It’s been a bit since I wrote about tabletop gaming, so I thought now would be a good time to return to the Monster Manual to discuss a personal favorite monster of mine: the aquatic, psionic aboleth!
I’ve got a weakness for aberrations, seeing as they draw heavily from the cosmic horror genre I’m so fond of. Aboleths are one of the more iconic forms of aberrant monster, having debuted in David Cook’s adventure module Dwellers of the Forbidden City way back in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons days. Fun fact: that module also introduced everyone’s favorite race of snake cultists, the yuan-ti!
Dwellers was an adventure that clearly had its roots in pulp fiction; it dealt with a dangerous jungle trek and a mysterious cult–hallmarks of the writings of H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the like. Aboleths in particular smack of the Lovecraftian. As you may recall from my recent Borderlands post, the guy had a thing about fish, and aboleths being horrible psychic fish monsters… well, they’re definitely inside H. P.’s wheelhouse.
The background information the Monster Manual provides paints aboleths as consummate schemers. These fishy fiends have been around a long, long time–even predating the gods–and their flawless memories ensure that they remember every second of it. That means that in addition to building up knowledge over millennia, they’ve got the mental acumen to carry out plans that can take centuries to come to fruition.
Oh, and since they remember everything, you’d better believe they hold grudges. That could be a neat hook for an adventure; the Monster Manual points out that the aboleths have been plotting against the gods for eons, which is nifty enough on its own, but you could also make things a bit more personal. What if a character’s great-great-grandfather was a sailor who angered an aboleth, and now the aberration’s vengeful plot is finally culminating with the destruction of his foe’s descendants?
It’s noted that aboleths often use their psychic powers to enslave the people of coastal villages, turning themselves into objects of worship. It gives them a Dagon vibe that I really dig. At Challenge Rating 10, they’ve got the power to back up this lore, too! An aboleth would make a great capstone boss for a story arc (or mid-level campaign, even) centered around the odd goings-on of a seaside town.
In fact, aboleths are well-positioned to take on the role of a boss because they get access to the 5th Edition boss monster staples: lair actions and legendary actions! Aboleths tend to build their lairs in ancient underwater ruins or hidden subterranean lakes. When they’re in these locations, the creature gains access to powerful illusory magic and enhanced psychic abilities. Staying out of the water won’t keep you safe, either–they can use one of their lair actions to knock you down and pull you into the deep.
Imagine running a campaign that starts in a quaint coastal village. The players get to know the people of this little town, form relationships, but all the while they can tell something is… off. Some of the people act strangely. The normal gods aren’t worshiped here. Perhaps there are some villagers who are also aware of the strangeness, but one by one they either disappear or start acting weird themselves. Finally, the players uncover the secret: an aboleth has been slowly, insidiously tightening its grasp on the populace, and it’s not happy that the players have discovered it. The players have to quickly locate and infiltrate the aboleth’s underwater lair, which is a twisting maze of maddening geometry and hideous, ruined architecture, culminating in a pitched battle beneath the waves! That sounds like a pretty great campaign to me, especially if your players enjoy intrigue and just a dash of horror.
Don’t want to stop there? Good news! When an aboleth dies, its spirit journeys to the Elemental Plane of Water, where it fashions a new body so that it can return to the Material Plane. If you want to keep the story going, the campaign can transform into a cross-planar adventure as the players try to track down the aboleth’s spirit and find a way to prevent its reincarnation! After all, aboleths have long memories, and if this one comes back it will likely target the adventurers who foiled its last plan.
How, then, can the players stop it from returning? Are there ancient spells, lost to time, that can trap an aboleth’s spirit? Is there some kind of relic that can destroy an aboleth’s soul permanently? Perhaps a deal could be brokered with a powerful elemental to prevent the aberration from ever leaving the Plane of Water again. And how will the players get to the Plane of Water to begin with? All of these could lead to fun, memorable adventures!
As juicy as the lore is for this monster, I’d be remiss if I didn’t dig into its actual stat block. One of the yuckiest traits of the aboleth is its mucous cloud. This is a disgusting aura that surrounds the aboleth while it is underwater; anyone who gets too close runs the risk of being infected by the aboleth’s mucus, rendering them unable to breathe above water. It’s not a permanent condition, but it’s certainly frightening for any player who gets afflicted with it!
Naturally, the aboleth also has some psychic powers to fall back on. In addition to its basic telepathy, the aboleth can enslave creatures who fail a Wisdom saving throw. Enslaved creatures follow the aboleth’s every command until either the targeted creature breaks free of the mind control or the aboleth dies. Though the aberration can only do this three times a day, that’s more than enough uses to overwhelm a small- to medium-sized party! On top of that, the aboleth can subject its enslaved minions to a damaging psychic drain, healing the monster while hurting the target.
Even the aboleth’s regular attacks can be deadly. While its tail attack isn’t anything special, you need to watch out for its tentacles. In addition to dealing decent damage, these things can transmit a disease that horrifically transmogrifies the target: infected characters can’t leave the water without taking damage, and their skin turns translucent and slimy. Even worse, it takes fairly advanced healing magic to remove the disease. At least the mucous cloud’s effects wear off after a few hours; if you get infected with this tentacle stuff, you could be stuck underwater for a lot longer! Granted, if the party has a high-level Cleric, you’ll be fine, but if it doesn’t…
Then again, that could just add to the fun–your party has just defeated the horror that lurks in the deep, but one of you was changed by the experience. Now you’re on a quest to save that party member from their dread fate! It might be as simple as heading to a nearby town and hiring a cleric, or it might be significantly more involved, forcing the players to hunt down rare medicines to cure the disease. The former would probably work better if the afflicted character is a player (no one wants to be stuck in an underground lake while their party goes on a cool quest, after all), but the latter could be very compelling if the sick person is a beloved NPC.
Overall, aboleths are very cool monsters. Sinister, smart, and terrifying, they’re sure to make a memorable villain in any campaign that features them–and between their psychic powers, reincarnation, and century-spanning schemes, there’s endless ways to bring them into a story!