Tactics of Dragon Heist: Griffon Calvary
This article contains major spoilers for the D&D 5e adventure Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. If you are, or will be a player in that adventure please don’t read further without your DM’s explicit permission.
Today, we will be examining Griffon Calvary, an elite aerial unit in the Waterdeep City Guard. Griffon Calvary have a statblock in the appendix but aren’t mentioned at all in the main plot of Dragon Heist. Since there aren’t explicit guidelines for where to use Griffon Calvary, it is up to you as the DM to decide what role they’ll fill in your game
In my opinion, Griffon Calvary serve 4 main functions: aerially patrolling the city, quickly responding to urgent situations, aiding the Guard in military operations, and neutralizing aerial threats. Tactics for each of these situations are analyzed below.
Patrols: Griffon Calvary Riders should always patrol the city in groups of two. When they spot a crime, such as a Fireball in Trollskull Alley or a group of adventurers breaking into a shop, one rider will leave to alert the nearest Guard or Watch outpost. The other rider will circle above the crime scene to make sure no one flees. This Rider will let criminals know they’ve been spotted, and warn them of harsher punishment if they try to flee the scene before the Guard or Watch arrives. If the criminals attempt to flee, Griffon Calvary riders will follow them in the air to make sure the City Watch doesn’t lose them (thanks to u/lurkingStill for this idea).
Unless there’s an imminent threat that the criminal will kill or cause the death of an innocent, a Griffon Calvary Rider won’t attack even if the criminal is fleeing. They aren’t authorized to kill anyone that doesn’t pose an immediate threat, and aren’t well equipped for taking prisoners.
Response Teams: In extremely urgent situations, such as catching a murderer or a group of known Zhent or Xanathar guild agents, the Griffon Calvary may send a response team to keep everything under control until the Watch or Guard can arrive. These response teams will be between 10 and 25 riders, depending on what’s necessary for the situation (Dragon Heist doesn’t specify how big the Griffon Calvary is, so I’m assuming they have 50–100 riders).
When they arrive at the crime scene, the Griffon Calvary land their griffons in a circle to surround the criminals and prevent their escape. Lances honestly aren’t the best weapon for this, because they have disadvantage against targets within 5 feet. You can compensate for this weakness by giving the Griffon Calvary longswords to use as backup weapons, or allowing them to use their action to command their griffon to make an attack (A domesticated mount can’t be commanded to attack under the rules for mounted combat, but allowing a Griffon Calvary Rider to command their mount to make a claws attack as an action wouldn’t unbalance anything).
Griffon Calvary response teams would prefer to take prisoners, but their enemies are dangerous enough that they’ll kill to prevent escape. If they have enough troops, a few Griffon Calvary Riders will stay in the air to snipe with their light crossbows if necessary.
Military Operations: If an army or a large group of monsters threatens the city or surrounding area, the Griffon Calvary will assist the City Guard in defeating the threat. In these types of operations, their aim is to kill instead of imprison, so they’ll use very different tactics than when operating as a patrol or response team.
Since most D&D monsters are melee oriented, the Griffon Calvary’s ability to fly is a major advantage against most enemies. Griffon Calvary don’t want to give up this advantage, so they prefer to stay in the air and snipe with their crossbows while the ground based City Guard engages in hand to hand combat.
If you’re OK giving Griffon Calvary Riders additional special equipment, they’d be very effective using flechettes:¹ pointed metal rods that were invented to drop from planes during WWI, but could have been made with medieval technology. Mechanically, you could treat flechettes as a finesse thrown weapon that can only hit targets directly beneath the thrower, has disadvantage if the target is more than 40 feet away, and deal 1d4 piercing damage for every 10 feet the flechette falls before hitting its target to a maximum of 8d4.
Griffon Calvary Riders might occasionally swoop in to make lance attacks against high priority targets. During a lance charge, a Griffon Calvary Rider won’t go closer than 10 feet away from their opponent so they avoid opportunity attacks. Lances are extremely difficult to pull out of a target’s body during a charge², so if you want to stay realistic, each Griffon Calvary Rider will only do one lance charge per battle. They will let go of their lance the moment it hits to avoid being anchored to the ground. (alternatively, as suggested by u/LordEntrails, you could flavor lance strikes as bouncing off armor or tearing through flesh to allow them to keep their lances)
The Griffon Calvary Rider statblock doesn’t give it any effective attacks once it does a lance charge and runs out of flechettes and arrows. If you want them to still be able to make melee attacks, you could arm them with longswords or allow them to use their action to command their griffon to make a claw attack.
If you opt for giving the Riders longswords, they will command their griffons to take the disengage action before swooping down to avoid opportunity attacks. If you let them command their griffons, they will only charge at isolated targets to avoid as many opportunity attacks as possible.
Aerial Combat: The fourth and final purpose of the Griffon Calvary is neutralizing aerial threats. Volo’s Waterdeep Enchiridon (Dragon Heist page 182) suggests that Griffon Calvary Riders work in teams when engaged in aerial fighting, and occasionally jump off their griffons to deliver killing blows.
I agree that Griffon Calvary Riders would work in teams, but doubt that actually jumping off griffons would be an effective tactic. Diving WITH your griffon could be an effective tactic, but I’d recommend giving a Griffon Calvary Rider extra damage on dive attacks so it makes mechanical sense. This extra damage could be as high as 2d6 without increasing their challenge rating.
As mentioned in Volo’s Waterdeep Enchiridon, Griffon Calvary Riders need to be able to distract opponents in order to do effective dive attacks. For this reason, they prefer to outnumber their aerial opponents at least 2 to 1. While one Rider engages each opponent, another Rider will fly above them to either drop flechettes or make a dive attack. Rings of Featherfalling will only be used in ceremonial displays, if a Rider’s griffon dies, or if they somehow get knocked off their mount.
Griffon Calvary Riders are loyal to the city of Waterdeep, but want to survive. They will retreat when either they or their griffon is seriously wounded (reduced to 23 hit points)
For more information about flechettes and aerial combat, check out this Youtube video by Shadiversity https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eX02-O2dB9Q&t=561s
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