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Umber Hulks have been in the game since at least AD&D 1st Edition. Here, they’re present in both the Monster Manual and the Vault.
Umber Hulks are insectoid predators native to the Underdark, through which they roam by digging tunnels with their powerful claws. Tunneling is slow and hungry work, so they need a lot of energy.
Umber Hulk are curious explorers and their tunnels are stable, so they end up being an important part of the Underdark’s ecosystem. While Purple Worm tunnels form the “avenues” and “highways” of that subterranean realm, hulk tunnels form its side roads and streets, linking larger passages and caves together.
Lacking in both natural stealth or speed, umber hulks like to hunt by tunneling until they’re about to break through into a larger space, and using their tremorsense to wait for approaching prey. Then they finish bursting through the wall and enter combat. Once engaged, they use the psychic powers granted by their peculiar second set of eyes to attack their victim’s mind, making then an easier target for their claws. Contrary to what it might seem, the psychic eyes are the large faceted pair, not the tiny, beady one. Those they use to see.
Hulks are sapient and Unaligned, but not very smart at Int 5. They can’t speak, but can understand Deep Speech, so it’s possible for PCs to negotiate with them and avoid violence if they know the language and think to do that. Unfortunately, they’re another one of those creatures that often gets enslaved by the evil empires of the Underdark, and avoiding violence with those is a little trickier.
Umber Hulks are Large Natural Magical Beasts, with Darkvision and Tremorsense 5. They usually have a speed of 5, and a burrowing speed of 2 with the Tunneling enhancement.
They fight with their big claws and their psychic gaze, though the exact effects of those vary per stat block.
Umber Hulk (Both)
The basic model is a Level 12 Elite Soldier with 248 HP. Its gaze confuses victims and makes them wander around aimlessly, making them easy prey for its large, grabby, rending claws. The two books model this a bit differently.
In both cases, the hulk’s basic attack is a claw, and it can make a Double Attack with it. If both attacks hit, the hulk grabs the target. The Monster Vault escape DC is a generous 20, but the MM DC is either the hulk’s Fortitude of 33 or its Reflex of 28.
The difference lies in what happens after the monster grabs a victim. The Monster Manual version (with the higher escape DCs) does ongoing 10 damage to the grabbed victim. The Monster Vault umber hulk can instead use a standard action to Rend the victim and do an automatic 40 damage to it, which is like an automatic hit of its usual double attack.
Their gaze works the same in both versions: It’s a Close Blast 5 vs. Will, targetting enemies in the area. It does no damage, but slides the targets 5 squares and dazes them (save ends).
Umber Hulk Tunneler (Monster Vault)
This specimen is a Level 15 Skirmisher with 148 HP. Since it’s not as beefy as the basic model, it relies on snatching a chosen victim and running away with it, using its gaze to keep the victim’s friends at bay.
The basic claw attack is a bit weak, but the tunneler can use Double Attack to make two of them against the same target. If both hit, the tunneler can shift up to 5 squares and pull the victim along with it.
Its eyes can cast a Rebuffing Gaze (close blast 5 vs. Will). The targets it hits take 2d6 damage whenever they enter a square closer to the hulk during their next turn. So it’s more of a disincentive to move closer than a prohibition, and an PC who’s feeling lucky can risk taking up to 10d6 damage to charge in anyway. At levels 12-15, this is significant but not necessarily lethal.
Umber Hulk Bewilderer (Monster Vault)
This variant relies on its psychic powers more than on its claws. It’s a Level 15 Controller with 148 HP.
The basic claw attack is once again kinda weak, but it does double damage against stunned targets. The bewilderer can employ a Stunning Gaze (close blast 5 vs. Will; recharge 5-6) as a standard action to stun those enemies it hits for a turn, and it can use a Staggering Gaze (close blast 5 vs. Will) as 1/round minor action to do a bit of psychic damage and slide the target 5 squares.
Bewilderers can punch above their weight class if they focus on a single PC, and if you have more than one such umber hulk they multiply each other’s firepower. I’d say include at least two in an encounter group where you want them to be.
Deep Hulk (Monster Vault)
This is an umber hulk from way deeper into the Underdark - it’s a stronger version of the basic model, a Level 17 Elite Brute with 404 HP.
“Umber Hulk but more” describes this creature perfectly. Most of its attacks are versions of those from the MV basic hulk with bigger numbers: the claw, the grabby double attack, and the rending (which does 60 damage).
The Deep Hulk’s gaze gets upgraded to a Maddening Gaze (close blast 5 vs. Will). This attacks every enemy in the blast, as usual. Those that get hit must spend a standard action on their next turn making a basic attack against an ally in range. If there’s no ally in range, they must charge the closest ally. I guess it’s a “maddening” gaze because it will make your players pretty mad even though it only lasts for a turn.
Oh, the gaze is an at-will attack, so a deep hulk can open the fight with it, spend the next turn clawing a PC, and from them on alternate the gaze with the claws (or the rending). It won’t even give up too much damage potential if the party includes lots of people with good basic attacks.
Shadow Hulk (Monster Manual)
The concept of this monster is the same behind the Deep Hulk: a bigger, badder Umber Hulk from deeper in the Underdark. The implementation is quite different, however.
Shadow Hulks are Huge Shadow Magical Beasts, which hints that they might have been mutated by magical leaks from the Shadowfell somewhere down there. They’re Level 17 Solo Soldiers with 860 HP. Their land speed is 6, their burrowing speed 4, and they have phasing, which means they might not actually burrow much.
Shadow Hulks attack with their claws, have the grabby double attack, and bite the grabbed victim for 15 ongoing damage. While bloodied, they can also make claw frenzy attacks (close burst 3 vs. AC; recharge 6) which do the same damage of the basic attack over an area. They also have the Deep Hulk’s Madening Gaze, which they can use as an at-will minor action 1/round.
I think I get why we got the Deep Hulk in the Monster Vault instead of a more direct conversion. Fighting 860 HP of umber hulk with higher AC and accuracy than normal, and who can both claw and use a maddening gaze every round, is a bit much. Still, if your players are cocky, you can update the Shadow Hulk and throw it at them.
Sample Encounters and Final Impressions
The sample encounter is level 13, 2 umber hulks and 2 drow warriors.
The hulks from the Monster Vault are much better than the ones from the Monster Manual. If you have the Vault, you can disregard the MM versions entirely.
I like Umber Hulks! They’re a big dumb brute monster with some really interesting tricks to go with he usual physical attacks. Fighting them requires a bit more thought because of that.