D&D 5E Let's Read: Volo's Monsters

Xvarts have been a lot of things over the years.
They started out as some kind of being that was half-way between a Kobold and a Goblin (both of which have gone their separate ways). Later they were repurposed into Gnomes who were experimented on by Fomorians, and made a pact with some Hags to escape.

Anyway, the most interesting thing about Xvarts is their master Raxivort, who is explicitly a demigod instead of a fiend (at least now), but still grants warlock pacts to his direct offspring, who worship him, instead of making them clerics or something like that. In contrast, Graz'zt is supposedly still more powerful than him, yet isn't a god of any kind yet?

This is the kind of thing that makes me loathe the design lore for Warlocks in 5e. They overlap too greatly with clerics, which doesn't make sense. Why would a divine being make a pact when they can have worshipers, what is the gain for them at that point?

One thing you can do with warlocks is to take the idea of pacts and bargains and run with it. In this view, there's always a cost for warlock spells. When a fiend grants you power, he isn't granting you his personal power--he's giving you the password to his soul account, so to speak, and every time a Fiend Pact warlock casts a spell, there's a soul somewhere who screams in agony as the soul grinders squeeze a little bit more juice out of him to power the spell. When someone makes a pact with Cthulhu or the Unseeing Eye (with or without Cthulhu's knowledge), the forbidden lore they're accessing is forbidden because it chips away at the reality of the world, bringing the world's dissolution (back?) into chaos that much closer every time you use it. When someone makes a pact with Mab the Queen of Air and Darkness, their spells, like Mab's own magic, are consuming the vitality of the natural world, and Mab will insist that the power be used in such a way as to create a net profit for her, by removing threats to her power source.

Raxivort doesn't have personal power to loan to his warlocks, but the artifact he stole has a credit line built in, which doesn't seem to have a limit--he keeps pulling power out, and so do his warlocks, and the debt keeps growing, and he worries sometimes about where it comes from and what it might cost someday to settle that debt, but so far no one has ever asked him to pay so he just keeps drawing upon the power because he wants treasure and a good life today...

From this perspective, wizards take power from natural laws, clerics are given power by those who have it, sorcerers embody power within themselves, and warlocks (and their patrons) borrow or pay for power like nobles borrowing gold from rich merchant princes at high interest rates.
 

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psychophipps

Explorer
Pretty much how I see things with Paladins being added to the Cleric list. Divine casters need to not only be given this divine power, but they have to earn it through word and deed. This ^^^^ is, in my opinion, why the Paladin/Warlock mix that some players use to "double dip" for powers like the 120ft dark vision doesn't work.
 

The final Fey in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, the Yeth Hound is kind of like the Shadow Mastiff but on steroids.

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The art for these guys makes them surprisingly endearing. The intended effect is that of an evil humanoid face on a shaggy dog’s body, with a flexible neck between; yet the face here is kind of dopey, not angry, and gives the Yeth Hound an aura of vague frustration.

The Yeth Hounds can be summoned into being by a powerful Fey to serve someone, and they can only exist in the context of this servile bond; if their master is slain, they will seek out a new one, with preferred options including Vampires, Hags, and Necromancers. Basically all of the unpleasant types liable to hide in dark places. The main difference between these and the Shadow Mastiffs - other than physical traits - is that the Shadow Mastiffs breed, while these are created. They are both dog-like creatures used to hunt or guard, that make a very distinctive and magical bark, and which hate sunlight.

These are Large lads, five feet at the shoulder and weighing 181 kilograms. An average light horse, according to Google, weights about 450 kilograms, so clearly the Yeth Hounds are scrawny for their size. There is no mention here of Vampiric Yeth Hound Cavalry, which is a real shame; I’d definitely keep that in mind as an option for a more humorous Halloween adventure! Otherwise, we get basically a really big dog which serves very bad people, so I’d think of these guys mainly as minions of a more powerful threat.

At CR 4, however, these are pretty potent minions, so let’s have a look at them. First up, we should note that they are immune to non-magical and non-silvered weapons, while also being immune to charm, fright, and exhaustion. They can fly 40ft, as well as hover, though we don’t hear whether they use their tails like a helicopter rotor to achieve that. They do have an odd weakness, however; if they are caught in sunlight, they are transported to the Ethereal Plane until the sunlight goes away, at which point they will enter the Border Ethereal and try to track their master down. That’s pretty odd, and the best option for making use of it that I can think of right now is as a way of following the Yeth Hound back to their master; it could be a fun way for the party to find their nemesis.

