5E Let's Read: Volo's Monsters

Realistically though, the ki-rin is a force multiplier in combat. The main tactic of the beast is to keep it's minions buffed and healed, while the PC's try desperately to kill it before they end up defeated themselves. The ki-rin has very formidable defensive options for this style of encounter, including Sanctuary if need be. And swapping into spells like Mass Heal and Revivify will cause the PC's to pull their hair out. Although it will be an extremely frustrating war of attrition for the PC's, it will be a memorable boss fight for sure.
Don't forget about Regenerate. Returning to 1 HP at the start of every turn is almost as good as trollish regeneration.
 

Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
I really do hope we get a "mystic mindflayer" update when the new take on psionics comes out. Some Metacreativity powers (making constructs and objects out of pure thought) would be a great addition to an Elder Brain's arsenal.

At any rate, Ulitharids are the potentially rebellious teenage daughters of the Elder Brain (technically at any rate). Which does provide numerous plot hooks. For starters, they can serve as a a kind of satellite for the Elder Brain, extending their sphere of influence significantly. Or they could be recently emancipated, and looking to form their own colony. Finally, the Ulitharid represents an opportunity for a civil war inside of an Illithid colony, something that would be impressive to witness at least.

Also, you could just say screw lore and have an Ulitharid be the detached physical body of an Elder Brain, a meat-puppet for them to control, if you really need to add more meat to that encounter.

But speaking of adding meat to the mind flayers, now is a good time to go back and look at what other options they have.
Back in chapter One:

We have a Variant: Mind Flayer Psion. Much like the Mind Flayer Archanist, it is a CR8 spellcaster. Unlike the Archanist, it is not an outcast, and it has quite a wide selection of spells, including spells from multiple classes. Most of these options are things you would expect something with advanced mental powers to have, though there is no allegory for pyrokinesis, and Meld into Stone is a bit of a non-standard pick. A good way to beef up any illithid encounter, and potentially serve as a "Boss" or lieutenant. But it would really shine as an individual member of the species, serving better in that casting call than an Ulitharid or any other member of the tribe, for when you want just a dash of squid-flavored badness instead of the entire calamari dish that the colony brings with it.

Thralls are covered a bit better in this chapter. It's worth noting that Thralls keep most of their brains in this edition, and in fact could actually end up smarter due to mind-tampering if they were of average or lesser intelligence to begin with. A stark difference from previous editions which had them as more or less mindless husks of meat to throw into the grinder that is the typical adventuring party. The book even suggests that the Thralls can be given a measure of telepathic powers (Mind Flayers don't like speaking after all) or other psionic abilities to make them more potent in combat and better spies.

It's also worth calling back to the MM here, Intellect Devourers are what happens to the brainmeats of a thrall after a ritual, and are employed to lead groups of people back to the tentacles of the Illithids by making one of them into a suit. Just keep in mind that despite their CR of 2, they are hyper deadly with permanent ability drain. And as such, may not be appropriate for your group without modifications.

To round out the tour of chapter one, we have Mind Flayer Magic Items and Augmentations. These items follow the traditional underdark magical item rule of "Screw the players, they ain't gonna use this!" But there are a few ways to bypass such a restriction.

Firstly, Mind Blades deal extra Psychic damage, allowing humanoid thralls to do more damage with their melee attacks. A bit boring mechanically, but it is a way to give a thrall more bite and a way for the players to track down it's master if they encounter it as a spy out by itself in the larger world.

Mind Carapace Armor is heavy armor that protects the dumb sort of louts who use them from mental attacks and fear. The sorts of things they are traditionally weak against, so yeah, that's good. Also, could be slapped onto one of the more important Illithids for a measure of extra protection.

Mind Lashes are an Illithid only weapon, that should only be given to a generic Illithid and not a boss, due to action economy. But it is very attractive to have on a minion, as it does significantly more damage than a normal whip, has the 15' range of a whip so the user can stand behind the front lines, and it imposes disadvantage on mental saving throws, making the rest of the tribe significantly more dangerous.

Shield of Mind Sight, it's another thing for a thrall, or maybe as a trap on the wall somewhere. But this one lets the mind flayer see through the shield and send out a Mind Blast from any distance on the same plane. Which is really handy, and something that should be incorporated into a smaller item so more spy thralls can use it.

