Mind-Affecting Spells vs. Illusions

In creating stats and special powers for the Nazgul, I’m revisiting the characteristic of all undead: their immunity to mind-affecting spells and phantasms. Mind-affecting spells are spells like charm, confuse, daze, dominate, hold, geas, insanity, sleep, and all symbols, and phantasms are illusions like dream, nightmare, phantasmal killer, and weird. Anything that manipulates the mind doesn’t faze an undead, because undead aren’t alive. They have only an artificial imitation of thoughts, feelings, and memories; they don’t have neurons firing in a live brain. But if phantasms are illusions, it made me wonder: are undead immune to all illusions?

It didn’t take much google-searching to learn that my question is a common one, and that the answer is no. Undead are not immune to most illusions. They are immune to phantasms because those are mental images that only the victim perceives. Phantasms are totally in the mind and if successfully disbelieved they vanish. Undead are naturally immune to this sort of thing. Most illusions, however — projected images, images, mirror images, hallucinatory terrain, illusory wall, invisibility, veil, etc. — are not mind-affecting. They are glamors, or “fake pictures” (sort of like modern-day holograms), that anyone can see or sense, or be obscured from seeing or sensing (for spells like invisibility and veil). According to Sean Reynolds:

“Figments and glamers produce unreal but certainly not mind-affecting effects. If you use silent image to make an illusion of a cottage, the cottage may not be physical, in that it can’t shelter you from rain, but it’s also not simply a magical image in your mind. You can disbelieve it, which mean you recognize it is false image, but it doesn’t disappear (notice the spell says ‘Will disbelief’ not ‘Will negates.’)”

That’s the key: most illusions, when successfully disbelieved, still exist. The glamers remain visible/audible, and don’t evaporate. They are simply recognized as fake. Undead are susceptible to them like any mortal creature, since they have the equivalent senses of living creatures — sight, smell, hearing, touch, etc. (Even skeletons, who technically lack eyes, see things with a sight-equivalent.) Their senses work fine. It’s their minds that run artificially.

So the Nazgul, like all undead, are immune to mind-affecting spells and phantasm illusions, but they can be tricked by most illusions, which fool the senses, not an individual mind. I believe that’s how I always treated undead (and Nazgul) in my past gaming campaigns, but this is the first time I really thought about the issue. As apparently many others have.


The Nazgul, Part 1: Bios of the Nine

I’m working on a D&D project involving Tolkien’s Nazgul, and here are their bios. Most of this history derives from Iron Crown Enterprise’s Lords of Middle-Earth, Volume 2 (1987), though I’ve taken liberties, modified them to suit my campaigns, and also made them a bit more colorful. I used Paint to spotlight the regions in Middle-Earth ruled by each Nazgul. For all the detailed mapwork provided by ICE, no module or accessory ever showed the perspective of the nine regions together on one map. In the next post I’ll give the stats, items, and special powers of each Nazgul.

1. Murazor, the Witch King. The First of the Nine is the only Nazgul to have never ruled a kingdom prior to serving Sauron, which is ironic. If not for his brother he would have been the 13th king of Numenor. Murazor was the son of Tar-Ciryatan (r. SA 1869-2029), younger brother of the future Tar-Atanamir the Great (r. SA 2029-2221), proud and greedy, and he never forgave his brother for being firstborn. His jealousy shaped history: in SA 1880 he gathered a small fleet and sailed for Middle-Earth, trying to seize and control regions here and there, but accomplishing little more than pissing off his father who demanded that he return home. Sauron wanted to completely corrupt this Numenorean prince of high blood, and he filled Murazor’s ears with flattery, convincing him that he had the potential to become an invincible mage. Murazor did just that, traveling to the Barad-dur in 1883 and nearly destroying himself over the next century as he struggled to master the Black Art. He finally emerged in 1998 as the most powerful mage in all of Middle-Earth (after Sauron), and was rewarded for his efforts with a Ring of Power. From that point on he was the Dark Lord’s most trusted and valued right-hand. When Sauron was “killed” at the end of the Second Age, Murazor’s spirit, like the other Nazguls’, passed into the shadow realm until it reformed over a thousand years later in the Third Age (1050). He resided with Sauron at Dol Guldur between TA 1050-1276, and then left Mirkwood to establish the realm of Angmar (click on the map), which he ruled for almost 700 years (1300-1974) as the terrifying Witch King. It took him that long to destroy the northern kingdom of Arnor — the greatest tragedy of the Third Age. The next stage was Gondor: he went to Mordor in 1975, and marshaled the other Nazgul for an attack on Minas Ithil. The attack came in 2000 and the city was taken after a two-year siege. The sacking was merciless, and the chief scribe of Minas Ithil recorded famously, “If you desire to know what was done with Gondor’s finest, know that in our last stand, the orcs rode in the blood of our men up to the shoulders of their wargs.” Those who surrendered were crucified in a parade extending miles down the road to Ithilien. Murazor wasted no time filling the city with deadly magics and untold horrors, and almost overnight Minas Ithil (“City of the Rising Moon”) was transformed into Minas Morgul (“City of Dark Sorcery”). The Witch King ruled the ghastly place for the next thousand years (2002-3018), continuing where he left off in Angmar, now intent on destroying Gondor. Alas, such was not to be: he was killed in 3019 during the War of the Ring, slain by a princess of Rohan and a hobbit of the Shire.

