Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted tackle a GM 911 from the community. In this fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s campaign mind flayers turned important NPCs into thralls. Volo’s Guide to Monsters goes into detail about these agents of the elder brains, and they’ve requested some insight. Specifically they’d like to know how to create encounters and adventures designed for characters to discover, identify and deal with the unique version of thralls described in VGtM. This is one of the rare cases where I’ve got a much different view than Dave and Ted on how to approach the situation and thankfully Nerdarchy the Website provides a perfect place where I can share my thoughts on the matter. So let’s get into it and take a different approach to using mind flayers and their thralls in 5E D&D.
Mind Flayers aren’t a campaign B plot!
The information about mind flayers and their thralls in VGtM is pretty robust and goes a long way towards supporting the notion of these classic D&D monsters as truly alien beings. Originally inspired by science fiction, mind flayers represent one of the most powerful tropes in the genre — domination of an entire species. Body Snatchers of literature and film, Reapers from the Mass Effect video game series and countless more stories feature alien beings infiltrating and taking over societies, planets and galaxies in some form or another for a variety of reasons, or none at all. Swap out mind flayers for lots of scary entities and this description from VGtM fits the bill perfectly.
“Mind flayers never truly ally with any creatures. They either attempt to seize control of a population by subverting its leaders, or they use psionics to dominate a humanoid and turn it into a thrall.”
The themes and circumstances these kinds of stories evoke tie in closely with the upcoming Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden come to think about it. Inspiration for the adventure grew directly from The Thing, John Carpenter’s movie about an alien presence taking over a remote base in Antarctica, breeding paranoia, mistrust and horror among the dwindling number of survivors. All these stories illustrate the most critical component of this sort of campaign for 5E D&D — player buy in. The protagonists learn very quickly of the threat, with the inciting incident taking place not far into the story.
Let’s face it, whenever the players get a whiff of something going on, it becomes the focus for the campaign whether a Dungeon Master likes it or not. Even when they imagine something might be going on can lead down unexpected paths, so why try to hide conceal it in the first place? If mind flayer infiltration is your B plot, it’ll quickly become the A plot once players get a hold. At the same time, are you prepared for a campaign world to fall under mind flayer domination when none of the players pick up on your subtle clues?
Don’t bury the lead in 5E D&D
You might pitch your campaign as a mystery where things aren’t always what they seem and who knows, maybe they’ll express disinterest from the start and save you a lot of work. Even a vague notion what to expect is better than nothing though, and it’s beneficial for the DM too. Letting players in on the mood and themes gives players at least a broad perspective and helps sell the scenes.
Giving players a heads up builds trust too, in particular when mind flayers are involved. Most players I know (myself included) consider mind flayers a red flag. No one wants to face them and even a hint of illithid activity can make adventurers back away. So imagine player reaction when you’re adventuring along pursuing your Big Campaign Goals and they pick up the scent of potential mind flayer infiltration. If ratcheting up the tension by orders of magnitude is your goal, congratulations. Balancing world domination with whatever heroic quest the party’s story involves is a big ask. Is it a trap? A red herring? How is it tied to the existing story? Giving some advance knowledge helps ease player reactions because they’ll feel like they’re supposed to be involved, rather than potentially stumbling into unintentional peril.
And it’s exciting! Do you know what’s better than a mid to late campaign mind flayer arc? A low level campaign putting illithids squarely in the spotlight. Being aware of the campaign direction stimulates player choices starting from square one with character creation. Finally, a compelling reason for a ranger to focus on aberrations as a Favored Enemy. Character choices like their background, skills, spells and personalities can all be informed by knowing this component of the campaign to come.
Part of the reason for advocating this approach — a big part — is my experience with gaming groups and campaigns. A bless spell upon those who complete long term campaigns successfully and repeatedly. Adding a layer of mind flayer infiltration would never have enough time to play out before campaign fizzle and then we’d have two incomplete stories on our hands. Pitching an adventure dealing with mind flayer infiltration feels much more practical for me and maybe for you too. Pack all the mind flayer goodness into it you can think of and see what happens. As a bonus if the campaign ends in a *TPEB no one can feel too bad. I mean, everyone already knew they’d be facing mind flayers after all.