My Take On The 10 Most Memorable D&D Monsters

I started playing Dungeons & Dragons around 1998 or so, which means I came in during the end of Second Edition. Due to the myriad ways Second Edition defied logical (THACO, I’m looking at you), it never really became more than a passing thing for me until several years later when I joined a group of players that I met through one of my college roommates. The rest, of course, is history; I started running my own games after that and continue to do so to this very day.

IO9 recently put out a list of the 10 most memorable monsters in Dungeons & Dragons. Since, at this point in my gaming career, I’ve DMed for twice as many campaigns as I’ve actually played in, I thought I’d take a look and give my opinion on these monsters.

One thing I learned early in my DMing career was that monsters are, in some ways, the DM’s version of the new spells and powers that the player characters acquire. I found myself buying books with new dragons or whatever so I could see what shiny new things I could throw at my players. I would look forward to unleashing a cool monster the way a player looked forward to unleashing a big spell. The fact that my cool monsters almost always died wasn’t the point; as a writer, I know the villain’s place and role in the story. Survival wasn’t the point. The goal of a good monster was to get the emotional reaction from the players: at first, fear and “oh god, we’re going to die” and then excitement as they manage to overcome the threat.

Anyway, let’s look at the list:

  1. The Beholder: I’m not sure I would have put the Beholder in the top slot, but there’s no denying that these guys are both iconic and effective. There’s just something about the Eye Tyrant that inspires fear among players; maybe it has something to do with their ability to fire disintegration beams from their eyes. I’ve never really used a beholder in a main villain capacity, but the few times I have unleashed one, the party was certainly considered. Come to think of it, I have that set of Beholder figurines I’ve never really used in a game before. Hmm…
  2. The Displacer Beast: Here’s my first disagreement. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually used a displacer beast in a game before. If I have, it certainly wasn’t iconic enough to mention. They’re annoying to fight with their ability to shift around, but at the end of the day, it’s still just a big cat with tentacles. Not quite as impressive as some of the other beasties on this list, in my opinion. Admittedly, they are probably the most iconic opponent a low-level party will face which might be one reason to include them. Still, in my opinion, these guys aren’t worth the number two slot.
  3. The Mimic: It’s a monster that pretends to be a piece of furniture, usually a treasure chest, because every DM knows that players are greedy and there’s nothing better than punishing greed with getting devoured. Mimics are amusing, but like the the displacer beast above, I’m not sure they deserve to be this high on the list. Even at low levels, I think there’s another “screw you” monster out there that makes even savvy players shiver, and it’s next on the list.
  4. The Rust Monster: Now we’re talking. Basically, it’s a big bug that rusts metal. It’s probably the least dangerous monster on this list, except for one thing: it rusts and eats metal. Any metal. Yes, including the ancient coldforged sword of your ancestors and your masterwork plate armor. I had a player who was playing a fearless crusader run away from a battle against one of these guys. Those are some of the moments that make DMing worth it. I love these guys, because they create a threat that the players take seriously but aren’t incredibly lethal and potentially disruptive to the story itself.
  5. The Gelatinous Cube: Sure, it’s basically a living cube of acidic gelatin, but there’s one thing the IO9 list doesn’t mention: the gelatinous cube is transparent and nearly invisible in dark places. They’re the perfect monster for ratcheting up the paranoia factor, especially if the unlucky player discovers the cube’s presence by walking facefirst into it and getting engulfed. Good times.
  6. The Owlbear: Yes, it might be iconic, yes, even this list notes that they’re hilarious . . . but I really hate owlbears, for all the reasons listed in this comic. Owlbears remind me of the time earlier in D&D’s life cycle when you had really freaking strange monsters, like a carnivorous tree stump with a rabbit attached to its head to lure prey. I wish I was making that up, but I’m really not. No owlbear has ever appeared in one of my games and no player has ever asked, “hey, why aren’t there any owlbears in this game?”
  7. The Lich: Now we’re talking. Liches are awesome. They’re perfect for playing the arch-villain, but they’re just as useful as information brokers or other roles. As soon as one shows up, you know you’re dealing with the big leagues. In my opinion, these undead spellcasters deserve to be way higher than number 7. I might be a little biased since the final villain of my last campaign was a powerful lich, but regardless, these guys are intelligent, powerful, and dangerous. Best of all, they haven’t had their mystery and villainy peeled away, unlike what happened to vampires.
  8. The Drow: Here’s my number one pick. Easily. Drow are the ultimate bad guys. They manage to be murderously chaotic and yet maintain a rigid social structure and noble House system. They are stylish. They’re dangerous. I recall reading somewhere that game books and magazines that featured a drow on the cover would often sell better than other issues and I believe it. While they have suffered the same villain-decay as vampires due to so many players wanting to play Chaotic Good rebels, for me, there’s nothing better than the drow in their true, evil form. For those who are expecting the Drizzt clone character, unleashing a no-holds-barred evil drow is a satisfying experience. I’ve run one entire campaign focused on the drow . . . and don’t tell my players this, but I’ve got another one slowly growing in the back of my mind. The drow are my number one pick, hands-down.
  9. The Mind Flayer: I like these guys, but I think they’re a little too far on the fringe for most players. Sure, the idea of an alien squid monster that eats brains is scary, but I’ve also had the experience of telling the party “you see a mind flayer” and been given blank looks. I don’t think enough attention has been given to mind flayers to really elevate them in the ranks of liches, drow, and beholders . . . which is a shame, because these guys deserve to be in those ranks. In this case, I think number 9 is a good place for them on the list.
  10. The Tarrasque: The Tarrasque is the urban legend monster for a game that is focused on playing make-believe with your friends. Despite how often I’ve heard about the Tarrasque, I’ve never actually unleashed one, nor do I know any DMs that have done so. Regardless, the fact that they so tough and powerful means their presence can be felt just by mentioning their name, even by players that haven’t fought one; the Tarrasque might well be the inverse of the mind flayer in this regard. I think number 10 is a good place for the Tarrasque . . . and I’d like to note that I plan to use one at least once in my DMing career.

