5E Let's Read: Volo's Monsters

Yeah, there really isn't much interesting about these guys that I can see.

Best I could think of is a colony that was a little closer to the surface, in a cave system. A low-level party thinking they are entering a spider's nest would be unpleasantly surprised by a Choldrith cleric and some Chitines. Having them ambush from above is a solid tactic, maybe if you wanted a more militaristic fight exchange their daggers for shortswords.
There is certainly some uses for them, but they definitely are not likely to make my 'must use low level critters' list any time soon. You and @Sammael both make solid suggestions though.


Looking back, since we've passed the Beholderkin, but didn't really talk about the prime Beholder, I want to address something.

I really love the variant eye rays, especially new choices for their central eye.I've never enjoyed anti-magic and I seriously want to run a beholder with a persistent Mirage Arcane or that Stun effect. Those seem so much more dynamic than taking away any magic the party might be using. Definitely something I'm glad they added in.
I didn't want to cover Chapter One, in large part because I had no idea how I'd structure such a thread! The beholder variant options are indeed really cool. I'm also a huge fan of the way that they suggest variant Hag Coven spells, to give different themes. Really nice way to change it up without making things really complex. There's a lot to like about the way that 5e is able to make small and easy changes that feel major in play.

That reminds me: I said under Catoblepas that Hags have not turned up in the adventures, while totally forgetting about Old Bonegrinder in Curse of Strahd, an adventure that I tonight just finished running!
 

Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
Chitines are the first "humanoids" we encounter. This alone gives them all sorts of opportunities for customization.
But the 3-D encounters are definitively where this species stands out. Attacking from the ceiling and the walls, or even below the PC's on some kind of narrow bridge, before they are at the level where counters to these tactics are common, force the PC's to improvise their combat tactics leading to very memorable encounters.

Daggers aren't too intimidating at first glance, but do remember they can be thrown from anywhere that can be crawled on. And because they are weapons, they can be swapped out for things like rapiers for a bigger bite in combat or whips for range. They could even potentially tie off the daggers to a web strand, allowing quick retrieval so they can be thrown again. And as always, be ready to drop rocks on heads.

Their armor is made out of webs, that's a really cool mental image. You could potentially give some as a reward to a low level party who is strapped on cash.

Choldriths are priestesses. That means feel free to tinker with their spell list, and ally them with basically anything that would worship Lolth. And don't forget to burn all of their spells in combat.

As for why you are out to get these creatures? Maybe your party are slaves to Drow.
 

Croesus

Villager
It can perform the attack against every creature in its path but only one attack per creature.
That's a valid interpretation (and probably the one intended). The phrase "The first time it enters a creature's space during this move..." can be read as the first time it enters each creature's space, or as only the first space that has a creature. I chose to use the more limited interpretation, but I can easily see your reading as more accurate.
 
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Croesus

Villager
Their armor is made out of webs, that's a really cool mental image. You could potentially give some as a reward to a low level party who is strapped on cash.
I like this idea. One of the PCs in my group is hunted by a drow family. So if she helps free some chitines, they'll give her spiderweb armor roughly comparable to elven chain. Gives her a bit of boost in AC and will definitely tick off the drow who are hunting her.
 
I suspect that I am not alone in associating the Cranium Rats with Planescape Torment, that most glorious of games. One of the few monsters in this book that I knew about before I opened it, they seem oddly lacking in flavour here to me. I might have gotten carried away talking about them here, so expect a long post!



A Planescape monster is always a good excuse for DiTerlizzi art. The picture in Volo's really plays up the brain angle, with some impressive digital art used to draw the eye to the glowing organ in question. With a general tone of savagery, I quite like it. Perhaps it might that years of playing Warhammer have trained me to respect pictures of angry evil rats.

These guys are spies and minions for Mind Flayers, who created approximately 15% of all monsters in D&D. Being small they obviously make good spies, but I can't help but feel that the glowing brain is perhaps a giveaway to the careful observer. Otherwise, the rather short flavour text spends most of its time describing how more rats equals more pew pew.

To briefly dip into the past, these guys were most noted in Planescape for a strong association with Ilsensine, the Mind Flayer godthing. It was actually a giant brain living inside a cavernous mountain somewhere in the Outlands, as I recall, and gave blinding headaches and eventual thralldom to anyone who approached it; the Cranium Rats were supposed to be directed by it, doubtless part of a scheme to control the multiverse.



