Beholders are CR 13, and one of the most iconic monsters in D&D – they’re a powerful foe, a match for many mid-level parties, and narratively speaking, power players. Any eye tyrant in an area tends to have some measure of control over their surroundings, be it through thralls, cultists, the weaving of its many plots and stratagems, or raw displays of magical force.
So it is no surprise that many DMs run into a bit of an issue when they want or need to throw a Beholder at the party (like, say, from a random encounter table) but haven’t woven them into the plot yet. And if you just want a fun blasty fight that’s fine! But beholders are terrifying, deadly, and _weird_ foes, deserving of an entrance with _style_. They’re also mad genuises, paranoid and obsessed, weaving devious plans and discarding them just as quickly. To help, here are some ideas for why a beholder might be wandering far from its lair, where the PCs might bump into one. (Many of these ideas also include terrain that favors the beholder and/or minions – the assumption is that the party is encountering one at a level where they can potentially defeat it, and solo monsters don’t last long in D&D – even eye tyrants!)
Beholder Random Encounters (For random selection, roll a d6)
1) The Stuck Squire. The previous terrain gives way to a deep chasm, a mere 10 feet wide but nearly 100 feet deep. Slime stains the nearest edges of the pit, and the corpse of a fomorian giant lies nearby, partially eaten. Something metal glints at the base of the chasm, and makes rattling noises. The PCs will discover it is a small silver raven figurine, trapped under fallen rubble…just as a beholder returns overhead. It accuses them of trying to steal its “squire” Eliam. If they attempt to explain, the eye tyrant will too. It was on a “grand quest” when this territorial fomorian decided to pick a fight – it died of course, for the beholder has slain all challengers, but not before knocking Eliam out of its grasp. It telekinesis stalk hasn’t been enough to free it.
The PCs may choose to fight it but are at a bit of a disadvantage (they have cover from the chasm walls, but the beholder is 120 feet above them, viewing them with its darkvision, and the chasm is narrow and deep. They can also try to bypass its paranoia, convince it they are not thieves, and offer to free its “companion”. The beholder will respond promising mercy – this is a lie. If they ever lose their grip on the statuette, the beholder with telekinesis it atop its head and attack. If they destroy the raven, the beholder is demoralized and enraged, suffering disadvantage on Wisdom and Charisma saves and advantage with its bite attack. If they hold the raven hostage, the beholder will bargain as best it can…and then betray them as soon as they let their guard down.
2) Trap Door Merchant. The party encounters an elven merchant, Mira, resting on a low stone bench, and her assistant Max, examining their supplies. The beholder is hiding in a pit it disintegrated in the ground a short distance away, a single telekinetic eyestalk watching as the party approaches. It killed the elf a few days ago when she tried to fool it with fake magic items and proved resistant to its charms, unlike her assistant. Since then, it has convinced the assistant to help it lure people in and purchase their goods for outlandish prices or magic items, until it has amassed enough magical power to “fix its impolite mistake” and bring the elf back to life. The charmed Max desperately wants to believe this, so he does his best to convince the PCs – the beholder has given him a number of useless items from prior kills (currently in the pit with it), claiming they are powerful magic items (it knows the names of a few). The beholder isn’t great at hiding, but since only the eyestalk is peeking over the edge it is a DC 17 to notice it.
If the PCs use Insight on Max, he seems to be telling the truth (he truly believes he needs to get their items, and that the items the beholder has given him are magical), but they may be able to tell he seems a bit manic (and can tell he is charmed if they beat DC 16). If they attempt to bother Mira, the beholder uses its telekinesis stalk to move her arm to wave them off, nod, etc., and Max explains she is mute (this is a lie). If they attempt to use identify or detect magic on the items, the beholder lifts its main eye over the edge of the pit (reducing the Perception DC to 12), bathing them in its Antimagic Cone (but not Max). Max will be confused if they complain about their spell not working, asking if maybe they cast it incorrectly.
