How to Play a Manticore Like A Cunning Beast

“I’m hungry, Kaspar,” the manticore growled. He paced his den grumbling and shaking his mane of hair as he walked. Each step caused the porcupine-like quills at the edge of his tail to quiver, as if anticipating being hurled straight into a human throat. The manticore stopped his pacing and dug his leonine claws into the dirt and unfurled his massive, bat-like wings, giving him a huge, imposing silhouette. He turned towards the manticore named Kaspar and bellowed, “Well?”

The scrawnier, older, and more battle-scarred manticore Kaspar looked up at his younger, stronger counterpart with contempt. “If you’re so hungry, Xerxes, then go out and hunt!” he spat. “Get off your lazy tail and work!” 

“No!” Xerxes roared. The words of both manticores were nasty and brutish. Each guttural utterance was a challenge, a statement of superiority, devoid of compassion or understanding.

The younger manticore’s bestial eyes darted about his subterranean lair. They alighted upon dozens of bones and scraps of armor—the remains of humans who Kaspar and Marzbahn, the weaker of the trio, had brought back on Xerxes’ orders. Then he remembered. Marzbahn. He was out hunting. Xerxes whirled on Kaspar, eyes wide in a mixture of fear and rage. “Where is Marzbahn? You should know! Your fault. Your fault!”

Kaspar rose to his four paws and unfurled his wings, a low growl in his throat. The two manticores paced in a wide circle around the edge of the room, sizing one another up, each prepared to strike but waiting for the other to make the first move. Then the wooden door to their den, an ancient and magically preserved portal created by the dungeon’s original creators, slammed open. Across the threshold strode four heroes, and the woman in front, a fighter with two curved blades at her belt with light brown skin and dark, stylized makeup around her eyes, held up the maned head of the third manticore.

She tossed the head like a sack of moldy grain into the center of the chamber, and affixed her steely gaze upon the two living manticores. Kaspar and Xerxes stopped dead in their tracks. They glanced down at the head of their companion in shock, then at each other in agreement, and finally at the adventurers in fury. Both leapt into the air, borne aloft by their massive wings.

The fighter smiled, and unsheathed her blades.

Manticores are a tragically underappreciated D&D creature. The reasons are fairly obvious; they’re barely a step up from wild beasts in intelligence, and their motivations are very simple: they want to eat human flesh. They can speak, but they aren’t conversationalists; “In the course of attacking, [a manticore] denigrates its foes and offers to kill them swiftly if they beg for their lives.” Finding ways to make a manticore an interesting encounter beyond its combat abilities can be difficult, but that’s a burden all good Dungeon Masters bear. The quality of your game is bounded only by your imagination.

But we all need inspiration to fuel our imagination. Let’s go beyond the Monster Manual and really figure out what makes a manticore tick. How does it think? What differentiates it from similar creatures? And what combat and non-combat abilities does it possess that make it a fun and challenging opponent?

Mind of a Manticore

The Monster Manual does a pretty good job of encapsulating the thought processes of a manticore, at least as far as their incarnation in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons is concerned. Within that tome are presented two major traits. Go ahead and read the Monster Manual entry first; it’s an evocative piece of writing, so it will probably jumpstart some ideas of your own, even before my own analysis. Try to keep these traits in mind both when designing a manticore lair before a game, and when running your manticore encounters in-game:

Evil Predators. Manticores are lawful evil. I take this to mean that they are inherently cruel (evil) and that they fall into simple routines and hierarchies (lawful). They are less intelligent than the average humanoid (INT 7), so their social structures are simple and probably based on power, fear, and respect—but challenging the hierarchy probably has some simple procedure, like a duel of dominance between the pack’s alpha and its challenger. Otherwise, manticore packs would fall into chaos.

Their 3rd edition SRD entry suggests that manticores tended to form prides of 3 to 6. The name “pride” is strongly representative of their leonine nature. They are powerful creatures, but probably prefer to scavenge rather than hunt, as hunting takes a great deal of energy. Female manticores also probably hunt instead of males, who stay at home to protect their pride, like lions. However, lions are unaligned in D&D, like most animals. Since manticores are evil predators, they may go out of their way to cause misery in the world. You can use their simple speech capabilities to rain insults and demeaning jeers upon their prey, demanding that they submit to a quick death.

