This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Two on 10th March 2022.
Aboleths are another B-level D&D creature for most people. They’re nearly always present and they’re really easy to find in the books; until the Aarakocra and the Aasimar came around the Aboleths usually got top billing in all the monster manuals because it’s really hard to beat “AB” as an alphabetical starting place.
However if you start digging into the lore and the abilities of the creatures it’s sort of confusing they don’t get used more often because they can be genuinely terrifying. Their aquatic nature is probably the most common reason for them being left aside, but we’ll dive into that more in a minute.
The Aboleth species owes its origins to the classic adventure Dwellers of the Forbidden City, put out by TSR in 1980. That adventure was a landmark one because it saw the introduction of several classic monsters including the yuan-ti and the bullywugs. An aboleth featured as a main antagonist in the module, interfering with the local power groups adventurers dealt with.
They didn’t make it into one of the sourcebooks until Monster Manual 2, which was put out in 1983. So they aren’t original monsters but they come close, and they were either memorable or popular enough to be included in the first monster manual published for each edition from 2nd on. They do show up in some adventure modules, but despite their design as overlords and slavers they usually aren’t the main antagonist.
Aboleths got a little more attention in 4th edition because 4th edition liked to focus on extraplanar invasion storylines, so Aboleths wedging their way into the material plane became a big focus of some adventures and novels written around that time.
Physically, Aboleths are fish, but in the same way the whale shark is a fish. They average 20 feet or six meters from nose to tail and can weigh around 6,500 pounds or just under 3000 kilos. However that’s only an average; Aboleths don’t stop growing and are biologically immortal, so really old Aboleths can be enormous. Their bodies are fish-like starting at the back, but get weird up front. Just behind their head are four prehensile tentacles, and the head itself is triangular with three eyes arranged vertically just above their mouth, which is lined with small, serrated teeth on all sides. Their upper bodies are usually greenish-grey in color, while their underbodies are light pink. On the base of each tentacle is an organ that excretes the Aboleth’s ooze. We’ll get to that in a second.
New Aboleths come from eggs, but Aboleths consider reproduction to be a very private affair. So much so that they don’t even get other Aboleths in on the activity; all Aboleths are hermaphroditic [her-MAF-rho-did-ick] meaning they have both sets of equipment for making new Aboleths. They lay eggs about every five years, and it takes that long for the eggs to hatch.
As for why they make terrifying villains, we go to the lore. There’s some contradiction around the actual origin of the Aboleths but the consensus is that they aren’t from around here, where “here” refers to the material plane. Some references say they came from the Far Realm while others just say there was some unspecified extraplanar origin for them, but the main thing every reference emphasizes is that they were both present and fully sapient before mortal races or even the gods were around.
Once mortal creatures started showing up, the Aboleths would regularly enslave them. This is something they can do innately. Apart from being powerful psionic creatures, the ooze their bodies excretes effectively carries an enslavement disease. If a creature comes into contact with it and gets infected, their skin gradually becomes translucent and heavily water dependent, to the point where if they dry out they will start dying. If they actually ingest the ooze, either breathing or swallowing it, it will transform their bodies so they are no longer able to breathe air; they have to remain in water. Ingesting it also makes their minds instantly subservient to the Aboleth the ooze came from. And their whole bodies tend to be covered with it.
History here is again a little fuzzy but the Aboleths used all these helpful new life forms to build cities for them and construct a sort of underwater empire. The reasons that fell apart are a little uncertain. Some sources claim it was wholesale intervention by the Gods, who partially wanted to save mortals from enslavement and partially were annoyed that the people worshipping them suddenly were all about the seafood platter. Others claim that the Aboleth empire declined because of the Aboleth’s own apathy, related to their thing with memories.
Along with being able to enslave other beings basically at will, Aboleths have supposedly infinite genetic memory. That means each Aboleth is born with all of the knowledge of their parents, and that stretches back to the start of the species. In addition, Aboleths can acquire the memories of another creature by eating them, something that’s really easy to do if they’re already mind-slaved. It’s not unheard of for Aboleths to take extended breaks for themselves and just relive all the memories, or at least the highlights, of someone they ate recently.
Whether it was divine retribution or lack of upkeep from too many Aboleths deciding to binge-watch the latest episodes of “My last meal’s greatest memories,” the far reaching Aboleth empire fell apart well before most species in D&D were sapient enough to care about it. Modern Aboleths are most often found in the Underdark. Waaaay in the Underdark, down in the lowest depths of it with all the fun things like the Mindflayers and the Deep Dragons. However there’s nothing really keeping them there, so they can be found in any body of water they make the effort to move to.
And they are capable of doing that even if they aren’t interconnected, though it’s a bit of a risk. Aboleths are technically amphibians, but if they stay out of water for a long time they run the risk of falling into a sort of coma; the slime layer on their bodies will gradually thicken and harden, trapping all the water inside it, and the Aboleth will enter a sort of hibernation. That will continue until someone breaches the slime shell, which usually releases all the water stored up there and then kills the Aboleth, or until the Aboleth is submerged again.
But, if it wants to make the effort the Aboleth can push itself along the ground using those tentacles we mentioned earlier. That’s also their primary method of attack, and you can bet if those tentacles can haul around three metric tons of fish they pack a whollop when they hit. They can also have their slaves try to move them, but since most of their slaves get modified to be water-only creatures as part of the enslavement that tends to burn through slaves really fast.
