Written by Jonathan Wojcik
Of all the evil, ancient subterranean races of the D&D rogue's gallery, I've always fancied the Aboleth the most imaginative. They seem to have drawn some inspiration from Agnathans or "jawless" fish, even borrowing the instant slime-production of modern hagfish. Unlike the virtuous Myxozoa, however, Aboleth are creatures of unfathomable malice, enslaving lesser humanoid beings through telepathic mind control and disturbing mutagenic infectiousness; the very touch of the Aboleth's slime can rob a creature of its ability to breathe air, and convert its skin into a delicate, gelatinous membrane that deteriorates out of water. Those taken by the Aboleth are doomed to serve forever in nightmarish underwater cities until eaten alive or subjected to deranged biological experimentation.
I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but my favorite Aboleth are the earliest Aboleth, with huge eyes dominating their blunt, otherwise featureless faces and a flabby, blobby body shape. Their skin is still said to be little more than rubbery slime itself, but later designs would take on a more solid appearances.
The Diterlizzi Aboleth was still fairly nice, bearing more resemblance to ancient fish like Bothriolepis. Already rumored in their original entry to possess dark and terrible arcane knowledge, Aboleth by this point were said to pass their complete memory on to their offspring and absorb the knowledge of intelligent prey, their minds inconceivably vast in comparison to most other beings.
While not as charming to me as the original big-headed blobfish, I like the third edition Aboleth's scummy coloration and the large, gaping orifices one can easily mistake for eye sockets. I think this Aboleth rather charmingly calls to mind an evil, alien "pleco."
Aboleth were most heavily expanded upon in Lords of Madness: The Book of Aberrations. Here, they were intentionally compared to the flavor of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, said to worship deities like Shothotugg, Eater of Worlds and Bolothamogg, Him Who Watches from Beyond the Stars. Unique among all other monsters, the Aboleth are revealed to be the absolute oldest form of life in existence, somehow coming into being before most worlds or even gods were ever born. Heavy stuff, for phlegmy fish. I think this painting is by Ron Spencer, one of my favorite gaming artists and a lovely illustration of their transformative touch.
Fourth edition's first new Aboleth is more or less the same design as third edition, but with a more typically vertebrate-like mouth than the tooth-lined suckers they've been shown with before. Not sure I prefer it this way, but it has some personality at least. Looks a little sad. Turn that frown upside down, Aboleth!!!
Paizo Publishing's Aboleth for their Pathfinder books might actually be one of the coolest since the original. The way the head terminates in the eyes alone is quite alien, and I think this is the first time those eyes have been painted with pupils in them. It may seem like a negligible difference, but I think the pupils add a touch of familiarity and personality to the eyes that only makes them more unnerving for their wholly inhuman arrangement. This is the last Aboleth design I feel like commenting on, but we're not done with these guys!
Like a number of other "Aberration" races, the Aboleth have their own unique servant-monsters, most notably the Skum. These hulking, dim-witted piscoids are supposedly descended from humanoid captives, bred by the Aboleth over thousands of years into ideal beasts of burden. Diterlizzi's second edition illustration here made a nice counterpart to his Aboleth, its body large and menacing but its scaly fish-face suitably sad and sympathetic for a degenerate mutant servitor. Third edition Skum regrettably opted for pure menace, with cool slimy flesh but rather dopey ape-faces.
Aboleth also boast their own unique form of golem known as a Shaboath, nothing more than a mass of water animated by strange, secret Aboleth sorcery. It's pretty creepy that these guys know how to turn water into the magical equivalent of a robot.
In Fourth edition, Aboleth gained a very cool if rather confusing new minion in the Abolethic Skum, not to be confused with the above Skum, who are no longer considered a slave-race to the Aboleth at all. The change feels rather senseless, but the "new" Skum has a pretty great concept, a humanoid who responded worse than usual to Aboleth enslavement by becoming a nearly mindless gelatinous blob!
The Aboleth are unlike any other monster I can think of, combining aspects from many bizarre aquatic creatures in a truly unique way; they've never really stopped being cool, and the overt Lovecraft themes, which can easily feel forced at times, feel perfectly appropriate for these super slime-hags.