In this chapter, we try to answer that question for low-level games. Although it’s true that big red dragons, mind flayers, and mummies are great D&D monsters, you can’t really throw powerful monsters like that at a party of 1st-level characters and expect them to survive.
So, we split up this Top Monsters list into a low-level version and a high-level version. This chapter tackles the low-level monsters, of course.
1. Orc (CR 1/2)
(Monster Manual page 203)
And the best low-level monster is…. the Orc! The iconic beast-man savage, the barbariv marauder, bloodthirsty warrior in the service of stronger and darker evils, the orc is simply the classic adversary for a low-level hero.
To be honest, orcs are actually the top pick because they’re the perfect representative of a broad group of creatures known as humanoids.
Monsters like goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, gnolls, and even lizardfolk all provide a very smililar sort of encounter-the party fights a handful of savage warriors at a time.
They use armor and weapons just like PCs do and may have champions or leaders who have character classes and use magic like PCs.
Some are stronger, some are sneakier, some are halfling-sized and some are human-sized, but essentially it’s the same type of encounter regardless of the exact monster involved..
While orcs are often thought of as low-level opponents, you should remember that orcs can have classes and levels too.
The run-of-the-mill Orc is a 1st-level warrior with poor equipment, but imagine running into an elite Orc warband made up of 5th-level barbarians, or an Orc battle-priest who’s an 8th-level cleric.
Now, orcs shouldn’t scale up at the same pace at which your heroes gain levels; it isn’t fair that your 10th-level heroes find nothing but gangs of 10th-level orcs to fights, when they used to run into gangs of 1st-level orcs, but it is certainly true that a great Orc chieftain and his chief bodyguards and advisors may be every bit as tough as a high-level party of adventurers.
2. Skeleton (CR 1/2)
(Monster Manual page 225)
Thanks to Ray Harryhausen, everybody known just what fighting skeletons outht to look like. What’s scarier and more fanstic than battling against silent, remorseless things made from the bodies of the dead?
Like the ghoul, the skeleton introduces players to the special advantages and weaknesses of undead monsters; they’re immune to the rogue’s sneak attack, they’re just bone, they take 5 fewar points of damage from each hit your characters score with a piercing or slashing weapon.
Unless characters are using a bludgeoning weapon like a club or mace, they’ll find that skeletons are hard to hur.
3. Ogre (CR 3)
(Monster Manual page 198)
The lowest-level giant in the game, an ogre can deliver quite a beating to a low-level party.
An ogre pounds a target for 2d8+7 damage each time it hits with that big club, an average of 16 points per hit! One swing is usually enough to kill or incapacitate any 1st-level character, and an ogre that gets a little lucky can often drop a 3rd- or 4th-level character in one blow. An ogre teaches players about fighting big, powerful, stupid monsters, which is an iconic D&D experience.
An ogre encounter just screams out for clever player tactics such as stealth, bluffing, or the use of magic; if characters just go right at the ogre and try to beat it at its own game of melee damage, they’re going to get hurt.
4. Dire Rat (CR 1/3)
(Monster Manual page 64)
Low-level heroes often find themselves fighting various mundane animals as well as weird magical creatures or restless undead. Animals such as wolves, snakes, bears, and tigers are common opponents for beginning heroes, as are dire animals.
D ire animals are animals that are unusually large, powerful, and foul-tempered versions of the normal creatures you’re familiar with. Dire rats are the weakest and most common of these vicious animals.
A dire rat can be 4 feet long and weigh more than 50 pounds. They’re not terribly tough as far as monsters go, but they’re rarely found alone; if you meet one, you can bet that a half-dozen more are somewhere nearby.
Dire rats are one of those classic bits of “dungeon dressing” that just seem to turn up any time you’ve got a refuse pit, trash heap, or sewer to explore.
5. Ghoul (CR1)
(Monster Manual page 118)
G houls are undead creatures that haunt graveyards and crypts and feats on the dead…. or, whenever they’re handy, the living. G houls are terrifying to low-level hero’s because on scratch orf a ghoul’s filthy claws may cause even the most resolute of hero’s to freeze up in complete (but Thankfully short-lived) paralysis.
Fighting off a pack of ghouls requires the hero’s to co-operate to defined friend who are temporarily helpless.
And just like the werewolf, the ghoul’s bite carries with it a supernatural diseases that day later might weaken or kill those who survived the initial encounter.
6. Werewolf (CR3)
(Monster Manual page 175)
The werewolf is a classic monster. Everybody understand the fear of letting out the beast within, the feral killer deep inside. Not only is the werewolf an iconic legendary Monster, it’s also intresting in the context of the D&D rules.
It’s the best illustration of a monster with damage reduction; unless characters have a silver weapon, they’ll have a hard time hurting this creature.
Werewolves are shapechangers, which means players can never be entirely sure whether that surly villager might indeed be the great black wolf who attacked their characters out in the forest.
And best of all, werewolves carry the dreaded diseases of lycanthropy; those hero’s bitten by werewolves may become werewolves themselves
7. Large Monstrous Spider (CR 2)
(Monster Manual page 28 9)
A surprising number of low-level D&D monsters are big bugs. Monstrous spi-
ders are the scariest and most representative of this crew, thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien. Who isn’t creeped out by the notion of a spider the size of a horse?
The large monstrous spider is good because it lets your players fight a Large-sized creature that’s only CR 2. And it also introduces players to the poison rules . . . mwah hah hah hah.
8. Young White Dragon (CR 4)
(Monster Manual page 7 8)
We had to include a dragon, didn’t we? It’s in the name of the darned game, after all. But dragons generally aren’t very good low-level monsters. The weakest dragons start at CR 2 or 3, in which case, the characters are fighting a wyrmling — a baby dragon just about fresh out of the egg.
We think it’s more satisfying for characters to battle against a dragon that’s at least as big as a person, if not bigger. The young white dragon offers the best chance for this kind of fight, even if its Challenge Rating makes it the toughest of our top ten low-level monsters.
Better yet, the young white dragon is one of the sample dragons that have already been assembled for you to use straight out of the Monster Manual. (You have to do a lot of work to assemble a dragon if you don’t use one of the sample dragons provided
9. Hell Hound (CR 3)
(Monster Manual page 151)
Hell hounds make it onto the list because they’re the first serious representa tives of a class of monsters your players will be fighting against for their whole careers: evil outsiders.
Outsid ers are monsters like demons, devils, and such. They’re from other planes of existence (the Nine Hells, in the case of the hell hound) and are therefore “outside” the normal world. H ell hounds are also interesting because they introduce players to monsters with an area-effect attack (their fiery breath) and the ability to deal extra fire damage with every bite.
10. Stirge (CR1/2)
(Monster Manual page 236)
What’s creepier than a giant mosquito that can Suck a person dry? A whole flock of giant mosquitoes, that’s what.
Stirges are fun because they introduce players to the power of some monsters to drain ability score points. They also fly and grapple.
Yes, they’re individually weak, but there’s nothing quite as horriflying for characters (and their players) as watching one of their comrades trashing about with two or three Stirges attched at the same time.