Interestingly, the Monster Manual says “If a manticore sees an advantage to be gained by sparing a creature’s life, it does so, asking for a tribute or sacrifice equal to its loss of food.” What advantage could a manticore find in sparing a creature’s life? Consider the quote in the Monster Manual entry.

“Manticores love the taste of human flesh. That’s why, on trips through the mountains, I always travel with human guards.”

— Marthok Uldarr, dwarf copper merchant

While the quote is humorous, it suggests that manticores have a particular fondness for human flesh. If an adventuring party made up of both humans and non-humans, the manticore might say to the elves, dwarves, and dragonborn (etc.) that it will spare their lives (and maybe even give up some of its treasure hoard!) if they give up their human companion without a fight. Now, I don’t think any adventuring party I play with would do this, but it adds a nice bit of interpersonal tension to flavor the fight. And who knows. Maybe your elf rogue isn’t as scrupulous as you thought.

Monstrous Relationships. This trait is a great one to consider when building encounters. Manticores tend to form alliances with evil humanoids, though evil humans might prove too irresistible to ally with. The Monster Manual suggests using hobgoblins, orcs, giants, and lamia as potential allies, but don’t discount drow, duergar, and just plain-old evil elves, dwarves, halflings, and so on. What would a manticore-mounted elf knight look like? Seeing a being flying on the back of a creature as monstrous as a manticore instantly marks it as cruel and evil.

It also suggests a list of monsters that manticores battle with over territory, like chimeras, griffons, perytons, and wyverns. It also specifically calls out dragons as manticores’ feared enemies. Why? Just because they’re a more powerful winged creature? What stories could you tell that put evil manticores and good (or neutral) creatures in conflict? Even better, what scenarios would but evil manticores and equally evil perytons in conflict? How will your characters navigate such a thorny scenario?

I’m Not a Sphinx!

A manticore is a monster from real-world Persian folklore. It underwent a bit of modification in its adaptation to D&D, and through its long history of re-adaptation throughout the many editions of this game, but the core idea of a manticore remains intact. It’s a chimeric amalgamation of humanoid and animal traits—particularly the traits of a lion, a dragon, and a human being—that hungers for human flesh. The original manticore legend gave it a scorpion-like tail, but the D&D version has replaced its venomous stinger with hedgehog-like spines that it can hurl at distant prey. Its partial humanity—as implied by its humanoid face—grants it some semblance of intelligence, and allows it speak Common.

Of course, this part-human, part-lion, part-other stuff creature from Middle Eastern folklore draws inevitable comparison to the Sphinx of Ancient Egyptian mythology. This miscomparison was so widespread that it was a major disqualifying factor in an open call for new writers for the D&D Adventurer’s League back in 2015. In the words of former Adventurers League admin and current D&D Associate Producer Bill Benham, many applicants displayed a lack of understanding for D&D lore because “the manticore was [in many instances] used as a proxy for a sphinx in that it was portrayed as intelligent, manipulative, and well-spoken. Looking in the Monster Manual it shows that they are brutish, not very bright, and possess bestial cunning.”

Now, recall that this was an open call for the D&D Adventurer’s League. As an official organ of the D&D brand, that program needs to cleave very closely to the established rules and lore for Dungeons & Dragons. Your home game can be different. While the Monster Manual says that manticores only use their powers of speech to taunt, humiliate, and dominate their prey, there’s nothing stopping you from creating a remarkably intelligent and philosophical manticore that has gained sphinx-like intelligence and has developed a taste for witty repartee in addition to the sweet metallic tang of raw flesh.

Heck, you could even do this within the strict framework of extant D&D rules and lore, provided the manticore acquired an item like a headband of intellect. (And there is a headband of intellect located somewhere within Level 8 of Undermountain. If you wanted to try to befriend a manticore and set it up as your own personal riddle-giving gatekeeper of Level 1, you could go to some incredible lengths to do so, just for a laugh.)

