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In our time playing D&D 5e, most of us have placed the smack-down on goblins, kobolds, orcs, bandits, and the like. Dragons? Sure! Ghouls? Of course! Aboleths? Over-mentioned yet underused. There are many monsters that can be a curveball for your player characters (PCs). What are the most underrated monsters?
Every time you prep an encounter or storyline, it’s an opportunity to take your players to uncharted territory and engage their sense of wonder—or fear of the unknown. While there’s nothing wrong with using staples, it has an opportunity cost. When done repeatedly, this leads to blandness.
When looking for new monsters, it’s best to consider what they bring to the table in terms of narrative potential, mechanical spice, and overall novelty, as well as how thematically appropriate they are for what you’re trying to accomplish.
Remember to tailor individual encounters around your party’s capabilities when you go about picking monsters (no pack of intellect devourers against the all-martial party!), and don’t forget that the Kobold Fight Club is your friend for most party compositions.
I also recommend you read up on your beasties of choice over at The Monsters Know What They Are Doing to take your encounters to the next level.
Now let’s have a look at some monsters that deserve more frequent use (ordered by increasing CR) plus customization options!
A Quick Note
Suppose you want to spice up some of the traditional monsters. Add some flavor that will make your players sit up and pay attention when they’d otherwise yawn.
Here’s a list (credit to PhotonMammoth; rehosted in case it gets removed) of monster attributes that you can add to any monster you like, easily customizing it to fit into a different biome or context.
Dryads (CR1 fey)
Cooler than the standard NPC druid! They can fulfill the same narrative functions expected of them—protectors of the wilds or a sacred place in the wild—and their very presence in the Material Plane can imply a gateway to the Fey realm nearby. If not, how did they get in the material plane? Great for story fodder.
Their Tree Stride ability makes them more mobile and unpredictable than druids, and they can charm PCs as an action thanks to their fey nature. They are also resistant to magic (advantage on saves against it). Makes you wonder why their CR is 1.
Additionally, their ability to speak with animals and plants innately lends itself to dryads having local flora and fauna as reinforcements in combat—or even as their spies.
Quicklings (CR 1 fey)
“Mischief, not murder” is one of their core characteristics, and this alone speaks volumes. Quicklings are tiny fey, and they’re evil. The thing about evil is that it doesn’t necessarily translate to killing people or a lust for power.
In the quicklings’ case, it’s all about cruel pranks—that can result in death, but that’s beside the point for them.
Stolen items planted on people’s belongings, dead rats in casks of ale (plague bearer? I hardly know her!), a spike in cases of people falling off horses, the list goes on. They can do all this because of their freakish speed (base move speed: 120 ft.), a curse laid upon them by a Fey Queen.
Attacks against them have disadvantage, and they’re so fast they stole Evasion from the rogue class!
They’re easy to drop at 10 hit points, but can be a headache in groups if provoked to a fight. They’re good antagonists if you happen to DM for kids, but can be used just as well in more grown-up shenanigans.
Their ultra-speed makes the material plane horribly dull to experience, so my quicklings do anything for drugs that slow them down or trip them senseless. If this sounds fun, you might like my 5E single-PC adventure: The Yeast Heist Fiasco Getaway.
Looking to challenge your players?
Puzzles and Riddles can be tricky! Too easy and they’re pointless; Too hard and it’s pure frustration. What is a DM to do?
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Cave Fishers (CR 3 monstrosity)
Move over giant spiders; we’ve got another horrifying person-sized arachnid to throw at players, one they’ve never seen in video games before!
Cave fishers have the spider climb ability, but that’s about where the similarities end:
- They hide on tall ceilings and fish for unwary adventurers with adhesive filaments instead of relying on webs.
- Their blood is flammable—which makes them vulnerable to fire damage once they lose half their hit points, but a creative DM can also use this against their players.
- These things also attack twice, and harder, with their actions.
While cave fishers usually inhabit deep caves, you could deploy them in thickly canopied, dark forests (Mirkwood style) or even as a security measure used by a thieves’ guild to protect its underground vaults!
Non-werewolf lycanthropes (CRs 1/2, 2, 4, 5)
You read that right. Werewolves’ days of hogging the spotlight could be over if you jump on the train of using other lycanthropes. I’m including jackalweres here, despite their distinct origin story, because they meet all mechanical requirements while working well for lower-level play.
