Some monsters in the Monster Manual work better as social encounters or ongoing subplots. But which? If you ever feel like you want a break from all the combat, try one of these monsters in your next adventure. Why not bookmark this page for future reference?
Don’t get me wrong: an aboleth can be a really fun boss fight. But look carefully at that stat block. Aboleths can create an illusory image of themselves within a mile of their lair, they can learn a creature’s greatest desires without forcing a save, and they can ‘enslave’ enemies three times a day. Aboleths might not provide an ongoing conflict for multiple levels, but adventurers could feel their presence for at least a couple of sessions.
You can run arcanaloths as straight-up mage fights – but they have the potential to be so much more interesting. With alter self and Deception +11, they have the potential to be long-term opponents with significant social power. The Monster Manual describes them as ‘cunning diplomats and negotiators’: an evil vizier or cardinal, perhaps.
Yes, bandits don’t have to be low-level random encounters! I like Keith Ammann’s idea that bandits should only attack when they know they have strength of numbers and that they are primarily interested in extortion, not murder. An encounter with bandits should at least begin as a social encounter, even if negotiations eventually turn south.
OK, this is a bit of a catch-all category, but in the lore, devils are ‘dark dealers and soul mongers’ who love to strike bargains with mortals. Some of them have the social skills to back this up, like barbed devils, bone devils, and imps.
I really hope you’re not running doppelgangers as meaningless combat encounters, because if you are, you’re missing out. These changelings are fantastic in ongoing mystery adventures. They are deceptive, they can read thoughts, and they can transform into any small or medium humanoid. Endless fun!
First of all, faerie dragons are not evil. I’m not sure decent people go around kicking the tar out of them. They just want to have fun! And their stat block supports that: as they get older, they access to spells like hallucinatory terrain, minor illusion, polymorph, and suggestion. Hilarity ensues. Their regional effects are fun, too: ‘sapient creatures that spend a year within five miles of the faerie dragon’s lair feel the persistent urge to play pranks on others.’ Definitely not a normal combat encounter.
Not so much a social encounter as an exploration encounter. It took me a long time to properly read this stat block, and it’s a really fun monster: a fungal vestige of a beholder that adventurers might encounter in the Underdark. You want to shoot this down at a distance because the ‘Death Burst’ effect is . . . aptly named.
Dao, djinns, efreets, and marids have the (optional) ability to disguise themselves and grant wishes. Fun! My favourite genies in the 5th edition are probably the ones in Dungeon of the Mad Mage. If you haven’t got to that level yet, you’re in for a treat.
Unlike ghouls and zombies, these undead have more of a story behind them: ‘unfinished business.’ It would be a shame to treat them as little more than wraiths.
Hags are all about manipulation. Green hags are obsessed with tragedy and want to see hope turn to despair. Sea hags are ugly wretches that hate beauty. Night hags are not fey but fiends, haunting you in your nightmares with dreadful visions, each one bringing you closer to death.
Incubi and succubi
These fiends are masters of corruption, seducing mortals with their beauty. Keith Ammann has an excellent breakdown of how to run these creatures.
Brain pups? They look kind of funny, but as body thieves they have the potential to be part of a much bigger mind flayer plot. Detect sentience is an extremely powerful ability: there’s no way of sneaking up on an intellect devourer.
Disguise self, major image, charm person, geas: these spells suggest a creature who wants to manipulate, not fight. According to the Monster Manual, they are decadent tyrants who surround themselves with sycophants. I see them more as NPCs than ‘monsters’.
Brass, bronze, copper, gold, and silver dragons all gain the ability to change shape (although the ability doesn’t come online for brass and copper dragons until they are ancient, an there seem to be few examples of polymorphed brass and copper dragons in the established lore). This means that almost any animalhumanoid NPC could in fact be a metallic dragon in disguise. Bronze dragons like to turn into small, friendly animals to observe adventurers. Gold dragons prefer the form of domestic animals like dogs, cats, and horses, swift animals like eagles, or nondescript humans like pedlars. Silver dragons prefer the form of a kindly old sage or a young wanderer.
In my head, these are still ‘ogre mages’. Oni to me are a Japanese demon. Whatever you call them, they are horrifying bogeymen who pass through towns in disguise and . . . eat babies by night. Pretty dark stuff.
This is one bad kitty. Horrible fiends who live in disguise and manipulate from the shadows. A particularly fun detail is this: ‘When the rakshasa is reborn, it has all the memories and knowledge of its former life, and it seeks retribution against the one who slew it. If the target has somehow slipped through its grasp, the rakshasa might punish its killer’s family, friends, or descendants.’ So, a rakshasa might pursue a character because their grandparents sent it back to the Nine Hells. Talk about holding a grudge.
As the name implies, a revenant cannot truly ‘die’: they will keep coming back to complete their task. However, they do have a time limit for this: one year. It hungers for revenge and stops at nothing until it has killed its adversaries.
Like the gas spore, this is more of an exploration encounter. These mushrooms can cause all sorts of problems if you set them off.
I’m going to confess something: I’ve never liked slaadi. Like yugoloths, it feels like they were created to fill a space in the alignment chart. They’re massive toad-people, and I don’t really understand what motivates them. Does anyone agree with me? Anyway, if you want to run them, grey, green, and death slaadi have the ability to change shape. Why? To ‘sow discord in the guise of their former selves.’ If this excites you, go nuts.
Sphinxes are inscrutable sages and guardians who test adventurers in return for knowledge (legend lore) or a heroes’ feast. They can be fought, but wouldn’t this monster be more interesting as a social encounter?
Until I6: Ravenloft, vampires were often seen as just another breed of undead. Like ghosts, though, vampires demand a story of some kind. Their powerful abilities make an ongoing threat.
Bonus: any humanoid!
At the risk of being a total fanboy (this is the third time I’ve mentioned him in this post, and I’m very conscious of that), Keith Ammann has a great article called ‘What Monsters Want’. For me, humanoids are the most interesting. Unlike celestials and fiends, they are not concerned with some kind of cosmic order, and unlike undead, they are not driven by compulsion. Humanoids have goals – and they are mortal. In an interesting campaign world, this means any humanoid encounter is potentially a social one. Try to look for opportunities to embrace this.
What are your favourite non-combat encounters? Have I missed any off this list? Let me know in the comments below.
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2 thoughts on “The Best Non-Combat Monsters”
I love the nuances of this particular topic. I started gaming in the early D&D days (before AD&D which is now 1e), and my group of friends favored adventures containing a mix of puzzles, traps, combat, mystery, and social interactions that compelled team interaction, negotiations, planning, strategy, tactics, role playing, and improv. Don’t get me wrong – combat was generally a fun highlight – but we also enjoyed working around obstacles or turning things to our advantage in clever ways. We also encouraged unorthodox use of magic, such as a Wall of Force positioned horizontally to serve as an invisible bridge. All of these aspects raise an adventure above the run of the mill hack and slash.
To get back to the main topic, social interactions with intelligent or semi-intelligent creatures were opportunities for us to have more fun. And even non-sentient creatures were often given behavioral options other than just being instinctively aggressive killing machines. They could employ stealth, cunning and patience in the hunt and exhibit anger, fear, and other emotions, including looking for escape for self-preservation.
I am currently writing a quest involving a Bahlannoth. They are pretty cool too