ungeons & Dragons is a fantasy game, with roots deep in fairy tale traditions (as well as myth and more modern, epic fantasy). Stories about the fey and similar creatures are part of the genetic makeup of the game and the genre. And it’s a characteristic of fairy tales that things don’t always make sense.
Not every monster is a race of creatures with its own place in the ecology of the fantasy world, a method of reproduction, a diet, and so on. I touched on this a bit with the medusa back in February, when I suggested that there might be just one medusa in any given campaign, the unique victim of a particular curse. And that sort of thing fits particularly well with fairy tales.
So let me take a different approach with this week’s column.
The Fey that Loved a Mortal
Once upon a time, in a wooded glen that straddled the border between the world and the immortal realm of the fey, there lived a lovely nymph. The glade lay near the outskirts of a human village. A hunter used to pass through her glen every week as he went out from the village to hunt, and again every week as he returned to his home. For many months the nymph hid and watched him pass, while the sprites who lived with her hissed warnings in her ears.
But she turned a deaf ear to those warnings and gave her heart to this mortal man. So beautiful was his face, so graceful his movements, that she saw in him a distant echo of the immortal Feywild. One day, unable to hold back her love any longer, she revealed herself to him and proclaimed her adoration, pretending to be an ordinary mortal maid.
Struck by her beauty, the hunter brought her back with him to the village, where they were soon married. The nymph adopted all the ways of a mortal woman, weaving fine cloth for sale in the market and raising the beautiful baby boy she bore to her husband. For a time, she was blissfully happy.
But the young hunter grew old, and his son grew tall and strong, and the nymph was untouched by the passing years. Eventually the hunter died, and her grief was immeasurable. Even her loving son could not console her, and she fled and sought to return to the Feywild.
When she reached her wooded glen, she found her path barred by a line of tiny sprites, their faces stern as they bared their needle-sharp swords. Grimly they informed her that Queen Titania had exiled her from the Faerie Courts as punishment for giving her heart to a mortal man. Falling to her knees, she begged for mercy, but the sprites would not let her pass. When she tried to force her way through, they stung her with tiny arrows, sending her deep into sleep.
She dreamed, and in her dreams the Faerie Queen addressed her. Again she pleaded for mercy, and Titania’s heart was moved. The nymph, she decreed, could return to live in her glade, but she could never leave the glade. She would be bound to the great old oak at the center of the glade, and she could never wander more than three hundred yards from that tree.
When the nymph awoke, she was standing, and her arms were stretched above her like branches, her toes were sunk deep into the earth, and her hair rustled like leaves in the wind. Only with an effort of will could she move, and she emerged from the trunk of the old oak as if passing through a curtain between worlds.
For hundreds of years now the nymph has lived in that wooded glen. Other men have passed through the woods and stolen her heart, but never again has she been able to live with them, for she is bound to her tree. And thus did a dryad come to be.
Are there other dryads? Perhaps. Are their tales all so tragic? Almost certainly. Love for mortals bound them to the mortal world, drawing the ire of the archfey. And what happened to this dryad’s son? Well, that is the subject of another tale.
(I grew up, by the way, on a steady diet of Gilbert & Sullivan, and other fans of their work might recognize the story of Iolanthe in this dryad’s sad tale.)
That’s one possible take on a creature in D&D lore. I’ve talked about the dryad before, and presented it in a much more traditional light. This story makes the dryad more than just a spirit of the forest. Maybe it helps explain their role in the world, maybe it burdens them with too much story. What do you think?
The Hag’s Bargain
Here’s another story. This one tells of a young man whose beloved, a sailor, was lost at sea. Anguished with grief, the young man went to the shore and called upon the gods of the sea and all other powers to return his beloved to him. In answer, or so it seemed, a withered crone emerged from the water. Her hair was like limp seaweed, and her skin the brownish-green of algae, and her eyes were solid pools of green. Her breath reeked of rotting fish as she spoke to him, offering to return his beloved if he agreed to perform a task for her.
Desperate, the young man agreed. With a cackle, the sea hag seized a handful of his hair and tore it from his head, then she yanked the nail from one of his toes. These tokens, she said, would let her make sure he did as she asked.
