Big monsters are cool. This is a simple truth that has served me well throughout my life (at least in the realms of my pop culture consumption). This is doubly true in TTRPGs and Dungeons & Dragons specifically. If you can conjure a scenario in which the heroes overcome not only a dangerous foe, but one that is big in a literal sense, it can feel like that much more of an accomplishment. There is a reason stories of scrawny kids scaling beanstalks or whipping rocks at Philistine champions are so enduring.
The trick is conveying that sense of scale. Especially in the age of covid in which meat-space tables have been replaced with digital maps and tokens, it can be difficult to give players a visual sense of just how big an enormous foe is. As the Dungeon Master it is my job to attempt to paint word pictures that get that sort of thing across, but for every distinct creature, there is a distinct methodology to letting those at the table know just how big the monster is. Below I’ve selected some of D&D’s classic big boys that you can add to your own games to give your players something to fell like the mighty oak.
It’s in the name. Giants come in a variety of shapes and sizes in D&D lore but the one unifying fact is that they are big. Their footfalls cause bowls of water to tremble. Their speech is full of base threats (sometimes about bones and their use in baking). They lumber and stride and generally move like a human would but on a massive scale. Especially at lower levels, when a party of adventurers are just starting to feel like powerful heroes, a well-placed Hill Giant or Fire Giant can remind them how big the food chain gets in a fantasy world. What’s been stealing sheep from the farm? Who drained the still out behind the inn? Why was the Sword Coast’s largest ball of twine stolen? All great story hooks for introducing a giant.
Another obvious one, equal only to Dungeons in terms of titular ubiquity, Dragons are perhaps the most iconic fantasy creature that exists, and they are classics for a reason. Big, flying, fire-breathing, treasure-hoarding nightmares that rain destruction down upon those who cross them, your typical dragon is the offspring of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, an attack helicopter and a villain from a James Bond film. They consider themselves the apex predators in almost any situation and would like it if everyone else believed that too. Their bigness is not just in their physical size but their egos as well. A dragon might gloat as it swoops or smashes downward. They can plan and organize, and they want their victims to know just how they’ve been bested. If a canny group of adventurers play their cards right, catching a dragon in mid-monologue is a great way to catch it off guard, or flee.
There is something unsettling about a small thing that is now a big thing. Rats can be cute enough as pets but the teeth and claws suddenly take on a cruel dimension when the rodent is a more unusual size. Scorpions and spiders are dangerous enough as they are without suddenly being the size of a Volkswagen. Some snakes are already pretty darn big but ones that can be confused with fallen trees crossing a woodland path are something to be truly feared. Their normal sounds take on a louder, more disturbing tenor. Squeaks become roars, the skitter of many legs becomes a rolling line of dull thuds as they strike the earth no less quickly. A lot of players already have a fear of creepy crawlies at their normal dimensions, so be sure that if anyone has an intolerable phobia to use their giant counterparts without giving anyone a panic attack. A safe and fun one that I’ve used successfully is the Roc, an eagle the size of an airliner.
It doesn’t get much bigger than this. The Godzilla of D&D monsters, the tarrasque, is not generally a monster to be slain so much as it is a hurricane with teeth and scales. Attacking one, if it even notices, only serves to make it irritated and perhaps lure it in a direction where the destruction will be less apocalyptic. Its hide reflects spells, its size baffles conventional weaponry, and it turns cities into little more than kindling. The roar of the tarrasque breaks glass and shatters eardrums. Its footfalls send masonry cracking. In my experience a creature like this should rarely serve as an actual combat encounter and more like a puzzle to be solved. When a tarrasque is involved, it is all about mitigating damage both to the heroes themselves but also the world upon which the monster has been unleashed. Think about them like the kaiju of D&D. The people on the ground might find some clever way to drive the beast off, but they rarely kill it outright.
For more articles on creating compelling D&D campaigns, check out Mike's other articles, "Backing Up Your Backstory," "Consenting to the Horror of Ravenloft," and "Being Modular."