The 10 Scariest D&D Monsters to Include in Your Next Session
Updated: Oct 19, 2018
It’s October and that means Halloween is right around the corner. Time for candy, costumes, trick-or-treating… and scaring your friends right out of their full plate armor and wizard hats.
The enchanted forests, haunted castles, and subterranean mazes of Dungeons & Dragons offer you all the setting you need to weave a tale of fantastical suspense and horror. You’ll need a great story and some tricks of your own to make your heroes feel scared and vulnerable. We have some tips for this in our article, “Incorporating Fear Into Your D&D Sessions.” And then, finally, you need a monster—or monsters—worthy of terror.
Here are ten of the best monsters for your bone-chilling 5th Edition adventure or campaign.
As the Monster Manual informs us, hags “represent all that is evil and cruel.” Ancient, cunning, and malicious, hags superficially resemble ugly and withered old women, with the warts, moles, craggy teeth and long, unkempt hair we associate with fairy tale witches.
Associated with the darker places of the Feywild, hags reside within creepy woods, along rocky coastlines marked by the remains of old shipwrecks, and fetid swamps. They revel in corrupting mortals, they surround themselves with bones, scraps of flesh, and other filth, and they procreate by stealing human babies and eating them.
In short, everything about hags reads as though it comes straight from a horror story. Once your heroes encounter them, they’ll find the hags are cunning adversaries, able to appear as other creatures and then attack with a potent mix of spells, supernatural abilities, and natural attacks.
9. Flesh Golem
Literally stitched together from an assortment of other creatures’ body parts, the flesh golem is a brutish and perverted mockery of natural life. Infused by a spark of life from the Elemental Plane of Earth, the flesh golem is blindly and utterly obedient to its creator.
Unlike most of the creatures on this list, a flesh golem will never drive your story’s suspense with its cruel or cunning machinations. No, flesh golems are capable of only the most basic measures of reason. Their thinking is infantile, and they have no personalities of which to speak.
But flesh golems excel as scary brutes. They look the part. They hit hard. And they resist enough magic to put a scare in your party’s dedicated spell-casters.
Perhaps the greatest use for a flesh golem, though, is to raise the suspense as your heroes continue on their adventure; wherever there’s a flesh golem, there’s someone who was capable—and willing—to create one…
The ultimate shape-shifting threat, a doppelganger can appear in just about any location—taking the place of just about any character the heroes might meet.
If you’re looking to instill a bit of paranoia in your heroes, to make them suspicious of everyone they meet and everything they see, and to lead them into a long, slow-burning mystery of psychological horror, there’s no better monster than the doppelganger.
The doppelganger can easily be your master manipulator, or it can be working for another mastermind. Either way, any adventure with a doppelganger is bound to feature layers upon layers of horrifying machinations.
7. Gibbering Mouther
A fan-favorite monster that has appeared now in several editions of Dungeons & Dragons, the gibbering mouther is the result of foul sorcery, and it’s among the most horrifying creatures your heroes could ever run into—especially at lower levels.
An amorphous mass covered with mouths and eyes, the gibbering mouther flows and oozes toward other creatures, intent on devouring anyone and anything it can reach. It can reach out from its central mass with rope-like pseudo-pods, each of which is also covered in mouths and eyes, and its spittle explodes into blinding light.
Of course, the gibbering mouther’s greatest weapon is its namesake gibbering. The cacophonic din from its many mouths can drive adventurers temporarily mad, causing them to shut down in the middle of the fight or even to turn against each other.
It’s never a good sign when your adventuring party starts walking through a forest or up a craggy hillside only to recognize that the statues surrounding you aren’t statues at all—their expressions of surprise and desperation mark them as people who have been turned to stone. Worse yet, some of the statues appear to have been broken apart… Or could that break actually suggest teeth marks? Was that statue actually eaten?
There are few things scarier than having to fight something you can’t see—or have to avoid seeing—and that places the basilisk in a rare category, alongside the medusa. We’ve given the basilisk the edge over the medusa, though, because it’s also a monstrous eight-legged lizard with jaws strong enough to bite into and eat the statutes it makes of hapless adventurers.
Of all the creatures in the Monster Manual, none better resembles J.R.R. Tolkien’s infamous Balrog than the balor—both in terms of its physical appearance and the way that it causes heroes to tremble in mortal fear.
Marked by its great bat-like wings, red hide, and horned head, as well as the nimbus of fire that surrounds it and burns its enemies, the balor is one of the most potent adversaries in all of Dungeons & Dragons. Fueled by rage and hatred, the balor fights with a flaming whip and a longsword that crackles with lightning, and when it dies—if it dies—it explodes, dealing a lethal blast of fire damage to everything nearby.
