Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Poll Result: Mind Flayers

A day late and a dollar short; Tycho and Gabe at Penny Arcade have already declared open season on mind flayers. I'm coming in after the first shots have been fired, it seems.

I'm actually a bit blown away by the poll result; the good old illithid was my pick for victor but I'd expected the drow to be running a close second, lavender eyes flashing in the darkness. Possibly it's time for Bob Salvatore to start up a new series about a good-hearted mind flayer living in self-imposed exile, tortured by the brain-eating ways of his kin?

I'm a bit baffled by the two guys who voted for Derro (or possibly one guy on two computers). Really? Derro? I'd love to hear a compelling argument for their awesomeness; I've always considered them the also-rans in the evil dwarf marathon. I guess this is why we have polls; to establish that Kuo Toa are scientifically three times as popular as Derro, despite apparently not even having a Wikipedia page my incorrect spelling of their name.

But let's look at why the mind flayer wins.

Mind flayer and illithid are interchangeable terms; I'm not sure if they're used in connection with each other as far back as the mind flayer's original appearance in 1975 but certainly by the late 80s and the birth of AD&D 2nd Edition they're inseparably pinned together.

Mind flayers are notable for their humanoid appearance, topped by a squidlike head festooned with writhing tentacles. These tentacles burrow into the brain of the mind flayer's victim to feast on the goo inside. They are deeply intelligent, often displaying genius-level cognition, and are naturally psionic, able to deploy a devastating mind blast from which they partly derive their name. In addition, many illithids are accomplished magic-users and they make use of cutting edge magicpunk-style technology (culminating in the titular extraplanar vessels of the Spelljammer campaign setting).

I think the reason the mind flayer has become so iconic is the way it straddles so many horror and fantasy tropes so effectively. Not only is an individual mind flayer a mastermind-level campaign villain, it comes from an entire civilisation of such beings. It's a deadly psion, able to turn your own thoughts against you, and at the same time it's a powerful archmage (some mind flayers ascend to undeath to become a ridiculously-named illithilich.) Its humanoid appearance lets it fit any number of regular character roles, but at the same time it's a Lovecraftian abomination, a Thing-That-Was-Not-Meant-To-Be. 4th Edition has mind flayers once again hailing from the Far Realm, which is in keeping with their whole Elder Gods flavour.

There's also the ongoing theme of penetration and invasion. The mind flayer is one of the horror genre's rape-surrogates. The illithid invades your thoughts; its tentacles drill into your brain; and its spawn, the repellant illithid larvae, grow to adulthood by entering a parasitic and ultimately lethal relationship with a living human host.

Mind flayers are a huge number of successful horror monsters rolled into one; and if the basic illithid doesn't completely meet your antagonist needs you can graft an illithid larvae onto any number of other monsters to create a ridiculous mind flayer hybrid - anything from the half-svirfneblin "mozgriken" to the beholder-illithid "mindwitness" through to the too-awesome-to-be-silly "brainstealer dragon".

Personally the image that stays with me of the mind flayer is of an illithid, its arms folded within its voluminous robes. It doesn't need to unfold its arms to kill you. It doesn't need to move. It controls your brain, and you walk towards it, and it feeds.

Man, I love those guys.


Maelora said...

I'm surprised drow didn't do better. I'm guessing that Salvatore's emo Mary Sue actually damaged their coolness for many people. 4E destroyed the Realms but even it couldn't kill off Drizzle (and Elminster).

I like illithids, but then I like all the Underdark denizens (even derro).

Please also note that 3rd edition had them as Far Realm inhabitants - the 3.5 Aberrants book (Lords of Madness) is one of the better supplements.

Personally I think aboleths are a better fit for true Lovecraftian horrors.

But even I wouldn't try to argue that illithids aren't cool!

Maelora said...

And thanks, Greg, for throwing your hat into the ring in the 'Dungeon Adventures' debate on the WotC boards.

It goes without saying we're interested in what your adventure submission will be!

(and also - get well soon!)

Anders Hällzon said...

And here I was rooting for the Svirfneblin. I strikes me just now that they're the only "nice" race in your poll. (I suppose Myconids could qualify as neutral.)

Maelora said...

Pedantry warning:

The reason the 'Kua Toa' don't have a wiki page is that they don't exist... :)

For the 'Kuo Toa', see here:

By The Sword said...

I had a friend who used to play a Myconid Bard. He was quite a 'fun guy'.

The Stray said...


Don't blame Salvatore. Sure, Driz'zt's a Mary Sue, but he's also had enough character development to be interesting. It helps that he's an accurate reflection of the Sue tendencies that many, many player character show. D&D is a game of escapism, where people come to be powerful people for a while. The archetype that Driz'zt represents wouldn't resonate so strongly with the fanbase without reason.

The reason Illithids beat out Drow is because, at the end of the day, the dorw are just elves IN THE UNDERDARK. Matriarchal society and spider fetishes aside, they're just like the elves they sprang from: mystic, pretty, arrogant Magic People.

Mind Flayers, on the other hand, are ALIEN. They're WRONG, in all the right ways. They are convincingly Other.

Greg Tannahill said...

@Maelora - Ah-hah! It's spelling that's the demon! I guess I was getting my alternate spelling from some computer game or other where they'd been bastardised. (Searching for Kua-Toa on the web turns up plenty of hits.)

Greg Tannahill said...

Oh also, yes, while I've made a proposal for an article to Dungeon Magazine, there's a 60 day waiting period on hearing whether they're interested, and the submission guidelines aren't all that helpful, so I'm entirely unsure whether I've even sent them the format that they're looking for and won't know for probably two months.

Maelora said...

If it's any consolation, I actually pronounce it 'KUA-TOA'.

And great news about your adventure proposal! I know it will be awesome (assuming WotC are smart enough to use it!)

hvg3 said...

I was half the votes behind Derro :p

I played one in a drow campaign once. Everyone else was going drow, but I went Derro - probably more for my desire to be different / play something unusual. But really, how bad can a crazy dwarf-like creature be?

And yeah, I also feel that most of the other options were overdone (MF, Drow), or too strange (mushrooms...).

Greg Tannahill said...

There's actually an Underdark book coming out, apparently. Playable illithids, derro and kuo toa? Quite possibly!

erendor said...

Personally, I was behind a vote for the aboleth. As much as I love the illithids (and all things aberrant), the aboleth just barely beat them out. It's really a changing thing, though.

I really like the 3.5 Lords of Madness explanation behind the mind flayers - it might seem silly to some, but their origin story is just cool, and it makes a nice contrast to the aboleth origin.

On a final note, I'm glad I just realised I can leave comments without a Google Account or what have you - I've been following this blog and even went into the archives for your other one, since I really like a lot of your writing. To find out you were an Australian political candidate was pretty awesome (living in Melbourne, myself).
Keep up the good work!

Greg Tannahill said...

Thanks Erendor! It's always great to delurk another reader. Keep reading and commenting!

Grant said...

I adore mind flayers - they're just so wonderfully creepy and inhuman.

I don't think the drow are ruined by Salvatore - I think they're ruined by being a one-dimensional inversion of an existing race. (Like elves? Then you've love the drow - the opposite of elves!)