Guide to the Ankheg D&D 5e
All sorts of fantastic creatures litter the worlds we explore in Dungeons and Dragons. From mystically divine creatures like a pegasus to beholders and other aberrations from the edges of the multiverse, adventurers have no shortage of strange and exciting foes to conquer.
With all of this variety, it makes sense that we can encounter anything from mundane beasts to creatures made of nothing but nightmare fuel. I think that for a lot of people, the creature we’re exploring today might fit into the latter category.
In this article we’re going to be exploring the Ankheg, an enormous insect ripped straight from some sci-fi killer bug movie. The creature itself is pretty straightforward, so we’ll be able to go beyond just telling you what it is and what it does. Join us in exploring the intricacies of these many-legged monstrosities.
Large Monstrosity, unaligned
- AC: 14 (natural armor), 11 while prone
- Hit Points: 39 (6d10 + 6)
- Speed: 30 ft., burrow 10 ft.
- STR 17(+3), DEX 11(+0), CON 11(+0), INT 1(-5), WIS 13(+1), CHA 6(-2)
- Senses: Darkvision 60 ft., Tremorsense60 ft., Passive Perception 11
- Languages —
- Challenge Rating: 2 (450 XP)
Bite: Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 9 (2d6 + 3) slashing damage plus 3 (1d6) acid damage. If the target is a Large or smaller creature, it is grappled (escape DC 13). Until this grapple ends, the ankheg can bite only the grappled creature and has advantage rolls on attack rolls to do so.
Acid Spray (Recharge 6): The ankheg spits acid in a line that is 30 feet long and 5 feet wide, provided that it has no creature grappled. Each creature in that line must make a DC 13 Dexterity saving throw, taking 10 (3d6) acid damage on a failed save or half as much damage on a successful one.
What Is an Ankheg?
Ankhegs are large insectoid creatures with many legs, a chitinous hide, and huge mandibles. As you can see in the stat block above, these creatures aren’t evil, although that doesn’t make them any less of a threat. An ankheg may not be your next potential big bad, but it’s certainly a dangerous predator to watch out for.
For all intents and purposes, ankhegs are bugs. Of course, there reaches a point where a creature descends too far from its origins to be considered an ordinary, or even extraordinary, beast. Much like the froghemoth, this is a creature that behaves like its inspiration, even if it’s far more deadly than, say, a grasshopper.
Beyond just “bugs,” ankhegs are predators. Specifically, they are burrowing predators, which is perhaps one of their most threatening features, even if it isn’t a strong focus of the stat block or description.
These creatures create large, complex tunnels underground and only really depart from their home territory to hunt their prey. That prey could be just farm animals and various wild beasts, but in the right setting, it might just be the inhabitants of a village. I mean, let’s be clear, these things are Large, so they’ll have to eat quite a bit to sustain themselves.
In this way, ankhegs are actually interesting creatures. Unlike a vast majority of our encounters in 5e, these bugs don’t have any hidden motivations or even any decision making to be thought of. They are, instead, tied to the ecology of a certain habitat. This could make them a threat to a civilization, a blight to farmers, a dangerous hazard on the road, or just about anything else that fits.
Their singular purpose of feeding also makes them a very straightforward encounter. They want to feed, so you can either kill them or find a new food source. The options aren’t really much wider than that at all.
Ankhegs are only CR2 creatures, but their ability to travel in packs (swarms?) means that they are an encounter for a group of just about any level. I’ll touch on what that means for combat in a bit, but for now, that means these creatures will have a vastly different impact on their surroundings depending on our adventurers’ levels.
Think about it, how much damage is a single ankheg really going to do? It’ll probably mess some things up, but it’s hunting alone. There isn’t the option to overwhelm, so it’ll just take what it can grab and then flee in its tunnels.
Conversely, look at a swarm of seven or eight ankhegs. Aided by their ability to hide underground, these things can get the jump on just about anyone and can overwhelm most forces with ease. What village is going to be able to drive away so many giant bugs without the help of Kevin Bacon on their side?
What makes the ankhegs exciting for players and DMs alike is that they are simple creatures. Ironically, their simplistic goals and designs make them the perfect template creature to graft just about any complexity of encounter on top of.
