5E Let's Read: Volo's Monsters

Today I’m going to cover the Maw Demon and the Shoosuva together. It seems that with Volo’s Guide they were trying to provide complete ‘ecosystems’ of monsters for the DM to use: here is the Hag ecosystem, with their Banderhobbs and Covens and whatnot, here is the Goblinoid ecosystem, and so forth; these two demons form part of the Gnoll ecosystem, and pretty much everything about them reinforces that fact.

This Shoosuva image is hotlinked from Powerscore’s blog, which I hope (s)he doesn’t mind! The book Shoosuva is actually pretty nice. They managed to make the bizarre anatomy work, the yellow hints at foul and powerful magic lurking inside the beast, though it does make it seem like it has a breath weapon, and the matted and dirty fur is very well done. It’s menacing, its detailed, it makes visual sense, a sense of the personality of the beast comes through, it really works for me. It certainly beats the above image!

The above image is, rather sadly, the clearest one available for the Maw Demons. The art in the book is odd. This monster is just so inherently goofy, like a Warhammer Squig, that the image comes across as slightly amusing, despite the valiant attempts to make it horrific - the lascerated body, the drool, the perspective right down its maw. I suspect that the artist did as good a job as we could expect anyone to do on the subject. If I’d seen this picture without knowing what it was, I would have thought it was an aberration, actually, since its body structure reminds me of the Elder Things from Lovecraft.

Being part of the wider Gnoll ecosystem, both of these critters have Rampage, which I think is an ability that must only come up very rarely in actual play, requiring as it does the players to go down. Perhaps it is a good idea to include some NPC Guards to die and demonstrate this ability? The members of this ecosystem, for those keeping track:

Hyena - CR 0, MM 331
Gnoll Witherling - CR 1/4, VGtM 155
Gnoll - CR 1/2, MM 163
Gnoll Hunter - CR 1/2, VGtM 154
Giant Hyena - CR 1, MM 326
Gnoll Flesh Gnawer - CR 1, VGtM 154
Maw Demon - CR 1, VGtM 137
Gnoll Pack Lord - CR 2, MM 163
Leucrotta - CR 3, VGtM 169
Gnoll Fang of Yeenoghu - CR 4, MM 163
Shoosuva - CR 8, VGtM 137
Gnoll Flind - CR 9, VGtM 153
Yeenoghu - CR 24, OotA 246

Every single one of these, except the humble Hyena, has the Rampage trait. That’s a pretty impressive list, to be honest, and really gives the DM a range of options: it doesn’t even include such honourable mentions as Ghouls, Trolls and Barlguras, who tend to accompany Gnolls warbands. The range of CRs is also instructive, suggesting that we should be willing to consider Gnolls as a viable threat to a party for many levels, especially if you start swapping the Gnolls for Demons further into the campaign. The Gnolls are about as simple a bad guy as they come - a ravenous horde that sweeps in and murders everyone - making them a pretty easy bad guy to introduce to your campaign, and even easier for the players to understand ‘why do we care?’ The built-in Demon hook, especially with Yeenoghu as a perfect end-of-campaign boss fight, also means that you can ramp up the tension without needing to just have millions of combatants in every combat after level 5. In short, I think that the Gnolls are the perfect bad guys for a ‘war campaign’, with the players able to fight them across levels, and their sheer evil is actually a benefit there, letting your players struggle with the political stuff: do we go and form an alliance with the Hobgoblins, who we hate but not as much as the Gnolls? There has been some controversy around here on the subject of the Gnolls, but I’m really happy with what I got from Volo’s, not being interested in them as a PC option anyway, and I think that they are a versatile and fun race to have in the DM toolkit.

So that was a pretty hefty digression on the subject of Gnolls, but I guess that we were going to need to discuss them sooner or later. Let’s return to the Maw Demon. This fella is, well, a giant football that bites people. It resists or is immune to the usual Fiendish options - poison, fire, cold, lightning - and has deeply average AC, but it’s HP is actually pretty high. They do one thing, and one thing only: they run up and they make a Bite attack, for very respectable damage. I don’t really have much more to offer here; run them towards your players, invite them to laugh at it, then watch them stop laughing when it starts tossing D8s around. Apparently whatever they eat gets transported magically into Yeenoghu’s stomach after eight hours, which is… nice, I guess? You could perhaps have the players asked to retrieve some important item, message, or corpse from one of these guys after a battle, which might be entertaining: sneaking around a Gnoll camp, killing and dissecting the Maw Demons as they go. Maybe more fun for you than for your players.

