According to Appendix A of the 2014 Dungeon Master’s Guide, around half of the chambers in a given dungeon will be inhabited by ‘monsters’, and of these, around a third will be the dungeon’s ‘dominant inhabitants.’
My question: who are these dominant inhabitants?
For the purposes of this article, I am thinking mostly about humanoids. Undead can sometimes fill this role, as can giants or fiends at higher levels, but as intelligent, social creatures that work in big groups, humanoids are probably our go-to. Occasionally there might be exceptions like grells or cloakers, but hey, it’s my blog, my rules, so there.
I’m also thinking about three other factors: challenge, location, and lore.
- Challenge, because you neither want a pushover nor a total defeat. This is arbitrary, but I’m largely thinking about encounters which a) have around three to twelve bad guys, and b) are mostly of ‘medium’ difficulty.
- Location, because we’re talking dungeons, so primarily underground and self-contained. If a creature doesn’t make sense in this sort of environment, it’s probably not going to appear on this list.
- Lore, because D&D is a 49-year-old game with multiple editions to draw upon. If grimlocks are found with mind flayers and githyanki with red dragons, I want to incorporate that somehow. I’m also sticking exclusively to the 2014 Monster Manual, because 450 monsters is enough, and if I included all the other sourcebooks and supplements, I’d have nearly two thousand to consider. No thanks.
So here’s the listicle: dungeon inhabitants I would choose for every level of the game. Bookmark this next time you’re cooking up a site-based adventure!
This is the most delicate level of the game. Characters can die really easily here. Even a pack of giant rats can be lethal. I recommend: bandits, cultists, and kobolds.
Characters are still pretty fragile here. The 1st-level suggestions (above) are still valid, but you might start to include mindless undead like skeletons and zombies. I would save drow and goblins for higher levels: drow because their leaders tend to be a serious threat, and goblins because they work best in large numbers.
The 1st level suggestions are starting to feel too easy. Goblins feel perfect here, and patrols of drow pose a nice threat so long as you don’t bring in the mages, priestesses, and elite warriors. Yuan-ti purebloods might appear in small groups here, but once yuan-ti malisons and yuan-ti abominations start getting involved, I’m thinking something a much higher level (minimum 15th).
In the lore, hobgoblins are usually depicted as conquerors marching across the borderlands, but they can make sense as dungeon-occupiers, too, and fit perfectly at this level. Goblins, skeletons, and zombies still work well here, as could a large squad of troglodytes, perhaps with giant lizards in tow. In smaller groups, ogres can work from this level until mid Tier 2.
Want to mix things up? Run a magmin dungeon! In groups of six to ten, they could be a good challenge between now and 6th level.
There’s a big power jump at this level, which represents the start of Tier 2. Creatures of CR ¼ are easy even in large groups. Hobgoblins remain a good challenge, and I would also recommend kuo-toa at this level.
I think of gnolls as nomadic marauders, but in large bands they would be a good fit at this level. Hobgoblins and kuo-toa still work well here,
This is probably where I would start to include large squads of orcs. The 3.5 Monster Manual recommended groups of 11–20, and groups of this size remain a good challenge even up to level 11 or so. Small patrols of grells start to work at this level, and I would also run large packs of ghouls at this level and above.
This is the level where I would consider introducing duergar in large groups. They make a good dungeon adversary even in early Tier 3. I probably wouldn’t use ogres much beyond this level, but yetis might work if it’s a frozen location.
Gargoyles can work well in large groups, starting at this level. They can work as a challenge even into Tier 4. Otherwise: see previous.
I might start using larger bands of 11–20 bugbears at this level, and they ought to remain a reasonable challenge until the end of Tier 3. This is probably the last level where I would still use large packs of ghouls. For some reason, I’m not sure I see ettins ruling a whole dungeon, but this is about the right level for them – maybe up until 13th, 14th.
As we enter Tier 3, there’s another power jump (although not quite as pronounced as the leap from 4th into 5th). This is probably the last level where I would think about using orcs, even in large numbers. By 12th level, they’re just a bit easy. Bearded devils, however – the rank-and-file soldiers of the Nine Hells – yes, these work. Assuming your dungeon is some kind of desert tomb, lamias could work well throughout Tier 3.
One more idea for this level: small groups of chuuls, building up to an aboleth showdown at the end of Tier 3 (with chuuls accompanying them, of course).
Oh, and ever run a dungeon with roaming gangs of flesh golems? That could be fun. But not before this level, I reckon.
If you want to use intelligent undead as dungeon adversaries, wights work well in packs from this point and remain viable even in mid Tier 4. Ditto mummies. In smaller groups, wraiths are also a good choice from here on, as are vampire spawn. I’m not sure I would use duergar much beyond this point.
From this level onwards, you need at least 15 bugbears to create a ‘medium’ challenge, so you might be starting to phase them out. Grells, too, are probably reaching their use-by date.
Ever run a dungeon with cyclopes? A party at this level and higher can probably survive small groups of them now.
This is probably the level where I would start to include yuan-ti in large groups. In sufficient numbers, they can remain challenging even into late Tier 4.
Salamanders would be a fun dungeon adversary from this level onwards. Ditto mind flayers, although I would maybe run these at lower levels so they maintain a sense of threat – the 5e treatment is a little disappointing, in my opinion. I might use stone giants in twos or threes at lower levels, but end of Tier 3 is probably where I would start to use them in bigger groups as the primary adversaries of a dungeon (not that they are necessarily evil, of course). The same applies to slaadi (probably red slaadi in the main) andmid-ranking fiends like barlguras, barbed devils, mezzoloths, vrocks, and chasmes.
And so begins Tier 4! It’s easy to forget that cloakers are social, and if I were to use them in small groups, I would probably start using them in Tier 4. Fomorians – the giants of the Underdark – could also be a fun threat at this level and beyond. I’ve always felt like githyanki belong in this tier, too: partly because I envisage them in large squads, partly because they are probably accompanied by red dragons, which is always pretty baller.
Have you ever run a dungeon filled with ghosts? Why not? Mobs of ghosts would work well at this level.
Huh. I don’t have anything specific to say of these levels. What’s true of 16th and 17th is probably true here!
I’ve written about this level before. This is probably the only level where I would routinely run large groups of giants against the PCs, particularly fire giants.
And that’s my list! I’ve almost certainly missed something. What? Let me know in the comments below.
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