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Any serious Conan fan knows about Thulsa Doom and his snake cult. It’s hard to know where the first story about evil snake people came from, but Dungeons & Dragons couldn’t be expected to turn away such worthy adversaries.
My introduction to Dungeons & Dragons came in the 1980s through 1e when I was in high school. Yuan-ti did not appear in the original Monster Manual, but they did appear in other D&D publications, starting with Dragon Magazine in 1989. At first, I wasn’t too interested because I liked drow better. However, drow are for specific environments like dark forests and the Underdark. I found the idea of having a good jungle enemy appealing.
I was also a big fan of Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, at the time. He was obsessed with snakes and created in his stories a snake cult that followed Set, a predecessor to Egypt’s ancient god of evil. After Howard’s tragic death, L. Sprague De Camp was given possession of the author’s notes and created a race of people very similar to the yuan-ti for Conan to fight.
As the years went by, I understood why Howard was obsessed with snakes. It is way beyond Adam and Eve because Howard had used anthropology in his writings. For him, snakes represented something primal, before Biblical cultures and their understanding of Satan. Snakes represented the forces of chaos that both create and destroy all life.
As a player of the game, I now understand that yuan-ti serve a greater purpose than to simply provide bad guys for the players to fight. As a writer, I’ve said this again and again. Dungeons & Dragons is mythology that has been gamified.
By playing roles within this mythology (role-playing), we are acting out the hero’s journey. When our characters defeat the yuan-ti and take their treasure, we, as players of the game, walk away with a deeper knowledge of the human condition and whatever role it is we have to play in the real world. Welcome to a Yuan-Ti Pureblood 5e Guide.
Bottomline on Yuan-Ti Purebloods
Yuan-ti purebloods are humanoids with snake-like features like forked tongues, fangs, and maybe even some scales. They tend to have high Charisma and Intelligence scores.
They also have poison immunity, magic resistance, and some innate magical abilities like Poison Spray, Animal Friendship (snakes only), and Suggestion. Since they enjoy human flesh, they tend to be evil in alignment.
Yuan-Ti Purebloods in 5e
Yuan-ti purebloods are a subrace of yuan-ti, a larger race that also includes yuan-ti halfbloods, yuan-ti abominations, and yuan-ti anathema. Within yuan-ti society, purebloods are at the bottom of this hierarchy, and Abominations and Anathema are at the top.
With a Faerun (Forgotten Realms) setting, yuan-ti can be found in the jungles, swamps, and deserts up and down the Sword Coast, and anywhere else snakes in large numbers can be found. Because Purebloods look the most human of the yuan-ti, they are the ones who live closest to human settlements and handle all dealings with them.
See also: Comprehensive D&D Race Guide.
Yuan-Ti Purebloods as Monsters
Since the day Adam and Eve ate from the Garden of Eden, snakes have been a symbol of evil within Western culture, though not in Eastern culture. Because yuan-ti think nothing of sacrificing thousands of humans just to get a little bit of extra favor with their gods, even the most moralizing, self-righteous paladin will be on board for slaughtering a whole city full of these evil snake people.
When adventurers are close to civilization, they are unlikely to encounter halfbloods and other more snakelike yuan-ti. That will have to wait until the adventurers go deeper into the jungle, where nobody has ever returned.
On the edges of the civilization, it will be the Purebloods that the adventurers encounter. Here are their stats:
- Size: Medium
- Alignment: neutral evil
- Armor Class: 11
- Hit Points: 40 (9d8)
- Speed: 30 ft.
- Skills: Deception +6, Perception +3, Stealth +3
- Damage and Condition Immunities: Poison
- Magic Resistance: advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects
- Innate Spellcasting: Charisma-based : at will Animal Friendship (snakes only)
- 3/day: Poison Spray, Suggestion
- Senses: Darkvision 60 ft, Passive Perception 13
- Languages: Abyssal, Common, Draconic
- Challenge: 1 (200 XP)
- Multi-attack: two melee attacks/turn
- Scimitar: Melee: +3 to hit, Dam. 4 (1d6 +1) slashing
- Shortbow: Ranged: +3 to hit, range 80/320 ft, Dam. 4 (1d6 +1) piercing plus 7 (2d6) poison
|11 (+0)||12 (+1)||11 (+0)||13 (+1)||12 (+1)||14 (+2)|
The yuan-ti worship various snake gods, like the Night Serpent, though it is rumored that these gods have been supplanted by Set. The closest things they have to gods on earth are the anathema, who are beings composed of multiple snakes. This means a snake with multiple snake heads or snake heads for arms and hands.