In Planescape Torment, the Cranium Rats had a giant controlling mind, Many-As-One, which the player could go and negotate with, without any mention made of Mind Flayers; at least, that is what Google tells me, for I have not played it in a very long time. (I deliberately left it fallow so that I would forget most of it, and could replay it at a future point from complete ignorance.)

Here, the Cranium Rats are just servants of an individual Elder Brain, as the Mind Flayers appear to have had all hints of universal organisation taken away from them, in favour of them being scattered city-states. Probably that was felt to be more useful for the individual DM. Thus we now have Cranium Rats as minions of a Mind Flayer settlement - good for the introductory stages of an adventure, as the players find the Rats spying on them, and for being monsters encountered on the outskirts of the settlement itself. Not a lot to say about that really, except to mention it as a good idea.

You can also use a Cranium Rat swarm as a low level boss-style threat to the players, but I think that there are better options out there. The exception would be for a whodunnit mystery, where you could use the Cranium Rats as a behind-the-scenes mastermind, taking control of people long enough to sow dissent, and then scuttling away into the shadows to keep their presence hidden. That would be pretty interesting actually, and really play to the strengths of the concept, with or without Mind Flayers being involved.

We here get two statblocks for the Cranium Rats: an individual rat (which is basically a rat that you can't read the mind of) and a swarm. There isn't really a lot to say about a rat by itself, so we'll focus on the Swarm, which has a pretty fruity statblock. At CR 5, but with only 36 HP, these guys will die like champions if the players try hard enough, even if they are resistant to piercing/bludgeoning/slashing. They are also resistant to the Stunned condition, which is really rare as far as I can tell, so they're good for victimising your Monk players. They only get one attack, for reasonable but not amazing damage. So far, so dull.

However, the Cranium Rats can cast Dominate Monster, Confusion, and Command. This means that they can cause a party to descend into total carnage if saves are failed, and could just sit back and mock them telepathically as they hit each other and whatnot. So I think that they'll be quite a swingy monster; if the players get the jump on it, or if they pass their saves, it'll be a total cakewalk; but if they fail their saves, then it could have a surprisingly chaotic outcome. Combine a Swarm with a Mind Flayer, and its blasts, as well as an Intellect Devourer trying to eat brains, and I'm sure that nobody will be happy with you.

Overall, a slight disappointment, but there is hope that they'll turn up in a future Volo's Guide to the Planes or Mind Flayer-centric adventure path and get a more interesting depiction there.
 

Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
Back when we were talking about the Gauths, I suggested putting one in charge of a thieves guild masquerading as a Carnival. I have a feeling that a Swarm of Cranium Rats would make for an excellent addition to their Ranks.

Effectively the second in command, the swarm poses as The Flea-Bitten Circus: A novelty act in the side show. Using a mind-controlled humanoid commoner as their "Ringleader" and spokesperson to the public; all of the rats have tiny hats, hoods, or masks on to disguise their true nature. During the Carnival's operational hours, the Ringleader serves as a twisted reflection of the Pied Piper, "commanding" the rats to perform tasks and stunts in much the same manner that an actual circus would do. An act that delights smaller children, and disgusts some of the upper crust. When the Carnival closes, they serve as spies, locating the towns treasures so that the other guild members can go about their thieving ways with as much haste and efficiency as a ragtag crew of wandering thieves can muster. They also act as an early warning system for the Carnival, quickly and quietly detecting any persons who come with the intent to investigate the gang.

In a dire pinch, they have been know to sacrifice their Ringleader and scatter, because nobody would think to track down a bunch of normal rats.
 
I love it! The best part is that the 'ringleader' can just be some poor shmuck that they've kidnapped from somewhere, and you can even have him be an NPC that the players have met before. So they enter this carnival, and find themselves thinking, "What is Sir Percival the Paladin doing here?"
 

Sammael

Adventurer
What about a twist on the classic "clear the rats from my basement" trope? Party after party of adventurers enter the basement, get charmed/dominated, and then act as their pawns and enforcers. When PCs somehow uncover the truth, they must first deal with hordes of low-level NPCs...
 

pukunui

Adventurer
Re: chitines - they feature in a fun little low-level 2e adventure called The Shattered Circle. Could be fun to update and run for 5e.
 

