Top Ten D&D Monstrous Humanoids
The gift that keeps on giving! Nord Games’ Ultimate Bestiary: Revenge of the Horde inspired not one but TWO videos on the Nerdarchy YouTube channel, plus a review here on the website. And now its generating another post.
In the video above, Nerdarchists Dave and Ted and Nate the Nerdarch talk about their favorite monstrous humanoids in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. They each choose two, discuss the appeal and explore a bit why and how they’ve used them in games, either as player characters or as a Dungeon Master.
It’s worth noting that there is no official “monstrous humanoid” designation in D&D. There’s just straight-up humanoids. Many of them are most certainly monstrous though! Also, despite appearing in the Revenge of the Horde book, ogres and trolls are not humanoids – they’re giants. But in defense of the book, there is no claim made limiting the creature types to humanoids, simply “classic monstrous races.”
And minotaurs are monstrosities.
According to the current D&D Beyond monster database containing material up to and including Tales from the Yawning Portal, there are 231 humanoids in official D&D content. Many are individuals from various adventures and campaigns like Pharblex Spattergoo, an NPC from Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Aside from official sources, there’s plenty of third-party material like the Ultimate Bestiary.
For the purposes of this post the parameters will be official D&D source material. The door will be left open to all humanoids. There’s no clear cut way to distinguish what makes a monstrous humanoid in D&D terms. So I’ll go with the dictionary definition.
Having the ugly or frightening appearance of a monster. Inhumanly or outrageously evil or wrong.
But what is this post? I’m happy you asked.
Top 5 favorite monstrous humanoids
Presented in no particular order, these are the creatures I’ve most enjoyed playing with in D&D, mostly as a DM. Like the guys in the video, there’s what I enjoy about them, and maybe a little nugget of insight you can use in your own D&D games.
Cultist/Cult FanaticFalling into the “inhumanly or outrageously evil or wrong” category, cultists have long been a favorite humanoid. I consider it a triumph as a DM that my players hate cultists so much. Difficult to charm or frighten, wild-eyed and robed humanoids devoted to dark powers can pop up anywhere. The cult fanatic has the added benefit of spellcasting.
The chassis for either of these antagonists is profoundly simple, so changing them up for flavor is easy, too. Give a cult fanatic a different spell selection to reflect their particular madness, or switch the garden variety cultist’s scimitar for another weapon. Want to get really crazy? Dig up a copy of Dragon Magazine #296 for the article on monster cultists. Sphere minions, illithidkin, snake savants and wakers of the beast are cultists so devoted to beholders, mind flayers, medusae and the dread tarrasque that they start to mutate into weird versions of them!
Once your players develop a powerful hatred of cultists, and stumble upon a gathering of them with intent to unload their frustration…drive them nuts by making those robed figures a bunch of empty cloaks from Tome of Beasts instead. Cultists are the kind of faceless hordes that just don’t quit. Even if the characters wipe out a cult, there’s so many others out there.
It was love at first sight for these small monstrous humanoids from Volo’s Guide to Monsters. They look so cute! And then you read more about them and discover how gonzo these amphibious creatures can be. They’re slavers, they’re poisonous and they’re evil.
D&D Product Manager Christopher Lindsay ran a wonderful game during the Stream of Annihilation where the party all played as grung characters. Inspired by that I ran a one-shot for my group and one player’s 12-year-old son where they all played as grung. I did some fiddling to give each of them a class ability to diversify them a bit, and each player ran two grung characters. It was incredible. And also mind-boggling how much chaos they caused with their inherent poison.
As a player I would be terrified to encounter a group of hostile grung. These little fellers are about to get a major boost in the D&D community, too. Grung are included in the upcoming Tomb of Annihilation as a playable PC race! Building up to that release, fans can watch the ongoing adventures of Le Pad on Maze Arcana: Fury’s Reach at the D&D Twitch channel.
My appreciation for these aquatic menaces stems from years and years of playing Dungeons & Dragons Online, a terrific MMO set in Eberron (later updates added Forgotten Realms content too). The vicious shark people are awesome.
