This week on Critical Role, the Mighty Nein fought for their lives against a frightful and evasive foe—one that many viewers were unable to identify.
Last week on Critical Role, the Mighty Nein made an unlikely deal with a group of stone giants that they had been sent to destroy. They discovered that the giants had been displaced from their mountainous home in the Vermaloc Wildwood by demons, and managed to defeat the chasme demon that spearheaded the attack and close the Abyssal portal it used to enter the Material Plane. Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of their fight. A fiendish creature with amorphous and “jellyfish”-like form floated into the corpse of one of the stone giants who perished in the initial attack, and raised the being as a hulking, undead monstrosity.
This week, the real fight began. All of the Mighty Nein fought to ward off the seemingly unstoppable brute. In the midst of the melee, Beau used her superior movement to scout around what remained of the complex—and saw that the cave walls gave way to smooth stone. Before Beau had a chance to return to the party, Yasha plunged her greatsword into the stone giant and caused its rotting form to collapse upon itself, and releasing the fiendish beast puppeteering its form. The jellyfish-like fiend opened a personal rift between dimensions and slipped from the Material Plane.
Caduceus kept his eye out for the demon’s return while the rest of the party began to explore around the stone giant hold. Caleb sent a flaming sphere rolling ahead of them, and instantly incinerated a goblin living in the bones of a larger creature. Matthew very conspicuously tore up a sheet of notes, and the party continued their exploration of the fortress—a structure known as the Braan. They wound their way up a large spiral staircase and entered a chilly room that seemed to be a shrine of sorts. Its walls were colored in simple paintings.
Another Abyssal rift sputtered and crackled at the apex of this chamber. Jester attempted to disperse it with dispel magic, but she failed the check needed to close it, and another buzzing, humming chasme burst from the rift and attacked! In the midst of the battle, Jester tried once more to dispel the rift with her last spell slot—and rolled a natural 1 on her attempt to close it. Another rotten giant shambled its way up the staircase and into the shrine, and Caleb polymorphed it into a turtle to remove it from the fight, temporarily.
The Mighty Nein managed to defeat their foes, but they had no way of closing the rift without refreshing their spell slots. Caleb used his tiny hut to block off the staircase and trap the giant while they took a long rest. In the meantime, they performed a quick search of the rest of the fortress. During their investigation, they found another Abyssal anchor, just like the one they found in the caverns beneath Asarius. At the same time, Frumpkin spotted another jellyfish-like fiend drift out of the portal. Combat was, once more, joined!
The combat was dealt with, but Nott managed to destroy the Abyssal anchor, and Beau observed that the rift closed in the absence of the anchor. A scrap of deep blue wool was found amidst the wrecked anchor—though Beau was quick to note that it was of a darker hue than the garb of the Cobalt Soul.
With the rift closed, they told Landspeaker Soorna, their stone giant companion, that her home was safe once more. She performed her own final check, and seemed content. She felt a return to spiritual normalcy in this place. As they settled down to rest for the night, she told the Mighty Nein of her regrets; of how she failed to interpret the warnings of the spirits of the earth, and her lack of vision led to her peoples’ suffering at the hands of these demons.
The party settled down to sleep. Yasha heard the thunder rumbling in the distance of her dream. She felt the heartbeat of the Stormlord—and then a deafening blast of thunder changed the scene. She stood atop a mountain as arcs of lightning tore through the skies of Xhorhas, and walked out onto the field below. The plains were strewn with corpses, all of them slaughtered in battle. She turned about, and a figure stood behind her. A flash of lightning illuminated him. A figure with horns and wings, who simply smirked at her and walked away.
Yasha stoically turned from him and looked at the bodies, searching for a figure she recognized. She paused on one figure, and though she couldn’t remember who it was, she was struck by fear and recognition. She turned the figure over. It was Mollymauk. And in the distance, Jester. Beyond her, Caleb. Every one of those bodies was someone who had crossed her path. Another peal of thunder, and Yasha awoke in sweat. Caduceus, Nott, and Jester were awake in the stone giant hold, and asked if she wanted to talk about her dream. After some cajoling, Yasha explained what she saw. Jester, true to form, lovingly suggested that the three of them all go outside into the real storm and just shout into it.
Yasha told her friends to stay inside, but she truly did walk out into the storm. She walked hundreds of feet beyond the mouth of the cave. Rain soaked into her while thunder crashed all around her. She pleaded to the storm, swearing allegiance over and over again, until she admitted that she was scared, because she feel like she did something terrible, and can’t remember what it was she did.
No response. However, she waited, cold in the storm. At the next flash of lightning, however, the clouds parted, as if to show two electric-blue eyes gazed down upon on her. The thunder pealed again, and she heard a familiar voice ring in her mind, “You are still shadowed, child. We’ve all done terrible things. You have done terrible things. You are capable of doing terrible things. Your strength is not entirely your own. You are still shadowed, child. Fight against them. Do not let the iron be your strength. Struggle. Push.”
“Okay,” she said. And she pulled against the metaphysical chains that bound her. Ashley rolled a Strength saving throw. 22. The chains grew taut, and she pulled, and pulled, and pulled until she heard the squealing of iron. She screamed and pulled against her bonds.
