Every roleplaying campaign is in need of a dynamic antagonist; a puppet-master, psychopath, or tyrant that wreaks havoc as the heroes attempt to complete their journey. This villain can take the form of a treacherous God, a mad arch-mage, or a brutal criminal overlord, but the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons are also populated by more monstrous adversaries. Hidden beneath and beyond the earth, there are horrors that scheme and plan; to conquer, to dominate and to enslave. These figures can serve as permanent enemies in a campaign that lasts for years or temporary obstacles until the true mastermind reveals his face.
The Fifth Edition Monster Manual is filled to the brim with savage beasts of every stripe. But with such an enormous selection comes the anxiety of choosing the right nemesis for the story you’re trying to tell. It’s easy to suffer from a fiendish overload. Thus, we’ve collected some of our favorite monstrous scoundrels from the D&D universe: “boss” characters with interesting plot potential that we think could enhance your game.
We purposefully left dragons off of this list because they’re so iconic. Every player is bound to run into a scaly chromatic fire-breather at some point in his roleplaying career. Instead, we selected a mix of tried-and-true favorites and under-the-radar classics.
Orog (CR2, p. 247)
Orcs are often portrayed as dumb brutes, massive humanoids that think we’re their fists and mindlessly worship the savage god Gruumsh. This is largely a misconception. An Orog is a sub-set of the orc species and is superior in both size and intellect. With their deceivingly strategic minds, Orogs often serve as warband chieftains or frontline soldiers; quickly dominating their common brethren.
Players might encounter an Orog early on in their campaign, mistaking it for a normal orc before suffering at the hands of its clever tactics. These creatures could lead an independent mercenary group hired to kill the adventurers or serve as Generals in a monstrous horde coming to invade civilized lands. Their physical might could even attract the allegiance of other bestial tribes: goblins, lizardfolk, or gnolls; allowing for a more diverse set of potential enemies during combat. Orogs are huge threats to newly created characters and if used appropriately, could easily become interesting figureheads for low-level quests.
Night Hag (CR5, p. 178)
Some creatures are less concerned with conquering the mortal world than seeing its righteous denizens corrupted. Night Hags revel in the downfall of moral beings, plaguing their dreams to insist that they commit acts of heinous evil. As the hag wears down the resolve of the hero, it can kill them in their sleep and transport them to a land of horrors and mayhem. Players might never encounter the physical embodiment of a Night Hag and thus be forced to confront her in the ethereal realm of dreams – where their real-world strengths may not be an advantage.
Night Hags represent a true psychological threat to a party’s characters. A lawful-good paladin could be temporarily transformed into a raving madman. A wizard could turn his magic against those he cares for most. A warlock might be tricked into changing his patron. This is a monster that destroys the foundation of morality that drives many D&D characters, providing harrowing moments of inter-party conflict and a defined goal of overcoming her temptations. Her flavor text is thick with inspiring details and though a single Night Hag might not be capable of decimating an entire city or world; their assault on the characters can become deeply personal. This is often a more interesting option than some far away tyrant who won’t be revealed until the players reach epic tier.
Cambion (CR5, p. 36)
Half-human and half-fiend, a Cambion’s heart beats with the evil of its Devilish parentage. Struck at a young age with a deranged superiority complex and a perverse desire to rule over mortal beings, Cambions often use their human intelligence to strategize and scheme; but are entirely capable of resorting to acts of violence to achieve their endgame. This goal could range from a small scale takeover of a local gang to a grand plan to ascend the ranks of the demonic armies of the Abyss.
Cambions are a versatile enemy that can provide a striking presence in an otherwise stereotypical role. Their horrifying visage would likely lead them to hide from society-at-large; but this secretive nature is perfect for a shadowy crimelord, a manipulative bureaucrat or a brutal serial killer. With a propensity for escalating cruelty, Cambions never learn from their behavior and will not quit, even in the face of heroic adventurers. Above all, they want to impress their parents, and this dedication to malice makes them perfect adversaries as players start to explore greater powers.
Mind Flayer (CR7, p. 222)
Aberrant monsters are particularly useful because their origins and motivations are a complete mystery. As a blank slate, the Dungeon Master can use them to explore ideas that might fall outside the range of traditional fantasy: Lovecraftian horror, alien invasions, and psychic trauma. Mind Flayers, or Illithids, are perhaps my personal favorite aberration. Their bulbous, tentacled heads and hunger for gray matter make them especially horrifying opponents; but it’s the alien justification for their atrocious experiments that compels the attention of players.
Mind Flayers are deadly and manipulative, leaving a wake of destruction as they travel through inter-dimensional portals. Few have witnessed Illithid society and lived, so the structure of their civilization is largely the purview of individual DMs. A single mind flayer, a psychic puppet-master controlling legions of thralls, is a valid reason for a mid-level party to run-and-hide; but a large group represents a nigh impossible obstacle. Entire campaigns can be built around the open mythology of the Illithids, reveling in the strangeness and body horror of these sentient invertebrates.
Efreeti (CR11, p. 145)
The pop cultural representation of the genie is often a friendly servant whom happily delivers three wishes to the person who releases him from an extra-dimensional prison, often inside a lamp. By contrast, the djinn of Dungeons & Dragons are mischievous – sometimes malevolent – creatures that loathe any mortal who would force them into servitude. Amidst the Elemental Planes, they are rulers and kings; so to lower themselves into the submission of others is considered an untenable humiliation.
