Today’s monster is Lovecraftian in nature. It’s meant to be one of those eldritch horrors lurking in some forsaken part of the world that no one in their right mind goes to (which means adventurers usually do), and spends its days doing horrible, sanity-blasting things that would make any sane person squick. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to evoke.
In reality, the aboleth, alongside most other aberrations, tend to just be another class of enemies that are there pretty much for the purpose of being killed by the PCs. The whole schtick of being “creatures that are so utterly wrong that just the sight of them can drive you mad” falls flat on its face. In large part, this is a meta-game fault – D&D just isn’t written to encompass Lovecraft’s style of horror. What’s interesting to think about is how this lack of Lovecraftian flavor translates into the game world. People aren’t shocked into insanity by aberrations (at least not without some special power on the aberrations’ part) – why not?
Personally, I think it’s because the average person in a D&D world takes it for granted that there are really awful things out there, so while actually running into one can be terrifying, it doesn’t shake your perceptions of reality to their foundations. Consider, even your average peasant knows that there are evil gods out there, who exist seemingly solely to do terrible things to people (and encouraging their worshippers to do terrible things to people).
Demons and devils, who both want to have your soul for a snack, are likewise usually presumed to exist. The undead are also a commonly accepted fact, even if the average person virtually never sees them. Both demons/devils and the undead usually tend to assume some other planes of existence, so the idea of a greater cosmos teeming with unknowable things is also in the back of the mind…all of that and more add up to it being a damn dangerous world out there, with plenty of horrors lurking in the shadows, waiting to get you! No wonder that the sight of some tentacled horror isn’t quite as bad for Joe Peasant as it would be for you or me.
So yeah, the overwhelming psychological advantage that an aberration would have in the real world isn’t quite as great when they’re sharing the stage with liches, pit fiends, red dragons, and several hundred other monsters. It’s with that disadvantage in mind that we turn our attention to the number two monster in the Pathfinder Bestiary:
So the aboleth is a three-eyed fish…
No, no, not like that. A twenty-foot long three-eyed fish, with four tentacles.
That’s more like it. Now, this guy has gotten one heck of malicious reputation over the life of our favorite RPG. Third Edition’s Lords of Madness described them as being survivors of a previous multiverse, with racial memories that stretch back to that time, and told of how they tried to enslave the nascient sentient races that emerged into the new universe. Sounds like they were pretty bad news.
But there’s more to it than that. These guys also created some monsters that are truly awful in their own right. Paizo’s Dungeon Denizens Revisited holds the aboleth up as the creator race for the cloakers and the mimics (the latter of which is expounded upon considerably in Sean K Reynolds Games’ Darkness Without Form: Secrets of the Mimic). Open Design’s Kobold Quarterly #13 posits that the aboleths were created by the ill-defined Elder Things, and subsequently created the shoggoths (and, by extension, gibbering mouthers and black puddings).
So yeah, by any account, the aboleths are ancient monsters who’ve done horrific things and unleashed many terrors upon the world. In this light, they quite clearly deserve nothing more than to be destroyed for everyone’s sake.
But what if they’re not really so bad after all? What if they were just misunderstood?
Let’s look at the Pathfinder incarnation of the aboleth more closely. First off, it doesn’t have any really major magical abilities. Those that it does have are almost all illusions – what better way to try and make itself and its surroundings look more inviting to potential new friends? Similarly, its two non-illusory power is to charm creatures, and make a hypnotic pattern – these are, respectively, the quintessential “please like me” ability, and a way to make something interesting for its new buddies to watch.
And that’s it for its magical abilities. There’s nothing to support that it can create all sorts of monsters. Clearly, these ideas that they created cloakers and mimics and such are all highly partisan rumors spread by anti-abolethonists.
But I’ve saved the big one for last. The total proof that the aboleth is in fact a benign, affectionate creature: the mucus cloud surrounding it.
Now I’ll grant that that certainly sounds disgusting, but lets examine it closely. This lets non-aquatic creatures breathe underwater when it gets on them – what better way to let air-breathing friends join it in the comfort of its underwater home? Beyond that though, pay attention to the fact that A) this water-breathing only lasts for three hours, and B) the cloud only radiates five feet from the aboleth’s body. Now, if you’re going to stay over at the aboleth’s place, you’ll need to get at least a good eight hours sleep. Given that you can’t afford to wake up choking every three hours, the only thing to do then is to sleep cuddled up adjacent to the aboleth so that its mucus cloud keeps reinforcing your water-breathing.
In other words, the nice fish cuddles you closely, like a big scaly teddy bear, all through the night so that you’ll be okay. It’s the very soul of beneficence.
So remember, the next time you’re ready to write off a creature as an evil monster just because it’s a huge, slimy prehistoric thing that dwells in some remote corner of the world, try to get to know it first – it might actually be a kind and gentle creature, like the aboleth.