Wednesday, January 3, 2024

A Monsters at the Opera

A B C D Demon Dragon E F G1 G2 G3 H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

That's right, we're blogging like it's 2014.

Yes, there are plenty of other gaming blogs that have done this. Some of them with much more to offer than I. But it's fun for me to think about and write about and occasionally it's interesting for you to read about.

This isn't a review or critique exactly, and "analysis" makes it sound a bit too substantive. This is basically just observations and opinions. And sometimes artwork.

My brother Ben helped me write this. Most of our opinions overlap, but I'll note when one thought is particular to him or me.

This isn't based on any specific monster manual or bestiary. Each edition of D&D has its own quirks, but I wanted to talk about the general canon of monsters that appear in most versions of the game. If they're newer, they must be distinct. To create this list, we started by combining the monster books from Necrotic Gnome's Old School Essentials that have been published so far. Some things needed to be added in (they've been saving all demons and devils and whatnot for their own future book, I believe), and some things got cut.

We'll be doing this roughly alphabetically. Some posts will be short, and others will be very, very long.


I've always appreciated that D&D didn't just use Lovecraft's aberrations. They decided to try making their own iconic eldritch monstrosities instead. And you gotta hand it to them: they knocked it out of the park with the mind flayer and the beholder. And according to the rule of three, there must be another option in the particular niche of "highly powerful, boss fight-level aberration." But unfortunately, the aboleth is the Wonder Woman of this trio.

For one thing, it's really difficult to run combat against fish. Anything that's bound to the water is hard to position so the players can fight it properly. There are ways around that of course, but another issue is that they lack a unique hook. "Psychically enslaves people" is inspired by The Shadow Over Innsmouth but it just feels redundant with mind flayers.

Ben and I tried brainstorming a new angle for them and this is what we came up with. If beholders are obsessed with beauty and collect art, and mind flayers are scientists conducting experiments (in my mind, often psychological and sociological ones), then aboleths are eugenicists.

They infiltrate a community, slowly indoctrinate every resident, and begin crossbreeding them. The henchmen of their dungeon aren't merely psychically enthralled locals like you'd find in a mind flayer dungeon. They're freshly-molded specimens grown in tubes by splicing together DNA from the locals. Maybe they start including animals to produce mongrelmen. Their goal is to one day breed into existence... I dunno. The messiah? Kind of like the Bene Gesserit. Hell, take that route further and maybe aboleth could be found infiltrating political institutions as well.

Oh, and if you want a redesign that can work better on land, Ray Harryhausen had unused concept art for the Greek monster of Scylla that I really like.


Two-headed snake is a good visual motif that shows up in a lot of historical artwork, but not good enough to be a monster. It needs an extra bit of zhuzh. Making it absolutely massive is a good start (like the one in Resident Evil). The Symphony of the Night monster of the same name is way better.


Alright I have to be an annoying asshole for a moment. Yeah yeah I'm real fun at parties.

I'll admit I found the "biblically accurate angel" meme pretty funny at first, but I stopped being amused by it probably sometime around the year 2020. And 3 years is a really, really long time for an internet meme to linger in its unfunny zombie phase. I guess I'm glad others are still having fun with it, though. Over time, it's grown into a bit of a pet peeve of mine.

The popularity of this meme has led to pedantic mouth-breathers everywhere gleefully "correcting" the classic winged human version, claiming that it's somehow Biblically inaccurate to depict an angel as being anything other than a surreal aberration. Which tells me that *gasp* a lot of folks haven't actually read the Bible. The most common way that angels appear in the good book is "in the form of man," often even blending in among humans until they reveal themselves. The addition of wings arose in early Christian artwork simply as a visual shorthand to help viewers identify them apart from human characters, but has basically always been metaphorical.

I have to address all this because it has inevitably become part of any conversation about "angels as monsters," since in the past this was one of the least-used stat blocks in the game. I'm just saying, y'know, like, as someone who got really into angelology at a young age, there was never anything wrong with the vanilla "winged humanoid" design when it comes to giving your players something threatening to encounter.

Credit: Death and the Maiden by Marianne Stokes

Ben says the answer lies in Bayonetta. He's probably right.


Let's just get all this Gygaxian Naturalism out of the way. Having a unique stat block for every animal seems like a foolish idea to me. Better to just have general categories like "herd animal" and "land predator" and whatnot, at least for practical purposes. Unfortunately, that doesn't test well with druid-playing audiences, historically. Nerds.

Which animals are the most interesting to talk about as monsters? Well, I guess it's probably the ones we have the most cultural baggage about. Spiders, snakes, toads, wolves, cats, and bats. General wildlife being a source of danger makes sense, and was very much a daily reality for medieval folks. But the problem is that modern audiences often refuse to kill wild animals, even if they're hostile.

Swarms of vermin (or giant versions of them) work way better. Gygax seemed to like using the weird options, too. Why use giant spiders when you could use giant centipedes? White Plume Mountain notoriously features giant crabs, giant scorpions, and giant crayfish. Little did I know when I bought these toys at Michael's that they'd be some of the most useful minis in my whole collection.