As for non magic items, there are Flensing Claws. A body augmentation that allows the Thralls fingers to become long metal blades. They have a blurb of rules that I find to be totally unnecessary, as you can't implant the claws into another creature after the first, so no PC is going to become Wolverine (well more Lady Deathstrike I suppose) unless the DM specifically conspires with them. Maybe as part of a backstory. A good way to beef up combat thralls at any rate.

And finally we get to the Survival Mantle, which is a SCBA that is incorporated into a suit of half-plate, and allows the target to breathe in space. This device actually can work for anyone, thankfully, and can enable all kinds of adventures.
 
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Thanks for bringing those up, @Leatherhead - I'm not really touching on the Chapter One stuff as much, so it's good to have it mentioned here.

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Almost the last of the Mind Flayer-themed entries, the Mind Witness is a pretty strange customer. Created by a fusion of all that is nasty and wrong about Mind Flayers and all that is nasty and wrong about Beholders, it is a Large floating tentacle eyestalk monster with psionic abilities.

The art in the book is really unpleasant. It has a sticky, moist quality to it, and the almost symmetrical alignment of its limbs just highlights how odd it is. The milky white eye also draws the gaze, and it makes it seem even more unpleasant. All in all, a well done horror image.

As I mentioned above, these creatures are a fusion of Mind Flayer and Beholder. They are created by stunning a Beholder and putting it through the same transformation that (when done on Humanoids) makes Mind Flayers. I can only imagine that it takes a lot of time and effort to pull that effort off, so presumably there are not many of these in the average colony. After the transformation - which, oddly, results in a creature weaker than either a Mind Flayer or a Beholder - the Mind Witness is an ultra-loyal blank slate which is primarily used for its ability to broadcast telepathic messages. In other words, they are used in the same way that my dad uses wifi signal boosters in his house: to strengthen the existing network. They must be especially useful around thralls, who would have less of a native connection to the Elder Brain.

One very intriguing idea is that if the Mind Witness gets seperated from the colony, it will attach itself to the first psionic creature it finds, taking on their world view. Some flumphs who have one of these as a protector is interesting, but flumphs are already so weird it might be overload. I'd be very interested to have one turn up as the totally-horrific-but-benign protector of an underdark psionic monk temple: especially since you could play with the idea of the Mind Witness starting to revert if Mind Flayers approach...

The combat options for this fella are almost an overload. It can either multiattack - for a surprisingly high damage routine that includes the option to grapple and stun its victims - or use eye rays, which are primarily rather than damage, and which also have a strong psionic theme. This makes the Mind Witness a really versatile monster, since it appears perfectly happy both at range and in melee, and it can do all sorts of things that will help its allies out in combat, able to slow, stun and and restrain opponents, targetting just about every stat rather than just intelligence.
 

Mecheon

Explorer
I really do like the Mindwitness. Mind, I do like a lot of the crazy Beholderkin out there, so another one helps.

Though wasn't acting as a signal booster the point of the Brain Golem back in the day? I think they might have been the opposite though, extending the range of the Elder Brain, whereas Mindwitnesses are just general purpose boosters
 

Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
The Mindwitness is begging to be a target of an Elder Brain's Psychic Link. These guys are custom made to serve as an extension of it's will, by having none of their own, and serving as their hands, so to speak. Mostly I see these being employed as the Comms officer in a group of Illithids, or a group of elite Thralls being lead by a Mind Flayer (preferably the Psion type) for a special mission.

I could also see a room filled with these things, serving as a server (heh), allowing communications between multiple colonies. And what happens when these creatures dream? For a normal Beholder it's a form of reproduction, for these, who knows?

One interesting note is that it lacks both the central eye of a True Beholder and the Brain eating of a true Illithid. Not a very useful note, but it seems as if the hybrid loses something in the translation between the species from both ends.

Another interesting note: The implications of this creature being less than a normal Illithid raises some interesting questions about Mind Flayer Morality, such as "Is a Tadpole considered a Mind Flayer baby by the Illithids?" The answer, of course, is no. The Elder Brain eats them as part of a eugenics program after all.

But perhaps the most interesting note is the possibility of inducing Ceremorphosis in a wider range of creatures.

