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Novice DM trying to make my bad guys intimidating.

My party is fighting a Hag Coven and I want to make this fight pretty hard without killing anyone hopefully. So three Green Hags (Coven Variant) are CR 5, but with only 102hp I feel like the fight will be over in an instant.

The hags lose their powerful coven spells when one of them dies, and if the party is smart (which they are) they'll focus their attacks on one hag! So against level eight characters I'd say the battle is essentially decided, no? I know the point is that hag covens are vulnerable to this kind of instability, but what if I give them a shared hp pool? Is that stupid? Or should I just boost their hp by a few CR?

Please help, I want to make this battle epic but I am flummoxed.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It'd probably be helpful to know what the composition of your party is. Also, are the hags going to be encountered in their own lair or somewhere else? \$\endgroup\$
    – Carcer
    May 28 at 19:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ The party consists of a Wild Magic Barbarian, Transmutation Wizard, and Twilight Cleric, and they'll encounter the Hags in their lair. \$\endgroup\$ May 28 at 19:55

2 Answers 2

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Use the Lair Actions and Regional Effects

My group of five level 6 PCs withdrew after a gruelling battle with a coven of green hags due (it seems to me from the DM side of the screen) to the number of Awakened trees they ran into, and the Hallucinatory Terrain (coven spell) the hags cast each day which the party didn't discern as an illusion. (They were too busy fighting and did not do a great job of scouting before the encounter). They had previously encountered one or two of the hags in the swamp, but each one had fled/withdrawn before the party could close on them.

I had, as I designed the coven and how they fit into the world, subbed in the Hallucinatory Terrain spell for the Grasping Vine spell since the Green Hag coven had taken over a portion of a swamp and that fit (DM side) thematically. What looked like a thick, good sized grove of trees was an illusion that masked their lair in a small copse of trees, some of which were awakened.

The hags were extremely reluctant to expose themselves, used their eye for scouting, and as another distraction there were a few swarms of ravens to keep the PCs busy. The illusory hag is the only one the PCs saw during the encounter.

The hag creates an illusory duplicate of herself, which appears in its own space. As long as she can see her duplicate, the hag can move it a distance equal to her walking speed as well as make the Illusion speak on her turn (no Action required). The Illusion has the same Statistics as the hag but can’t take Actions or Reactions. It can interact with its Environment and even pick up and hold real Objects. The Illusion seems real in every way but disappears if it takes any amount of damage. Otherwise, it lasts until the hag dismisses it (no Action required) or can no longer see it. (Volo's Guide to Monsters, Coven)

I used swarm of ravens as the random hag minions rather than swarm of rats or swarm of insects for thematic purposes. Insect swarms would also have sufficed. From Volo's Guide to Monsters:

  • A powerful Green Hag creates one or more of the following additional regional Effects within 1 mile of her lair:
    • Illusory duplicates of the hag appear in random places at random times (but never more than one in any given location). An illusory duplicate has no substance, but it looks, Sounds, and moves like the hag. The hag can sense when one or more Creatures are within 60 feet of her duplicate and can interact with them as if she were present and standing in the duplicate’s space. If the illusory duplicate takes any damage, it disappears.
    • The region takes twice as long as normal to traverse, since the Plants grow thick and twisted, and the swamps are thick with reeking mud.
    • Trees transform into awakened trees and Attack when Hostile intruders are near.

You can dial up, or dial down, the number of awakened trees/swarms to fit the three PC level 8 party; I'd suggest making the encounter between deadly and 2x deadly if you want this to be a big showdown.

Alternative Approach: consider what the hags might want from the PCs, or what the PCs might offer the hags, and figure out through play if they'll agree to a deal as a part of a negotiation - if the PCs try to parley with them. If successful, and the hags stop {doing whatever it is that has the PCs on their trail} an award of full XP would be a fitting wrap up to the encounter. The other group I DM for got a sizeable XP award for a recent negotiation with an Efreet that did not end up in combat, but instead in them making a deal.

I had not considered using a shared HP pool, but instead their tactics were based on "not being hit" and "using illusion and minions to make targeting them difficult".


Full disclosure: this is going to spoil what happened for both @V2Blast and @MikeQ (the hags remained unfinished business as other threats to the region arose) but I can live with that since they are now off on another adventure and are level 9. I suspect that if they head back to Saltmarsh at any point in the future, Granny Vine and her coven will be toast or will be forced to negotiate a deal.

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You should feel free to adjust to make the battle as epic as you want it to be.

Shared HP pool

I have never tried a shared HP pool, but that is a really interesting idea, definitely not stupid, and will definitely keep the battle going.

Peter Cordes brought up a good point in the comments, which is you may or may not want to signal the shared HP pool in some way.

When DMing myself and DMs in games I play with often find ways of subtly signaling that these particular monsters have some unusual feature. "The lightning bolt hit it dead on, but it didn't seem bothered in the least", for instance.

Raising HP

Uping HP is a tactic I have frequently used to get the right fit to an encounter. Or downing it, for that matter, but that doesn't seem like the issue here.

Some other things I have done

  • Have the monsters use smart tactics. Hags aren't the smartest or wisest creatures around, but they aren't stupid or foolish by any means. Perhaps the hags realize they are outgunned and immediately disengage. Or they use their Illusory Appearance feature.
  • Give them minions, as many as you want. Don't hesitate to make a minion or two a significant challenge.
  • Give them a legendary or lair action or save.

Conclusion

Don't hesitate to combine features.

You may or may not have very experienced players at your table. Often such players know the rules pretty well and are prone to saying things like "hags don't work that way!" Don't listen to that noise. The rules literally tell you to customize monsters. A good way to head it off at the pass is to tell the players up front at session 0, or really at the beginning or end of any session that hey guys just so you know, you can't count on encounters being safe and you can't count on monsters behaving the way their stat block says, just saying.

If you're concerned you've overdone it, make sure there's a way the PCs can get away. Some of the most memorable encounters are when the PCs get thrashed, even hard thrashed, and then plan a re-engagement and come back and kick butt.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd guess that it would be a good idea to narrate clues to the shared HP, like other hags wincing when one is hit. Otherwise the players are likely to assume the fight is unwinnable if they're getting low on resources and all 3 hags are still up, even if the one they're attacking is looking close to dead. But not something I've seen done either, and IDK if you want to put anything to that effect in your answer. \$\endgroup\$ May 29 at 9:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes Incorporated! \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    May 29 at 11:26

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