Below the anathema are abominations, which are giant snakes with arms. Below the abominations are the halfbloods, who appear to be half-human, half-snake. Their lower body is that of a snake while their upper body, including torso, arms, and head, is usually that of a human.
Purebloods look the least snake-like and so are at the bottom of the hierarchy. This hierarchy revolves around the use of human sacrifice to appease evil and bloodthirsty gods.
The yuan-ti used to rule over humans openly, but that empire has since crumbled. Now they maintain their society in secret to avoid open warfare with humans and demi-humans. They still plot, however, to someday have a resurgence.
Yuan-Ti Purebloods as NPCs
Since the yuan-ti are constantly involved in plots against humanity, their agents are everywhere. These agents will usually take the form of purebloods, because they blend in better within human society than the other, more snake-like yuan-ti. These covert agents can be spies, assassins, saboteurs, and even mage-slayers.
Not all of these agents have to be covert, however. There are human and demi-human kingdoms that know of yuan-ti society and make alliances with them. Even though the yuan-ti have a long-term plan to destroy these kingdoms as well, they have no problem using them as tools for their short-term goals. To achieve such goals, they send purebloods as ambassadors, negotiators, merchants, and other diplomats.
Any one of these covert or overt agents mentioned above would be a great pureblood NPC (non-player character) for the players to interact with, especially if the players have not yet entered a yuan-ti kingdom deep in the jungle or desert. If the adventurers do go deeper, however, they could encounter clergy and nobility from the other yuan-ti subraces, like halfbloods and even anathema.
Yuan-Ti Purebloods as Player Characters
Yuan-ti were first introduced as a playable race in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. They tend to be incapable of human emotions but hungry for human flesh, so they are probably not a good fit for most good-aligned parties.
Yuan-Ti Pureblood Traits
As seen in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, here are their stats:
- ASI’s: CHA +2, INT +1
- Age: human lifespans
- Size: medium, human
- Senses: Darkvision 60 ft.
- Innate Spellcasting: Cantrips: Poison Spray
- Animal Friendship: Suggestion at 3rd level once per long rest. Charisma casting.
- Magic Resistance: advantage against spells and other magical effects
- Poison immunity: complete
- Languages: Common, Abyssal, Draconic
Yuan-Ti Pureblood Character Build
Because their primary stats are Charisma and Intelligence with magi resistance, yuan-ti make excellent casters: warlocks, sorcerers, wizards, and bards. I’ll make my yuan-ti a female wild magic sorcerer and name her Wan Tei.
I’ve decided on wild magic because yuan-ti magic resistance is a great insurance policy against the harmful effects of wild magic surges. A cold-blooded race of psychopaths can provide the perfect childhood for a wild magic sorcerer.
Wan Tei isn’t really a sadist, but she really loves chaos and to be the cause of it. She believes entropy is the natural and inevitable state of everything. She believes that her role in the cosmos is to return everything to its primal origin. Chaos is honesty, and the civilized world is full of hypocrites.
Wan Tei is on the borderline between chaotic evil and chaotic neutral. She is accepted by her royal house because she is of noble rank, but she scares them. She’s a little too reckless and unpredictable for her family, so they were happy to send her off on diplomatic missions to small principalities of only minor importance.
Wan Tei, the Yuan-Ti Wild Magic Sorcerer
Since I’m not in the mood to roll dice for my scores, I’m going to use the standard array of scores model Player’s Handbook, p 13. Here is the standard sequence in descending order: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8.
