Cave Encounters 5e: the best cave monsters for your DnD campaign

An eerie silence washes over as the cave engulfs the party into its darkness. Only the gods may know what lies ahead, but the party knows this is the only way to progress. Were those whispers, or were you imagining things? Do the moving shadows belong to the party, or are they being followed?

One thing’s for certain- something does not sit right with this cave, and the party hopes they can see the light of day again. Today we are talking about Cave encounters 5e and everything related to it!

What Should I Expect regarding Cave Encounters in 5e DnD?

The beauty of 5e cave encounters from the perspective of a DM is how loosely planned everything can be. The layout, the lore, the combat, and even some puzzle encounters can have minimal planning but excellent results. Is it because of how chaotic a cave can be? Is it because caves don’t usually have designated structures? The answer to both of those questions is yes.

Cave encounters 5e

Still, it also lies in the fact that a cave is very similar to building a tiny little world where almost anything can happen- similar to building a world in DnD altogether. Still, now, your environment is much smaller and more manageable. 

If a DM wishes and chooses not to make a map out of the cave, it’s very doable, which is extremely convenient. DMs can just build the cave as they go and build it one at a time. For example, they can simply describe what the players see and what’s in the area that the players are in, the exits, etc. The DM can then expand on the cave as the players progress. This way, the DM can also regulate how fast or slow the players progress. 

This article is meant to provide a little insight, some advice, and all the possibilities that can lie within the depths of caves in 5e. Although most of this article can be purposed for Dungeon Masters, players may also find the article just as insightful to see how they can optimize their characters to their surroundings. So have a seat! Sit back, relax, and let your imagination run wild in the darkness of the caves. 

Cave 5e Layouts

Caves, usually underground, per DM’s discretion, can be an entire cave system or just a natural cave. However, for the most part, if a cave were to have treasures or important aspects of lore inside of it, it usually does have a layout or systems. The cave’s layout depends on the theme of whatever the adventure may call for it.

Since there’s a lot of imagery to play around with, it’s also fairly simple for DMs to set the scene. Make it terrifying with very little description of the area since most caves are in the dark.

For example, if the cave leads to the lich’s lair, it would make sense for the cave to be littered with monsters that act as guards or simply just look for something to eat. In this section, I’ll give common layouts, the best way for a DM to utilize the layout, and some tips for players to use when they are in a cave. 

The Maze

Caves are usually an easy way to create an underground maze. It is highly recommended for beginner DMs since the maps are usually easy to lay out if they would like a map at all since they can simply build the maze as the players go through rooms. It can be treated like an insect lair or system where it loops and turns with multiple passageways.

5e cave encounters

This can be used to confuse the players or even build more on the area around them. It all depends on who is the person who created this system and their intentions for creating it. Of course, something interesting is at the end of the maze, like a treasure, a guard monster that needs to be defeated, etc.

Mazes can be adjusted to whatever players a DM has. Combat heavy players? If they take the wrong route, have creatures ambush the party. Players, that like to roleplay? Has the cave infested with magic spores to make them act weird? Players that abuse ability checks? Have them solve a puzzle to progress. Of course, all this can be done in the cave’s darkness. 

Examples of Maze Cave Encounters. 

1. King of trolls

The cave belongs to the King of Trolls, which the party has to defeat. The cave is a maze that leads to the throne room.

Only the king’s favorite guards know how to get to the throne room. Most paths lead to dead ends where more trolls are waiting to ambush any trespassers.

2. The tiny halfling

A tiny halfling sits in the middle of three passageways. He warns that there are many “rooms” in the cave, like the one in three passageways with no distinguishable features. If they are to go through any of the wrong passageways, the party will be met with a dangerous monster with no certainty of being able to defeat it.

