5E Wolf & Direwolf Guide: Challenging Wild Encounters

Located in the back of The Player’s Handbook in the useful Appendixes, both Wolves and Direwolves are dangerous animals that run in packs, are enormously dangerous against low level parties, and have unique features that can make them a lot of fun to play. These are often the first hard reality introduction to players of the “Pack Tactics” mechanic, and aside from bringing home the dangers of the wild, they are potentially a great threat to even experienced low level parties.

To me, it just doesn’t feel like a proper D&D campaign unless there’s a low-level mission on the fringes of civilization where even “simple” beasts of the wild provide a very realistic danger to the young party of outgoing warriors.

With keen senses, pack hunting techniques, and a considerable advantage on perception checks, the dire wolf can be a formidable threat to your quest. In the following article, we will learn more about this powerful predator, its strengths, its weakness, and the plan of attack when taking down these ravenous beasts.

Note: While wolves and dire wolves and different species we’re throwing them together here as for all practical purposes the mechanics are the same, just the hit points and danger level is different when “upgrading” to dire wolf. So what applies to one will generally apply to the other.

5E wolf vs dire wolf comparison
Wolves and Dire Wolves can make for some very interesting and potentially deadly early encounters.

Just What Is a Dire Wolf?

Gray wolves are a low-level threat that can sometimes be found in packs of more than six, but that is pretty cruel to a very low level party though a good match up for those parties moving towards mid-level. There are indications of packs that get huge, and dire wolves are best used not as lone wolves but as pack animals much like the regular wolf.

If you want to force creative thinking, keep in mind some real life wolf packs can be huge. Case in point: the largest gray wolf packs observed in Yellowstone National Park have included as many as 35 members (Source).

But the dire wolf is something else altogether, they are far larger and feature feral aggression that makes them more dangerous in combat. They are a primordial version of the more common gray wolf and far larger and more dangerous.

A typical dire wolf weighs in at over 800 pounds and can measure a full 9 feet from nose to tail. The size and strength of dire wolves, coupled with their uncanny capacity for feral aggression, are underestimated at great risk. Keep in mind that a dire wolf is so different from a wolf that dire wolves are an entire size bigger – a large creature instead of medium.

These nimble and cunning hunters strike fast and a pack can ambush, knock down, and overwhelm an underpowered or unprepared party of adventurers.

The stat block for dire wolves is an AC of 14, and around 37 hit points, a generous 50 ft of speed, and the following special abilities:

  • Keen Hearing and Smell — The wolf dire gets an advantage on Wisdom (Perception) detected through hearing or smell.
  • Pack Tactics — if a wolf has an ally within 5 feet of them, and their ally is not incapacitated, they get a bonus on their attack against a creature.
  • Bite — the dire wolf strikes with a Melee Attack with +5 to hit, 5 ft. reach against a single target. The Hit deals (2d6 + 3) piercing damage. If the target of the dire wolf attack is a creature, it must make a Strength saving roll of DC 13 or it will be knocked prone.

What does this mean? This means that a wolf will have a higher capacity to sense something in its vicinity; it can be smelled or heard. They are also pack hunters which means if wolves are close to an ally and they attack the same target, they will receive an advantage there too.

Dire wolves also have a very large bite, this is not too dangerous of an attack. The real problem comes to creatures, and this includes humanoids. They will have to roll a 13 or more on a strength check to avoid being knocked prone. If the creature is knocked to the ground the wolf will gain a bonus to their subsequent attack rolls as the grounded victim is mauled.

Encountering a Dire Wolf Attack

Whether you are lucky enough to find a dire wolf on its own or face a whole pack, you will need a plan of attack to survive this perilous encounter. To begin with, melee fighters will have to reckon with immense speed and lethal hit-and-run tactics. Without timing a sensible plan of attack, the encounter can be debilitating at best.

Without a battle plan, a pack of dire wolf will easily tear your party apart piecemeal. So being prepared in the wild is crucial if they are a legitimate danger. Owl bears might get the attention, but you usually don’t find large groups. A pack of dire wolves is much worse news than a couple of owl bears!

Dire Wolves: What to Know

Dire wolves are hunters by nature and are living for the hunt, this means if you find yourself fighting dire wolves it will likely be a fight to the death. This is very different from other wolves that might only fight to defend their territory and may flee if they are badly injured or are unable to keep up with their prey.

The dire wolf will probably detect you before you can detect it with its keen hearing and acute sense of smell translating into a Perception or wisdom advantage. Wolves can be drawn to your party by sounds or by smells. The smell of blood is especially noteworthy as it will mean that their prey is weak and tired.

It will be very difficult to sneak up on wolves who have an impressive passive perception of 13. You won’t be able to hide as they will still be able to smell and hear you. Wolves also have an advantage in their pack-hunting habits that we mentioned earlier. Here is how it will play out:

  • Wolves are Nimble with an impressive (Dex 15), strong with(Str 12), tough with a decent(Con 12), and Cunning with (Wis 12).
  • Wolves will always try to knock their prey down. Creatures hit by a wolf’s bite must roll DC 11 Strength Check or they will be knocked down.
  • Wolves are fast, having an incredible natural movement speed of 40.

How to Use Wolves & Dire Wolves in D&D

The strategy the wolves follow will be planned out by the alpha male or alpha female of the group. Like any pack hunter, they will consider you and your party prey and will hunt you accordingly. This may involve spooking the group and isolating the weaker members. Wolves are expert hunters meaning that although they don’t have a high intelligence scores or wisdom as more sentient races would understand it, they understand very well how to notice and locate the strongest looking members of a party versus the weakest.