2. Khamul, the Black Ranger. The Second of the Nine was another favorite of Sauron and spent most of his Third-Age centuries under the same roof with him in Southern Mirkwood. He came from a line of half-elven royalty, and prior to being corrupted by Sauron was the King of Womawas Drus (click on the map), from SA 1844-1999. Toward the end of that reign he lost control, as the lords renounced his rule in favor of Numenorean colonizers who established trade. In desperation Khamul sought the help of his elven stepmother who ruled the nearby Avar kingdom (and who had molested him as a child), and in 1994 she agreed to an alliance with him in return for his complete allegiance and loyalty. Knowing this was a deal with the devil, he agreed, which saved his kingdom (with her aid he mercilessly crushed his Numenorean rivals) but costed him his soul. For his stepmother was in the service of Sauron, and on his orders she gave him a Ring of Power in 1999. Khamul abruptly disappeared, leaving for Mordor to serve Sauron until his fall at the end of the Second Age. After reforming in the Third Age (1050), he was sent back to Womawas Drus to wage war on his homeland, which he took in 1099. He ruled the Womaw as the Black Ranger for 200 years, until recalled to Dol Guldur. For the rest of the Third Age (1300-3018), he remained at Dol Guldur (the Mountain of Dark Sorcery in Southern Mirkwood) as the commander of Sauron’s war host, and as the lord of the mountain itself in Sauron’s absence (especially during the Watchful Peace of 2063-2460). The only time Khamul was out of favor with Sauron was during 2850-2941, after Gandalf the Grey penetrated the mountain’s defenses and learned Sauron’s identity. Sauron was so incensed at Khamul’s incompetence that he tortured the Nazgul by natural fire and water for two whole weeks, and then put him under the Mouth’s authority for the next 91 years (the Mouth had always been under Khamul’s authority at Dol Guldur, and he relished this turnabout). The only time Khamul resided elsewhere was during the ten-year exile (2941-2951) after the White Council attacked Dol Guldur at Gandalf’s urging. Khamul stayed at Minas Morgul during that time, and when Sauron openly declared himself in 2951, the Dark Lord remained at the Barad-dur (with the Mouth) for the rest of the Third Age, sending Khamul back to reoccupy Dol Guldur with two other Nazgul (Adunaphel and Uvatha). Khamul had an acute sense of smell, and during the War of the Ring, it was he who almost sniffed out Frodo’s hiding place below the road in the Green Hill Country. He was killed when the One Ring was destroyed.

3. Dwar, the Dog Lord. The Third of the Nine was the most wrathful Nazgul and resisted any authority, including the Witch King. Born the son of a poor fisherman on the island of Waw (click on the map), Dendra Dwar knew cruelty and bloodshed since childhood. His story is a lot like Conan’s. He was forced to work hard since the age of seven, and when he was ten his father and mother were mutilated and killed in front of him by savage invaders. The invaders spared his life, but gang-raped him for days after the island’s sacking. Vowing revenge when he came of age, Dwar sailed north to the mainland at Wol, enlisted in the army, and learned the most brutal methods of war. He rose in the ranks as a warrior and expert tracker, and was assigned to breed and train the great Wolim warhounds. Hounds proved to be his calling in life, and in SA 1981 he emerged as the Lord of Dogs and led an army to retake Waw. After a two-year assault (1981-1983), he conquered the island which became known as the Island of Dogs — and which Dwar ruled far more savagely than the invaders he paid back. Indeed, his lust for revenge only increased, and he proceeded to conquer the neighboring lands of Wol, Hent, and Brod. He finally caught the eye of Sauron, who was so impressed with this merciless barbarian that he gave him a Ring of Power in 1999. Dwar continued ruling Waw in a constant state of war until 2250, when he went to the Barad-dur and started breeding the war-wolves of Mordor. He stayed in Mordor until Sauron’s defeat at the end of the Second Age. After reforming in the Third Age (1050), he was sent back to Waw to wreak more devastation, which he did for 590 years, ruling Waw as a vengeful tyrant and inciting its people to terrorize citizens on the mainland of Lochas Drus. He was recalled to Mordor in 1640, when Gondor’s Watch was abandoned after the Great Plague, and by 1656 he had fully taken over the Black Gate (the “Teeth of Mordor”), where he bred vicious war hounds and oversaw the main entry into the Black Land. He remained at the Teeth even after he and the other Nazgul took the city of Minas Morgul in 2002, since Sauron didn’t trust Dwar to live in close quarters with the Witch-King. Dwar cooperated with the other Nazgul during the War of the Ring, and died when the One Ring was destroyed.

4. Indur, the God King. The Fourth of the Nine had the satisfaction of being worshiped as a god during three long periods. But unlike Ren (the Eighth of the Nine), Indur was never delusional and certainly not a megalomaniac. He was a shrewd aristocrat of the Republic of Koronande who exploited the superstitions of a nearby nation. This was after abolishing Koronande’s republic and making himself king by fear-mongering — denouncing the Numenoreans as a threat to Koronande’s thriving trade — and assassinating those who got in his way. (He was called Indur Dawndeath because his enemies died in their sleep and were found in a hideously contorted state at dawn.) He reigned in this new kingdom from SA 1976-2000, until his tyranny got so out of hand that everyone demanded the return of the republic — and Indur’s head on a spike. Indur fled east to Mumakan (click on the map), the exotic and primitive realm known for its jungles, treasure-filled riverbeds, and oliphaunts, which was also home to many of Sauron’s agents. Sauron saw Indur as a means to tighten his grip on the South and gave him a Ring of Power that year (2000), offering him a new and much godlier throne. Indur took the Mumakan throne in short order, presenting himself to the people as the second coming of their mythical god Amaav. He reigned for 1261 years (2001-3262) as Ji Amaav II from the holy city of Amaru, utterly terrorizing both the Mumakani and surrounding peoples. He was finally summoned to Mordor, when Ar-Pharazon captured Sauron and brought him to Numenor. He stayed until Sauron’s defeat at the end of the Second Age. After manifesting in the Third Age (1050), he was sent back to Mumakan, and after centuries of warfare took the throne again as Ji Amaav III (1264-1640), until recalled to Mordor when Gondor’s outposts were abandoned after the Great Plague. Indur worked alongside Akhorahil from the ruins of the Barad-dur to prepare the Black Land for Sauron’s return. With the other Nazgul he took Minas Morgul in 2002, and he stayed in the city until 2063, when Sauron departed for the East and sent Indur down South for one last reign of terror as Ji Amaav IV (2084-2460). Returning at the end of the Watchful Peace, he stayed at Minas Morgul with many of the other Nazgul (except for Khamul at Dol Guldur, Dwar at the Teeth, and Ren in Ulk Chey Sart) until the War of the Ring. His notable contribution to that war was coordinating the oliphaunt attack on the Pelennor Fields, having brought the finest stock from Mumakan. He died when the One Ring was destroyed.

