Let’s face it – one of the scariest monsters to face for a large part of your adventuring career is trolls.
They’re large, they have high physical stats and worse of all – they regenerate 5 hit points per round. This sort of near-invulnerability tends to lend itself to a level of fearlessness that is hard to properly capture and goes largely ignored by most DMs.
Unfortunately, many DMs run trolls as “harder to kill NPCs” and don’t get into the psychology of these monsters. A near-invulnerability to most things will likely lend itself to a way of thinking that’s not immediately obvious. Let’s explore this a bit and look at some fun tactics for trolls.
Trolls are relentless and fear practically nothing. There’s a few main factors that contribute to this. The main two would be their healing abilities and the fact that they’re giants.
It’s almost impossible to stress this piece enough. Every bit of damage beyond fire and acid is nonlethal damage for a regenerating creature.
Creatures with this extraordinary ability recover from wounds quickly and can even regrow or reattach severed body parts. Damage dealt to the creature is treated as nonlethal damage, and the creature automatically cures itself of nonlethal damage at a fixed rate per round, as given in the creatureâ€™s entry.
Being stabbed with a sword carries no real threat to a creature that can heal that wound in a few seconds.
Large Creatures Don’t Fear Little Creatures
Trolls aren’t smart, but they are powerful – and they know it.
PCs have a somewhat slanted view of the world in that they’re constantly dealing with people with class levels. For the vast majority of a world’s population, this simply isn’t the case. Most of the creatures a troll will encounter will be so easy for them to destroy, they’re unlikely to be frightened even if they’re armed with fire.
On their own, trolls will likely just charge into combat headfirst expecting to destroy everything – and rightly so. Creatures with poor mental stats make poor tactical decisions. But even better, they’re able to be talked into doing stupid things more easily. When commanded by someone with a sense of tactics, a small group of trolls can absolutely devastate an enemy position. A commander in charge of trolls doesn’t care how many wounds it may take – they’ll be healed up in a couple of hours tops.
Looking At Some Tactics
Now that we’ve talked about some of the reasons that trolls are the way they are, let’s look at some of the fun things we can do with them in game.
Most of us know of the association with trolls guarding bridges and requiring payment for someone to pass. That’s all well and good, but this isn’t really a tactic.
One offensive tactic that you can use with heights is tossing people off of those high places. Keeping in mind that a troll takes nonlethal damage from all but fire and acid, what would prevent a troll from grappling you and throwing you both off a high bridge? Nothing, really. Throwing oneself off of a bridge is also a viable means to escape certain death as well.
Sure the sudden stop will at the bottom will hurt, but it’s better than dying. And if it’s a quick way to kill a PC, why not take a little tumble and wake up a bit later with a dead opponent next to you? And since the climb skill is based off of strength, trolls should have a decent climb check for most environments.
Hallelujah, It’s Raining Trolls
This is a slightly different take on the Troll Bridge tactic. Similarly, it requires some height and uses the troll’s ability to heal as a buffer from falling damage. You won’t want to leap from too high a height since that’d just render the trolls unconscious until they healed more, taking them out of combat. But a fall from a reasonable height will save climbing time and allow them to gain the element of surprise.
A tactic of this sort isn’t something that you’d want to use if you have one troll against all of you PCs since they’ll likely take full advantage of the now-weakened troll and put it down for good in short order. However, if the trolls are one aspect of a larger force, this could be a great “first wave” to help soften the PCs.
An alternate use of this tactic is to have flying creatures drop trolls into combat and then circle around and engage on their own.
Due to their uncanny ability to heal themselves, sending in trolls as a front line to spring any possible traps may not be such a bad idea. While this means that any fire or acid-based traps will do some damage to them, it’s not like they wouldn’t do any damage to other creatures as well.
Pending the build of your force, this may be a viable tactic – though if you have more expendable troops (goblins, kobolds or orcs spring to mind) then you might just want to send them in first because dying meaningless deaths is really what they’re best at.
Since there isn’t any listed benefit for sparring, this one is more for the RP fans than those just concerned with combat. But when you think about it, who better to have as a sparring partner than someone that can’t actually die or be permanently harmed by simple melee weapons?
Strike Fear Into The PCs
A great way to set the tone for a monster in a campaign is to do it early while the PCs are still “impressionable” (e.g., low level). A single troll is a CR 5 encounter. Around level 2 or 3, introduce a troll in a way that won’t outright kill your PCs.
- The party witnesses the devastation a single troll can bring before countless low-level fighters can bring it down. You probably won’t want your PCs to actually engage the troll in this sort of scenario.
- A troll that’s recently been involved in a raid is encountered by the party and is moderately wounded by fire or acid (thus greatly limiting the effectiveness of it’s regeneration ability and lowering the CR for the monster).
- Have the party attacked by and captured by trolls at a low level to show them how easily the trolls could defeat them and foster a strong resentment early on.
These are just a few ideas to make a fairly standard monster into something much more menacing for the PCs – and this is all done early in their adventuring career without having to add a single class level or buff to the monster (and in most cases, we’ll want to weaken them to ensure the trolls don’t outright kill the PCs).
Any monster can be more than just a stat block. It can require a degree of effort on the DMs part, but it’s not that difficult. The hardest part is trying to assume a different point of view based on what we know of the creature and it’s abilities.
This effort can have a huge in-game pay off though!
(Thanks to Pat for some of the creative uses of trolls in games he’s ran that helped inspire this article!)