Monday, May 31, 2021

Revisiting Lords of Madness

My arrival in D&D was not in box sets. No! Not for me was that relative simplicity.

I was born in the bloat of 3.5. I tore my way through a placenta of prestige classes. My first breath became a scream at the overwrought grappling rules.

I'm still nostalgic for parts of it.

There were good ideas drowning under the flood of wordcounts and supplements. A cornerstone of my imagination today was one of those supplements: Lords of Madness. It's a book that fleshed out some classic D&D aberrations (mind flayers, beholders, grell) as well as some new ones. I'll be nostalgically digging through that flesh to find some juicy morsels. Will it hold up to my childhood memory? Have I been spoiled by the blogosphere? Without further ado, let's find out:

In iron Dis devils dream of dominion and conquest. In their elf-skin tents orcs dream of dominion and conquest. Aberrations too apparently dream of dominion and conquest. I guess we're not so different after all - but it does get samey.


Page 5 and we're already on the good stuff. The wizard IPHEGOR used the dread EBON MIRROR to distant times and realms and penned the CODEX ANATHEMA. The Mirror's an enticing artifact to drop in the players' path - immense cosmic knowledge, sanity-blasting risk. I imagine a lot of wizards' grimoires are like how the Codex is described, a mash-up of the Necronomicon and one of those recipe books that overshares personal details - "picked up this one little trick trapped in Cerebrelak's Labyrinth for a subjective eon".


"The Material Plane is indeed an infinite plane" - such terrifying implications, and all because someone wanted to crossover Dragonlance and Faerun. Deep space and deep time are pretty well-presented here, along with the horrors that a) they're not as distant as you'd hope, and b) that your history and world are thinner and more fragile than you'd fear.


"Creatures that move through the timestream as easily as a human sails from port to port along a well-charted coast" <= this is the only mention these dudes get... sad.


I think this book holds up best when it sticks to broad strokes. Time-travellers from the end of the universe, primordial lifeforms that remember and wish to return to their incomprehensible epoch of our own world, the living dreams of alien gods, parasitic false histories, and so on - mind-blowing stuff to a kid whose main experience with fantasy was the Lord of the Rings movies, still worth mining now.


The section on the origin of chuuls is too long, but the idea of these inhuman, biologically immortal former slave-soldiers trying to find new meaning in their existence after the death of their creator is a solid one. Their numbers, slim from the beginning, are dwindling from violence and small cumulative mental defects, and their children are barely above beasts, living lives less than a century. There's nothing like them in the world and never will be again. Killing one would feel a bit like killing a white rhino with the mind of Camus.


The "madness" inflicted by aberrant artifacts and knowledge is really coming around to an aberrant worldview, losing sight of the way back to humanity. Neato.


"A destrachan destroys a remote monastery" => These adventure ideas are SKIMPY. As I said, good in generalities, not so much in specificity.


A lot of mostly-boring anatomical details for aboleths and others in this book. Did you know the most interesting thing about an aboleth's circulatory system is that they have two hearts?

Feels like how aboleths are presented as immortal horrors that predate the gods and also as interchangeable mastermind monsters is at odds. They've seen billions of year go by and could reasonably expect trillions more. Nothing you do should concern them. They should be concerned with things of a scope you can't wrap your head around enough to be righteously angry about.

They should be dickhead merchants hanging out in slime-pools at the bottom of dungeons handing out antimatter bombs just to see what you do with them. The bombs won't scratch them, and they could spend a hundred thousand years down there and it make up less of their lifespan than a single heartbeat does in ours.

There are feats for aboleths. Ah, Quickslime, how eldritch, how maddening...

"Aboleths cannot wear hats"

All nonlawful creatures within 30 feet of this glyph become nervous"

Having aboleths be in a neverending cycle of empire and collapse makes them hard to take seriously and too similar to other monsters. They can have one empire that set off the Cambrian Explosion and that's it. Gods as aberrations in their own right is neat, out-of-context problems attracted by the beacon of mortal faith.


Move over Elemental Evils, we've got Elder Evils now. The book says you could have them be fightable, but it's better to keep them as "perpetual terrors whose existence threatens life but can never be defeated". Good. Otherwise mostly underwhelming.

Don't think aboleths should have cities. Does an aboleth wave to its neighbour as it heads off to the slime-factory in the morning? Lame. What you thought was an aboleth city, dwarfing any surface metropolis, was just one's side project. Remade pufferfish stack spires in the abyssal gloom, grain by grain.

Lotta pointless useless details. Aboleths should all look radically different, antediluvian masters of biology that they are.


Now we're at beholders. Never much appealed to me. Their reproduction is appropriately gross (bite off tongue-womb), and their divinely-ordained species-wide narcissism is neat. I think in 5e their dreams and paranoid delusions can affect reality. That's neater.

They've got mouthpick weapons. Weapons with a little ring for a handle they can hold in their mouth.

"A lengthy conversation between two beholders that don’t immediately try to kill each other can quickly douse the surrounding area with drool and worse" => beholder language is gross. This would be fun to voice as a DM.

