It happens every once in a while. You're moving and grooving in a campaign, joking, laughing, having a blast - then the big bad shows up and things go sideways. They're tough, but you do your best, and the dice are all over the place. Characters are dropping left and right as they pull out all the stops to win, and the rival group's preparation throws the party off-guard. Then the tides begin to turn, and realization sets in - your players are going to lose.
HOW that happens, though, and what it means, is up to everyone at the table.
Sometimes D&D can be hard on you.
There's a beautiful immersive quality to tabletop gaming that invites fun and engaging storytelling, deep role-play (even if it's silly - my favorite), and impactful combat. But for all the moments of victory, laughter, and levity...sometimes things don't go the way you thought they would. Dice rolls don't play nice, your enemies came prepared, or stuff's going on in real life that colors what's happening. Does that mean it was a bad story? Not at all. A challenging encounter once in a while (and in this case, once in a LONG while, as most of the campaign is meant to be fun and light) makes the points of levity even stronger, and how characters rise from the ashes of a "defeat" can uncover new layers of immersion and growth.
The Fears Of A DM
In my Feywild campaign, there has been a consistent air of hilarious strangeness and dark undertones, with a side salad of irreverent quips and bonkers magic. At the table, we find our sweet spot in Social Interaction and Exploring this intriguing setting, while building up a network of knowledge on the many forces vying for control of this magical realm. Our best sessions are derived with zero combat and an army of NPCs to talk to and mess with.
It's in Combat and conflict that the veils struggle, and the dark side of the setting pulls into focus.
This is a High Magic setting full of Fey and wizards and chronomancy and Queen Mab. Campfires sing to you, trapping those entranced in an endless dance of death. The grass needs compliments or it will kill you. The dreaded Theater looms in the dark forests, luring unsuspecting travelers into its immortal troupe. And the evergreen kings and queens of this realm care little for the fleeting lives of a few amusing PCs.
This means that when clashes happen, there are often elements of chaos that are hard to predict. That said, that was one of the selling points of the campaign. A "wild" version of magic and mischief that can swing some things in and out of your favor, but never too far as to push your success to pure luck. A voyeuristic Archfey that finds the actions of a PC intriguing, and grants them a mote of possibility. A character's plant affinity granting them transport across the map. Pockets of void magic that provide inverse effects of certain spells.
But in Combat, the dice can add a variability that can sometimes be less hilarious, and more tragic.
When my party is frustrated, I am frustrated. When they are sad, I am sad. When they struggle, I struggle. I am not a DM that supports adversarial gaming; it is not a "DM vs Players" mindset over here. Do I challenge them? Of course! But when they're feeling it, I'm right there with them. I WANT them to beat my big bads; I want them to win the day, so when they don't, I feel like I lost too. And I don't want them to hurt, I want them to feel energized to return. They didn't sign up for a trauma center EVERY week.
Hmm. Let me get into this a bit more so you can understand where we're coming from.
The Lead Up
The Feywild Warriors have been trekking around the Ionian Feywild for 12 levels now. We do milestones, and they tend toward less combat and more interaction. They're lovable children, when you think about it, as most of the PCs are around 17-19, one doesn't even know his age, and then we've got an old fighter into his 50s that acts like their dad (found family, you get it). We've got a Dragonborn Fighter (Terhune), a Werewolf Druid (Buddy), a Tiefling Wild Magic Sorlock (Bry) and her elemental familiar (Soot), a Tiefling Bard/Fighter (Akita), and a Human Battle Master Fighter (Taman). Because they're so dang adorable and well-intentioned, they've accumulated quite the entourage of NPCs. Alannah - a Paladin/Tempest Cleric (wife of Taman); Essian - a half-elven War Mage, Alannah's ward; Vali - a human Rogue and now girlfriend to Akita (she went to the Feywild to find Akita, so that's love); Broty - a young Tanarukk (who has imprinted on the two tieflings and views them as little sisters)...poor guy has an intelligence of 5.
ALSO, along the way, they have happened upon another adventuring party led by a character they presumed killed in their first adventure. A bridge guard who survived The Massacre Of Sentry at the hands of a Black Knight and joined up with another party to help him seek righteous vengeance. His name is Jenkins Carpenter, or Jink for short, and he is avenging the death of his brother, Leroy Carpenter (yes, I am that guy). Jenkins is joined by Nessa, a High Elf Ranger/Rogue, Remy the Lizardfolk Barbarian, and Sloan the Dwarven something (seriously, I don't think he knows what class he is).
This literal army of deadly kittens have built powerful bonds between each other as they navigate the dangerous wilds of the Fey realm, each strengthening and redefining the odd family dynamic of those that face threat together. All the while, dark forces move into position. The Winter Court has occupied the City Of Astrazalian - a neutral ground between the Fey Courts - and is using it as a military position (that's not okay); an orcish army led by a tiefling warlord marches on the West; a gnoll army marches Northwest (and threatens to clash); the stars (spirits of guidance in the Fey Realm) are falling from the sky and being collected by the Whispering Rock guild and their seemingly corrupted leader, Montblanc (doesn't help that Terhune, Taman, Alannah, and Essian were all once members of this guild, whoopsie)... And all of this seems orchestrated by a small group of individuals that call themselves The Four Gears.
