Dungeons & Dragons has been around in one form or another for almost 50 years, and the gaming system has refined its monsters and its magic regularly over the decades. In the game, player characters have faced everything from literal insects to deadly dragons but eldritch Elder Gods. It’s not surprising that D&D’s fans tend to obsess about the game’s most powerful challenges.
However, fairly weak foes are also the bread and butter of the game. D&D’s heroes level up over time and it’s important for 1st level adventurers to not die before they get a chance to shine. The challenge of balancing manageable enemies with fun storytelling and interesting challenges is always a part of a fun RPG, and D&D’s monsters are some of the best.
Updated by Matthew Z. Wood on 11/3/2022: CBR updates its D&D articles periodically to better reflect the state of the game. In this case, the article is now focused on Dungeons and Dragons’ 5th edition. Though One D&D will be bringing some big changes in the RPG’s future, formidable and hilarious monsters will always be a staple of fantasy gaming.
The Atropal Are Remnants Of Stillborn Gods
Tomb Of Annihilation, Challenge Rating: 13
The atropal aren’t quite gods but they almost were, once. Instead, they were born into oblivion and became powerful, tormented, undead horrors. They typically command legions of lesser undead and have access to vast supplies of energy from the Negative Material Plane. As such, they can inflict immense damage on a party.
Putting an atropal to rest is as much an act of kindness as it is anything else. The undead godlings are angry at the universe that rejected them but have very little they want. Their pathetic forms can’t be altered by magic and while they’re nearly impossible to destroy, it’s the only way to give them any kind of peace.
Beholders Are Iconic Eye Tyrants
Monster Manual pg. 24, Challenge Rating: 13
Beholders are some of D&D’s most iconic monsters, often adorning the covers of Monster Manuals. These large, floating heads possess an enlarged mouth, gigantic central eye and bodies covered in numerous prehensile eyestalks. They have appeared in every edition of Dungeons & Dragons since its inception and are considered one of its classic monsters.
A beholder’s eyes each possess a different magical ability while its central eye can project an anti-magical cone, nullifying the benefits of magical items and rendering spellcasters ineffective. Couples with powerful magical attacks, including Petrification and Disintegration, they’re the kinds of threats that can devastate entire regions. Only high-level adventurers can face off against these monsters.
The Demilich Is One Of D&D’s Deadliest Undead
Monster Manual, Challenge Rating: 18
Even undeath isn’t always forever. Even a lich’s immortal form can wear down over the centuries, especially if it forgets to feed itself on mortal souls or to renew the spells that maintain its existence. A demilich is a lich whose power has begun to wane. However, this does come with some advantages.
A demilich is typically a floating skull that’s virtually immune to most damage. The fact that it’s starving for souls allows it to consume the essence of anyone it looks at. They’ve lost much of their spellcasting power but they’re desperate and smart, and their innate abilities don’t cost them any spell slots.
The Dracolich Is A Powerful Undead Dragon
Monster Manual pg. 69, Challenge Rating: 17
Dragons are easily some of D&D’s most potent monsters. Throughout all of fiction, dragons are dangerous creatures, but in D&D, they combine incredible strength with spellcasting and intelligence. Coupled with naturally high stats and immense reservoirs of hit points, even young whelps deserve players’ respect.
While dragons are long-lived, ancient wyrms sometimes choose undeath and become dracoliches. In this form, they keep much of their physical power and are able to cast potent spells. Worse, they can create and control undead, meaning a terrible fate awaits any adventurer who falls beneath a dracolich’s talons.
Elder Brains Are Mind Flayers’ Evil Rulers
Volo’s Guide To Monsters pg. 173, Challenge Rating: 14
Illithids are deadly since even one can psionically paralyze an entire party but their leaders are far more potent. Each illithid community in the Underdark is led by an Elder Brain. Much like Marvel’s Kree Supreme Intelligence, it’s a collection of brains with unmatched psychic powers, confined to a giant jar.
While Elder Brains are essentially immobile, this means adventurers only encounter them when they’re surrounded by other illithids and their pets. It’s considerably more powerful than most high-level mages and sorcerers, and its powers make it extraordinarily difficult to harm as well. They’re basically immensely powerful spellcasting tanks and are bad news for even the greatest adventurers.