When I arrange them for the abilities of my choice with ASIs added, they will look like what you see in the table below.
|Ability Scores Total||8||12||13||16||10||16|
Wan Tei the Yuan-Ti Sorcerer: Skills and Proficiencies
Wan Tei doesn’t get any additional skills proficiencies or tools proficiencies just for being a yuan-ti. All of these proficiencies, not counting weapons and armor, will come from her background and her class.
I’m choosing the nobility background for Wan Tei. That will give her two skills proficiency and one tool proficiency. She’ll be able to add another two skills proficiencies due to her class for a total of five.
Wan Tei the Yuan-Ti Sorcerer: Armor Class, Hit Points, and Damage
As a sorcerer, Wan Tei gets no armor proficiency, and she doesn’t get any from her race or her background either. With no armor, her Armor Class (AC) is 10. With her Dexterity modifier added, her total AC is 11.
With a Constitution modifier of +1, she can add +1 to her 1d6 hit points (HP) as a result of her sorcerer class for a total of 7 hit points.
Her weapons will consist of a light crossbow and 2 daggers. As a sorcerer, she is proficient in these weapons. In her hands, they would perform like this:
|Light crossbow||Ranged||80/320 ft||+3/+1||1d8 +1 (2-9)|
|Dagger||Melee/ranged||20/60 ft||+3/+1||1d4 +1 (2-5)|
|Daggers TWF||Melee||NA||+3/+1, +0||1d4 +1 + 1d4 (3-9)|
The modifiers A/D are for attack rolls and defense rolls. The last row features the Two-Weapon Fighting option if Wan Tei decides to use her bonus action in this way. Obviously, the damage per turn only represents her hitting with both weapons.
For convenience, her AC, HP, modifiers, and damage can all be put in one table since the modifiers are basically the same.
|AC||HP||Modifier A/D||Light Crossbow||Dagger||2 Daggers|
|11||7||+3/+1||1d8 +1 (2-9)||1d4 +1 (2-5)||1d4 +1 + 1d4 (3-9)|
Wan Tei the Yuan-Ti Sorcerer: Cantrips and Spells
Of course, as a 1st level sorcerer, Wan Tei is entitled to 4 cantrips and 2 1st level spells. This doesn’t include her innate magic to cast Poison Spray and Animal Friendship. This is what she chooses:
|4 Cantrips||Blade Ward||Fire Bolt||Mage Hand||Message|
|2 1st Lvl Spells||Charm Person||Sleep||NA||NA|
My vision for Wan Tei is not to be a dungeon explorer who joins a party of adventurers to gain her levels of experience. I see her more as some type of agent of a faction within one of the yuan-ti noble houses, probably a diplomat.
Wan Tei was made for palace intrigue, not melee with goblins in a dirty dungeon. Her chaotic evil tendencies would present problems unless all of the players agree to an evil campaign. Wan Tei, as a diplomat, is ideally suited to a one-on-one adventure (one player with one DM). Then Wan Tei can be as evil and chaotic as she wants to be without other players getting hurt.
Recruiting a Snake Army
A natural desire for any player of a yuan-ti pure blood is to want to exploit their innate ability to cast Animal Friendship at will. Why shouldn’t they? If they’re not supposed to use it, why is it in the game?
Obviously, if a yuan-ti encounters a snake, casting Animal Friendship make perfect sense. If all the yuan-ti wants to do is get past the snake, no problem.
Let’s say the player wants to recruit the snake as a bodyguard. Maybe more ambitious; let’s say the player wants to recruit an army of snakes to execute that character’s will.
A weak DM would say, “I won’t allow it. That’s too much power for your character.”
A strong DM would say, “Let’s role-play it.”
To give you some examples, we’ll pretend that I’m the DM and Wan Tei is not my character but that of some player, Jennifer, who’s participating in my campaign.
Jennifer’s party encounters a boa constrictor with the following stats:
Wan Tei manages to get within 13 feet of the snake before it attacks and casts Animal Friendship. Notice that the snake has about the same Wisdom as an average human. The low Intelligence of snakes has nothing to with their saving throws. Because of Wei Tan’s combined proficiency and ability modifier, the snake would suffer a -5 penalty each time it rolls a saving throw vs. Wan Tei’s spell, giving the snake a 25% chance of breaking the spell each time.
