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Things from Beyond the Stars
Wandering Monsters
By James Wyatt

A nd now for something completely (well, a little) different. First off, I'm done with undead for now. But I also want to show off some of the work that I've been doing.


As I write this (about three weeks ago, by the time you read this), our design team is about to start work on a bunch of monsters meant for the next packet of playtest material. I've just finished writing up a bunch of "story briefs" for those monsters, so that the design of the monsters' statistics is informed by an established and agreed-upon vision of what the monster is, what it can do, and generally what it's like.

One of the monsters that will be in that next packet (assuming all goes well) is the beholder. So in a moment I'll show you the story brief I wrote for the beholder. As I wrote it, I was looking at every incarnation of the monster from past editions, as well as at notes from a meeting we had back in August to talk about some aberrations. Really, this is just my effort to distill all that information down to something that's barely more than bullet points highlighting the key elements of the monster.

For different reasons, I didn't write story briefs for mind flayers or aboleths during this most recent work: the mind flayer already appears in a playtest packet, and the aboleth's not on the docket yet. But I've written them up after the beholder anyway so that you can se them—and because that's work that will come in handy for us in the weeks and months ahead.

Digression: What's an Aberration?

Before I get to the beholder, though, I want to give you a glimpse into the thinking we've been doing about monster types.

Here are some past definitions of aberrations:

Aberration Type: An aberration has a bizarre anatomy, strange abilities, an alien mindset, or any combination of the three. (3.5 Monster Manual)

Aberrant [Origin]: Aberrant creatures are native to or strongly corrupted by the distant alien plane known as the Far Realm. Many aberrant creatures have tentacles, eyestalks, or other strange characteristics. (4th Edition Monster Manual)

Now here's our working definition for D&D Next:

Aberration: Aberrations are utterly alien beings that have no place in the natural world—even the fantastic world of D&D. Their bodies and minds are so unlike natural creatures that they are virtually incomprehensible to the human mind. Many of them have innate magical abilities, but even these abilities are alien and unusual, often involving the strange magic of psionics, drawn from the creature's alien mind rather than the normal mystical forces of the world. Many aberrations have the ability to transform natural creatures into corrupted horrors.

We tried to craft a definition of the type that (a) doesn't rely on the Far Realm, which might not be a part of every DM's campaign, and (b) doesn't turn creatures like crabs (eyestalks) and squid (tentacles) into aberrations, no matter how much they might deserve it, and (c) is pretty specific about what "bizarre," "strange," and "alien" mean in the context of the often-bizarre worlds of D&D.

Beholder

Type: Aberration

Level: High

Environment: Any underground

Beholders are aberrations that should be encountered at high level. Their key ability is their eye rays—one specific effect for each small eyestalk, plus an antimagic cone from the central eye. The traditional abilities of the eye rays, which we should deviate from as little as possible, are as follows: charm person, charm monster, disintegrate, fear, death ray/finger of death, flesh to stone, cause/inflict wounds, sleep, slow, and telekinesis.

Beholders are hateful, aggressive, and avaricious. It's possible to negotiate with a beholder if you have something it wants and show proper deference to its power. Beholders sometimes act as hidden masterminds pulling strings from behind the scenes, like the Xanathar in Skullport.

Each beholder is an individual, with a name and distinct abilities (slight variations in its eye rays). Each one believes it is the perfect example of its race, which is why they generally distrust or even hate each other. They are usually loners, but they are occasionally found in clusters of beholders that are similar enough to get along. There are rumors and legends of great beholder city-hives, united by the incredible will and power of a so-called Great Mother who suppresses all dissension among her subjects.

Beholders have an iconic look and a common set of iconic abilities. Variations occur, however, and despite the efforts of other beholders to stamp out these deviants, some of them survive. Mostly they're minor variations of eye ray powers, but occasionally some very wild variations can occur. (This allows us to use old beholder variants without having to say that each one is a distinct kind of beholder—they might each be unique.)

Beholders have a high Intelligence score. Their strengths are their eye beams, their role as masterminds, and their antimagic eyes. Their weaknesses are physical combat (a beholder's bite should not be anywhere near as scary as its eye rays) and their inability to cooperate or work together.

Mind Flayer

Type: Aberration

Level: Medium

Environment: Any underground

A mind flayer's defining characteristics are its psionic powers (including mind blast, telepathy, and domination) and its propensity for eating brains.

A mind flayer's mind blast stuns characters in a cone-shaped blast in front of it. The creature can use this to stun prey, making it easy to get its tentacles into the target's brain, or to give it a chance to back away from enemies who have gotten too close. Mind flayers are a little like the wizard of the party: super-smart but not strong, and happier lobbing spells or psionic powers into melee from behind a group of thralls.

Mind flayers use telepathy to communicate. They can't speak, and their language is written only. All their communication is mental, although they use subtle movements of their tentacles to add emphasis, in the same way that many people talk with their hands. Written reports of mind flayers shouting probably derive from the force of a mind flayer's will sending its thoughts into the narrator's brain.

Mind flayers can dominate enemies in the short-term. For example, they can turn one opponent against the others in the middle of combat. Over time, through repeated use of the mind flayer's abilities, the dominated creature's will breaks down and it becomes a thrall, more or less permanently enslaved to its master's will.

Mind flayers have other psionic powers, with levitation being the most common. Mind flayers often, but not always, have ability as spellcasters, using either arcane (only very rarely divine) magic or psionics.

A mind flayer eats brains by inserting its tentacles through the skull of a stunned or dominated humanoid victim. Its tentacles secrete an enzyme that dissolves flesh and bone, allowing the flayer to bore through the skull and extract brain matter. This is a time-consuming process and can't be used against a creature that's actively resisting. (The enzyme dries quickly in air, becoming useless.)

