A chill runs down your spine as you turn the corner in the sepulcher. Suddenly you begin to feel weak. So weak that you drop to your knees in agony, as if your strength is being pulled out of your body. Before passing out, you look behind you to see an odd, shadowy figure clamped onto your ankle. The shadow feasted well tonight!
One of my friends has been playing the Middle Finger of Vecna’s 5e Witch and has terrorized my life for the past few years with his shadow familiar. While the class does include scaling options for their familiar (similar to a Beastmaster Ranger), the shadow is the rare creature that can deal deadly damage at any tier of play.
The reason for this phenomenon is that the shadow doesn’t just deal a decent chunk of necrotic damage. No, their attack also saps 1d4 Strength from the target with the ability to outright kill a target at 0 Strength! There’s also no saving throw attached to this Strength drain making it a very potent move.
Beware the shadows! Today we’re going to creep into that weird abandoned house on the hill and see what the Monster Manual has in store for us!
A shadow is an undead creature that “resemble[s] dark exaggerations of humanoid shadows.” Shadows have no humanoid features other than the vague outline that they have gotten from their host’s own shadow.
Shadows live by feeding on living creatures’ vitality, life force, or whatever else you might call it. While they have no preference as to whose life force they consume, shadows are drawn toward people who are untainted by evil.
As a shadow grows stronger they not only darken in color but also gain the ability to move on their own, away from their host. Once this transformation occurs, the shadow becomes a killer with an insatiable hunger for the lifeblood of the living.
Interestingly enough, if a shadow’s once-deceased host is somehow brought to life, a shadow may have an innate desire to seek out this person. A person could tell if they have birthed a shadow since they will be unable to cast their own shadow naturally until the creature is destroyed.
Shadow Stats and Abilities
You can find the shadow’s statblock on page 269 of the Monster Manual.
Size: Medium undead
Hit Points: 16 (3d8 + 3)
Speed: 40 ft.
STR: 6 (-2)
DEX: 14 (+2)
CON: 13 (+1)
INT: 6 (-2)
WIS: 10 (+0)
CHA: 8 (-1)
All in all, this is a poor ability score array, even for a CR 1/2 creature. The three negatives in this array are all fairly rare abilities for saving throws, especially in the early game, and are also unused by the shadow in combat situations.
The only saving grace for this spread is that all three of the common saving throw abilities are either positive or are a +0. Couple this with the shadow’s plethora of condition immunities and you have a creature that’s super difficult to crowd control.
Their AC is slightly below-average for a low CR creature, but it’s not bad when you consider the fact that they don’t have Natural Armor or wear armor. Their HP is awful though, there’s no beating around the bush in that regard. However, both of these issues are certainly rectified by the creature’s plethora of damage resistances and immunities.
The shadow’s base speed of 40 ft. is well above-average for a Medium adventurer, making them an exceptional hunter and killer. It’s going to be difficult to outrun this creature even for a seasoned adventurer, a common person or villager doesn’t stand a chance against one of these nasty beings!
Resistances, Immunities, Saves, and Skills
Skills: Stealth +4 (+6 in dim light or darkness)
Damage Vulnerabilities: radiant
Damage Resistances: acid, cold, fire, lightning, thunder; bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks
Damage Immunities: necrotic, poison
Condition Immunities: exhaustion, frightened, grappled, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned, prone, restrained
Senses: darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 10
Challenge: 1/2 (100 XP)
This is a stacked CR 1/2 creature. I mean seriously, compare a shadow to a gray ooze (which was also fairly stacked)! Shadows have quite a few perks to make up for their below-average ability score array and mediocre AC and HP.
For starters, shadows have resistance or immunity to SEVEN different “magical” damage types and have the classic resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks. The majority of these damage types are common early game damage types such as cold, fire, poison, and acid.
Of course, a creature as stacked as a shadow needs to have a weakness or two. The shadow’s comes in the form of a vulnerability to radiant damage, making even a paladin’s single Divine Smite a deadly attack due to the shadow’s 16 average HP.
Shadows are also expectedly slippery for being an assassin-type creature. Their +4 (or +6 in dim light/darkness) to Stealth makes them a perfect ambusher, but their immunity to eight different conditions proves for them to be a difficult creature to subdue or capture. Your best course of action is to attack a shadow head-on, despite how dangerous this tactic is.