Let’s say the snake fails the save. The snake sees Wan Tei (and her friends) mean no harm and doesn’t attack. Wan Tei and her party can pass if they want.
Let’s say Wan Tei invites the snake to join the party and slither in front, to the side, or to the rear of their marching order.
This snake is not Wan Tei’s familiar, and there is no telepathic link or spiritual bond. As a DM who believes in some leniency to allow for creativity, I would make a charmed snake the equivalent of a pet snake in the real world. That’s being very generous because Wan Tei has had no time to train her new pet snake.
I would ask the party to talk among themselves for a couple of minutes and then show me their marching order. If any character stands between her and the snake, the snake would feel that the party member is a threat to Wan Tei. (It does have an Intelligence of 1, after all) In order to protect Wan Tei, it would attack the party member. (Because of the material component, a morsel of food, the snake would identify Wan Tei as its “mouse supplier.”)
Doesn’t that seem like better role-playing than saying, “I won’t allow it”?
If the party gets the marching order right, Wan Tei either has to march in front, with the snake as a scout, or in the back, with the snake as a rear guard. With Wan Tei’s AC 11 and HP 7, a snake bodyguard might not be enough protection to give up marching in the middle of a formation. If any monster attempts a melee attack on Wan Tei, however, the snake will fight to protect its mouse supplier.
When the snake gets charmed by Wan Tei’s Animal Friendship, if Jennifer, the player, doesn’t ask me the time of the occurrence, I’m not telling her. When that spell wears off without a renewal, that snake won’t be very happy.
If Jennifer has the presence of mind to ask the time, my response would depend on whether or not they are outdoors or in a dungeon. The sun will be high or low in the east or west. For the moon, it won’t matter. If they are underground, how will they know what time it is?
If Jennifer is smart, she’ll simply renew Animal Friendship with the snake before every long rest, but I’m not going to tell her that. Every renewal has a 25% chance of failure through the snake having a successful save. I wouldn’t tell the party that the save was unsuccessful. I would simply have the snake attack as soon as the 24-hour duration had expired.
If Jennifer is really smart, she would throw Animal Friendship at the snake several times in a few minutes before every long rest to eliminate any possible chance of failure. If an already charmed snake makes a successful save, I, as the DM, would not allow the snake to break free of the spell until the duration of the old spell had expired.
Therefore, if Wan Tei uses her unlimited Animal Friendship to charm the snake 50 times in a 5-minute period before every long rest, there is no way that the snake would make all 50 saves. As long as the snake fails one of the saves, that snake is hers for the next 24 hours.
In this way, Wan Tei can ensure some degree of snake loyalty for very simple commands and behavior. But what about multiple snakes?
Firstly, that depends on a few questions. Are all of the snakes the same species? How do snakes of that species interact with other snakes? Do they fight, make love, or eat each other? Every time those snakes are being asked to fight against their natural instincts, they should be allowed to roll a saving throw.
Obviously, the role-playing required by Jennifer to control 1 snake for 24 or more hours is complicated. Adding more snakes to the party adds more links to the chain. More links mean more opportunities for the chain break and for Wan Tei’s snake army to turn against her.
Now let’s say Wan Tei has an enemy and she knows where that enemy is. Let’s say Wan Tei also knows where a lair of snakes is located nearby. If Wan Tei wants to go to the lair, charm the snakes, direct the snakes to her enemy, and order them to attack, I would ask closely about the role-playing. Provided that the role-playing is good, as a DM, I would allow it.
If she disbands her army after her victory, no problem. If she tries to maintain her army after the victory, the role-playing has to be very, very good.
What if Jennifer wants to start the whole campaign with her own pet snake before she even starts the adventure? My first question would be,
“Where did you get the snake?’
Buying a pet snake would be very expensive. Let’s say Jennifer answers,
“Members of my noble house provided me with an opportunity to form Animal Friendship with a constrictor snake.”