Beholder cultists gouge a third eye socket into their forehead and graft a beholder eye into it. Nice.

The lairs in this aren't great. How did I ever run anything with these statblocks?


Mind flayers are cool. Strong implication that they're the form future humanity took. Their digestive systems are sapient and extract thoughts from their meals. Their livers are also sapient.

Their parasitic reproduction is nasty. Elder brains are creepy. The book is ambiguous on whether the elder brains are even related to the mind flayers, or just brood parasite-rulers.

Mind flayers are said to only have negative emotions. Too anthropomorphic for me. Would've preferred something weird and goofy like a list of MF emotions like "tchanarady". They had the space for it.

"Urophions", mind flayers made out of ropers, are born losers. An SCP-ish list of other attempts at making non-humanoid mind flayers would've been neat.

There are mind flayer vampires and liches. This to me is like a werewolf-vampire-cyborg-dryad. It's too much.

"Neothelids", giant psychic worm-things that mind flayer larvae develop into if not implanted are cool. Why are they such a taboo? Are they the "natural" form of the mind flayer or some kind of failsafe mechanism?

Mind flayers get some great magic items: brain canisters, thought extractors, and my favourite, the "brainmate". It's a little bud of an elder brain they carry with them when travelling for the comforting buzz of its mind. Oddly sentimental. The bud telepathically records everything they see or do and reports it back to the elder brain. Really puts the "big brother" in "big brother is watching you".

There are also emotion-broadcasting "resonance stones". They've got stones for everything. They've got stones in their home to make it feel like home. A reassuring resonance stone takes the place of a parent for newborn mind flayers... "mind flayers learn emotions from resonance stones, not from one another"... "Resonance stones fill their emotional needs". These dudes are so pitiable. Don't let screens raise your kids folks.

The "Sargonne Tablets", so cryptic people can't tell if they're history or prophecy, speak of a mind flayer empire in an endless night.

Mind flayers sabotage (or sometimes support) surface civilizations not because they fear them, but because they're experimenting with how civilizations rise and fall.

Lotta details on brain-eating logistics. Mind flayers are locusts on sapient creatures, locusts smart enough to cover up the fact that it's locusts eating everyone around you.

"Sprinkled about the area seemingly at random are stocks built to restrain a humanoid creature by clamping down on its neck and wrists. Observers might realize with some horror that these are the mind flayer equivalent of dining tables." => Nice.

Psychically broadcasting the experience of eating a brain is a popular art form.


Next up is neogi:

Things that make you go hmmm

Ok so they could be evil ferengi / anti-semitic stereotypes in space, I think they'd be more interesting if the ruthless merchant/pirate neogi were like their Dutch East India company explorers. There'd be perfectly decent neogi out there on their homeworlds, but their comfort is based on extracting value from you and people like you across a million light-years. Mix in some Modernity and its Malcontents, symbolic horror of a capitalist society intruding on non-capitalist ones. Neogi leave a spate of witch-hunts and demonic possessions in their wake.

Neogi are big on slaves. They recognize four different tiers of slaves. Their favourite slaves are umber hulks. That's not really interesting. Neogi aren't all that interesting.

Neogi reproduce like the movie Slither. That's cool. They can mind control people too. Whoop-de-doo.

Neogi are the middlemen between unscrupulous buyers and sellers through the cosmos.

Their most sincere worship is of Tharizdun, "wow! he's just like me!". They think his desire for universal annihilation is like their desire to own everything. Another take on neogi: they're a cautionary tale of idiots who thought they could harness THE DESTROYER for petty accumulation. Nothing's left of them but their spacecraft, crashed or in decaying orbits.

Neogi can get you pretty much anywhere. They're tricky and evil but honour their contracts. There's somewhere you need to be right away but the only way is on a neogi ship. That's a nice challenge.

They kind of look like spiders and their ships kind of look like spiders. It's like poetry.

"Neogi cannot wear vests"


Grells. Grells are floating brain squids. They want to eat people like the non-flying brain squids, but they don't really scheme or interact with people or do anything interesting with them.

Their society is kind of like a lion pride. There are colonies ruled by the biggest male, where philosophers have preserved or developed a combo of magic and technology, and then there are feral grell that either never found a colony or fled one before the patriarch saw them as a challenge and killed them.

They apparently don't build much, don't have much variation, and they're atheists. These guys suck.

Ok here we go: grell are from other material planes. Not just one. They developed independently and simultaneously. There's a common confluence of physical laws that make the grell-form a near-inevitability, like exaggerated carcinization. Step a few steps sideways through the multiverse and you'll arrive at the seemingly endless megastructures of their civilizations, inhospitable to those bound by gravity, roaring with ceaselessly-discharging lightning. To them the colonial grell are essentially feral, distant cousins who fell through a wormhole or something and forgot their peerless empires. The colonial grell have gods and it's these guys. Pray to their ancestor-gods and maybe they'll take pity and send the omni-cosmic equivalent of an AC-130.


