The enigmatic caulborn are not Pathfinder’s version of mind flayers. Certainly they were raised in similar soil and perhaps casked in the same barrels—like the mind flayer, the caulborn features a strong aroma of memory stealing, a full-bodied hive mind, and top notes of enigmatic purpose—but the caulborn ends up being quite a different beast.
The world’s oldest role-playing game’s mind flayers are evil gourmands at beast, slavers on average, and cataclysm-encouraging masterminds at worst. (Over time it’s become generally accepted canon that mind flayers are from space and/or the future and trying to snuff out the sun—or several suns.) Caulborn are ultimately sadder creatures—beings who can only be sustained by the psychic energy of others’ thoughts, never their own—less evil—but only because they seem to be beyond morality, and because their dining habits don’t involve a tentacle-rimmed beak—and more mysterious in their ultimate aims. Their great living libraries are not the mind flayers’ mighty elder brains. Instead their society features barely sentient brain-sacks, a kind of primitive computer made from dismantling caulborn into “fluid and curd,” according to City of Strangers. They are symbionts, librarians, scientists, and prophets, not genocidal predators…at least for now.
But I’m probably being too portentous. Caulborn colonies actually have a lot to offer a party of PCs skilled at negotiating, including centuries of memory, computer-like calculations and prognostications, the spying skills of hive mind with cooperative scrying, and an easy source of plane shifts. A little diplomacy could go a long way for parties willing to treat with the blind psychic sages. Well, a little diplomacy and a few memories, that is…
An augury points secret-chasing adventurers to the “Library of the Blind” at “the root of the Mistborn Mountains.” A series of false starts and red herrings present themselves, including a school for the blind where the young women learn spells from raised impressions on a page, a nest of sabosan atop great carved pillars, and a xenophobic choir of cave gillmen. Eventually, the adventurers stumble upon a fleshy cavern of gray matter tended by the mysterious caulborn.
Trying to escape the fungal penal colony of Xat Par, adventurers are met by a strange caulborn bridge keeper. His price for operating the arcane mechanism that lowers the drawbridge seems a small one: a taste of one of the adventurer’s thoughts. However, something in the volunteer’s mind apparently triggers treachery from the caulborn, for it then attempts to modify her memory, employing vampiric touch on anyone who interferes.
On Caldera, caulborn and mothmen are two sides of the same coin—but from different realities. The strange otherworldly mothmen appear at key nodes in time, trying to prevent a great cataclysm from occurring. The subterranean caulborn are from an alternate future, studying the present to figure out why the great cataclysm never occurred in their timeline (with equally calamitous results). Adventures might get caught up in the plots of one side or another…or try to break the cycle of destruction by bending reality toward a third, hopefully brighter future.
—City of Strangers 62–63 & Pathfinder Bestiary 3 48
I’ll leave you to wonder what a continent/world named Caldera would be like. Any theories? Put them in the comments or email me!
I’m assuming caulborn are a James L. Sutter creation. There’s not much about them in the sourcebooks, but for best results check out City of Strangers, which has details on the symbiotic caulborn/vampire society that dwells far below Kaer Maga.
My college friend Maggie, previously published in such venues as Strange Horizons, is now doing a mommy/daycare blog. IN SPACE.