In your average "generic D&D" campaign and setting, orcs, kobolds, and hobgoblins are frequently used to stock low level adventures and dungeons. These are usually nice for 1st/2nd level characters, but they become dumb and boring very quickly. Are there better (semi-)intelligent, numerous foes to throw at 1st level characters? How do I make my low level humanoid foes not just "same old, same old?"
I think there’s such a huge variety in humanity that often goes relatively ignored that can be used as low-level threats.
A trick I like to use to make human encounters stand out is to focus on two aspects of the enemy—be it dress, custom, weapon choice, adornments, tattoos—that stick out. This makes it seem a little more diverse.
With the same couple of human templates, you can “re-skin” them time and again to create a large number of low-level encounters. For example:
- A group of rebels, who have taken to banditry to support their (dying) cause;
- Initiate cultists, out to prove their undying loyalty to their faith by skewering your hide;
- Soldiers who have deserted from the army, desperate to gather enough coin to escape;
- Traveling merchants (and their caravan guard) who try to make up for a bad haul by trying to ambush their fellow travelers;
- Angry bands of peasants, who blame any sort of strangers as the reason for the recent drought/famine/pestilence;
- Conscript soldiers, newly-minted and spoiling for a fight, regardless of the reason;
- A famous minstrel, and his loutish band of traveling bravos who don’t care to share the road with anyone.
Low-level human encounters don’t just have to be nameless bandits. All of the changes above can be handled in many game systems using the same basic stats. Just changing the window dressing.
There's a ton of low-level monsters out there. Other humans (or elves, dwarves, tieflings) are appropriate antagonists at any level. Draconians are cool and you hardly ever see them nowadays. Same goes for kenku and bullywugs.
You can also get a lot of mileage from reskinning monsters; if the PCs encounter a race of strange hostile creatures with long heron-like beaks who peck, or a race of humanoids whose heads are covered with dozens of eyes, it doesn't matter that they may mechanically be identical to goblins, they'll look different.
Some of my favorites (approaching this from an old school perspective but should work with later editions of D&D also):
Skeletons: Good low level monsters with a nice special ability (lower damage from edged weapons) that provides a added obstacle;
Zombies: 2 HD, but easy to hit and slow (always strike last) so while fearsome can be overcome with good tactics and planning;
Bandits: Human bandits can be good, you can either make them 0-lvl with a few 1hd leaders, or class them all at 1st level (thieves and fighters are best) and give them an assortment of weapons and AC (but nothing too good, they are bandits, I'd arm with with clubs and let them have padded or leather armor at best); they should outnumber the PCs but be defeatable. Spice it up with a troop of non-human bandits...half elves, halflings or dwarves are interesting because they have added abilities (immunity to certain spells, better saves) that make them tougher than normal;
Dogs or wolves: Level appropriate, only one attack (bite), yet can be really nasty if they team up on one character (I actually had a group of wild dogs kill a high level thief in a campaign of mine, they ganged up on him and he had a few very unlucky rolls!), however they can be scared away easily if the characters use good tactics (fire, lots of noise, concentrate attacks on the pack leader, etc)
Stirges: While only 1+1 hd, they have nasty special abilities, so for a low level party I wouldn't have more than two at the very most attack. These things are nasty though so be careful throwing them at a low level party unless they have the option to run away!
A single creature of higher level can be an interesting foe to be tackled by a group of low level characters, especially if the creature has no special abilities. For example, a single giant lizard, ogre, large spider (paralytic poison instead of killing poison), giant frog, or similar beast can be overcome with good teamwork, missile weapons, fire and good tactics, and can actually help a party "bond" ("Hey, we were only first level but we managed to take down that giant lizard without losing anyone!"). One of my old standbys was to have a low level party have to deal with an ogre to get past an obstacle. It was their decision to either parley with, sneak past, or battle the monster directly....interesting to see how many different ways the party could find to get past the much higher level foe!
If you have experienced players who know whatever game you are playing well, then they're probably well aware of the abilities of beginning monsters. One option open to a GM might be to take the stats of one creature, and create something new around it.
Example: A Nyssan-Fey (CE) is a humanoid creature about 5' tall with large dark eyes and a bluish-gray tint to its skin. They dwell in forests. Their lairs run just below the surface (not unlike an ant colony), with entrances often being found amidst the roots of great trees. Their favored food is raw meat from woodland creatures. However, they have also been known to venture (at night, since they see best in the dark) into villages and steal children. They tend to wear leather armor and carry daggers or shortswords. (Use "goblin" for stats.)
Even though they know how to deal with goblins, and "goblin" is being used as a template, the players will have to wrestle with the mystery of this unusual creature with which they are not familiar.
That's a really open-ended question. What's the setting? If it's urban, maybe a few Dire Rats from the sewers, or a pack of muggers, or a malfunctioning Constabulary/Maintenance Construct. There's also mafia grunts, or gang kids (which makes for a good non-lethal combat encounter), or maybe even have your party get caught up in a riot against martial law.
Forested areas give rise to bandits, elves, rogue druids/dryads/fey creatures, or a pack of wolves or other predators.