Instead of ending up a snack for being imperfect, a tadpole could find itself become an experiment. A few such experiments from past editions were:

Mozgriken, using a Svirfneblin and a ritual. Gives a shapeshifing, if weak, brain drinker.
Tzakand, using Lizardfolk. Resulted in a smarter lizardfolk with acid shooting powers and psionic defences.
Uchuulon, using a Chuul. Good for underwater action and not much else.
Urophion, using a Roper. Ambush like Ropers, have lesser mental powers, and serve as sentries.
Brainstealer Dragon, which is exactly what it sounds like. Serving as another potential leader for a colony because it's an Illithid who is also a Dragon and thinks it's the most advanced lifeform possible.

I had to dig out my Lords of Madness book to find some information about a few of these and other potential far-realm spawn. Which reminded me that back in 3.5, the endgame of the Mind Flayer's was to extinguish the Sun. Something that is still a totally awesome idea for a campaign.
 
I've heard of the 'extinguishing the sun' thing before. It seems gloriously bonkers, and I'd almost like to approach it from the other side - with the players emerging from the Underdark (perhaps they went down as their first adventure) to discover that the surface world has fallen into anarchy and chaos as a result of the Mind Flayers already succeeding. So they need to find a way to sail to the sun and undo the damage!
 

Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
Though wasn't acting as a signal booster the point of the Brain Golem back in the day? I think they might have been the opposite though, extending the range of the Elder Brain, whereas Mindwitnesses are just general purpose boosters
Way back in the day, Brain Golems mostly they served in much the same way as a normal golem does: Dumb muscle with gobs of immunities. Only with more Brain-flavor because that's the favorite flavor of the Illithid. More recently (in 3rd) they became a meat puppet for the Elder Brain to walk around in, and do the very few things that couldn't be delegated to something else. Not so much a signal booster as a drone, that was directly controlled by the Elder Brain, and incredibly beefcake because if the Elder Brain had to do something itself, it was going to do it in style.

For the Quick and Dirty 5e Stats (because I know some of you will want them): Pick a golem, preferably a Stone Golem, but any of them will do depending on the target CR of the encounter. Give it a Mind Blast appropriate to the CR (make sure that the DC is adjusted into a proper threat too), take away Berserk if the golem has it, and Mind Link it up to the Elder Brain.
 
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Chaosmancer

Villager
I could also see a room filled with these things, serving as a server (heh), allowing communications between multiple colonies. And what happens when these creatures dream? For a normal Beholder it's a form of reproduction, for these, who knows?

One interesting note is that it lacks both the central eye of a True Beholder and the Brain eating of a true Illithid. Not a very useful note, but it seems as if the hybrid loses something in the translation between the species from both ends.
I don't think they can dream, since they have no will or intellect on their own. They serve and that is it.

That actually is what makes the mindwitness being weaker make perfect sense. The Beholder is the ultimate ego in a way, fully self-aware and drawing its power from that. I think that being born from dreams and the like, their will and view of themselves is in part what drives their power.

Mindflayers remove will, the tadpoles eat the brain and the Elder Brain imposes a will upon the creature. They become blank and then are imprinted on. The beholder though, would begin to lose form and substance once the will and ego that drives them is removed, they can't exist without it, but they had such a massive and alien mind that it takes the larva and the brain a lot of energy to overcome it, they can't dominate it easily.

So, you end up with a creature who doesn't have the ego of the Beholder or the hive mind of the Mindflayer. A blank psionic slate.

I've heard of the 'extinguishing the sun' thing before. It seems gloriously bonkers, and I'd almost like to approach it from the other side - with the players emerging from the Underdark (perhaps they went down as their first adventure) to discover that the surface world has fallen into anarchy and chaos as a result of the Mind Flayers already succeeding. So they need to find a way to sail to the sun and undo the damage!
That is utterly insane. I can't even begin to think of the ways you could reignite the sun. That would be an epic end to a campaign.
 
My first thought would be to make the Sun into a person, or a being of some kind. I'm inspired by this tweet of Mearls, where he mentioned the Stars being entities, and maybe evil ones. So if the Sun is a person - a God, or a giant face, or whatever - then that opens up some interesting ideas. Do the players have to travel inside him/her/it to restart its weird celestial organs? What about going into the Astral to retrieve parts of the Sun's body?
 

DeBasilisk42

Villager
I like the Lords of Madness lore for the mind flayers best and while they vaguely touched on it as a legend in 5e they haven't actually said it - that they are a race of refugees from the future. The Far Realm crap always seemed too simple - it's an aberration? Far realm. But any of the their weird non-aberration critters? Material plane.

Same for aboleth backstory.