The party has had fleeting encounters with each of them.
Hush, the Black Knight/Silencekeeper - the first real threat the party saw in their inciting incident on a bridge. Simple stuff; they all met, hung out, antics ensued, they went to bed. Woke up and the bridge town was burning down, and this jerk was coming through killing folks. They tried to distract them, but the bridge collapsed, and now the Black Knight haunts their nightmares as they catch drifting news of their exploits.
Albrecht, the Kingslayer - a cleric of multiple gods (it seems), the party has mostly witnessed the aftermath of Albrecht's handiwork. The guy has a huge distaste for small fey, burning spryte villages and darkling conclaves to the ground. In a way, he's been knocking out lesser leaders to pin focus on larger forces. He is surgical and pragmatic, but his true intentions are unclear.
Eon, the Kingmaker - a silver-tongued lavender tiefling wizard of deep knowledge and cunning, Eon has aided the party in navigating the gnoll army early in the campaign, but he has only become more creepy as time goes on. He took a liking to his fellow tieflings, but holds no love for other races. Seeing the growing power in Bry and a possible kinship, he has been invasive in contacting her, much to the worry of his fellows, even going so far as to bind himself to a promise not to kill her companions. A promise that may spell his undoing, but it is entirely possible that he is playing a different kind of game.
Arameis Salfurion, the Whisper - an aasimar of unknown origin, this entity is known only through word of mouth and fleeting visions before death. Most recent word has it that he serves as a consultant to Montblanc and his guild, and may be behind the collection of Fallen Stars. He has been seen as an after-image of a Contingency spell woven into the symbol of the Whispering Rock Guild - set to turn people to dust if they broach certain topics of discussion. Luckily, Alannah and Essian's abjurative abilities tipped them off before it was too late, and Taman and Terhune had already forcibly resigned.
In the Ionian Feywild, there are forces that serve as great equalizers. None are more powerful or resolute than the Erlking and his Wild Hunt. He is appointed by the Stars, so his legend is known among the denizens of the Fey far and wide. He holds no Court of his own, though many claim to be of it. In truth, he calls the honored dead to his banners - ancient Eladrin warriors culled by his Hunt in days long past and sworn into servitude to wash the realm of dangerous chaos. He and his Hunt are the last bastion of defense and the grand hammer that allows the Fey Courts to sit on their thrones and raise their goblets in indifference. In other words, if crap gets real, the Erlking will take care of it.
Thing is, the stars are falling and war is brewing, and no horns of the Hunt are blaring. The Fey Lords and Ladies are only mildly concerned, as is their way, but the lesser fey - like the extricated Autumn Court, or the Darkling clans - know that something is wrong, and that they'll be hit by the brunt of it long before Summer feels a tickle.
Though they be young, the party has heroes in it, and those that lack heroics still garner a sense of justice. There is wrong happening around them, and though they often move on to their next adventure, the wave is catching up to them - threatening to drown. They conclude that they have two real choices: 1) Get someone to plane shift them to the Material Plane (where most of them are from), cozy up at Taman's house with his wife, get adopted, and wait till this all blows over; or 2) locate the Erlking and his crown, so evil can be stopped.
Prepared for both outcomes, I did not nudge a thing, but the group voted - option 2 was the way.
So they ventured to the savage dark forests of The Fading City, seeking an audience with its undead Fey Ranger King...Lord Calenon Thrayn. Turns out, two armies also threaten to converge upon the city, so the party must sneak past in order to get inside first. Which, they just barely do so, as orcs begin to pour into the city hot on their heels. Luckily, the city has a defense mechanism: the Fog Of Purity. Creatures that pass into this Fog undergo strange, random trials that measure a piece of their soul - some are straight forward, some are outright weird, and in clear Feywild fashion, it's pretty random. Long story short, a few of the smarter captains emerge from the Fog deep into the dark forest that permeates the city...knee deep in dinosaurs and gigantic beasts. Our heroes, however, emerge before a guide - a little Fey kitty - that leads them to Thrayn.
Much discussion later, we discover that the Erlking's Crown is hidden in the Material Plane. As part of Shinealestra's lore, the city will phase to the Material Plane every night at midnight, its forest of nightmare creatures becoming a prized hunting ground for only the bravest of hunters. It returns to the Fey Realm at first light, at dawn. The castle flips, our resident human Taman and his wife rejoice at seeing a normal sky and normal grass, and the army of squirrels is led by a pack of sentient mushrooms with messenger bags to their next destination.