A recurring theme in this series is the all-important spectrum running from "medieval fairy tale fantasy" to "20th century pulp fantasy." Not everything falls somewhere on that spectrum, but most things do. Ankhegs are very pulpy (all giant arthropods are, as a general rule of thumb).

Ankhegs are the closest equivalent the game has for the graboids from Tremors, an eminently D&D-able movie. I have a big soft spot for them. Even though I was just praising the appeal of using regular bugs as monsters, let's be honest: not many real-life bugs have tremor sense, and very few have acid sprays. Pair those with some burrowing and a grapple built into their basic pincer attack, and you have a pretty interesting combat challenge without even really needing to put much work in to spice it up. Then you add in terrain effects like tunneling and sand whirlpools and it totally rules.

The more recent pieces of art for these guys always make them look like a zerg unit in Starcraft. The Reaper mini does the trick for me. I think this pic in particular sells it really well.

Credit: hosercanadian, a miniature wargaming blogger



  1. I think of beholders as more of the "eugenicist" aberration - they believe their form to be perfect and seek to destroy anything that doesn't look like them (including other beholders). Maybe they would also be interested in developing a means to make others in their image.

    Aboleths and mind flayers are definitely very samey. Mind flayers are more "human" - they are created from humans (or humanoids) and have a human-ish society - whereas aboleths are gross catfish that live at the bottom of the ocean - utterly inhuman and unrelatable. The aboleths had an empire which collapsed a long time ago, and the mind flayers have an empire which collapses in the distant future. The aboleths want to restore their past glory, and the mind flayers want to prevent their eventual loss of glory. Mind flayers are interested in humans for "breeding", essentially (turning humans into more mind flayers), for food (eating brains), and research (studying brains). Aboleths want humans as slaves to rebuild their cities and make them feel like kings again.

  2. Aboleth slander! Haha.

    I actually use aboleth much more frequently than mind flayers or beholders. For me, the key thing about them is the perfect inheritable memory going back to the beginning of time. My aboleth are all basically on the same page about plans that extend over deep time, plans which are largely unintelligible to humans - their formative experiences are universal to the species and billions of years in the past, after all. So they tend to act like natural disasters from the perspective of human civilizations. Sometimes the ocean just spews forth armies of fleshwarped deep-sea mutants for unguessable reasons, who do stuff for a while and then retreat, like a tsunami that eats people. The adventure is surviving the cataclysm and the aftermath, and you might not ever see the aboleth coordinating the thing. If you do, I run their mind-control and illusion powers as just being side effects of opposing your will to something much older and more psychically coherent than you, so break out all the cosmic horror tropes.

    I suppose a lot of that is not really using aboleth as a fish in a dungeon room, but I find them thematically interesting, at least!

    1. I agree with your approach to focusing on the *event* of an aboleth's terror as the main problem to deal with rather than the creature itself. But I always want a good plan in mind for what happens if the players get a proper showdown. And I must say I actually am quite drawn to this idea of conversation with the ancient aboleth, knower of primordial secrets. An easier stand-off to run than a combat encounter.

    2. You can actually make it a kind of combat in that case, except it's largely against the aboleth's thralls as you're, essentially, trying to get its attention. When I do those scenarios, I try to give the aboleth a clear goal, but one that can be accomplished in multiple ways and that doesn't directly conflict with whatever the PCs want. It needs an artifact of the Ancient Empire for reasons that will pay off in a thousand years, and the path of least resistance is currently breaking open the Doomvault and releasing the dungeon's horrors onto the land. Assuming you can survive the terror long enough to make contact, you can offer it another treasure in your possession, or try to point it at someone you don't like very much who also has such an artifact handy, or let it enthrall a party member so you can head into the Doomvault without all the carnage, or something. Or maybe you just escape with knowledge of what it's up to and try to turn that to your advantage. I just think it's neat to have a villainous faction that works on a fundamentally different time scale than the PCs, you get interesting choices when you're trying to pitch a win/win to the eldritch horror. It probably depends on your players, but I've gotten a lot of mileage out of that sort of thing in terms of unpredictable turns in the campaign. It's the main reason why aboleth are a main "faction" in my setting.

    3. “ Sometimes the ocean just spews forth armies of fleshwarped deep-sea mutants for unguessable reasons, who do stuff for a while and then retreat, like a tsunami that eats people. The adventure is surviving the cataclysm and the aftermath, and you might not ever see the aboleth coordinating the thing. If you do, I run their mind-control and illusion powers as just being side effects of opposing your will to something much older and more psychically coherent than you, so break out all the cosmic horror tropes.”

      This reminds me of a Junji Ito story, not the Uzumaki one. It had fish in mini-mechs invade the land like a fucking army and stuff?

    4. Gyo - yeah. Could do a lot worse than just replaying that with the serial numbers filed off.

  3. I love bringing back 2014-style blogging.

    I don't know of anyone that has actually run an underwater adventure but the aboleth is such a perfect villain for the kind of quest the king of the seas or the ocean witch or whoever would give the party. You get a vast underwater city veiled in illusions, populated by legions of thralls who venerate the aboleth as a god—it's a classic pulp scenario but with a fish instead of like an evil wizard. What's not to love.

  4. Worthy project! I for one will eagerly follow along.