You may have heard about dire wolves from Game of Thrones or be familiar with their real life counterparts that used to live on earth 9,000 years ago.
But dire wolves in DnD 5e are their own beast with their own strengths and characteristics. In this article, you’ll learn what they are, how they fight, and how to fight back.
What Is a Dire Wolf?
Dire wolves are DnD’s megafauna version of wolves, powerful apex predators that survive in a world of magic and monsters.
In game terms, the dire wolf is a Large beast with no alignment or sentience. In combat, it controls a 10-foot by 10-foot space (or 2 squares by 2 squares if you use a grid map).
As a Large beast, you can imagine it as roughly the size of horse, though perhaps a little smaller and more densely muscled.
Take a moment and imagine a wolf, a pack of wolves the size of horses surrounding you in the quiet dark of a forest. That’s what a dire wolf is.
Before getting into the details of dire wolves, we should look at its stats.
The dire wolf has an AC of 14 (including its natural armor), which makes it pretty easy to hit. That’s pretty reasonable for its CR of 1.
It does have a solid number of hit points though, 37 on average (or 5d10+10 rolled). Its speed is 50 feet, 20 feet faster than the average adventurer.
Its attribute scores are as follows:
Strength: 17 (+3)
Dexterity: 15 (+2)
Constitution: 15 (+2)
Intelligence: 3 (-4)
Wisdom: 12 (+1)
Charisma: 7 (-2)
It is skilled at Perception (+3) and Stealth (+4). Its passive perception is 13.
Because of its Keen Senses, the dire wolf has advantage on any Wisdom (perception) rolls that rely on its smell or hearing, making it an excellent tracker.
Lastly, the dire wolf is designed to work with others. Its Pack Tactics feature means it has advantage on its attack roll if one of its allies is within 5 feet of its target (and the ally isn’t incapacitate).
Plus its primary attack, Bite (+5 to hit, 2d6+3 piercing damage), when used against a creature, knocks that creature down on a successful attack unless the creature makes a DC 13 strength-saving throw.
Remember that prone creatures give attackers within 5 feet advantage on their attack rolls, so dire wolves are all about helping their allies.
Dire Wolves Out of Combat
The DnD stat block is usually oriented around combat, but what about the out-of-combat aspects of dire wolves?
The official DnD word does say that dire wolves usually live in forests and hills.
I recommend interpreting this as the environment of regular wolves in the real world — the dense forests of Europe and North America and the close and winding hills of areas like the Badlands in Montana.
Jungles and Scottish hills aren’t really the place for wolves, though of course you may wish to place them there as a DM for your own purposes.
Dire wolves, like real life wolves, are social predators. When describing their relationships to each other or to other species they may have bonded with (such as groups of goblins or solitary hill giants), consider drawing on the way you might bond with your pet dog.
Dire wolves might also be found in service to more powerful entities, like a vampire or druid.
This could be a magical binding, or it might simply be that a more powerful creature was able to magically communicate with the wolves, securing their services.
Superior to regular wolves, dire wolves are probably just as territorial.
In dire-wolf territory, most lesser competing predators have probably been pushed out; you shouldn’t spot a regular wolf in the same area as a dire wolf unless something weird is happening.
Lastly, dire wolves (as Large beasts) are a potential mount for many species.
While they may not be well designed for carrying riders, as long as the load isn’t unreasonably heavy (such as Medium creatures on the small side or simply Small creatures), dire wolves can lend their enhanced speed to combatants.
Packs of dire wolves allied with lance- or bow-wielding goblins can create a significant threat and control territory neither group on its own could manage.
Dire Wolves in Combat
Whether you’re fighting these creatures or running an encounter with them as a DM, it’s worth remembering this classic truism of DMing:
“If you want your characters to feel cool, have them fight a single powerful foe. If you want your characters to almost die, have them fight a group.”
A single dire wolf can be scary but manageable for a low-level party, especially if they play it smart. A pack of dire wolves using smart tactics and their environment can be a threat to even higher-level adventurers.
Dire wolves can make excellent use of dense forests or twisting hills by vanishing into them with their superior speed and stealth.
In a given round, wolves might make an attack, run deep into a forest where they can find total cover, and then use the Hide action the following round.
This can make combat encounters drawn out over several rounds rather than two or three, leaving the party huddled in the only open space or the only space with light at night, waiting for the next chance to strike back at the wolves.
Even if they can’t get to total cover, a dire wolf’s AC shoots up to 19 with three-quarters cover from a dense forest or rocky outcroppings, making them much harder for ranged attackers to hit.
Without counting any bonuses to hit your character might have, your chances of hitting a dire wolf go from 35% to just 10%!
Lone Wolf Tactics
While lone wolves will likely only be a threat for extremely low-level parties, you may still encounter them in your games.
DMs might want to demonstrate some kind of larger threat with a single dire wolf or show how the land is suffering with a starving wolf.
For a lone dire wolf, there is no margin for error in the search for food. That might make them more desperate and aggressive, but it will also make them more careful.