There is a reason, however, to keep a manticore distinct from a sphinx, and it all comes down to the story that you’re trying to tell. Manticores are bestial monsters with a taste for human flesh. They cannot contain their urges. If you want a graceful-yet-powerful creature that tells riddles, a manticore simply isn’t that, and you give your players mixed messages when you try to do that. If you really need a sphinx-like creature for lower-level characters, try using a sphinx-like lamia, or a flameskull or helmed horror bound by its creator to only let those who can answer its riddle pass.

Fighting Dirty

Manticores are predators. They don’t fight honorably. Rather, they use every dirty trick in the book to slaughter their prey while expending as little energy as possible. Every single combat a predatory creature engages in involves a risk-reward calculation: is the energy this kill will give me worth the energy I spend trying to kill it? Is it worth the injury? And if it turns out to be stronger than I expect and I have to flee, will I have the strength to find weaker prey?

A simple fact is that manticores don’t initiate fights they don’t think they can win. They aren’t smart, but they are canny, and if an uninjured and well-equipped adventuring party traipses through their lair, they won’t initiate a fight unless the invaders start plundering. Maybe the manticores will stay in plain sight, hunkered down atop their food or treasure, and snarl at nearby adventurers, warning them away.

But if a group of wounded adventures, overladen with treasure from deeper in the dungeon, accidentally wanders into a manticore lair while returning to safety… be ready to roll initiative.

Speaking of manticore lairs, they tend to lair in caves with tall ceilings because of their their tail spines and wings. Their ability to fly and hurl javelin-sized spines allows them to—in many cases—attack from afar with impunity. And in sufficiently cluttered lairs or cave systems, their flight allows them to attack from range and then flee behind cover before adventurers with bows or spells can fight back. And since manticores can use their Multiattack to make three attacks with its tail spines per turn, there’s really no disadvantage to this strategy, unless its enemies are also making judicious use of cover.

Like most flying creatures, a manticore can also use its fly speed to pick up creatures and drop them onto the ground. This can be a major asset if fighting in a canyon with a precipitous drop (such as in Princes of the Apocalypse), or if the manticore runs out of tail spines to throw that day. It only has 24 spikes it can use, and all spines regrow after it completes a long rest. This limitation (and ability to regenerate) will probably never come into play because of the lightning-quick nature of D&D combat, but who knows?

Manticores in Undermountain

A trio of manticores appear in area 16 of Level 1 of Undermountain in Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage. If the Xanathar Guild is cleared out of Level 1 of Undermountain, it “makes this level a much safer place for a while, but it also spells the end of the force that kept the grells, the gricks, and other predatory monsters in check.” Of these predators, manticores are easily the most interesting creatures. Their capability for Common speech, combined with an interesting cocktail of mediocre Intelligence and above-average Wisdom, makes them cunning but brutish foes. If they get the run of the place in the absence of the Xanathar Guild, a new manticore-led faction of dungeon predators could emerge, changing the landscape of the Dungeon Level.  

Manticores at your Table

Personally, I like my manticores to torment the player characters at my table with impossible, moon-logic riddles, and then laugh viciously and attack when the characters invariably fail to answer. They’re just toying with them. Of course, that’s a sharp right turn away from standard D&D lore and the advice I’ve given in this article, but that’s what makes D&D fun. That’s my interpretation of this creature, keeping some original aspects while discarding and remixing ones I don’t love. You can do the same.  

Now, don’t do that when you’re submitting for official publication. I suspect my alternate take on the manticore was why my entry in the open call referenced above got rejected back in 2015, and it was an important lesson for me. If you’re writing for a publisher, odds are you’re going to have to write “to spec.” That is, you’ll have to follow the specifications your publisher sets out. In D&D, the spec you have to adhere to are the mechanical and story rules of D&D. Learning when you’re allowed to break those rules for maximum effect is a skill that everyone who writes for D&D has to learn at some point. Once I learned that skill and demonstrated that I could use it, I started getting writing gigs for D&D and the D&D Adventurers League.

But if you’re running manticores at your own table, you aren’t writing to spec. You’re writing for you, and for your players. As long as it serves the story you’re trying to tell and it contributes to the overall fun of the game, you’ve done it right. Let these ideas feed the fires of your own imagination.

James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of  Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of  Worlds Apartand a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his fearsome predators, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.


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