Since Wan Tei’s background is noble, that actually makes sense. If any society has access to lots of snakes, it would be the yuan-ti. Although yuan-ti purebloods are at the bottom of that society’s hierarchy, a noble pure-blood would definitely have access to snakes if he or she wanted to.
I would then ask Jennifer to describe how she would initially approach and maintain her snake and this Animal Friendship relationship. This is quality role-playing before the adventure even starts. If Jennifer makes one mistake, the snake has an opportunity to break the spell and attack. With Jennifer’s stats, she would be unlikely to survive a melee with a constrictor at 1st level.
Let’s say Jennifer exhibits good role-playing and properly maintains her Animal Friendship with her pet snake, whom she names Crackle, for months and even years before the campaign starts. Let’s also say that rather than having Jennifer join a party of adventurers, we have Jennifer participate in a one-on-one campaign revolving around Wan Tei’s diplomatic missions and palace intrigue.
Wan Tei can’t put a constrictor on a horse. She can put a constrictor with her in a horse-drawn or people-drawn carriage.
She can keep Crackle in a basket with her when she has her meetings. If she leaves Crackle in her room unattended, interesting things can happen…
Obviously, all of the above assumes that she is meeting with humans and demi-humans as an ambassador representing a yuan-ti noble house, and everyone knows that she is a yuan-ti pureblood. If her mission is to infiltrate human society and blend in as a human while carrying around a pet constrictor, that’s not happening!
This was a deep explanation because it’s bound to be an issue with yuan-ti players. My advice is never to forbid a player’s choice, provided that it is actually plausible. Just role-play, and they will learn in the way that the game is designed to teach. Any yuan-ti player that abuses Animal Friendship will eventually have their power come back to bite them, literally.
The Overpowered Issue: Yuan-Ti Comparisons with other Playable Races
A lot of DMs feel that yuan-ti are overpowered. I think it depends on what playable race you compare Yuan-Ti to.
D&D character creation has expanded so far beyond the Player’s Handbook. You’d have to be a very hardcore D&D connoisseur to purchase every D&D character creation text that’s out there: Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, Volio’s Guide to Monsters, Mordenkainin’s Tome of Foes, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, and the list goes on. Since a lot of the appeal of these new races is their character builds, they have a good chance of surpassing some of the older models.
As a DM, I personally don’t mind over-powered races and classes, provided that I know about the player’s decision in advance and the other players are ok with the choice. I need advance notice about characters because I’m preparing a campaign in advance. It’s not respectful to your DM to turn their plans upside down with an unexpected character build that makes half the challenges pointless.
Now back to how Yuan-Ti stand in relation to other playable races.
- ASIs: +2, +1. No big deal. Many playable races, including humans and mountain dwarves, get a better deal on the ASIs.
- Racial proficiencies: none. Elves and dwarves have yuan-ti at a disadvantage in that department.
- Innate Magic: Drow, duergar, tieflings, and many other races have this ability.
- Animal Friendship: This could allow a 1st level character to recruit an army of snakes. A lot of DMs would understandably have a problem with that. I think I’ve already answered that problem in a moment.
- Poison Proof: How often do you lose your character to poison? I’ve lost way more characters to combat and damage-dealing traps than to poison.
- Magic Proof: As per Volio’s Guide to Monsters, yuan-ti are not magic proof. Having advantage on saves is a great power, but it doesn’t make you magic-proof. A high-level wizard or any other high-level caster would still have no problem vaporizing a low-level yuan-ti. For example:
Wan Tei, my yuan-ti wild magic sorcerer, activates a wild magic surge at gets fireballed. Let’s say she is 1st level and has 7 hit points.
A fireball at 8d6 has a maximum of 48 points of damage, with 24 points on average. If the DM roles 24 points of damage or more, there’s no point to having Wan Tei’s player role saving throws. Advantage or no advantage, successful save or failed save, Wan Tei is already toast on rye, extra crispy on both sides.
That’s because 24 points of damage divided by 2 is still 12 points of damage, nearly double what Wan Tei could possibly sustain and survive. Even if Wan Tei were a 2nd level character, she probably wouldn’t survive a Fireball Spell. Now let’s talk about hostile spellcasters:
Wan Tei gets in a duel with another 1st level character, Semiramis the Drow Warlock. Because drow have a dexterity bonus on their ASIs, Semiramis has a 16 Dexterity, which gives her a bonus on initiative rolls. Semiramis gets the initiative.
