Thursday, May 11, 2023

My Top 10 Favorite D&D Monsters (Part I)

In the interests of narrowing the scope of potential candidates for this list, I established a few rules for myself. First and most importantly, I would only select from monsters unique to Dungeons & Dragons. That means, mythological or folkloric monsters, like minotaurs or goblins, were excluded from consideration, even in cases where D&D's version of them is idiosyncratic (e.g. kobolds). Second, monsters of a singular type, such as named demons or devils, were likewise excluded. Finally, any edition of Dungeons & Dragons was fair game, though, given my age and preferences, I hope no one will be surprised that all of the monsters I chose first appeared in either OD&D or AD&D 1e.

As with all of my previous Top 10 posts, this list comprises my personal favorites – a purely subjective category. I do not, therefore, suggest that any of these monsters are the "best" by any other measure. Indeed, several of those included, as you'll soon see, are, in fact, quite silly by any charitable definition, but I have a fondness for them born of more than four decades of play. No doubt many of you reading this will have your own favorites of a similar sort.

10. Shrieker

The shrieker is one of those silly monsters I mentioned earlier. It's a mindless, ambulatory fungus that emits a piercing shriek when either a light source is brought within 30' of its location or there is movement within 10'. The noise has a 50% chance of attracting wandering monsters each round that it shrieks. I first came across shriekers in the pages of the J. Eric Holmes-edited Basic Rules and, which may explain why I consider them – and fungi more generally – a quintessential aspect of the play of D&D. I suspect shriekers aren't very popular with most gamers, since they exist entirely to screw with reckless or incautious players. That's exactly why I do like them and include them in most of the dungeons I've made over the years.

9. Roper

While I wouldn't call the roper "silly," it is a little goofy. It's also a little bit scary too, since, according to its description in the AD&D Monster Manual, it can disguise itself as a pillar or stalagmite in order to better attack its unsuspecting prey. Its natural form is that of a one-eyed slimy mass of arms with a huge fang-toothed maw. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's nightmarish, but it's definitely not something I'd like to encounter under any circumstances. On the plus side, it often has platinum pieces and gems in its gizzard, which is very D&D.
8. Owlbear

The owlbear is not a silly monster, as anyone familiar with either owls or bears could tell you. Unfortunately, its illustration by Dave Sutherland does little to convey just how terrifying such a creature would be, were it to exist in the real world. I like owlbears because they're just fantastical enough that they nicely convey the "we're not in Kansas anymore" vibe that any good fantasy setting should have, while also being sufficiently mundane that their widespread presence within the Forest of Doom doesn't seem implausible. Their existence also implies that wizards get up to weird stuff – another must have in any decent fantasy setting.

7. Carrion Crawler
I am a well known enjoyer of vermin and the carrion crawler, as its name suggests, is a frightfully hopped up example of them. It's also, despite having only 3+1 Hit Dice, an exceptionally dangerous opponent. Each of its eight tentacles gets an attack and each is capable of inflicting paralysis with a hit on anyone unlucky enough to fail a saving throw. I can still vividly recall an early encounter with a carrion crawler that nearly resulted in a total party kill. That left my younger self with a healthy level of respect for carrion crawlers – not to mention the belief that they were perfect monsters to include in my own dungeons. Dave Sutherland depicts them in the Monster Manual as a kind of Cthulhoid caterpillar, which is bonkers in the way that the best D&D monsters should be.

6. Mimic

A lot of people seem to think the mimic is a silly monster, but they're wrong. Certainly the mimic owes its existence to a referee's desire to mess with thieves and that might rub some people the wrong way (mostly the players of thieves). On the other hand, mimics are (in my opinion) another fine example of wizards getting up to weird stuff and that's all to the good. My main regret about the mimic is that too many people seem to think they can only shapeshift into chests. That vastly underestimates their utility and I wish more referees included mimicked chairs, tables, doors, and so on in their dungeons. That said, the mimic chest is a classic for a reason, though Sutherland gets bonus points for eschewing the obvious and instead having the monster punch the hapless thief who got too close to it.


  1. I'm debating whether you will pick the otyugh, NEO-otyugh, or both! And we all know that stirges are too cute to stay off this list, it's just a question if they will be number one!

  2. The Sutherland owlbear illustration replicates the "chinasaur" original, of course - but there's an intriguing Gygaxian reference (either in Chainmail or an interview - I forget) to a toy "giant sloth" being employed as a Balrog in the original Chainmail games. As the owlbear chinasaur is essentially a beaked ground sloth, there's an intriguing possibility that Sutherland's illustration shows the first tabletop Balrog - possibly the most off-the-wall interpretation ever!

  3. Every one of these has miniatures out that re-imagine their designs into significantly less goofy-looking monsters. Reaper alone makes multiple variants of most or all of them, and Paizo adds even more. There are some very threatening looking owlbears and a good sculptor can do a lot of clever things with the mimic (although they "chest with teeth" thing still predominates), but I think the roper has benefitted the most, with at least three different much better looking variants in my own collection.

    And of course if you want figs based on the original designs, Otherworld Miniatures has you covered, or there are the old Grenadier unlicensed variants still being sold through Mirliton out of Italy.