5. Akhorahil, the Storm King. The Fifth of the Nine may have been fifth in rank, but after TA 2002 he became the Witch King’s favorite lieutenant in Minas Morgul. No other Nazgul dared pull rank on him. Like Murazor, Akhorahil was a Numenorean with daddy issues. He had come to Middle-Earth in SA 1905 as a young adult when his father was commissioned by King Tar-Ciryatan to establish a colony kingdom in the south. That realm was Ciryatandor, which grew fast, and which Akhorahil wanted to rule himself. In 1918 he acted on that desire: he signed a hideous pace with a Haradan Priest, who tore out Akhorahil’s eyes and replaced them with two great gems, the Eyes of the Well, that gave him immense powers. Akhorahil used the artifacts to make his father kill himself and force his sister to marry him, and thus began his reign in the South as the Storm King. He beat and raped his sister-wife almost every day, and killed castle servants who displeased him in the slightest. By 1999 his realm had expanded to include Chennacatt, Isra, Kirmlesra, and Harshandat. This interfered with Sauron’s expansionist plans in the South, but rather than destroy Akhorahil, at the last minute he decided to co-opt him, giving him a Ring of Power in 2000. For the next 1261 years, the Storm King reigned according to Sauron’s designs, and his sister-wife fled in terror (only to be hunted down by him and strangled for her perfidy). In 3262 he went to Mordor, where he stayed until Sauron’s defeat at the end of the Second Age. After manifesting in the Third Age (1050), he returned to a part of his old empire, the Yellow Mountains in Chennacatt (click on the map), where he assembled the Army of the Southern Dragon, and threatened Greater Harad for the next 590 years. He was recalled to Mordor in 1640, when Gondor removed its watch on the land, and he coordinated efforts from the ruins of the Barad-dur for the return of his master. He and the other Nazgul took Minas Morgul in 2002, and from that point on he became the Witch King’s right hand. None of the other higher-ranking Nazgul dared question him, though this was mostly a non-issue, since Khamul was at Dol Guldur and Dwar at the Teeth. Only Indur stayed for long periods in the city, and he didn’t mind deferring to Akhorahil. (Khamul would have chafed, and Dwar would have been tempted to defy the Witch King, let alone the Storm King.) Akhorahil perished when the One Ring was destroyed.

6. Hoarmurath, the Ice King. The Sixth of the Nine was a raised in the matriarchal culture of Urd, in the center of Dir Forest (click on the map), and he became the man who brought that matriarchy to its knees. In SA 1992 Hoarmurath killed his mother, the last Matriarch of the Urdar, and sent pieces of her body to every forest in Urd announcing the new way of things. As a powerful druid, he caused the Forest of Dir to come alive in a way never seen before in the lands of Middle-Earth. The Vala Yavanna would have been in awe had that animation not been so evil and perverse. Dir became a nightmare forest realm that caused so many suicides that by the year 2000 the Urd population had dropped by over 20%. It was always winter in the forest, with brutally low temps even by Urdaran standards. The people called Hoarmurath the Ice King, and Sauron loved everything he heard about him; in 2001 he traveled to Dir and gave him a Ring of Power. Over the next two and a half centuries, the Ice King defeated the surrounding elven realms and acquired a massive kingdom, which he ruled for a thousand years more. Finally, in 3262, Hoarmurath went to Mordor and stayed there until Sauron’s defeat at the end of the Second Age. After manifesting in the Third Age (1050), he was sent back to Urd to recapture the “glory” of Dir Forest, which he did for 590 years, perverting the trees and warping the animal inhabitants on an even darker scale than in the Second Age. He was then recalled to Mordor in 1640, when Gondor abandoned its surveillance after the Great Plague, and immediately took over the Tower of Durthang. After he and the other Nazgul took Minas Morgul in 2002, he stayed in the City of Dark Sorcery, leaving command of Durthang to the werewolf who had served him there. Hoarmurath loved Minas Morgul: the Witch-King and Storm King had worked their sorcerous enchantments on every street to make it a year-round ice cold city — not as cold as Dir Forest, to be sure, but close enough to feel like home. Like most of the Nazgul, he died when the One Ring was destroyed.

7. Adunaphel, the Silent. The Seventh of the Nine was female though few knew it once she obtained her Ring of Power. From then on she always wore a mask and seldom spoke a word. Like the Witch King and Storm King, Adunaphel was a Numenorean determined to rule somewhere in Middle-Earth. She left Numenor in SA 1914 and settled at Vamag on the northwestern tip of the Umbar peninsula, building a citadel there and expanding a domain. By 1936 she had established an impressive realm with secret agents inside Umbar. She also acquired the services of a Haradan martial arts master, who began training her in the art of ninjutsu, and by the middle of the century she was a lethal killing machine. The Haradrim people adored her, and she was on the verge of an ultimate conquest of both Far Harad and Umbar in 1999, when Tar-Ciryatan caught on to her shenanigans and demanded that she pay him homage and taxes. Enraged, Adunaphel sent insults back to her king instead of homage, and the “gift” of his own Harad ambassador — sewn up in a rawhide sack, suffocated and dead by the time he reached the island — instead of taxes. Sauron, perceiving a valuable wedge against Tar-Ciryatan’s influence around Umbar, offered Adunaphel a Ring of Power in 2001, which she gladly accepted. She remained at Vamag for almost three centuries, becoming known as the Silent, hiding her beauty behind a ninja mask and rarely speaking a word. When Numenor finally conquered Umbar in 2280, Adunaphel was forced to leave the peninsula, and moved northeast to the mountains bordering southern Mordor. There she founded the stronghold of Lugurlar (click on the map), and ruled the arid reaches of Near Harad for a thousand years (2281-3262), until Sauron summoned her over the mountains when he was taken prisoner to Numenor. She stayed in Mordor until his defeat at the end of the Second Age. After reforming in the Third Age (1050), she returned to Lugurlar and reasserted her power in Harad for 590 years, and was recalled to Mordor when Gondor’s Watch dropped in 1640, and coordinated efforts in the southern region of Nurn. She and the other Nazgul took Minas Morgul in 2002, and she dwelt in the horrid city until 2951, when Sauron sent her to Dol Guldur to assist Khamul. Southern Mirkwood then became her home until the War of the Ring, and like most of the Nazgul she died when the One Ring was destroyed.