Liches Are The Undead’s Mystic Sovereigns
Basic Rules p. 325, Challenge Rating: 21
In D&D, when a powerful spellcaster tries to avoid death, they sometimes employ necromancy to become immortal. To become a lich, a spellcaster places their soul into a mystic phylactery by performing the Ritual of Becoming. Essentially, they end themselves, but keep their soul nearby, animating their bodies as powerful undead spellcasters.
A lich retains all of their memories from their life as well as their abilities. They are immortal spellcasters who are almost impossible to kill. Like figures from mythology, their phylactery function as a Separable Soul that holds their life, and the lich can only be put to permanent rest by destroying it. A lich’s phylactery can be any object and ferreting out its one weakness can be its own miniature quest. As a result, liches aren’t just dangerous, they’re uniquely challenging and interesting opponents.
Mind Flayers Have An Arsenal Of Psychic Powers
Monster Manual pg. 221, Challenge Rating: 7
The Illithid are a race of highly intelligent monsters in D&D commonly known as mind flayers. Made famous in Stranger Things, their nickname comes from their intense psionic powers, which they use to consume the brains of sentient prey. They are relatively common around the caverns and cities of the Underdark and consider themselves to be the dominant species of the D&D Multiverse.
Mind flayers usually attack via a number of psionic abilities including the Mind Blast, which fires a cone-shaped shock wave at its victims. This attack can disable an adventurer and leave their tasty brains open for consumption by the Mind Flayer. The fact that even basic Illithids have an attack called “Extract Brain” should give players a hint of what these dangerous creatures can do, despite their relatively low Challenge Rating.
Red Dragons Are A Fundamental D&D Threat
Basic Rules, pg. 286, Combat Rating: 4-22
Dragons are right there in D&D’s name, so it’s hard to avoid their influence on the game as a whole. Evil dragons are typically divided up by color and elemental affiliation, and the fire-loving Red Dragons are one of the deadliest enemies in D&D. Smart and greedy, older Red Dragons collect spells and magic items and know how to use both. Unsurprisingly, they can fly and breathe fire, allowing them to vanquish small armies solo.
D&D has its share of good dragons, too, and Gold Dragons can almost match their Red counterparts’ power. They tend to be subtle shapeshifters and seekers of knowledge, though, not ferocious warriors. While young dragons can be a suitable challenge for a low-or-mid-level party, an ancient Red Dragon could topple gods from their thrones.
The Tarrasque Is Almost Unstoppable
Basic Rules pg. 350, Challenge Rating: 20
Very fortunately, the Tarrasque is unique, but its mere existence in a D&D campaign means that entire civilizations are at risk. An indestructible behemoth driven by rage, the Tarrasque is easily capable of reducing the most powerful kingdoms to ruins in an afternoon. Its most notable ability is it’s terrifying regeneration that, combined with its immense HP reservoir, makes it effectively unkillable.
Like D&D’s dragons, the mere sight of a Tarrasque disables most opponents with fear. It can inflict massive damage on foes, swallowing human-sized opponents whole. Worse, it’s not just immune to most magic, its carapace often reflects magical attacks back at its assailants. The Tarrasque is essentially a mindless kaiju and putting an end to it is harder than killing most gods.
Cranium Rats Are Illithids Weakest Creations
Mordenkainen Presents: Monsters Of The Multiverse, Challenge Rating: 0
Not all monsters in D&D are huge, horrible beasts pulled from the darkest depths of mythology. The illithids like to experiment on animals, and cranium rats are simply an improved form of vermin. They are smarter, stronger, and stealthier than their brethren, and they make excellent servants but poor combatants.
Cranium rats are smart and cunning and make excellent spies, though their glowing brains sometimes give them away. They are dangerous in large swarms, since they can communicate and organize, and their clever paws are capable of crafting rudimentary traps. Cranium rats are never looking to fight adventurers but they still can do a party real harm.
The Crawling Claw Is A Low-Budget Undead Horror
Monster Manual, Challenge Rating: 0
The Crawling Claw is, unsurprisingly, the animated hand of a corpse. Necromancers create them out of anything from an orc’s hand to a raccoon’s paw, and they’re often enchanted to act as menial servants for dark wizards.
Crawling claws are slow-moving terrors and don’t pose much of a threat on their own. They do provide some horrifying flavor to a campaign, though, and can be an indicator a deadlier evil’s presence in a seemingly idyllic community.
