“The village was empty, the seagulls were strangely quiet, and all we could hear was the surge of the sea.”
— An account of the aftermath of a sahuagin raid (Monster Manual)
Sahuagin prowl the waves with loyal sharks at their side, preying upon sailors from beneath the tempestuous sea. Veteran sailors know these fearsome pirates as “sea devils,” for these aquatic raiders are as cruel as they are clever. As a Dungeon Master, you can make your players fear and respect these so-called sea devils playing them with the same merciless cunning as you would a devil of the Nine Hells.
Learn about the traits, types, and tactics of the sahuagin in preparation for the release of Ghosts of Saltmarsh on May 21st, 2019. You can also use these tips to expand the role of sahuagin in the standalone encounter Encounter of the Week: Sharkfin Shipwreck, or to create brand-new encounters for your own homemade aquatic adventures!
The pages of the Monster Manual are filled with “monstrous humanoids,” like orcs, hobgoblins, goblins, grimlocks, and countless others. On the surface, sahuagin seem like just another humanoid foe, conceptually no different from an orc with gills. However, if you closely examine their game statistics, you’ll find that Sahuagin possess several powerful traits that allow you to tell interesting and unique stories and distinguish them from the countless other bipedal foes in the Monster Manual.
Sahuagin possess three significant features that you should be aware of when running adventures like Ghosts of Saltmarsh, or when designing your own sahuagin encounters: Blood Frenzy, Limited Amphibiousness, and Shark Telepathy.
Blood Frenzy is the most significant of these abilities from a direct combat standpoint. Since most sahuagin are devotees of the shark god Sekolah, they react to blood just a like a shark. This allows them to gain advantage on all attack rolls against creatures at less-than-maximum hit points. Sahuagin may not have particularly powerful attacks, or a particularly high attack bonus, but by pairing their two attacks-per-turn with their Blood Frenzy, a group of sahuagin can easily tear apart a wounded creature. That low attack bonus can be a problem, though, since a creature needs to actually be injured first for Blood Frenzy to take effect!
That brings us to the next most-significant sahuagin feature, Shark Telepathy. This trait grants sahuagin the ability to mentally control sharks within 120 feet of it. And while this trait may have been designed as a “ribbon,” purely giving these creatures some race-specific flavor, it’s actually a tremendously useful encounter-building tool. The Monster Manual contains three different sharks: the CR 1/2 reef shark, the CR 2 hunter shark, and the CR 5 giant shark, all of which can be controlled by even the weakest sahuagin’s Shark Telepathy.
This trait opens up plenty of interesting encounter designs, for both low-level and mid-level encounters. For example, reef sharks have the Pack Tactics trait, allowing them to gain advantage while it has allies—like a sahuagin—nearby. Then, once the reef shark has dealt the first blow, its sahuagin allies are free to tear the creature apart with Blood Frenzy-enhanced attacks.
Finally, a sahuagin’s Limited Amphibiousness allows it to venture out onto land for no more than 4 hours before it begins to suffocate, granting these otherwise-aquatic creatures the ability to raid seaside settlements and exist in only partially flooded dungeons. This trait doesn’t have any encounter-building applications, but it does have some application as an adventure-building tool. Imagine a sahuagin stranded on land, feeling its gills dry out with each passing second. This evil creature might prove to be a reluctant ally for a time, if the characters are able to keep it hydrated until it can return to water.
Sahuagin are lawful evil creatures, just like hobgoblins or devils. Not only this, sahuagin are quite clever, with even the basic sahuagin soldier possessing an Intelligence score of 12 (+1). Combined, these two traits give you full permission to play sahuagin in the same regimented and tactical manner that you would a hobgoblin. Beyond tactics, however, this hierarchy splits the sahuagin in the Monster Manual into three distinct creatures: the rank-and-file sahuagin, the socially elevated and divinely empowered sahuagin priestess, and the regal and martially powerful sahuagin baron.