8. Ren, the Fire King. The Eighth of the Nine was a homicidal maniac, completely insane, and by the latter part of the Third Age the other Nazgul were hoping that Sauron would revoke his Ring privilege and destroy him. Ironically, Ren Jey was the only one of the nine who had been a genuinely good person for most of his life. He was a peasant of Chey, the son of an illusion weaver, and an illusionist himself who composed enchantments and raised horses and sheep with his wife. This idyllic life was shattered in SA 1994 when a plague swept through the Chey plains. Ren recovered from it, but suffered brain damage and lost his mind to delusions of grandeur. He began to believe he was superior to other men, and called himself the Fire King — the Son of the Exalted Volcano, Ulk Chey Sart, which was located in the southern Chey plateau (click on the map). Ren made a pilgrimage to the volcano in 1995, gathered a cult of followers there, and declared himself the Overlord of Chey. As the divine Fire King, he initiated a campaign of ruthless subjugation, waging jihads (holy wars) against all who refused to worship him, including his wife and kids. By the end of 1997, the Illusionist was the undisputed King of Chey. Infidels (called the “unclean”) died in countless purges, and Sauron, seeing great potential in this lunatic, gave him a Ring of Power in 2001. By 2100 the already weakened population of the 36 tribes (from the plague of 1998) dropped by a third. For practical reasons, Sauron advised Ren to allow his conquered subjects a middle option between death and worship of the Fire King: they could pay a special tax, called the jezya, which made them second-class citizens with minimal rights. This option kept populations from evaporating during the First Chey Expansion (2155-2693), as Ren brought jihad to the lands of Dalpygis, Khargagis Ahar, Heb Aaraan, and Orgothraath. He built an empire which resounded to his glory, though it was ultimately Sauron pulling Ren’s strings. The Second Chey Expansion (2899-3261) was just as ruthless, and added the lands of Vaag, Acaana, and Gaathgykarakan. Ren was at the height of his “godly” power when Sauron was captured by Ar-Pharazon and brought in chains to Numenor. Abandoning Chey, he left for Mordor in 3262 and stayed there until Sauron’s fall at the end of the Second Age. After manifesting in the Third Age (1050), he was sent back to Chey, where he opened his old temple under the volcano and began plotting the renewal of his Holy Empire. He expanded his hold into a huge underground city that became the Chey capital when he unified all the tribes by 1271. By that point he had waged — whether in person, by coordination, or delegation — no less than 140 jihads, and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of infidels who refused to either worship him or pay the jezya. He was called back to Mordor when the Watch on Mordor was dropped in 1640, and he immediately took command of the Barad-wath tower, which overlooked the gap between Nurn in the south and Gorgoroth in the north. He and the other Nazgul took Minas Morgul in 2002, but Ren stayed in the city for only a year before he lashed out at the other Nazgul for refusing to show him proper deference, and also because he hated Minas Morgul for the brutally enchanted cold. As a Nazgul he was immune to cold, but it offensively “opposed” his divine nature as the Fire King, and he demanded that the Witch-King unmake the frosty atmosphere. The Witch-King banished Ren for his insolence, and in 2003 the Fire King resumed his command of the Barad-wath, biding his time. When Sauron went east during the Watchful Peace (2063-2460), Ren made his move, unleashing a jihad on Minas Morgul. He had been secretly marshaling an army of orcs, men, and trolls at the Barad-wath, and in 2096 he judged the time ripe. The Witch-King and other four Nazgul residing in the city at this time (the Storm King, the Ice King, the Silent, and the Night Rider) were stunned by this outrageous move, completely caught off guard, and their superior numbers barely saved them. Ren was seized by the Witch King, thrown in the dungeons, and tortured so badly that even the fell beasts on the city walls cringed as his screams reverberated throughout the city. When word of this finally reached Sauron in the east, the Dark Lord was shocked but secretly pleased, and ordered the Witch King to release Ren and send him back to Chey. In his homeland the Fire King was given full rein, and he outdid himself for the rest of the Third Age (2098-3018), renewing his Holy Empire for the third time, slaughtering the secular forces who had taken over in his absence, and extending his influence further north and east than ever before. He met with fierce resistance to his religion, and committed four genocides (in 2162, 2486, 2775, and 2953) on groups of people who absolutely refused to worship him or pay the jezya. The Blue Wizard Pallando wrote in his chronicle that Ren’s holocausts throughout the third millennium of the Third Age amounted to the worst things inflicted on any of Middle-Earth’s peoples in the history of Arda. Ren was finally called back to Mordor during the War of the Ring, and given strict orders by Sauron to cooperate with the other Nazgul in the hunt for the Ringbearer, or suffer torment in the Barad-dur. He died when the One Ring was destroyed.

9. Uvatha, the Night Rider. The Ninth of the Nine was the fastest horseman of the Second and Third Ages (not even Gandalf on Shadowfax could compete), and as a result ended up being Sauron’s special courier, getting important messages delivered fast across long distances. Uvatha was born in the Olbamarl Caves on the west side of the Gap of Khand (click on the map), and like all Variags, he lived by the pain and uncertainty of nomadic life. He was an exceptional horse rider even as a child, and showed every sign of growing into a brutal warrior — killing his first man when he was six years old. Sure enough, he rose fast, and in adulthood was appointed Warlord of the main army of Lower Khand in SA 2000, deposing the dynasty the following year and assuming the crown, uniting Upper and Lower Khand for the first time in history. Sauron was impressed and gave him a Ring of Power in 2002. The Variags had always been allied to Mordor, but after Uvatha’s unification of Khand, the Variags became brutally efficient tools of conquest. Uvatha led the Variags for centuries, until ordered to Mordor when Sauron was taken captive to Numenor in 3262. He stayed there until Sauron’s fall at the end of the Second Age, and after manifesting in the Third Age (1050), he was sent back to his old dwelling at Olbamarl, and crowned himself King of the Varaigs 50 years later, after crushing the current dynasty. He was recalled to Mordor in 1640, when Gondor abandoned its surveillance after the Great Plague. He and the other Nazgul took Minas Morgul in 2002, and he stayed in the city until 2951, when Sauron sent him (and Adunaphel) to Dol Guldur to assist Khamul. Southern Mirkwood was his home base until the War of the Ring, but he did more traveling than staying put, acting as a courier to both the Witch King at Minas Morgul and Sauron at the Barad-dur. As the last of the Nine, Uvatha was basically the errand boy, and he knew it. But no one could deny his speed; none could outpace him on horseback. When the Nazgul leaped into the Ford of Bruinen after Frodo, the Witch King led the charge and was the first to get wet; but it was Uvatha who almost made it to the other side before Elrond’s flood smashed into him. Like most of the Nazgul, he died when the One Ring was destroyed.