After a clutch phantasmal force on a nasty T-Rex, the original party plus a Jenkins makes it through just before the cave mouth closes, leaving their allies to fight the dino. Trusting each other, they have a chat with an Elder Being, get a very needed Long Rest in a time bubble, and push their way into a teleportation chamber. The werewolf, rocking his child-like intelligence, bounds through the portal before the others can stop him. He is seemingly atomized (think Dr. Manhattan, you weirdos), and while the players at the table contemplate if I just killed a character, Bry notes that the transportation runes have been tampered with. Conclusion - they still work, they just don't go to the right place. Four fragmented sendings and a lot of swearing later, Buddy returns, Bry fixes the portal, and our Taman has the brilliant idea to scan the area with a See Invisibility item. Good thing, too, as Eon's voice creeps into our Sorcerer's head, and they watch him drop into the fixed portal, before they all jump in after him.
They feather fall down into ruins; gravestones and sarcophagi overgrown with moss and fallen trees. Bry's nature affinity clears the path to a throne, a skeletal guardian, and a crown...before urging everyone to look up. Eon, silhouetted by a dark sky, floats above them. "Thank you for showing us the way..." He summons Minute Meteors...and detonates the Delayed Blast Fireball under their feet.
Why This Was Tricky
I crafted this particular encounter without a clear idea of how it was going to end. Not that I've ever shunted PCs into certain positions to reach a specific outcome, but sometimes you can foresee the three basic endings in a battle. Get to know a party well enough, and you get a pretty good idea how most things are going to play out. But this time, there were certain variables that made things tricky.
1) THE DICE WERE BEING JERKS - I award inspiration, give advantage where I can, and overall support my players given the wacky setting we all agreed to...it just wasn't helping! Saving throws getting botched, attack rolls whiffing, amazing ideas with simple checks falling flat. On both sides! And, you know, maybe that's a good story, too. This is a group that buys into that variability; I like to think we're charging up for those legendary three Nat 20's in a row moment. (it's happened, let's let it happen again).
2) THESE ENEMIES HAD TIME - They have been plotting, preparing, and hiding. I can't spoil a lot here, but their abilities are based on rules, magic items, and preparation. They are a counter-party, and this is their moment. They had a plan. Eon shows first and distracts while Hush goes for the crown, and the third waits in the wings for the most opportune moment. They are smart - flawed, but we'll get to that - and deadly.
3) THEY'RE PUTTING IT ALL ON THE TABLE - This being such a clutch moment for The Four Gears party, they're going to burn a bunch of resources to achieve their goal, making them LOOK very powerful for a limited time. IF our heroes can hold out against that onslaught, that's another chance in the PCs' favor.
4) MANY WAYS TO "WIN" - with an Ancient Artifact in play, there are a plethora of ways this could go down. We just finished a segment where at least two of our PCs saw visions of themselves wearing the crown, so we know it's possible. Holding the crown has one effect (it can't be stowed in a container, btw), while WEARING it has another. On top of this, despite Eon's destructive forces, his connection with the party can be exploited; whether that flips him to the other side or pisses off his companions enough to cut him loose, that's another win in the PCs's direction - he DID make a blood pact not to kill them. Throw in our Amplified Wild Magic (Feywild custom), a reluctant warlock pact, burgeoning tiefling rage powers, our Taman's random ability to nullify certain magical effects (I have to roll for it - dice were jerks, see above), and a custom druidic circle all about ripping and tearing, and there's a surfeit of possibility here.
How It Played Out
This was tough challenge against prepared, patient enemies. And for a PC party that has done pretty well flying by the seat of their pants into most encounters, I foresaw that this could be a tougher go this time around.
After eating the explosion, the party scatters while Eon attempts to place Bry into stasis - keen to remove her safely from the fight. Taman, in a cool reaction that I will allow, pushes Bry out of the way, and becomes inert for a round instead! Meanwhile, the perception-level-stupid-high Buddy notices that someone invisible might be making their way to the crown.
Akita decides on her own to polymorph into a super fast, super squishy bird and bum rush the crown. An invisible Hush cuts her out of the form as she flies by, but Akita maintains her momentum to land on the throne, hands already on the crown. With Jenkins and Buddy sprinting to help (the natural 2 on Jenkins's acrobatics did not help), Akita weighs her life choices as the skeleton wriggles to life and begins to wrestle with the tiefling to keep the crown.
Hush, now visible, puts on full display the completely legal and totally unfair mechanics of the Echo Knight and proceeds to tank a clutch polymorph (on an Echo), phase from one Echo to another, and one-shot our resident NPC Jenkins (who's just trying to avenge his brother, my guy, come on now!) with a Nat 20 great sword + sneak attack. With Jenkins making death saves in front of Buddy, Hush cleans her blade and silently squares off against our druid.