Sahuagin make great foes for low-level adventurers, giving a DM opportunities to add underwater elements right off the bat in the party’s earliest adventures. Like the sharks they can telepathically command, sahuagin have cold, emotionless eyes and a thirst for blood that drives them into a frenzy. If you’re looking for something different than the usual goblins and kobolds that confront adventurers so frequently when starting their careers, consider the sahuagin as an alternative.
As a bonus, they offer a way to try something different than the stereotypical pastoral setting of many beginning quests. Start your next campaign near the coast, or better yet on an island. Sahuagin can remain viable threats well into a party’s career too. Beef up the sahugain baron. Add more spells to the sahuagin priestess’ spell selection. Mash ’em up with a kraken priest from Volo’s Guide to Monsters. Once the sahuagin get a taste of the party’s blood, they’ll hunt them forever. And who knows how vast their undersea kingdoms are? The devils of the deep are devoid of compassion and ready to make a splash in your D&D campaign.
The snake people are just creepy. Everything about them is weird and frightening. With a wide range of CRs to begin with, an entire long campaign can find these monstrous humanoids at the center of it. Packed with flavor and lore, yuan-ti are so sophisticated and often operate right under the noses of civilized societies.
According to at least one YouTuber, yuan-ti are perhaps the sexiest monstrous humanoid. They do a wonderful job describing the possibilties. They also bring up another fantastic way to consider implementing yuan-ti in your D&D game. It involves a certain ruthless, terrorist organization determined to rule the world.
Cold-hearted idol worshippers, yuan-ti might set up shop in a desert, swamp or jungle. Their grand plans grow and spread from there, drawing other creatures with lies and deception to play a part in their dark designs. Like all the best villainous threats, their goals are straightforward – supplant all other races and dominate the entire world.
Before going any further, it’s “dwar-gar.” I don’t care how Matt Mercer officially pronounces it. Duergar toil tirelessly beneath the earth, building and crafting like their dwarven counterparts but deriving no joy or pride from these accomplishments. In fact they can’t even fathom what it means to be happy or proud.
Like many Underdark races, the dark dwarves are slavers. Once the slaves of mind flayers themselves, after freeing themselves they adopted a tyrannical disposition. They are treacherous, tough and suspicious of everyone and everything.
What I like most about duergar, though, is their magical nature. The Underdark is suffused with all sorts of strange radiations and emanations, and the duergar have been affected permanently by it. Now all duergar have the ability to increase their size and turn invisible. Playing around with weird underground energies and the duergar relationship to it is a lot of fun. The players at my table take extra caution whenever duergar are involved. They’ve risked madness and wild magic more than once in subterranean duergar regions.
One of our campaign’s most memorable NPCs is a duergar, too. To playtest the Path of the Azure barbarian Primal Path, a duergar felt like a natural choice. He shows up now and again to subvert player expectations about duergar. The D&D Out of the Abyss campaign also features duergar pretty prominently, with the well-developed city of Gracklstugh promising lots of adventure.
Another DDO mainstay, gnolls are feral savages who relish the pain and torment of slaughter. What i dig about gnolls is that they’re not just another anthropomorphic humanoid animal. In the case of these hyena-men, they’re actually demonic in origin. So whereas orcs or other savage monstrous humanoids in D&D might worship dark deities and so forth, gnolls have a much more visceral connection to evil.
Adventurers should never have any moral quandaries about battling gnolls. They’re thoroughly evil by their nature. If gnolls become a presence in the region, no good can come of it. In the Monster Manual it describes their nomadic lifestyle and how they roam the wilderness scavenging and pillaging. But I like to imagine there are gnoll strongholds out there in the wastes.