The Yeth Hound gets a couple of traits to explain how they help their masters; Telepathic Bond makes it easy for the two to communicate, and is a way for your BBEG to gather information on the players or targets, though with an untrained Stealth score of +3 the Hounds won’t be all that covert about it. In addition, they get the standard dog Keen Hearing and Smelling trait. More canine action is provided by a Baleful Baying, which is a lot of fun to say, but which is, sadly, a fairly boring save-or-be-frightened effect, of the ‘run away for your whole turn’ variety, not the ‘disadvantage on attacks’ variety. It’s got an enormous range though, so definitely the sort of thing that could make an impact if a pack of hounds chases the players through city streets, causing crowds of people to flee in all directions. After all of this, it is almost an afterthought to mention that the Yeth Hound gets one Bite attack, which causes more damage if the target is frightened, which is a fun effect but not likely to come up all that often I suspect.

Overall, the Yeth Hounds are an entertaining option. They won’t drive plots by themselves, but they have a lot of character, and can serve as excellent goons for the players to encounter while hunting a Vampire. I’m loving the mental imagery of the players being chased by flying giant dogs through city streets, for example. They’re easy to justify using, and are relatively simple to use, while having some really fun ways for the players to make use of their weaknesses in ways that advance the plot. Definitely worth using.
 

Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
The Yeth Hound's Baleful Baying is really powerful.
Firstly: It inflicts the frightened condition (which is what applies disadvantage to attack rolls and ability checks, so long as the hound is in sight)
Secondly: The targets just run, at top speed, directly away from the Hound, through any hazards that might be in their path. Which is no doubt useful for triggering traps, or OAs from other hounds (who get even more damage on their bites for this) and their allies.

Unfortunately for the hound, once a target saves against the bay, it will be immune to it for 24 hours, preventing such tactics from working on it.

As for what to pair these dogs up with, you should start with other dogs of course. Perhaps the Local Hag Coven has a Kennel or Puppy Mill devoted to nefarious purposes.

The Shadow Mastiff Alpha provides an alternate source of long-lasting fear, good for getting more damage out of the Yeth Hounds bite. And Also doubles up on the sunlight weakness angle.

Jackals can be used as the stat block for small dogs, have pack tactics, and sport CR 0 (10xp) allowing you to cram oodles of poodles into an encounter.

Death Dogs can make two attacks (a shocker, I know) but also inflict a disease that can be used to bypass mental defenses

(normal)Mastiffs, Wolves and Wargs can knock targets prone with their bite, which makes them spend extra movement to get up and run away from the Hound's Bay. These three also run the spread of the fractional CRs. Giving the pack's fodder the full gamut of variance.

Dire Wolves are the CR 1 variation of the wolf, that comes with pact tactics, so their bite is more accurate to begin with. They can also serve as high level minions when the normal dogs start to become obsoleted.

Winter Wolves can do the same, but also have a Cold Breath attack.

Hell Hounds are the Fire compliment to the Winter Wolves. They are also Fiends, which adds yet another creature type to bypass protections into the mix.

At this point you are probably looking at this pack thinking they have more oomph to them that most humanoid warbands and tribes, if only they had something more to cover their weaknesses. Fortunately for you, there are not one, but TWO such creatures:

Jackalweres (often found in the employ of hags) are what happens when a Jackal turns into a manish kind of thing. They can employ weapons (especially bows), have the standard dog powers of keen senses and pack tactics, are immune to non-silver-or-magic weapons, and can put their enemies to sleep by staring at them. Being humanoid allows them to use objects, something most other dogs cannot do. So having your players cleverly shut a door behind them to escape from the pack can be foiled by having one of these guys open it.

Werewolfs. The OG Lycanthopes themselves are also kept as servants to hags. They don't bring much to the table that a Jackalwere can't, and don't have the Sleep Gaze option. But make up for those points in spades with pure meat and the ability to spread their curse to the PCs, which can provide some interesting plot hooks and character development.

And finally, the pack will be backed up by the Hag Coven, providing all the hag goodness that they can.

But if you want an alternative for spellcasting support, or perhaps a slightly more manageable boss. You could go for the Arcanaloth (which is a Yugoloth). Arcanaloth are spellcasting fiends with the head of a jackal, making them look much like a high-class Jackalwere. They were originally created by a Coven Of Night nags in Gehenna, perhaps for Asmodeus. They clock in at cr12 and are able to cast 8th level spells, so you have lots of options with them.
 
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Chaosmancer

Legend
I think the Yeth hounds are as close as we'll get to the Hounds of the Wild Hunt, and could be used in that context. Perhaps to amuse or complete a deal with a Faerie Lord/Lady the party has to survive 3 nights of being hunted by the Wild Hunt, whose vanguard are the easy enough to deal with Yeth hounds, but whose main force is a more beefy encounter, like reskinned Death Knights.

Have them use normal beasts during the day, and you've got a potentially really tough and interesting mini-adventure that utilizes both what makes some of these monsters great and the exhaustion rules, plus standing and fighting is clearly a "bad idea" so the CRs matter a little less, because the hounds are only meant to delay until the main force catches up.
 