Their passive Perception isn’t all that great, oddly enough. It’s fairly easy to sneak up on a shadow should you choose to. However, keep in mind that they do have darkvision!
Abilities and Traits
Amorphous. The shadow can move through a space as narrow as 1 inch wide without squeezing.
Shadow Stealth. While in dim light or darkness, the shadow can take the Hide action as a bonus action.
Sunlight Weakness. While in sunlight, the shadow has disadvantage on attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws.
Amorphous is a fun trait that many elementals and oozes have access to. It allows these types of creatures to move through pipes, cracks in the door, and other unconventional entrances/exits in combat without forcing the creature to deal with the detriments of squeezing.
Shadow Stealth gives the shadow a slice of the rogue’s Cunning Action and bolsters their action economy and damage potential. A “free” hide action is a powerful boon for any creature or character as it’s effectively an easy way to give yourself advantage on an attack.
Sunlight Weakness sucks, but if we’re being honest you shouldn’t put a shadow in a situation where they are in direct sunlight. However, it’s a nice weakness to include to give the party another avenue of turning the tide of battle on a shadow or group of shadows!
Also, while it’s not listed as an ability or trait in the statblock, the lore section does specify that the shadow does not require air, food, drink, or sleep to survive!
Strength Drain. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 9 (2d6 + 2) necrotic damage, and the target’s Strength score is reduced by 1d4. The target dies if this reduces its Strength to 0. Otherwise, the reduction lasts until the target finishes a short or long rest.
If a non-evil humanoid dies from this attack, a new shadow rises from the corpse 1d4 hours later.
This is a ridiculous attack, frankly speaking. It’s effectively a creature that’s dealing the damage of a greatsword while also debuffing the target in the same action.
The 9 necrotic damage is a respectable amount of damage for a 1/2 CR creature, I’d go so far as to say it’s well above-average. The fact that it’s necrotic also means that there’s a very low chance of any character having resistance or immunity to the damage, especially at lower tiers of play.
However, the damage isn’t the deadly part of the kit. That is for sure the fact that on a hit, the target’s Strength score is reduced by 1d4 and if the target’s strength is reduced to 0 in this way, they automatically die and potentially birth a shadow from their corpse later on.
So basically the shadow has two win conditions that simultaneously happen. Either their target will die due to the spicy amount of damage they can dish out or they’ll drop dead after having their strength sucked out of them.
God forbid you’re a min-maxed spellcaster with only 8 Strength. You could drop dead in as few as two rounds!
Not to mention the fact that if their target uses their strength to make weapon attacks they’re also bolstering their survivability by making their target weaker with each Strength Drain.
An Ever-Present Threat
An average of 9 necrotic damage per action is great for a CR 1/2 creature. However, eventually, that damage is going to be all but shrugged off by player characters in the mid-upper tiers of play.
There’s nothing wrong with that since the party should be able to chew through low CR creatures at that stage of the game. It’d be awful if you were a party of level 10s and still getting stomped on by a few goblins.
However, the shadow is still a potentially deadly threat for even an epic-level party due to its unique ability to sap the strength from a creature. A horde of shadows that are not quickly disposed of could quickly decimate a legendary group of adventurers!
Throwing a few of these creepy undead bastards at the party as a few extra mobs in a fight or even a trap in the mid-high tiers of play could prove to be a serious threat, especially to anyone with a low Strenght score!
A Fantastic Ambusher in the Dark
This is a creature with a +6 to Stealth checks in dim light or darkness and the ability to take the Hide action as a bonus action thanks to Shadow Stealth. Shadows are, understandably, going to be a complete menace in the dark or dim light.
Getting the drop on your prey will be an enormous boon for a shadow, especially if they can get a free surprise round out of their ambush as well! An attack from a hidden creature will already be made at advantage, but an entire extra round of combat will also be a potential of -1d4 Strength to the shadow’s target as well.
This is not a creature you want to give a surprise round to as a player. However, it’s also a creature that has all of the right tools to get a surprise round quite easily.
Difficult to Crowd Control
Sure, the shadow won’t have the easiest time making Wisdom or even Constitution saving throws with their +1 and +0 modifier in those skills. Yet this is still a creature that will be challenging to crowd control, especially at the lower tier of play.
