When you open the Monster Manual and head to the first page of the tome, you’ll find an ancient and archaic monster that is almost never used. The aboleth is a powerful monster, ripe for rich storytelling and has the potential to be a mastermind controlling all of the threads of the adventure. But the restriction of being a water based monster keeps it from truly manipulating the game, and is never seen in campaigns as a result. Today I aim to not only show the potential of an aboleth in it’s lair, but also the influence it can exert over an entire campaign and why you should consider including one in your game.
The Mind of the Ancient
Aboleth’s have minds that far surpass any mortal creatures capabilities. With perfect memories, aboleths are not only capable of recalling every single detail of their life, but also that of their past lives. If an aboleth is ever killed, its spirit returns to the Elemental Plane of Water, where a new body coalesces for it over days or months. With flawless memory, and having immunity to traditional death, aboleth’s make for phenomenal campaign villains much in the same way Lich’s do provided they can find a way back to the Material plane.
This turns death into nothing more than a minor nuisance, for the plots that an aboleth spans millennia. Regardless, an aboleth would prefer to keep their physical form for as long as possible and wouldn’t unnecessarily risk themselves. But if their form dies, they know that their plan will continue unless the pesky adventurers can do something to stop it.
Why are aboleth’s the bad guys then? A perfect memory means that an aboleth will be able to recall the moment of their defeat in pristine detail. The Monster Manual states that aboleth use to be the undisputed rulers of the plane, until the gods came and usurped their empire. They now lay in ancient aboleth ruins, plotting for the day they can overthrow the divine. The aboleth’s in your world don’t have to follow this backstory, but any instance in which they were humiliated and defeated would give them ample reason to become your next villain.
For such ancient creatures with minds spanning the eternities, how would they interact with the adventuring party then? aboleths view everything around them as potential tools, and the party is no different. aboleth’s communicate with telepathy, and if they see a party member when they begin probing their mind, they can actually discover their deepest desires. While the party may be a threat, a few promises later and they may be on the aboleth’s side working to achieve it’s final goal.
Aboleths have access to some very unique abilities, chief among them is enslavement. By simply looking at a creature it can dominate it, and control it from great distances. These make the perfect minions who can sow chaos and destruction at the aboleth’s whims. The main downside to the ability is that the creature can perform the save once every 24 hours if it’s a mile or more away, or if it takes damage. There are multiple ways you can take this ability.
First, it can and should have dozens, if not hundreds of minions at it’s base. As long as they remain within 1 mile of the aboleth and don’t take damage there is literally nothing they can do to escape it’s grasp. Merrow and Kuo-Toa can both serve as perfect minions for the aboleth. They also aren’t restricted to just sea-dwelling creatures. With their mucous ability, they can have powerful surface monsters such as an Umber Hulk join them down in the watery depths. Get creative with which monsters are under it’s control, and feel free to give these monsters a swim speed as they have been with the aboleth long enough, it’s magic may have twisted them into something else.
A second use for this ability is for when it enslaves surface dwelling creatures such as humans. An aboleth is very unlikely to come into contact with any high ranking authorities, but it can maneuver itself into that encounter with the random Joe that stumbled into it’s cave. Joe can be told to go back and bring some friends with him back to the cave. These friends can go and bring more people, and eventually someone important enough will come back to the lair who will be able to wreak havoc on the world above. It’s not a foolproof strategy, but when you are immortal you have time to be patient in your dealings with men.
The third use for this ability can come when dealing with the PC’s. As the players traverse through the cavern if the aboleth ever catches a glimpse of the players (and one of the regional effects can allow us to do just that) it can dominate the players one by one. Slip them a note saying they’ve been dominated, and if they succeed on their roll, give them a blank note and let the panic rise through them. When combat finally begins, half will turn on the others sowing chaos and disrupting any plans they might have had.
- The aboleth casts Phantasmal Force on any number of creatures it can see withing 60 feet of it. While maintaining concentration on this effect, the aboleth can’t take any other lair actions. If a target succeeds on the saving throw the target is immune to the aboleth’s Phantasmal Force for the next 24 hours.
Phantasmal Force is a spell that is only limited by the creativity of the caster. If a target fails the saving throw the aboleth can make them believe anything exists in a 10 foot square. This could be a wall of fish that blocks line of sight to the aboleth, a dangerous whirlpool that will suck the player in if they don’t give it a wide berth, or even an additional monster that appears out of nowhere and begins attacking the player. It doesn’t actually say in the stat block what it’s save DC for this Phantasmal Force should be. Going off the standard calculations, this would demand a DC 16 saving throw which is 2 higher than any other saving throw the aboleth presents, and in an ability that many characters choose to use as a dump stat. Not being able to use other abilities while this is in effect is a major downside, but if you are taking a player out for an entire turn, it’s probably worth maintaining concentration on this spell.
- Pools of water within 90 feet of the aboleth surge outward in a grasping tide. Any creature who fails a DC 14 saving throw is dragged into the water and knocked prone.