Chaosmancer

Villager
My only problem with them as written is that an individual rat is stupid, which makes it more difficult for the single rat to go and scout.

Increase their intelligence to 6, and they could be smart enough to follow people of interest before rejoining the swarm.

I love the circus idea by the way, very good.
 

Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
My only problem with them as written is that an individual rat is stupid, which makes it more difficult for the single rat to go and scout.

Increase their intelligence to 6, and they could be smart enough to follow people of interest before rejoining the swarm.
They start out at 15 INT, and lose one point per day spent away from the swarm, bottoming out at 4. So you have quite a bit of leeway, something like 5 days to work with before they are too dumb to act as a scout anymore and they should just return.

That can be further mitigated by having them act in one or two day shifts, each one passing off information to the next spy taking over.

I love the circus idea by the way, very good.
Thanks, I think I am going to write out stat blocks for some of the other notable members of the Carnival. Sparkculease, the strongest Gnome in the world, springs to mind.
 
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Chaosmancer

Villager
They start out at 15 INT, and lose one point per day spend away from the swarm, bottoming out at 4. So you have quite a bit of leeway, something like 5 days to work with before they are too dumb to act as a scout anymore and they should just return.
Completely missed that. Thanks
 
Back when we were talking about the Gauths, I suggested putting one in charge of a thieves guild masquerading as a Carnival. I have a feeling that a Swarm of Cranium Rats would make for an excellent addition to their Ranks.

Effectively the second in command, the swarm poses as The Flea-Bitten Circus: A novelty act in the side show. Using a mind-controlled humanoid commoner as their "Ringleader" and spokesperson to the public; all of the rats have tiny hats, hoods, or masks on to disguise their true nature. During the Carnival's operational hours, the Ringleader serves as a twisted reflection of the Pied Piper, "commanding" the rats to perform tasks and stunts in much the same manner that an actual circus would do. An act that delights smaller children, and disgusts some of the upper crust. When the Carnival closes, they serve as spies, locating the towns treasures so that the other guild members can go about their thieving ways with as much haste and efficiency as a ragtag crew of wandering thieves can muster. They also act as an early warning system for the Carnival, quickly and quietly detecting any persons who come with the intent to investigate the gang.

In a dire pinch, they have been know to sacrifice their Ringleader and scatter, because nobody would think to track down a bunch of normal rats.
Unfortunately, I don't think Cranium Rats as written have the capability to do what you described. IIRC they only get Dominate Person once per day, which allows them to control one person (who fails his saving throw) for one minute per day. Call it 40 seconds of control per day on average. AFB but they might get another forty minutes or so of Suggestion time, but not direct control.

I think this is a flaw in the Cranium Rat stat block and not in your suggestion, because what you suggest is awesome enough that it should be made possible.
 
I think that, like Mindflayers having no ability to permanently enthrall someone, this is a 'plot power'; it exists if the plot needs it to, but isn't worth describing in game terms. Of course, it isn't even suggested by the Cranium Rat entry. I think that the real problem here is the flavour text, which goes against the grain of Volo's by not explaining how the DM should really use these guys, what kind of story they'll appear in.
 
I wonder why the Fey didn't get lumped together in this book. I mean, Dragons and Demons each get one collective entry. Perhaps the thinking was that the Fey are all so different that they needed to be separated out to make them understandable. Regardless, we now meet the Darklings, strong contenders for edgiest guys in the Feywild.



The art in Volo's is pretty generic. The two Darklings are just sort of standing there, looking menacing. I think that they would have really benefitted from a background, perhaps a dark corner with a nearly-obscured painting behind them, to highlight their themes.

The Darklings have a pretty interesting story. Like many Fey, they got cursed by another more powerful Fey, in this case the Summer Queen. Is that different from Queen Titania? Who knows. Anyway, they got cursed to age prematurely under light, and so they keep themselves wrapped up to try and avoid it as much as possible. The way that this works is that they actually store the energy of the light, and upon death they explode in a little sunburst; which means that when one is close to death, the others would have to shun it for fear of dying themselves, which is a rather sad thought. Cursed to die alone!