Shadows are immune to eight different conditions. That’s half of all the conditions in D&D 5e!
It’s not even that a shadow has a bunch of “useless” conditions. Their immunity includes very common conditions like frightened, grappled, paralyzed, poisoned, prone, and restrained! It’s almost not even worth trying to crowd control a shadow due to the sheer amount of condition immunities they have.
A smart party should quickly realize that a shadow is a seemingly-unstoppable creature with regards to being crowd controlled or debuffed. Seriously, good luck with subduing the creature via crowd control.
Instead, the party’s best bet is to drop as much burst damage as possible on the shadow and hope that it’s enough to quickly kill the creature. While it’s true that they have tons of damage resistances and a couple of immunities, they still only have 16 HP or effectively 32 if you’re only able to hit with attacks they can resist.
If you have a paladin, cleric, or anyone else with easy access to radiant damage then your party is in luck. Radiant damage effectively halves the shadow’s small health pool so a paladin only needs to deal 8 damage with their Divine Smite (on 3d8 radiant damage) to outright kill a shadow.
How to Play as a Shadow
Wait for the Perfect Moment
Shadows are master ambushers so it should come as no surprise to you that you should make good use of their Shadow Stealth ability. Place these creatures in dimly-lit rooms or dark alleyways and let them lay in wait for the party to come into range of their Strength Drain.
Finding an opening for a shadow to gain a surprise round can turn even a medium encounter with a couple of shadows into a deadly one. An extra set of Strength Drain could be enough to render the party’s fighter useless in the fight or outright kill the party’s sorcerer.
If a party has no radiant damage, a fight with a couple of shadows can take quite a bit of time and time is on the side of the shadows. That extra round and/or advantage on Strength Drain due to hiding will only get deadlier as time goes on in the encounter.
The Supporting Cast
A group of shadows on their own can be a terrifying encounter at almost any tier of play if they get the first hit in. As with any creature, though, you don’t have to only throw a group of shadows at the party. Mix it up a bit!
Throw in a few shadows in a group of undead and have them spring upon the party’s backline a round after the party has engaged with a few mummies or other undead creatures. This will surely liven up the fight a bit!
You could also have shadows take on more of a support/debuffer role for more powerful monsters. Throw a few at the party’s frontline to soften them up and give the shadows’ allies some extra survivability in the form of reduced damage from the party’s melee characters.
Shadows are some very creative creatures, but be sure you figure out a lore reason as to why the shadow wouldn’t just suck all the life force out of friend and foe alike. Pairing them with undead creatures can resolve this issue quite easily though.
5 Shadow Plot Hooks
- A Trail of Corpses – Every morning a single corpse is found in a random alleyway in the city. The cause of death is presumed to be due to poisoning due to a lack of bruises, cuts, or other such wounds. The guard has been unsuccessful in procuring any clues as to who is orchestrating these kills.
- The Haunted Mansion – It’s said that the mansion in the middle of the forest is haunted by the family that once roamed its halls. The ghosts of this deceased family are friendly enough, it’s the other undead creatures that keep theives and graverobbers off of the property.
- The Witch’s Servant – A powerful witch has been terrorizing the local towns and villages for some time with their various spells and hexes. For the most part, these things are harmless. Well, save for the witch’s shadowy accomplace.
- The Unseen Shadow – After ressurrecting your companion, you all noticed that they are unable to cast a shadow, even in direct sunlight. What could this mean? Is it a message from the gods?
- Cleansing the Sepulcher – A mess of undead creatures have overrun a once-holy graveyard. A group of priests are looking to cleanse this tainted ground, but first they need the creatures removed.
Shadows are a unique creatures in that they can kill even a high-level character due to their Strength Drain action. To be fair, their damage still is above-average for their CR, but the ability to drain 1d4 Strength each hit without even allowing the target to make a saving throw is very powerful.
Add to all of this the fact that shadows have a perfect kit for ambushing and obtaining surprise rounds and you have a very tricky creature on your hands. Of course, there are some stipulations to this tactic as you can’t pull it off in a well-lit room and especially not in direct sunlight.
All in all, this is a creature that is terrifying for the on-paper low CR. However, they’re well-balanced in that if the party can out-think the shadows or deal radiant damage they can quickly dispose of these creatures before they do too much damage to the party’s HP or Strength.