    1. Do Reaper, Paizo, and Otherworld sell metal figures? It saddens me that the younger generation uses mostly plastic ones. I cherish my Ral Partha collection.

    2. Reaper still sells many metals figs, although the bulk of their modern new sculpts is now one of a variety of plastics - I don't think I've seen a new metal fig from them in months. Otherworld produces nothing but metals, and are very faithful to the old AD&D artwork, but their prices reflect the high costs of metal casting these days. Paizo does nothing but plastic AFAIK, and its quality is about on par with the better of Reaper's various Bones mixes.

      I'm torn on the subject of metal versus plastic. While I like the heft and durability of metal it has become prohibitively expensive and no longer has a real edge in detail over the better plastics, and of course assembly is generally more difficult and transporting large amounts of metal is a weightlifter's workout. Plastic has seen its prices climb enormously as well but is still cheaper, lighter, and now surpasses metals for level of detail at the high end of the scale. It can also handle types of sculpts metal never could do well - flying poses in particular - but struggles with realistically slender weapons and similar details unless you get into the injection-molded styrene stuff (eg Wargames Atlantic kits) - which is economical unless you buy from Games Workshop, and offers a lot of modelling potential, but the assembly time on those kinds of kits can be pretty lengthy.

      I will say one thing, all varieties of plastics are much easier to convert and kitbash with than metals are, so if you like making custom monsters it's the way to go. The early (and cheap) Bones plastics are particularly good for that sort of thing, as their low cost makes hacking them to pieces for parts more practical - just stick with the bigger, chunkier sculpts where the material is at its best.

      You can see quite a lot of my custom monsters on my mostly-dormant painting blog over here:

    3. Beautiful work! And thanks for the information.

  4. I kind of like that Sutherland's owlbear sticks to the toy that inspired it, rather than the modern assumption that anything called an "owlbear" must be a strange amalgamation of features taken directly from actual owls and actual bears. The hulking beast that only calls those two animals vaguely to mind is more my speed. What DCS needed to do was somehow transmit more of the large, physical mass of the creature. Something the size of a bear is scary enough.

    1. 3rd editions' mix and match rules gave me my favorite owlbear. Using the Half-Fiendish template, my Greater Owlbears had wings and could fly. (I suppose I could have just taken the griffon statblock, or just used griffons. But letting the owlbear finally fly was important to me

    2. Oooh! That is brilliant! It never occurred tome to give them flight, but that would up their actual danger level without granting them more of bigger attacks (I feel they are actually a bit too weak for the game). I need to experiment with that in my game. Thank you for the inspiration!

  5. Love me some nighttime carrion crawler, especially at the bottom of a boggy pit littered with animal bones. Add some giant centipedes scurrying around the perimeter, a flash of lightening and some rain for a skin crawling start to adventure below.

  6. My current fave is Throat Leeches

  7. Nice list so far. Off the top of my head, here's my top-10 list:

    1. Living Wall (1991: Book of Crypts). How can you beat this monstrosity? If you can see it for what it is, it looks like a mass of grey sinewy flesh, with faces, hands, feet, and broken bones jutting from the surface. Anyone standing close enough can hear moans of pain and horror and cries for help. The body parts can reach out and fight and cast spells, and they're crying for vengeance.

    2. Dragon Turtle (1977: Monster Manual). A colossal nightmare to any seafarer. And that steam breath.

    3. Drider (1983: Monster Manual II). I love everything about the drow (as conceived by Gygax, not the later bastardized drow owing to Drizzt), and the drider concept is especially freaky: drow who fail Lolth's test and become centaur-like spiders.

    4. Medusa (1977: Monster Manual). Ever since my first D&D game -- playing the Caves of Chaos -- the medusa has had a special hold on me.

    5. Glasspane Horror (1984: Dragon Magazine #89). Can appear like a humanoid, glistening cloud, or window pane, and has some pretty nasty tricks up its sleeve. Love this creature.

    6. Corpse Flower (???: 5e period). The only one on my list not from the old-school period. It's such a ghastly creature, containing up to nine corpses, and can climb walls... and bring you down with its hideous stench.

    7. Aboleth (1981: I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City). The mind flayer has nothing on this spiteful enslaving creature, IMO.

    8. Phanaton (1981: Isle of Dread). I adore these monkey/raccoon/flying squirrels; they have just enough humanlike faces to make PCs feel a certain kinship.

    9. Memory Moss (aka "Obliviax") (1983: Monster Manual II). Had loads of creepy fun with this creature back in the day.

    10. Purple Worm (1977: Monster Manual). Classic Dune-like monstrosity.

    1. That Glasspane Horror is pretty cool!

      I'm also a fan of Trent's Mirror-fiend, (page 143 of his Heroic Legendarium.

      And I'm responsible for this:

  8. Number 1 has gotta be one of those crazy oozes: Black Pudding, Ochre Jelly, or the world-famous Gelatinous Cube.

    They're crazy!

  9. Interesting to see other people's favorites. My Old School Top 10 would be: Ankheg, Basilisk, Chimera, Ettin, Green Slime, Harpy, Lich, Troglodyte, Umber Hulk, and Water Weird.

  10. Owlbear, eh?

  11. Owl Bears and Mimics made it into the 2023 Dungeons & Dragons movie!