The Efreeti are beings of pure fire. The seething hatred they feel toward their captors is potent and unyielding. If they have succumbed to the domination of a mortal, they will hunt him until their vengeance can be quenched. This could be incredibly interesting in-game, because a character could discover the efreet in some piece of hidden treasure and excitedly ask to receive his wishes; not knowing the kind of punishment that will result from such an action. The efreet could then escape from captivity to seek retribution or to lead an army of flame to conquer the Material Plane. Using the players preconceived notions could bring some entertaining surprise and shock to the table, as they learn the true consequences of dealing with a djinn.
Beholder (CR13, p. 28)
Tyrants of the Underdark, Beholders are iconic D&D adversaries on par with dragons. Consumed with an otherworldly hatred for everyone and everything, these creatures are intensely domineering and xenophobic. This malice is acutely portrayed in their appearance: a floating sphere with a single massive eyeball, a maw of jagged teeth, and a crown of snaking eye stalks. Forced into seclusion because of their horrifying visage, Beholders dwell in subterranean ruins and caves where they seduce mortals with false promises or simply beat them into submission with their magical might.
Ultimately, I find Beholders to be more interesting mechanically than narratively. The bursts of arcane energy that blast from their eye stalks can be truly devastating to an adventuring party; leading to a tense encounter that won’t soon be forgotten. As such, Beholders are more interesting in combat and it might behoove the Dungeon Master to keep their identity a secret until the final confrontation. Perhaps the Elven king is just a pawn in the eye tyrant’s scheme to conquer a nation, perhaps the Doppelganger crimelord is only a front for his aberrant master. There are plenty of ways to implement a Beholder into your campaign and the final battle will be the kind of harrowing experience that permanently affects the player’s characters.
Mummy Lord (CR15, p. 229)
Trapped for centuries inside long-lost tombs, mummies are undead beings infused with a necromantic magic that awakens them when their home is disturbed. Many of these creatures are merely guardians of the treasures that lay within these ancient crypts, but occasionally the body of an oppressive monarch is mummified and allowed to keep its living memories and personality. These Mummy Lords are driven by the obsessive desire to resurrect their primeval empires; and once they escape their unholy bounds, are capable of leading legions of undead servants into battle. Mummy Lords are excellent “call-back” enemies: having players unknowingly release them early on in a campaign, only to be revealed as the true threat in higher levels.
Not every Mummy Lord has to be inspired by Egyptian mythology. In Dungeons & Dragons, the mummification ritual can be as common or uncommon as the DM decides. A Dwarven Mummy Lord might be revered as a hero in history, but unveil his true savagery when he’s returned to life. An Orcish commander might take up his old sword against the civilization that decimated his people. Regardless, Mummy’s offer an excellent chance to instill your world with an active past, making its lore more relevant to your players.
Death Knight (CR17, p. 47)
Death Knights are terrifying mirror images of the player’s characters. They were once paladins who stood for the very virtues that the heroes of the campaign seek to protect; but having fallen to their darker impulses, have been transformed into hateful undead creatures of untold power. They cannot be destroyed by mundane means. Only by redeeming themselves from their corrupt ways can a Death Knight return to eternal rest. As such, these are essentially immortal beings that can hunt adventurers indefinitely, testing the martial skills of the characters in battle.
These creatures aren’t necessarily consumed by the desire to rule. Instead, a Death Knight is often a General in the army of a greater fiend or undead; perfect for the role of “sub-boss” late in a campaign. They are loyal servants and will fulfill their brutal duties without question. However, Death Knight’s do provide an interesting opportunity for complex moral storytelling, as players hope to be able to coax them into redemption. This is the only way to stop their deadly assaults and a nearly impossible task that, if successful, could be amongst a party’s greatest achievements.
Lich (CR21, p. 202)
Few beings are more rightfully feared and loathed than the Lich, a self-obsessed wizard who uses powerful magic to maintain his life-force after death. Their skin and bones decay as their mind grows more insane with thoughts of arcane knowledge and total domination of the world around them. In order maintain its form, a Lich must house the souls of its victims inside of a phylactery; and it cannot be truly destroyed until the phylactery is removed from existence. This adds an interesting to layer to the players’ confrontation with a Lich, as they must discover the ritual or magic weapon that is capable of shattering the unholy container.
A Lich is manipulative and scheming, capable of using arcane energy to raise an army of undead warriors. It lives in isolation until it feels as though there is power to be grabbed; political or otherwise. Despite having the superior intellect of a talented mage, its actions can be erratic and frantic as its mental capacities fade into madness. Still, a Lich should not be underestimated. It will do anything to uncover the dark secrets of the universe, commiserating with evil Gods and hateful demons to achieve its aims. Centuries of learning allow it a control of magic that few mortals could ever hope to acquire and it battle they wield this knowledge with deadly accuracy. Once the player’s have reached the maximum level, they may finally be ready to take on the Lich that threatens the existence of their entire world.
Empyrean (CR23, p. 130)
When the gods of the universe mate with each other or with mortals, they birth beings of equal power and glory: Empyreans. These children evoke the same beauty and wonder as the gods themselves and often live amongst their families throughout the Outer Planes of existence. Like their divine parents, Empyreans are prone to impulsive emotional outbursts, often engaging in complicated political mechanisms to consolidate their power over a particularly. Some choose to reside on the Material Plane, wandering the natural world or serving as a philosopher king to a valiant nation. Others fall to the temptations of the Abyss or the Nine Hells.
Only a few Empyreans could be considered truly evil, but even those with the best of intentions may not be able to comprehend the consequences of their actions. The child of Bahamut might believe itself to be meting out necessary justice, when really it is terrorizing a nation with devastating and oppressive laws. However, Empyreans who are seduced by gods of chaos and shadow can be even more horrifying enemies; using their tremendous might to invoke their will. These beings are as complex and interesting in their motivations as any mortal, making them some of the most intriguing nemeses in Dungeons & Dragons.