Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted started a new video series called Nerdarchy’s Guide to D&D Monsters. We like creating new video series for the same reason we enjoy starting a new campaign with a set number of sessions. It helps focus your attention more closely because you have a finite amount of time to explore an idea, and you get the satisfaction of completing a tidy, succinct experience. I particularly dig video series here at Nerdarchy the Website because we publish a new post with every video and I do most of the writing. A series with a theme makes a great jumping off point. Since the guide to aberrations in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons video covers what to expect and how to manage things when these creature types show up in your campaign setting and adventures, it was kinda tough coming up with a theme for these accompanying posts. How about this: what if aberrations are the only type of monsters in your 5E D&D world?
Aberrations are the only monsters in your world
First things first, for this thought experiment we’ll assume a basic campaign setting populated by the playable races found in the 5E D&D books. Your campaign setting might not have dragonborn in any significant numbers, or at all. Firbolg civilization could be the prominent society, or maybe there’s no humans since they discovered the secret of creation forges and built their own replacements, the warforged. Whatever the cultural makeup of your world, beyond these playable races the only creatures in the world all fall under the same monster type.
We will make one exception though — humanoids. In the case of NPC humanoids like cultists, archers and gladiators these are fair game for your world of monsters. When we get the the humanoids type of monsters we’ll focus on things like gnolls, orcs and goblinoids. (I know, some of them are playable races too. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.)
Aberrations effect on the world
Aberrations come from some place outside the natural world. These alien beings travel to the Material Plane from places like the Far Realm, Xoriat or other planets entirely. Quite a few lurk in the Underdark too, which in some ways is an alien world of its own. According to the 5E D&D Monster Manual, “the quintessential aberrations are aboleths, beholders, mind flayers, and slaadi.” These alien entities each seek domination in the Material Plane through different means but one thing in common is the specialized environments they often create for themselves.
It stands to reason any aberrations begin to affect the world around them with the weird alien energies they emanate. Within your campaign setting, areas affected by aberrations become significant places. Depending on scale, these areas can impact civilizations and societies or become tall tales and folklore. Consider places like the Mournlands of Eberron, Xhorhas in Wildemount or the Wasted West of Midgard. These huge regions affect everything from politics to travel for huge numbers of people. Generally speaking people who live in the world are aware of these areas and the dangers there and do what they can to avoid them.
On a much smaller level, aberration activity in a singular localized area might fester in the wilderness while those living nearby remain unaware of the threat. Imagine something like a dank cave or murky swamp. Deep within, conditions for aberration activity emerge. Neogi hatchlings, slaad tadpoles or star spawn grue bubble up through a festering portal and taint the surrounding area. A sense of foreboding or dread surrounds the area and people living nearby begin to avoid the place. Left unchecked the danger grows. Those large areas of aberration infestation have got to start somewhere, right?
Regardless of the scale of aberrations in the world, knowledge of their existence and presence affects perceptions and beliefs of the people living in the world. Imagine what life would be like in our own world if you knew with absolute certainty alien entities not only exist but infest certain areas. In broad strokes you know aberrations often seek domination of sentient creatures, cause madness and pursue incomprehensible plans. You might go your whole life without ever encountering such a creature — but you know they’re out there.
A world populated by aberrations brings a healthy dose of paranoia to the inhabitants. Say what you will of bandits, warlords, corrupt nobility and selfish common folk, at least they’re not monsters from another dimension beyond understanding. When you consider incredibly dangerous aberrations like aboleths or mind flayers, they might have minions living among you. A person enslaved by an aboleth falls completely under their sway, and in the case of mind flayers they might just straight up replace your brain with an intellect devourer.
Over time, cultures and societies might develop habits, quirks and superstitions influenced by the aberrations lurking in the world. Protections against such creatures would become highly valued, making something as simple as a 1st level protection from evil and good spell a powerful defense. Prominent organizations emerge, dedicated to vigilance against these alien incursions.
How many aberrations spill over into the world, where they tend to amass and what they do while they’re here has the potential to affect everyday life on a wide scale. The main takeaways are a sense of dread and paranoia that anyone could be a thrall of these other dimensional monsters — even you!