Flumphs Are Kind-Hearted Flying Jellyfish
Monster Manual, Challenge Rating 1/8
Flumphs debuted in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons‘ Fiend Folio. They look like large, airborne jellyfish, but they’re more like alien explorers trapped in a terrestrial world. They long to reach out to other intelligent races and warn them about the horrors of the cosmos. The fact that they’re both fragile and creepy-looking makes this hard, though.
Flumphs do have some special powers, including acidic tentacles and a skunk-like spray. Though they fly, they also have a notoriously stupid weakness, and turning them on their backs renders them immobile. Not many monsters come equipped with cheat codes like that.
Basic Rules pg 138, Challenge Rating: 1/4
Goblins are weak but numerous humanoid monsters who usually show up near the beginning of any standard D&D campaign. They’re straightforward foes and, along with giant rats and spiders, they tend to be a part of any new campaign’s tutorial sessions. They’re physically weak but reliably malicious and relatively intelligent, making them simple but satisfying opponents to best.
That doesn’t mean goblins can’t be problematic. One goblin is nothing, but they almost always attack in packs. They’re smart enough to work together and their lairs often have rudimentary security, like easily destroyed rope bridges and boulders that can be loosed on unsuspecting heroes. It’s best to take a mob of goblins seriously, especially early in a campaign.
Kobolds Are Dragons’ Malicious Worshippers
Basic Rules pg 142, Challenge Rating: 1/8
Kobolds were introduced in D&D’s first edition as another basic foe for adventurers. Even more numerous and cowardly than goblins, they’re also weaker combatants. However, they do have few elements that differentiate them from generic cannon fodder for PCs to cut through.
Kobolds are distantly related to dragons and as a result they have a greater affinity for magic than most low-level monsters. They also often form dragon-worshipping cults and can be servants for much more powerful beings. Finally, they love traps and are good at setting up confusing ambushes, wounding opponents and falling back deeper into their lairs’ best-defended quadrants. In the hands of a crafty DM, kobolds are a surprisingly effective foe that engages players’ brains and not just their swords.
Lemures Are Hell’s Weakest Denizens
Basic Rules pg. 278, Challenge Rating: 0
D&D has some of the most interesting and deadly demonic creatures in all of fantasy role-playing. They have named demons and Princes of Hell and all sorts of creatures in the fiendish food chain for adventurers to battle or run away from. The lemure sits at the very bottom of the supernatural heap.
Lemures are piles of rotting flesh borne into a grotesque bipedal existence whenever a soul is damned to the underworld for crimes committed in life. Creatures of the Nine Hells, lemures are technically Devils but have little of their cunning or power. They cannot normally be permanently killed and they have a few elemental resistances but they’re easily the most painless way of introducing players to the Demons’ and Devils’ eternal Blood War.
The Myconids Are A Mysterious Mushroom People
Monster Manual pg. 230, Challenge Rating: 0-2
Myconids are underground-dwelling fungus people who come in all shapes and sizes. Like many humanoid races, they’re not particularly powerful but they’re part of the Underdark’s ecosystem and can offer some unique challenges for D&D’s heroes.
Myconids aren’t aggressive but they are territorial and when in danger they can emit spores that can affect characters’ moods. This includes inflicting fear and hallucinations on their foes and stunning opponents. They don’t speak but can grant temporary telepathy to potential friends. Finally, Myconic Sovereigns practiced a kind of fungal alchemy in earlier editions of D&D. Bringing back this idea could make the mushroom people interesting friends or enemies.
Skeletons Are Basic Undead Cannon Fodder
Basic Rules, Challenge Rating 1/4
Skeletons and zombies are D&D’s most basic undead menaces. Skeletons in particular are excellent low-level mobs. They’re fast, they’re undead and immune to many damage types, and stabbing weapons just skitter across their bones. As such, they’re more dangerous than many novice players might assume.
Skeletons also afford some storytelling opportunities. Their power is dependent on their size, so a rat skeleton is a threat to almost no one but a giant’s skeleton can present a real challenge. They can also conceal more powerful foes like bone golems and even liches among their numbers. There’s also the question of whose skeleton adventurers are fighting to consider since every undead warrior represents an individual tragedy.
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