Monstrous Arcana: The Illithiad (2e) at RPG Now!

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The Illithiad is a visually stunning tome that details important information on mind flayers, their mental powers, and their dire plans to control the multiverse.

This “complete book of illithids” covers:

  • The anatomy and physiology of the mind flayer.
  • The terrible truth about the mind flayer life cycle.
  • Illithid-kin, undead mind flayers, and new’ flayer-kin monsters.
  • A balanced look at illithid psionic powers.
  • a detailed description of a typical mind flayer community
  • Unique mind flayer psionic abilities and items.

The Illitiad is the third volume in the popular Monstrous Arcana game accessory series and is indispensable to DMs who want to add these terrifying creatures to their campaigns. The Illithiad supports the mind flayer adventure trilogy: A Darkness Gathering, Masters of Eternal Night, and Dawn of the Overmind.

Product History

“The Illithiad” (1998), by Bruce R. Cordell, is the sourcebook for the third Monstrous Arcana sequence, focusing on the mind flayers. It was published in April 1998

About the Name. “The Illithiad” is a play-on-words of Homer’s Iliad (8th century BC).

Origins. Cordell wrote the three adventures associated with the second Monstrous Arcana, “The Sea Devils” (1997). This gave him enough clout that when he requested the assignment to write “The Illithiad” and its three adventures, he was given the task.

Continuing the Monstrous Arcana. The Monstrous Arcana started out in 1996 as a yearly series that featured a prestige sourcebook and three associated adventures. That first year, the Arcana focused on beholders. Remarkably, 1997 saw the publication of the entire second Monstrous Arcana sequence, focused on the sahuagin, despite the extreme chaos of that year as TSR went out of business and Wizards of the Coast picked up the baton. That meant that in 1998 Wizards needed a new series of Monstrous Arcana books.

As with the previous series, 1998’s Monstrous Arcana included one sourcebook and three adventures — and as with the previous sourcebooks, “The Illithiad” was a handsome book full of attractive layout, beautiful artwork, and interesting sidebars. Unfortunately, the mind flayer sequence would mark the end of the Monstrous Arcana line.

A History of the Mind Flayer. The mind flayers first appeared in The Strategic Review #1 (Spring 1975) as the first “Creature Features”. Though some fans have since noted a resemblance to Larry Niven’s thrint, Gygax says:

“The mind flayer I made up out of whole cloth using my imagination, but inspired by the cover of Brian Lumley’s novel in paperback edition, The Burrowers Beneath.” —Gary Gygax

That first appearance of the mind flayer predated D&D’s psionic rules, so their Mind Blast was simply described as a “wave PSI force”. It could cause insanity, death, coma, or stunning, depending on the target’s INT. D&D’s official psionic rules appeared in Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry(1976); the mind flayers were also revamped for that book, with full integration into the new system.

The first two appearance of the mind flayer didn’t talk about their preferred habitat. However when they reappeared in AD&D’s Monster Manual(1977), they were said to be “found only in subterranean places, as they detest sunlight.” This would be the main ecological niche for mind flayers in the years that followed. Thus, in D1: “Descent into the Depths of the Earth” (1978), they were revealed as a part of Greyhawk’s proto-Underdark — in the adventure that also first used the term “illithid”. They later appeared in the first official Underdark, in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986), and have been a frequent foe in other Underdark settings, such as those revealed in FOR2: The Drow of the Underdark (1991) andMenzoberranzan (1992). Some of the mind flayers’ Underdark gods were also revealed in DMGR2 Monster Mythology (1992). “The Illithiad” uses the Underdark as the foundation of its own depiction of mind flayers as well.

However, mind flayers are very versatile, and as a result they’ve been part of many other settings. This idea dates back at least to “The Ecology of the Mind Flayer,” an article by Roger Moore that appeared in Dragon #78 (October 1983). It offered the first suggestion that mind flayers were “not of any known world”.

A science-fiction-themed mind flayer had appeared in S3: “Expedition to the Barrier Peaks” (1980), which made them a natural fit for Spelljammer(1989). They’re a major force in Wild Space, well known for their nautiloud ships. Large settlements in Greyspace and in Realmspace further highlight the importance of the species.

The mind flayers became so important to Spelljammer, that TSR’s designers got flak from the marketing department when they tried to introduce them to the Ravenloft Campaign Setting (1990). The designers eventuallt had to prove that the monsters predated Spelljammer before they were allowed to include them in the new setting. RQ2: “Thoughts of Darkness” (1992) then detailed a mindflayer domain called Bluetspur, ruled by an elder-brain darklord.

Expanding AD&D. AD&D2e didn’t have any core psionic rules. They were instead found in PHBR5: “The Complete Psionics Handbook” (1991). This may be why “The Illithiad” revised AD&D’s psionics mechanics and provided specific rules for the mind flayers.

Amusingly, Cordell’s work on “The Illithiad” turned him into an expert in the psionics field; as a result, he was later asked to write the Psionics Handbook (2001) for 3e — and after that scribed the Expanded Psionics Handbook (2004) and Complete Psionic (2006) as well as the Mindscapesseries (2003-2004) for Malhavoc Press.

Expanding the Outer Planes. “The Illithiad” reveals that mind flayers originated in “a terrible realm far from our own, from which even the merest contact affected our own continuum”. It’s called the Outside and was later linked to the Far Realm that Cordell created for The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1996).

Monsters of Note. “The Illithiad” includes an extensive set of mind flayer variants. The ulitharid (noble mind flayer) first appeared in Dungeon #24(July/August 1990); the alhoon (mind flayer lich) premiered in Menzoberranzan (1992); and the illithid vampires had previously been seen in RQ2: “Thoughts of Darkness” (1992) and other Ravenloft supplements. Related creatures such as the brain golems, the cranium rats, the gohlborn, and the grimlocks had appeared in a variety of other magazines and supplements. “The Illithiad” reprinted all of these creatures and also statted up a few new illithid-related monsters, including the arcane illithids, the elder brains, the neothelids, and the urophion.

Future History. Wizards hyped The mind flayer books with a simultaneous magazine article: “Mindstalkers” in Dragon #245 (March 1998), also by Cordell, describes the “secrets of the dwarven illithid-hunters”. “The Illithiad” was then followed by three adventures: “A Darkness Gathering” (1998), “Masters of Eternal Night” (1998), and “Dawn of the Overmind” (1998).

In more recent years, “The Illithiad” has continued to be an important source for books like the Psionics Handbook (2001), “The Speaker in Dreams” (2001), and Lords of Madness: The Book of Aberrations (2005). Even years after its release, it’s an important part of D&D history.

About the Creators. By 1998, Cordell had been writing D&D books for a few years. However, that was the year that his production really exploded. He authored a total of nine major releases in 1998, including all four mind flayer books and Return to the Tomb of Horrors (1998).

About the Product Historian

The history of this product was researched and written by Shannon Appelcline, the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons – a history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Please feel free to mail corrections, comments, and additions to shannon.appelcline@gmail.com.

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