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Monster Optimization: The Beholder

by Mike on 18 April 2011

In case you haven't heard, the Monster Vault is the definitive source for 4th edition monsters. With two years of updated mechanics since the release of the 4e Monster Manual, the creatures in the Vault run smoothly, offer an excellent challenge to your PCs, and are a great deal to both run and to fight.

Few creatures are as iconic in D&D as the beholder. With the updated math and mechanics of the Monster Vault, our favorite floating orb becomes even more deadly. Today we're going to put this beast under the microscope and find the best way to introduce him into the very short lives of your PCs. Let the experiments begin.


Speaking relative to level, the Monster Vault level 9 beholder is the most dangerous solo creature I've seen. He is a floating gunship of deadly capability. With a minor action central eye, the ability to choose two of ten different eye ray attacks each standard action, a random eye attack on each character's turn, and an increase in eye attacks to three when bloodied; the beholder easily threatens a group of five PCs at or slightly below level 9.

Knowing which eye ray to use against which target is the most important thing to understand when running a beholder. Spend the time before your game to read through each of the eyes and consider when you would use each one. Some, like Death Ray, are extremely powerful damage dealers. Others, like the Charm, Telekinesis, and Terror Ray can force movement. The beholder's higher than average attack bonuses means it hits 10% more often with its attacks, making these rays even more deadly.

Combinations of rays also work particularly well. The telekinesis ray followed by the sleep ray, can push away a nasty tank and pin him or her in place for a round or two.

Ideal environments

Due to its aura 5 free eye ray attack, chambers containing a beholder should be relatively small. The environment should give the beholder a chance to cover almost the entire room. To keep PCs moving around, make the room just slightly bigger than the aura, perhaps 13 squares by 13 squares. This way the beholder can shift 1 square to cover another entire section of the room but still give two rows along the walls where PCs might seek refuge.

Beholder chambers should also include environmental effects into which the beholder can slide PCs. Fire and acid pits, lighting traps, dark portals twisted by the far realm. See traps, hazards, hindering terrain, and fantastic terrain in the Dungeon Master's Kit for some ideas. Remember that PCs will get a saving throw when the beholder attempts to move them into hindering terrain.

If you want to be particularly nasty, add in a magical pillar of dismay that fills the chamber with dark life draining energy. PCs making a saving throw within the chamber do so with a -2 penalty. They can disable the pillar with three minor action moderate DC religion, athletics, thievery, nature, or arcana skill checks. Because the beholder's abilities rely heavily on save end effects, this makes the beholder even more lethal. If you really want to get fourthcore, up the penalty to -5.


The beholder's status effects nearly always grant combat advantage. Any creatures that gain bonus damage against those with combat advantage would do well here. Brutes and soldiers would also do well to protect the beholder. Unless your group is higher than level 9, however, you're not likely to need additional creatures to defend the beholder. It's rough enough all on its own.


The primary tactic of the beholder is to ensure PCs are within 5 squares so it triggers his free-action random eye ray attack. This alone ups his economy of actions from two attacks a round to about seven.

His second tactic should be the effective use of his central eye. You'll want to be careful with this one, turning the eye on different parts of the room. If you keep hitting the same PC over and over again, limiting that PC's use of encounter and daily actions, you'll primarily end up pissing off that player. Even if it is a sound tactic, your primary goal is fun so keep that central eye moving around the room hitting different PCs.

The third tactic is the proper use of the primary eye ray attacks. If you've determined the rules as I have, as long as one of those two eye ray attacks hits a marking defender, it is considered to have included that defender as a target even if the other eye attacks someone else. A marked defender is thus likely to be hit with one eye ray every round.

Make sure to mix up the eye attacks as you did the central eye. Don't keep petrifying the same PC round after round. Any of the eye rays that remove actions from players should be spread around. Given that these are save-end effects already, you could easily incapacitate a single PC for the entire battle if you wanted to but this is surely no fun.

Bringing back the threat of the beholder

Before 4th edition, the beholder was one of the most threatening foes faced by PCs. With death rays and disintegrate rays, the wrong move meant being completely obliterated. Now that threat is back in the game. The level 9 Monster Vault beholder brings back the danger once faced by our noble PCs. With the right encounter design and the right tactics, a battle with a beholder is one your players will always remember.

If you like this article, take a look at Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Master Tips and Running Epic Tier D&D Games.

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This work includes material taken from by Michael E. Shea available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

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