Here are the timelines for each Nazgul.

1. Murazor, the Witch King

Second Age

1820-1880 Numenor
1880-1883 Coastal areas of Middle-Earth
1883-1998 Barad-dur (mage training)
1998-3441 Mordor

Third Age

1050-1276 Dol Guldur
1276-1975 Angmar (Witch King, 1300-1974)
1975-2002 Mordor
2002-3018 Minas Morgul

2. Khamul, the Black Ranger

Second Age

1744-1999 Womawas Drus (King, 1844-1999)
1999-3441 Mordor

Third Age

1050-1300 Womawas Drus (Black Ranger, 1099-1300)
1300-2941 Dol Guldur
2941-2951 Minas Morgul
2951-3018 Dol Guldur

3. Dwar, the Dog Lord

Second Age

1949-1965 Waw
1965-1983 Wol
1983-2250 Waw (Dog Lord, 1983-2250)
2250-3441 Mordor

Third Age

1050-1640 Waw (Dog Lord, 1054-1640)
1640-3018 The Black Gate

4. Indur, the God King

Second Age

1955-2000 Koronande (King, 1976-2000)
2000-3262 Mumakan (Ji Amaav II, 2001-3262)
3262-3441 Mordor

Third Age

1050-1640 Mumakan (Ji Amaav III, 1264-1640)
1640-2002 Mordor (Ruins of the Barad-dur)
2002-2063 Minas Morgul
2063-2460 Mumakan (Ji Amaav IV, 2084-2460)
2460-3018 Minas Morgul

5. Akhorahil, the Storm King

Second Age

1888-1904 Numenor
1904-3262 Ciryatandor (Storm King, 1918-3262)
3262-3441 Mordor

Third Age

1050-1640 Chennacatt (Storm King, 1051-1640)
1640-2002 Mordor (Ruins of the Barad-dur)
2002-3018 Minas Morgul

6. Hoarmurath, the Ice King

Second Age

1954-3262 Urd (Ice King, 1992-3262)
3262-3441 Mordor

Third Age

1050-1640 Urd (Ice King, 1057-1640)
1640-2002 Durthang
2002-3018 Minas Morgul

7. Adunaphel, the Silent

Second Age

1823-1914 Numenor
1914-2280 Vamag (Lady of Vamag, 1936-2001, The Silent, 2001-2280)
2280-3262 Lugurlar (The Silent, 2280-3262)
3262-3441 Mordor

Third Age

1050-1640 Lugarlur (The Silent, 1051-1640)
1640-2002 Nurn
2002-2951 Minas Morgul
2951-3018 Dol Guldur

8. Ren, the Fire King

Second Age

1969-3262 Chey (The Fire King, 1997-3262)
3262-3441 Mordor

Third Age

1050-1640 Chey (The Fire King, 1271-1640)
1640-2002 Barad-wath
2002-2003 Minas Morgul
2003-2096 Barad-wath
2096-3018 Chey (The Fire King, 2118-3018)

9. Uvatha, the Night Rider

Second Age

1966-3262 Khand (King, 2001-3262)
3262-3441 Mordor

Third Age

1050-1640 Khand (King, 1101-1640)
1640-2002 Mordor
2002-2951 Minas Morgul
2951-3018 Dol Guldur

The City of Glasya-Labolas

Honestly, if Geoff Dale had called it quits after Inferno, I’d have no complaints. The nine circles provide more than enough to keep a campaign in Hell going for months, even years, and those Dantean punishing grounds are some of the best adventure areas ever designed — the Garden of Lust, Glutton’s Hall, the Temple of Greed, the Styx River, the City of Burning Tombs, the River of Boiling Blood, the Wood of the Suicides, the Desert of Fire, the Swamp of Shit, and then at frozen bottom the Ice of Cocytus. And yet for all the Inferno’s immense detail, there’s not an actual city where one imagines the devils of Hell residing. (There’s the “city” of burning tombs on Circle Six, but that’s a torture ground for the heretics.) Where is the base of the devils’ civilization? Logically, such a place would be outside the Inferno proper, and not on any circle devoted to punishing certain sins.

The answer is Glasya-Labolas. Situated about 400 miles west of the Inferno (if “west” is even a direction in Hell; it looks like “west” on the map), across mountains, wastelands, and moors, it’s a 95-degree and 100% humid metropolis populated by devils and also mortals who are willing to sweat it out under the devils’ baleful eye. The city has been around for well over 30,000 years, was sacked a few times in the ancient Devil-Demon Wars, and the current population is 12,000 devils and 9,500 mortals. Most mortals are of the lawful evil alignment compatible with Hell, though the devils tolerate chaotic and good mortals too, so long as they know their place and obey the laws.

