Working with Aboleths


Aboleths have an identity problem.  They seem to be obviously Lovecraftian in nature, but the writers of the various edition Monster Manuals have done everything in their power to make them just mundane underwater monstrosities. Conceptually, they have always been one of my favorite D&D monsters. I’ve used them in many adventures and campaigns, and have had a lot of issues reconciling what I want an aboleth to be with how they are presented in the manuals. So I’m going to try to rectify that now. Here are a couple ideas.

De-“Humanizing” Aboleths

So the first thing to discuss is how to make the aboleth a terrifying other thing, an entity disconnected from what humans (and dwarves, and elves, and whatever) want and need, existing in its own space of otherness and alien-ness.

To make this happen, a couple thoughts occur to me: the “slime making slaves” ability needs reworking, and we need an expansion on the idea that aboleths may actually be some sort of Old One. So I’ll start with those.

First, regarding slime slavery, the primary problem with the ability is that its description (as written) makes it seem too much like an aboleth A) cares about people and their desires, and/or B) has tasks it needs people for. Neither of these concepts mesh well with the general Lovecraftian ethos. No Old One – at least, of the Lovecraftian variety – has ever cared about humans. From what the Antarctic explorers were able to determine, even the Elder Things, who essentially created humans, considered us to be at most a castoff byproduct of genetic engineering, and at worst, a cosmic joke. So to assume that something Lovecraftian (or in D&D parlance, Far Realms-ian) in nature wants or needs human slaves is kind of an insult to their amount of power, and a misunderstanding of the beings’ levels of concern they show us.

The easiest thing to do would be to just remove the ability entirely. Gone – now aboleths simply don’t care about us. I think there’s a better way though. Let’s just use trappings, and reinterpret the slavery. Madness – especially one where the victims still have some rational capacity and do not believe themselves to be mad, but rather inspired or informed – is very Lovecraftian. Instead of the slime being a weapon the aboleth purposefully uses to create minions, I’ll have it be a toxic emission it either has no control over, or simply releases as a regular bodily function, which induces a particular kind of madness. This madness would cause an immense love on its victims, leading them to worship the creature, though it cares not for their prayers. You may even have groups of people starting cults, thinking in their delusion that the aboleth is some sort of god (which maybe it is – more on that later). They may possibly try to get more people to be like them, and may even find a way to force more people into their new “religion” by tossing them into a watery location the aboleth has been before (subjecting them to the same slimy emission). Obviously, if/when the aboleth moves on from its current location, the cultists would commit mass suicide-by-drowning.

Second, there’s the idea that an aboleth is some sort of Old One. It doesn’t matter that it uses water as its base, so do Cthulhu and Dagon – it just makes it a bit more rare than a lot of the other Old Ones in terms of quantity of people who have personally experienced one. Of course, in terms of pure statistics, the aboleth doesn’t reach anywhere near the power of an old one – even with its legendary actions. We need to make it a bit more powerful – probably closer to the CR 15+ range, than the current CR 10. Up its AC, HD, Proficiency bonus, and size. That makes it more physically intimidating, but we also want to make it more Old One-like, or god-like.

Gods, Dreams, and Madness

The dreams of gods, no matter the subject matter, become the nightmares of people around the world. Gods’ dreams are actually a kind of vampiric, invisible, etherial dreamfog, which is used by the god to harvest thoughts and emotions to feed upon. When filtered through the minds of ordinary sleeping humans, those dreams naturally become corrupted. The dreamfog seeks out sleeping minds, entering in the space between the eyeball and the upper eyelid, and feeds on the emotions of the sleeper, quickly turning dreams to nightmares. The closer the sleeper is to the god, the more powerful the dreamfog, which in turn turns dreams to nightmares faster, which in turn, feeds the dreamfog more quickly to fullness. In many small villages and more rural communities, it is said that if you have a nightmare, a god is nearby, and you should find a way to expeditiously appease it.

Aboleths (and Old Ones) dream too. But even more so than the weird and incomprehensible thoughts of a god, these terrifying un-gods dream in unimaginable and non-Euclidean thoughts. The aboleth’s “mucus” is in actuality their dreamfog, slowly spreading by the tides and water currents to the surrounding underwater regions, and even corrupting coastal regions close by. Those most likely to be corrupted by the spreading madness of the dreamfog are obviously those who live within the water, where it is most concentrated, but because the local land dwellers must get their water from someplace, naturally the corruption spreads as well to those who live above the sea level. This is how an aboleth feeds – through the toxic nightmares of dream-poisoned civilizations.

The nightmares that normal folk have when encountering an aboleth’s dreamfog are beyond words. People rarely remember the content, they just remember an overwhelming sense of dread, and wake up feeling as though the end is incredibly fucking nigh. This compounds night after night, week after week, turning entire cities into despair-driven anti-communities, where everyone thinks someone is after them, and that at any moment, all will suddenly become for naught. It’s city-wide nihilism on crack. All the while, the aboleth feeds, and the city essentially goes through a progressive apocalypse.


About the Author


nerdgame player with too much time on his hands

3 thoughts on “Working with Aboleths

  • Brendan says:

    Thanks for the post. I’ve frequently enjoyed perusing some of your random tables and when I saw you’d posted about Aboleths I was excited to get your take.

    I recently ran a campaign with an Aboleth as the hidden villain and totally agree that the Aboleth in the monster manual doesn’t live up to its promise. The various, upgraded home brew versions often just give it more damaging spells which just makes it seem more conventionally D&D and less cosmic horror. It feels like it’s the vegetarian option at a steakhouse – if you want cosmic horror this is the system’s take but in many ways it’s not what D&D does. A dragon works well in the system because the concept meshes well with the mechanics but how do you represent alien dread? Whilst D&D has conditions that are psychological like ‘afraid’ and ‘charmed’ they’ve never quite clicked for me because whilst there’s a good mesh between flavor and mechanics in a fireball, telling a player they can’t get closer to a monster or that they just don’t want to fight it feels a lot less organic in play.

    Anyhow I’d be keen to see what you come up with because the Aboleth concept just hits that primitive part of the brain in a great way and it’d be awesome to have something that reflects that better.

    • Ishmayl says:

      Glad you enjoyed it! And what timing! I was just working on my blog again today for the first time in quite awhile, and a lot of it has to do with the kind of Lovecraftian/alien/*other* feel of the aboleth as well.

  • Todd Jeffcoat says:

    Wish I’d have found this years ago, before making an aboleth the big bad of my campaign. Excellent work.

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