Bugbears are a classic low-level boss monster that have been a part of Dungeons & Dragons since the game’s earliest edition.
They’ve changed little over the five decades since 1e hit the market, and repeated appearances in classic adventures – including The Lost Mines of Phandelver in the 5e Starter Set, have cemented their place among the game’s most iconic foes.
Now, thanks to Volo’s Guide to Monsters, players in 5e can create and play their very own bugbear characters.
In this guide, we’re going to give you an introduction to what makes these massive, murderous goblinoids such excellent bad guys. We’ll take a look at bugbear behavior, history, and culture (such as it is), as well as some of the classes and play styles that lend themselves to a bugbear-based build.
What Are Bugbears?
While their name suggests some hellish hybrid between an insect and a bear, bugbears actually get their name from the Middle English word ‘bugge’, meaning a frightening thing. The word ‘bwg’ in Old Welsh (evil spirit or goblin) and the Old Scots word for goblin, ‘bogill’ may have also played a part.
In more modern terms, the word shares etymological roots with the ‘boogyman’ and the Boggart from the Harry Potter series – terrifying monsters that personify our very worst fears.
For the average 1st level adventurer embarking on an exciting new career, it’s easy to see how the bugbear got its name.
Medium humanoid (goblinoid), chaotic evil
Armor Class 16 (Hide Armor, Shield)
Hit Points 27 (5d8 + 5)
Speed 30 ft.
STR: 15 (+2)
DEX: 14 (+2)
CON: 13 (+1)
INT: 8 (-1)
WIS: 11 (+0)
CHA: 9 (-1)
Skills Stealth +6, Survival +2
Senses Darkvision 60 ft., Passive Perception 10
Languages Common, Goblin
Challenge 1 (200 XP)
Proficiency Bonus +2
Brute. A melee weapon deals one extra die of its damage when the bugbear hits with it (included in the attack).
Surprise Attack. If the bugbear surprises a creature and hits it with an attack during the first round of combat, the target takes an extra 7 (2d6) damage from the attack.
Morningstar. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 11 (2d8 + 2) piercing damage.
Javelin. Melee or Ranged Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft. or range 30/120 ft., one target. Hit: 9 (2d6 + 2) piercing damage in melee or 5 (1d6 + 2) piercing damage at range.
Given how common it is for the Lost Mines of Phandelver adventure to serve as a lot of people’s introduction to D&D 5e, there are a lot of players out there whose first “boss fight” was against a bugbear. In fact, I’d wager there’s a not-insignificant number of players out there whose first TPK involved that very same bugbear.
While they belong to the same category of creature as goblins and hobgoblins, taxonomy is more or less the beginning and end of the similarities between bugbears and their goblinoid kin.
Standing a full seven feet tall and covered in thick, matted fur, bugbears (according to the Monster Manual) are terrifying ambush predators “born for battle and mayhem.”
While their imposing statures tend to see them characterized as brutes – some do end up serving as elite bodyguards or low-level leaders in larger armies – bugbears aren’t naturally wired for a head-on approach.
Taking inspiration from the classic idea of the boogeyman, bugbears move with surprising stealth and speed for creatures of their size and build. They are natural ambush predators, laying ambushes for unsuspecting parties of adventurers, and trading on their padded feet and darkvision to give them the edge when fighting in the dark.
I think that, particularly in earlier editions of D&D (as well as Pathfinder 1e) bugbears were sheer nightmare fuel. It’s a style of play that I try to reintroduce into my 5e games, as I think bugbears often get dismissed as big grizzly bears with clubs. In earlier editions (and in one of the original playtests for 5e, which set them up as “slasher movie villains”) bugbears were much better at playing to their strengths – not to mention their enemies’ weaknesses.
They would toy with their prey, first stealing supplies from camp, breaking tools while the party rested, startling them awake with strange sounds from beyond the firelight, and generally putting everyone on edge (hopefully with a few levels of exhaustion to boot).