A small, random encounter on the side of a road? Ankheg. Wave-style battle to defend a city from invaders? Ankheg. Alien-esque horror with allies being picked off one at a time by an invisible force? Ankheg. They’re so simple that they’re complex.
The Ankheg in Combat
Ankhegs are straight shooters when it comes to combat. They want to feed, and they’ll do their best to lock onto a single target and attempt to devour it. Beyond that, they’ll use their terrain to their advantage since they’re as skilled at burrowing as they are at hunting.
No matter whether you have a single ankheg or a hundred, the tactics of any one of these creatures are going to be basically the same. They’ll stay under the ground until they can pop out and attack a creature, using their bite attack to devour it as fast as possible.
Of course, we have to go back a bit before combat starts if we really want to set them up well.
While ankhegs themselves can hide with extreme ease by simply being underground, that doesn’t mean they’re impossible to anticipate. Even in a random encounter, players should have a chance to spot the holes nearby that are wide enough for a Large creature to burrow in and out of.
This isn’t required since the explanation that their actual entrance holes are far away is completely passable and logical. Still, it can be a bit too intense to randomly have our players roll initiative without even a chance to make a perception check.
If you do want to surprise your players (and have the ankheg benefit from them being surprised), I suggest at least setting a DC for the holes and testing it against the character’s passive Perception scores. Since this isn’t the ankheg itself but, rather, something the ankheg made, we can just roll a random d20 to see how glaringly obvious, or not, these holes are.
If you’re less prone to so much randomness and feeling a bit kind, you can instead set the DC as something like 1d6 + 10.
Either way, we end up with the option for only some, or even none, of our characters being surprised in the first round against these bugs.
We can follow similar logic if our characters are actively hunting these bugs down. We just will want to focus more on active perception checks or investigation checks and factor in any additional information our characters have.
Alright, back to the combat.
Once an ankheg is out of the ground, it’s time for it to start taking down its prey. Its bite is almost definitely going to grapple a creature; it just has to land the attack. Once it does that, it may try to get away. Just remember, the ankheg can only move half its speed while grappling unless the creature in its grasp is two or more sizes smaller than it.
So, the ankheg will probably favor a small character, like a halfling or gnome, if it wants to make a hasty retreat. This makes sense because predators know when they’re outnumbered.
A large group, on the other hand, will attack as many creatures as they can. If there are more ankhegs than members of the party, some may even wait underground and use their tremorsense to keep an eye on the battle above. When the time is right, they’ll show up to back up their pack or to feed.
Beyond just biting, ankhegs have an acid spray that makes them quite formidable at longer ranges. It does have a very small recharge chance, which means this attack is more of a last resort than anything else. If it feels cornered or wants to disable a number of its prey at a time, it will line up its shot and spray, hopefully downing one or two so it can regain the advantage.
Going up against an ankheg means taking advantage of the moments when it is feeding. If it has a creature grappled, that’s the only one it can attack. It’s then very easy to launch a series of blows. A couple of good turns and you’ve taken down a bug, even if it means an ally taking a bit of damage as well.
Facing several ankheg is much more dangerous, especially since you never really know how many there are. More could always be lurking in the dirt beneath your feet, ready to emerge and sink their mandibles into you just when you think you have the upper hand.
Still, if a PC can knock an ankheg prone, their AC is dramatically reduced, and you can unleash a barrage of attacks with quick succession to knock them down a peg. After that, AOE and ranged attacks are always your friends when going up against any form of horde.
The last thing to consider about these creatures is also the first thing we considered, they’re here to feed. I don’t know about you, but if my hamburger puts up a fight, I’ll probably just walk away and go make a burrito (I don’t particularly enjoy dangerous, sentient food unless it’s in the context of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs).
Ankhegs should be fully able to just turn tail and run if things are getting rough. Maybe that’s a way to regroup, maybe they’ll decide the adventurers aren’t worth it. Either way, incorporating reaction rolls from D&D’s origins makes a lot of sense here.
