Last Updated on January 22, 2023
The debate over which of Dungeons & Dragons 5e’s hundreds of monsters is the “most powerful” or “most deadly” is constantly being rehashed across listicles, blog posts, and Reddit forums.
Some people think it’s the city-stomping, Godzilla-sized Tarrasque, or Acererak the demilich, or the classic Ancient Red Dragon. And then some people say you should just summon Tiamat and call it a day.
Frankly, I’m slightly sick of these articles for three reasons.
CR Is Not an Exact Science
First, they’re largely based on creatures’ Challenge Rating (CR), which is a pretty flawed way of gauging an enemy’s lethality.
We’ve all heard the stories of the CR 15 boss monster that got chewed to pieces in three rounds by a party of 8th-level adventurers, just like we’ve all encountered the odd horror story about a simple encounter with a few Carrion Crawlers ending up with an entire 7th-level party paralyzed and unceremoniously devoured.
Such is the danger (and fun) of running random encounters.
So, if we’re gauging monster power levels, CR is (at best) a general guideline.
No Bags of Hit Points With Multiattack
Second, not all monsters in D&D 5e are created equally, and I’m not talking about power levels. I actually think that — with a few excellent exceptions — high-level monster design in 5e leaves a lot to be desired.
There are a lot of monsters that are “dangerous” only because they are, effectively, a big bag of hit points with multiattack.
Take the fabled Red Dragon, for example. Whether you’re dealing with a Wyrmling or an Ancient Red Dragon, there’s very little practical difference between them mechanically beyond more HP bloat and a fear mechanic.
The problem with these monsters is that typically the biggest threat they pose is to the players’ enjoyment.
There is nothing fun, exciting, or satisfying about repeatedly smacking a creature with 400+ hit points while it smacks you in return for round after round.
There are no surprises, no real sense of risk. The only killer here is boredom.
High-Tier Play Can Be a Slog
My final issue with the “most powerful monster” list is that such lists are all about content for super-high-level play, when the party are demigods and goddesses in their own right, fending off reality-ending threats throughout the multiverse.
The problem with this is that not only is it insanely rare for D&D campaigns to ever get to such high levels (unless you’re starting out there for a one-shot or funhouse dungeon), but playing D&D when you’re in the final tier of play isn’t all that fun.
At least, that’s been my experience.
I happen to think the game is at its best between 1st and maybe 10th level with the real sweet spot being between levels 3 and 5, and I can’t see myself ever running a game that goes beyond that point.
So, if you’re like me, discussions about whether or not a Tarrasque would beat an Ancient Red Dragon in a fight are, largely, academic.
So, Now What?
Here at Black Citadel RPG, we like to give useful advice – stuff you can take away and use at your table.
In the interest of a “strongest monsters” list article that looks at more than just CR, presents monsters that are more than just big bags of HP with multiattack, and isn’t just for levels 18 and beyond, we’ve put together a breakdown of the most deadly monsters at each tier of play.
We’ve chosen creatures with nasty abilities, lots of utility, hidden surprises, and generally just more (not to mention more interesting) ways of taking down the PCs than “claw, claw, bite.”
I should also note that we’re leaving named characters and monsters off the table here (no Acererak this time round, but if you want a great video by XP to Level 3 about the best-named monster in D&D, you can click here) in favor of more generic entries.
Ready? Let’s roll for initiative.
Tier I – Local Heroes (Levels 1 – 4)
Now, D&D 5e characters are pretty survivable compared to older editions of the game, but that doesn’t mean that a 1st-level wizard isn’t liable to be murdered by a stiff breeze.
As such, low CR monsters tend to be light on abilities, hit points, and damage.
There are a few exceptions, however. If you’re a DM who wants to make the players’ first few levels feel more like a survival horror game than heroic fantasy, try these monsters on for size.
A nightmarish hybrid of lizard, bird, and bat, there’s little about the Cockatrice’s size, appearance, or challenge rating that suggests this creature is one of the deadliest low-level monsters in D&D.
The cockatrice, however, is about as dangerous as a low-level beastie can get.
Not only is the Cockatrice described as being unerringly violent balls of malevolence that “flies into the face of any threat, squawking and madly beating its wings as its head darts out to peck,” but a single bite is all it takes to start turning its victim to stone.
On a hit with its beak, the Cockatrice inflicts (1d4 + 1) piercing damage, and the target must succeed on a DC 11 Constitution saving throw against being magically petrified.
On a failed save, the creature begins to turn to stone and is restrained. It must repeat the saving throw at the end of its next turn. On a success, the effect ends. On a failure, the creature is petrified for 24 hours.
