Content of the article: "Underrated Monsters, or why you should be using a Berbalang in your games."
Its no secret that some D&D monsters are far more iconic than others, and there's many staples that end up in most people's campaigns at some point or another, or every DM mentions in groups chats or post-session gossiping as wanting to run some day. And then there's the creatures that nobody ever talks about, even when they damn well deserve the hype. I want to start writing about why you should start using certain under-appreciated monsters in your games, for their unique abilities and great story potential. Yesterday I started off with explaining why the Barghest is the perfect boogeyman of goblin-kind and I'll be continuing by telling you about the mysterious sages of the Astral Plane, the Berbalang.
What's a Berbalang?
Coming to 5th edition via Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes, a Berbalang resembles a humanoid with leathery skin, a large cranium, and a set of batlike wings. They're aberrations native to the Astral Plane, where they make their homes on the bodies of dead gods. First and foremost they covet secrets, and they have a couple of features that help them with this. They're very intelligent, but evil by their nature. You can barter with them, but its first instinct will be to either steal from you or scam you. They're willing to trade in bones and secrets, which are one and same to a Berbalang.
The Berbalang's standout stat is Intelligence, with Dexterity close behind, and poor strength and constitution. Evidently, its not geared well for a head-on fight. So what is it good at?
For a start, skill proficiencies. Arcana, History, Insight, Perception, and Religion. So he's got some good dinner conversation material in him, and for the purposes of using in your game, a wealth of valuable lore, something that both your players and their enemies will covet. Its Arcana and Insight proficiencies combine such that you can assume that it can handily size up your party's spellcasters. Not all creatures in D&D properly understand magic or how to fight it, but the Berbalang does. It knows to attack casters who are concentrating, for example.
Its great knowledge also extends to its language proficiencies: its knows ALL of them. Every single one. Perfect for translating all those ancient tomes of lore.
Relatedly, it also has proficiency in Dexterity and Intelligence saving throws. Not bad, but the latter isn't all that useful to it. Intelligence saves are usually made against illusions, but the Berbalang doesn't need that: it has Truesight, which lets it see right through illusions, invisibility, magical darkness, all the good stuff. It also means that shapeshifting won't fool it either. And it can see into the Ethereal Plane, which is uniquely useful to it due to its innate spellcasting, which we'll get to.
It has a basic 30ft walking speed and a 40ft flying speed, great for staying out of the way of all those melee classes that are probably all stronger than it, and also for making hasty exits. If it's not inclined to stick around and fight, might as well be good at escaping. And 40ft flying speed is actually the least effective of its escape tactics.
Might as well say it now, its attacks are nothing to write home about. Two-hit claw/bite multiattack is all it's got.
Innate Spellcasting is where things start to get really interesting. It has a one-a-day use of Plane Shift (self only) that it uses to get around and escape danger, go on sightseeing expeditions across the planes. But its other spell is at-will Speak With Dead. This is the feature that defines the Berbalang's entire character and motivations. The dead as just as informative to it as the living are, and if the living won't share their secrets, then it wants you dead. It lives on the body of a dead god, and it's also trying to talk to that god. A Berbalang's lair will be littered with the engraved bones of the fallen, a grim archive of its research. This is also where the players can attempt to bargain with it. Getting interesting bone without violence is much more convenient, and since this is an evil creature, you would have to appeal to convenience rather than ethics or a sense of fair play bartering. Speak With Dead isn't just a spell that it knows, everything it does is so that it can continue to use this spell on new targets.
And lastly, the Berbalang's other juiciest feature: Spectral Duplicate. As a bonus action, it creates a duplicate of itself with all of its stats and knowledge, which goes about doing stuff while the real body lies unconscious, and it experiences everything that the duplicate does. There's no limits on how long it can do this (as long as it doesn't starve while sleeping) or how far the duplicate can go. The duplicate's melee attacks deal psychic damage instead of the usual physical damages. This means that a Berbalang can go hunting, scout ancient ruins, engage enemies, travel to other planes, swipe bones from crypts, and more, all with literally zero risk to itself. It can be miles away, on another plane of existence, while its duplicate does the dirty work, and all the while it just sleeps. And best of all, it recharges on a short rest. So while the Berbalang's real body is lying unconscious in its lair, it's resting, and thus recharging its spectral duplicate, so if the duplicate gets destroyed the Berbalang can have another one ready to go instantly. This is a very nice feature that allows for no end of creativity on the DM's part.
Why should you use a Berbalang?
Its pretty clear that the meat of this stat block is its Spectral Duplicate, Innate Spellcasting, and skill proficiencies. These all tie together to make a very unique monster, with all sorts of interesting encounters you can make around it and some great plot hooks, feeding into combat and roleplay.