On the other side of the battlefield, Bry begins to show just how much she's grown as a mage as she not only deflects blows from Eon, but shatters his wards. The surges of Amplified Wild Magic elevate stones around her, and continue to build up inside her, threatening a cataclysmic burst. Terhune hides, and does his best to stay hidden while taking sniper shots at Eon. Both, due to obstructions, are unaware of Buddy and Jenkins's battle, nor are they fully aware of Akita's predicament.
Akita wrestles the crown, and the skeleton guarding it, off the throne. She does so with such primal force that the throne, its pedestal, and the plinth of stone it rests on, slide free in a shower of stone and dust. In the debris, a focused Akita pulls the crown free, its desiccated husk filling with new florid life and personality akin to her own. And crawling from the opened tomb under the throne, are the honored skeleton guard of the Erlking, watching their potential queen eagerly.
Whether by fear or force, Bry pushes Eon further into the ruin, and he doubles over in pain in the air; the arcane agreement he made threatens to be broken, so he sends healing words to Jenkins as Buddy rushes to help Akita (and more skeletons rise around her). Hush shifts her Echo closer to a hidden Terhune, and finally Taman has someone to fight.
Without structuring the rest of this in a play-by-play, a few things happen in quick succession that turn this whole thing sideways:
1) Bry's Wild Magic begins to manifest in telekinetic ways, flinging terrain across the map (one of which knocking Hush prone, to Taman's delight).
2) Hush shows her hand by raging, and a real threat comes into play, one that hits exponentially harder and is way more difficult to wound. ...But at least she's finally HAPPY to have an opponent worth fighting.
3) Eon's arcane agreement begins to debilitate and damage him the more hurt the PCs become; his allies do not share his values. The lavender tiefling becomes so overwhelmed by Bry and maintaining his arcane deal that he fails his saving throw to not become Entangled in a terrain hazard, and a few more failed saves later, becomes a sitting duck for the enraged Sorceress. ...So Bry intentionally devotes her resources and ire to immolate Eon, but not before he relinquishes his Staff Of Balance (Chronomancy) to her, somehow happy that she is the one to kill him.
4) At the precipice, the Skeleton Guard ache for a choice, and Akita hesitates. Instead, Buddy makes the decision FOR HER, forcing the crown onto her head. Her wounds disappear, the Skeletons bow, and her sight opens to the hundreds of spirit warriors now at her command. This transformation takes time (3 rounds), and she can interact with her growing powers each turn, but again, it takes time.
Quick Aside - My Little Rant On Fighters
Fighters should absolutely NOT be equipment-dependent. It is freaking ludicrous.
Also, WHY can't a Battle Master use Commander's Strike on a spell caster and that spell caster burn their Reaction to cast a cantrip? "Because a spell isn't a weapon." Yeah, yeah. Well, in the Feywild (purely as a product of the PCs being exposed to such a high magic surge area, and not because that was one of the most sad I've seen my Fighters), you can! So there.
It's not like Hush's abilities are broken, but she's rocking three classes (Fighter - Echo Knight, Rogue - Swashbuckler, Barbarian - Zealot) to gain the features to make her feel effective in combat. She isn't loaded up with crazy gear (good gear, nasty gear, but not ludicrous), and remember, they were prepared; so its feasible to get there, HOWEVER, you should not be required to multi-class in order to make your primary class effective.
Our PC party (at the moment) has TWO fighters; a Battle Master and a legit archer build, but with all this magic getting flung around, it can be easy to feel behind the pack, and vanilla fighter deserves better. Yet, in every campaign I have run, the fighter gains (through organic storytelling, questing, growth, and other such good stuff, mind you) a home-brew boon of some effect, to help off-set the distinct power creep from the other classes.
How It Ended
As Akita rises up and the crown begins to take hold...Albrecht, the leader of the Gears, appears from behind a veil of invisibility. Flying next to Akita, he grapples her (one hand on her throat, the other to her sternum) and channels divinity, attempting to interrupt her life force and fell her in one strike. She saves, allowing Buddy time to leap onto both of them, biting onto Albrecht's arm. Akita, in her second round, summons the skeletons and shades to help, and they begin to drift toward them.
Hush, seeing an opportunity, fells Terhune a second time. Then, with a sickening stab and a twist, ends his life then and there in front of Taman. As Bry puts the finishing touches on her murder-immolation across the map, Albrecht quickens a Banishment - "No hard feelings, pup" - and boops poor Buddy on the nose, hurling him into the Astral Sea. With Akita still in his grasp and at death's door, Albrecht uses a Deathly Grasp on her throat, wrenching her into unconsciousness. As her body goes limp on the ruined pedestal, he snatches the crown, calling out to Hush that it's time to leave.
Hush is hesitant, now that she has a worthy opponent all to herself, but she abides. Taman and a renewed Jenkins get some good hits in (Sentinel, bitch!), but she's able to scrape close enough over the next turn. Albrecht regards the dying Akita, and reaches out, stabilizing the girl (Spare The Dying - Grave Cleric). He then cracks the tiny Gem Of Recall, and pulls himself and Hush far and away from this plane. The Skeletons and Shades of the Hunt...are pulled with them.
