Guide to Death Tyrants in 5e
If you’ve only been exposed to a few monsters from the mythos of D&D, the beholder is probably one of them. If not, let me just tell you that they are truly terrifying beings on the level of nightmarish eldritch horrors. A large, floating, spherical body with a single eye and a great jaw would probably be enough to strike fear into your average adventurer, but the addition of 10 tentacle-like eye stalks definitely seals the deal.
Beholders are greedy, hateful, xenophobic creatures. It’s a bit ironic because they themselves are aberrations, otherworldly beings with otherworldly powers. Still, their hate for just about everything that isn’t themselves is quite overwhelming and often fuels them to seek out great power.
Another common villain for D&D campaigns is a lich, a powerful spellcaster so versed in necromancy that their spirit clings to their body even after death. A lich often finds themselves corrupted absolutely by the power they have; any humanity they once had rotted away with their mortal coil.
All of this brings us to the creature we’re actually talking about today, a death tyrant. If you hadn’t guessed already, a death tyrant is what happens when you mix the two. It is the unholy creature that arises when a beholder achieves lichdom.
In this article, we’ll be talking all about a death tyrant, from their origins to their goals, their tactics to their lairs, and just everything you need to run one in your campaign (or, if you’re a player, to run from one).
Death Tyrant Stats
Typically, our monstrous feature pieces have the 5e stat block dropped in the beginning here, and then we go into more depth below talking about the creature’s tactics and how it would use its various attacks.
We’ll still be doing something similar here, but seeing as the death tyrant has a wealth of actions that it can take, along with lair actions and regional effects, we’ll actually be doing it in a bit more of a piecemeal format. The stats will still be listed, but instead of dropping all the stats at once and then talking about them, we’ll talk about each important piece of the stat block individually.
Hopefully, this format will make it a bit easier to digest the massive stat block that is attached to the death tyrant.
Large Undead, Lawful Evil
- AC: 19 (natural armor)
- Hit Points: 187 (25d10 + 50)
- Speed: 0 ft., fly 20 ft. (hover)
STR: 10 (+0), DEX: 14 (+2), CON: 14 (+2), INT: 19 (+4), WIS: 15 (+2), CHA: 19 (+4)
- Saving Throws: Str +5, Con +7, Int +9, Wis, +7, Cha, +9
- Skills: Perception +12
- Damage Immunities: Poison
- Condition Immunities: Charmed, exhaustion, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned, prone
- Senses: Darkvision 120 ft., Passive Perception 22
- Languages: Deep Speech, Undercommon
- CR: 14 (11,500 XP)
The basic stats for a death tyrant aren’t all too terrifying at first glance. The first things I look for here are damage resistances, high AC, and quick movement. An AC of 19 isn’t half bad, but it’s not necessarily high for this CR, and beyond that, there’s only one damage type we have to worry about using when facing this creature, so we look like we’re doing pretty good so far.
However, we should also be looking at its actual ability scores and saving throw modifiers. Here we see that this is an impressive creature, able to outsmart most adventures with ease. It also has a wealth of impressive saving-throw bonuses, meaning our spellcasters will have to get creative to use any particularly menacing effects on this bad boy.
What we can basically start to see is that this creature might not need such incredible defenses, which is exactly the case. Instead, we should be concerned about what it’s dishing out upon our party and just how quickly it can immobilize all of us.
Negative Energy Cone
A 150-foot cone of negative energy extends from the central eye of the death tyrant. At the start of each of its turns, it decides which direction the cone is facing and whether or not it is active.
Inside of the cone, no creatures can regain hit points. Additionally, any humanoid that dies within the cone becomes a zombie under the death tyrant’s command. The zombie maintains its position in the initiative count and is risen at the start of its next turn.
This passive ability of the death tyrant is where we should really start to be afraid. A 150-foot cone is incredibly huge and spells disaster for anyone trying to stay at a decent range from the monster.
Essentially, you risk not being able to heal as needed if you’re further than 50 feet from the death tyrant. This means that our heroes will need to either stay up close and personal with the creature or burn through dash actions and any speed bonuses if they take damage while at a respectable range.
A death tyrant will take advantage of this. They’ll be sure to target their negative energy on someone who wouldn’t be able to run out of it and then let loose an attack on them. If they have minions, they’ll use them to corral as many of their enemies into the cone as possible.
More than just that though, this has a chance to recruit more people to the side of the death tyrant. Zombies aren’t much to be concerned with, but any magic items you’re carrying could benefit the death tyrant if you die. A zombie with a +3 flaming sword is still carrying a +3 flaming sword.
Death Tyrant Actions
The death tyrant has an absolute arsenal full of attacks. They have a bite attack (+5 to hit, 5 ft. reach, one target, 4d6 piercing damage) that they’ll probably only use as a last resort, and then they have 10 different eye rays to blast at their enemies.