Firstly, the Berbalang is excellent at recurring encounters. Since it can send out duplicates with no risk to itself then it can fight the players over the course of multiple encounters, smart enough to pitch in when the players engage with other threats to even the odds. This is also good incentive for the players to track the Berbalang down and find its real body so they can take it out of action for good. There really isn't anything in the game that does this as well as the Berbalang.
And once the players do find its body, it suddenly has incentive to bargain with them, which means roleplay encounters. This is where the Berbalang gets to flex its wealth and knowledge, and it ought to have been spying on the players long enough to have a good idea of what might interest them. Its ability to speak to the dead is one it can leverage, and since the dead are a valuable resource to it then it might actually approve of a group of murder hobos running around the dungeon. A simple offer: bring it the heads of their enemies, and it will tell the party their secrets.
The Speak With Dead aspect can also be a great plot hook. Maybe the players are instructed to seek out a mysterious sage to extract the knowledge of a long dead king. Or maybe they're called upon to investigate the ransacking of bodies from the graveyard.
Their knowledge of the planes is also a good plot hook, since these creatures have the means and the incentive to go to as many planes as possible, so for players looking for planar portals then a Berbalang is as good a guide as any. And the fact that they can go anywhere risk-free means they can be encountered anywhere, on any plane. Sure they live on the Astral Plane, but they might send their duplicate down to the Nine Hells to scour the banks of the Styx for anything interesting and trade secrets with Night Hags while they're there. They can stalk the Border Ethereal to spy on adjacent planes without being seen. They fit in anywhere.
And lets not forget, a great spooky style. Berbalangs record their findings on bones, so anywhere a Berbalang has lairs will be positively littered with the things. It's a good way of clueing your players in to the fact that the Berbalang's real body is nearby, but it also invites opportunity for the players to try and steal some of these secrets. In this way even a dead Berbalang can be a treasure trove of lore, plot hooks, spells for your party's wizard (who needs scrolls when you have bones?), and so much more. And if the Berbalang isn't already dead when they come across its archive, then its going to be angry, so also a setup for a fight. Crafty players can even use this to lure the real Berbalang out of its hiding place, inviting it to come out and protect its archive in person. And since the Berbalang knows all languages, then it can reasonably write in all languages too, so this is the time to make use of all the obscure language proficiencies your players picked up and make them feel clever.
Speaking of languages, its stat block specifies that it "rarely speaks", something I'm not sure any other monster in the game has. This is cool, but feel free to ignore this is you'd like. A cunning Berbalang that flaunts its intelligence and secret knowledge is just as compelling, maybe it smugly informs the party's druid that a wild shape disguise doesn't fool it, or takes a sneak peek at the wizard's spellbook and laments how uninteresting its contents are compared to what it knows, these are perfectly valid. Likewise, a Berbalang may not be talkative with the players, but if they creep up on it then they might encounter it having a whispered conversation with the bones around its lair before it notices them, establishing right away what this thing is about. This can even be part of a Berbalang encounter or plot hook, where the player or an npc heard someone talking in a strange language in the graveyard or dungeon at night, but vanished without a trace before they could get a good look at them.
Lastly, its one of the few creatures native to the Astral Plane. Their lore allies them to Gith, but Gith and Astral Dreadnaughts are more geared towards higher level players while the Berbalang is only CR 2, so if you want Astral creatures for lower level parties, Berbalang is the way to go. That said, I think there's enough great roleplay and plot hooks to this creature to make it relevant in higher level play too. Its not like a Berbalang is afraid to send its duplicate against higher level parties just so it can try an get a good gauge on what their abilities are. And a creature as smart as this doesn't need to be a mega boss anyway, it could easily have minions for that.
I did say that they like to live on the dead bodies of gods, right? I don't think there's much more I need to say about that.
Aberrations are a very interesting bunch, and the Berbalang is a nice combo of abilities that makes it quite the living archive. Next time you need a random roadside encounter, try a Berbalang's spectral duplicate, and leave your players scratching their heads over this puzzling creature they've probably never heard of. If you feel like the Berbalang needs a buff to be able to face up to your players, maybe give it some weird aberration backup, lean into its necromancy abilities with some skeletons, or maybe give him a class level or two in Wizard. And when all is said and done, the Berbalang has incredible staying power through its duplicate ability that far and away makes up for its lackluster defenses, which means that this fun and intriguing creature is going to stick around long enough for you to make the most of it, and for your players to get a proper showing of what they have to offer. Berbalangs covet secrets, and you can make your players covet those secrets too.
You should be using a Berbalang in your games, but they're not the only badly under-appreciated monsters in 5th edition D&D. I have more of these guys to rant about. Any creatures that you think don't get enough hype? Have stat blocks stuffed with interesting features, plot hooks, and unique roleplay opportunities? Or do you just want to ask more about Berbalangs? I'm all ears.
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