5E Let's Read: Volo's Monsters

Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
The Slithering Tracker seems like it would be best encountered as a guardian for mad wizard or cult of some kind. A cult of oozes is obvious, but I can see a water based cult doing something like this, in fact, when I first saw the picture I was almost entirely convinced it was an elemental of some kind. The ooze type is one that is very hard guard against. Combine that with something that is not only intelligent, but can also hide in plain sight, and restrain a key member of an attacking force (to the point where their allies will hurt them) makes for a potent bodyguard to anyone who wears robes.

This is the sort of thing that would seem so obviously a bad idea that it makes me wonder just how crap the average D&D world is, if it makes people honestly want to do this.
Well, there is more than a bit of misleading involved I would imagine. But if there is one thing I have noticed so far about 5e, it's that it is incredibly easy to give into the dark side, perform or undergo a ritual, and gain lots of power in the span of moments. Given that the average Commoner is effectively CR 0(10xp), and a generic Cultist is CR 1/8, this (and other such transfomations, like the Bodak) is a huge increase in power for any such individual. If you run a game world where being a commoner means being a Commoner (or the like), as contrasted to important NPCs, PCs, and especially monsters, then the average person is massively outclassed in the terms of a fight and their potential impact on the world. A farmer who has just had their family murdered, with no way of striking back at the powers that be, could look on their life thinking they have nothing left to live for. Making this form of vengeance a seemingly viable option, sort of a "Take them down with me!" mentality. Likewise a low level Cultist, who fails to move up in the ranks or garner favors via other means, could be introduced to this idea as an alternate means of service. Which could be more attractive to them than being kicked out of the cult and losing what little status and sense of belonging that they had cultivated, a mindset that often leads people to join cults in the first place.
 
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Chaosmancer

Villager
I have my players tracking down a mad wizard and had them fight 8 of these things.

I was disappointed to a degree. The restrain and suffocate feature took their entire turn, and even with 6 of them targeting the same player it took at least 3 rounds for one of them to finally get that attack to stick, and it didn't last more than a round, as the player used Strength to rip them off and break the grapple.

I think for me personally, in the future, I'll connect the grapple to their slam. They hit you, make a save, that way they aren't just wasting turns as people dodge them. Then I can increase the DC so when they have advantage, that way a Slithering tracker has a better chance of grappling someone who doesn't see them coming, which is currently not the case because Save DCs are not effected by the target being surprised as far as I can tell.

These make good minions for Hags... ooohhh, here's an interesting question.

How does one change them back?

Let's say some hot-headed friend of the party gets it in their head to seek vengeance on some noble. They go to a hag and agree to Vengeance "by any means necessary" so the hag demands a price, and then changes them into a Slithering Tracker. The noble turns up dead, the players realize the ooze is their friend (recognizes their face) and now need to seek a means of restoring them to their former self.

Probably a bad end either way, even if they succeed their friend is horribly mentally scarred by the entire ordeal, but makes a great sub-plot to a story about dark deals and how far people are willing to go.
 
Thanks for reporting how the Slithering Trackers went in your game, [MENTION=6801228]Chaosmancer[/MENTION]. I did suspect that they'd be wildly underwhelming. Also, you are right [MENTION=53176]Leatherhead[/MENTION] about the gain in power that you would get from the transformation. I suppose that D&D land is full of traumatic events that leave people messed up, and desperate enough to seek out a Hag...

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A powerful zombie of Orcus, the Spawn of Kyuss are one of the few undead that have a lot of creep factor.



The image in the book is rather comical, and also has some very odd lighting issues, with the back figure being in darkness but the front two being fully lit. It’s not really that good.

I think that the flavour text here hints at the Age of Worms adventure path from third edition, but I don’t know anything about that one so I cannot be sure. Kyuss was a high priest of Orcus, presumably from some kind of Egyptian culture to judge from the mention of necropolises, who managed to work out how to create undead worms that can burrow into a living person, turn them dead and undead, and yet still trap their soul in the body, thus preventing resurrection and the like until the Spawn is destroyed. There is no mention here of Kyuss himself as a patron - it says that he ‘died’, but, I mean, he is a servant of Orcus so I don’t know if that’d slow him down. Perhaps someone can chime in about the Age of Worms path?