The young man demanded the return of his beloved first, and the hag agreed. She gestured toward the open sea, called out the beloved’s name, then disappeared with a wink and a laugh. The young man waited on the shore until the sun set and rose and set again, and then he saw a pale green light floating over the water toward him.
A rowboat with a green lantern in the prow drifted with the waves until it ran aground on the beach. The young man ran to the boat to greet his beloved, and a pair of rotting arms rose up to embrace him. His beloved was dead, drowned and nibbled by the fishes, risen by the sea hag’s magic into a horrible zombie. The young man fled.
When morning came, the sea hag appeared at the young man’s door. She had completed her end of the bargain, she said, and it was time for the young man to complete his. He refused, since the sea hag’s gift had been so horrible. Three times she asked, and three times he refused her. Then she left, and the young man, thinking he was rid of her, returned to his grieving.
The sea hag, though, returned to her slimy cave and stirred her cauldron. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out the young man’s hair and toenail and threw them into the cauldron. Then she turned to the villager she had tied in the corner, slit the man’s throat, and let his blood spill into the cauldron as well. She stirred and stirred, then pulled out a dripping red cap. She spoke the young man’s name three times, and then he himself appeared with a puff of smoke, standing in the cauldron.
Even as he stood there, though, his body shriveled and shrunk, crumpling until he looked like a hunchbacked, wizened old man no more than two or three feet tall. She set the cap on his head, and a trickle of blood ran down his wrinkled face. Then she upended the cauldron and sent him spilling onto the floor. Bound on his feet were heavy iron boots that clanked and clattered as he stood and tried to walk.
The hag explained to him that since he refused to honor his bargain, she had bound him to serve her for thirteen years. During that time, he must keep his little red cap constantly soaked in the blood of people he murdered, or he would die. Though the boots hindered his walking, he could run like the wind in pursuit of a victim or in the midst of combat. His tiny body was far stronger than it looked, capable of holding off the foot of a stomping ogre.
But the young man’s mind was all but gone. His memories of his life before this hideous transformation were vague at best, and he had no memory whatsoever of the beloved who had driven him to his fateful bargain. All that remained was a burning fury that drove him to kill again and again and again, to fulfill the terms of the sea hag’s curse.
I touched on the redcap before as well, but again, this is a new take on the creature. What I particularly like about it (and this largely comes from Matt Sernett, by the way) is that it gives the redcap huge story potential—What if a hag lays this curse on a player character? Can it be broken? Who are (or were) the redcaps serving this hag?—but also allows for a hag to have a retinue of redcaps without delving into the details of their origin. It’s rich story that’s completely optional. But that’s just what I think.
What Do You Think?
So maybe I’m not the next Grimm (my novels are better, I promise!), but I hope these tales conveyed the way we’re thinking about this kind of creature. Does it work for you?
Previous Poll Results
Given this description of firenewts, how likely are you to use them in your game?
|1—Burn it with fire.
|2—It’s not working for me at all.
|3—It could work, but it needs improvement first.
|4—It’s pretty good, and I can suddenly imagine using firenewts in my game.
|5—It’s awesome, and I can’t wait to use firenewts in my game.
Is it interesting to connect firenewts with the cults of Evil Elemental Fire?
|It makes the firenewts a lot more interesting.
|It makes Elemental Fire much more interesting.
|It makes both more interesting.
|It doesn’t help the firenewts at all.
|It doesn’t help the cults of Elemental Fire at all.
|It makes both of them worse.
Given this description of flumphs, how likely are you to use them in your game?
| 1—You will never redeem this stupid monster.
|2—It’s still ridiculous.
|3—It could work, but it needs improvement first.
|4—It’s pretty good, and I can suddenly imagine using a flumph in my game.
|5—It’s awesome, and I can’t wait to use a flumph in my game.
If you were to change one thing about the flumph as described, what would it be?
|Its overall appearance.
|Its method of locomotion.
|Its foul-smelling excretion.
|Its type (aberration).
|Its environment (underground).
|Something else (in the comments!).
|Nothing. The flumph is perfect.
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.