The halfling knows the way but is tasked to guide travelers through the maze only if they can solve the puzzles that the halfling gives them. Whenever the party reaches a 3-way crossroad, the halfling will give the party a puzzle to solve, and only then will the halfling direct them through the correct passageway (based on an encounter from the Dnd books)

3. The group

The party comes across a group sitting by a fire. They are heavily injured, almost to the point where they can’t move. They refuse to leave the cave until they find the missing person at the party. An unknown creature has abducted them, and they ask the party to find their friend. 

a guide on interesting cave monsters

The Build-Up 

Most commonly used to grind combat and experience through battle, a build-up cave can be used as a one-shot with how it’s utilized. The Build-Up entails that the further the party progresses into the cave, the harder the encounters will become.

At the end of the cave will be a dead end mostly used for a boss room. This is possibly the easiest setup for cave encounters in 5e- it’s easy to grasp for players and new DMs alike.     

When caves are set up like this, there’s usually a grave or important purpose. That being said, it’s recommended that caves set up like this are essential to the story, especially since the players will be gaining substantial experience from this type of cave.

Alternatively, it can also be used if the players are weak and having a difficult time against encounters that the DM may have given them (basically, if the party is behind on experience and might need a little push to prepare them for future encounters). 

best cave monster

Examples of Build-Up Cave Encounters 

1. The Lich Lair

The cave leads to a lich’s lair. The entrance was littered with low leveled undead, but as the party progressed deeper into the cave, the creatures became more morbid and stronger. Finally, at the very end of it, they will face the lich itself. 

2. The deceased king

The cave belongs to the spirit of a long-deceased king. He hid away his treasured sword deep inside the cave. To progress further, the party must pass a series of tests the king has set for anyone who wishes to possess such a relic.

3. Unknown Hermit

An unknown hermit with a hatred for the kingdom created an entire underground system under the entirety of the kingdom. After years of planning in secret, the hermit has planted deadly explosives in the cave to make the kingdom collapse into the depths of his creation.

The party was tasked to get the explosives under control and somehow stop the detonation. Unfortunately, the deeper the party goes into the cave, the less sturdy the cave becomes. Therefore, the party will have to be careful not to have an early burial. 

4. Add Some Magic To It!

Caves usually hold mysteries within them-especially so in Dnd. And what better way to add confusing mishaps and deepen the mystery than by adding some magic aspects to the cave!

Are the traps magical? Is the cave itself magical, or maybe there’s a mastermind behind it all, making sure that the players don’t even succeed in their tasks? 

Types of Cave Encounters 5e

As a DM, I find cave encounters the easiest to brainstorm because of the flexibility a cave gives. Many of the monsters that DnD makes in their books (Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, etc.) provide an excessive amount of creatures that can inhabit caves.

Especially since a lot of the monsters have so much depth put into them, countless stories, adventures, and encounters can be made from them. It all depends on what you want out of them and what that monster has to do with the cave. 

 It would be best to ensure that it fits its surroundings in the early stages of the caves or even perhaps throughout the cave. For example, it wouldn’t make sense for a Earth Elemental to be inside a cave that was found on top of a snowy mountain. That being said, be wary not to just drop any kind of monster into any kind of cave. It’ll look strange to some players, and they might suspect something else (unless that is your intention, of course). 

The most common combat encounters usually involve creatures of the Underdark, cave dwellers, or a group of bandits. As for non-combat encounters, the most common would be a cave collapsing (the party would have to find another way out), puzzles, or traps within the caves. But, again, be free to mix it up or use just one. Just make sure to accommodate your players for a good experience. 

5e cave monsters

My Favorite Cave Encounters!

You wanted it, asked for it, and may have them! These are some of my favorite cave encounters. If the encounter was inspired by or taken from the books, I will give credit and/or link to the source from which I got the encounter (or if I got inspiration from them).

Be wary that, as stated above, not all encounters can fit in any cave. Be aware of the location in which the cave is located before deciding to go through with these. It also would help if it fits with the theme of your party’s adventure(s). 

Below are a few of my favorite Cave Encounters that I have used or will use. 

1. Bandits

After hours in the dark cave, the party comes across a small fire pit with rocks assembled around it. There’s no one else around, and it seems to be a resting place for the party to relax. But, little does the party know bandits and a bandit captain are waiting in the shadows to ambush them.