Mind flayers live in a hivelike society organized around an elder brain made up of the brains of the community's dead members. The elder brain sits in a pool at the heart of a mind flayer settlement. It has tentacles, but it is not a terribly effective combatant. It can use all the mental powers of a mind flayer, though, mind blasting any who disturb it and using domination to force other creatures to protect it.

Outside their large communities, mind flayers are typically encountered either as solitary individuals with a group of thralls or as small hunting parties venturing into the Underdark (or even the surface) in search of brains to feed the community. Most mind flayers retain a connection, however tenuous, to the elder brain of their community, but a few loners are cut off from the elder brain entirely. Such individuals tend to go slowly (or quickly) insane.

Mind flayers are created through a horrible process called ceremorphosis, in which a mind flayer tadpole is implanted into the brain of a living humanoid (usually a human). Over time, the host is painfully transformed into a mind flayer as the tadpole grows and alters its host's form.

A mind flayer's thralls consist of whatever creatures it can acquire through raiding nearby subterranean communities or purchasing slaves. Grimlocks, bugbears, ogres, drow, and duergar are among the most common thralls.

Aboleth

Type: Aberration

Level: High

Environment: Underground water

Aboleths are Huge (20' long), revolting, fishlike amphibians that dwell in subterranean lakes and rivers. Like the mind flayer, they are super-intelligent creatures largely defined by their psionic abilities, though they also have their own form of body horror.

An aboleth can dominate a nearby creature, a long-lasting effect that (like a mind flayer's ability) slowly wears down the victim's will and creates a permanent thrall. They use powers of illusion and misdirection to mislead enemies, draw air-breathing creatures into the water, or avoid conflict with a powerful foe. Its illusions are mostly mental figments—memories drawn from the aboleth's vast store of racial knowledge and projected into the victim's mind.

An aboleth's four tentacles bludgeon enemies up to 15 feet away. The slime-coated tentacles can also cause a terrible affliction, causing the victim's skin to slowly transform into a clear, slimy membrane over the next several minutes. A cure disease spell can stop the transformation before it is complete, but after the change is completed, more powerful magic is required. Once transformed, the victim must remain moist or take damage as the membrane dries out. Aboleths have also created a servitor race, called skum, by manipulating human slaves to produce corrupted offspring.

An aboleth in water secretes a slimy mucus that surrounds its body. This mucus works its way into the lungs of a creature it touches, coating the lungs so that the victim can breathe water for the next 3 hours but can no longer breathe air. Aboleths use this mucus to give their slaves the ability to breathe water, and it is also useful in the creation of potions of water breathing.

Aboleths are an incredibly ancient race, possibly predating any other sentient species. They remember when they used to rule the world, and they long to see that era return. In fact, each aboleth literally remembers that time, because aboleths pass their memories on to their descendants. In addition, when an aboleth consumes a sentient creature, it assimilates the memories of that creature and passes those memories down through the generations as well. Thus, aboleths represent a tremendous storehouse of knowledge, though their subterranean existence limits the breadth of that knowledge to some extent.

Aboleths are mostly encountered in small groups attended by a larger number of slaves. Some scholars know of legends of huge underwater cities where hundreds of aboleths gather.

Aboleths are slow and awkward out of water, but they can pull themselves along the ground using their tentacles. If an aboleth is too long out of water, its skin dries up. An aboleth that gets too dry hardens like a shell, becoming dormant (though very resistant to damage) until it is returned to the water.

What Do You Think?

And there we have the three stars of the aberration world. Let us know how they work for you.

  First, how do you like our new definition of aberrations?  
1-It’s totally off base.
2-Works well enough, I guess.
3-Perfect!

  How well do the beholders we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D creature?  
1-I’m pretty sure that’s a gas spore.
2-It’s so wrong, it’s like an aberration.
3-It’s getting there, but not quite working for me.
4-Yeah, I recognize that as a beholder.
5-Any beholder that does not match this description must be eradicated.

  How well do the beholders we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D creature?  
1-I’m pretty sure that’s a gas spore.
2-It’s so wrong, it’s like an aberration.
3-It’s getting there, but not quite working for me.
4-Yeah, I recognize that as a beholder.
5-Any beholder that does not match this description must be eradicated.

  How well do the mind flayers we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D creature?  
1-If that’s a mind flayer, I’m an elder brain.
2-It’s so wrong, it’s like an aberration.
3-It’s getting there, but not quite working for me.
4-Yeah, I recognize that as a mind flayer.
5-The elder brain approves.

  How well do the aboleths we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D creature?  
1-I’m pretty sure that’s a mental figment.
2-It’s so wrong, it’s like an aberration.
3-It’s getting there, but not quite working for me.
4-Yeah, I recognize that as an aboleth.
5-I remember when these creatures ruled the world!

Last Week's Polls

How well do the ghosts we've described here match your sense of the iconic D&D undead?
1-That's just a kid in a sheet. 10 1.1%
2-I can see right through it. 19 2.0%
3-It's too ambiguous; it needs hard and fast rules. 81 8.7%
4-That's a really good costume. 331 35.4%
5-I think I've seen a ghost! 495 52.9%
Total 936 100.0%

How well do the specters we've described here match your sense of the iconic D&D undead?
1-The game doesn't even need specters-they're just ghosts. 58 5.6%
2-I want a specter, but this isn't it. 115 11.1%
3-It's too much like a ghost. 239 23.1%
4-Yeah, I recognize that as a specter. 445 42.9%
5-I'm afraid. I'm very afraid. 180 17.3
Total 1037 100.0%

James Wyatt
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.
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