And the party is left alone in silent, mossy ruins. Jenkins slumps to his knees as Taman sprints to Akita and pulls her back to consciousness. She sits up in silence, and Taman rushes back to Terhune's still body, Jenkins with him. Taman pulls a strange fruit from his pack; something he nicked many sessions ago - a Fruit Of Restoration (what kind? No one knows!) - he opens up Terhune's mouth and forces it down his throat. They watch as vines and earth begin to cover, then swallow the silver dragonborn's body, a Reincarnation-like spell taking effect.
A minute passes, and Buddy does not return to them. But somewhere in the Astral Sea, he is meeting a Githyanki pirate and Werewolf Vampire Hunter, picked up by an Astral Spelljammer vessel hell-bent on outrunning a Dreadnought. I'm sure he'll be fine.
Proof Of Concept and The Lowest Point
The Feywild is a land that, on the surface, might appear more silly than serious. However, the consistent theming of this campaign yields specific truths of the setting.
1) Fey and their realm are mischievous, dark, and often twisted entities who care very little for the mortal coil. Just because it looks nice, doesn't mean it's safe. Even the "jokes" of the Fey can be deadly.
2) Magic, though not at its most raw, perpetuates all living things here. So, weird stuff abounds, and it's pretty common.
3) There are rules, and they are numerous, for navigating the Fey realms safely; but many do not know them, and they often change dependent on a plethora of factors.
4) Fey and their ilk are often unreliable narrators, choosing interpretation over hard facts; this laces their words and veils their intentions - a true Theater Of Life.
5) Study of this realm yields immense power, but it requires extensive time, focus, and energy. Even a little bit of digging reveals the dark tone beneath the whimsy (consistent from the beginning of the campaign). ...we just really saw this one, this time. :(
It was stated before that this group has done quite well just stumbling through. Sometimes the PCs plan a little here and there, but mostly they do exceptional when they fly by the skin of their teeth. These PLAYERS are top-notch; they bring vibrant expression, creativity, knowledge, and joy to the table, which only deepens our collective world, and they PAY ATTENTION, no worries. And all have expressed that they brought creatures to the table who are "inexperienced" in at least one important skill each. Good! This found family has done amazing things in the face of overwhelming odds - by luck, creativity, allies, and pure unadulterated pun power!
This is the first time that they were unsuccessful, in the traditional sense. The bad guys "got away." One of the party is missing, another is dead (but not for long!), and the others are grappling with their decisions - some made BY them, others made FOR them. From the DM's side, I offer opportunities for choices, but the distinct choices are specified and executed by these veteran players. They are organic, in the moment, sometimes snap character decisions. Which means, another reason why I love this party, we now have a huge opportunity...
We get to DEAL WITH THOSE DECISIONS.
Cultivating Aftermath and The Arc Of A Character
Every character in this party was struck down in this session. Whether it be the very real severing of physical mortality, or the denser psychological dread of vengeance, or the helplessness of being a human in a world of fairies. For many, this could be described as their lowest point.
It can be a rough place to be in as a character, let alone a PLAYER. Several members have talked openly about the "mistakes" they made during the fight; things they could have done differently if the dice had cooperated; musings on certain game mechanics and gear load out... And yet, each came out with a plan to process this experience. Maybe we take some extra time before our next session, but we WILL have another session, and many more after that. This story WILL continue. Where it goes, is up to us.
In all great stories, especially ones that we share, this moment occurs. Some hit it harder than others, but they share the same term. We have entered The Abyss in our heroic journey. It is the space diametrically opposed by our Call To Adventure (our first few sessions). Often this is a Death and Rebirth - for some, perhaps more literally than others - and what comes next is a Transformation; rising action, rebuilding momentum, standing back up with lessons learned.
Initially I was concerned with the low energy post-session. With so many mirthful games under our belts, it felt WRONG to end the session like that. I became obsessed with the idea that I had led them astray; wounded them somehow. And what we all needed was a little extra time to process the events, and hatch a plan moving forward. What we've done, at last, is setup an arc for just about everyone. Our innocent, fun-loving Sorceress just straight-up murdered a dude (he was probably bad news, but still); our werewolf is Lost In Space, dealing with the guilt of putting the crown on Akita; Akita is grappling with being robbed of her choice, and yet craving the crown for the good it could do; Terhune, literally dead, drifts through his Ethereal past as his body and soul are reconstructed anew; Jenkins sits in silence, feeling weak and a waste of space, completely unable to enact his vengeance; and Taman, the old fighter and tactician, the hero of this story and the glue of this group, couldn't protect his adopted family even if he tried.
That is an Abyss.
And, as anyone who has struggled their own depression knows, the first step out of the dark is the hardest. But with every step, you will be stronger for it. You will stumble, you will learn, you will heal, and you will keep moving forward.