A single dire wolf might stalk a party, only attacking once they sleep and trying to only grab the smallest and (apparently) weakest member. They are also more likely to flee after damage.
Hit-and-run tactics are almost guaranteed. There is no reason for a dire wolf to face a whole party all at once when it can use its superior speed to make a single attack and then vanish back into the forest.
When working as a pack, dire wolves have a number of tactics available to them.
Remember that as predators, dire wolves are careful about what prey they select and will try, to the best of their ability, to stack the deck in their favor.
Dire wolves are fairly intelligent for beasts, and their tactics are instinctual and deadly.
Spreading out damage is key for dire wolves. In a given round, some wolves might be using their action to hide, some might be repositioning, and some might be making their attacks.
By rotating which dire wolves are attacking at any given moment, more wolves survive longer, which means more damage output.
Dire wolves might also try to herd their prey to dangerous areas like cliffs or into an ambush of their allies, or they may simply try to force a group to separate and get lost in a dark forest.
They can do this by surrounding the party, chasing them, and then howling or barking only in the direction opposite from where they’re trying to get their prey to go.
The dire wolves’ stealth ensures they can keep their prey controlled and surrounded while making the prey think they’re only being chased from one direction.
As a last resort, dire wolves can surround an enemy and engage in straight combat.
In this scenario, dire wolves will attack until their target has fallen prone. Then several will make grapple attempts rather than actual attacks: even the strongest character rolls a 1.
Once their target is prone, suffering disadvantage on all its attack rolls, and grappled by multiple dire wolves, their fate is pretty much sealed since the Escape action to cancel a grapple only works on one grapple per round.
A particularly large pack facing an adventuring party might even try this tactic from the start.
Several wolves could work to separate one party member from the rest, and once that party member is grappled by a few wolves, they will be dragged away from their allies into the forest.
When mounted, direwolves primarily provide excellent mobility to their riders.
A rider can move a direwolf up to 100 feet, or 50 feet with the dire wolf’s own attack, each turn. This can greatly amplify the effectiveness of the pack tactics listed above, especially the hit-and-run tactics.
Riders can also make use of ranged weapons, circling around the party, drawing close to fire bows or crossbows, and then retreating out of the party’s own range to reload (or simply avoid damage).
A pack of dire wolves, guided by sentient riders, can also make a devastatingly effective hunting party.
Smell, hearing, visual cues, magic, and a high speed all mean that if you’re being hunted by a raiding party of dire wolves and halfling riders, you’re going to have a bad day.
Plus, riding a direwolf simply looks cool.
In order to counter these tactics, adventurers need to play things smart and make good use of their equipment and resources.
Using readied actions to strike at dire wolves as they rush by can be key; otherwise a party might not get a chance to hit the dire wolves before they return to cover (and eventually stealth).
Don’t let your party get separated. Being separated, even by a few squares, means the dire wolves have a chance to drag vulnerable party members away from healing and help.
It is important to avoid being ambushed. Stay aware of your surroundings, especially when camping for the night!
Don’t let yourself be herded; find a defensible spot, and don’t try to outrun the dire wolves. If your party can’t defeat them, they might be able to at least scare them off!
Magic can also be valuable, providing obstacles for the dire wolves or trapping them in place so the party can kill them.
Nonmagical tools, like caltrops or a line of burning oil, can also provide quick defenses, turning the environment to your advantage.
Illusion magic, like Major Image, can also serve as an excellent distraction.
The spell can create smells as well as images, and dire wolves would much rather pursue the easy target than attack a party bristling with knives and sorcery.
Just don’t try invisibility! Dire wolve’s Keen Senses significantly reduce the effectiveness of trying to hide.
By playing it smart, not getting split up, and using the environment to create defenses from dire wolf pack tactics, your party will survive even a large pack of dire wolves, and survival is always a win.
Running Dire Wolves for DMs
As should now be clear, with appropriate tactics, dire wolves can be a threat well above their individual CR 1 rank. There are even ways to counter the player counter tactics I mentioned.
If players start readying actions, one strategy adapted from real wolf tactics has a dire wolf run past the party having taken the Dodge action. This triggers any readied attack actions from the party while also ensuring high survivability for the dire wolf. Then, other dire wolves can deliver their attacks safely.
For particularly deadly fights, you may also want to give dire wolves a weakness, maybe to sound (due to their keen senses) or fire (due to perhaps flammable fur).
Weaknesses for players to discover always makes a fight more interesting.
Don’t be afraid to emphasize their noncombat character.
Having dire wolf mounts can add an interesting facet to a culture, and making your dire wolves intimidated by some particularly cool action from one of your characters can bring real depth to an otherwise straightforward combat encounter.
Remember, dire wolves are Large wolves the size of horses with powerful jaws, keen senses, and friends.
They might not be the fanciest spell-slinging fire-breathing creatures out there, but in the right hands, dire wolves can be absolutely terrifying.