The other sad part of this curse is that they have a love of art, and thus are driven to take the risk of an open flame just to peek at a painting. That seems like a really interesting plot hook; an art gallery hires heroes to find out who keeps breaking into the place but not stealing anything, and they meet one of these guys. I'd be strongly tempted to use such a Darkling as a PC ally, their 'man on the inside' to guide them into Fey society as it were. However, the flavour description also makes it clear that these guys operate as thieves and assassins, from caverns beneath "the towns of other species". Does that mean other Fey, or Humans and the like? I'm guessing that means the latter, despite there being basically no mention of Fey in any of the 5e books thus far. Either way, the Darklings are clearly not unambiguously good guys, and have the dreaded Chaotic Neutral alignment, so you've got a lot of room to use them as you see fit.

They can make for interesting bad guys, a more magical Assassin's Guild sort of thing, even as you can play up their tragic story at the same time as a means to building rapport between the two sides. You could try for a bad guys to good guys arc, having the players initially fight against the Darklings, and then be driven by pity, convenience, and a greater threat to work with them against other more powerful and malevolent Fey. The end result would be low level bad guys who feel very different from Goblins or Orcs.

Combat wise, the Darklings are like Rogues. They have good stealth scores, not much health, and they are afflicted by Sunlight Sensitivity. They have bonus damage when they have advantage, but not just for mobbing people. Happily, the CR 2 Elder version can cast Darkness, which will allow the Darklings to use their Blindsight to gain said advantage. Nasty. When they die, they let out a bright flash of light, which can inflict the Blinded condition, even better for the Darklings who can (rather oddly) ignore it and press the attack using their Blindsight.

Not the most complicated of critters, but distinctive and interesting, with a really poignant backstory. Definitely guys that I'm eager to use.
 

Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
I think that, like Mindflayers having no ability to permanently enthrall someone, this is a 'plot power'; it exists if the plot needs it to, but isn't worth describing in game terms. Of course, it isn't even suggested by the Cranium Rat entry. I think that the real problem here is the flavour text, which goes against the grain of Volo's by not explaining how the DM should really use these guys, what kind of story they'll appear in.
I like to solve these kinds of problems with complex rituals that aren't easy to replicate by PC's, and therefore impractical in all but the most plot-demanding of situations.

Anyway, Darklings!

They explode into light when they die. This is obviously intended to be a problem, but what if the PC's had need of an intense source of light? Imagine, if you will, a town shrouded in mists and darkness. There is a terrible multi-layered curse on this land, one that will send ripples out into the kingdom and as a result cause instability in the continent. The curse cannot be broken without shining a years worth of Sunlight onto a statue in the middle of town, but the mists and night-like conditions prevent this curse from ever leaving. This causes the PC's to search for anything that can be used as a proxy, and as it just so happens, the death of a Darkling will fit the bill nicely.

Now, there are all kinds of moral quandaries about kidnapping and sacrificing a sapient being, even if it is a chaotic neutral fey creature whom is cursed anyway. And the PC's are just going to have to either deal with doing a little bit of bad for the greater good, or perhaps try to find another way to suck the light out of one, which the Darkling may or may not like.
 

Chaosmancer

Villager
I love that artwork [MENTION=32659]Charles Rampant[/MENTION]

And another really amazing idea [MENTION=53176]Leatherhead[/MENTION].

It is interesting (still haven't gotten around to the Hag entry) to get a small look into Fey society from this. "Dark Crow" the actual fey who betrayed the Summer Queen was a member of a "House" and all Darklings are members of that house who have been cursed.

This either means clan, massive family, or servants included.

But, I think this is meant in a "Clan" context, so there would logically be other Houses in service to the Queen and others.

What I really think we need is the actual nobility of the Faerie, the people who command all these lesser fey, and we can make an assumption of what they would look like by reading the Darkling Elder description, since that seems to be closer to their original form.
 
There is certainly the hint of a wider culture here, and some hints of a house system, but other Fey - for example, Redcaps - don't come in clans. The Hag chapter is great, but makes it clear that they stand apart from wider Fey culture.


Sent from my iPad using EN World mobile app
 
A cult made of darklings would be utterly nasty.

Darkness in an area, have a chosen self-sacrifice on the other side of it while the main combat darklings suspend themselves from the ceiling in the darkness. Party comes through the magical darkness, the sacrifice plunges a dagger into their own chest, and the party is blinded while the rest of the darklings cut themselves free from the ceiling and move to attack.
 

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