The Minotaur is a pretty iconic monster: half man, half beast. From a symbolic perspective, it’s the epitome of masculinity: the bull is already a masculine symbol, but then you pair it with an actual athletic male body it’s all the more potent. And with its bull head it lacks all the softness and emotion that comes with a face. The Minotaur is man removed from humanity, from civilization. According to mythology, the Minotaur itself is a sad figure, almost tragic. He’s the offspring of the Queen of Crete and an actual bull. In her defence, she was enchanted by Aphrodite. He was cast into a labyrinth by his stepfather, fed a diet of captured humans, and eventually killed by hero Theseus.
So famous is the story of the Minotaur that Microsoft Word autocorrects it, capitalizing the name “Minotaur”. Which is a pain if you’re writing about minotaurs in D&D.
This is one way D&D (and fantasy fiction) separates itself from mythology. There is not a Minotaur, there are the minotaurs. In earlier editions, minotaurs were a group suffering under a divine cursed, all male but in the world of Dragonlance minotaurs are a race, descended from ogres but differing from standard minotaurs due to being medium sized and having feet instead of hooves. D&D takes a single creature and makes them legion, so an adventuring party can defeat one time and time again. Given the design of 4e, not only was it likely a party would fight more than one minotaur during their career, but they might even face multiple minotaurs in a single encounter.
But does D&D lose something by its focus on ecology and the reproduction of monsters, by having each monster be one of many? Does moving away from unique creatures remove some of the mythical feel from the game?
Why the Change?
Let’s start by addressing the related question: why are most singular monsters species in D&D? The answer is fairly simple. The monsters of classic mythology are the superstars of the monster world. Mythology has set the bar for heroism and everyone wants to see how they compare: everyone wants to kill the Minotaur or see if they can do better against the hydra than Hercules.
While WotC (and TSR before it) might like to believe their Intellectual Property is second to none it simply cannot compete with monsters created and distilled across centuries of stories from the myths and legends of dozens of cultures. While I adore many D&D beasties, but the Minotaur and hydra and medusa are memorable in ways the Mind Flayer, beholder, ettercap and owlbear can never be (going with some personal favourites for that example). Non-gamers - young and old - are familiar with the medusa or the sphinx. While an Illithid might instantly grab the attention and evoke familiar feelings (due to its similarities with Cthulhu), it is just not known to the uninitiated. New gamers, those who have not snuck a peek through the Monster Manual, won’t react to it any differently to an Illithid than they would a displacer beast, mimic, or even a flumph.
There’s actually an interesting learning curve to monsters in the game. Experienced players know if an Illithid or beholder shows up they better bring their A-game while rookies will laugh at the absurd floating beach ball covered in eyestalks (while the really experience players - at least of those familiar with the last two editions - will know DMs typically only use level appropriate monsters and just charge in).
Benefits of Species
There are a few benefits of graduating monsters from unique status to races. First, there’s the aforementioned chance for different players to face the same foe. There’s also the opportunity to increase the stakes and double the number of monsters. Stuff gets real when in the middle of a pitched battle with a hydra its mate shows up.
There’s also the opportunity for variants. Mythological monsters are a known commodity: you decapitate a hydra and burn the stumps. But if you suddenly throw a pyrohydra at the party then the standard tactics have to be abandoned and new strategies formed. This evil surprise only works if the traits of the creature are well known.
Players are not the only ones at the table with favourite monsters. DMs also have beloved beast they love to throw at parties. If owlbears were unique and the result of a singular magical experiment than DMs who love them some bear-owl hybrids would only be able to use them once per campaign setting. Multiple campaigns in the same world would gradually reduce the pool of potential monsters. This goes double for published campaign settings, where DMs might conceivably have to consider adventures and novels. Has there been a hydra featured prominently in the Forgotten Realms? While DMs should always be encouraged to make worlds their own (your own private Forgotten Realms) not everyone wants that. Some people like being part of a larger shared experience.
Sometimes you don’t want a monster to be unique. Random encounters are meant to be forgettable diversions. Having to come up with a backstory for an incidental filler encounter is unnecessary busy work.
There are also a few benefits from species that come from problems with unique monsters.
