I love beholders and I know most Dungeons & Dragons fans share my affection, but fights against beholders tend to fizzle into disappointment. At first, the eye beams incapacitate a character or two, so the monster feels threatening even if fear or paralysis idles a couple of players who stop having fun. But beholders can’t damage reliably enough to threaten level-appropriate foes, so the battle turns into a series of rolls to see if bad luck kills a character who suffers random disintegration.
At the table, beholders disappoint, but some less glamorous monsters prove more better than they seem at a glance. The lowly twig blight offers my favorite example. As foes for new characters, blights boast several advantages:
- They’re creepy.
- They’re supernatural, unlike the mundane foes that tend to appear a low-levels.
- Even new characters can fight several.
- Needle blights and vine blights team to ranged and special attacks.
- No one worries about their families.
- Not rats.
Blights may lack flash, but they make useful foes.
For similar reasons, I love giants. Aside from giants, the D&D monster toolkit includes few foes able to challenge higher-level characters without complicating battles with a bunch of special attacks and abilities. Plus giants logically appear in groups that hardly make sense for beholders, dragons, or other more exotic monsters. The simplicity of giants isn’t a bug; it’s a feature.
Gith boast similar virtues: They logically appear in numbers, threaten higher level characters than other humanoids, and don’t slow fights with complexity. Geoff Hogan writes, “I always present them as being friendly but with a culture and history that is hard to understand, so players are always scared of breaking a taboo.” Plus, elite types of Gith give DMs more options for adventures.
When I asked D&D enthusiasts to name their favorites, John touted animated armor as simple troops. “Their blindsight makes them good guards, but as programmed automatons with Intelligence 1, players might invent fun tricks to avoid battle.”
“I love ghouls because they’re dangerous for many levels,” writes Eric Stephen. The ghoul’s appearance in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide example of play “scared the shit” out of him at age 12. “You see a sickly gray arm strike the gnome as he’s working on the spike, the gnome utters a muffled cry, and then a shadowy form drags him out of sight. What are you others going to do?” I love describing ghouls with milky eyes and ragged dagger nails, scuttling to tear and feast on living flesh.
Dave Clark recommends wyverns as a lower-level alternative to dragons. Wyverns give a taste, but save a real dragon showdown for later in a campaign. When a wyvern stings and players learn the high damage total, I love the fear and surprise at the table. Does that make me a mean DM?
Other surprisingly scary monsters include shadows and skulks. Marty Walser favors shadows. “Players start crapping their pants after losing several points of Strength, which is basically the new dump stat in 5e since few people go with Strength fighters.” “I think skulks are great as terrifying tier 1 foes, and they scale well into tier 2 in large numbers because of invisibility and advantage,” writes Graham Ward. Graham notes that players who research and prepare for skulks can overcome their invisibility and prevail. That adds a rewarding story thread.
Of course many monsters shine because they feature special attacks and abilities that, unlike the beholder’s eye rays, tend to create fun battles. I’ve run several entertaining fights against bulettes. Their burrow speed lets them hit and run, leaving worried players to wonder where the land shark will next erupt from the ground and crash down.
Ropers gained recommendations. Ropers grab and reel characters, while players worry about the nearing maw and try to decide how best to escape. “Every roper encounter is hilarious,” writes ThinkDM.
Creatures that swallow characters usually create fun encounters. When characters get swallowed and then cut their way out, players feel badass and love it. Teos Abadia’s list includes froghemoths, behirs, and giant toads. Teos also favors creatures that deal damage on contact, making a remorhaz a double win.
Jeffrey S. Mueller recommends manticores for challenging, low-level fights. “A few of them can really create a lot of fun scenarios for an encounter other than the usual stand and bang it out fights.”
Some monsters flop when miscast in a typical, three-round D&D combat, but they excel in other roles. Arithmancer Ken suggests hobgoblin iron shadows as spies able to cast charm person and disguise self. If caught, powers like Shadow Jaunt and the silent image spell give them a good chance of escaping.
Eric Menge casts doppelgangers for similar roles. “They make great spies, thieves, and grifters.” He also takes a page from the Fantastic Four comics where one of Doctor Doom’s robot doubles takes the fall. “You killed the villain! Oh no! It’s just a doppelganger! Wahwah!”
As mere combat foes, nothics never live up to their creepy appearance, but as story pieces they excel. Before running a nothic, read the advice from Keith Ammann in The Monsters Know What They’re Doing. Eric Menge also likes nothics as patrols. “They’re better watchdogs than serious threats. Use them in creepy search parties or in patrols around objectives to give PCs a challenge.”