“Struggle. Find what gives you your power. Where do you find your strength?”
Yasha thought of Jester, and thought of Beau, and Fjord… and Mollymauk… and her late wife, Zuala. She strained again, and she felt her wings begin to feather. But her bonds did not break, and her feathers dissipated.
“You grow stronger still. The shackles remain, but they weaken. You know your strength. Use it. Struggle.”
And the storm pulled away, and Yasha collapsed, asleep.
Art by Banished Potato (@ShadowBanished)
Some Critical Role viewers, myself included, expressed some confusion over the identity of the “jellyfish-like demon” that tormented the Mighty Nein throughout this episode. A quick scan of the list of demons of D&D Beyond reveals no artwork depicting a translucent jellyfish, so I was at a loss. This morning, Matthew confirmed on Twitter that the demon was a dybbuk, a newer demon from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. Here are the basics on the dybbuk, in case you want to use it in your campaign!
The dybbuk was, appropriately enough, deceptive in its appearance. Its art doesn’t depict it as a jellyfish-like creature, but rather as the rotting corpse it is possessing. The only indication of its “real” form is in its body text, making it a difficult creature to track down. This demon is derived from a dead spirit from Jewish folklore that possesses living beings to perform a task it had left unfinished in life, and its D&D counterpart is a variation on the Hebrew original. In D&D, the dybbuk is a demon from the Abyss which possesses corpses, and can use its evil powers to make them behave like the girl from The Exorcist.
First thing’s first, the dybbuk is a challenge rating 4 creature, meaning that it’s suitable as a solo opponent for parties of about 4th level. However, the dybbuk’s power scales greatly with the power of nearby corpses it can possess. Though it has several specific limitations on its power (which Matthew bypassed, more on that later), it’s entirely possible for a single dybbuk to challenge a party of much higher than 4th-level all on its own… as long as it has access to the corpses of sufficiently powerful creatures.
It’s clear that the dybbuk’s difficulty revolves almost entirely around its ability to possess corpses, since its defenses are absolutely meager for a creature of its challenge rating. Thus, creating a challenging dybbuk encounter isn’t as simple as setting down this monster in the middle of an empty room; using it requires some skill as an encounter designer. Want to make an easier encounter? Use the corpses of some thugs and the brown bear that killed them. An average difficulty encounter could have some veterans slain protecting their noble liege. A particularly difficult dybbuk encounter could feature an adventuring party of a champion, archmage, archdruid, and master thief slain fighting a demon prince.
The specifics of a dybbuk’s possession are fairly long and involved—look at its stat block for the full text—but in short, the dybbuk takes total control of the corpse and gains access to all the traits it had in life (but not its class features), plus the demon’s own damage resistances. This has some dodgy rules interactions with NPC stat blocks, since some NPC abilities are essentially class features (like the champion’s Indomitable feature. Ultimately, I would say that it’s most fun to let the dybbuk keep these features, just don’t let them get access to an NPC’s Spellcasting feature.
A dybbuk’s most gruesome power is its Violate Corpse feature, which allows the possessor demon to twist and mangle the corpse in all sorts of frightful ways. Any beast or humanoid creature (that is, the party and their animal companions) that sees the corpse put on this unnatural display must make a successful Wisdom saving throw or be frightened of the dybbuk.
Even though the dybbuk is most at home while possessing a corpse, it has a few powers of its own. Notably, it can cast dimension door at will, making it a flighty opponent. If it can survive until its next turn after the corpse it was possessing is defeated, it can simply dimension door elsewhere and plan its next move. Its manifold damage resistances and potent Magic Resistance help it survive until it can use this spell, though its meager AC and hit points don’t do it any favors. The demon’s other innate spells, fear and phantasmal force can terrify foes as another escape mechanism.
The dybbuk has a tendril attack which can deal damage and lower a target’s maximum hit points. While this attack has some bite, it’s not enough to make the dybbuk a serious melee combatant. This attack is to be used only as a last resort.
Beefing up the Dybbuk
On Critical Role, Matthew tweaked the dybbuk somewhat for his own purposes. Since the story involved a den of stone giants being invaded by demons, he wanted to show off undead giants being puppeteer by demons. Unfortunately, the dybbuk’s Possess Corpse feature as written can only target the bodies of humanoids and beasts, whereas stone giants are, well, giants.
The simplest way to make a dybbuk more powerful is to ignore this limitation. Who’s to say that there aren’t more advanced forms of this demon that have gained the power to possess other types of creature? Especially in the world of Critical Role, where even monstrous creatures can be sympathetic and human-like, it doesn’t make sense to limit the dybbuk’s ability to possess creatures to simply humands and beasts. A dybbuk that can possess monstrosities like owlbears and such would be another logical step!
Perhaps an arch-dybbuk that could possess the fallen corpse of the tarrasque…
What will the Mighty Nein do next week? There’s only one way to find out… is it Thursday yet?
Unless otherwise credited, photographs in this article are courtesy of Chris Lockey and Critical Role.
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 Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He loves watching Critical Role and wants everyone he knows to get into it, too. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his very own Frumpkins, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.