As would be typical of a warlock, Semiramis has Eldritch Blast. Let’s say she fires Eldritch Blast. RAW, PHB p. 204:
“Many spells specify that a target can make a saving throw to avoid some or all of the spell’s magical effects.”
This means that spells that allow for saves have it specified in the spell’s description. Eldritch Blast does not allow for saving throws.
If Semiramis hits Wan Tei with her Eldritch Blast, she would do 1-10 points of damage and could potentially kill Wan Tei with one blast. Even if she only does the average damage for Eldritch Blast, 5 points, Wan Tei is almost dead and will certainly be dead if she gets hit with another Eldritch Blast next turn.
If Semiramis is a warlock with the Archfey as her otherworldly patron, she can have access to Sleep Spell. Sleep Spell doesn’t allow for saving throws; if you have fewer hit points than the sleep damage rolled by the Sleep Spell caster, good night!
Semiramis, however, as a drow elf with Fey Ancestry, is immune to Sleep Spell, arguably the most powerful 1st level spell in the game. Therefore, even if Wan Tei has Sleep Spell, it would be useless against Semiramis.
In this particular battle, we have a yuan-ti getting clobbered on racial traits by one of the nine original races that appear in PHB. Therefore, I do not feel that yuan-ti magic resistance makes them over-powered as a playable race.
Now for the more difficult question.
What about Animal Friendship?
If DMs look at my Recruiting a Snake Army section, there should be no problem. If, however, they let their players abuse Animal Friendship, that’s not bad game design; that’s bad DM’ing.
Yuan-ti are not overpowered! DMs, step up to the task!
Question: Can yuan-ti be good?
Answer: Biologically, no. As a DM, however, I don’t like to rob players of their free agency. I would give any player the opportunity to make their case for a good yuan-ti pureblood player character. Here is my case as a DM.
First, there is the diet of warm flesh problem. It doesn’t necessarily have to be human flesh, but that is what’s most often craved. I suppose a player could solve that problem by buying livestock from farmers, but that will get expensive. Certainly, no vegetarian or vegan yuan-ti are allowed in the game!
Then there is the psychological problem. Yuan-ti are a race of psychopaths in that they don’t experience human emotions. Unlike lizardfolk, they can actually empathize with and understand human feelings. This understanding makes them better manipulators.
The real question to ask is, “Can a psychopath be good?’No.
I suppose with some character backstory acrobatics, we could create a neutral yuan-ti, but that would have to be a character who walks away from yuan-ti religion and yuan-ti society. If a player could somehow justify a neutral yuan-ti, I, as a DM, would allow it, but probably not a good yuan-ti.
Question: Do Yuan-Ti operate badly in cold weather?
Answer: No. They’ve had enough cross-breeding with humans to acclimate themselves to cold weather. While they don’t like cold weather very much, they can still operate normally.
Question: Is yuan-ti darkvision representative of real-world snakes?
Answer: Depending on the species of snake, yes. Snakes that hunt at night, such as pythons, vipers, and boas, have some type of heat-detecting vision. Snakes that hunt in the day, however, have ultraviolet filters to keep from being blinded by the sun. A really dedicated DM might choose to homebrew yuan-ti senses to the particular snake species to which the yuan-ti has lineage.
Yuan-ti purebloods are great villains to add to your campaign, especially if the adventurers should visit warmer climates like jungles, swamps, and deserts. They are evil, magical, and magic-resistant and represent everything that is scary about snakes, both in their poison and their reptilian ruthlessness.
As player-characters, they are definitely complicated, and DMs should handle them with care. I think creating a yuan-ti version of Drizz’t Do’Urden, the good-hearted drow ranger from a race of evil elves, is really a disservice to what the yuan-ti were designed to be — evil and hungry. Of course, a good story is all in the telling, so if players can justify a compassionate reptile with their own story-telling, a DM should never stand in their way.