Jackalweres were created by the demon lord Grazzt to kidnap humans for his lamias. They are originally jackals tainted with filthy magic and some humanity, while traditional lycanthropes are humans tainted with bestiality.
Were just means “man,” so a jackal imbued with humanity would still technically be a jackalwere (or werejackal)
Anyway, what they all share is Keen Hearing and Smell, immunity to nonmagical/nonsilvered weapons, and shapeshifting.
Wereboars have a couple cool features in common with giant boars; weretigers can pounce; werebears and wererats were done dirty by having no additional cool stuff. Wererat: weaker, smaller; werebear: bigger, stronger. You can improve them, though!
I’d run wererats with a burrowing ability and the ability to squeeze through tight openings, as well as make them acrobatic. Would make good assassins and spies. They also deserve a higher intelligence score.
Werebears should be really hard to knock over in a way that I wish regular bears were in 5e.
You can also get creative and create were-anything. Bring in the sure-footed, headbutting weregoats. Also, Curse of Strahd (SPOILER ALERT) famously features wereravens.
Discover Ancient Treasure
The party is tired, hurting, and in need of shelter when they discover a mysterious, ancient stone crypt.
The dusty tomb could hold immense treasure, danger, or both – depending on how they approach it.
Perhaps they’ll foolishly wander into this setting-agnostic, densely-written classic dungeon that provides plenty of unique choices and twists on old favorites.
Check out the promotional version (on the product page) before you buy the Mound of Harald the Conqueror!
Revenants (CR 5 undead)
Revenants are basically revenge-fueled, undead terminators. Their hatred burning within is so strong it makes them immune to Turn Undead, and they are close to indestructible.
You might destroy the flesh a revenant wears at any given moment, only for them to seize another body and get back to hunting down their quarry. And they always know where the target of their revenge is.
Canonically, the only way to get rid of a revenant for good is by Wishing them away, which isn’t readily accessible magic. The PCs could get creative and imprison it somehow, though. Otherwise, they’re in an It Follows sort of situation.
By their very nature, revenants have immense narrative potential. The circumstances that doomed one to roam the world as a vengeful undead can be the crux of entire adventures.
Maybe a bitter enemy of the PCs turns into one after they kill him/her/it for the first time, or perhaps the party is hired to protect someone from a revenant (which may or may not have a sympathetic story), etc.
In my opinion, the properties of a revenant can even be transplanted to other types of humanoid enemies to create more interesting variations (a revenant archwizard is a problem).
You can also give your revenants alternative equipment and class levels—more on that below. Giving an enemy revenant a couple class levels every time it meets the party again is a fun way to keep it threatening and allow combat to continue feeling fresh.
Chain Devil (CR 8 fiend)
The problem with fiends is that, usually, they only show up in the upper tiers of play because it’s when things tend to “go planar.” This leads to quite a bit of wasted potential.
Many fiends are better off in groups by the time most parties get to them, but at the lower levels, even one can be terrifying.
Consider the chain devil. It has grappling built into its attacks with 10 ft reach, and its whole thing is that it can animate up to four chains—each with 20 AC and 20 HP—around it once per short or long rest.
Each animated chain grants it one additional attack on top of its usual two per attack action. It can also use its reaction to (try to) frighten a PC by taking the form of a dead loved one or someone they fear.
All of this makes the chain devil particularly suited for something like a 5th level boss fight because it lessens the action economy advantage that a party of four or more has against a solo monster.
Imagine a party tracked down a crime boss to their hideout. They open the door, and it’s a room with dozens of chains hanging from the ceiling beams. Creepy, right? Then they have to fight this thing.
Screaming in terror is a free action.
Frighten Your Players
In a dark room, Jon is on the edge of his seat. He’s afraid his next act will be his doom.
Everyone holds their breath—except you, the DM. You enjoy watching them sweat as tension comes to a head.
“Do something!” Sara shouts, causing everyone to jump. Rattled, Jon does something stupid.
For less than a Starbucks coffee, gift a thrilling night for you and your crew;
Check out Weeping Walls, our haunted house intended to fit into any campaign.
Aboleths (CR 10 aberration)
They were around even before the gods, and they remember. Aboleths are among the most Lovecraftian feeling 5e monsters, clearly inspired by his water-dwelling Old Ones. Their minds are alien, like something that achieved sentience during the Cambrian explosion, and full of hate and disdain for the creatures that supplanted them in “the natural order.”
