I rarely hold up Dungeons and Dragons books as being good books for general gaming purposes. They’re all very much books about Dungeons and Dragons, and even Elder Evils, last weeks’ offering for campaign-ending threats, was a book jammed full of systems for explaining weather, big dungeon designs and complex fight mechanics. When you bought a book for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, you were often getting a book that was some 30%-50% system information, information that’s dead weight if you’re not using that system. Some of my favourite books from that time, like The Tome of Battle and Races of Eberron are absolutely steeped in mechanical information, and if you’re not using it, you really aren’t getting enough book for your investment to be worth your time.
But let me show you a book that I want to recommend to anyone making or playing with horror even if you don’t want to use D&D or even fantasy settings, that also has the on-theme matter of being a spooky book about spooky stuff. I don’t mean Heroes of Horror, which devotes a lot of its space to trying to systemitise horrifying things, no. I want to talk to you about a book about putting things in your world that are horrible.
I want to talk about Lords of Madness.
That said, I would issue a content warning, beyond the typical this is a book about spooky stuff. This book has a lot of humans being eaten, brain parasites, descriptions of people being seen as prey, but all that stuff is very passe for D&D monsters. Here be tentacles, goop, puppeteering and meat.
The other content warning is that if you’re Dissociative or plural or have DID or any of the related fields of mindset complication, Lords of Madness attempts to write numerous ‘alien’ psychologies that may look familiar to you, imagined as alien othered.
I’m personally reluctant to use the term ‘saneism’ because I don’t feel qualified to make that call, but there’s a lot of language in this book that assumes a very simple mental health binary and puts things like plurality or low-empathy living in the ‘bad’ bucket. Note that this doesn’t really take into account that most D&D adventuring parties are composed of homeless murderers.
Lords of Madness is a monster book that wants to focus on exploring and defining the vaguely-generalised category of aberration monsters. Aberrations are defined in the SRD (and first Monster Manual) as:
An aberration has a bizarre anatomy, strange abilities, an alien mindset, or any combination of the three.
Which is pretty vague as a category. Lords of Madness doesn’t fix this ambiguous, inessential descriptor, but it does discuss what makes an aberration work, possible origins for them, and sets of common traits for working them into a setting. Then, it goes in-depth on six specific types of Aberration monsters, presenting specific lore for a ‘default’ D&D setting on the Aboleth, the Beholder, the Mind Flayer, the Neogi, The Grell and a new monstrous race, the Tsochar. Each of these monsters gets about ten to twenty pages of discussion, which include an examination of the creature’s basic game information, their anatomy (with diagrams!), their life, society, mindset and culture, their origins, ways you can use them in stories as greater threats, and then maybe a small chunk of ‘dungeonette’ that you can dot into an existing adventure or use as a scene or sidequest.
There is a bunch of mechanical information scattered throughout the book – feats for the monsters, prestige classes for some of them (mostly the more prominently-made ones with lots of variation), and the tail end of the book is just a pure chunk of Monster Text and Prestige Class bumph, unnecessary for anyone not using that game system. This makes up something like 80 pages of the nearly 220 page book, so use that as a value judgment, but given how little fat there is anywhere in this book, you’re not wasting much space on that.
There is a case to be made, when you’re talking about horror, is that you don’t want to understand horror because explanations deflate horror. The death of a lot of horror movies is when they had to try and explain themselves, when they, without anything to do or say that hadn’t been done or said, started to delve into backstory and lore, and how that makes a lot of the horror in media suddenly Just Some Jerk or Something Nonsensical. Some things don’t need backstory, and for you, you may feel that Illithid and Aboleth and Beholderkin don’t need backstory, that understanding them somehow makes them less horrifying and creepy.
To that, I’d like to offer a mindset nudge. In D&D and other tabletop games, you are not experiencing a horror movie, you are crafting a horror movie. And when you craft these movies without an understanding of what the things you’re working with are, you run the risk of puncturing your fiction, wasting opportunities, and making inconsistant, uninteresting threat rather than horror.
Hitchcock famously said, The horror lies not in the bang but in the anticipation of it, yes, but to know that the bang is coming you have to understand what a bomb is. And when you’re dealing with slathering, alien, monstrous conspiracies or the capacities of strange, powerful, inhuman creatures that nonetheless have some reason to want to exist in our spaces, then you need to understand something of how those creatures work, what motivates them, how they perceive the world, and what to them seems reasonable. When you understand them, you can tell stories with them – and it will show as people deal with them, as they learn what these horrors do and don’t want. The ways they can be fought, but also the ways they can’t.
The book isn’t all strong points. Spare a thought for the poor writer who had to wring 8 pages of text out of Grells, a monster that so generically defines just a monster that the book actually spends time explaining to you ways in which grell don’t get more interesting.