Plains let you create a run-in with scouts, Riders of Rohan style. Or a raiding party who is travelling between towns.
With mountains you can get hunters, or hermits, or other secluded individuals who attack because you're encroaching on their territory.
There are always options.
You can spice up low level play by playing the low levels somewhere other than the Material Plane. A guy I know wrote some stuff about "High Adventure in ------" for the inner and outer planes, here's the one he did for the plane of fire as an example:
Ten Low Level Adentures in The Plane of Fire: You're getting the report from the overseer of the pipeline workers. The Kobold tells you that they aren't getting as much water as expected because....
- A group of Firenewts has claimed that the pipeline runs through their tribal lands and have begun monkey wrenching.
- The water reserves aren't as extensive as hoped near the surface, and the pipeline will have to be extended into the caverns.
- Superstitious fears have broken out among the workers, they speak of burning snakes.
- Drilling has broken through to inferno before expected, this rock isn't as stable as we'd hoped.
- The water has some kind of creatures living in it. Creatures that live in water.
- Some creatures have been bringing clouds of smoke with them when they crawl over the pipeline.
- A rival mining group is siphoning water from our reserves.
- Some guy who looked like a Yak has paid more than enough money for the land to get the crew to drill elsewhere.
- Everyone who touches the water seems to forget what they were doing.
- The water has been draining up to the mountain.
I personally find human (and other player races) villains to be useful at any level. They can embody the same gamut of real life villains and adventurers.
I also find "civilized race" motivations more interesting, and it gives you many more opportunities to explore conflict in ways other than just combat. Of course you can just kill the human thugs the same as the goblin thugs ...
Numerous answers have talked about re-skinning, which I think is a really great tactic. I use it for nearly every monster in the game. After two years of 4E, I think the only stock monsters I've used are stirges and gelatinous cubes, which I used specifically for an old-school-feeling dungeon. Everything else has been reskinned.
What hasn't been mentioned is how the DDI Compendium can be used to make this so easy. For example, I recently needed to make some low-level human wizards. You know how many monsters exist in the compendium that look like that out of the box? Not many.
On the other hand, I did a search for "Creatures" from level 1 to 4 with the keyword "Humanoid." Bang, 403 results. I wanted something more like a warlock in combat, so I searched by the main role "Skirmisher." Now I had 99 results, many of which could be re-skinned easily by printing them out and scribbling new names for their powers. Use the Compendium as much as possible. Well, if you have it, anyway. Learn the keywords and roles. Keep in mind that you will miss out on some monsters this way, because not all monster sources have been fastidiously tagged with roles and keywords.
It's a side benefit that most DDI Compendium entries lack any sort of flavor text, so you're not distracted by wondering what the original monster was like.
Finally, I suggest that you keep your printouts around so that you never need to remember what you used last time. When you start off picking really weird, obscure monsters that you know nothing about, you probably won't remember what they were later. Then you'll pick something else and your players will (maybe) grouse. "Last time their ranged attack was only burst 1!" You may consider this as feature, though.
I create new monsters no matter the level. I avoid using creatures from the books.
Example: The PC's are traveling a road through the forest between villages when they come across the corpse of an apparently wealthy fellow with these strange spiky mushrooms growing out of him. Once they get within 10' of the corpse the mushrooms sprouts feet, runs at the closest PC and attempts to impale itself on the PC. All the mushrooms attack the same character and all have but 1 or 2 hp and only do 1 or 2 hp.
20 or 30 of them all attacking in a single round can be unnerving. Not in the book, low level and a complete freak out.
Try Goodman Games' "The Adventure Begins" PDF for twenty first-level adventures with all kinds of non-boring monsters. Animated magic mirrors, killer crab swarms, electrostatic bats, rust spiders...
Another thing I see them doing in those adventures is traps. A good trap can break the monotony of rats and goblins. The important thing is that you get to explore the area first and that the trap lasts long enough for you to interact with it. Like the classic flooding room, or a corpse covered in tiny cuts that turn out to be caused by a vortex of whirling paper that animates whenever you try to steal the scrolls. That's from "The Adventure Begins" too.
You've got a couple major options.
Zazz Them Up
Still use orcs, goblins, and hobgoblins - just make them interesting. 3/3.5e lets you level up humanoid opponents to add some rules diversity but that's not the main part of the challenge. Note what Paizo has done with goblins in their game world - they've created an alternate take on them that people find interesting and compelling beyond being "small sacks of hit points." Similarly in 3.5e the Red Hand of Doom mega-adventure used hobgoblin armies to good effect and Dragon Mountain riffed off "Tucker's Kobolds" to make kobolds interesting foes.
Everything in the game from orcs to dragons to tarrasques can be boring - it's basic storytelling techniques that make it not so. The subsequent techniques will not help much without those.