Eye rays are terrifying, but interestingly enough, the iconic signature weapons of the classic beholder don’t change much, if at all, when we compare them to those of a death tyrant. Basically, the DC of most of the saves is just slightly increased to make this a bit more of a threat, but there weren’t any unique abilities introduced that scream “powerful lich!”
Let’s run through those rays quickly and then get to the more exciting stuff. There are 10 of them in total, and the death tyrant attacks with any three at random. To do so, roll a d10, reroll any duplicates, and then choose targets accordingly.
- Charm Ray
The target must make a DC 17 Wisdom saving throw or be charmed by the tyrant for 1 hour or until the tyrant harms the creature.
- Paralyzing Ray
The target must make a DC 17 Constitution saving throw or be paralyzed for 1 minute. The target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on a success.
- Fear Ray
The target must make a DC 17 Wisdom saving throw or be frightened for 1 minute. The target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on a success.
- Slowing Ray
The target must make a DC 17 Dexterity saving throw or have its speed halved for 1 minute. In addition, the creature can’t take reactions, and it can take either an action or a bonus action on its turn but not both. The target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on a success.
- Enervation Ray
The target must make a DC 17 Constitution saving throw, taking 36 (8d8) necrotic damage on a failed save or half as much on a successful one.
- Telekinetic Ray
If the target is a creature, it must make a DC 17 Strength saving throw or be moved 30 feet in any direction by the beholder. The creature is restrained by the ray’s telekinetic grip until the start of the tyrant’s next turn or until the tyrant is incapacitated.
The tyrant can also manipulate objects weighing 300 pounds or less that aren’t worn or carried in this way. Or, it can use this ray to exert fine control, such as that necessary to open a door or manipulate a simple tool.
- Sleep Ray
The target must make a DC 17 Wisdom saving throw or fall asleep for 1 minute. The target awakens if it takes damage or if another creature uses an action to wake it. This ray has no effect on constructs or the undead.
- Petrification Ray
The target must make a DC 17 Dexterity saving throw or be turned to stone and restrained. It must repeat the save at the end of its next turn or be petrified until freed by Greater Restoration or other magic. On a success, the effect ends.
- Disintegration Ray
If the target is a creature, they must make a DC 17 Dexterity saving throw or take 45 (10d8) force damage. If this damage reduces the creature to 0 hit points, its body becomes a pile of gray dust.
If the target is a Large or smaller nonmagical item, the item is destroyed without a saving throw. If the target is a Huge or larger object or a creation of magical force, the ray instead destroys a 10-foot cube of it.
- Death Ray
The target must make a DC 17 Dexterity saving throw or take 55 (10d10) necrotic damage. The target dies if this reduces them to 0 hit points.
Okay, that’s a lot to absorb. Essentially, any of these rays are pretty dangerous hazards. That being said, only three of the 10 actually deal damage. That means there’s a good chance that one of the three rays chosen at random will in fact deal damage, but it’s much less likely for the beholder to dish out loads of damage each turn.
On top of that, all of these are based on saving throws. With a good bonus to saves in Constitution, Dexterity, or Wisdom, you can avoid most of these without too much effort.
Essentially, we’re looking at a creature that is scarier for how often it acts and less scary for how much of an impact it really has. Since these are chosen at random, it also means some lack of tactics. The beholder won’t be able to fire three death rays at someone in one turn, but it will choose its targets wisely regardless of which ray is chosen.
Death tyrants also get legendary actions. At the end of another creature’s turn, it can use a single eye ray chosen at random. It gets three legendary actions in total, so that’s six eye rays per round.
With that many rays, characters will have to be very lucky or will have to employ certain abilities in order to avoid some of the more disastrous effects that might come up.
From the DM side of things, I implore you to really stick to the randomness of the eye rays — pulling your punches and using the telekinetic ray or going hard on your players and launching death rays each turn. Either of these can really change the CR and give you a very different balance than you planned on.
As for the players, hold onto every resource you have that provides advantage and bonuses until you really need them with these saving throws. There isn’t much you can do to impede it, so just attack it as much as possible and keep your party well spread out to avoid a TPK from the negative energy alone.
Death Tyrant Lair Actions and Regional Effects
Death tyrants, much like beholders, still have lairs in which they reside. This means that they not only have lair actions to use in each round of combat but that there are also regional effects in the area surrounding their lair.
Regional effects can be dangerous, but they’re more used to set the mood and incur a bit of fear in the adventures. Since the death tyrant’s region is so large, it might also be how the creature is introduced, either via townsfolk talking of strange things or one of the party members falling subject to an effect.
So how does it work? Well, the region of a death tyrant is a mile radius surrounding its lair. Within that radius, creatures sometimes feel as if they’re being watched. Additionally, when a creature finishes a long rest within the radius, a d20 is rolled for them. On a roll of 10 or lower, they are subject to a random eye ray.
These definitely provoke the eerie feel one would expect with a creature of this caliber. The lair actions, on the other hand, well, they definitely help to increase how much of a threat this creature really is.
A creature with lair actions can activate them on initiative count 20 after any other creature with a 20 initiative. The death tyrant has three options but can not repeat any options until all three have been used. Additionally, no options can be used in back-to-back rounds of combat.