Those laws aren’t trivial. Mortals can’t carry weapons in the city. Nor can they lie. If they lie for any reason at all, the city atmosphere knows it and causes the liar any number of afflictions — headaches, fevers, stomach cramps, puss-oozing rashes, nausea, or even blindness or muteness or paralysis in the case of serious lies. There is a black market in charms that ward against the results of lying, but they’re expensive, and if you’re caught with one, you go straight to jail. Oaths are taken seriously, and breaking an oath will result in even worse afflictions; to renounce an oath involves a rather torturous and expensive ceremony at one of the city’s temples. The devils have no tolerance for homelessness and vagrancy, and food smuggling is also a major crime, though a lucrative one, since eating the native food keeps a mortal bound to the plane of Hell. Slavery is of course perfectly legal, and assisting a runaway slave a serious offense. The summoning of creatures hostile to Hell (especially demons) is a capital offense warranting execution. Any disputes between parties are settled either by lawsuits (though mortals cannot sue devils save for a breach of contract) or by duels, which are highly esteemed and strongly regulated; to refuse a duel over a legitimate grievance results in a loss of status points.

The status point system is basically an honor or reputation rating that goes a long way in determining how successful a PC will be in Glasya-Labolas. Every mortal has a status between 1-10 (1 being the highest, 10 the lowest), and the score is assigned by the DM on the basis of many factors — level and alignment, how the character acts in public and private, the ability to work with others, skills and accomplishments, how long the character has been in the city, how well known (and well liked) the character is in the city, the ability to command or influence others, personal wealth, number of followers, size of audiences, etc. As on all planes, honor/reputation is subject to rise and fall, and of course it’s much easier to lose reputation (and fast) in the eyes of others, than to gain it.

The highly regimented nature of Hell is one thing that distinguishes Glasya-Labolas sharply from D&D city classics like The Lost City (1982) and Erelhei-Cinlu (1978). Unlike the chaotic-leaning Cynidiceans and the innately chaotic Drow, the devils are lawful to the core, and more reminiscent of authorities from the City State of the Invincible Overlord (1976) — though even here notably different. In the city state, the laws are designed solely to protect the interests of an Overlord who operates through assassins and dirty tricks, overrules his Senate on a whim, and funnels all the law and order into the cause of commerce. The laws of Glasya-Labolas seem designed for the sake of the city community more than its ruling devil prince (Pithius), and they are enforced with a consistency that’s generally fair if also often brutal and sadistic (as evil is). If one had to imagine the environment of a “pure” lawful evil city, Glasya-Labolas is it.

The layout of the city is divided into six districts (see the above map), which are zoomed in on greater detail throughout the bulk of the module. Prince’s Heights contains the administrative areas and homes of the elite devils; Korioff Bluff has cultural attractions like concert halls, art galleries, theaters, gourmet restaurants, and homes of important devils; in Telchine are the laboratories and craft halls of the Telchine devils, who are the source of most enchanted items in Hell and supply other devils throughout the plane; Mortal is mortal haven and the most sleazy district by far; Muck Runner has the business areas for hunting and harvesting from the nearby marsh, and it’s also where most of the city temples are found; and Underhill, where working class mortals eke out a living, is invisible on the map because it’s under the bluff of Prince’s Heights. Mortals are only allowed in Mortal, Muck Runner, and Underhill, though characters with enough balls will surely find ways to get in the other districts and sneak around. The Telchine District is a particular lure, as the magic items churned out there are famous throughout Hell and almost never made available to mortals. That opens endless gaming scenarios right there.

There are also plenty of adventuring opportunities around the city for which the module supplies maps and structural layouts. The most imposing site is Skull Knob, a hilltop where public executions take place to the sadistic thrill of audiences accommodated in a huge grandstand. Some executions you have to buy tickets for, while others are free, and the methods of execution range from drowning buckets (water tanks), fire poles (for burning victims tied to them), gladiator pits, guillotines, and gallows. The wilderness areas of the Orobus Marsh and Apophis Mountains are heavily detailed, as well as the village of Graulmwich and many of the swamp islands. You could get months of campaigning in these regions before even setting out for the Inferno.

The City of Glasya-Labolas is a suitable swan song for Hell, and Geoff Dale should be proud. I find his vision of Hell superior to the one I grew up with (Ed Greenwood’s Dragon magazine articles in the ’80s), and it continues the legacy of the old school and what I consider the essential gaming elements. Judges Guild in particular did a lot for wilderness adventuring and urban play, and like the circles of Inferno, Glasya-Labolas harks back to those rigorous sandbox standards. Players can go through any part of the city without the DM having to worry about creating things from scratch, and yet the details are open-ended enough so that everything can be tailored to the DM’s plotting needs. I already have a plot hatching. It didn’t take long for this thing to inspire me.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.

(Order the module here and the denizen supplement here.)

The Evolution of the Hive Mind in D&D’s Mind Flayer & Aboleth

In my last post I pointed out that the Shadow Monster of Stranger Things is much closer to an aboleth than a mind flayer. Since then I found an interview with the Duffer Brothers, who claim they designed the Shadow Monster without thinking of any creature from D&D, whether aboleth or mind flayer. This is how they tell it:

Matt: We came up with the creature and it was always called the Shadow Monster. Then we were like, “We need to come up with a proper name for this thing.” When we were going through the Dungeons & Dragons manual, I found this creature I’d forgotten about called the Mind Flayer. It was so close to the idea of our Shadow Monster. It was eerily the same. We were like, “Well, we’ve got our name.” It’s a weird-ass name, but the Mind Flayer it is.

Ross: It has nothing to do with the shape, or the way it looks, or the particles. But the fact that it moves from dimension to dimension, infecting the minds of others in order to control them and spread itself. I can’t remember everything else, but it’s everything that we were talking about with our Shadow Monster. I don’t think anyone will believe us. They’re going to think we just, day one, looked through the Dungeons & Dragons manual. I don’t know why we didn’t. But we did not.

Actually, yes, I thought the Duffer Brothers were looking through the D&D manuals, but taking clear inspiration from the aboleth, not the mind flayer. The Shadow Monster is so close to the aboleth you have to be trying to not see it. I assumed the Duffers called their creature a mind flayer because it sounds bad ass, even to an audience unfamiliar with Dungeons & Dragons. “Aboleth” sounds unimpressive by comparison, like something you’d find listed in an obscure academic journal. I have a hard time believing the D&D-savvy Duffer Brothers designed a creature that fits the aboleth almost to a tee but were unaware of it.