And that brings us to the end of the list. Overall, I think it’s a good one, aside from reshuffling some of the rankings and dropping owlbears entirely. I went back and forth in my mind on whether or not dragons deserved to be on the list. It’s tough to say, because on the one hand, dragons are always attention-grabbers when they show up in my campaigns. On the other hand, they’re all over the fantasy genre, so it might be tough to say how memorable they are. At the very least, I think the Red Dragon is scary enough to earn a spot on the list.

Oh, and the Pit Fiend. You can’t have a list of awesome monsters without mentioning the Pit Fiend. He definitely deserves to be on here.

So, let’s look at my revised list for the Top 10 most memorable monsters:

  1. The Drow
  2. The Lich
  3. The Beholder
  4. The Rust Monster
  5. The Red Dragon
  6. The Gelatinous Cube
  7. The Pit Fiend
  8. The Mimic
  9. The Mind Flayer
  10. The Tarrasque

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Entirely confused about what I’m talking about? Feel free to share your thoughts.

6 thoughts on “My Take On The 10 Most Memorable D&D Monsters

  1. I like drow as villains, but I specifically like them when the players are also drow (or underdark creatures). When dealing with non-drow, drow tend to have little patience or regard, and they end up coming off too one-dimensional. Put drow in the middle of a drow society, though, and you get to see all their sneaky and conniving ways in full force.

    I actually hate the rust monster, gelatinous cube, and mimic for exactly the reasons you said they’re good. I like my games fast-paced and cinematic, and nothing kills momentum faster than screwing the players for being too hasty. Not to mention that having your hard-earned gear eaten by a rust monster is about the most disheartening thing in the world for a gamer. Different strokes for different folks, I know, and a lot of people really enjoy that simulationist dungeon crawl stuff; but it’s absolutely not my cup of tea.

    I would probably rank liches and red dragons as my #1 and #2 slots.

    A lich represents ancient knowledge and an unthinkable thirst for power. Wizards are already powerful and terrifying, but a lich kicks it up a notch by sacrificing their humanity for immortality and power.