This time: Death (close Phase I)
Next time: the steps toward Rebirth. (open Phase II)
See you at the table.
Displacer Beasts roamed the endless twilight of the Feywild for ages, until they were captured, bred, and trained by the Unseelie Court. The Soldiers Of Winter bred the beasts to reinforce their own ferocious nature, utilizing them to hunt unicorns, pegasi, and other mythical, wondrous creatures. However, it was only a matter of time before these malevolent prides broke away from their cruel masters.
Running and breeding freely in the Feywild, the Displacer Beasts soon came to the attention of the Seelie Court. With Blink Dog companions of their own, the rivalry was palpable, and the Summer Court drove the Displacer Beasts to the edges of the wild. To this day, Displacer Beasts and Blink Dogs attack each other on sight, an ancient violence.
By The Numbers
The Displacer Beast is a strong and agile adversary. What it lacks in AC (12-14), it makes up for with multiple attacks, decent speed (40-50), and good pool of hit points (80-130). Some versions of the monstrosity don't even include its menacing claws, the stat block only exploring its strange spined tentacles. ...This is a dumb choice; it's a freaking badass panther with six legs - use them. Some variants include a pouncing mechanic where the Displacer Beast can knock a creature down, and take a rending attack on their prone form for free, opting to slash with their claws or bite into their food.
What makes the Displacer Beast particularly dangerous are its other key mechanics:
1. Avoidance - basically Evasion for monsters. Made the save - no damage. Failed the save - half damage. Means that they're hardier than you would expect.
2. Displacement - attacks against the creature have disadvantage until it actually gets hit, and this passive power recharges at end of its turns. Abilities like Sentinel, where a creature's speed can be made 0, will also interrupt this ability, but you still have to HIT IT first.
Displacer Beasts In Io
Displacer Beasts were once the prized jailers and guards of the nobility that filled the upper ranks of the Unseelie Court. After the Massacre At Harrowhome, however, their prized position grew scattered, and one too many instances of their allegiance being swayed fell dim upon the Dread Queen Mab. In the Ruins of the Season, deep in the harrowed halls of the broken citadels of beasts and men, prides of Displacer Beasts roam and hunt.
But not all nobility has turned a blind eye to these creatures with a love for the kill. Excellent trackers, a Displacer Beast may sometimes roam with hunters and assassins of a deadly order. Creatures contracted to hunt their own, these "Skipjacks" utilize the Displacer Beast as a dangerous ally in their pursuit of their fellow Fey.
Variant: Displacer Alpha
An Alpha is the king of a Displacer Pride, and it got there by vicious rite and ritual combat.
In the dark wilds of the Feywild, variants of the Displacer Beast have emerged. Brandishing a living cloak of up to nine tentacles, these larger and stronger mutations are intelligent, calculating, cruel, and linguistic. This allows cunning tactics and maneuvers for the prides they command.
In addition to a superior size (Huge) and strength (20-22), an Alpha brandishes layered cords of muscle and bone; armored spurs beneath their shifting fur and ethereal displacement (AC of 16-17). The multitude of tendrils that they command grant them unique properties - like grappling, poisoning, and restraining their prey. An Alpha is also a master of its ethereal displacement, able to teleport short distances without sacrificing momentum as part of their Pounce feature.
If an Alpha is ever usurped by another within the Pride, they are exiled - a Disgraced Alpha. These lonely mutations wander the dark wastes to either seize another throne or serve some greater being than themselves. Whatever the circumstance, they are not to be trifled with.
Legend Of The Shift King
GM's Note: Since the first campaign I ran in this custom setting, there have been old tapestries, panoramas, ancient texts, and obscure references that player-characters have stumbled across. Each lore drop would be a tiny morsel of a much larger picture; an eight-legged displacer beast with boney spurs around the jaw-line, multiple tendrils lifting from its back like a living mantle, and a crown of black and silver spines protruding from its head. This regal creature was always set upon a high rock surrounded by hundreds of other beasts, each bowing to it as if it were their king.
The first time this image was presented, I remember my players vigorously writing it down. At any point following this, any players to be present during this strange initial reveal would bring it up again if ever they fell into an encounter with a Displacer Pride, but little came of it.
Will we see more? Only my players can tell you...
Tread safely under the borealis of the Feywild.
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On the edges of the Autumncrest, flowing down from Astrazalian is the once ruined bastion of Harrowhome. A piecemeal, patchwork fortress of scorched stone and new construction, this half-sunken memorial is a testament to an ages old war and a memory not forgotten.
The Battle Of Autumn
Verenestra, the mad Summer Lady, had once coveted the far realms of the Fey as an extension of her mother's dominion. This action was not sanctioned, and vibrant, faction-less Eladrin rose against such tyranny. The war was devastating.
