considering the hag is almost never going to run out of more potent spells. But heck, even the Hobgoblin Devastator deals more damage with their Ray of Frost.
Depends how you want to define oversight. It also worth noting that by RAW you cannot swap out the spells for other spells with innate casters. Which, IMO, is ridiculous, but I've never been tied to RAW myself. If you think the Hag should have a more powerful Ray of Frost, have at it - I would do the same.


For monster stat blocks I wish that they would replace lists of spells to have to look up. Just expand the stat block a bit and make it a recharge ability or limit it to a number of times a day. For example...

Fireball (1/day) Ranged spell attack. 150 feet, 20 foot radius. 28 (8d6) fire damage. DC 15 Dex save for half damage.
I think that the problem is that would be very constraining; some entries are easy to do, but something like a Night Hag or Archmage shouldn't have only the one attack, and probably nobody wants a massive statblock for every caster, giving them as many interesting options as they do right now, since that likely means we get 1/4 fewer profiles thanks to space concerns.

I do think that it is pretty annoying to have to try and look all the spells up during combat, but that is purely down to me being too lazy to do that before the game! Plus, the more you run the game, the more spells you know well enough to parse quickly.


For monster stat blocks I wish that they would replace lists of spells to have to look up. Just expand the stat block a bit and make it a recharge ability or limit it to a number of times a day. For example...

Fireball (1/day) Ranged spell attack. 150 feet, 20 foot radius. 28 (8d6) fire damage. DC 15 Dex save for half damage.
But then you need to do that 20 times for an archmage. There are several monsters that would get unwieldy stat blocks if you included a description for each spell.

Personally what I like to see in a monster stat block (and what I try to do) is a enough information that you can run it straight from the stat block; but, if it is a caster, the spells are there for extra flavor. I.e.

A pit fiend should, IMO, have a description of fireball as an attack, but then it could still have a list of spells that it also has access too. You can run it with what is just in the stat block, but having access to heat metal, or wall of fire, etc. are good if you want them and know how to use them.


I've got no problem adding spells to creatures, or swapping them out for innate casters, especially for old and powerful beings like Hags and high level fiends. It just makes sense they would have more tricks up their sleeves.

One thing about the Bheur hag that always floors me is that they get Hold Person at-will. If they have a safe location to snipe the party from, they can devastate the battlefield with that alone.

For the Feast ability, one easy way to try and get that opened up is if the hag attacks while the party is escorting or rescuing NPCs. The hag is mobile enough to get past the front-line, and they could hit the people the party is protecting.


Possibly a Idiot.
For monster stat blocks I wish that they would replace lists of spells to have to look up. Just expand the stat block a bit and make it a recharge ability or limit it to a number of times a day. For example...

Fireball (1/day) Ranged spell attack. 150 feet, 20 foot radius. 28 (8d6) fire damage. DC 15 Dex save for half damage.
I think monsters should have powers listed like that, but npc spellcasters should stick spell lists.
That way monsters can be fine tuned for different CR's and npc casters can still teach PC's spells.
I think that the Hobgoblins are distinguished from the other evil humanoids by their status as the intelligent evil race. What I mean by this is that, while Orcs form hordes and Gnolls devastate villages, the Hobgoblins are guys that you can imagine succeeding at their world domination plans. They’re clever, organised, and expert at combining the various Goblinoid races into a more powerful whole. This gives you a few really interesting options - for example, having the Hobgoblins being a neutral party who the players are forced to work with - and gives them a theme all of their own in a campaign. The Hobgoblin Iron Fist is a perfect example of the Hobgoblin genius for evil; powerful and stealthy assassins and spies trained to keep order. In short, these are the Stazi of the Goblinoids.

The image in the book is pretty cool, with a rare female Goblinoid poised to throw a dart, her face hidden by the devil mask of the order. It’s a picture that allows the pose and face to tell a story.

The flavour text for the Iron Shadows focuses on their training and origin, with a story that Maglubiyet (toughest deity name to spell in the game) stole their techniques from an Archdevil originally. That’s really nice - I like it when we get hints of how the various races interact with each other, not just adventurers. The training sounds difficult, focused mainly on loyalty, with the result that we get a group as fanatical as the Feydakin from Dune, and about as good at killing. I think that this fanaticism - towards Maglubiyet, controlled by the priesthood thereof - might be an excellent element to bring into any roleplaying situation with Hobgoblins. The players could meet a Warlord, and do well in a negotiation with him - but lurking in the corner is the Iron Shadow, part political officer and part executioner. The general will work with the players, but they’ll need to keep him alive long enough to do so! The opportunity to let your players interact with the internal politics of an evil humanoid race is rare, and I’d definitely try and make use of that if you could.

The Iron Shadow is another player character style creature, with abilities taken straight from the Way of Shadows Monk, plus some Wizard spells to let them infiltrate (charm person, disguise self, etc). I tend to think of these spells as plot spells - ways to explain how the Iron Shadow got into the King’s bedchamber, just prior to the players bursting in to save the day - rather than as things directly useful in combat, but that doesn’t make them any less important or interesting for the statblock. They can do the typical infiltrator thing and lead the players astray easily enough, for example.

When the players come to fight the Iron Shadow, they’ll be glad that it cannot use a monk’s stunning strike; however, what it can do is use one of my favourite movement&attack routines in the game. The Iron Shadow has Shadow Jaunt, just like a Way of Shadows monk, and it can use that before or after one of the four attacks a turn that it can make, which themselves can be ranged or melee. This means that you’ll have Iron Shadows running around the place, teleporting to the back ranks, escaping to the rafters and whatnot, without action economy concerns. Glorious! I can see a team of these guys being a super interesting challenge if fought in a large, cluttered, dark hall; I’m thinking of the Assassins from Half Life, who constantly attacked you from different angles with weak but very persistent attacks. I’m really glad that they didn’t complicate this attack style with restrictions, and instead just let you do it easily and quickly.

The Iron Shadows combine an interesting political background, which makes it very easy to justify using them in all kinds of contexts, with a fun and easy way to get a nimble teleporting combat. It’s worth stealing this profile for other ninjas in your games, and definitely worth thinking of how the Iron Shadows will impact any adventure that deals with the Hobgoblins.


Possibly a Idiot.
The Iron Shadow and the Devastator are perfect contrasting examples of spellcaster complexity.

The Devastator has a bunch of simple spells, mostly meant to attack, and is intended to function as part of a large group of combatants. It's "spell sculpting" abilities may seem complex at first, but basically boils down to "My spells don't hit my allies, unless I want them too" in order to promote the general hogoblin power of extra damage to those opponents who are fighting their allies.

The Iron Shadow as a bunch of complex spells, mostly meant for infiltrating (the exploration and social pillars of play), has a relatively complex movement option, and lacks the hobgoblin bonus damage racial ability. In short, the Iron Shadow is the odd duck out of the hobgoblin tribe. They are intended to go in alone, assassinate a target or steal some plans, and get out. One small change: Their dart attacks are practically begging for some kind of poison to be applied to them.

You could send one of these to attack the PC's while they sleep. A trick you don't want to use more than once. And if you are sending one to fight each PC who is sleeping in a different room, fudge the rolls so they all wake up to at least have a chance to fight back, even if they are in their pajamas. Having your throat slit in your sleep is not fun.

Additionally, they make for an excellent foil to a Barghest in those campaigns where the PC's are interacting heavily with a Hobgoblin warband. Having two different factions of secretive shapechanging schemers lurking around the camp gives a heavy layer of intrigue to what would otherwise be a straightforward "life of soldiers in a war" plot.