We have bears in the real world, so they don’t require much in the way of introduction. D&D has always included a variety of bears in its bestiaries, their various real-world species lending themselves well to the “pallette swap” approach preferred by its older editions.
After going through a few Monster Manual-only entries, we finally arrive at one that exists in both books. The Monster Vault has an appendix with stats for mundane animals, likely a response to complaints from traditionalist players that the original Monster Manuals didn’t include any.
But wait! If the Monster Manual doesn’t have anything on mundane animals, what does it say about bears? Let’s find out.
They’re bears. Large, omnivorous, inhabit temperate or colder areas. I wasn’t aware of it until recently, but it appears the “Bear Lore” entry in the Monster Manual is kind of a running joke among 4e players. It’s structured just like the lore entries for weirder monsters, so it ends up telling us a PC needs to succeed at a DC 20 Nature check to know that bears attack with their claws.
IIRC, while real-life bears can be dangerous, they usually don’t go out of their way to attack humans, so most bear encounters will be peaceful. Of course, this being D&D, you can encounter some bears that don’t exist in real life and that are far more ornery.
Combining the two books gives us three different bears: a mundane Bear (MV), a Cave Bear (MM), and the ever spiky Dire Bear (both). All are Unaligned natural beasts and have Int 2.
The Bear likely represents a brown bear. It’s Large, and a Level 5 Brute with 80 HP. It attacks with its claws, and can use a Bear Grab about twice per fight (it recharges when the bear is bloodied). This allows it to make two claw attacks against the same target, and if either one hits the target drops prone and the bear grabs it if it has fewer than two creatures grabbed. This ain’t no normal bear hug. At the start of the bear’s turn, it deals automatic damage against any creatures it has grabbed.
The Cave Bear is meant to represent a species that’s extinct in our world. It’s a Level 6 Elite Brute with 170 HP, but for some reason it’s only Medium. It’s more of a striker than a grappler: aside from its claws, it has a Cave Bear Frenzy that does claw damage in a Close Burst 1 and recharges on a 5-6. That’s a bit less multi-strike ability than I’d expect from an elite monster, but not too much less.
The Dire Bear follows the “bigger and spikier” theme set for dire animals in Third Edition. The Monster Vault version is merely an update of the Monster Manual, so I recommend using that one in all cases. It’s a Large Natural Beast and a Level 11 Elite Brute. Its basic attack are its claws, but it will rarely use that. The Dire Bear’s real go-to ability is Maul, which is at-will and allows it to make two claw attacks. If both hit the same target, the bear grabs the target if it has fewer than two creatures grabbed. This grab requires a secondary attack in the MM version, but not in the MV one. The bear can also use a standard action to deal lots of automatic damage to a grabbed creature (that’s where you use its action point).
Suggested encounters in the MM are: Level 6, two cave bears and one bugbear strangler (“us bears gotta stick together!”); and level 11, 1 dire bear, 1 ettin spirit-talker, and 3 ogre minions.
Well, they’re bears. While there’s nothing terribly exciting about them lore-wise, they do their job mechanically (particularly the Monster Vault variants).
One thing that might be fun is to have an evil druid as a villain, using charmed bears to do his bidding. Have the party be on the receiving end of the Aggressively Hegemonizing Ursine Swarm for once.