But the Grell don’t have to hold the book on their own, and while chapters like the Neogi and Beholder can be hit-and-miss, the Aboleth, Illithid and Tsochar chapters are in my opinion excellent at showing monsters that are smart enough to have a culture, but alien enough to not be able to grasp at human culture in a way that permanently splits them apart from easy empathy.
Particularly, knowing where these monsters come from, and how they were created in light of their origins informs both what they do, but also how they view the world they live in. It’s one thing to devise a story that needs a monster, but it’s another to understand what that monster thinks, and how that monster will behave within the context of your story. That’s what Lords of Madness offers – an excellent vision of the psychology underpinning the monsters, informed by what those monsters are.
Personally, I’m of the opinion that all monsters are fundamentally expressions of fears turned into things that we can fight – dragons as governments, witches as women’s knowledge, the owlbear as the fear of the woods. In any situation, you know a lot about a culture by who they make into their monsters, and in the case of the aberrations of Lords of Madness I think that a deliberate effort was done to pick fears that are – sometimes – harder to personalise, creating their stilted, weird, alienness.
The Aboleth are the time abyss – creatures that are older than everything we know, and can put our own lives in that perspective of geologic time. The Aboleth are not just ancient, they are ancient and aware, and can look upon everything we do as the blip in the sediment that it one day will be. The Aboleth are the vastness of forever, and to fit in that timelessness, they can and will endure to it. They have some classical fears – enslavement, isolation, the ruin of everything – but all of these fears are part of its perspective; they use humans as tools, because humans are transient and fungible to them. The idea that we are small pieces in a big human story, a story that will end, well, that’s not a conversation we’re generally comfortable having, not even with the many ways we’ve almost already ended the world.
The Beholders are meant to be alien, but they’re really not – a beholder is a rational mind capable of powerful things bolted to an irrational, unpleasant emotional jerk, and that’s fundamentally how human minds work. All that’s changed in the beholder’s case is that it’s not given that comforting fiction of being one single mind at work coordinating all of it able to make choices between our emotive and rational selves, and the disintegration ray that means a tantrum becomes a cataclysm pretty fast. In a lot of ways, a Beholder is like an extremely powerful racist child, and the inhumanity comes from the idea that it is literally always impossible to convince them otherwise. To act like an unreasonable bigot who can hurt people might just require containment isn’t a conversation we’re generally comfortable having, not even with relatives.
The Illithid have long been a persistant source of parasitism in the D&D settings – their entire life cycle is dependent on a prey species, the human whose brains they eat to sustain their lives, but whose bodies are also necessary as a component of their reproductive cycle. Parasites are well known in our world, but we don’t have to talk to them, and the moral framework of a parasite is easily quashed when you can discard them as unthinking creatures. The Illithid aren’t just sentient parasites, the process of being for them is fantastically superior to everything a human has as baseline; they’re bigger, stronger, resistant to harm, possessed of special abilities and part of an enormously powerful empire. From the parasite’s perspective, the prey are lucky, because they can contribute their energies to something that matters, and that’s not a conversation we’re generally comfortable having, not even with chickens.
The Neogi stand as a classical horror fear from HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. They are colonialism; alien invaders that are nothing like us arrive, exert their will, take what they want, and leave, and you can only get the faintest hint of evidence that the neogi you deal with are a tiny fragment of a much larger, more powerful system. Not some vast and dreadful being, Cthulhu-like, no – the neogi you deal with, the knee-high spider covered in fuzz with an eel for a face is just, in its perspective, some guy, someone doing a job and making a profit, before moving on to the next world, the next job, the next slaves. Neogi are evil and powerful but they are banal in that evil. For them to view themselves as evil would be to consider their vast economic system that has made them rich, raised their standard of living, and expresses what they see as their inherent power and value as evil, and that’s not a conversation we’re generally comfortable having, not even with The Entire British Empire.
The Grell suck.
With the final friends, the Tsochar, we see a recurrent theme across these other types; all these monsters can dominate the other, they can take control of them, but for the Mind Flayer, Aboleth and Beholder, that domination is a work of magic, it is something intangible and distant. Ultimately, to be beholden to a beholder (hah!) is as much as to be beholden to rules that you can’t dare break. But the Tsochar… the Tsochar are a reminder that everything about you, everything you think of as you is in some way, connected back, bound to, and expressed by meat. The Tsochar are are the puppetmaster that holds you by the throat; the feeling that your own body does not respond to you, will not listen to you, and you can’t stop it. You can’t risk stopping it – you might not have the ability, or you might be at risk of pain from an abuser who lives inside your body. The notion that we are frail meat, and that our actions are sometimes not beholden to our minds as we think they are, that’s not a conversation we’re generally comfortable having, not even with those of us who know what an abuser does to the space in your head.
I love this book. I love this book as a fantasy depiction of nonsense monsters, and I think they’re excellent monsters (except the Grell) to talk about and to understand, in this month when you seek to play and examine something horrifying.