When they attack they will ambush if they can, and attack in pairs or threes to use pack advantage, giving them all advantage on their initial attacks.

That also means if there’s a party of a half-orc barbarian, a heavy armor human fighter, a heavy armor firbolg cleric, and a gnome sorcerer in robes…that sorcerer better get right up to the other adventurers fast or cast fly because he/she is in for a bad time.

Wolves will separate into pairs with the same initiative and then attack different targets. This is where they will enter with their hit-and-run tactics where they will encircle your group and begin fainting attacks. Run in 20 feet and bite attack, then escape 20 feet. This will open up an attack of opportunity on one of them…but since that takes a reaction the other two can dodge away safely.

This causes confusion, and makes mobility a big part of the battle. It also makes it a potential nightmare for any party member separated from the rest of the group whether through the harassing tactics of the pack or from an over anxious monk or ranger trying to create space and getting drawn out too much.

Keep in mind that a pack of dire wolves is like a well-oiled and trained team. They know their roles in a hunt, how to create an ambush, and although won’t necessarily understand a spell being cast or the bonuses a paladin can boost their party with, they know how to locate what looks weakest and to attack.

And if the party is traveling with mounts – that donkey pulling the cart or horses the party were riding could end up being the real targets making for a very interesting confrontation if half the pack pulls the party away while the other half take down the animals, leaving the party stranded.

5E Wolves, Direwolves, & Pack Tactics: The Battle Plan

The wolves will attack with timing and consistency to ensure that attacks are not interfering with each other, they will also work in pairs or groups to cut down the weakest party members. It would be a good idea to roll the initiative for each pair of wolves.

The best strategy will be to rally all the armored melee fighters to form a protective barrier around weaker party members. This will mean the wolves must battle through the stronger melee fighters to get to their targets, and the weaker members who might look like lunch to a hungry dire wolf.

Dire wolves lack major AC, and this makes them prime targets for ranged and magic casting characters. Don’t be afraid to dish out some AoE spells as well to deal damage to various pack members. Hitting most of the wolves at once will be next to impossible but a couple fireballs with some ranged shots could help to off-set the worst of what the dire wolves can do.

Battlefield control like the bard throwing out the bane spell or a druid throwing out plant growth all around the concentrated party can be great ways to minimize the movement advantages of the pack and force them into strategies they don’t like.

And if they go for the mounts instead of the party the best move might simply be to work your way as a group off the field and leave them for dead if the party is overwhelmed. The amount of food probably buys you a day or two…and which point your party had better be gone especially if that dire wolf pack is 30+ members.

Can You Ride a Dire Wolf 5E?

In theory it’s possible but this is definitely a working it out with the DM versus a rules as written situation. The easiest way to make it work within RAW is to have a Druid who can wild shape into a Dire Wolf and then allow a small or medium sized creature to ride them. Going the Beast Master Ranger route might be viable, as well, though making anything with the beast master ranger viable in 5E is a challenge.

So it is a rare thing. As a DM, having goblins on wolf mounts or hobgoblins on dire wolf mounts can add additional danger to a situation and is intriguing as a tough encounter for the party or a legitimate threat for frontier settlements or kingdoms.

Beyond those situations there aren’t many situations where riding a dire wolf in 5E is going to be a normal situation. These are truly wild beasts who love being a wild pack imposing their will on others, not being trained like dogs.

5E Wolf Encounters Vs. Dire Wolf Encounters: What’s the Difference?

There isn’t a big difference between facing a pack of wolves versus a pack of dire wolves, except for the fact that wolves are much weaker than their bigger dire wolf cousins. A pack of dire wolves will almost certainly wipe out a level one or level two adventuring party while they will have their hands full against a handful of wolves, but have a chance.

The bare comparisons:

StatWolfDire Wolf
Armor Class1314
Hit Points11 (2d8 + 2)37 (5d10 + 10)
Speed40 feet50 feet
Special FeaturesPack Tactics, Keen Hearing & SmellPack Tactics, Keen Hearing & Smell
Challenge Rating1/41
Bite Attack Bonus+4 to hit+5 to hit
Attack Damage7 (2d4 + 2)10 (2d6 + 3)
Strength Save1113
While related, it’s clear that the dire wolf is definitely the big brother of the two.

The encounter will play out the same way. After all, these are all pack animals who attack as a group, look for the weakest member of a herd or party, and attempt to separate them, kill the prey, and drag it away from food.

And if a battle goes sideways,

5E Dire Wolf Encounters: Final Thoughts

Don’t underestimate the advantage wolves will have when attacking within proximity (5 feet) of an ally. But they will also apply other cunning devices to their attack that can make them especially difficult to deal with.

For example, they can adjust their angle of attack to minimize the advantage of attacks of opportunity made against them. In each case, the player will only have a single reaction and therefore a single act of opportunity. If the attack succeeds and the player is dropped prone, they will also receive the attacks from all the subsequent wolves.

An S-sized target can be attacked by 4 wolves, M sizes can be attacked by 6 wolves and L sized players can be attacked by 8 individual wolves. This is where the rest of the pack will attempt to drive the rest of the team away from the fallen prey.

If a wolf is injured it will break from its pair and join the harassing wolves at the front and sides. Then one of the harassers that are not injured will join the free pair and the attack will commence once more.

The attack will continue until the kill has been made or until they have taken sufficient damage that they can no longer continue the attack. I think that once half the pack has been killed the attack is over, even a quarter of the group killed is a good enough reason to call off an attack.

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