Set a DC, and roll a dice to determine whether or not these things keep fighting when the going gets tough. You can even raise that DC as time goes on and they’re in worse and worse shape, but it should never be a guaranteed flee. They have to at least have some bit of resolve.
The threat of several ankhegs is very real and probably pretty obvious to just about anyone looking at their stat block. However, you can also probably see that one ankheg isn’t much of a threat at all. I mean, once it has someone grappled, it’s basically just a quick beat-down for the players.
I’m not the only one to notice that, and there is a wonderful video by Matthew Colville that redesigns the ankheg as an “action-oriented monster.” Watch it here to learn more because I’m certainly not going to repackage his idea as my own. I will, however, talk about it a bit to give you my thoughts on just how threatening of a creature this has the potential to be, even on its own.
Colville does a lot to change up how this creature performs in combat. Below are the main features he added or changed:
- Increase AC
- Increase HP
- Increase burrow speed
- Add in claw attacks along with a couple of multiattack options
- Add a single claw attack as a bonus action
- Create three reactions
- Restraining acid glob as a reaction to creatures moving
- Acid blood burst as a reaction to taking damage
- AOE acid burst upon death
- Create “Villain Actions” – round-based actions at the end of players’ turns
- A burrowing dive underground
- Attack from underground and drag a creature down
- AOE acid spray when close to death
What Colville does here is double down on the feel of the ankheg while also adding in new and unique abilities that make it much less of a punching bag while it’s not actively in its turn. The “villain actions” are an exciting way to make combat tell a story since they’re designed to come into effect at different points during the combat.
We started with a creature that is visually terrifying but on its own isn’t much of a threat at all. When doing this redesign, we end up with a creature that is a genuine threat. More than that though, it’s interesting, and its actions make a lot more sense for what it is — a burrowing bug bent on getting its next meal.
Now, while Colville is definitely a better game designer than I am, I do have a few notes. The first, and largest, thing that I want to clarify is that this definitely increases the CR of an ankheg. It probably only boosts it to a CR 3, but it’s a switch-hitter and might even qualify as CR 4.
That’s fine and isn’t a real problem with design; it’s just something that I felt deserved to be mentioned.
I also think that we could, and should, really double down on the burrowing aspect of this creature. Making use of the ankhegs claws on top of just its mandibles makes a lot of sense, and I appreciate that it was done, but adding a couple of claw attacks to a bite doesn’t make a creature more interesting; it just makes it more lethal.
There’s also a decent amount of focus on creating actions centered on the acid spray. Again, I think this is cool, and I think that it makes for a more deadly creature, but I don’t think it really nails down the central concept of what an ankheg is. There aren’t many entries on the ankheg that focus on its acid, and in RAW 5e, it’s basically just a nice little addition so it has range.
Retackling Action-Oriented Ankhegs
If I were to attempt something similar to what Colville has done here, I would go for an ankheg that is all about burrowing since I personally think that’s the most threatening and unique aspect of the creature.
Instead of just boosting the burrowing speed to 20 feet, I would probably boost it to 40 feet, since this thing lives its entire life burrowing tunnels through the ground. To balance out, I’d reduce the base walking speed to 20, or even 15, since my version of the ankheg will only be above ground as a bit of a last resort.
I’d also give it a bit of an interesting take on burrowing. The entry in the monster manual tells us that ankhegs “…receive a certain portion of their nutrients from the soil through which they burrow…” so let’s actually have that come into play.
The ankheg can consume the soil for sustenance, so let’s say it regains 1d4 HP per 20 feet traveled. This isn’t completely insane, but it means it can possibly regenerate 8 HP in a round.
We’ll keep the bite attack as is since it’s a solid attack. We’ll also add in a use for its claws, but it won’t be quite the same as Colville’s multiattack setup. Instead, our burrowing ankheg will use the claws to attack and drag a creature down below — something like 2d6 damage and a DC 15 Dex save to prevent being grappled and dragged down.
The next question, if our ankheg is spending all this time underground, is how do our creatures attack it. We just set a threshold for how much the ankheg can burrow. It might sound silly and uninspired at first, but think about it. Without the ankheg essentially leaving combat, there’s only so much ground in a certain area that it can actually “burrow” through. After that, it’s just walking in tunnels that our adventurers can also access.