Here are the three lair actions available to the death tyrant:
- A 50-foot cube is filled with spectral eyes and tentacles. To creatures other than the death tyrant, this area is lightly obscured and difficult terrain until the start of the next round.
- Spectral appendages sprout from the walls and grab at anyone close to them. Any creature, even one on the Ethereal plane, that is hostile to the death tyrant and starts their turn within 10 feet of a wall must make a DC 17 Strength save or be grappled. Escaping requires a successful DC 17 Athletics or Acrobatics check. This effect lasts until the start of the next round.
- A large spectral eye appears within 50 feet of the death tyrant and shoots a random eye ray at a target of the death tyrant’s choice.
These are bad news but not the end of the world. Perhaps the worst one is actually the area hazard since it impacts not only movement but the attacks of any creatures in that range as well. Used in concert with a negative energy cone, it could easily spell death for at least one member of the party.
Beyond that, the other two have the same DC 17 as all of the eye rays, so a party that’s able to avoid the eye rays should have no problem avoiding the rest. Since we’ve already said that our ranged attackers should be closer than they normally are, I’ll just extend that to include a firm “STAY AWAY FROM THE WALLS.”
What Is a Death Tyrant?
A death tyrant is a beholder that has managed to achieve a state of undeath. They are cruel and exacting, much as they were in life, but in their undead state, their resolve is only strengthened. These creatures are truly evil and wouldn’t dream of keeping a pet goldfish around.
While they are often called “beholder liches,” their state of undeath can’t quite be called lichdom. In fact, their transformation might even be a bit odder than that of your standard lich with all their phylacteries and magical nonsense.
Beholders are beings of madness, almost eldritch horrors, and they have a power about them that allows their dreams to become reality. At least, it seems to be that way when undeath is involved.
When a beholder dreams of a reality where it exists beyond death, they may wake to find that their flesh has melted away, leaving nothing but a great floating skeleton with a spectral red light in the eye socket. Oh, and a few more red lights floating around where the other eyes were.
Beyond that little bit though, these are essentially just beholders that are a bit harder to kill.
Making a More Undead Death Tyrant
Call me old fashioned, but I like my undead creatures to have a few more necromantic powers and hellish traits to them. A beholder that can make zombie slaves isn’t quite enough to really make me feel like I’m dealing with a different creature. So, we can either change the stats around or introduce some new and exciting lore.
Let’s start with how they’re formed. In older editions, there were rumors of beholder mages using powerful spells to transform a dead beholder into a death tyrant. This is really cool, but it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.
Instead of some spell with little impact on a story, what if death tyrants really were the meeting of two worlds? What if a death tyrant was the result of a pact between a god of undeath or powerful lich and a particularly malevolent beholder?
In this mythos, we have a creature imbued with darker powers, much like a warlock might be, except instead of a normal humanoid, we start with the template of a fearsome beholder.
As for abilities, we can get rid of, or modify, abilities that don’t feel like they belong to an undead creature. The charm ray and telekinetic ray can probably be the first to go.
Normally, I would replace charm with fear, but we already have a fear ray, so we need to introduce something more unique. Instead of charming creatures, let’s boost this to dominating creatures. The Domination Ray would essentially function as dominate person would, and it makes this a truly terrifying threat.
Next, let’s come up with a unique ability to replace telekinesis. Instead of the powers of a mentally fortified aberration, we want powers that belong to a maddened undead creature.
What about an Undeath Ray? This eye ray could be the focus of the creature’s newfound necromantic powers, allowing it to conjure up new undead creatures from thin air.
If our Undeath Ray targets a freshly deceased humanoid, it can be turned into a zombie or a skeleton automatically. If the tyrant targets an unoccupied space, it can summon an undead on a successful DC 17 Wisdom check.
The undead summoned can be chosen at random, but it would make sense to have a list. I like the idea of this making some stronger creatures, so CR 4-5 (Ghost, Wraith, Beholder Zombie, Flameskull) is a pretty nice section.
With this, the death tyrant has about a 1 in 4 chance of creating a more powerful undead, or it can easily target piles of bones and rotting corpses.
This already feels a lot more like an undead creature to me, but let’s add in just one more ability to really seal the deal. What if we just modify the bite to make it an attack worth using? As it stands, there’s almost no reason to choose the bite over the eye rays.
Instead, let’s add some poison to this bite, akin to a stereotypical zombie’s venom. We even have the mechanics for it already baked into the Negative Energy Cone. Add a DC 17 constitution save to the bite, and say that if the target fails, they are poisoned.
While poisoned in this way, they can’t regain hit points. Additionally, if they are reduced to 0 hit points while poisoned, they become a zombie under the tyrant’s control.
There we go, we’ve modified some eye rays, introduced some more lore, and amped up the overall undeath feel of this creature. We no longer have a beholder without flesh; instead, we have a true tyrant of death.
As always, happy adventuring.