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The monster statistics and descriptions in earlier editions provided information about the typical numbers of monsters of each type, the social and leadership structures for humanoids (e.g. for each 20 gnolls, there is a leader of X ability). I don't see any guidance on that in the 5e Monster Manual; all of the monsters are detailed as individuals. How do we know if they typically appear as individuals, families or groups, tribes, or whatever organizations they may use?

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There isn't a “number appearing” guideline for all monsters in D&D 5e. D&D 5e follows a different encounter design philosophy that makes “number appearing” a counter-productive concept from a rules perspective.

In AD&D and earlier, combat encounters are intended to be somewhat more naturalistic and organic to the setting. The idea of “number appearing” follows this philosophy, indicating how many creatures tend to be encountered when that type of creature is encountered. This is regardless of how difficult it would be to fight that many of that type of creature. DMs can also easily choose more or fewer creatures for a situation, as appropriate to the situation — again, because the game is concerned with giving the DM tools for deciding what makes naturalistic or adventure-plot sense. The players are expected to scout ahead and learn about the dangers around them, in order to make informed decisions about whether and how to engage them. (A party that fails to do this is making a strategic error.) A war party of 300 orcs was possible for a 1st-level party to run into in AD&D.

D&D 3rd edition and later use a different encounter design philosophy that is orthogonal in purpose and execution. Instead of asking “if they meet an orc, how many are they likely to meet?”, the game instead asks “how many creatures of what toughness make for a good combat challenge, and how many such challenges should there be in a day?” This philosophy means that “number appearing” isn't directly useful rules-wise, and instead a measure of the creature's combat difficult is needed. This is what Challenge Rating is.

This latter philosophy more-or-less eliminates the strategic component of player decision-making, leaving them to mostly concentrate on the how of attacking an opponent you offer them, instead of whether.

So there is mostly no “number appearing” in D&D 5e, and likely never will be (except possibly in a hypothetical future third-party supplement that rewrote how combat encounters are decided by the DM). Instead you construct encounters based on their game-centric utility, using CR, the XP Encounter Budget, and the idea of encounters-per-day.

(The “mostly” there is due to one exception: in Volo's Guide to Monsters, there is some social organisation information, but it's limited. It only covers beholders, giants, gnolls, goblinoids, hags, kobolds, mind flayers, orcs, and yuan-ti, and the coverage is spotty: for example, there is information on how to generate a gnoll warband, but nothing on the social organisation of giants; goblins' social castes are described, but no concrete demographics on these castes is mentioned. Even when social organisation is touched on, instead of the structured “for each 20 gnolls, there is a leader of X ability” you see in AD&D, there are random tables for generating creature groups — and this is unusual, being provided only for a few creatures: gnoll warbands, hags' minions, and yuan-ti allies. This also doesn't replace the encounter philosophy of D&D 5e; these numbers are mostly background information at best.)

That said, D&D 5e is flexible enough that you could probably use old “number appearing” guidelines if you wanted. You would no longer have a useful guideline about how lethal each meeting is, though. You would also have to be sure that your players were very aware of the need to operate on a strategic level instead of just a tactical level, which can be a difficult shift for players who have never played in such a game. If you have old-school players who already think that way by default though, they should be fine.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I played a lot of AD&D 1st ed., and pretty much none of the versions since, until now. I'm pretty new to 5e, having played for a few months in a couple of campaigns, and now starting to run one. I'm running for one inexperienced player, and two who have never played an rpg before at all. I've historically DM'd in a very sandbox style; "naturalistic and organic to the setting", as you put it. I definitely do expect "the players to scout ahead and learn about the dangers around them, in order to make informed decisions about whether and how to engage them", and they seem inclined to do that. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 18:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like 5e in general, especially how it has gone back to more roleplaying, and less of a tactical miniatures game, but it seems to be a bit slanted away from sandbox playstyle. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 19:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ To be fair, D&D 3.5 actually included those numbers in "Organization" for some monsters. Kobolds, for example, can be found in several quantities ranging from bands to entire tribes. Your answer seem more in line with the 4th Edition, where the budget for an encounter took a more mathematical approach and a less naturalistic one. 3.5 wasn't that different from AD&D in this regard. \$\endgroup\$
    – T. Sar
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 20:15
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Volo's Guide to Monsters offers extensive information of this sort on beholders, giants, gnolls, goblinoids, hags, kobolds, mind flayers, orcs, and yuan-ti.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Good. I just bought that. Otherwise, for most monsters I'll probably just port over "numbers appearing" from the AD&D 1st ed. material. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 15:26

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