Tsochari are body-snatchers. They want magic, and to one day become humanity's secret leaders by taking over our magical and religious authorities. If they snatch a body that's got magic they snatch the magic too. They're from an alien planet. There's apparently much worse things on their planet than them. If they take your body over they can kill you and puppet your corpse or leave you aware and helpless in your own skin.

Finally, some alien fucking biology. They're colonial organisms. There's a lot of references to them taking over humanoids but their ability only requires an animal bigger than them. What in the hell did they parasitize on their home planet? They don't apparently bring over any hosts.

Tsochari are too tough hurt each other much so they sublimate their mutual dislike into complex intrigures. Haha.

Finally some zealous aberrations. Their god is generic eldritch stuff but that they're really into Mak Thuum Ngatha is refreshing.

Something about this section feels like it had a major rewrite and some bits survived.

I like to imagine them as pushy evangelists. They'd prefer symbiosis and honest conversion but if they have to hijack your motor nerves and march you into Mak Thuum Ngatha's temple for the squirming sacrament then gosh darn it they will!


The monster section is whatever. There's some creatures from the same future as mind flayers and that's neat but the creatures aren't really. Mind flayer vampires are still lame.

This picture of a bird-dude is great:

Thanks Justine Mara Andersen.

There's shoggoth knock-offs, and psurlons who are D-LIST LOSERS. They don't get their own section because they are BORING.

Oh yeah and there's silthilars who should've gotten their own section, over grells probably. Their species was getting wiped out by a plague so their flesh-shapers turned them into swarms of people-shards that each had a bit of their knowledge and nature. They're great at grafts and stuff but not quite in an evil scientist sort of way. A species of hivemind Franken Frans.


This next section is about tactics for fighting aberrations and all that. Did you know that the protection from evil spell doesn't negate a mind blast? Now you do.

There's some feats that give you fun mutations but they're kind of weak and you might only get like 3 feats total. Unfortunate. Should've made them into "treasure" you could get by allying with or being experimented on.

The people who fight cool monsters are usually a lot less cool than the monsters.

Fleshwarper hell yeah. They get the cool grafts and a freaky familiar. It's the only good class in this entire book. The rest are killjoys.


Spells now. Most are forgettable. I like the 9th level one that just kills every plant that ever tries to grow in a spot again. Powerful dickery. There's also one that makes people evil, and one that makes their organs slither around inside them.

The mask that turns your face into a chuul face is good.

Oh yeah it's graft time:

Justine Mara Andersen keeps killing it with these illustrations.

There's nothing super crazy but grafts are always neat.

Unfortunately we end on more of these LOSERS who want to hunt aberrations, most likely out of a feeling of deep inferiority.


Conclusion: I enjoyed this book a lot when I was younger. I enjoy it less now, but you could draw a direct throughline from it to a lot of the stuff I do enjoy today.

I'd like to thank Richard Baker, James Jacobs, Steve Winter,  Justine Mara Andersen, and everyone else who contributed to this book, a foundational text in my imagination.


  1. Damn, there goes my Half-Aboleth / Hat of Disguise / Knife Juggler build.

  2. I haven't gone back to any of the books I read back in the day like this, but I totally get what you mean. They have a lot of issues and don't necessarily hold up, but there are kernels of really cool, whacky things in there. I'm actually less opposed to the idea of vampire mindflayers than you are, I've never had a problem with something being "too much" lol, but I agree that the execution of it was not necessarily the best.

    I really liked the 3e Githyanki stuff, which I feel like is sort of in the same category as the stuff in this book. I know some hardcore D&D geeks think Githyanki are "played out", but by "mainstream" standards, are they really? I know they're in Baldur's Gate, but other than that, I don't think there ubiquitous in the way that Mindflayers or many other D&D concepts are, or even close.

    That's a bit of a tangent, but anyway, I always felt like they could do a really cool science fantasy setting or storyline or whatever, building on a lot of the ideas from that era, sort of like D&D meets Star Wars, but without being anywhere near as derivative as that sounds. Actually, I think I did a blog post about this setting a long time ago lol.

    But ya, as much as I think that era was overwritten and misguided and did a lot of other stuff "wrong" creatively, I'd like to see more of the weirder or interesting ideas from that era re-examined; this was cool to read.

    One of the first RPG books I read that wasn't WoTC / Paizo was this 3rd party supplement for Pathfinder called Thunderscape, and I am reasonably confident it would not interest me if I revisited it now, but I remember feeling at the time that it was super interesting and had a lot of cool science fantasy ideas. It was based on a very old videogame (available on GOG) so it does have some "indie cred" in that regard I guess. It was pitched as being in the vein of stuff like Thundarr the Barbarian, but I'd argue, unintentionally filtered through that era of RPG / setting design, as opposed to something like Barbarians of the Ruined Earth or much of the OSR which I think is a little more true to the actual sensibilities of Thundarr and other kinds of Science Fantasy.

  3. >They kind of look like spiders and their ships kind of look like spiders. It's like poetry.

    I can't stop laughing.