Love the write ups on the Ulitharid and the Mindwitness. The idea about a Mindwitness dreaming is inspired!

I'm going to have to homebrew that tonight. Call it Voidscryer. I'm thinking ooze, or ethereal.

Definitely going in one of my campaigns. Thanks Leatherhead!
 

Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
My first thought would be to make the Sun into a person, or a being of some kind. I'm inspired by this tweet of Mearls, where he mentioned the Stars being entities, and maybe evil ones. So if the Sun is a person - a God, or a giant face, or whatever - then that opens up some interesting ideas. Do the players have to travel inside him/her/it to restart its weird celestial organs? What about going into the Astral to retrieve parts of the Sun's body?
Or it can slowly die off and you can start playing a game setting like Dark Sun. You have several options here.

While we are on the topic, it's extremely easy to reconcile the lore of the mind flayers from different editions. Most simply state that the Far Realm is a place that is far away from the world everyone is currently on, and the mind flayers ruled multiple worlds, some of which could also be orbiting a different star. The bit about time travel suggests that they also traveled in space to a world filled with humans, presumably to start over because humans were easy to enslave. At that point they probably want to kill the sun, because the star-beings or whatever they are, are the ones who destroyed their empire.
 

Saint_Ridley

Villager
I like the Lords of Madness lore for the mind flayers best and while they vaguely touched on it as a legend in 5e they haven't actually said it - that they are a race of refugees from the future. The Far Realm crap always seemed too simple - it's an aberration? Far realm. But any of the their weird non-aberration critters? Material plane.

Same for aboleth backstory.

Love the write ups on the Ulitharid and the Mindwitness. The idea about a Mindwitness dreaming is inspired!

I'm going to have to homebrew that tonight. Call it Voidscryer. I'm thinking ooze, or ethereal.

Definitely going in one of my campaigns. Thanks Leatherhead!
I'm a fan of playing it that they went back from the future, and in doing so tore open a rip to the Far Realm as well (many wound up lost in there, getting us the Thoon type flayers from 3.5). And that's how the Far Realm first encountered the Prime.
 
I'm quite a fan of vague origins for some races, if only to keep the DM's options open. It does lead to some weird discussions though - I had a player define Beholderkin as 'native to another plane' for the purposes of Banishment, whereas I felt that the Far Realm didn't count for that purpose, not to mention that Beholderkin are not actually explicitly from anywhere, and thus probably native to the Material for the purposes of Banishment. Anyway, I like that the Illithids do not have a concrete race history set in stone, yet have a variety of 'plot elements' - long lost empire, Gith, maybe time travel, hate the surface world and the sun, etc - that can be spun by the DM into any convenient-for-the-campaign 'truth'. A bit like the defence made of early Greyhawk or early Points of Light - useful elements, no inconvenient shackles for the DM.

A world with the sun slowly dying is indeed quite the tantalising idea. The opposite of Dark Sun, yet actually more appropriate for that name than Athas was! :D You could end up with a post-apocalyptic nighttime arctic setting, with the races all fighting over volcanoes and the like. Combine that with Aberrations, Drow, and Fey all closing in from the shadows - any excuse to use the Darklings - and you could have an extremely cool idea at work. Points of Light, indeed.
 
Nothing like mass genocide/suicide to save the world?
Doesn't have to be genocide OR suicide.

First you kidnap a Darkling and force him to learn magic.

Then you take babysit him on adventures until he becomes a 17th level wizard.

Then you teach him Wish and Simulacrum and have him make an arbitrary number of self-duplicates, all of whom are instructed to take their cues from the original's first duplicate and do what he does.

Then when you've got a few hundred cubic kilometers of duplicates, you have them all teleport into the center of the sun and self-destruct.

Result: sun is re-ignited, and nobody died except for all the creatures you killed for the Darkling during level grinding.
 
The Morkoth is one of those monsters that the game likes to jump dump in your lap, and leave you to try and decide what to do with it. There is some really interesting elements here, but it certainly isn’t what you might expect to see.



The art for the Morkoth in Volo’s is probably the worst in the entire volume. This is because the central role of this art is to provide a clear and understandable image of what the monster in question is; and this art gives the impression that the Morkoth is a garguantuan creature which swims around with loads of treasure on its head. Yet the stat block indicates that a Morkoth is actually a human-sized creature that lives in a cave at the centre of a magical floating island. A real disappointment.

