From time to time in this column, I’d like to explore a class of monsters in the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. This month, I’m going to talk about those things that are not of this world – Aberrations.
This site is all about elder squamous things from your nightmares, but did you know that aberrations have not always been a part of the vocabulary of D&D? In the earlier editions, creatures like mind flayers, beholders, and aboleths were described as having a variety of origins and features. Campaign settings like Spelljammer, however, united a number of these creatures and placed their origin on other planets in space, away from campaign worlds like Oerth, Toril, or Krynn. Of course, different campaign settings treated these weird creatures in different ways. There were hints that these creatures were connected in some way, but it was difficult to put a finger on it.
When the 3rd edition came along, so too did the idea of creatures belonging to broad classes or types. These continue today, with classes like Faerie, Dragons, Elementals, Fiends, etc. being well known. A number of creatures in these older and in the current edition of D&D were grouped together in a class called, “Aberrations”.
So what is an aberration? Well, much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quote about pornography, you know an aberration when you see it. Aberrations have no singular characteristic. Some are orbs (beholders), a few have tentacles (mind flayers, grell), and a few even look like toads on steroids (slaad). Don’t even get me started on the flumph. The point is, they’re weird. I mean, sure, a mummy or a demon is definitely weird, but aberrations go well beyond the norm. They look weird, they act weird, and when it comes right down to it, they don’t fit in.
It’s this last point that I want to emphasize. Aberrations DON’T FIT IN. And you know what that makes them?
Thanks, Giorgio! That’s right, Aliens. As in, creatures not of this (or your) world. The aberrations described in the Monster Manual are classified that way because they come from somewhere else. Not just another plane – demons and elementals have that covered – but from another world. The rules like to talk about a place called the Far Realm, but I think that’s too easy. Every planet has its own self-contained ecosystem. When something invades that – you’ve got an aberrant on your hands.
So what’s the best way to treat aberrations in your campaign? Well, to honest, there’s probably not a wrong way, unless you’re treating them as ordinary, run-of-the-mill creatures. I mean, I guess that’s a way to go, but it does take a bit of the wind out of why they’re so fun to design around. They’re weird. They’re mutants. You’ve got to strange it up, some.
For me? Well, I went with the alien planet hypothesis. Like everything else that tumbles down the steps of the Ziggurat, your mileage will vary on this one, but hear me out. In my campaign, most (but not all) aberrants originate from a planet in the solar system the campaign world is set in. From time to time, spores from this planet of aberrants seed the campaign world & create carrion crawlers that can then mutate into various types of aberrant creatures. The DNA of the creatures lies dormant until it released by the correct host.
The aberrant planet contains most of the major types of aberrants that are found in the 5th Edition rules. There are a couple of notable exceptions:
- Slaad are another alien race from a different star system. A highly caste oriented and militaristic group, they have a few spies on the campaign world, and they are trying to determine if it’s right for them to take over. They see the aberrant planet as a threat as well.
- The Flumph (GIGANTIC EYE ROLL), yeah. I’m not a fan. Still, they have a place in my campaign setting. Like the Slaad, the Flumph come from another star system. They actually have some sophisticated technology, and don’t rely on magic, and they are on the campaign world studying its effect. They occasionally meet with powerful NPCs in order to gain understanding and/or influence. Hey, look at that! I actually made the Flumph cool again!
If you were paying attention, you might have noticed that I broke a little 5e canon there. You see, in the 5th Edition of the game, they devolved carrion crawlers from aberrants (like they were in the 3rd Edition), to monstrosities (I’ll cover this big catch-all in another article). Like any good dungeon master should, I said, “Pfft, no way. Carrion crawlers are aberrations again”. RAMDU’s will be done, etc.
And that’s the great thing about aberrations. You have something weird you’re creating for your campaign and need to figure out what group it belongs to? Throw it in with the aberrations. Just make it really weird, though, okay?
One final note, a curious side effect of treating aberrants like aliens, is that on an alien world, the visitor becomes the aberrant one. When your scimitar-wielding black cat owning PC hops on to a Spelljammer vessel, and hitches a ride across space to visit another planet, SHE becomes the aberration. That’s right – Drizzt DeAboleth (or what-have-you) – horrid aberrant spawn of another world. The grells will surely flee in terror. Good luck when you walk into the tavern!
Until next time – the Ziggurat is closed.
Image Credit: Shannon Tompkins