2. The Guardian’s Prison

The area’s guardian (forest, mountain, etc.) is being kept prisoner inside the caves. The party was tasked to defeat the captor and release the guardian.

Unfortunately, the captor is a villain trying to absorb all of the guardian’s magic for themselves. The cave is extremely narrow, filled with traps, and crawling with the captor’s underlings. 

3. Eye of the Beholder

A goblin must lead the party through a cave with four recurring passageways. The goblin will present the party with a series of riddles to progress.

Whenever they get the answer wrong, the goblin will lead them through the incorrect passageway and encounter a monster until they backtrack. After three wrong answers, the party will encounter an angry beholder. 

4. Territorial 

Two of the same creatures are fighting over territory in the cave (bears, phase spiders, etc.). If any of the party goes near, they will be attacked.

5. Crystal Caves

The cave has an ancient relic placed at the end of it. However, throughout the cave are beautiful crystals that amplify sounds significantly to the point where anything louder than a whisper can cause the crystals to deafen anyone who can hear it. 

6. Belly of the Beast

A massive beast has disguised itself and become one with a nearby cave. The party will have to figure out a way out without alerting the sleeping, hungry monster. 

7. Old Cave, New Tricks

A hydra has driven everyone out of the mines. The village is running low on resources due to the lack of coal. The party must defeat the hydra inside the mines. However, the mines are hundreds of years old, and there’s no telling when the walls might collapse.

What Lurks In the Dark? (List) 

Here’s a list of my favorite cave dwellers. Of course, it won’t have all of them, such as dragons or legendary monsters like dragons. I believe that legendary monsters should be implemented into the lore rather than have it be a simple cave encounter. Mix them up, put them together, and have fun with them! Create some chaos! 

  • Behir: Whenever I have a party of mid-leveled murder hobos (level 6-10), I like to have them encounter a Behir in the caves to humble them. It’s not exactly a dragon, but it looks like one, so it can strike fear into your psychopathic player(s) ‘s heart(s). The way it is in combat is similar to a hungry snake that can breathe electricity. It can swallow a person WHOLE, making the party think twice about wanting to fight it without thinking. 
  • Dark mantle: Although these monsters are low-leveled, they are almost essential in cave surprise cave encounters. They hang on the tops of caves, almost blending in with the cave’s stalactites or stalagmites. It also helps them create a magical darkness around themselves to make it look like it’s not even there. 
  • Drider: To add some confusing feelings between the players, I like to have driders have attractive features for the human-like parts of their body (basically their upper half). This can create a relationship between the players and the drider. Maybe they’ll even begin to trust the drider… falling straight into the drider’s trap. If the drider is a cunning little trickster, they may somehow disguise their spider legs. 
  • Gelatinous Cube: An arguable fan-favorite between DMs and players alike, the gelatinous cube is a classic for cave encounters. Commonly implemented into traps, they are an extremely easy encounter to set up since they are not aware for the most part. They have very simple combat mechanics but are still extremely deadly for inexperienced adventurers.
  • Mephits: There are several Mephit variants that can fit in several different ecosystems. For example, if the cave is in a snowy mountain, it would be best to have an Ice Mephit. With the same CR as Darkmantles, it’s good for low-leveled parties. However, they can put together in small groups to make things a bit more challenging if they are not already being led by their master (decided by the DM’s discretion). 

Conclusion on cave encounters in 5e

Whether it be an underwater cave or a cave in the Underdark, the possibilities for encounters are endless regarding these types. Demons, beasts, evil-doers, and hermits have a place here in the caves.

All that’s left is to set the scenario and build your small, cavern world. Or don’t! Be free to build it as you go! No one knows what’s hiding in the shadows, which can help the DM set up for spooky scenarios, silly scenarios, and everything in between. 

Don’t be afraid to use any resources that Dnd and the community can give you. They are extremely resourceful with monsters, puzzles, and many homebrews. All of them have infinite encounters and monsters that can be created and implemented into your ideal adventure. 

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