They would try to lure weaker party members away, isolating them so they could be dragged off into the darkness. Older editions note that bugbears can squeeze themselves into spaces smaller than their bodies (like under beds or in closets) for a truly folk horror experience, which also makes them especially lethal when it comes to getting around dungeons to strike from unexpected places.
They would do all sorts of intimidation tactics, from scraping their claws along stone walls to taunting the adventurers, not to mention filling their lairs with grisly trophies honoring one of their two grim gods.
While a bugbear will fight head-on if cornered, or if it’s absolutely sure it’s going to win. But all that killer instinct and physical prowess is tempered by, according to the 5e rules, a sizable dose of laziness and cowardice. Bugbears often “flee when outmatched. They are dependable mercenaries as long as they are supplied food, drink, and treasure, but a bugbear forgets any bond when its life is on the line.”
Bugbears tend to enslave any goblins they come into contact with, forcing them to act as its own personal warband and catering service (bugbears will eat goblins in a pinch, which tends to keep the goblins motivated to avoid making the career move from caterer to main course) while they laze around as much as possible.
They’re fiercely selfish creatures that rule and are ruled by base appetites, greed, and strength in equal measure.
While they make unruly, troublesome mercenaries at the best of times, the hobgoblin, orc, and other armies that find themselves with a bugbear or two in their ranks are happy of that fact.
While they may not prefer it, a bugbear in a head-to-head fight is a primal, terrifying thing to behold. In war, they make highly effective commandos or shock troops, overwhelming their enemies with brute force and speed. They’re also a lot smarter than they tend to let on, and make for pretty good battlefield tacticians and officers in the field.
Bugbears might have less of a dismal reputation among non-goblinoids if it weren’t for their deities. They worship two gods, Hruggek and Grankhul, which embody the bugbear’s brutal strength and bloodlust, and natural quickness and cunning, respectively.
Despite their differences, both of the bugbears’ gods (like any true gods) demand proof of their followers’ devotion in blood and slaughter. Bugbears love to make grisly trophies from their kills, and watching the life leave an enemy’s eyes is an act of almost religious joy.
However, strip away the devotion to a pair of psychopathic blood gods, and you’re left with a big, fuzzy monster with a talent for violence and a fondness for snacks and naps that makes for a very promising starting point for a player character.
Building a Bugbear: Characteristics and Abilities
Bugbears – along with goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, and orcs – were introduced as playable ‘monstrous’ races in the Volo’s Guide to Monsters Supplement released back in 2016.
The supplement itself notes that, compared to the standard adventuring races, monstrous player characters could end up being a lot stronger, weaker, or weirder than the average human or elf.
Monstrous player races definitely weren’t built with balance in mind, but rather to capture the strange, asymmetrical essence of what it might be like to play and fight alongside these creatures typically dismissed as monsters in a campaign.
As a result, kobolds have a ton of special abilities and an ability score decrease, hobgoblins get insane attack roll bonuses when fighting alongside their allies, and bugbears become candidates for the best rogues in D&D.
Ability Score Increase. Your Strength score increases by 2, and your Dexterity score increases by 1. Your physical prowess makes you an excellent candidate for just about any martial class.
Age. Bugbears reach adulthood at age 16 and live up to 80 years.
Alignment. Bugbears endure a harsh existence that demands each of them to remain self-sufficient, even at the expense of their fellows. They tend to be chaotic evil. As with all alignments in 5e, you could very easily tweak this with the strategic application of your background and backstory. A bugbear raised by humans might easily be lawful or neutral good.
Size. Bugbears are between 6 and 8 feet tall and weigh between 250 and 350 pounds. Your size is Medium. Other representations of bugbears in earlier editions put bugbear sizes even bigger, although a bugbear who’s been rejected by its own kind might have been the runt of the litter and stand at a mere six and a half feet tall.
Speed. Your base walking speed is 30 feet.
Darkvision. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.
Long-Limbed. When you make a melee attack on your turn, your reach for it is 5 feet greater than normal. This can combine really well with feats like Sentinel, as well as anything else that improves your ability to make opportunity attacks.
