Thinking about low-level monsters

What low-level monsters are both interesting and not problematic? The pendulum swing between tiers of play means that we occasionally want to focus on those early levels, as Matt Colville has talked about. And in D&D, that usually means undead, orcs, goblins, and kobolds. I won’t worry about undead too much here; the major problem with them is potential overuse (of which I am first among sinners).

For all the improvements to D&D around issues of sex and gender and orientation, the racial problems have barely been touched in official material. (Witness the fact that we still use that term!) And even where it’s gotten better, we need to remember not to treat any grouping of people as monolithic. What’s more, we should not conflate the order/chaos dichotomy with good/evil, or go too far with the sort of biological determinism that D&D still needs to stamp out. Many of us should spend more time thinking about our own (lack of) understanding regarding many of the mythological and fictional antecedents of D&D elements.

Orcs have specific, significant issues, I re-read “The Unbearable Bagging of Orcing” by N.K. Jemisin recently, and I’ve previously linked to James Mendez Hodes’s writing on this subject (1, 2).

Drow are another big sticking point – cursed by a god to have dark skin and dwell in dark places? Evil matriarchies? I lack the expertise to disentangle the nuance, but this isn’t great.

Goblins from several different Ravnica guilds work together to defeat a common foe. (c) 2019, Wizards of the Coast.
“Goblin Assault Team” by Zoltan Boros

Many other types of monsters are less problematic (not necessarily “fine”). For example, goblins and kobolds don’t have the same types of problems. as orcs Goblins are sometimes treated as dumb, but when you look at “goblinoids” as a whole, much more nuance exists and we have the tools to make them interesting. Maybe nobody’s “born” as a goblin vs hobgoblin, but those stat blocks represent different types of goblin folks?

Kobolds appeal to me more and more as I think about it. In general, due to their intelligence, they can present challenges outside of boring combat slogs. They also have really interesting connections to draconic lore and enemies. You could easily start off with kobolds undermining the starting village before you build out a larger storyline about the dragons who sponsor them and whatever their ultimate goals might be.

Kuo-Toa provide an interesting and less common option here. But they have some really problematic origins based on Lovecraft’s racism, and so it would take some work by someone better educated than I am to disentangle all that. You could do a lot with insane fish people who can literally create gods out of sheer belief, but their antecendents in Innsmouth and Lovecraft’s screed against interbreeding and race mixing makes it difficult. I really would like to see more done with them, though, as I had lots of fun playing them in “Out of the Abyss”.

I’m interested in other sets of low-level monsters that you could use as the basis for low-level campaigns (maybe levels 1-4). What do you use?

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