Monday, January 25, 2010

Intellects Vast and Cool and Unsymapthetic: Mind-Flayer Speculations

The Illithid came for Rellan today.

They stood in the entrance of the holding cell like wet, bruise-purple statues draped in funerary black. They were motionless save for the subtle, vermiform writhing of their tentacles, and the pulsing of the thick veins wreathing their bulbous skulls.

They had been taking us one by one from the holding cell, for whatever obscure need they had. I say need--though the very concept seems incongruous with the cold dispassion which characterized their actions. Their intelligence was apparent in their black eyes, but inhuman in its workings, and far beyond ours, and so unknowable.

The psychic buzzing that always accompanied their presence seemed to paralyze us at their will. Faintly, sometimes in these visits I thought I could hear their telepathic voices, like distant whispers, as they discussed among themselves which of us to select. These psychic vibrations I perceived as pitched something like the voices of old women, but alien in their lack of inflection or emotion.

Today, the deliberations were quick. The buzzing rose in volume, and Rellan was seized by the emanations of their mind and walked stiffly into the presence of our captors, face contorted with the agony of his futile resistance. In a moment, they were gone, and we were free from the effects of their overbearing psychic presence.

As with the others taken before, we never saw Rellan again.

- From a journal found in a cleared room in the Labyrinth of Ulthraun, delivered to Tuvo brek Amblesh, Magister of the Library of Tharkad-Keln.

Everybody likes Mind Flayers. They're one of the classic monsters of D&D, and have entered the culture of fantasy gaming, appearing in sometimes slightly camouflaged form (and sometimes not) in other tabletop rpgs and computer games.

One of the most appealing things about the Mind Flayers is their inherent alien and mysterious nature. Multiple origins have been given for them in various D&D products over the years and editions. These different origins are often irreconcilable, at least in part.

I see that as a design feature rather than a bug. Mysterious and compelling adversaries deserve equally murky and evocative origins.

In that spirit, here are four possible origins for the Mind Flayers. They're in no way completely "original" and that's purposeful.  They draw from a host of pulp, weird, and science fiction sources, as well as referencing, in some ways, origins offered in official source material. They also utilize modern terminology to help evoke a pseudo-scientific air, but also to help the modern reader come at these classic creatures in a new way.  They're are not necessarily intended to be used verbatim "in game." On the other hand, a dying astronaut whispering his last words, or an ancient, half-malfunctioning video screen relaying one of these origins would be just the sort of genre-bashing that classic D&D was built from...

  • The Mind Flayers are abhuman mutants from a far future, dying earth. Endeavoring to save their civilization from extinction, they have been using all their failing super-science to cast as many of their dwindling number as they can back through the eons. In the current era, they are interested in humans as food--and as subjects for experimentation.  They hope to force-evolve mankind into their species, and restore a breeding population of their once mighty race.

  • The Illithids are vampiric thoughtforms from a higher plane. If they can be glimpsed in their "true" form by magical or psionic means, they resemble translucent, glowing jellyfish. They descended into material forms out of hunger and curiosity millennia ago, drawn like moths to a flame by the psychic energy of nascent sentient life.

  • The Mind Flayers hail from a planet destroyed by the gods themselves--either as punishment for their impious presumption, or out of fear of their developing power. Some illithid escaped the death of their world, and hide in subterranean enclaves, bidding their time, and planning their vengeance.

  • The Illithid are but the drones or puppets of ancient aquatic, elder brains. Either these coral-like beings evolved here, or perhaps arrived from some alien world. Whatever their origins, they construct larva which infect intelligent hosts and transform them biologically into illithid, subsuming them in a group mind. The ultimate goals of these elder brains are unknown.
Maybe these aren't mutually exclusive. Or maybe they contain a kernel of truth, but aren't literally true. Mix and match, and use 'em as you like. The goal is to keep the Mind Flayers scary and interesting--and strange.


Fran Terminiello said...

i like it! nice fic, puts my stuff to shame

I've always followed the fourth version, adds another element of fear - that one might become a mindflayer should they choose you as a 'host'. def a fave dnd monster, not much else is quite as inhumanly chilling.

Trey said...

I don't know about the comparison, but thanks.

Yeah, nothing quite gets to visceral fear like "body horror."

Anonymous said...

I've always liked the 'back from an Empire at the end of the universe' explanation myself, though that could just be because it was the first one I read.

richard said...

I love thoughtforms. Somehow, then, the fault lies within the observer. What is it in us that conjures up the image of the psychic threat in the form of the most intelligent of mollusca? Why do our brains resemble hives of tentacles, packed into our skulls? What deep concordance, what cipher is there linking cephalopods and our own cephalia? What happened at the end of the Permian, that wiped out almost all life, leaving the mollusca, the nautiloids, the limulidae, and the seeds that would become reprilia, and us? Are we the aliens?

All of these are great. I particularly like the idea that the Puppet Masters might themselves be remote-controlled.

Trey said...

Good thoughts, Richard, and thanks. What if the Permian extinct was a pivot point around which different versions of history revolve? Illithids, the triumph of mollusca, might view humanity as a horror out of a history that should have never been.

richard said...

were the horseshoe crabs left behind when everything else moved away (like characters in rapturist scifi novels) or are they trans-temporal spies, sent by their Ordovician masters to keep an eye on the future?

richard said...

I'm also contemplating a post or two about inventing horrific plots by adapting stuff we do to other species, all based on a brilliant comment I got on my Carcosan Pokemon chart. Really, since we can't adequately imagine anything truly alien, it's a good thing for horror writers that we humans are so weird and heartless.

Trey said...

@Richard - Perhaps those crafty crabs are both?

It's good to know you can find an upside in man's inhumanity. ;)

richard said...

I try to stay upbeat in the face of soulless annihilation.

Did you see this "tulip thing"?

From the Cambrian, no less: that's some serious time-jumping. I like to think that when biotech really takes off we'll be leaving all kinds of mysterious stuff around the place for distant future civilisations to pick through - these might be alientech phones or snack wrappers.

Trey said...

Thanks! I hadn't seen that. Problematica, indeed. A lot of possibilities, there!