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I'm preparing an encounter with devils, and I was reading the Barbed Devil entry on the MM.

It's stated that it has an Impale special attack while grappling, Improved Grab and Improved Grapple.

It's clear that its purpose is to latch onto an enemy 'till they're dead, however, Improved Grab doesn't really work on PCs (as they are of the same size), and the devil is missing Improved Unarmed Strike (prerequisite for Improved Grapple).

Improved Grapple isn't marked as bonus either, so it doesn't work without the prerequisite.

How can I fix this without changing the CR too much?

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There's no errata for the barbed devil (Monster Manual 51), and the issue the question raises is unchanged by the premium edition of the Monster Manual (2012).

According the stat block the barbed devil does, indeed, possess but does not meet the prerequisites for the feat Improved Grapple (PH 95-6).1 Further, this discrepancy also goes unmentioned in, for example, John Cooper's otherwise excellent Cooper's Compendium of Corrected Creatures.

Solving the problem I: Ignore it or make a house rule

The easiest thing for the DM to do is say that barbed devils just can't use their Improved Grapple feat, the DM ruling that barbed devils simply somehow came to possess a useless feat. Almost as easy is the DM making a house rule saying that the Improved Grapple feat of the barbed devil is now a bonus feat (so that even though barbed devils "do not have the prerequisites for [the] feat… the creature[s] can still use the feat" (7)) and giving the barbed devil another, reasonable feat that's unlikely to change its challenge rating.

Solving the problem II: Use the Oriental Adventures rule

There is a another tack that can be taken, but it's more difficult and comes with some baggage. While the Monster Manual on Feats really does straight-up say, "A creature cannot have a feat that is not a bonus feat unless it has the feat’s prerequisites" (7), Oriental Adventures on Feats amends and softens this absolutist stance a little, saying

Certain monster special abilities count as feats for purposes of meeting prerequisites for other feats. A monster with any natural attack form is considered to have the Improved Unarmed Strike feat. A monster with the improved grab special ability is considered to have the Improved Grapple feat. (143)

(Link added.) A strict reading simply ignores the rule above: Oriental Adventures is not a primary source, and, as this rule contradicts the Monster Manual, it is safely and easily discarded. Alternatively, a reader going to Gamer Court could make the case that the rule above only applies to Oriental Adventures creatures.2

But a looser reading can accommodate instead of dismiss the Oriental Adventures rule, viewing it as expanding and clarifying the Monster Manual's rules instead of contradicting them. In fact, while attempting to make such an accommodation, the barbed devil may even be used as evidence that the Oriental Adventures rule was a thing all along!3 Such a reading does solve the barbed devil problem, but it also makes it so, for example, any creature with a natural attack or the special ability improved grab gets a secret and otherwise-unstated-elsewhere natural ability that allows it to meet prerequisites and requirements it otherwise couldn't.4

Keep in mind that while it's unusual for the game to secrete new or updated rules in unusual, often unread places in ancillary texts, this isn't wholly unprecedented (cf. the accepted answer to this question).

What this DM would do

This DM imagines the designers did, in fact, want the barbed devil to be able to use the feat Improved Grapple as the feat was assigned to the barbed devil. I assume that a deliberate design choice to give a monster a feat that it can't use would probably be mentioned in the monster's text. I also suspect the barbed devil's challenge rating includes the barbed devil using the feat Improved Grapple rather than its challenge rating including the creature possessing a useless feat! For this reason, I'd avoid the Oriental Adventures rules, make a house rule that adds the B to the barbed devil's Improved Grapple feat, and add to the barbed devil the feat Stealthy (PH 101), a feat that shouldn't have an significant impact on the barbed devil's challenge rating.