Beyond hunting down Kyuss or whatever, the Spawn is fairly limited in storyline options. You can have the players need to find someone whose soul is trapped in a Spawn; that is a good way of circumventing high-level Clerical magic that might otherwise get past your storyline, but I’m not sure how often that situation will really arise, not to mention that the CR 5 Spawn isn’t exactly going to threaten a group that would otherwise be casting Resurrection. Though I guess having to slaughter loads of them in Orcus’ realm of Thanatos in the Abyss might be fun, with your players having to act as a shock assault force and try to find the right Spawn before overwhelming force is brought to bear.

Anyway, the Spawn is another one of the monsters that is much more powerful if the players have never heard of it, and are not aware of the built-in weaknesses of the statblock. If they have seen the statblock, even in passing - and Volo’s is a very popular book apparently, so I wouldn’t want to depend on that having not happened - then this guy will be a lot weaker than his CR would suggest. It might also lead to the irritating metagame discussion, whereby the DM (typically) gets annoyed that the players are using ‘secret’ information, while the players (typically) feel that it is only fair to use all legal means to keep their characters alive. It’s a troublesome one; I’ve wavered myself, sometimes being a bit of an arse about it. Something like “trolls are weak to fire” is so obvious and well-known that denying players that information is just going to cause trouble; but when it is something rarer, yet also a monster that existed in a previous edition, it is tremendously tempting to try and prevent the players from taking advantage of it. I don’t think that there is a correct answer for all groups here, but definitely be prepared to have players asking what they know about it, and whether they know of its weaknesses, and have a response that you think will work for your group in mind.

You’d think that, at CR 5, the Spawn would be really powerful. It kind of isn’t. The defenses are very weak - plenty of hitpoints, but terrible saves and AC, and a regeneration effect so weak (it’s stopped by sunlight, running water, fire damage, acid damage, or radiant damage - two of the most popular kinds!) that it basically might as well not exist. I remember how dangerous the Troll regeneration was in Baldur’s Gate, but you didn’t have the Fire Bolt or Acid Splash cantrips in that edition. Meanwhile, the Spawn can also have one of its three attacks negated by an effect that cures diseases or removes curses, which is fun but seems a bit irrelevant on a non-boss monster that won’t last long anyway. Those three attacks include two standard claw attacks that do 3d6 damage each, which is solid, and a Burrowing Worm ability that takes an extraordinary amount of words to describe how it can toss a worm at nearby opponents. This worm is a separate combatant - i.e. the players can kill it - but if they don’t do so then a round later it will burrow inside a player and keep doing damage to them until they die or have Remove Curse or Cure Disease cast on them.

So are the Spawn a really disappointing entry? Not quite. I think the Spawn will make excellent ‘zombie’ style opponents for mid-to-high level characters; the party Paladin will love being able to use his immunity to Disease and Cure Disease abilities so often, and they are just about strong and tough enough to be relevant without distracting attention away from your main threats, such as Balors with the Undead type or whatever. The Burrowing Worm ability is amusingly disgusting, and has a relatively easy cure, but is also the sort of thing that will probably make your players feel under threat; if you don’t know how many more Spawn of Kyuss there are between you and the exit, and you’re down to three uses of Cure Disease, then you are definitely going to feel some pressure. Just don’t expect to put one or two of these down against a group of players and it be a compelling fight.
 

dave2008

Hero
There is no mention here of Kyuss himself as a patron - it says that he ‘died’, but, I mean, he is a servant of Orcus so I don’t know if that’d slow him down. Perhaps someone can chime in about the Age of Worms path?
Kyuss has typically been described as the creator of his Spawn. Kyuss himself became an undead resembling a Huge spawn made entirely of worms (wearing a cloak and wielding a spiked mace) and has innate magically abilities and was a spellcaster. In the Age of Worms he was CR 30 or so with a divine rank of 1 I believe. He also created Dragotha I think, or at least Dragotha was one of his servants in that AP.
 

Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
Burrowing Worm it is the cornerstone of the Spawn of Kyuss. The thing that makes it more than just an extra meaty zombie, and gives it reason to be.

As such, there are a few effective ways to use this creature:

The high powered super zombie being backed up by cultists or lesser undead. Ghouls, Ghasts, and Cult Fanatics are good for this. Anything with the ability to paralyze, incapacitate, or stun, will provide the worm just enough time to burrow in and eat some brains. If you want to go extremely lowball with the help for this, the Apprentice Wizard NPC from Volo's has access to Tasha’s Hideous Laughter, which incapacitates, and only has a CR of 1/4 itself, allowing several of them to be slipped into most encounters.

As Patent Zero for the zombie outbreak. One of these in a town would be a nightmare in 10 minutes. The Spawn of Kyuss is just intelligent enough to know it can knock out opponents, throw a worm on them, and turn them into a host without having to infect them with the worm before it knocks them out. Granted, it's going to throw a worm at the end of it's turn regardless, but it understands the value in holding back the deathblow until after it knows a worm has been implanted.

Likewise, the Worm itself has a stat block, and can be transported in a jar or something. An assassin, evil mage, or cultist, could plant one of the worms on a sleeping target, who will become a Spawn of Kyuss before the news breaks that they are dead. They could also put one in a casu marzu, making for a type of food-based assassination attempt that would ignore any attempts to detect poison.

In fact, either of those later two ideas are particularly evil things for a DM to do on a PC.
 
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dave2008

Hero
[ If you want to go extremely lowball with the help for this, the Apprentice Wizard NPC from Volo's has access to Tasha’s Hideous Laughter, which incapacitates, and only has a CR of 1/4 itself, allowing several of them to be slipped into most encounters.
That is rather nasty of you - I approve ;)
 

Chaosmancer

Villager
I think the point of the artwork is to show 1 Spawn over time. It starts out as a shadow, shows a zombie, then is clearly not a zombie.

I have an interesting "order of operations" question. The Worm kills a player (which I just realized bypasses Death Saving throws, ouch), before they get a chance to rise, a player casts Revivify. Do they come back? Stay Dead?

Also, they have a +1 Wisdom save, which helps against being turned.

Otherwise, not much interesting besides sending them after your players and giving them nightmares for weeks to come.
 

Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
I think the point of the artwork is to show 1 Spawn over time. It starts out as a shadow, shows a zombie, then is clearly not a zombie.

I have an interesting "order of operations" question. The Worm kills a player (which I just realized bypasses Death Saving throws, ouch), before they get a chance to rise, a player casts Revivify. Do they come back? Stay Dead?
If I understand Revivify correctly: it either wont work on the corpse (due to missing brains) or it will work, and then the player will immediately die again, due to sill being infected by worms.
 

werecorpse

Explorer
If I understand Revivify correctly: it either wont work on the corpse (due to missing brains) or it will work, and then the player will immediately die again, due to sill being infected by worms.
Agreed - although the worm damage isn't taken until the end of the infected persons next turn so if they got some more healing they could survive, then hopefully get the worm killed.

Note to rise as a spawn you don't have to be killed by the worm - just drop to O hp, die, wait 10 minutes.

In fact a live troll could be infected by one of these worms just regenerating the damage - then when it's killed by fire it rises 10 minutes later as a spawn.

Also any creature immune to necrotic damage (like say a wight) could theoretically be a host for one of these - then when it dies it rises again as a spawn? Does that seem right?
 
Back on page five or so we had someone pop into the threat to offer some random complaints about the book; I remember that the Tlincalli was one of the things that they were unhappy with. I’d never even heard of these guys before, so I don’t know what they used to be, but to be honest I’m liking what I see.