In a five-year-long Night Below campaign I ran, there was a tribe of goblins with faces tattooed blue that garnered the players' interest. They took one prisoner that surrendered after killing the rest and were going to take him back to town for trial (in a weird sop to their consciences) and they decided he was so hapless that they ended up vouching for him and getting him released. They met him again as witch doctor for another tribe, when they got captured by an orc tribe that made them go into a hobgoblin cave to kill the hobs for them. To them, these humanoid races weren't marionettes with hit points and loot, but actual people - different and hostile and usually bad people, but intelligent individuals. This provides a lot more interesting interaction options (which many adventures depend on; I remember I6 Dwellers of the Forbidden City back in 1e days had strong "side with one humanoid dude against another" subplots and it's a common theme in Paizo APs today).
Yes, this interferes with basic race-murder fantasies, but that's the price you pay.
Once you are running humanoids like they're not little MMO killbots, you start to realize maybe you should be using people. The berserkers in T1 The Temple of Hommlet were especially vexing to my party back in 1980whatever when we encountered them. The 1e DMG is really good about this - the encounter tables are primarily about people living in areas. Cavemen, tribesmen, merchants, guards, bandits, etc. The exotic becomes mundane with overuse; orcs are frightening because they're super amped up over people as long as they're unusual foes; if they're rank and file then they get boring.
Stats are stats and appearance is appearance. Like the blue-skinned goblins above, you can add variety by simply reskinning them slightly - "oh they are elemental goblins mutated by being in the Temple of Elemental Evil, they let off smoke wherever they go!" - or greatly - "skittering crystal crabs squeal and attack you!" without changing the stats at all.
I ran a dungeon once where there were a bunch of more-draconic-than-usual kobolds looking after a clutch of blue dragon eggs and blue dragon wyrmlings (the parent had been slain); they had draconic characteristics but did I waste the time applying "half-dragon templates" like this was going to be published or something? Hell no, I just made 'em look more dragony and had them bite instead of doing weapon attacks.
Use Something Else
Buy any random monster book published by any company over the last 20 years and you'll probably get more humanoid races that you really ever wanted. "Tonight... Xvarts!" There's animal-based and plant-based and mineral-based low level humanoids of every description. Just in the ocean there are so many humanoid races to frankly frustrate me as a GM trying to figure out how there's a place for half of them.
Giant forms of normal creatures can be fun (e.g. insects (ants, ticks) or reptiles (frogs)). Stirges can be fun. Remember, you can also use higher hit-dice monsters against lower-level parties, you just need to reduce the number occuring. Maybe they run into a patrol of 2-3 bugbears...or maybe 2-3 troglodytes.
For low-levels I'm a big fan of elementals and fey creatures...and undead! At least for out-and-out monster adventures. If you are looking for some alternate takes on huumanoids, I think Bullywugs would be a good substitute, especially for a swampy locale. I had really good results from reskinning fell-taints as a form of hostile plantlife-- intelligence pods from a hyper-intelligent orchid.
Don't name the monsters, whatever you use, and describe them carefully only if they are observed carefully. An alternative is to simply call every small humanoid a goblin, regardless of their special powers and specific appearance and so on.
Either approach forces or encourages the players to name the monsters for you. Then you can use those names. (In my game, the hobgoblins are called bugbears.) This will add feel to the game and retain some of the mystery, as the players can't be quite sure of what they are dealing with.
Make the goblins, etc., actually monstrous and mysterious and interesting. Or at least make some of them that way.
For example, suppose orcs are spirits/demons of hatred that have taken physical shape, and slaying one releases the spirit, which might try to possess something nearby. Maybe the slayer, or maybe some innocent bystander or woodland animal.
Or maybe goblins have unreliable magical tricks and are born when dark magic corrupts children. Or maybe some of them are.
This can keep even the most stereotypical monsters interesting - just treat them as fey or demons of legend.
I only have Goblins and Orcs in my Majestic Wilderlands and I level them. For example I have 4 HD Orcs instead of Bugbears, and that tribe is noted for being particularly ferocious. And I agree with C. Ross about human opposition being generally more interesting. A lot of my adventures in my campaign come from the conflict of culture, religion, and society. The approach as the benefit that it works well at all levels.
Don't forget the low-hp versions of more powerful monsters (often humanoids). They can inflict greater damage -- possibly slaying on a single hit -- but go down quickly. Party defenses take on paramount importance, providing tactical educational opportunities. A well-coordinated party can succeed with few or no casualties.
I'm assuming you're asking this because the books only really has humanoid creatures for level 1-3 encounters. Add a special feature about the group that makes the different and interesting.
Shared hp bar - use a handful of level 1 bandits but they all share the same hp bar, when one is attacked make sure you say they all flinch as if being hit by that spot.
"its actually the shadow" - mentin that when the enemy shadow touches other shadows it changes shape slightly as though its being pulled. Have enemies reroll when they are in a shadowy low-light area.
The hydra, put a low level orc or somesuch creature that rushes in and fights them on their own. The creatures cut at him but he keeps coming back basically use the same guy to run multiple monsters, keep doing this until someone crits or does half his HP in damage with one hit.
Doing little things like this change the enemy so you need to account for the difficulty change.
You could also do something negative to the players, splash a potion on them thaat makes them grant combat advantage in the sunlight. Or create an area where arcane/divine powers are strengthened/weakened as an area the enemy want to stay near but the players don't.