A wild hunt scenario sounds great. It's an iconic idea, but definitely tough to achieve in a game in which the players never retreat. It might be one of the times that letting an NPC get massacred is worthwhile.

I think my big concern about grouping Yeth Hounds with other doglike enemies is that they'll get a bit samey, even if they're quite different. It's easier for the players to spot and remember different enemy types if they are noticably different kinds.


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Today we move onto the Yuan-Ti, starting with the Yuan-Ti: Anathema. This is the top-tier entry for this race, much as a Warlord or Archmage is for humans, and it is an immortal power-hungry giant snake. What’s not to love?

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Goodness me, the Anathema had a weird design in previous editions. This time around, they have changed it to be a Hydra-ti; it gets six heads, a huge constrictor snake body, and two humanoid arms. It’s a picture that manages to get the alien physiology looking plausible, with nice texturing and a pretty interesting grey/orange colour palate. It’s certainly a very well done picture, especially considering how easy it would be to mess up this creature design.

The Yuan-ti are a really fun race. Whereas the Hobgoblins are the organised evil guys with armies - the Cold War Russians, perhaps, or the French to your players’ English - the Yuan-ti are a little more subtle. They are pretty similar to the Drow in some ways - hide in remote places, like a certain type of animal, go in for assassination, illegal trade, and slavery, while they dream of world domination - there are enough differences to keep the two races very distinct. The Yuan-ti, as presented in Volo’s, are basically the bad guys who try to punch above their weight. Unable to field enough numbers to wage open war against all of humanoid civilisation, they resort to skulking around in their jungles and sending out skilled infiltrators to try and manipulate humanoid society to their benefit. The race’s narrative strengths lend themselves to a wide variety of plots - an Indiana Jones raid on a temple complex in the jungle, finding and destroying a narcotics distribution network in the sewers, discovering why the king has suddenly become very erratic and making poor decisions - with some interesting and fairly unique visual aesthetics to back it all up. Even in D&D, fighting your way up a ziggurat in a jungle as snakes the size of men fire poisoned arrows at you is pretty much only going to happen against Yuan-ti.

The race gets several variants for you to use. Time for another quick table!

Yuan-ti Pureblood (CR 1, MM 310)
Yuan-ti Broodguard (CR 2, VGtM 203
Yuan-ti Malison (CR 3, MM 309
Yuan-ti Mind Whisperer (CR 4, VGtM 204)
Yuan-ti Nightmare Speaker (CR 4, VGtM 205)
Yuan-ti Pit Master (CR 5, VGtM 206)
Yuan-ti Abomination (CR 7, MM 308)
Yuan-ti Anathema (CR 12, VGtM 202)

Of these, the Pureblood is the infiltrator; the Broodguard and Malisons are standard brute enemies, with the Malisons being more dangerous at range; the Mind Whisperer, Nightmare Speaker, and Pit Master are priestly types, one for each of the main Yuan-ti gods; the Abomination and Anathema are leader types. Chapter one of Volo’s, which includes a lengthy description of Yuan-ti society and history, as well as some great imagery, lists just about everything imaginable as servants of the Yuan-ti: medusae, undead, constructs, NPC statblocks, animals, the whole works. This variety is probably down to the fact that the Yuan-ti are a highly intelligent and learned culture, which makes good use of arcane and divine magic to bring others under their control.

So let’s look at the Anathema, the top-tier entry for this race. It’s CR 12, the same as an Archmage, so we should interpret this as effectively the most powerful that a Yuan-ti can ‘naturally’ be, short of the gods (or the plot, more importantly) creating a monstrously powerful one to fight against the players. The Anathema is what happens when an Abomination, in search of divinity, uses a special ritual to get a step closer. The Yuan-ti gods are apparently pretty replaceable, and the top ranks of Yuan-ti society spend a lot of time trying to work out ways to absorb and supplant their gods. That sounds exhausting, and also suggests why the Yuan-ti might make mistakes or fail in their schemes, making it easier to write plot for a race of extremely smart and patient schemers. Anyway, the Anathema is divine enough to become immortal, and gets some potent abilities that showcase what a snakegod gets up to.

The first of these is the spellcasting, which includes the level 7 Cleric spell Divine Word, a spell that is very cool but not actually all that great; it’s more of a finisher than something which will let you win the fight. It will allow the Anathema to make a hell of an entrance though, if it slithers in and uses that on a room full of NPCs. It also gets some very solid spells - Polymorph and Haste are both spells that can dramatically change how this creature goes about its business, especially if you pre-cast the Polymorph to effectively double the length of the fight. On top of this, we get a Ophidiophobia Aura, which lets it try to Frighten enemies nearby; it’s a passive that triggers when something starts it’s turn within 30ft. It’s a tough save, and an even tougher word to pronounce, and could make the party Rogue or Fighter very unhappy, though remember that Paladins are probably going to be immune to it by the time that they fight one of these.