The Tlincalli art is quite fun. I’m a big fan of warm metallic colours, and these guys positively gleam. The artist also did a good job of making the odd anatomy work - the proportions all seem good, and I can imagine how this creature could move around and manipulate tools. But then you see the head, which is, shall we say, irregular, and you realise that this is indeed a monstrosity, and the whole image resumes a sense of menace. Subtle but effective.

The Tlincalli are wandering desert hunters, nomads who travel in family groups and only stop for a time when the hunting in a particular area is good, or they are waiting for their eggs to hatch. Their culture is ‘austere’ and uncivilised, so I think that they just wander around and don’t trouble themselves with writing, carving art, or building structures; when they need to hide from either the night’s cold or the day’s heat, they burrow into loose sand. They can do basic metallurgy, but otherwise are at a hunter-gatherer level of technology. Their eggs receive a surprising focus here; not only are the shells poisonous, meaning that many would-be predators are paralysed by the attempt to break them, but the Tlincalli like to capture people and then leave them tied up next to the eggs, to be eaten alive upon hatching. Fun fun fun!

The other interesting thing that we learn is that the Tlincalli take their role as hunters quite seriously. If they meet a more potent hunter - a Blue Dragon is mentioned - then the tribe’s elder will need to decide whether to serve, slay, or flee the threat. All three can lead to some interesting opportunities for you, and can help to add a sense of the living ecology of the desert to your campaign. In addition, if the players fight some Tlincalli, and then learn that they were fleeing from something more powerful, that might put the fear into them! Meanwhile, simply having some of these as guards for a Blue Dragon’s lair is something that I think will be very useful for many games. I also quite like the idea of wandering tribes of these being known to live in the desert interior in a campaign; the players are forever being told to avoid ‘the deep sands’ for fear of the Tlincalli hunters. Then, naturally, the players have to cross the deep sands for Plot Reasons; as intelligent creatures with their own language, you will have lots of opportunity to create interesting scenes as the players try to avoid, negotiate or fight their way across.

Let’s talk combat. The Tlincalli gets two attacks a turn: a Sting, and then the choice of either Longsword or Spiked Chain. Since the two weapons do almost identical damage, while the Chain has a grapple effect and greater reach, I think that this is best viewed as a way to be nice or nasty to your players, giving you the option to turn down the heat by using the sword attack. The Sting is about what you’d expect - lots of poison and piercing damage, then a saving throw or be Poisoned and Paralysed. Though the saving throw is an easy one for front-line combatants, remember that Clerics do not get proficiency in Con saves, and that everyone can roll low once in a while. For that reason, if your group starts failing those checks en masse, they might find themselves in very real danger. The Longsword is just the standard option - d8 or d10. The Spiked Chain, meanwhile, does d6 and on a hit makes a target both Grappled and Restrained. That’s just nasty, especially if you do the Spiked Chain first and then follow up with the Sting. Otherwise you’ve got a monster with decent AC, good HP, and average saves; it also moves 40ft a round (but cannot burrow). All in all, these guys are a bit of a terror, and especially in groups are going to play merry hell with your players’ ability to move around the battlefield and take actions.

In essence, these guys combine the plot interest of Bedouin or Fremen, with the combat abilities of a CR 5 monster, and the visual appeal of scorpion people. I’m very happy with this statblock, and especially once you add on a couple simple variations - say, the Chieftain (an extra 50 HP and the leadership ability of the Blade of Ilneval) and the Shaman (with the spellcasting of the War Priest) - they’ll make an excellent addition to any desert area of the campaign.


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Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
Back on page five or so we had someone pop into the threat to offer some random complaints about the book; I remember that the Tlincalli was one of the things that they were unhappy with. I’d never even heard of these guys before, so I don’t know what they used to be, but to be honest I’m liking what I see.
The Nimmurian Manscorpion, a similar creature in the Savage Coast of the Mystara setting, have a long and complicated backstory about how they took over another different culture of flying Minotaurs. They have a translucent body that makes them use extensive makeup in order to travel in the sun without being burned, and suffer from the Red Curse that the rest of the setting lives under.

