In fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, “aberrations” are monsters that come from somewhere other than the material world that the player characters inhabit—from other planes or even other universes. We can still presume that they’ve evolved, although the conditions they’ve evolved in may be very different from our own, and that they still behave in ways that further their own survival, whatever powers or alien thought processes they may possess.
The nothic is categorized in the 5E Monster Manual as an aberration, although based on its flavor text, it seems like it belongs more in the category of “monstrosity,” which includes beings created by magic: nothics are described as onetime wizards whose avarice for secret knowledge led to their being cursed by the lich Vecna. This “origin story” seems to make them cousins to the undead as well. Since monstrosities and undead are not evolved creatures, it’s hard to say whether nothics should play by the usual rules of natural selection or not. I’m going to examine them as weird hybrids that follow those rules sometimes but are also subject to undead-esque compulsion.
Nothics have proficiency in Stealth and Perception, but also in Arcana and Insight. The latter two skills, along with its Weird Insight feature, suggest that the nothic seeks out social interaction as well as prey, and the flavor text corroborates this, sort of: “Most times, a nothic is content to watch, weighing and assessing the creatures it encounters.” In other words, this “social interaction” is likely to be one-way unless the PCs make it otherwise. The nothic also has truesight to a distance of 120 feet.
Although the MM makes no mention of it—the only form of communication it attributes to the nothic is Undercommon—one published adventure declares, “The nothic communicates using telepathy.”
This is in the D&D 5E Starter Set adventure, The Lost Mine of Phandelver, part 2.
A nothic (there will only ever be one at a time—nothics are intensely solitary) will be aware of the PCs as soon as they approach within 120 feet of it. Rather than hostile, however, it will be curious at first (treat it as “indifferent” for the purposes of social interaction—see the Dungeon Master’s Guide, pages 244–45), and it will be torn between the desire to stay hidden and the desire to learn whether the PCs know anything interesting. If a particular area of a dungeon (castle, cavern, etc.) is home to the nothic, and other areas are inhabited by other creatures, the nothic will stay put, hoping eagerly that the PCs will wander its way; if it’s the only sentient creature in the area, it will stalk the PCs.
Once the PCs approach within 30 feet, it will start using its Weird Insight on them, learning a secret fact about each one, which you can extrapolate from their backgrounds and characteristics. If the nothic does communicate telepathically, it will share its disturbing observations telepathically out of a nihilistic compulsion to show them the “truth” about themselves. It will put its own sinister, overheated spin on each secret, as in these examples from the campaign I’m running:
- You think you survived because you were strong . . . you survived because you were nothing! Your people were nothing! And they will be forgotten, like everyone and everything else!
- An estate built on a crumbling foundation . . . a tainted pedigree . . . orc blood! It would ruin them if the secret got out! Do the others know?
- Dark, bloody thoughts . . . that’s why she didn’t want you! She knew, and she was horrified! Disgusted!
- Abnormal . . . freak . . . recluse . . . your clan meant everything to you, and they didn’t want you!
- An empty hole where your home used to be . . . you have no place to go back to . . . the world has turned its back on you!
If your players are like mine, their reactions will split roughly 80/20 between being thoroughly creeped out and saying matter-of-factly, “Yeah, that’s about right,” which I think is a good split.
All the while, the nothic uses its Stealth skill to remain hidden from view—its use of telepathy won’t give away its position. It will emerge from hiding only if a PC tries to engage it in conversation. Its behavior will be eccentric and sinister, but it won’t threaten the PCs, and it will try to keep a distance of 20 to 30 feet away. If it’s cornered, or feels cornered, it will become even more erratic and deranged and may at that point initiate combat itself, reflexively using its Rotting Gaze like a skunk uses its spray. But if engaged in conversation, it will reveal its interest in secrets, especially magical secrets, and let the PCs know that it may share what it knows in exchange for a gift of a magic item.
Once combat begins, if the nothic has first initiative, it will Ready (action) its Rotting Gaze to use against the first PC to come within 20 feet of it (or, if the PCs are already closer than that, the first PC to move toward it). Otherwise, it will Dodge (action—it doesn’t have the combat training to know how to Disengage) and move away from the PCs attacking it to a place of maximum cover. Only if it has nowhere to run does it use its double claw attack against a melee attacker. If that attacker is reduced to 0 hp, and other enemies are attacking it from range, it uses its Rotting Gaze against any of them that’s within 30 feet of it, then tries to find a new escape route.
Unlike many monsters, the nothic doesn’t wait until it’s seriously wounded to try to run away. It doesn’t want to fight at all. It attacks only in self-defense, and it will always seek to hide or escape if it can, rather than fight. But it will keep using Rotting Gaze against any PC who tries to pursue it, if he or she gets too close.
If you want to add an extra creep factor to the nothic, you can decide that if it makes its Weird Insight check by a certain margin (say, 5 or more), it gains an extra measure of awareness of what the PC fears and customizes its telepathic whispers accordingly. Unless a player has gone into a lot of depth in describing his or her character’s personality, determining a PC’s fears will involve some guesswork; it should have a meaningful connection to PCs’ backgrounds and characteristics, but it doesn’t have to be perfectly accurate. All the nothic’s Weird Insights are distorted by its own insanity, so you can’t expect it to be the perfect psychoanalyst. (For these sample fears, I’m indebted to Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery, revised edition, by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson, a useful resource for both DMs and players looking for a quick way to give characters personalities that are plausible, coherent and internally consistent.)
- There’s a defect in your character, a taint in your soul. Sooner or later, it will impair your judgment and lead you astray.
- You don’t belong among these people; none of them will look out for you when the chips are down.
- No one cares about what you feel or need. If you complain, they’ll hate you.
- You’re useless and helpless; you don’t contribute anything of value.
- Nothing good can last. There’s always trouble lurking around the corner.
- In the grand scheme of things, who you are isn’t that important, is it?
- Freedom and happiness can’t last forever. At some point, the well will run dry.
- You’re nobody. The minute you let someone else overshadow you, no one will care about you anymore.
- You can’t let yourself go soft, or they’ll take away your freedom while you’re weak.
- They know you haven’t lived up to your own standards. They’ll condemn you for it.
- You can never make everyone happy. Sooner or later, they’ll all abandon you.
- The one you love loves somebody else more.
- You’re not the expert you claim to be, and they know it. The world has no use for you.
- There are changes coming, whether you like it or not, and nothing will be the same. You’re going to have to change too, and you’re not ready, are you?
- Nobody appreciates you for who you are; no one cares what you feel. You’re wasting your life on fantasies.
- This life is boring and frustrating and not giving you enough of what you want. But what if there’s nothing better?
- They can all see right through you. They know you’re a fraud.
- You don’t have a handle on things anymore. These people don’t respect you, and they’ll turn on you any minute.
- You’re out of control. You’ve been wrong about what was important all along, and there’s no way to justify the mad things you’ve done.
- They hate you; they’ll destroy what little security you have left. You have to destroy them first.
- Your selfishness is driving people away from you; at this point, they’ll never want to come back.
- You can’t defend yourself from the forces closing in on you. You can’t run. You can’t hide.
- You brought these troubles on yourself, you let it all happen, and there’s no way to undo it now.
- Your situation is hopeless. Everything is pointless. You’re on your own.
- You’ve ruined yourself and your life. You can never be happy—you’re not even capable of it anymore.
- You’re an empty phony. They’re going to catch you and expose you, and when they do, you’ll be ruined.
- How much longer can you hold out against those who want to get back at you, who want you to submit, to surrender? Not much longer.
Next: Spectators and beholders.