The final blow wrought upon the Eladrin was in the form of a godly blight suffered upon the grand beacon city of Cendriane, darkening its grasslands to a pitch black and forcing its populace to evacuate. After this grand insult upon the summer, King Oberyn himself banished Verenestra to the Farplane, where she may wait out her days in exile. But her armies were proud, and continued their march downriver, seeking to secure the Mithrendain province for the court that abandoned them. They believed that if they could take Harrowhome, a place of neutrality and refuge, that their position would be immutable.
And her armies marched on the ruined bastion with speed and volition...only to be met on the lush fields at its gates by the regiments of the Wild Hunt. Thousands of primal warrior spirits under the orders of the Erlking himself. Bound by purpose, the disavowed summer forces fought anyway, and were slaughtered, their bodies cut down by the vicious precision of the Wild Hunt. Those upon the city walls watched Elven soldiers fall with a breath, like leaves falling from trees.
The walls of Harrowhome remember the battle that carved the Autumn Court into being, and beyond its walls it welcomed every creature upended and scarred by war. And continue to do so to this day.
Any wanderer that walks under its arches and through its gates, no matter their make or manner, will be treated to a warm bed, a hearty meal, and a safe rest. You see, even before the Autumn, Harrowhome was a place of spirits. Not haunted, mind you, but inhabited and cared for by creatures long dead. Spirits of cooks, caretakers, healers, and one particularly crotchety jarl care for its visitors as if they were their own citizens.
Not going to lie, it is a bit off-putting at first. Seeing the smiling, humming halfling maid that floats through the wall carrying a platter of fine kippers and tea as she drifts over to your bedside and kisses your forehead goodnight.
And yet, Harrowhome is a place of comfort. Weary travelers find assured rest within its walls without trickery (though the child ghosts can be a little mischievous); visiting guilds catch their breath and count their coin; and even an occasional warlord takes up residence once in a while.
But any who pass through know the laws. I - No violence will be willfully committed within the city's walls, not by its keepers nor its visitors. II - Under no circumstances will these halls or their denizens be exorcised, for this place is under the watch of the Erlking, and thou shall not rob him of his subjects, lest they wish to join the Wild Hunt themselves.
Though most of the citizens of Harrowhome hail from the ethereal wastes, a physical presence has found its way to the city. This tiny sect of protectors, survivalists, medics, and old adventurers have sworn an oath in service of the caretaker spirits of the ruin. Not only will they defend the neutral ground from invaders, but they will endeavor to follow the spiritual example of safety and protection for all those within its walls.
It is this sect that has learned from their spectral hosts the ancient discipline in constructing sacred grounds of warding; small sanctuaries of sculpted stone and balanced energy that carry with them the same unspoken accord of the city itself - a bond stronger than steel and respected by gods.
Entities that cultivate this brand of architecture and care earn the right and blessing from their spectral mentors to venture into the wilds of the Fey, erecting safe havens at key junctures throughout the realm. These "Wayfarers" are encouraged to scout and roam until they discover a "place of need." In this place, they use their best judgement to erect a Waystation and pour their arcane will into its stone and structure. Sanctified and solidified by ancient laws, a Waystation kept will ward any malevolence from entering, and all creatures making use of the space must adhere to the rules, clearly posted in immutable script in all languages. Committing intentional acts of violence or malevolence while on this sacred ground will spell more than doom for all participating, as they have broken a sacred vow respected by the greatest of the Archfey. Though she could rage at its borders, not even the Queen of Air and Darkness could enact violence upon such a space, lest she suffer the wrath of the Seelie, Unseelie, and Hunter Courts combined. Passing over the threshold of a Waystation makes a promise to all those that seek you harm or hell, and, in the Feywild, promises are kept.
The Totem Network
Passage through the Wildes can be treacherous and unpredictable for the uninitiated. Rampant quicklings, enchanted campfires, giant mimics, and roaming primal spirits are commonplace under this aurora sky.
Nicholas Falanel, an old tortle of kind face and dreadful past, used his blessings in the arcane and survival to construct minute, portable waystations. He would call these more accurately - totems. Tiny pockets of neutral energy, these carved wood and stone spires would rest on either side of a beaten path no more than ten feet wide, planted at 10 foot intervals. The resulting network of short-form, concentrated abjuration could hold at bay any number of malevolent Fey or Undead creatures.
But the totems are difficult to construct. Though Nick has attempted to pass on his techniques, Wayfarers are a rare branch of an extremely rare sect, so the old tortle appears to be on his own for this endeavor. That doesn't stop "Old Nick", though, and many a traveler has seen him tending to one of his seven Waystations across the Wildes - collecting more materials on his quest to connect the Feywild for any who may wander its beautiful and dangerous landscape.
Stop by for a tune or three, and a bowl of gumbo for thee. And remember the skies before the Harrowed be true; we will always open our doors to you.