They appear to be the subject of much talk (Forgotten Realms lore says they are from the far realm, but 5e says they’re from the Elemental Plane of Water?!), but little play. This might be due to their aquatic nature, but I’ll show you there are ways to make one work in a landlocked or predominantly urban campaign.
An aboleth’s probing telepathy allows it to know all the deepest desires of any creature it can see and communicate telepathically with. Combine this with their perfect memory stretching back eons and weird mental architecture, and you have an unsettling social encounter in your hands.
If the party does come to blows with one, an Aboleth hits hard and secrete disease-inducing mucus that clouds the water around them. They can get out of the water, though, being amphibious, and are likely to retreat if things are going badly.
Aboleths typically command minions (kuo-toa are a good fit), and they can mentally Enslave characters, which fits their superiority complex. They can also be the masters of deep scions, which pack a lot of narrative potential as undercover agents of powerful underwater evils and lend themselves well to getting class levels (see below).
You could run an entire campaign about an Aboleth’s efforts to submerge a piece of land, thus adding it to its domain. Generations of its agents could be close to completing a ritual to sink a landlocked capital into its Underdark lake of residence. Or sabotaging a coastal kingdom’s efforts to keep the sea from swallowing it (like the Netherlands actually did).
Slaadi (CRs 1/8, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10 aberrations)
Order (law) and chaos, like good and evil, are properties inherent to standard D&D cosmology. Slaadi are an unintended consequence of a lawful god, Primus, attempting to instill order in the everchanging chaos of Limbo, one of the outer planes. To quote from the Monster Manual (MM, pg 274):
“He then cast it adrift in Limbo, believing that the stone would bring order to the chaos of that plane and halt the spread of chaos to other planes. […] Primus’s creation had an unforeseen side effect: the chaotic energy absorbed by the stone spawned the horrors that came to be known as slaadi.”
These frog-like aberrations reproduce by implanting humanoid hosts with tadpoles that eventually burst out of their chests like baby xenomorphs from the Alien movies.
They’re sadistic monsters who seek to destroy order in the universe and cannot abide by rules, so they don’t really have a society so much as webs of subjugation by the threat of violence.
Slaadi are magic-resistant and constantly regenerating hit points while in combat; the minimum CR for an adult Slaad is 5. Tough bastards.
The cherry on top of this awful cake is that the MM offers DMs the possibility that they all have control gems implanted in their brains (due to how they came to be), and whoever acquires a Slaad’s gem can control them. So you can run them as lone monsters terrorizing people, as hordes of chaos, or even have a powerful villain using these gems to control large groups of Slaadi.
Note: Slaadi for plural; Slaad for singular, in case you were wondering.
Underused Customisation Options
Beyond picking unusual monsters, you can customize monsters and NPCs by applying templates or class levels to them, which adds depth to the gameplay in more ways than combat.
Monsters With Class Levels
Based on my research and talking to other DMs, very few people add class features or levels to enemies like scouts and guards. I believe that this is one of the easiest, most bang-for-your-buck ways to make fights more memorable and add oomph to enemies that seasoned players know all too well.
But how do we do it? The Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG pg 283) makes it pretty simple, with the following steps:
- Give the monster all the class features for every class level you add (with the possible exception of starting equipment).
- Give it one Hit Die of its normal type (based on its size) per added class level, ignoring the class’s Hit Dice progression.
- Keep the monster’s original proficiency bonus instead of using their class levels’ proficiency bonus.
Afterward, you should recalculate its CR, or consider the party you’ll be engaging to know if you haven’t gone overboard. This is a shade of homebrewing, and you can get better informed about it from our homebrewing article here.
How about a zombie version of something that’s not readily provided in zombie-form by the official books? You can do it. Let nothing stop you from having a zombie ettin in your game!
Do you want all the bandits in a certain part of your world to be halflings? No problem.
Page 282 of the DMG provides a big table of templates to apply to monsters and NPCs just for this. You can also apply the half-dragon template to NPCs.
In general, there are plenty of monsters that can be used to great effect in any campaign, but it may take a little digging. Sure, it’s easy to reach for stock kobolds, bandits, or zombies—and that’s alright.
But doing so opens the door to metagaming players and possibly boring situations that could otherwise increase immersion (more on that here) and spur an engaging plot (full post on campaign-making here). You can easily avoid this humdrumness by adding class levels onto monsters, adding certain features.