Part Dungeon Master creativity, part player buy-in, exciting D&D encounters with big monsters in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons have a lot of moving parts to consider. Whether a low level party needs to deal with an awakened tree situation, or a group of characters at the pinnacle of their adventuring careers take on the tarrasque — or Tiamat herself — there’s more to consider than hit points and armor class. Adventuring ain’t easy, and anything from a pack of goblin bandits all the way up to Acererak itself are dangerous foes. But when huge and gangantuan sized D&D creatures squares off against the party, the threat escalates by orders of magnitude. A clever DM looks beyond the stat block, and collaborates with the players to create an immersive and memorable experience.
Big monsters have big monster energy
Big monsters have little to fear in the dangerous world they live in. Even the lowest CR gargantuan creature, a brontosaurus with 2 Intelligence, “is large enough that most predators leave it alone.” Creatures and characters in our D&D worlds don’t have access to the Monster Manual, so they can’t look at a list of stats and think a giant is nothing but a sack of hit points or a tarrasque can simply be kited by a flying archer.
As a DM it pays to put some forethought into an encounter with huge and gargantuan sized D&D creatures, both from a narrative and mechanical perspective. Big monsters are big, and they know it. They’re going to bring their size and strength to bear against opponents. Barring a few outliers, the baseline Strength for huge and gargantuan sized D&D creatures is 19, with many much higher. Looking beyond the stat block, thinking about what an enormous and strong creature might do, and digging around our D&D books illuminates a few options outside of the attack Actions given in the Monster Manual.
- In the chapter 9 in the Dungeon Master’s Guide describes the Overrun and Shove Aside combat Actions
- The Shove Action can knock an opponent prone
- In Appendix C of Storm King’s Thunder, the New Giant Options can be added to other huge and gargantuan sized D&D creatures
- Fling lets a creature hurl a Small or Medium creature up to 60 feet!
- Thunderous Stomp is an area of effect that does damage and deafens creatures
- Huge and gargantuan sized D&D creatures can provide cover for allies
- High Strength scores means better chances at grappling
- Walking Statues of Waterdeep in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist crumble and fall to the ground in pieces, potentially dealing serious damage to those nearby, an effect that could easily be applied to any enormous creature
- Several big monsters have the Siege Monster trait, and with a bit of creative thinking this means damaged structures could rain debris down on nearby characters and creatures or cause difficult terrain
Huge and gargantuan sized D&D creatures are larger than life — and they know it. They’re typically going to dominate whatever area they live in, as smaller creatures would naturally be frightened of these big monsters. When it comes to facing smaller foes, they likewise aren’t looking at character sheets and stat blocks and instead will likely assume pesky adventurers can be swatted down.
In this regard, maybe big monster energy isn’t exactly appropriate across the board. Giants and especially dragons are brimming with self-confidence, but they can also be very arrogant. Perhaps a kraken is the epitome of big monster energy. Ancient titans, krakens don’t need to lord it over others who powerful they are. Instead, their mere existence is enough to terrify others.
Player buy-in makes or breaks big monsters
Right from the get-go, perhaps the biggest challenge for DMs running big monsters is creating an immersive experience for the players. At the same time it’s one of the best opportunities for everyone at the table to collaborate. With vivid description, a DM can set the stage for exciting D&D encounters, drawing the players in so it’s the situation — not the stat block — providing the tension.
I recently ran a condensed version of White Plume Mountain inside Tales from the Yawning Portal. The characters chose to pursue the path of Wave, a legendary magic item, and wound up in the Boiling Lake. They were careful to examine the chamber as best they could before stepping inside. Walking into what is essentially a massive boiling pot of water, with a bubble of air and unknown force keeping the chamber from filling with scalding liquid, had them on high alert. But they could see a treasure pile across the wave, and even spotted the object of their search sticking out from the pile of gold and gems.When I ran this adventure, the giant crab was hidden beneath the ground, with the treasure on top. They knew something dangerous awaited. Clever use of ball bearings made the giant crab show its hand, err…claw…and none of them were too keen on tussling with a creature with a claw that big. But they had to get that sentient trident!
Like all the best laid plans, it didn’t go quite as imagined. But they did okay overall. After they hashed out what they planned to do, we rolled initiative to determine how things would play out. I was happy that my giant crab rolled fairly high. It was perfect in fact. The plan was for the monk to carefully creep in, grab Wave, and Step of the Wind out of there. But the crab had the highest initiative so it held it’s action.
The monk rolled great on Dexterity (Stealth). But not so great on Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) to yank the trident. Next thing you know, the huge crustacean burst up out of the ground with the treasure — and the monk — on its back! The monk spent the entire battle up there, alternatively trying to keep his balance and grab Wave. The party’s Battle Master charged in and succeeded on chopping off one of the crab’s legs with an epic attack, but it caused the crab to pitch forward and nearly fling the monk off. He did take a bit of fire damage by acrobatically using the wall of boiling water for a bit of parkour though.
While the Thief rogue and Eldritch Knight fighter provided support fire from a safe distance, the Battle Master was grappled in the giant crab claw and smacked into the boiling water wall (ouch!) but freed himself with his Disarm maneuver. The player asked if he could “disarm” the crab of himself, and I felt the rule of cool applied there.
They eventually defeated the giant crab, and before they could harvest what would be a gold mine for AYCE crab leg night, the bubble began to burst. Fortunately, one of them grabbed onto Wave and used the cube of force power to protect themselves. They were ejected from White Plume Mountain in the waterspout and took a rough tumble down the mountainside but survived. And lucky for them, the cube of force contained the treasure pile too.
The point of this story is to illustrate how big monsters can affect gameplay beyond the stat block. As it is presented in White Plume Mountain, this creature is not a party killer. It’s armor class isn’t super high and it only has one attack. But because it’s in a dangerous environment and is so big, the players were wary and their characters were even moreso. Maybe I am simply fortunate to have really engaged players, or perhaps it speaks to my DM style (I’d like to think so at least partly) but they take every combat encounter like a life-and-death situation. From the random encounter with an invisible stalker earlier in the night to the showdown with a huge giant crab, there’s a little of all three pillars in every fight.
With the giant crab, by painting the picture and inviting them to run with it too, a kind of silly fight against a huge crustacean inside a boiling pot of water became a memorable moment in their adventuring careers. This was not the giant crab’s first go around with adventurers, and it used the environment to its advantage by positioning itself exactly where the adventurers needed to go (the treasure) and using the dangerous boiling water wall against them with its size and strength.
Even beasts and monstrosities without high Intelligence can be cunning, and sometimes more dangerous than smarter creatures. Remorhazes, purple worms, and giant constrictor snakes are predators who live or die by their ability to survive and thrive in their natural environments. They know the lay of the land and their own capabilities, and they’ll use every advantage they can against opponents. So when they’re three, four, five or ten times the size of whatever creature they’re facing, these big monsters will bring their big monster energy to bear.
And that’s scary for any adventurer.
But what about you? Do you love using huge and gargantuan sized D&D creatures in your games? Do you have any tips, tricks or suggestions on ways to make them more effective and terrifying? Any awesome stories to share of taking on big monsters in exciting D&D encounters? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!
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