The Shoosuva is a much more engaging fellow. In story terms is mostly an animal companion for a powerful Gnoll NPC, but that doesn’t mean that it cannot have some screen presence of its own. I can definitely see the potential for establishing one of these as a famous bad guy in the enemy ranks at the start of the campaign - Jawrender, the Beast of Ruin, he who slew the Warden of the Eastern Marches - and having it pop up with its owner throughout. It’s a demon, so you can get away with the Gnolls summoning it again (more powerful, obviously) if the players kill it early. It’s not very smart, but it is about as not very smart as the Gnolls themselves, and it has the ability to talk, so there is potential there for dialogue with it.

In terms of stats, it has lots of resistances, as a Demon, and so its HP is not that huge as a result. Its attacks are fun though: a bite and a sting, doing powerful damage together, and more importantly with the ability to Paralyse someone with the Tail Stinger. I’ve mentioned before the awesome power of paralysis, and you should absolutely try and arrange it that the Shoosuva does that right before a Fang or Flind then rips the victim into pieces. Oddly, the stinger actually gives the Poisoned condition, with the paralysis being worded as being the secondary effect that is applied as long as the Poisoned condition is; the only reason to care about that in rules terms is to note that Dwarves will have advantage, some classes might be immune to it, and it doesn’t work on most powerful fiends.

So, the Maw Demon is just a combat encounter, while the Shoosuva has some potential for character-driven story elements, but neither are likely to turn up without a bunch of Gnolls as well. Make sure to use the madness and regional effects from Out of the Abyss for Yeenoghu, if you do have a Gnoll campaign; they should add an interesting touch to the proceedings.
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Possibly a Idiot.
I could see either of these demons as "lapdogs" for a Gnoll, which makes for a bit of comedy in campaigns dominated by ravenous hordes. A Shoosuva being a particularly evil and cruel Scooby-Doo, complete with the horrible speech impediment and excessively bizarre snack runs (on the other hand, it is fearless, so it has one up on the great dane). Or alternatively you could have one manifest after a Gnoll warband kills some important target in your mass battle, rubbing some salt into the wounds and making the battle that much more desperate.

However, the Maw could potentially be abused in more creative ways. As a direct link to Yeenghou, it could serve as a catalyst for campaigns or adventures involving the demon prince. Lets say, some cultists of a rival demon lord (like Baphomet, well ok maybe more like Malcanthet) have hired the PC's to bring in one of these demons alive. A challenge in it's own right, but what happens when the cultists get their hands on one of these Maws is where it gets really interesting. Now they have a way to pump Yeenghou with whatever substance they want. Granted, he can't be poisoned, but that doesn't really matter when you have access to things like decanters of endless water. The chaos caused by such an indignity would be tremendous. Or worse, they figure out a way to reverse the link, and spill forth a nearly limitless stream of demonic bile into the material plane, causing massive amounts of corruption.
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I love the maws. Place one at the bottom of a pit trap right at an ambush spot and watch as the party loses both melee fighters in the first round. One to the pit trap and maw, one to the ambush that intentionally drew them in.


The biggest thing about the rampage trait is it's synergy with the two of types of gnoll leaders.

The Packlord has it's incite rampage ability. Were on a recharge it can make a creature with the rampage trait use it's bite as a reaction. The other is the elite Flind with it's aura. The aura makes it so that any creature with the rampage trait that is within 10 feet of the flind can make a bite attack as a bonus action.


Shoosuva also has 120 ft telepathy, that could end up very interesting.

It could shadow the party, reporting back to a Gnoll band completely silently. Messing with the PCs by whispering to them in their sleep.

Other than that and the ideas presented above, not much interesting I can think of with these guys
We finish up the Demons in this book with the Devourer, a decidedly nasty fellow, and I think the most powerful monster considered thus far. Let’s see what CR 13 gets us!

The Devourer image in the book is really good. The entrapped halfing - judging from scale - sets a note of comedy that really highlights how horrific the Devourer itself is. The flesh, with those spikes embedded in it, looks repellant; the face is unpleasant, oddly shaped and smirking through gap teeth, and the nonchalant pose tells us that the Devourer is more interested in finding the next victim than in paying attention to the fact that it digesting a halfling. Grim and glorious. This is one that will get a strong response when you hold the book up and say, “You guys see this”, which is ultimately the real purpose of these images.

The Devourer is a servant of Orcus, like the Bodak that we met previously, and we get some information here about Orcus using them as a means to start an undead horde. If the Bodak is the bishop of Orcus, these guys are the champions, leading his forces into battle. They are created by Orcus directly, as he transforms a demon into a Devourer by sacrificing another “less fortunate” Demon to do so. It is hard to feel that sad for the other Demon, to be honest. They tend to hang around the Abyss, or the transit planes of the Astral and Ethereal, but Orcus will dispatch them to the Material Plane to do his bidding as well.