The Anathema is also a pretty tough enemy, with decent AC, high HP, and a whole bevy of resistances, including to magic and the stunned condition, the latter of which comes from having so many heads, like the Ettin. It’s saves are no higher than +4 to anything though, so even with advantage it is unlikely to save all that many spells. Like all Yuan-ti, the Anathema can change into a snake, a feature that is more fun than useful I think. More exciting is the melee abilities of this guy; apart from the limited spellcasting, you’re only going to do damage in melee here, but the Anathema makes up for that with 40ft move and some seriously damaging attacks. It has four attacks in its combat routine; two Claws, each for 2d6, a Flurry of Bites, for 10d6 on one poor fellow, and Constrict to do 5d6 damage immediately, then at the start of a creature’s turns thereafter.

Overall, the Anathema is a Huge snake that will rush into melee and toss dozens of D6 of damage at the party. It’s a great big bruiser of a leader, one who focuses on ripping its opponents apart, which is faintly surprising for a poison-and-intrigue themed race like the Yuan-ti, but upon reflection the Yuan-ti statblocks really tend towards being bruisers with some intrigue-related magic on top. (If you’re keen on a magical element, you can also easily use the new Yuan-ti PC race to easily reflavour some of the NPC statblocks.) Disappointingly, we don’t get any Lair or Legendary actions here, despite this being a perfect candidate for campaign-ending bad guy, so I would certainly suggest that you create some. Otherwise, I’m pretty happy with the Anathema as a bad guy, and I think that, with appropriate swarms of Abominations and Malisons, it’ll be an effective and memorable BBEG.
 
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Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
Yuan-Ti, the evil snake-men that run the government. Attune your tinfoil hats.

But anyway there isn't much I can add about Anathema, so lets talk about other things.

Volo's Guide provides lots of customization options for these snakes, as a whole. In particular the Anathema can benefit from the following Unusual Traits:

Acid Slime, which makes any melee attacker suffer minor acid damage when they strike or touch the supersnake, even while grappling.
Chameleon Skin, Advantage on hide checks. But a very cool visual image.
Shed Skin, allowing the Anathema to escape bonds (which isn't very likely) but also provides a gross way to regain hitpoints should the PC's back off in the middle of a fight.

Of note, these traits can be applied to a wide range of Yuan-ti. Meaning if you want an entire city of Chameleon-snakes then go for it, it will be cool. Also Shed Skin is really great for the lesser members of the tribe, as they are far more likely to be restrained.

As a side note, now would be the best time to talk about the Abominations, as there isn't any in Volo's, though they do get a few options back in chapter one.
They have access to all of the Unusual Traits that Anathemas have, but also a few additional actions, which can recharge in the middle of an encounter.
Polymorph into a Snake. Could be used for some crowd control on the meatshield types, but also as an additional avenue for infiltration or escape.
Snake Antipathy Basically a fear spell that extends to everything that looks like a snake, including other Yuan-Ti.
Sticks to Snakes A callback that lets them summon a swarm of snakes, potentially inside the quiver of an archer. A really interesting way to counter a ranged character.
 


Of these, the Pureblood is the infiltrator; the Broodguard and Malisons are standard brute enemies, with the Malisons being more dangerous at range; the Mind Whisperer, Nightmare Speaker, and Pit Master are priestly types, one for each of the main Yuan-ti gods; the Abomination and Anathema are leader types. Chapter one of Volo’s, which includes a lengthy description of Yuan-ti society and history, as well as some great imagery, lists just about everything imaginable as servants of the Yuan-ti: medusae, undead, constructs, NPC statblocks, animals, the whole works. This variety is probably down to the fact that the Yuan-ti are a highly intelligent and learned culture, which makes good use of arcane and divine magic to bring others under their control.

So let’s look at the Anathema, the top-tier entry for this race. It’s CR 12, the same as an Archmage, so we should interpret this as effectively the most powerful that a Yuan-ti can ‘naturally’ be, short of the gods (or the plot, more importantly) creating a monstrously powerful one to fight against the players.

I don't agree with that assessment, actually. The archmage is only a level 18 spellcaster and could definitely change its spells to have its damage output increased (thereby raising its CR) even with level 18 spell slots, let alone level 20 slots. Honestly, I think CR 12 for the pinnacle of a classic D&D race is a definitely too far on the low side - it should be around 15 at the lowest, if not somewhat above, to make it a fully intimidating "final boss".

Beyond that, however, I do like the overall presentation of the anathema - it does everything that it should as the leader of an important race. I would just adjust it somewhat upwards when it comes do damage and so on, should I ever have one appear in my campaign...
 

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