Unlike hobgoblins, whose rank is earned through promotion up the chain of command, sahuagin barons are granted the right to rule because of their mutations. Barons possess a second set of arms, and use them to seize power—a sort of vicious cunning that other sahuagin can’t help but defer to. In terms of special abilities, standard sahuagin and the mighty barons are actually identical; their only differences are in their size, their numerical statistics, and how many attacks each one can make per round. Thus, if you wanted to, you could easily ignore their lore and use sahuagin barons as rank-and-file sahuagin enemies against high-level characters. Perhaps they serve an even mightier, eight-armed sahuagin overlord!
The sahuagin priestess is likewise similar in abilities, but she possesses the ability to cast spells like a cleric. She has some utility spells, such as tongues, allowing her to serve as a translator between adventurers and a baron, should the need for diplomacy arise. (And since sahuagin are lawful evil, they are not above diplomacy, when the situation calls for it!)
Beyond this, the priestess has flexible combat potential. She can serve as either a support caster, boasting spells like bless and hold person, and no fewer than three daily uses of mass healing word to keep a legion of rank-and-file sahuagin healthy. But she can also fight from the bank ranks with spells like guiding bolt and spiritual weapon. Don’t underestimate this priestess, especially when she’s backed up by an army of her fellows!
It’s worth nothing that, even though her Bite and Claw attacks aren’t very powerful, her Blood Frenzy trait applies to the attacks she makes with her spiritual weapon!
Also, if you're looking for a sneakier sahuagin to round out your arsenal, the powerful sahuagin assassin Ghald appears in Princes of the Apocalypse. For whatever reason, Ghald has lost the Blood Frenzy trait inherent to other members of his race; perhaps he's such a cold-blooded killer than he no longer feels the electric thrill of bloodshed? I would recommend returning that lost trait to him—but be aware, combining Blood Frenzy with Sneak Attack turns this surly warrior into a truly terrifying engine of aquatic death.
Sahuagin Tactics and Encounters
Sahuagin are foes best faced at low-to-mid levels. Unlike hobgoblins, whose high Armor Class and potent Martial Advantage make them superior minions even against high-level adventurers, sahuagin lack the staying power to seriously challenge high-level characters, even in significant numbers. That said, against adventurers ranging from 1st-level to about 8th-level, sahuagin are truly terrifying enemies.
Truly excellent sahuagin encounters play to all of their strengths: their aquatic mobility, their superior attack power against injured foes, their ability to command sharks, and—when priestesses are involved—their strength in numbers. In order to exploit the first strength, aquatic mobility, you’ll need to force the characters into the water. This is already a point in the sea devils’ favor, since most player characters have their mobility hampered by water.
If the characters are exploring a sunken dungeon, this is easy. They’re already underwater! Consider another scenario, though: the sahuagin are raiding a coastal village. You’ll have to find a way to get the characters to pursue the attackers underwater. Perhaps the sahuagin capture the village elder’s son, and they see a group of sea devils running with the boy over their shoulder like a sack of potatoes. By the time the characters get close enough to engage, the sahuagin are already underwater—forcing the characters to get wet if they want to save the boy.
To exploit their superior attack power against injured foes, you could include traps or environmental hazards that are hard to avoid, but do tiny amounts of damage to the characters. Just enough to draw blood… that’s all they need to do. Perhaps a strong current blows the characters into a bed of sea urchins, dealing a measly 1 piercing damage. One point is enough.
Finally, exploiting their ability to command sharks allows you to broaden the variety of encounters you can create. A sahuagin baron could a use CR 5 giant shark as a mount, or a group of minor sahuagin could use it as a tank in a mid-level encounter. They can use CR 2 hunter sharks as powerful melee attackers; imagine a sahuagin priestess of Sekolah protected by her loyal pack of mind-controlled hunter sharks.
What undersea encounters would you create with sahuagin? Let us know in the comments!
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 lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their feline adventurers Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.