The aboleth is clearly a master of the water. With it’s excellent darkvision of 120 feet, only a Drow can compete with it. Drag a creature or two into the murky depths, putting them out of their element and effectively blinding them. The party is forced to come close to the pools of water, because the aboleth will never come out and face them head on, and this ability will force them into situations they may not be prepared for.
- Water in the aboleth’s lair becomes a conduit for it’s rage. The aboleth can target any number of creatures it can see in such water within 90 feet of it. A target must succeed on a DC 14 Wisdom save saving throw or take 7 (2d6) psychic damage.
This ability is simple, but it’ll get the job done. Whether the party spreads out super thin or gets packed together like sardines, this ability will damage all of them. 7 is not a lot of damage, especially at the levels that the players will be fighting the aboleth at, but damage is damage and it could potentially finish someone off. A more relevant use for this ability is when a character falls unconcious. Force them to fail a saving throw with this ability and put pressure on your players to resuscitate their friend as soon as possible.
All of this combined leads to a creature that forces combat to happen on it’s own terms. An aboleth will never expose itself unnecessarily, or it will fall months behind in it’s planning. The party will be forced to fight the aboleth in the water, they are forced to keep everyone conscious at all times, and they are forced to fight underneath the aboleth’s version of reality.
- Underground surfaces within 1 mile of the aboleth’s lair are slimy and wet and are difficult terrain.
It’ll take the players a while to reach the aboleth in the center of the lair. During this time they’ll stumble upon mind controlled minions, and monsters from the depths that they’ll be forced to fight. Difficult terrain everywhere they go will be a major nuisance, and it won’t go away until they defeat the aboleth itself. This makes fighting both on the ground or in the water disadvantageous to the party.
- Water sources within 1 mile of the lair are supernaturally fouled.
Imagine being surrounded by water, but unable to drink any of it. For a long excursion into the lair the players need to know ahead of time what they are getting into. If they try to go on an adventure willy nilly, they’ll be forced to leave before having a chance to do anything. This ruins any chance of surprise they may have had and alert the aboleth that their lair has been discovered. Of course, with Purify Food and Water this isn’t a problem for the party but it still uses up valuable spell slots and resources.
- As an action, the aboleth can create an illusory image of itself within 1 mile of the lair. Although the image is intangible, it looks, sounds, and can move like the aboleth. The aboleth an sense, speak, and use telepaty from the image’s position as if present at that position. If the image takes any damage, it disappears.
Remember when I was talking about the enslave ability? This is where it can come into play at full capacity. Throughout the lair, as the players fight mind controlled minons they have a chance to put the pieces together, and realize that they could just as easily become targets for it. When the players touch some runes, look into a well of water, or admire a mural force them to make a saving throw. If they fail, nothing will happen until they are forced to face the aboleth at the end, during which potentially 3 different party members could be controlled. Be sure not to include any sources of damage when they go through the final puzzles to ensure that as many of them remain mind controlled as possible.
Lair of the Old Ones
Combining all of these things together doesn’t just give us a boss monster, it gives us an adventure. They first feel the repercussions of the aboleth when the local government falls to pieces seemingly out of nowhere. Then mind controlled creatures rise from the depths and begin attacking coastal towns and islands. As the party investigates they may discover that an ancient and powerful creature lives at the bottom of the ocean and is behind everything that is happening. As they go down into the depths to fight it, every precaution must be taken as they snake their way to the central cavern. As they explore the history of the world is revealed to them through runes and murals, and the aboleth slowly takes control of the party members one by one. It’ll reach out to them, through ghastly apparitions and try to appeal to their deepest desires and their greed. When all else fails the party will arrive to face the aboleth as a team, only to discover that they have fallen into the aboleth’s trap. If they emerge victorious, they’ll save all of the locals, but defeat means even more powerful minions for the aboleth to hold onto for it’s plans of world domination.
Deep under the ocean’s surface there will be a lair that is both ocean and air. (Like in the movie Atlantis). Inside will be treasure and monsters and miles of twisting caverns. Connecting all of this is the ocean outside the lair, giving the aboleth time to scout the party and learn their weaknesses as they fight the minions. Finally the players will come across a cavern, that over the millennia has been rebuilt from the ruins of the empire the aboleth once lived in. When negotiations fail, the water will drag them into the water and force them to fight in a battle the aboleth can’t lose.
Aboleths have all the makings for one of the greatest villains of all time. They can control hordes of minions, can pull strings from afar, and are effectively immortal. They have plans that are larger than life, and demand a fully equipped and well knowledged party to take them on. They specialize in disinformation and distrust and are the perfect villain for any seafaring campaign. I’d like to quickly shout out Tribality for their amazing article on aboleth’s which helped me out a lot when writing this. Thank you all for reading, I hope you have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!
As the party stepped out of the caves for the first time in weeks, they were greeted with an ancient city glowing with the magic of the ancient gods. The aboleth spoke to them again, but they ignored it. They were here with a purpose. As they strategized on the banks, the tide reached out to them, whispering eons of madness. It surged forward and dragged the wizard in. As he shouted for help, the rest of the party turned to look at him with glassy eyes. As the screams turned to drowning, the adventure finally came to an end.