Powerful Build. You count as one size larger when determining your carrying capacity and the weight you can push, drag, or lift. Useful for games where your DM tracks encumbrance.
Sneaky. You are proficient in the Stealth skill. Great for rogues and ambush fighters.
Surprise Attack. If you surprise a creature and hit it with an attack on your first turn in combat, the attack deals an extra 2d6 damage to it. You can use this trait only once per combat. This is remarkably similar to the special ability that the Gloomstalker Ranger gets access to, allowing you to dish out massive damage on the first turn of combat. However, the once per combat limitation does hamstring your potential to abuse this as a rogue with disengage and hide as a bonus action.
Languages. You can speak, read, and write Common and Goblin.
Source: Volo’s Guide to Monsters
Now, let’s look at how a bugbear’s racial abilities and traits affect the classes they’re best suited to play, as well as how best to represent them at the table. It’s worth noting that, if you want to take your bugbear in a different direction, you can always use the Custom Lineage option from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.
What Classes are well suited to Bugbears?
Based on their ability score bonuses, Surprise Attack, Powerful Build, and Long-Limbed abilities, there are a few different classes that lend themselves to a bugbear-based build.
Rogue: Stealth proficiency and some extra damage on top of your Sneak Attack from Surprise Attack makes you into a fearsome battlefield assassin. You can also lean into a bugbear’s natural affinity for stalking and toying with its prey.
Grappler Fighter: Natural bonuses to Strength and Dexterity mean you can make a classic fighter very easily using a bugbear. However, it’s their Powerful Build (which allows you to count as one size larger when determining the weight you can push, drag, or lift that makes you into a potentially powerful grappler. Take a grappler feat at level 4 and use your build to potentially grapple size Huge enemies.
Barbarian: Strength and Dexterity bonuses are a barbarian’s bread and butter. You can also use your Long-Limbed trait in combination with the path of the ancestral guardian to exercise a degree of battlefield control that most barbarians can only dream of.
Playing a Bugbear: Appearance and Behavior
In a lot of ways, playing a bugbear is a lot like playing a Wookie from Star Wars. Sure, you might look like a big walking carpet and, for those that know and love you, that’s probably very cute.
Everyone else you meet, however, is going to see a hulking alpha predator the size of Shaquille O’Neal. This might present challenges if you’re playing a bugbear in a world where they’re used as the focus of bedtime stories aimed at frightening naughty children.
Now, unless you’re playing in an evil campaign (honestly, a campaign about a ragtag crew of goblins, kobolds, a murderous and lazy bugbear, and their eternally exasperated hobgoblin warboss is something I absolutely have to run at some point) it might be a good idea for your bugbear to have a less than traditional relationship with their culture’s religion.
As I mentioned earlier, however, take away the bugbear’s spiritual need to inflict carnage and suffering, and you basically have a big, lazy, slightly cowardly bear-person, which sounds like loads of fun to play.
You can lean on touchstones like Chewbacca, Fezzik from The Princess Bride (played by Andre the Giant), and the banderbears from The Edge Chronicles for inspiration when it comes to these not so gentle giants. Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy would also make for an excellent bugbear barbarian.
Bugbear names are guttural and range from short to long. Bugbears love to lord it over the creatures they’ve enslaved, so the idea of a bugbear who demands longer and more elaborate honorifics from the goblins under their command could be a great place to start. Bugbears also speak goblin, so using similar naming conventions to goblins could also work.
Bugbears are typically solitary animals. This, coupled with the fact that there is little physical difference between male and female bugbears, as well as that bugbear social standing, is exclusively determined by physical prowess, means that social and naming convention distinctions between bugbear genders is virtually nonexistent.
A bugbear probably wouldn’t see any reason to differentiate its name based on its gender, and probably struggles to see why other species get so hung up about this.
Example bugbear names: Gurlock, Gnash, H’ruk, Khashnar, Bruddurk, Virrolk, Yurk, Grunn, Koth, Urtz, Rakhloth, Kharr, Brork, Zhun, Klarg.