If threatened, Aboleths will fight, but even there the instinct is to enslave rather than kill. Of course, since every hit or grapple with the tentacles also covers the targets in slime, chances of them enslaving a few creatures in the process are pretty good. That’s especially true in the water, where their excretion organs ensure there’s a good couple of feet of slime just hovering around them like a cloud. In fact, most Aboleths will hide in bodies of water and use psionic illusions to make it inviting, hoping to lure creatures in where they can grab them with their tentacles, drag them into the slime cloud, and then just wait until they have a new helper. Or a passive snack.
Aboleths theoretically have a goal of reestablishing their old empire but most lore suggests that as a species, the Aboleths are basically grumpy old people. They could go out and do something productive, but they’ve got all these slaves to tend to their needs and there’s this great set of new memories they just got, so they’d rather just stay home and watch those.
However, like antisocial geriatrics, they generally despise anything that’s younger than they are, and since all of them have the same set of memories that stretch back before any races on Toril knew about fire or the wheel, that means they hate pretty much everyone. They have no respect for the gods because, again, the Aboleths were there first, the gods attacked them, and they are experts at holding grudges.
That doesn’t stop other people from trying to worship them as gods on occasion, which is a losing proposition from the start. Assuming you can find an Aboleth, they won’t be interested in anything like supplication or give and take; they’ll just enslave you and make you do what it wants anyway. A few of them may be interested in some sort of relationship where their worshippers aren’t completely enslaved, but they’ll only entertain that until it becomes inconvenient, dangerous, or boring, and then it’s back to making new fish people.
The other reason people might try to hunt down Aboleths is because of their memory. In addition to living through all of recorded and prehistoric time, supposedly, Aboleths are said to have knowledge of ancient powers and magic that no one else does, and some people are willing to go to great lengths to find that. It usually doesn’t work out for them, either, but at least their intentions were a little more understandable.
There are only two exceptions to the “us or slaves” mentality that Aboleths have. First is the Mindflayers, whom the Aboleth are cautious about because they don’t know where the Mindflayers came from originally, and their psionic powers are somewhat on par with the Aboleths’. Mostly they just have an unspoken truce where it’s first grabbed, first enslaved on anyone who wanders down to the Underdark and they don’t mess with each other. No one knows for certain if the Mindflayers can be enslaved by the Aboleths, because its very likely if any Aboleths manage to ensnare one they’re going to immediately eat it to access its memories and find out more about them.
The other group the Aboleths actually respect are the unknowable beings called the Elder Evils, whom the Aboleths claim created them.
They will more or less respect each other, and Aboleth communes and cities do exist, especially in deep lakes of the underdark. One such city, named Xxiphu [zeh-foo] was ruled by an Aboleth just called The Eldest, who was said to be massively large and extremely malevolent, and was possibly alive back with the Aboleths left or were thrown out of the Far Realm.
Using Aboleths in a campaign is tricky because of their nature. Most of the power and threat an Aboleth represents has to do with their ability to enslave other creatures. That’s a great setup for a creepy, horror-esque adventure in line with some of the stories of H.P. Lovecraft; in fact some designers have said they drew heavily on Lovecraftian tropes when making adventures around the Aboleths. People disappearing near lakes or large rivers, or communities worshiping a mysterious being and occasionally vanishing as well, can all have an Aboleth at the heart of it.
They’re also good if you need the characters to start fighting creatures that either aren’t native to the area or who wouldn’t normally be hostile. Aboleths can enslave almost anything and it takes a while for their ooze to render creatures totally aquatic, so there can be some number of slaves still able and willing to fight on land. So if you need an excuse to sent a horde of hostile flumphs at a party, an Aboleth gives you that.
The challenge is if or when the characters go to fight the Aboleth itself. If you stick to the lore there is very little chance the Aboleth will be interested in negotiation of any kind; surface dwellers are its least favorite kind of people but favorite snack, their near infinite memory means there’s very little chance characters will have information it doesn’t know and is interested in, and even if they did the Aboleth will probably think its much faster to just eat them and literally digest the knowledge itself. All of that means chances of a peacefully negotiated settlement are unlikely.
Which brings us to the challenge in fighting them. As mentioned, the primary way that Aboleths get the upper hand in battles is by delaying attackers with their own slaves while waiting for it’s slime and psionic abilities to convince the hostiles that it would really be easier if they just switched sides. The fifth edition stats for the creature allow it to enslave up to 3 creatures per day and the ability works exactly like the “dominate person” spell except the Aboleth doesn’t have to maintain concentration. This can get tricky to manage as the DM for two reasons. One is that a character switching sides mid-battle represents a serious shift in action economy that can dramatically alter the status of both sides. The other is that most players will agree suddenly losing all control of their character mid-battle isn’t most people’s idea of a good time.
The flip side is that if you take away their domination abilities the Aboleth itself isn’t really that difficult to kill, particularly for characters at the level where it’s recommended an Aboleth show up at all. They can be made harder by making sure some of the Aboleth’s slaves are held back until the confrontation with the creature itself. Alternatively, assuming the Aboleth is the final confrontation of a campaign or a side quest, you can introduce some NPC allies that venture along with the characters, and then have the Aboleth enslave *them* partway through the fight instead.
So it takes a bit of work to use them well, but if you need a creepy, aquatic threat that causes a lot of disruption in an area without needing to show itself, an Aboleth will definitely get the job done.