The Devourer is described as a hunter, who likes catching and tormenting humanoids. He can stick them in his ribcage, because why not, and there he tortures their souls until they die, and he spits them out as an undead creature. That’s all pretty rad, to be honest, and I’m a big fan of this guy’s style; however, we should note that he has absolutely no ability to either hide (+1 to Stealth!), little ability to manipulate (no Alter Self, no Deception skill) and not much in the way of tricksy abilities (no spells, for example). He’s the blunt hammer of Orcus, grabbing victims and causing his undead hordes to expand, but you’ll probably be wanting to rely on other Undead or Demons to give you the more stealth or roleplaying heavy moments.

With 178 hit points, and resistance or immunity to Cold, Fire, Lightning and Poison, these guys are going to stick around, but not forever. I’ve found that the burst damage of a Paladin fighting an Undead or Fiend is really huge. Regardless, they are basically a melee powerhouse, delivering two Claw attacks for lots of damage each, and then either doing a damage burst or kidnapping a downed opponent. The Damage Burst is a rare (recharge on a 6) ability to dish out 8d10 damage to every humanoid in 20ft. Nasty, and it goes up with the more humanoids on 0 HP in the area; definitely could be horrible if the players are failing an escort mission! The signature ability, Imprison Soul, is to teleport a humanoid on 0 hit points into its rib cage, where it then gets disadvantage on death saving throws. This last ability is a little vague, but I understand it to mean that the creature cannot be healed or teleported out by anyone else, and the only way to get them back is to kill the Devourer. That would certainly make it a very nasty trick indeed, especially if you wanted to give the players a hard choice between fleeing or staying and fighting.

Overall, the Devourer is cool. However, I don’t feel that I’d use one as a Big Bad for a storyline, despite the flavour text about them leading undead forces; they seem just like big combat brutes to fight, without the personality to take you beyond that, and there is also no Legendary Actions suggested for them. They are mid-range CR for a Demon, and I think that Demons and Undead have some more interesting Big Bad options - Death Knights, Liches, Balors - who these guys can accompany as dangerous Boss Fight Minions.

They’re actually reminding me a lot of Revenants from DOOM, now that I think about it. Dangerous, and something to take down quickly, but not really a ‘boss’ monster.
Combine the Devourer with the Bodak from earlier and toss in some other undead. I suspect these things really work best when they have teammates to cover their weaknesses.


Possibly a Idiot.
Bodaks are a great ally for the Devourer. A Bodak will help kill off any target trapped in the ribcage with it's AoE, drastically speeding up the turn-around on creating new undead. Also the fact that they are different creature types means that you can't just drop down a Turn Undead to hose the encounter.

Don't forget to throw in a bunch of living cultists as well, the Necromancer makes a powerful two-fold ally for the Devourer. Once it goes down (because the PC's will target the Spellcaster first) it can come back as a Wight, healing the Devourer in the process. Cult Fanatics come back as Ghouls, and Regular Cultists come back as zombies, which make for exceptional damage sponges. And everyone that a Devourer eats allows the fiend to shoot off another Soul Rend, making it a particularly nasty siege engine of sorts.

For maximum evilness: Consider adding a Skeleton Warhorse to the encounter. You may be asking "Why? Skeleton horses don't have the staying power of a zombie in a high level fight, and thus won't be nearly as useful!" Well the answer is simple. The Skele-horse isn't used to fight, it's used to draw a meat wagon. Tended by other skeletons (preferably armed with bows to offer a spattering of ranged support) and some Acolytes, the meat wagon is loaded up with some of the recently knocked out victims of the undead horde. These poor captured souls have Spare the Dying cast upon them, so that they stay "Fresh" long enough to be made into a sacrifice for battle, where the Devourer will pop them like the PC's pop potions in a boss fight. This gives the PC's a horrible dilemma, do they kill the captured people themselves to make the fight significantly easier, or do they slowly engage in a war of attrition that may end up killing many of the captured (and possibly themselves) anyway?
To make it even more nasty, have some of the prisoners actually be vampire guards in disguise, and just have them be lucky ones that are not grabbed (at least, until it becomes obvious why they're not being grabbed). This will be a very unpleasant surprise for any PCs who choose to tank the opportunity attacks just to smash open the wagon.


Possibly a Idiot.
Well, using all of the support at once may be a bit overkill and a slog to get through, but the Devoured shouldn't be run in a vacuum. They suffer from the "slow, ground-based, and short ranged" problem that so many high level monsters run into. You have to force the PC's close to this guy, and having a bunch of victims is thematically appropriate for a monster that wants to make lots of people into undead.
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Admittedly, I'm thinking of it being used more along the lines of a boss battle. As in, either you're interfering with a goal given directly by Orcus or you (or someone you're protecting) massively ticked him off to the point he's actively trying to kill you (or them).