First, unique monsters can also be a bit of a narrative crutch. This comes down to the first rule of writing: show not tell. If a monster is The Monster then you’re not showing it being special, you’re telling the players that it’s special. If a monsters a monster then more work needs to be done to make it memorable, which means you need show more (additionally, as the first rule of good DMing is involve not show, then demonstrating why the monster is memorable should include some interaction). Just having a bugbear appear in a battle doesn’t make it interesting. The bugbear needs more to be more than an easily dispatched random encounter.
Second, there’s no reason needed to explain where the monster came from. The hydra terrorizing the swamp came from a mommy hydra and a daddy hydra who loved each other very much. No origin story is needed, no history or mythology. That particular monster might have a history, but in the same way a humanoid villain has a history.
Benefits of Uniques
There are a number of benefits to having monsters be unique and special. Most of these are related to the desired tone of the campaign.
First, there’s the inherent name value that comes from singular monsters. If you kill unique monster, the characters become instant legends. For those wanting a more mythological campaign, one that is less fantastic, this helps maintain that tone. It’s an excuse to allow the Player Characters to develop a reputation and become recognised. Those are the adventures bards sing songs about.
Likewise, in a lower magic world, monstrous species might be rarer and more creatures might be unique. This doesn’t mean the PCs are fighting fewer monsters; Solomon Kane (or Buffy the Vampire Slayer) never lacked creatures to kill, there was the implication monsters were the anomaly, variations on the norm. You never read a story where Conan enters a new kingdom and nothing interesting happens or watch an episodes where the Doctor lands the TARDIS where he’d planned and has some uneventful sightseeing. The PCs just happen into the rare and unique monsters, either due to luck, destiny, or being the only people fool enough to walk through the horrible bog or horribleness.
Being the ones to face unique monstrosities helps differentiate the heroes. In a world where any town guard might be called on to kill orcs or defend against a manticore the PCs might be better but not necessarily special. In contrast, if the worst the town constabulary has to ward against is bandits while the heroes are fighting the Chimera then the heroes are something rare indeed.
With unique creatures, there’s also the benefit of not having to worry about the ecology of monsters: where they live, how the land can support families, how they breed, etc. Having been reading my 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual lately, it’s impressive how many monsters were antisocial and pair up just to breed and then forsake their kind once again. There’s the understated question of why these solitary creatures with strictly enforced territory several miles across don’t end up dying out because they never see another of their kind.
Unique monsters also helps justify why the world isn’t completely overrun. If it takes roughly a dozen battles for the PCs to level up then there are 12 solo-monsters at each level.
Not defaulting every monster being part of a species means those that are members of a race have a reason to be so: it means something and the fill a role in the world. Even assuming many extraplanar threats, there still must be well over two-hundred monsters in the world, half of which are above level 10 and able to destroy villages. Why haven’t those hundred horrors wiped out every living soul on the planet under 10th level? If most of them are unique, then it’s because most of them know they’re alone against an entire region or kingdom of people. But if there are a dozen, then banding together for an afternoon of genocide seems logical.
There are a LOT of monsters in D&D. There are no shortage of new creatures to pit against even seasoned players. Having some monsters be “unavailable” due to having been killed in an earlier campaign forces a DM to try new monsters and move out of a comfortable groove. Rather than just go with the most recognisable monster of appropriate CR and level the DM has to look a little deeper.
Unique monsters deserve unique stories. If there’s only one ettercap or choker in the world then why does it exist? How does its appearance and abilities reflect its origin? This is a great way to get the flavour of a world across. There’s only one dragon in Dark Sun and it exists for a reason, and it’s background is tied to the entire history of the setting. Sometimes this is easier than others, but if every monster is unique it’s hard for them to remain unique without eventual narrative overlap. Unless your gods are incredibly fickle and vindictive, not every monster should be the result of a divine curse. Likewise, being the result of a mad wizard’s experiments is a valid origin once or maybe twice.
It’s good to occasionally stop and challenge your assumptions regarding a world or trope of a game, stopping to wonder if it still works or it’s a remnant of prior assumptions best discarded. This goes double when planning a new campaign or building a new fantasy world.
Are minotaurs a species? Maybe. But maybe not. Even if they’re not a true species, that doesn’t mean there’s only one solitary minotaur. Each minotaur might be unique, but there might be many. If the gods cursed one man for his sins with the form of a half-beast, why not curse others? It might be a standardized curse - just because they’re a god doesn’t mean they’re inventive.But remembering to at least ask the question is a good lesson.