Notes

1 Now that I've looked for it, the feat Improved Unarmed Strike is also absent from the Monster Manual's other creature with the feat Improved Grapple: the bebilith (42)).
2 Despite context implying otherwise. That is, the paragraph after the rule above begins When a monster described here…, a turn phrase omitted from the Oriental Adventures rule quoted above, therefore a strong (but not airtight) case for the rule above seeming to be intended as a general rule.
3 Oriental Adventures is, in fact, the original source for the feat Improved Grapple (63), the feat having been later reprinted in Deities and Demigods (51) and Dragon #290 (91), but in these cases lacking the burdensome Dexterity 13 prerequisite that was added by Unapproachable East (May 2003). Sadly, it was this last version that was adopted by the 3.5 revision of the Player's Handbook (July 2003).
4 Note that this is, in most cases, really not a big deal. However, the DM risks opening a Pandora's box of subsequent judgment calls if the DM extends the Oriental Adventures rule to cover feats beyond Improved Grapple and Improved Unarmed strike!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Silly game designers, hiding elephants in mouseholes :P \$\endgroup\$ – Shalvenay Apr 16 '17 at 19:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ My only, I'll call them 'gripes' with your answer are that it mentions the issues with I.Grab, but not a fix, and making I.Grapple a bonus feat leaves a feat slot open. The OA ruling is cleaner, IMO, than a bonus feat (I wish I'd known all that you noted here! It's good material). I don't follow the section mentioning I.Grab: "would certainly get some use from the feat Improved Grapple unless it's supposed to be bodyguarding folks from, like, gnome paladins..." Again, great info, minor nitpicks. \$\endgroup\$ – Chemus Apr 16 '17 at 23:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Chemus Fortunately, with KRyan's edit, the entire section on intent could be purged (thank heavens!), making for--with your help--a much cleaner answer overall. Thanks again. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Apr 17 '17 at 0:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, but to my eye, the main thrust of the question is how to deal with the improved grab size issues vs PCs, and you removed almost all mention of it... What am I missing? \$\endgroup\$ – Chemus Apr 17 '17 at 2:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Chemus If the DM enables the barbed devil to use the feat Improved Grapple (as solutions II and III propose), the feat allows the barbed devil to grapple (and subsequently impale) with some efficacy Medium creatures also, therefore typical PCs. Should I make that explicit? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Apr 17 '17 at 8:57
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Though the rules don't say so, the barbed devil's natural weapons might be considered to cover the Improved Unarmed Strike requirement. Additionally, the devil can already use Improved Grab on small and smaller targets; so gnomes and halflings would be at greater risk from it than dwarves etc.

If you desire to have the devil grapple medium creatures more easily, you might edit its Improved Grab to include creatures its own size, which can be within the scope of the ability for some creatures anyway.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The last would almost-certainly affect CR, though. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Apr 16 '17 at 16:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan True. The Question requested not 'changing CR too much', and merely editing the ability is within scope of the I.Grab ability. I'll change the Answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Chemus Apr 16 '17 at 16:43
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The barbed devil’s Improved Grapple feat is impossible as written; as a regular feat, it would need Improved Unarmed Strike to even select the feat. So the author made a mistake here somewhere, so a DM is kind of required to change something to make the creature “legal” to begin with.

The safest such change, then, is to grant the barbed devil some minor ability to select and use Improved Grapple without Improved Unarmed Strike. This is an extremely minor change, even less of a change than making Improved Grapple a bonus feat (which would also allow the barbed devil to have and use the feat, but would also enable it to take another). With this change, the barbed devil would have a significant advantage against Small-or-smaller targets, since it would be able to use its improved grab, but it would still be able to leverage its impale ability against larger foes through regular grappling, which it is pretty good at thanks to Improved Grapple.

(One could argue that a “smaller” change would be to not houserule a unique racial feature for barbed devils, and just have them choose a different feat for that slot; this would be more in keeping with the rules as a whole, but would, I think, change the barbed devil itself quite a lot.)

Ultimately, though, CR is an extremely unreliable tool. Is the barbed devil’s CR of 11 accurate as written? Well, almost-certainly not, seeing that as-written the creature is non-functional. Does this as-minor-as-possible change match the designer’s intent, and is that intent actually CR 11? Impossible to say on either count. You are going to have to judge the barbed devil (however you rule its grappling ability) on its merits, and compare them against whatever the PCs are bringing to the table.

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The most easy way to fix the devil is to pick IUS for him in place of some other feat (Alertness/Iron Will). Note, untill the feat is marked with B, it is not a thing all and every creature of particular kind must have. It is just most common pack of feats for such a creature. Changing feat selection a bit makes nothing wrong.

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