For the fun of it, I researched the evolution of both the aboleth and mind flayer in D&D. I’ve bolded all the relevant parts that bear any resemblance to the Shadow Creature of Stranger Things. I’m not sure what Ross means about the mind flayer’s ability to “spread itself” in the 1st edition Monster Manual. The hive mind aspect of the mind flayer was not introduced into the game until the late ’90s (see below), and certainly not in the manual Dustin reads from.

The Mind Flayer

1975. The Strategic Review #1 introduces the mind flayer: a humanoid with an octopus-like head that feeds on brains. The creature’s physical attack is by striking a victim with its four purplish black tentacles. If a tentacle hits it will reach the victim’s brain in 1-4 rounds and draw it forth, immediately killing the creature. The mind flayer then devours the brain. It can also unleash a mind blast in a 60-foot cone range, which causes death, coma, sleep, stun, confusion, or rage, depending on the victim’s intelligence.

1977. The Monster Manual canonizes the mind flayer, expanding and changing details provided above in The Strategic Review. Notably, the mind blast is now a simplified psionic blast which stuns, regardless of the victim’s intelligence. The mind flayer has the psionic abilities of domination, levitation, ESP, body equilibrium, and astral projection/probability travel. The domination ability allows it to control a victim (if a saving throw fails) as long as the mind flayer keeps concentrating on the victim. It’s also now specified that mind flayers detest sunlight and prefer habitats of subterranean places.

The Aboleth

1981. Dwellers of the Forbidden City introduces the aboleth: a gigantic tentacled monster that has strong psionic powers, and uses its mind control ability to make slaves. It’s an ancient life form, extremely intelligent, and views all other races as inferior upstarts who stole what is rightfully theirs. It attacks with its four tentacles which cause l-6 points of damage each, in addition to changing the victim’s skin into a clear slimy membrane in 2-5 rounds if a saving throw fails. Once the change is complete, the membrane must be kept damp with cool water or the victim will take 1-12 points of damage each turn due to intense pain caused by the drying membrane. (This is somewhat reminiscent of the way Will Byers needed to be kept cold.) It’s an amphibious creature, and in water it will secrete a cloud of mucus all around its body. Any creature drawn into the mucus must save vs. poison or it will inhale the stuff and become unable to breathe air, suffocating in 2-12 rounds if trying to breathe air. However, that same creature will gain the ability to breathe water, as a potion of water breathing, for 1-3 hours. The aboleth uses this mucus to give its slaves the power to breathe water. (The mucus reminds of the gooey substance from the Upside Down. Does that goo allow one to breathe the toxic environment of the Upside Down?)

1983. The Monster Manual II canonizes the aboleth, detailing them exactly as described above in Dwellers of the Forbidden City.

The Mind Flayer

1983. “The Ecology of the Mind Flayer”, in Dragon Magazine #78, offers the first suggestion that mind flayers are from another world. It emphasizes their brain-eating and domination powers in much stronger terms:

“To eat the brain of another race is the ultimate symbol of dominion over that race. They consume that which is important to them. Their tentacles have bony ridges that cut flesh and bone with ease, exposing the inside of the skull. Many collect the skulls of their victims and adorn their bodies with the trophies. They have a psionic power that especially helps them achieve their evil ends — a power of domination that they use with pleasure on their victims and those who would attack them. This domination power allows the mind flayer to control every movement of a single victim, to an unlimited extreme. Once, on a raid to an illithid lair, I saw a githyanki captain run himself through with his own sword while under the control of one of them.” (p 67)

So now the mind flayer can dominate to “an unlimited extreme”, even if the results are fatal to the victim. As presented in The Monster Manual, the domination power was the standard psionic ability and not as powerful. However, the mind flayer must still concentrate on the victim at all times, unlike the aboleth.

The Aboleth

1988. “The Ecology of the Aboleth”, in Dragon Magazine #131, presents variants that are more powerful than the common aboleth: greater aboleth (who maintain slaves gathered by the common aboleth), noble aboleth (who conduct scientific research and experimentation), ruler aboleth (who command aboleth cities or areas, and have a mental link with all their subjects), and a grand aboleth (a godlike creature that dwarfs even the rulers, but existing only in rumors). The hive mind is introduced as an aboleth feature, in the rulers, who are described as follows:

“These huge, bloated monstrosities are the largest and most intelligent of all aboleth (aside from the grand aboleth). Its telepathic link with its subjects allows it to be constantly aware of everything going on in its realm. Rulers are, in most other respects, similar to common and greater aboleth. They possess enslavement abilities equal to those of greater aboleth and can generate veil spells at will. Rulers can generate slime in a 5-foot radius, and the mere sight of one causes fear in all beings of less than 5th level or five hit dice.” (p 38)

It’s now specified that aboleth reproduce by egg, which are covered in a thick slime. The eggs hatch mini-aboleth who take about ten years to mature into adult form. (The demogorgon of Stranger Things reproduces by tentacle implantation (as it did to Will’s throat), not egg, so the eggs seen in season 1 were probably eggs for shadow monsters (“aboleth”) rather than demogorgons.)

The Mind Flayer

1998. The Illithiad reveals the world the mind flayers come from, a realm called the Outside. They reproduce by egg, which hatch tadpoles until they grow and are implanted into the brain of another humanoid, after which it immediately subsumes the creature’s personality, replacing it with its own awakening intellect. The hive mind is introduced as a mind flayer feature, which is called the “Elder Brain”. An elder brain is the final stage of the mind flayer life cycle, composed of the brains of long-dead mind flayers. It lives in a brine-filled pool in the center of a mind flayer city, where it guides its community by filling mind flayers with dreams of perverse domination. It has the psionic abilities of other mind flayers, but physically it is weak (unlike the powerful ruler aboleth and Shadow Monster from Stranger Things), which is why mind flayers protect their elder by securing it in well-protected caves. The elder can communicate telepathically not only with its subjects, but with any creature within 350 foot distance.  The ultimate goal of a mind flayer is to sacrifice its brain as it nears the end of its lifespan, by merging with the elder brain, strengthening the elder’s powers and intellect. Most mind flayer are unaware, however, that their personalities and consciousness are lost when joining with the elder brain, leaving only their knowledge and ideas to survive. (A closely guarded secret kept by the elder brains.)