DDO does a great job of showing different varieties of gnolls and one of my favorites is the Firebrand. They are a desert-dwelling tribe centered around the themes of fire and slavery, with an enormous mountain stronghold called the Burning City where they use evil magic and efreet allies to seize slaves and work them to death – or eat them alive. Carrying these concepts over to D&D makes it fun as a DM to take creatures from the books at give them little changes that can really create distinct encounters. Describing Firebrand gnolls as having ash-blackened fur and wearing fiery red armor, perhaps led by a pack lord wielding a flaming sword, puts a different twist on these creatures. Pyromantic gnoll shamans would add another level of danger. If deserts aren’t your thing, give them a volcano stronghold.
DrowIs it a standard playable races? A monstrous humanoid threat? Long before the legendary Drizzt Do’Urden captivated readers all over the world, Don Turnbull’s depiction of the drow from the Fiend Folio captured my imagination. Previously only a short entry under “Elf” in the Monster Manual, that image instilled a lifelong love of these dark fey entities.
Like duergar, drow evoke powerful themes of strange subterranean magics and dangerous environments. Since those early days of D&D the drow have evolved into a highly complex race of monstrous humanoids. An entire culture has emerged and with it endless possibilities for D&D adventure. Merely hints of drow in a campaign are enough to set adventurers on edge.
Over time, it’s been really cool to watch their popularity grow and find their way to acceptance as a playable race. Drow have been an option since 2nd edition but really have come into their own now as the player base has evolved. Despite a natural tendency toward evil, with a culture thoroughly steeped in cruelty, it’s not terribly difficult to imagine drow who don’t jive with the way things are. One of my favorite characters of all time to play is a drow wizard and he’s not at all like a textbook version of the monstrous variety of dark elves.
Including drow in a campaign opens the door to intrigue and complex machinations for the DM to weave. Confronting highly intelligent adversaries like the drow, especially when it involves travelling to an alien environment like the Underdark, makes for legendary D&D adventures.
When you need monstrous humanoid foes that don’t require thought-out plans and schemes, goblins are my favorite go-to creatures. They can be found anywhere and their motivations are simple. At the same time, a goblin threat can quickly escalate out of control. In larger numbers goblins suddenly aren’t a simple problem anymore. And because they follow the strongest, it’s not hard to punch up the danger by having more powerful creatures commanding them.
In all my D&D games, goblins are the preferred small monstrous humanoid whenever the occasion arises. I straight-up hate kobolds and avoid using them as much as possible, so goblins get a lot of mileage from me. They’re sneaky and mean and just as likely to be found out in the wilds as in the filthy alleys and sewers of a large city.
WereratOf all the lycanthropes, wererats are my favorite. I’ll make an exception for the wereshark lurking in my ongoing Spelljammer campaign, but the players haven’t encountered it yet so I haven’t had a chance to explore it much. Wererats have always seemed to be lycanthropes who most enjoy the curse. They form clans and guilds and go out of their way to find suitable creatures to infect with the curse.
Wererats seem most able to hide in plain sight. They’re not huge and could conceal their nature even in hybrid form fairly easily.
My interest in wererats goes back to The Swords of Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber. Detailing the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the plot involves intelligent rats besieging the city and the Gray Mouser is magically shrunk to rat size in order to infiltrate and discover their plans.
Wererats make for incredible antagonists for an urban D&D game. Scurrying about the sewers, plotting nefarious schemes throughout a large fantasy city and slowing growing in power under the nose of society makes for some compelling stories.
Hey, centaurs are monstrosities, not monstrous humanoids! You’re absolutely right, but if the Nerdarchists can do it, so can I. Centaurs have long been favorite creatures of mine. The visual look of them is cool and they’re adaptable to different situations.
With close ties to the natural world, centaurs can be nomads who live off the land and protect those traveling through it. But I also like the idea of centaurs who might settle an area, even if it remains reclusive.
Maybe centaurs in your D&D world are created through magic like they are in mine. A nomadic culture of horsemen roam a large swath of land around a volcano they believe their god slumbers in. Making a pilgrimage to the top is a rite of passage and a chosen few are transformed by weird energies there into centaurs.
And who doesn’t think the concept of a centaur knight is cool?
What about you – what are your favorite monstrous humanoids in D&D? Share your favorites in the comments below!
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