Either way, the kind of fight where the players very much have to think about strategy and spend serious resources on. And not the kind of situation you just stumble into randomly.
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Reading that... encounter I totally don't want to steal because.... yeah, I love it, I'm evil, I'll admit it.

Anyways, reading that and looking back over Imprison Soul, these guys are at their most devastating when they have civilians around.

Every soul they imprison and spit back up heals them, gives them back their aoe and gives them an extra action on their turn.

Which tells me that in a crowded area it would look like this, regurgitate a creature for a new enemy, heal 25 hp, double claw (66 average damage if both hit), soul rend (44 or more damage to everything depending on how many dying are littered about), get a new creature so you can repeat next turn.

That is terrifying, if there are enough things going on in this fight that this thing (or his twin brothers) aren't getting taken down fast and have enough meat to spawn new undead, this could TPK a party quickly.

Did not know they were demons though, thought they were undead. Makes them better since they can't be turned, and they can be a reoccuring enemy as a demon...

Want to be really cruel, have this thing kill a beloved NPC, and then have it remind the players every time they fight it how that NPC thought they would save them, and didn't and what their last thoughts were as they died.

Wow... I am an evil DM aren't I?


Possibly a Idiot.
Anyways, reading that and looking back over Imprison Soul, these guys are at their most devastating when they have civilians around.
Every soul they imprison and spit back up heals them, gives them back their aoe and gives them an extra action on their turn...
Wow... I am an evil DM aren't I?
If you want to go full evil, you will note that every 0hp living target in the blast radius of Soul Rend ups the damage of the attack by 10 points. 10 victims means 100 extra damage. The Meat Wagon is now in the running for the most dangerous CR 1/2 assistant creature ever.
I was pretty young when Jurassic Park came out, and it gave me a fear of the dark for years. I was just convinced that Velociraptors were hiding in every bush to jump out and kill me. Still one of my favourite movies ever, though! Nevertheless, I think that the Dinosaurs entry here is going to be tough to spin out into a long post.

There are some simply amazing pictures on Google, if you search for ‘D&D Dinosaur’, by the way. I dare you to look on there, and then refuse to use them in your games afterwards. I never knew how much I wanted to use them myself until this very moment! For sake of completion, I should note that there is a picture of a Stegosaurus in the book, but it is nothing really amazing or dynamic. Just, you know, a dinosaur.

We get seven statblocks here: Brontosaurus (ginormous herbivore), Deinonychus (Jurassic Park Velociraptor), Dimetrodon (crocodile dinosaur), Hadrosaurus (big herbivore), Quetzalcoatlus (huge bird dinosaur), Stegosaurus (chap with the spine plates and spike tail) and Velociraptor (actual, tiny, version). These seem to be filling the gaps left by the Monster Manual, which gave us the big predators, the armoured herbivores, and the fish dinosaurs. The gap-filling nature of the Volo’s monsters are fairly obvious: we get an animal companion-legal Dinosaur, one that you can ride into battle, a low-CR and medium sized carnivore to fight, and the herbivores to fill out the ecosystem a little. The Quetzalcoatlus is probably here thanks to Avatar, and the desire to give the players something huge to ride around on, while they attack Yuan-Ti airships or something.

The combat rules are all about what you’d expect. The Quetzalcoatlus has Flyby and Dive Attack; the Deinonychus has Pounce; the Velociraptor has Pack Tactics. They mainly bite, with some doing Tail attacks instead. Nothing to really get excited about here, as they run essentially the same as normal animals. If you wanted to do a ‘Dinosaur’ campaign, you’ll need to think about what else you’ll put into the mix to spice things up, since these guys won’t be hugely interesting over the long run for sure. But stick some Yuan-Ti in there, some tribes of Grippli, and have the ocean full of Aboleths and Krakens, with their servants coming onto land, and you might have a good plan. I absolutely despise Zombie stories, so I've totally ignored The Walking Dead, but I understand that the focus of that show is not actually on the Zombies themselves, but on the groups of survivors operating in a world that happens to include Zombes; I would think that this would be your best bet for making a memorable 'Dinosaur campaign' work.
Note: If you love Eberron, there's one nation in that setting where you'll get the most mileage out of the dinosaur entry. Especially if the halflings are domesticating the raptors.

I was always quite fond of the swamp nation full of Orcs who just wanted to be left alone and kept the seals between worlds secure, myself. But I've not read Eberron in so long that I've forgotten most of what I knew.