As I said before, it’s clear that the aboleth are the closer representation of the Shadow Monster, though obviously “mind flayer” sounds sexier and was the better marketing choice. The hive mind is an anachronism for both, though it was developed first for the aboleth (in the ’80s) and only much later for the mind flayer (in the ’90s).

The Shadow Monster of Stranger Things 2: Mind Flayer or Aboleth?

The Shadow Monster

The Big Bad of Stranger Things 2 is a huge tentacled shadow monster which is eventually given a name by Dustin in episode 8: The Mind Flayer. Dustin says that’s the best analogy from the D&D world to make sense of what is going on in Hawkins. Everything from the Upside Down — the demo-dogs, the creeping vines, the underground tunnels burrowing into Hawkins, and the gate itself — seems to be under the control of a hive mind, and mind flayers are ruled by a hive mind (called an “elder brain”). They use their psionic abilities to dominate victims, which is what’s happening to Will. But there is a far better D&D comparison to the shadow monster: the aboleth.


The aboleth are huge floating tentacled monsters (see left) that are also ruled by a hive mind. Like mind flayers they have strong psionic abilities and use their mind control to make slaves. They excrete a mucus-substance which they need to breathe — the gooey substance from the Upside Down calls this to mind. The aboleth are an ancient life form and extremely intelligent, and they view all other races as inferior upstarts who stole what is rightfully theirs. In addition to being part of a hive mind, they are born with a racial memory, each one inheriting the memories of its ancestors. (An aboleth also assimilates the memories of consumed victims.) Aboleths enjoy spending time lost in the grand memories of their ancestors, and (time permitting) enjoy reliving entire portions of their ancestors’ lives. They are hermaphrodites and reproduce by egg. In season 1 of Stranger Things the Demogorgon reproduced by tentacle implantation (down Will’s throat), not egg, so the eggs we saw in season 1 were probably eggs for shadow monsters (aboleth) rather than more demogorgons.

Mind Flayer

An aboleth fits the description of the shadow monster almost to a tee, and it’s hard to see why Dustin associated it with a mind flayer instead. Mind Flayers have similar traits, as I mentioned, but their differences stand out. Significant is their positive view of magic. Mind flayers can be powerful mages. The aboleth despise all forms of magic and rejected it long ago in favor of science, which aligns with the sci-fic premise of Stranger Things. The mind flayers are humanoid in appearance (see right). Aside from their octopus-like heads, they bear little resemblance to the shadow monster of Stranger Things. The aboleth are gigantic (anywhere from 20-40 feet long) like the TV creature; mind flayers are the size of people. There’s no contest.

Dustin reads the information on the mind flayer in the D&D Monster Manual (1977), but there is actually no mention of a hive mind in this manual. The hive mind (elder brain) feature of the mind flayers would not be introduced into the game until 1998. So that’s a 14-year anachronism in the TV show. The aboleth first appeared in an adventure module called Dwellers of the Forbidden City (1981) and then were officially categorized in the Monster Manual II (1983), both of which predate the 1984 setting of Stranger Things 2. So they’re not an anachronism; Dustin would know about the aboleth, unless these kids never got around to buying the second Monster Manual, which I rather doubt. If they’re obsessed as I was with the game, which they clearly are, they would have obtained that manual in ’83 when it was hot off the press.

Late in the ’80s, Dragon Magazine #131 did a special feature on the aboleth, describing them as follows:

“In general, all aboleth are cruel, emotionless, and logical. All are extremely intelligent — some even more so than the most ancient of elven mages. They are believed to live for thousands of years, but exact information is difficult to gain. Over their many years of existence, the aboleth have developed a society which far exceeds that of humans in efficiency. In this society, each aboleth has a specific duty which it performs with the utmost skill. There are four major roles in the aboleth society. In increasing order of importance, these roles are: slave gathering, slave maintenance, scientific research and experimentation, and ruling. An aboleth feeds mainly on microscopic organisms which abound in its natural habitat, but it can also consume larger prey if necessary. Aboleth can survive in both air and water, but prefer water for obvious reasons. It is worthy to note that rumors exist of a grand aboleth, a creature so immense that it dwarfs even the rulers. If so, then perhaps it is better that surface and subterranean dwellers alike leave the aboleth to do as they please.”

Perhaps the shadow monster that possessed Will — and remains at large at the end of season 2 — is a grand aboleth. Not a creature I would mess with under any circumstances, unless I was ultra-high level and had an army at my back. Eleven crossed it badly by shutting the gate. I suspect she will reap devastating consequences in season 3.

Cone of Cold vs. Fireball

D&D players often wonder why cone of cold is a fifth level spell, while fireball is third level, when they do equivalent damage over multiple targets. The main advantage of cone of cold is that it’s completely safe to use. A fireball will explode and fill an area, and in a closed room that can just as easily kill you and your friends. If the room is smaller than the area of the fireball, you’ll get fried by the blowback. This is also true of the third level lighting bolt spell — there’s rebound potential if you judge the distance wrong. There are no rebound concerns at all with a cone of cold. It’s a ray of frost that can be shot at someone only 10 feet away, and with a wall behind the target, with no chance of damage being inflicted on the spellcaster.

Also with a cone of cold, you don’t have to worry too much about collateral damage. It’s far less likely than a fireball to destroy things. The saving throw vs. fireball for most items is extremely hard to make (17 for ivory, 18 for jewelry, 25 for scrolls, etc.), which means most items and valuables will be destroyed. Those same saving throws vs. frost tend to be ridiculously low (1 for jewelry, 2 for scrolls, 2 for ivory, etc.). Magic potions are really the only things you have to worry about (which need a 12 to save vs. the 15 for fireball).

Even outdoors there are advantages to using cold. Fireballs and lightning bolts can easily start forest fires, and burn down houses. Sometimes that might be desired, of course, but in most cases probably not.

Basically, cone of cold is a safe spell to use, and I suspect that’s why Gary Gygax made it higher level than fireball, even though the spells are equivalent in terms of the damage they inflict on their targets.