The beholder is very perceptive and paranoid – it doesn’t care if they threaten Max or Mira’s corpse, but if there is even a hint they perceive it or cast a spell in its direction, it will attack. Max will desperately interpose himself between them and the eye tyrant, grappling them or using the few real magic items Mira had if necessary, begging them not to ruin her chances. The beholder will attempt to telekinesis, charm, or paralyze and shove weaker characters into the pit (filled with corpses, sharp weapons, and sheer slimy walls), or pin them under the bench (it tosses Mira’s body to do so).
3) They Call Me Eyeshmael. The terrain changes drastically as the party descends into the valley, becoming a morass of sticky purplish slime. Deeper in they can hear the jangling of chains and heavy thumps, but when they get close, the noise ceases. The lowest 10 feet of the valley is filled with sickly greenish mist (treat as Stinking Cloud, DC 18), and when the party gets within 120 feet of it, a beholder looms out of the fog and attacks – with a massive chain dangling from its lower jaw. The chain and the statue it is attached to (the petrified body of a cleric who used Divine Intervention to curse it with his final breath) are magical, and thus immune to its disintegration. The statue is 450 lbs, too heavy for it to lift with its teeth or telekinesis, though it can drag it around the valley at a rate of 5 feet.
The beholder will use lair actions and eye rays to keep the party away from the mist, hoping to charm or disable three of them and kill the rest (three should be enough to lift the statue and carry it out of the valley to freedom). The party can run into the mist to protect themselves from its eye rays, but it can still try to bite them or drop trees and rocks on them unless they can also resist its poisonous effects and hide. Climbing the chain while it is whipping around requires Athletics DCs of 18, while dragging the beholder down to the ground requires both hands in an opposed Strength check (besides the mist saves). For optimized parties, add 3d4 Gas Spores hiding in the mist. If they are able to defeat the beholder and restore the cleric to life, they will be well rewarded.
4) Snake Put. As the party travels in the shadow of a 500ft tall cliff, a vast donut-shaped shadow passes overhead. Then a statue of an ouroboros – a giant constrictor snake bitings its own tail – smashes into the ground nearby, shattering to pieces. They hear a deep voice far above yell “PULL!” As they look up to see two beholders chuckling, Xryll and Drixx. A giant constrictor snake lunges off of the cliff, bites its tail in the air, and one of the beholders squints, waiting for the perfect moment. It zaps the charmed snake, turning it to stone as it crashes to the ground.
Every time a stone-snake falls, have the PC it targets make a Dexterity save DC 16 (if they stay as still as possible until the last minute, give them advantage – the beholders are actually trying to drop the snake around them, not on them). If they fail, they take 10d6 damage; if they fail by 5 or more, they take 20d6. If the snake makes its Dexterity saving throw against the Petrification Ray, it isn’t stone when it hits the ground – the PC its targeting has resistance to its damage. The snakes always take 20d6, but if one does manage to survive, it slithers away from everyone in a panic. If they engage Xryll and Drixx in conversation, they will happily explain it is a game of pinpoint accuracy and timing – the winner is the one who lands a “stonesnake” around a “squishy” without squishing them. Roll a d20 for every snake launched after the first two – a 20 means that beholder wins the contest, both reward the party for being good sports, and leave.
If the PCs are sneaky about it, they could cheat, but if they are caught or if they attack the beholders, both beholders will attack them and each other (both Xryll and Drixx are certain the other is a sore loser, and has hired them as assassins to kill the other.) They will focus on each other and only attack the PCs with legendary actions, until one of the eye tyrants is dead. If the PCs hug the cliff (gaining total cover from the beholders), they will be mostly ignored until one or the other is dead.
There is a pile of a dozen more Giant Constrictor Snakes behind the beholders. They’re charmed to participate in the game so they must be ordered to attack something on the beholder’s turn if desired, and each beholder controls half of them.
