"Trembling hands have recorded horrifying stories of encounters with aboleths, beholders, mind flayers, and other aberrations. The victims of these alien creatures are quickly overwhelmed by mind-numbing terror -- their only comfort is the hope for a quick death..." In this month's exclusive interview, designer Rich Baker discusses Lords of Madness, the Book of Aberrations.
Wizards of the Coast: To start off with a slippery question, what defines an "aberration"?
Rich Baker: Well, for our purposes, it's pretty easy: Any monster of the aberration type. But I'm guessing that you want an explanation of why some creatures are given the aberration type in the first place. The best answer is simply, Things That Were Not Meant To Be. They're creatures outside nature, the progeny of alternate creations, or the foulest sort of meddling in the nature of life itself.
Wizards: Lords of Madness spotlights six major aberrations (aboleths, beholders, mind flayers, neogi, grell, and tsochar). How did the selection process work for these -- what sets these aberrations apart from the rest?
Rich: We decided right up front that we weren't going to try to cover all aberration-type monsters in the D&D game. We just couldn't see how you would be able to organize a useful sourcebook around that broad of a goal. So we decided to closely examine a half-dozen of the game's best and most iconic aberrations -- the master aberrations, as we thought of them. To get on the short list, a monster had to be intelligent, a civilization-builder, a dominator of lesser races, and peculiarly alien and horrific. While much of the discussion (and prestige classes, feats, monster deities, and so on) in Lords of Madness works well for highlighting any aberration in your campaign, each of the master aberrations deserves a chapter of its own.
Wizards: Several of these major aberrations -- especially, perhaps the beholders and mind flayers -- have become almost as iconic to D&D as dragons themselves. How did the book's designers choose the ones with which they worked?
Rich: The best master aberrations we identified were the aboleths, beholders, and mind flayers. They're highly intelligent, they enslave other monsters, and they're particularly inimical to human life and society. Beyond those three major races, we found a couple of others that shared some similar characteristics but were not as iconic to the game -- the neogi and the grell. Finally, we created a new aberration just for this book, the tsochari. As the lead designer, I divvied up the book into assignments for Steve and James. Steve got mind flayers and neogi, James got beholders and aboleths. I took the grell and the new race, the tsochari. A fair amount of that decision-making was driven by the physics of carving up a book for three designers to work on, but I did decide to hog the new race for myself. I wanted to take a shot at 'em.
Steve: When Rich Baker offered me a chunk of Lords of Madness, I was already up to my eyeballs in projects. My first inclination was to say no, I'm too busy. Then he said I could write about mind flayers and neogi. That was just playing dirty. Who in his right mind (or degenerate, half-sane mind) would turn down that opportunity?
The great writers of pulp, cosmic horror have always been my favorite authors: H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and best of all, Clarke Ashton Smith. Their surreal landscapes and tales of mind-bending encounters with things-that-should-not-be never fail to shiver my spine. Any excuse is enough to immerse myself in sanity-crushing terror from beyond the realm of human understanding.
I was fortunate that I got to stand on the shoulders of several game writers who plowed this ground before. Bruce Cordell delved into the mind flayers brilliantly in the classic Illithiad, and Jeff Grubb laid a solid foundation for the neogi in Spelljammer.
The most interesting part of the process was continually asking myself, "if I was utterly evil, paranoid, and insane, what would I do?" Those were fun brainstorming sessions.
Wizards: Some material in Lords of Madness has been reintroduced (the Gibbering Mouther appeared last year in, appropriately enough, the D&D Minis Aberration expansion; and even the Mind Flayers hint at the former Spelljammer setting with their nautiloid ships) -- was this a chance to revisit old favorites and to expand them with new histories and deeper cultures?
Rich: In general, we tried to avoid changing the rules of the monsters; the gibbering mouther was an exception, because the monster as it appeared in the 3.0 and 3.5 Monster Manual was overly complex and not very playable. We did take the liberty of exploring some new "takes" on our iconic aberrations so that someone who'd read a lot of material about them in a previous edition of the game would find something new here.
Wizards: On an opposite note, what original aspects from Lords of Madness are you looking forward to bringing to the game?
Rich: One of the themes that runs through the whole book is a strong Lovecraftian take on these monsters and their origins. If you've read a lot of Lovecraft, Smith, or other "Cthulhu Mythos" writers, you'll recognize many of the same conventions in Lords of Madness. I'm a huge fan of Clark Ashton Smith, and I especially love his Atlantis, Hyperborea, and Xothique stories. I think of this sub-genre as "fantastic horror." If there are monsters in the D&D world that better fit the subgenre of fantastic horror than the iconic aberrations, I don't know what they are.
Wizards: Do you have any personal favorites from the book -- what things most go bump in the night for you?
Rich: I like beholders the best, but wow, do mind flayers just creep me out. What a horrible, horrible way for a character to be done in. Ick. As far as some of the less iconic aberrations, I dig the destrachan, and I like the tsochari of course. Among our new prestige classes, I like the topaz guardian, but then I've always been a sucker for the paladin-sorts.