We can set a predetermined amount, or we can make it up as we go along. Maybe it will be dependent on the terrain. Maybe we set up the idea for an encounter that takes place above an already established system of ankheg tunnels. Either way, about 120 feet, or three rounds, is a pretty appropriate amount of tunneling to function properly.
From there, we just attack as necessary, and we have a creature that wants to stay in its element, luring unsuspecting travelers down to its underground labyrinth so it can feed. With this version, we don’t really need to boost the AC or HP, and we can introduce as many or as few “villain actions” as we want for added excitement.
New Varieties of Ankheg
I’m a firm believer that most fantasy creatures should have different “classes” or subsets. For an insect creature such as the ankheg, the solution to that is pretty simple. If we create a Larval Ankheg and an Ankheg Brood Queen we end up with a spread of creatures that feels realistic, unlike the strange setup where every ankheg is exactly the same.
A larval ankheg would be the baby version, probably only CR ¼ or CR ½. This creature would have fewer hit points, would only be a medium-size creature, and would have a less developed chitin, meaning its AC would be 11 across its entire body. We would also change the actual ability scores as well, reducing strength by 2 to drop the modifier a bit.
As for actions, we can go a few ways with this. We can either make larvae with underdeveloped mandibles that focus on acid-based attacks or we can make larvae that can’t produce much acid yet and instead focus on their mandibles to make small attacks.
Either way, the mandibles shouldn’t grapple anymore. On top of that, whether we keep the attacks as is, change our focus to acid spray, or make new attacks altogether, the damage output should be reduced significantly — perhaps just 1d6 for the slashing damage on a bite and reduce to 1d12 for the acid spray.
That one’s simple, and while there are still a few ways to customize it for your table, the general approach is to make a smaller, weaker ankheg that can act like a sort of minion.
The brood queen, however, is a serious threat, and we should be doing more than just the obvious bits that come with a higher CR. Sure, more HP and AC are a given and so are higher ability scores, but we should be introducing something unique that makes this feel like a leader, like a queen you shouldn’t have angered.
We’re going for a CR 8 creature, so here’s my proposal:
Huge Monstrosity, unaligned
- AC: 17(natural armor), 12 while prone
- Hit Points: 95 (10d8 + 50)
- Speed: 30 ft., burrow 30 ft.
- STR 18(+4), DEX 14(+2), CON 13(+1), INT 1(-5), WIS 15(+2), CHA 6(-2)
- Senses: Darkvision 60 ft., Tremorsense 60 ft., Passive Perception 15
- Languages —
- Challenge Rating: 8 (3,900 XP)
Vicious Swipes: For any attacks that target a single creature, the brood queen may instead target two creatures if they are within 10 feet of each other and within range.
Larval Offspring: If the brood queen takes more than 20 damage in a single attack, she produces 1d6 larval ankhegs in her space.
Multiattack: The brood queen makes two attacks with its claws and a bite attack.
Claw: Melee Weapon Attack: +7 to hit, reach 15 ft., one target. Hit: 11(2d6+4) slashing damage. The target must make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or be poisoned. A poisoned creature takes 1d6 acid damage at the beginning of their turn. A poisoned creature may attempt this save at the end of their turn to end the effect. On a successful save, a creature is immune to this effect for 24 hours.
Bite: Melee Weapon Attack: +7 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 9 (2d6 + 3) slashing damage plus 3 (1d6) acid damage. If the target is a Large or smaller creature, it is grappled (escape DC 13). Until this grapple ends, the ankheg can bite only the grappled creature and has advantage rolls on attack rolls to do so.
Acid Drench (Recharge 4-6): The brood queen spits acid in a 40-ft. cone. Each creature in that area must make a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw, taking 14 (4d6) acid damage on a failed save or half as much damage on a successful one. A creature grappled by the brood queen automatically fails its save.
I’m tempted to add in some lair and legendary actions and really go all out on this, but I believe what we have here is terrifying enough to constitute an increased threat if the adventurers stumble across a nest of ankhegs.
I hope this article hasn’t made you too squeamish, and as always, happy adventuring.