Aberrations effect on adventures, campaigns and stories
Since aberrations in 5E D&D often take inspiration from the bizarre alien species of science fiction and fantasy, these are great places to start. One of my favorite campaigns I’ve been a part of plopped the narrative of Mass Effect into D&D and there was tremendous elements of aberrations. Reapers, collectors, husks and thresher maws and so on down the line kept the adventurers hands full through many, many sessions of game play. Aberrations focused only on emerging from the Void and wiping the universe clean played out on the biggest scale you can think of — the entire universe of our Spelljammer campaign. Along the way the heroes made some strange compromises and alliances with aberrations themselves. Their adventures took some very weird turns.
Have you ever heard of Robotech? The Invid Invasion from Robotech: The New Generation story illustrates an otherwise normal Earth suffering an invasion of aberration monsters. This is a great structure for a 5E D&D campaign. Aberrations invade and take over the entire planet literally within minutes. The invaders establish a singular command center, occupy and enslave humanity and set about taking what they came for — Flower of Life, a special cosmic plant.
How’s that for a hot start to a new campaign?
In this setting aberrations aren’t lurking in the dark spaces of the world, they are the dominant species and everyone else survives. Essentially this is a post apocalyptic scenario, and who better than adventurers to set out trying to reach the command center and destroy these monsters? Right from the beginning as 1st level characters, a party of adventurers in this setting would be epic heroes if they took down a single aberration. Let’s say a nothic. There might be many powerful individuals in the world who hate these invaders, but chances are they’d use their might to make life more bearable for themselves. Repelling an alien invasion that wiped out your entire planet’s defenses in minutes seems completely ludicrous. Perfect for adventurers!
On the small side of the scale, adventurers are the folks who hear a bump in the night and do something about it. They’ll root out the thralls, track down the monsters’ lairs and send them back to whatever messed up place they came from. These sorts of adventures could feature a lot of investigative elements to try and figure out exactly what’s going on and how to find and stop it. They can just as easily include lots of social interactions too. A single neogi enslaved commoner could make life challenging for adventurers by misleading them or keeping track of their movements and communicating telepathically from up to a mile away.
A world filled with aberrations on any scale calls for specialized heroes to really gain the upper hand against these monsters. Aberrations rely on a lot of charmed and frightened conditions, madness, psychic damage, poison and generally a lot of attacks and abilities requiring targets to make saving throws of all sorts.
There’s a lot of useful character features out there but pound for pound I’ve got to say a paladin makes an incredible choice to go up against aberrations. Their auras provide fantastic protection against a lot of the bizarre effects caused by aberrations and the Oath of Devotion in particular brings a lot to the table.
Naturally rangers offer great features too, as I’m sure they will with every entry in this series. If there were ever a campaign style where Favored Enemy would reign supreme, a 5E D&D world with monsters of a single type is the one.
Any character with proficiency in Wisdom saving throws goes a long way towards survivability. Getting charmed, dominated, stunned or driven mad is never an easy thing to deal with. Since aberrations focus heavily on these areas, adventurers will run into conditions and effects with Wisdom saves pretty frequently.
All the telepathy, mind control and charm effects carries another danger too — intelligence. Not the ability score. I’m talking about the monsters’ access to information about the adventurers. Whether the aberrations gain control of adventurers and simply ask them to reveal crucial information, employ mind controlled spies or secretly spy on heroes themselves, keeping out of these watchful eyes might be tricky. So magic and abilities like nondetection and mindblank and basically anything that guards your thoughts will definitely be worth acquiring.
Of the character classes there’s very few specific mentions of aberrations. Druids are noted to guard the natural world against them, but none of their class features specifically relate to these monsters. Rangers, sorcerers and warlocks all include at least one feature related to aberrations. A ranger’s Favored Enemy gets a lot of mileage as mentioned earlier, and the Aberrant Mind sorcerer from Unearthed Arcana offers niche abilities.
One last note, in a 5E D&D world of monsters featuring only aberrations you’re certainly short handing your selections of creatures to challenge adventurers with but there’s still a huge variety of antagonists to square off against heroes. But I have a special trick you can pull out of your sleeve to spice up your selection of aberrations. Our Secrets of the Vault: Monster Menagerie Vol. 1 book includes an Aberrant Creature Template! You can apply this template to any creature to infest them with some aberration flavor.
If you run a 5E D&D game featuring only aberrations, let me know about it! Let’s hear your best stories of aberrations from your games. Maybe you’ve even slapped the Aberrant Creature Template on some unusual monsters yourself.