In the Forgotten Realms, they were yet another race of arachnid-themed slave takers who live undergound. Only this time they they are half-scorpions, have a royal class, live under the sands in inverted pyramid-cave-cities in the northern desert (presumably Anauroch), and worship some gods from the Maztica subsetting. However there is very little information about them, in fact, I couldn't find any information about them beyond what was in that first sentence.

There are also some Manscorpion Drown in Eberron, which are slaves to giants.

The first is an interesting creature. The second is a footnote in a splatbook referencing a different splatbook about a subsetting. The third is mostly about trying to make drow without a spider fetish.

Anyway, about this rendition of the Tlincalli:

Firstly, they have poison. A very powerful poison that can potentially be harvested, and is very valuable. How valuable? Well that's for DM's to make up. It's nearly as strong as Wyvern poison (dealing less damage, a slightly weaker DC, but having a powerful rider), so I would estimate about 750g for a vial. Considering the potential for multiple vials of the stuff to be harvested, that should be more than enough to make a t1 or t2 party of dubious scruples go after them.

Secondly, they have Spiked Chains. The horror. While less potent than their 3.x progenitors, they serve as a superior variation of a net (by superior, I mean people would actually use them). I wonder if there is a list of 5e NPC weapons anywhere, I know the Kuo-Toa has a Mancatcher.

Also, I have to say the full chitin body is a nice art upgrade.
 

dave2008

Hero
In fact a live troll could be infected by one of these worms just regenerating the damage - then when it's killed by fire it rises 10 minutes later as a spawn.
That is an awesome idea. You cold have a whole warren of trolls infected with these worms and just when your PCs think they have finished them off they start popping back up.
 

MechaTarrasque

Adventurer
In Babylonian mythology, these guys (possibly with a different name) were children of Tiamat who eventually run into Gilgamesh (I don't think he fights them, but that might be old DM memory speaking), and of course, the Rock says "If you smell-ell-ell-ell what the Scorpion King is cooking" (not really but he should have). My only complaint is "no pincer attack?"
 
A pincer attack would have been fun, but I guess that there is a limit to how many attacks they can give a creature, and probably they were determined to get the sword & chain in. I don't see that combination in other artwork on Google though, so I suppose that the real question here is why they wanted to make that connection so strongly.
 

The Trapper is a type of mimic, and your opinions on mimics are probably far more important to how you’ll view this monster than anything I can say here.



The art for the Trapper is actually quite fun. It’s got a soft painted look, which I like, and some clever use of darkness and shadow to show the trapper about to envelop some poor guy. The human in the picture is also an interesting-looking middle eastern swashbuckler type himself, so I can see this picture being used as the basis of an NPC or PC quite easily: “You meet this guy, just as the wall falls on him. What do you do?”

So, the trapper is a bit of sentient wall that waits for a player to wander by, and then drops on them and tries to smother them. I’m not really all that thrilled by this idea, to be honest; it feels cheap in computer games, and will likely feel even more so in a D&D session. I’m most inclined to use the Trapper when the party tries to rest for the night, as a way of giving them a frustratingly amusing combat; they’ll hate it for interrupting rest, but also think it pretty funny when they wake up to find the party Cleric choking to death because the floor ate him. Otherwise, I’m not really a traps kind of guy, and this statblock is a trap with hitpoints.

The Trapper has a very… obvious statblock. It gets Spider Climb and Fake Appearance to do its job, a pile of hit points, almost no movement, and a single smother attack. It can only use the attack on one person at a time, and it does decent but not exactly world-ending damage, so a lot will be riding on whether your chosen target can make a DC 14 Dexterity check. I guess that, on average, a group will have one character take a couple turns of damage and be pretty hurt.

It’s a mimic. Meh.
 

Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
From a design standpoint, a trap that you can bash your way out of is vastly more fair and interesting than the standard set up of "Roll a Spot check, Roll a thievery check, roll a saving throw for half damage." But talking about trap design is for a different thread really.

As for this creature and other "mimics", the best use of them I have heard about is making an entire building out of them, which effectively creates a scenario where the party now has to fight their way out of the belly of the beast. A very good set up for a horror game, as the "house" can shift it's rooms around while it slowly digests the players, who would probably have to do something appropriately thematic like kill the heart or brain to enable their escape.

Along similar lines, there is even a fey spirit creature called a Zeitgiest who can basically posses a city block, which it then forms a body out of. An impressive image to be sure, but not quite as as fun as the above scenario.
 
Another Planescape monster, the Vargouille is a fun addition to a demon summoning storyline, or an entertainingly gonzo creature to use in swarms.



The Vargouille gets a picture that emphasises both their swarm nature and essentially daft physiology. I like that it shows them with radically different faces, since that’s an important element.

So the Vargouille, like many Demons, is not exactly the height of sophistication, and is not exactly going to be a scintillating conversationalist. However, we do get a couple fun options here for using them. They can ‘tag along’ with another Demon that is being summoned, and are more likely to pass unnoticed and escape than the summonee itself; in this way, they can begin an infestation of the Prime Material, and if so are likely to serve as your players’ first warning of a demon sumoner, or even worse a demonic incursion. They can use their Kiss ability to turn a humanoid into another Vargouille, and the little post-it note from Elminster suggests having that happen to a king, which is an intriguing idea. It also suggests the use of these as weird pseudo-zombies, infesting the ruins of a mining expedition or something similar; the zombie quality comes from them still possessing the head of their victims. If your players venture to the Abyss - like mine are in a week or so - then using absolutely huge swarms of these blighters also seems appropriate, and they are weak enough that the party cleric or wizard can get satisfaction from AoE efforts.

You can have an NPC that the party likes be infested by one of these, doomed to turn into one if they cannot prevent it. It requires so many conditions, though - no remove curse spell available, no sunlight to prevent the transformation - that I think you’d really only manage to make it tense if the party had that quest at a very low level, or were already totally out of resources when they met the victim, and it was already night time. I think that this will work if you really want it to, but don’t be surprised if the party can instantly stop the transformation and thus remove any tension from the Vargouille’s presence.

The Vargouille possesses both a fairly interesting statblock, and also a name that is really annoying to spell. They’re easy as pie to kill, with 12 AC and 13 HP, which is impressively weak even for CR 1, and with numbers like that no amount of resistances is going to help. They get three actions: a bite which is just a standard though high damage melee attack; a stunning shriek which is one of those effects which passing the save makes you immune to, and which makes you stunned and frightened; and a kiss which curses an incapacitated target to become a Vargouille themselves. The latter is reasonably easy to get around, but might still catch a resource-low party by surprise, if for example they’re trapped in the Abyss. The Stunning Shriek is pretty easy to resist, and once you pass once it is not a concern for the rest of the day, so it is unlikely to play a huge part in the combat. So I think that you’ll mainly be using these guys as flying annoyances that fly 40ft into melee and use bite attacks to annoy and harass the players, effectively very stupid but incredibly ugly midges.

A fun but simple entry, the Vargouille isn’t going to win many fights on its own I think, but also do a much better job than the Dretch and Mane as ‘random combat chaff’, the sort of thing that you can toss six of into every fight in an Abyssal adventure, to add numbers and give AoE experts something to do, without necessarily adding a lot of complexity.


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MechaTarrasque

Adventurer
I really like the idea that you can get (uncontrolled) hitchhikers when summoning/conjuring critters, particularly fiends and fey. It fits my desired DM goal of PC's creating problems for PC's to solve later.

If I have one complaint about the vargouille, (much like the dretch, mane, and lemure) it would really be nice if they made a swarm of vargouilles version to go with the singleton to challenge higher level groups with. I could just run 20 at a time, but that is a lot of tracking to do.
 

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