Sure, it’s only temporary, but an encounter with a Cockatrice is always just a few rolls away from more or less completely incapacitating your party.
D&D 5e’s answer to the xenomorph facehugger, Intellect Devourers are basically brains on legs created by mind flayers.
In a fantastic display of weird-science-body-horror that honestly feels more like Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator than Geiger’s Alien aesthetics, Intellect Devourers can drain away your characters’ Intelligence, and then, when you’re too braindead to do anything about it, the devourer “magically consumes the target’s brain, teleports into the target’s skull, and takes control of the target’s body.”
For a CR 2 monster with just a smattering of hit points, the Intellect Devourer is a terrifying source of instant character death. Perfect if you’re doing a The Thing-style bodysnatcher adventure.
Barely a foot tall and with a single hit point each, Pixies shouldn’t be as threatening as they are. However, upset them at your peril.
Each Pixie (in addition to being able to cast druidcraft at will) can cast confusion, dancing lights, detect evil and good, detect thoughts, dispel magic, entangle, fly, phantasmal force, polymorph, and sleep once per day.
That’s an amount of spellcasting (polymorph is a 4th-level spell that can effectively render even the most powerful enemies helpless, and sleep is basically free license to go around stabbing defenseless people to death) that most wizards can’t start to approach until they’re 7th level.
I know of no monster that will convince a party of adventurers to turn tail and run the other way that the humble rust monster.
While there’s very little chance of this creature killing anyone, the fact that the merest touch will turn the party’s weapons, armor — even their money if you’re feeling especially evil — to useless piles of reddish oxidized metal is somehow way more threatening.
Another deceptively deadly creature, the Shadow has a sanitized (but still deadly) version of an ability that used to define all-powerful undead in past editions of D&D.
When the Shadow hits a creature, it automatically (no saving throw, nothing) drains away 1d4 of the target’s Strength.
That’s right, this entry-level undead that’s billed by its CR as being barely more of a threat than a Skeleton can eat your freaking stats.
Then, if you get lowered to 0 Strength, you instantly die, and if you weren’t evil, you rise as a shadow.
Couple that with the fact that Shadows can move through a space as narrow as 1 inch wide without squeezing and their ability to be virtually undetectable in dim light, and you’ve got a truly terrifying low-level encounter.
Tier II – Heroes of the Realm (Levels 5 – 10)
The period between 5th and 10th levels is where adventurers start facing off against the kinds of threats that could threaten entire kingdoms rather than just the local village.
This is also the point in the game where it becomes more common that you fight factions rather than monsters — an evil cult, a thieves’ guild, and so on — so finding a solo monster that can potentially stand up to a party in the 5- to10th-level range is always a refreshing thing.
Right at the top end of the CR bracket, the Aboleth is kind of the full package as an enemy.
They’re highly intelligent, so they make for good villains; they usually dominate “lesser” life forms, so they’re usually at the head of a faction; and when the time comes to actually fight the party, they’re… well, a giant nightmare squid.
And none of that is why Aboleths are such dangerous enemies to fight. Their true lethality lies in their ability to dominate the minds of up to three creatures per day, turning them against their allies.
Also, if you get too close to them, they can make you sprout gills and need to breathe water for a few hours, which is weird, and gross, and I love it.
Honestly, the Bodak might be my favorite monster in all of D&D 5e and not just because it looks like the guy from Edvard Munch’s The Scream crawled through H.R. Geiger’s nightmares to come and kill me.
Bodaks have a suite of necrotic damage-dealing mechanics that feel really… fresh and unique. They also make it feel like a genuinely scary thing to fight.
It has an aura that sucks the life right out of you, dealing an automatic 5 necrotic damage for every turn you spend within 30 feet of the Bodak.
Its true signature move, however, is its Death Gaze.
Any creature that starts its turn looking at the Bodak has to make a saving throw to avoid a chunk of necrotic damage and, if they fail by 5 or more, they are immediately knocked down to 0 hit points.
When I want to run a combat encounter that feels genuinely scary — right when my party’s characters are getting to the level where they start to think they’re actually powerful — I throw a Bodak into the room.
Usually, monsters at around the CR 5-7 level have one or maybe two “showstopper” abilities.
The Catoblepas has three: its noxious stench can poison anyone who gets too close and fails a Constitution saving throw, its clubbed tail has a chance to stun anyone it hits, and, for the piece de resistance, it has a freaking death ray.
Yeah, forget about a dragon’s breath attack; the Catoblepas either does 8d8 damage on a failed save or half as much on a successful one, and if the target fails by more than 5, it does a full 64 necrotic damage and instakills anything reduced to 0 hp.
