Todd Kenreck: There are few monsters as iconic as the Mind Flayers. They help sculpt the D&D multiverse. I talked to Mike Mearls about this race of creatures that have changed D&D forever.
Mike Mearls: To understand the Mind Flayer, you have to understand their history, because at first glance, the Mind Flayer looks like this super genius humanoid with octopus tentacles for its mouth that it uses to extract and eat humanoid brains, but when you really get into the lore of the Mind Flayer, what you learn is that horrible octopus-faced monster is actually just a puppet that this enormous, horse-sized brain is manipulating and using as its servant.
The Mind layers, the Illithids, that's the formal name. Mind Flayer's kind of like what someone ... I guess an adventurer as panicked, fleeing from one called it, Mind Flayer. That's what it does, it flays minds. Filet. I always think mind fileter would be better for it. What they were is the one folk, one society, they used to dominate the entire material plane until they collapsed, they fell. The Githyanki and Githzerai were their slaves. They overthrew the Mind Flayers.
What's left, then, are these few isolated elder brains, these giant brains that are actually the puppet master's behind the Mind Flayers, scattered across all these worlds, each of them independently trying to invent the secret weapon that will allow them to bring their lost empire back.
Each one is the individual last outpost that's trying to invent a plague, or some new psionic ability. 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.
Whenever they manifest themselves in an obvious manner, whenever it's clear the Mind Flayer activity is afoot, the Githzerai and Githyanki show up and kill all of them. The Gith have been doing this for centuries. They're very good at it.
That's why I really like what the Mind Flayer is. It's a monster with a lot of personality. It's very scary, but it also has this, what I find to be really fun, interesting story to think about and apply to your campaign, and what it means to have a Mind Flayer show up, because most Mind Flayers, they're not independent. They are incredibly smart, but they're still, at the end of the day, puppets to the Elder Brains, which I also find very interesting to be this genius little intellect that actually doesn't have much free will. It only has as much free will as the Elder Brain is willing to give it.
The ancient days of D&D history are very murky. We don't know much about them yet, but what we do know is the Mind Flayers can, essentially, create vehicles, flying ships, that can move between the stars. Now, space in Dungeons and Dragons is not like space as you know it. You don't have a planet, and then a solar system, then you leave and you're in deep space, then you're in another solar system. It's much more planer. It's a system of crystal spheres, and phlogiston, and different worlds I could go into.
It is space, but it's very much fantasy driven. It's not space as we know it. It's more of a dimensional travel thing, almost. Without getting into too much detail, you have planes of existence that are separate realms, with essentially separate laws of physics. Then, within the material plane, you have the crystal spheres, each of which host one or more worlds, which typically the worlds in the crystal spheres, when you look from sphere to sphere, they're very similar, or at least one of them is earth-like, but they might have differences in how magic works.
Some worlds might have more magic, others less, which gods have influence, and which creatures you might find there, but they're all generally earth-like, where in the planes, you have the plane of fire, which the laws of physics are a bit different there. Fire is a dominant element. It's a massive desert with rivers of lava, and things like that, and a sea of burning oil. Things like that. Things that are physically impossible are possible on the planes.
But, within the material world, the laws of physics essentially work as we know them on real world earth, but with magic layered on top. Each crystal sphere's almost like a containment field that separates each world from the other worlds, and then establishes some level of laws of how things work within that world, that Eberron has different traits that The Forgotten Realms. Now, Ravenloft is not a world of the material planes. It has even different rules. It's even more different than the other settings.
The Mind Flayers, their big strength and why they're still around, even though the Gith hunt them relentlessly, is that they are able to craft ships called Nautiloids. A Nautiloid, when it's in a terrestrial environment, can fly, but its real strength is it can navigate between crystal spheres. This is something that we suspect Mind Flayers were the first to master, which is what allowed them to move from world to world really easily, and to eventually conquer almost, if not the entirety of the material plane, really the only folk who can say that they did that. Not even the giants and dragons, in their massive wars, neither one of them achieved anywhere near the dominance the Mind Flayers were able to.
Mind Flayers reproduce by infesting a humanoid creature with a tadpole that transforms that creature into another Mind Flayer, and this kind of comes into this idea that the Mind Flayers themselves are not actually the species. It's the Elder Brains are the actual species. The Mind Flayers are tools. They are essentially clones, or biome mechanical organisms. Not mechanical, just a constructed servanter race, that happens to have an incredible intellect, and is very powerful individually. But, Elder Brains are even stronger.
Todd Kenreck: A big thank you to Mike Mearls for being on D&D Beyond. Our next video will be on the Githyanki and Githzerai. I'm Todd Kenreck. Thank you for watching.