The fact that slaying a balor might prove their own undoing might give your heroes cause to hesitate, but you can easily magnify that hesitation and fear by forcing them to face the balor’s onslaught in circumstances where its death throes would undo everything for which your heroes are fighting.
Silent and deadly, the beholder is one of the most easily recognizable creatures in Dungeons & Dragons. A giant, floating, spherical beast with ten eyes atop little stalks and a great giant eye above its large, toothy maw, the beholder might have begun as a joke—“beauty is in the eye of…”—but it has endured as one of the most iconic and terrifying creatures in the Monster Manual.
This is because it doesn’t just look nightmarish; it’s one of the toughest creatures any party can face. Its large central eye can suppress all magic, turning off the heroes’ ability to retaliate with spells, while its other eyes can fire rays that do everything from charm heroes to petrify them or kill them outright.
All things considered, it’s certainly easy to understand why the beholder can make a satisfying boss monster for any adventure that sends a party off to explore a network of dark tunnels. What’s harder to understand is how the beholder can be the beauty in the eye of anything other than another beholder.
Sure, we live in an age that’s over-saturated with vampires. Just as the overabundance of zombie stories weighed against their inclusion on this list, the fact that vampire stories have become all too common detracts from the vampire’s terrifying potential. But let’s be clear, vampires—done right—are absolutely terrifying.
You start with the setting. The vampire’s abilities should impact your whole adventure, not just a single encounter. There’s likely a lair. Place it somewhere dark and remote, shrouded in mist, where the adventurers will find themselves far from help. You’ll have to decide if this lair is hidden and secretive, or strong, fortified and surrounded by the dark rumors told by neighboring locals.
As for your early encounters, you’ll use them to build suspense. There’s traveling and discovery. Any of the region’s rats, bats, and wolves could be doing the vampire’s bidding. And as you enter the lair, there’s the threat of combat. You’re likely to find the vampire’s lair as creepy as any place you can imagine, marked by faded luxury or desecrated holy symbols, and you’ll likely run into one or two nasty encounters with the vampire’s feral spawn.
Finally, you have the vampire—powerful, intelligent, charismatic and utterly corrupted by its dark desires. With its legendary actions, the vampire can be a potent combatant, but the most terrifying thing the vampire can do is thwart your players’ expectations, win their sympathies, play to their darkest desires, and win their trust for a short time—only to turn one or more of them into vampires as well.
2. Mind Flayer
Ask nearly anyone who’s played Dungeons & Dragons in any edition what they think are the scariest monsters, and you’re almost certain to hear the mind flayer listed near the top over and over again.
Why is this? Because mind flayers lurk in the Underdark, already one of the creepiest places to explore, their appearance is disturbingly alien, and a single mind flayer can easily dispatch an entire band of unwary adventurers.
Also known as illithids, mind flayers are terrifying, highly intelligent psionic creatures with octopus-like heads above their humanoid bodies. Four long tentacles snake downward from either side of the creature’s jaws, and they use these tentacles to hold their incapacitated victims’ heads in place as they extract their brains, which they then devour or use in their depraved experiments.
Of course, this raises the matter of the mind flayer’s ability to incapacitate its foes. Here, the mind flayer isn’t physically intimidating, but its powerful Mind Blast more than makes up for any physical limitations. Fueled by the hormones, enzymes and psychic energy it consumes from the brains of other creatures’ this powerful emission of raw psychic energy can both damage and stun the flayer’s prey. And since stunned targets are considered incapacitated, the instant you fail to save against a mind flayer’s Mind Blast may be the last instant you ever had a brain…
Nothing says scary quite like “undead.” In fact, we could have filled this list with scary undead, but we wanted to acknowledge all the other great Dungeons & Dragons monsters and their terrifying potential. Simultaneously, nothing says Dungeons & Dragons quite like “dragon,” and that brings us to our number one selection—the undead dragon, the dracolich!
The only thing scarier than having to confront a dragon in its lair and to have to contend with its punishing blend of claws, fangs, and breath weapon is to find that dragon’s rotted skin clamped tight around an empty ribcage and to find pinpricks of cold light emanating from its empty eye sockets. It should come as no surprise that the dracolich’s fearful presence is harder to resist than that of its living counterpart!
And just as every good scary adventure should utilize suspense and plot twists as it builds toward its final reveal, the dracolich allows for one of the most terrifying twists you can introduce—after the heroes return to their normal business, having just barely survived their encounter with the dracolich, they can learn the foe they thought they had defeated has returned, having possessed another dragon’s corpse, a stronger one, and that the dracolich now has no more pressing task than to plot their ultimate downfall…
Take something that combines the vengeful cruelty of an evil mastermind with the best of the game’s namesake dragons and the foul taint of undeath? That’s the dracolich—a monster seemingly destined to play the starring role in your scariest quests!