The Giant Wolf Spider as presented in the 5th Edition Monster Manual is perfectly usable monster, but I noticed while reading up on real world wolf spiders that it doesn’t quite capture their flavor. Presented below is my slightly tweaked version, the Giant Wolf Spider (Variant).
This variant is based on the Giant Wolf Spider from the Monster Manual, with the following changes:
Tremorsense: Giant Wolf Spiders and Giant Spiders both have Blindsight listed under their senses. I’m not entirely certain why the designers chose this ability–maybe it is supposed to reflect a spider’s 360 degree vision and excellent sense of touch, or perhaps it is a nod to Spider-Man’s tingly danger-sense. Regardless, I felt that Tremorsense was a better reflection of the wolf spider’s ability to detect nearby prey through vibrations. I kept the range of 10 feet, as that seemed reasonable.
Hunters. Wolf spiders hunt prey or lie in ambush in burrows. To better reflect this, I added the Ambusher trait (found on the Kenku and Doppleganger) as well as a Hidden Ambush reaction. I wanted to capture how they quickly emerge from their hiding places to attack their prey. Giving them Hidden Ambush in the form of a reaction facilitates encounters in which Giant Wolf Spiders lie in wait even after the first round of initiative while still allowing them to get the jump on PCs. The line that says that creatures attacked as a result of the Hidden Ambush are considered surprised allows the Ambusher trait to trigger and makes an exception to the general rule that surprise is determined only once at the beginning of combat and that a creature cannot be surprised again.
It would have been simpler, of course, to just grant advantage on the Hidden Ambush attack, but the use of “surprise” is intentional: it allows the attack to interact with other game abilities related to being surprised. For example, the Alert feat says that a PC cannot be surprised while they are conscious. It is the intention that in this case, the attack granted by Hidden Ambush would not have advantage (because Alert prevents the PC from being surprised).
No Webs. Wolf spiders don’t spin webs (though they do spin silk). As such, I removed Web Sense and Web Walker. The former is replaced by Tremorsense. As for the latter, one could probably argue that being a spider allows the Giant Wolf Spider to walk on webbing regardless of whether or not it can spin them.
Otherwise, the statblock is the same as the base Giant Wolf Spider. The addition and subtraction of a few traits and actions wasn’t enough to warrant changing the Challenge Rating, and the other stats seem reasonable. I considered doubling the Proficiency Bonus added to Perception–real world wolf spiders are noted as having excellent vision and other senses–but I suspect that the fact the Giant Wolf Spider is considered trained in Perception at all (compare with the Giant Spider who is not) is meant to reflect this.
I think these minor changes help better reflect the abilities of the wolf spider, while also distinguishing the Giant Wolf Spider a bit more from the Giant Spider. Whereas the Giant Spider may lie in wait for a victim to be snared in its web, the Giant Wolf Spider hides among debris and in small burrows, waiting for the moment to pounce.
I’ve always liked giant spiders as denizens of fantasy worlds, ever since my young mind was introduced to them by way of The Hobbit. Spiders are creepy to begin with in the real world, so it seems only natural to imagine bigger and deadlier versions lurking in the dark places between the points of light in D&D. Imagine my surprise when 4th edition only offered up a couple of variants of this classic monstrous vermin, and none that were simply a low-level Giant Spider (as vanilla as that may be). (Update: the Monster Manual 3 offers up the Ambush Spider, a 2nd level lurker).
To add to the creepy-crawliness of the encounter, I also whipped up some Spiderlings, minion versions of the Giant Spider. They lack the poisonous sting of their mother, but possess that uncanny spider talent to move out of the way just as you’re swinging a
shoe sword their way.
Add in a few squares of spiderweb terrain (DMG p.69) and a couple of Giant Spiderweb Traps, and you have an encounter fit for beginning adventurers. (The newly released Monster Manual 3 contains a sidebar [MM3 p.183] presenting cobwebs in which spiders can hide and web sheets which are similar, but less potent, than my homebrew Giant Spiderweb Trap.)
“There is a sound like breaking branches and the clattering of bones. Something stirs among the smoldering remains of the pyre, and suddenly the bones of the departed kobolds rise from the ashes and compose themselves. With a whoosh like tinder finally set alight, the skeletons are engulfed in flame. One raises a bony, burning finger, and from within the empty sockets of its eyes bolts of roiling fire grow…”
The players in my campaign (Keep on the Shadowfell) recently tangled with a nasty goblin named Irontooth who had been leading a band of kobolds in raids against the town of Winterhaven. They were unable to take him down in their first encounter with him and were forced to regroup and rest up. Since they had wiped out most of his minions in their initial assault on his hideout, I wanted to make their return visit a little more interesting than finding him alone in a cave. I decided that while the PCs were licking their wounds, the few remaining kobolds would gather up their dead and perform last rites.
Kobolds have a strong association with dragons, so it seemed appropriate for them to burn their dead in a funeral pyre, symbolic of the “cleansing fire” of the dragons they worshiped. In addition to being a nice way to make the world seem more realistic and alive (the PCs would return to the cave to find a smoldering pyre and kobold bones) it also let me introduce a what I hoped would be a cool and unexpected encounter.
In keeping with the undead themes presented later, I envisioned the Kobold Wyrmpriest gathering the bodies and heaping them on a pyre, performing a dark ritual (perhaps influenced by the teachings of a priest of Orcus). This rite had the power to reanimate the dead to ward against intruders. The bones of the fallen would rise from the ashes, wreathed in fire, flames roiling inside their hollow eye sockets.
Thus, the Kobold Fire Skeleton was born:
These creatures provided a fun, unexpected encounter for the PCs who were in the middle of patting themselves on the backs for dispatching Irontooth and his minions. In the actual encounter in which they appeared, I tossed a handful of kobold minions at the PCs (a hunting party that had returned to the cave and was ordered by Irontooth to guard the entrance), surprising the players by having the skeletons rise in the second round of combat. The appearance of flaming kobold skeletons that shot fire from their eye sockets elicited a couple of “whoas” and at least one “cool”, which, as a DM, is one of the more rewarding words you can hear at the table.