    Dragons, though, represent sheer strength. Compared to an ancient red dragon, humans are little more than ants: insignificant, weak, short-lived. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I like the implementation of dragons in D&D. I don’t really like that they cast spells like sorcerers, since I feel like their primary asset should be their ancient intelligence and overwhelming strength. Also, based on stories I’ve read, I like when dragons are either an obstacle you overcome by outwitting and avoiding or by cleverly devising a way to overcome the extreme difference in power. In practice, however, a high-enough level party can simply overpower the gargantuan creatures.

    1. Good points made on the drow as experienced by typical parties made from surfacers. That’s one of the reasons why I tend to play my drow antagonists as something closer to Chaotic Neutral or else a very, very subtle Chaotic Evil/Neutral Evil. One of my favorite NPCs was a drow guard captain who allied with the party after they killed his squad, promising to help guide them because he chafed under the matriarchy, etc etc. He actually was pretty helpful, too . . . right up until he betrayed them at the worst possible moment (which happened to be when the party had engaged in a little PvP.)

      Why am I no surprised that you’d feel the way you do about liches and what they represent?

      I agree that rust monsters and the like can kill a game’s momentum. I also think that I sounded a little too curmudgeonly in my list and antagonistic towards my players. That’s not really how I run games. I’m never out to screw the party, because even if they really, really deserve it, they usually manage to do it to themselves.

      One of the problems I ran into with one campaign was the issue of lethality. I had a player who was bored by the combat encounters and constantly pushed for more and more challenges. This, unfortunately, meant that some of the other players who weren’t as optimized ended up falling off in terms of power. It was tough to find the balance that was challenging that didn’t also result in people getting one-shot. I found that monsters like the rust monster thus made for a good level of tension and danger without having a beast that could splatter the bard in a single blow.

      However, the rust monster in the hands of a vindictive DM is one of the worst feelings in the world. You know the type: they’re the ones that intentionally set up no-win situations for a paladin in order to force a Fall. That’s never fun.

  2. I stopped playing D&D around 1998 for quite a few years in favor of other systems (mostly GURPS), then did it again in late 2000s for 3 or so years. I don’t think I ever went against the monsters on this list, but they’re certainly memorable. I tend to dislike many magical creatures for the same reasons as you dislike the owlbear, but it’s hard to escape funky creations if you want to read or play sword & sorcery at all. (Floating nose, anyone?) And funnily enough, I have no trouble playing an owlbear (which is what a balance druid essentially is) in World of Warcraft. Humanoid “monsters” are nowadays my favorite, since you have the potential for as much complexity as you want. -EJ-

    1. It’s funny that you would mention the moonkin form for the druid in World of WarCraft. Druids are some of my favorite characters to play in RPGs, but I couldn’t stand leveling my druid for the longest time because I hated that owlbear form so much even though I liked how Balance played. I was incredibly happy when they added a glyph that would turn moonkin form into an astral form that was a transparent version of yourself with cool falling stars and such.

  3. Yes, the astral form is so much better! (I love my druids, too.) I do have a similar visceral reaction to DKs. (Can’t play undead either.) I started playing WoW towards the end of vanilla, and never had a DK until two weeks ago. My hubby’s been interested in the mechanics for a while, so we finally decided to roll one for both. I actually really enjoy the way the class plays – I think; I’m still wrapping my brain around it. Guess I’m gonna have to stick my fingers in my ears (eyes?) and go La-la-la-la-la every time their lore comes up.

    1. I have a really hard time playing death knights as well! I have one that I rolled back in early Wrath that’s been languishing in Hellfire Peninsula at level 61 for years. Every so often, I’ll try to play him but it never goes anywhere. I think for me the problem is more the mechanics than the flavor: my main is a warlock, so I’m fine with the evil inherent in the class’s lore. Death knight just doesn’t flow for me for some reason.

      It’s also possible that because my roommate’s main is a death knight, I’m less likely to play the class. I’ve noticed that among my friends who play WoW, we naturally gravitated towards different classes to avoid doubling up.

      The weird thing is that the avoidance has persisted even though in some cases, I haven’t played with some of my friends in years. I can’t seem to get myself to roll a warrior because therationalpi, who commented above, was our guild MT back in Burning Crusade.

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