While googling for the above image - which is one of the real pleasures of this series, since I get to find all kinds of weird and wonderful images in the process - I learned that the Morkoth used to be very different in previous editions. Regardless, I’d never heard of them before, so who cares! :D The Morkoths are a really gratifyingly weird lot, and I’m actually quite a fan of them, though I wish that they were more powerful. They came about from essentially a divine hearse pileup in the Astral plane, and each one is a creature that lives on an island made from the energies or material that resulted from that collision. I don’t think that the Morkoth would leave its island very often, but the text is vague on the matter. These islands are under the sway of the Morkoth, so far as climate and layout are concerned. In other words, it is like a permanent demiplane with no walls. The more interesting part, though, is that these islands wander the cosmos - popping from plane to plane in a pattern perhaps regular, perhaps not, and which may or may not be under the Morkoth’s control. This is super interesting! For a start, it gives you another way to let the players navigate their way to the planes, and still keeping it under the DMs control. In addition, it makes the Morkoth and its island a wandering plot hook, something that could have appeared suddenly right in the midst of all kinds of important events.

The next element that makes the Morkoth useful for a storyline is that they are collectors. I’ve already made use of one in this regard in my home game, with the players needing to find something that it wants in order to exchange it for something that it already has. Anyone who has seen Guardians of the Galaxy knows how interesting a collector of oddities can be, and these guys are very odd indeed. All kinds of macguffins, keys to long-lost dungeons, holy relics, and mummified remains of legendary kings can be justifiably located in the Morkoth’s collection, and that will give your players an impetus to seek out the wandering island To be honest, this is also likely itself to be an interesting plot hook, as the players could have to seek out the ancient tomes that list the arrival times of the island according to the ancient lunar calendar, for example. From a story perspective, the Morkoths really combine the best bits of the Planescape portal system with the ‘mad but potentially helpful wizard’ trope.

In a game like D&D, you can never really rule out combat. Plus, to be honest, the Morkoth is likely to be such an arse to your players that they want to kill it! So let’s take a look at its stats. At CR 12 in its Lair - and I’m not sure why you’d use one outside of its magical island - the Morkoth is a bit too weak for my tastes, but I suspect that they wanted the Morkoth to not be something that could overpower the typical (level 5-10) group of adventurers by itself, but instead something that had to hide away and plot against them. They are amazingly perceptive for their CR - Passive Perception 20, Blindsight 30ft! - and comes with Wizard spells as for an 11th level character, with a decent mixture of the nasty (Lightning Bolt, Chain Lighting), plot useful (geas, sending) and characterful (Evard’s black tentacles). It also has some melee attacks, which are fairly weak and follow the ‘on a hit you are grappled’ methodology that we’ve seen a lot. Another interesting option is the Hypnosis ability, which is essentially a Dragon Fright aura in reverse, drawing people closer to it, but with its fairly low HP that might be a mistake on the Morkoth’s part. I think that the Morkoth does suffer from having a combination of fairly weak spellcasting and fairly weak melee attacks, meaning that either way it is likely to underwhelm. Much more exciting, however, is the Spell Reflection reaction, which lets it bounce effects onto other people if it passes a save. This is actually really nasty - it would let a Morkoth pass for no damage, and deal the full damage of the spell to someone else, for example - and probably the reason for the relatively low damage output that it itself has.

I have a bad habit of not mentioning the Lair Actions for these creatures. Thus you might expect me to fail in this regard once more.



The Morkoth has only two Lair actions, but they are both pretty interesting. The first is to toss a Hypnosis up to 120 ft away, not requiring Line of Sight. This seems like a hilarious way to mess with a party trying to peer around the door or kite it. Alternatively, it can cast - without using a spell slot - Darkness, Dispel Magic or Misty Step. Those three are actually pretty interesting on a slow creature with blindsense and strong magical abilities, so I think that it would definitely make a difference to a fight. I don’t know if I’d say that these Lair Actions make the Morkoth worth CR 12 rather than 11, but I do think that they’ll make it a much more engaging magical opponent.

To finish this pretty long entry: these guys are great. They have a strong combination of really interesting plot hooks, a great way of bringing in planar travel without losing control of the plot, and a combat presence that will cause wonderful problems for your party’s spellcasters, makes these guys well worth using. They’re a one tentacled monstrosity plot hook, and they can do all kinds of fun things for your campaign.


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