5) Eye Stalking. The beholder desperately needs the party intact and (mostly) unharmed, either as part of a pact with powerful slavers like Drow, an arcane experiment, or working for an even more terrifying villain the PCs have angered or intrigued. As such, the eye tyrant has set a trap in their path. It lies in wait in what appears to be an open area, thanks to a Mirage Arcane cast by its allies. In reality, the trees, surrounding cliffs, or cavernous ceiling support dozens of metal cages and poison sleep dart launchers, the floor covered with snares and bear traps. The beholder hides behind the one object in the area large enough for it, ambushing the party as they approach the traps (it keeps its central eye closed until it absolutely must use it, so as not to reveal the location of the traps until sprung).
It uses its nonlethal rays as intelligently as possible: Telekinesis to disarm weapons, component pouches, and foci, charms to convince them to surrender, paralysis to hold them, fear to scare them into other traps, petrification on the ones that refuse to move into the trap field, and slowing the ones who do. It saves the disintegration, death, and enervation rays for triggering traps, severing ropes and disintegrating branches to lock them down and gives its debilitating rays time to work. It may also use its Antimagic Cone to discover which of the PCs’ items are magical (by seeing which “turn off”), and then use its damaging rays specifically on their non-magical combat gear, especially armor. If it wins, combat ends and it can continue using it sleep, charm, and paralysis rays to keep them under. If it looks like it will lose, there are always the minions who set up the traps hiding around the bend…
6) Wuthering H-eye-ts. As the wind picks up and clouds turn dark, the party comes upon a terrified farmer, head in his hands. He explains the keep with the bridge up ahead is off-limits – a terrifying abomination has descended upon the town for their sins. It’s taken a shine to Lady Catherine, kidnapped her, and has used its terrible powers to change, torture, and kill. (He hasn’t actually seen it; just his newly-charmed friends and a few people slain by death rays.) If pressed, he will admit that Catherine is the jilted lover of the local lord, and fled into the mountains (where the beholder’s lair is) in shame, only now returning. The town bears evidence of a terrible slaughter, but most of the people are missing and there are no monstrous tracks at all.
Once they make their way to the now-stormy keep, the horror will be known – a beholder is giggling and blasting townsfolk, some charmed and dancing, most petrified in rows, others reduced to dust. If they approach openly, Catherine feigns capture – if they approach by stealth they see the truth: it is Catherine directing the eye tyrant on whom to kill or manipulate, as she lists their slights against her.
The area is experiencing high winds due to the storm, making flying and ranged attacks difficult for all but the beholder (see the Weather section of the DMG). The petrified people have been set in aesthetically pleasing columns and rows along with the actual statues of the keep and some tombstones, but it’s not just for show – either Catherine or the beholder (with its body or telekinesis) can shove part of a row to set off a domino effect, potentially pinning a PC further down the line (treat as grappled and restrained with an Escape DC of 16). The charmed townsfolk will try to dance with them or the enemies, not attacking but getting in the way of AoE effects, movement, and providing cover to Catherine.
Finally, two of the statues carry Mirrors of Beholding (see my first Ocular October post from last year!), allowing the beholder to reflect its rays at odd angles and down corridors. This is in fact why the beholder is gleefully going along with Catherine’s revenge spree – she discovered its lair, and being a cagey (and lucky) lass, when it tried to charm her she grabbed a nearby mirror and hit it with its own ray. She will admit as much if confronted and threatened by the PCs, possibly giving them an edge in the fight. (Though truth be told, the eye tyrant is having an awful lot of fun acting on someone else’s bloodthirsty whims for a change.)
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Obviously, the encounters above should be tailored to the environment the PCs find themselves in – by the level one would fight a beholder, it’s entirely possible they’ve moved beyond the standard medieval fantasy many of these assume. Perhaps Wuthering H-eye-ts takes place in a town of Azers in the Elemental Plane of Fire, or Snake Put occurs with giant phase-eels the beholders pull from an adjacent layer during the party’s nightmarish trip through the Far Realms – and they drop them up, not down. The basic concepts remain the same, but the details can certainly be tailored to match the “epic” feel of these foes…even in the more casual setting of a Wandering Monster encounter.