Mind flayers are a good enemy, but empathizing with them is moral quicksand.
2nd Edition mind flayer art courtesy of Wizards of the Coast
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
The mind flayer might be the creature of Dungeons & Dragons. They’re purple humanoids with octopus heads. They use powerful mental abilities (psionics) to mind control, paralyze, and wipe the minds of their enemies. Instead of a mouth, they have a beak surrounded by powerful tentacles. That beak, combined with their mind-destroying magic, allows them to attack their victims and literally suck the brains from their head. Mind flayers are weird, dangerous, and feel right out of the strange sci-fi fantasy of the 1970s. When a mind flayer shows up, players of Dungeons & Dragons know that things just got very real.
They’re evil, they eat brains, and they enslave other races. So when Dungeons & Dragons Lead Designer Mike Mearls suggests that they’re a species that might generate empathy in a player, my ears perk up.
It all hinges on the word tragedy. In an interview with Todd Kenreck, Mearls says this about mind flayers:
Mind Flayers have very powerful mind powers, that will let them dominate entire kingdoms, entire worlds, so they can once again ascend and rule everything. That, to me, makes them very interesting, because it's very scary what they do. They eat brains, but they are also, in some ways, they're very evil, but there's this element of tragedy to this story, that they are a fallen empire, and they're hunted mercilessly by the Githzerai and Githyanki.
To be clear, what Mearls is proposing here is generally in line with the storytelling of the fantasy epics that first inspired D&D. . The mind flayers once dominated all of known reality. They had a powerful empire, and now they have been driven into the dark corners of the world where they plan to rise again; they want to fulfill their destiny as a people. This is the stuff of fantasy stories: Aragorn is the rightful ruler of Middle Earth, and The Lord of the Rings gets him from wilderness wanderer to king.
The difference is here, of course, is that the mind flayers are a species of slavers. Their empire was founded on the back of entire species of slaves. One of these species was the gith, and Volos’s Guide to Monsters clarifies that the mind flayers relied on the gith to “provide physical labor and sustenance when other forms of sustenance grew thin.” While the gith eventually rebelled and overcame the mind flayers as an empire, they still remain as a species in the multiverse of official Dungeons & Dragons canon (which is why you can find them in your games). The gith still hunt them, and the mind flayers live in fear of being found.
Mearls’s choice of the word “tragedy” in his description of the remnants of the mind flayer empire is based in the way that the current D&D books describe them. Volo’s Guide to Monsters tells us two important facts about the mind flayer. First, each individual is merely a subservient creature to massive creature that houses each mind flayer colony’s collective consciousness, the Elder Brain. Second, each Elder Brain “views itself as both a refugee and a victim, forced into hiding by barbaric monsters.” Each of these Elder Brains sees itself as “a savior of the mind flayer race and a living memorial.”
The way that Mearls tells the story, it’s clear that it’s possible for us to experience some empathy with these creatures. After all, they’re the last of their kind. They’re at the end of their rope, and this is the position from which our fantasy heroes rise. These are creatures being written as the heroes of their own story (a method I’ve critiqued before in this column). The official writeups on mind flayers, including Mearls’s summary of how they function in the game, gives you all of the tools and backstory to make the mind flayers into the heroes of their own story. It allows a Dungeon Master to ask philosophical questions of their players: Are players comfortable with extinguishing a species? Would players act the same way if they were put in the same position? What if you were them? And, explicitly, by highlighting these qualities in the written D&D manuals and presenting them in an audience-facing interview, Mearls is suggesting that this is how they’re intended to be run.
The problem with this way of both running a game and designing a villain in a tabletop campaign is that you can justify literally any behavior this way. Anyone can make the claim that they are meant to be in the place of power. When white nationalists chant “blood and soil” or get tattoos of “14 words”, they’re doing so in order to make a claim about something that they had that they perceive that they’ve lost. To be clear, this too is a fantasy tale. There was never an all-white Europe. Whiteness was never the sole generator of philosophical, scientific, or artistic progress. Nevertheless, these groups evoke that fictional past in order to conjure up a tragedy that a contemporary audience can empathize with.
In the fictional of Dungeons & Dragons, mind flayers were, and continue to be, slavers. If they came to dominate the world again, they would still be mind-controlling, freedom-annihilating slavers. The work of painting mind flayers as the heroes of their own cultural story is that their cultural narrative is ultimately one that asks us to have empathy toward with slave owners.
This critique isn’t just about Mike Mearls’s particular flavor of mind flayer. Instead, I think that the example of Mearls’s interview opens up an important space to talk about what really matters in Dungeons & Dragons: your own table. At the end of the day, Mearls is demonstrating that it is very easy to fall into equivocating situations that, accidentally or not, suggest that subjugated people fighting against their oppressors are somehow the exact same as the people who are doing the oppression. To run the mind flayers as the heroes of their own story, to extend empathy to the mind flayer as a storytelling method, is to entertain, for even a brief moment, that their rise to power might be ok. Everyone has a different point of view, right? Can’t mind flayers exist in the world alongside all of the other fantasy species with their respective fantasy ideas about how the world should work?
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The formerly-enslaved gith hunt the mind flayers across the universe because they know that any advancement in the mind flayer agenda spells the doom of that universe. If the mind flayers regain their foothold, if they can be the savior of their species, then they will pursue their goals without fail. Those goals are subjugation and slavery of everyone else.
I challenge individual DMs and players to think beyond the dynamics that Mearls and contemporary D&D gives us for the mind flayers. Maybe a species of slavers doesn’t need their story told at your table, and maybe individual designers should avoid creating empathetic scenarios for fantasy creatures that would put the entire universe under their boot heel. Maybe the “good storytelling” of villains being the heroes of their own stories is, in fact, bad storytelling because it demands empathy for mind-controlling Nazis.
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