Considering how tanky player characters tend to be when fighting CR 5 beasts, that’s basically a guaranteed player down — maybe even a TPK.
Also, I think the Catoblepas is probably one of the most obscure monsters, maybe in all of 5e, so the death ray kind of comes out of nowhere.
Whereas the Catoblepas and the Bodak are probably going to be especially scary because the players have never encountered them before, everyone knows what a Medusa is and what it does, which is a source of fear in and of itself.
Mass petrification is a very real possibility when fighting a medusa, and just because the players will know what to expect, it doesn’t make this monster any less deadly.
Tier III – Masters of the Realm (Levels 11 – 16)
This is the point where D&D 5e starts to feel truly epic and the enemies get really scary.
Remember that your players are going to start getting access to some seriously potent abilities and spells in this tier of play, and the monsters they face can get proportionately more deadly.
One of the ways that D&D 5e likes to make monsters feel powerful is by giving them spellcasting abilities.
So, to tackle that whole segment of questionable game design, let’s just look at the ultimate non-monstrous spellcaster, the Archmage.
This is effectively an enemy your players will fight when they’re barely past 10th level that can hit them with 9th-level spells.
The ones chosen as-is are obviously not the most devastating examples, but switching out the Archmage’s time stop (still a very respectable spell) for something like meteor swarm pretty much guarantees that it punches well above its weight.
A regular Beholder (if there is such a thing) is bad enough; at just one CR higher, their undead iteration, the Death Tyrant, brings a whole lot more resistances and immunities and a truly upsetting negative energy cone that prevents creatures in its field from regaining hit points.
Another contender for the title of “unexpected TPK machine,” the Remorhaz is a disgusting, insectoid predator that dwells in frozen regions.
This beasty isn’t especially dangerous on paper, but its auto-grapple bite, which it can follow up with a nasty swallow attack and subsequent truckload of acid damage, means that two or three of these nasty buggers are more than a match for a party of powerful adventurers.
I’d be utterly remiss if I didn’t mention everyone’s favorite velvet-clad sad boy: the Vampire.
Vampires are not only an iconic monster type, but in the hands of a dungeon master who plays them to their fullest, they’re an absolute nightmare for players.
Sure, Vampires are powerful melee combatants with a charm person ability that can fly, escape most situations by turning into bats or mist, and command creatures of the night.
What really makes them dangerous, however, is the fact they’re also intelligent, charming, immortal, and probably very rich.
Vampires don’t show up in the night to fight you one-on-five.
They go call the local town watch, who are all on their payroll, to “find” incriminating evidence in your rooms. They’re wily. A Vampire is as dangerous as you are creative, and that honestly means more than a high CR ever will.
Tier IV – Masters of the World (Levels 17 – 20)
And now we’re in the “D&D’s strongest monster” territory — a place where I don’t know what else is left to say.
Aside from ultra-powerful spellcasters like Liches or giant bags of hit points with multiattack like any flavor of Adult or Ancient dragon or the infamous Tarrasque, there isn’t much knocking around to actually challenge a party of super high-level PCs unless you start throwing gods and demon princes at them.
Everything up here in the CR stratosphere pretty much punches exactly at its weight with the exception of the Tarrasque, which isn’t actually that big of a problem.
Mostly, it’s just a very long slog through more than 500 hit points.
In the interest of an article about finding things for ultra, ultra high-level PCs to fight that punch above their weight, I could only come up with one option.
There’s a great line in the Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing adventure The Power Behind the Throne, where one of the statesmen of the city of Middenheim is revealed to have “given up being an archmage when he realized that true power lay in mastery of the law.”
I think that, by 17th – 20th level, player characters are an unstoppable force. They’re basically gods themselves, so throwing gods at them is both obvious and, in practice, a pretty dull experience.
When it comes to Tier IV parties of players, you need to come at them sideways.
Remind them that, just because they’re basically unbeatable demigods, they’re still going to struggle to deal with an entire kingdom (or world) full of more or less normal people.
Having all the resources of a country — from massed ranks of regular peasant militias to siege weapons and armored knights — levied against them is sure to be an interesting alternative to grinding down a solo boss monster with a slightly bigger sword and slightly more tragic backstory than the last one.
Being forced to put away their 9th-level spells and +5 Holy Avengers and actually sit down across the table from a perfectly normal, average person (who just happens to rule their entire kingdom) and have a tense negotiation for peace is sure to feel genuinely fresh and exciting.
And hey, if that doesn’t float your players’ boat, you can always summon Tiamat.
Until next time, happy adventuring.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.