What would Dungeons & Dragons be without the malevolent menagerie of ghastly foes you encounter during your adventure? It would be rather dull, we think. A good quest requires a certain amount of danger, and a proper balance of risk versus reward. Some of this undoubtedly comes from the elaborate underground caverns, dungeons, and other locations that are visited during a campaign. But even more, it comes from the cruel and cunning enemies faced along the way.
Monster mobs can evoke feelings of power and superiority, such as when higher-level characters effortlessly dispatch a group of skeletons or goblins. On the flipside, a terrifying encounter with a dragon can teach the party that, even with all their victories, they are still just mortals.
With D&D only a few years shy of its 50th anniversary, there is a vast range of D&D monsters to pick from. Between the five main editions, each with additional supplemental books, and homebrew material, it can be an overwhelming task sifting through them all, to pick the perfect monsters for each encounter. We’ve picked out some classic monsters that have been ruining adventurers’ days for nearly five decades, and can always make for an exciting fight!
Right up top, here are our completely objective, 100% accurate, expert picks for the very best D&D monsters of all time:
The best D&D monsters
First Appearance: Dungeons & Dragons – Greyhawk Supplement (1975)
Find it here: Monster Manual (5E) pg. 81
Known for their sleek appearance – and sleeker cloaks made from their hide – a Displacer Beast is a wily creature that can serve as great ‘teachers’ for lower-level parties.
Coming in at a challenge rating (CR) of three, these majestic prowlers have the handy ability “Displacement”, which causes attacks made against them to be taken at a disadvantage.
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However, if you do manage to hit one, that effect goes away until the start of the monster’s next turn.
Being hard to hit, paired with the Displacer Beast’s natural Multiattack feature, can give new heroes a taste of scarier battles to come, and start them down the path of cooking up cannier strategies, to survive those deadlier encounters!
Black Pudding 5e
First Appearance: Dungeons & Dragons Whitebox (1974)
Find it here: Monster Manual (5E) pg. 241
Do you have that one melee-focused character that likes to just run in without thinking, and hit things? Well, do we have the perfect enemy for you, to help teach that player a little planning and patience can go a long way – Black Pudding.
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This malleable opponent will not only corrode any non-magical weapon that hits it – which can result in destroying the weapon outright – it can also split into two independent, smaller monsters, when hit with either lightning or slashing damage (both of which it happens to be resistant to, for good measure!) Now your overzealous fighter is surrounded by goo, and their weapon is slowly wasting away. That will teach them to run in without thinking!
First appearance: Greyhawk (1975)
Find it here: Monster Manual (5E), pg. 28
The Beholder is a monster that’s so iconic, it’s on the cover of multiple D&D books, and it’s been present in every edition of Dungeons and Dragons to date. A large aberration you’d typically find in the Underdark, the Beholder is a floating orb with many tentacles and a single, enormous eye.
They’re highly intelligent (albeit cruel and greedy), and a CR of 13 means a Beholder is a meaty mid-tier challenge for your party. A Beholder’s lair also has some tricks up it’s sleeve, meaning this beastie could make a great ‘big bad’ relatively early on in a long-term campaign.
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In particular, adventurers will want to watch out for the Beholder’s eye rays. These fiendish floaters can shoot a ray which can cause a wide range of conditions for a character – fear, paralysis, sleep, you name it. A Beholder even has the ability to turn opponents into a pile of dust – and they’re cruel enough to do it, trust us.
For more on this creature, be sure to check out our Beholder 5e guide.
First appearance: Monster Manual (1E) (1977)
Find it here: Monster Manual (5E), pg. 222
Ah, the Mind Flayer – another evil aberration that makes for a great D&D encounter. An original creation of D&D co-creator Gary Gygax, the tentacle-faced Illithid (as they’re also known) uses its psionic abilities to control, attack, and eat the brains of other creatures.
While a CR of seven doesn’t pose the most terrifying threat, Mind Flayers can still make a good foe for players – particularly if there’s more than one of them.
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It’s rare to see a lone Mind Flayer, as this is usually a sign that they’re an outcast from typical Mind Flayer society. Instead, you’ll most likely find Mind Flayers living in colonies – so adventurers will likely need to take them on in numbers.
As well as spellcasting abilities, Mind Flayers have the ability to deal psychic damage using Mind Blast. They can also use their tentacles for melee attacks if the party are getting up close and personal. Perhaps worst of all, though, is the Mind Flayer’s ability to extract the brain of an incapacitated humanoid during combat.
First Appearance: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1977)
Find it here: Monster Manual (5E) pg. 220
The Mimic is the premier devious and dangerous trickster of Dungeons & Dragons. This creature’s innate ability to disguise itself as an inanimate object of its choice has no doubt given a player or two serious trust issues when it comes to their furniture.
You can tailor encounters against these monsters by tweaking the number of them you throw at players, or customising their stats.
If your beasties are going up against larger or higher-level parties, you can increase core stats like AC, or even add new abilities!
It is also one the most enjoyable creatures to throw at an unsuspecting group, regardless of their level, serving as a great addition to any spooky dungeon or mysterious mansion. The Mimic’s claim-to-fame, of course, is that they can shape-shift into any unassuming object, from a rocking chair, to a treasure chest – or, if you’re feeling like an especially tricky DM, a pagoda. Because no one ever suspects a pagoda.
At a challenge rating of only two, we’d advise customising and improving a mimic if your party is at higher levels. Still, a well-placed mimic can cause the group to second guess every mundane-looking knick-knack for the rest of the campaign – and that’s priceless.
First Appearance: Dungeons & Dragons – Greyhawk Supplement (1975)
Find it here: Monster Manual (5E) pg. 249
No creature better personifies “hangry” than the classic Owlbear. This mammal-bird hybrid was hangry long before such a meme-era term even existed. While the owlbear is a touch more “vanilla” than some of the other monsters featured on this list, it’s no less a hallmark of Dungeons & Dragons.
Sporting a CR of three, this beast’s advantage on perception checks makes it very good at finding characters if they try a sneaky approach – and when (not if) it gets its beady eye on your characters, it’ll swipe and peck until all that’s left is a particularly messy dinner for its chicks (cubs? chickubs?)
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But hey, maybe if you roll really, really highly on Animal Handling, you could tame the beaky behemoth? Just don’t forget to have a Snickers on hand at all times…
Several monsters in this guide make great early encounters for a party, but you’ll need some bigger, badder beasties ready once everyone has a few level ups under their belt. Enter the Lich – a power-hungry wizard that has traded its humanity for knowledge.
These skeletal sorcerers have placed their lifeforce in a phylactery in order to remain in the mortal world. Should anything happen to their physical form, a Lich’s phylactery allows them to eventually regenerate. This means you need to destroy the phylactery along with the Lich if you want them gone for good.
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With a challenge rating of 21, you’ll be glad to hear Liches tend to work alone. They’re incredibly high-level spellcasters with a range of condition immunities, so any party that wants to survive a Lich encounter needs a solid plan for attack. Watch out for the Lich’s legendary actions, too – they can paralyse you with a touch or frighten you stiff with a glance.
If this doesn’t sound like enough of a challenge for your DnD campaign, you might consider incorporating a legendary Lich like Vecna into your campaign. Even 20th-level characters will face a challenge facing someone like him.
Picked out your beasties, but desperate for some tiny plastic facsimiles to represent them on the tabletop? These are the best D&D miniatures around. Or go back to party-building basics with our roundup guide to D&D classes.