It is a dog. No, a hound. Tufts of layered, dense, matted purple fur rolls over wide shoulders and long, hunched neck. A whimpering mule shudders up from the body as I approach. SNAP. My boot crunches the twig and a wince. The muling stops and I watch those shoulders slope forward, the head turning my way...and a pit forms in my stomach. A humanoid, twisted face with burning red eyes stares back at me, jaw hanging open. A mix of flat and sharpened teeth jut out from open mouth, and the moaning returns, rising to a howl. I try to draw my sword, but my body can only shake as I watch the hound rise and float a foot off the ground. Even as it wales, its head tilts to the side curiously. Then it flies toward me.
Gifts Of The Dark Fey
If one impresses members of the Old Guard of Fey, they might be gifted with a Yeth Hound. Such a gift is high praise, as the Yeth is a companion for life, connected telepathically to their master and charged with their protection at all costs.
But these hounds reflect their original creators, and are by no means good creatures. Originally personified by a headless, bloodied hound in some cultures, the origin of a Yeth is one rooted in sorrow, always reflected in their strange, baleful howl. To hear the howl is a warning, but to see its source often spells doom.
According to Volo's Guide, these creatures are large hounds with flat, humanoid faces and features, and though it looks like they may bound quickly, they often HOVER creepily overhead. It is this unnatural mobility that makes them deadly sentries for their masters.
By The Numbers
In terms of raw defenses and hit points, the Yeth Hound isn't that intimidating, but make sure you're packing something silver. Their physical stats (Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution) are noticeably high, but they're dumb as a post most of the time.
Where they become truly dangerous is in their unnatural, creepy mobility and their dreaded "Baleful Baying" howl ability. The thing's got a 300 foot range, so make sure your Wisdom is decent before engaging with one. If you happen to be one of the unlucky low rollers against the howl, that frightened condition does a lot more for the Yeth than it does for you, stacking on extra psychic damage for its scared victims. And I can't blame them; the image of this thing bearing down on you is NOT pleasant.
As an aside, I was actually very intrigued to write about this thing.
There is something wholly unnerving about these large Fey doggos with humanoid faces, who creepily hover overhead and paralyze prey with their baleful howl. It's just such an unsettling image. Add on to this the fact that as long as it's on the same plane as its master, it can ALWAYS contact it telepathically. Woof, buddy.
The Yeth In Io
Sentries Of The Deep Night
As servants gifted by old Fey, a Yeth Hound always has a home in the Feywild. Denizens and visitors alike who gain favor in the Verdant Court may find themselves with a Large, loyal, and evil companion that can't be charmed or frightened away.
Just, imagine for a moment, waking up with this thing sitting in your living room. Just. THERE. Totally silent. And then its red eyes slowly turn your way, like some living furred statue and a voice enters your mind like Dug from Up. "I sat in your living room in the dark because I love you. And now I'll love you FOREVER." The face doesn't change the entire time. Lol.
But not just any Fey can gift you a Yeth. They must be made first, and only one of the four Courts knows how. Skilled in curses and the binding of souls, the Ladies Of Winter, under the instruction of King Oberon himself, have much practice in plucking the unfortunate mortals of deals gone wrong and pipers unpaid, and supplanting their essence into a new form - one to serve the Deep Night and the citizens of Air and Darkness.
If a singular entity can be gifted one Yeth for an impression, imagine the army Winter commands. Hundreds of baleful, wailing sentries silently drifting across the night skies; keeping watch and wary over the fane kingdoms.
Watch for the red eyes and motionless face, and keep your distance, lest the mournful cries of a soul forever trapped in servitude reaches your ears...and rends your mind asunder.
Sleep well, travelers.
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Zipping through the thicket and brim, little Zym left the lumbering oaf far behind. Skating along the water's edge, he skips easily along the liquid and dances up the lily to perch in the phosphorus purple sky. Miles away, his eyes twitch down to the spoils of his mischief: a locket, large in his hands. It is brass, with a gold chain, and metal clasp. Zym clicks it open to reveal a beautiful portrait of an elven maiden - a noble perhaps. With a proud grin, Zym snaps the locket shut, tying it onto his back and, with a bolt and a blur, disappears into the Underwood...
At A Glance
In 5th Edition, a Quickling is a tiny, mischievous fey of lightning speed. They think and act quickly, moving faster than the untrained eye can track, and most creatures see them as mere blurs.
To a Quickling, however, the outside world is painfully slow. They see it all in transfixed time, not unlike our recent renditions of Quicksilver on the big screen. This boring world with a lack of motion and meaning creates a creature of jittery purpose and mobility. If a Quickling is ever "at rest", it would be found pacing, and not for long.
They are the plight of the of those that wander the strange forests of the Fey, tying shoelaces, stealing coin purses, tricks of artful malice; and though they sometimes blur their chaotic intentions and sew violent discord, they never seek to murder...at least not directly.
An Insult Too Many
Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, is not to be left waiting. To do so is to incur the wrath of one of the oldest and most powerful Archfey in existence. And yet, this exact insult is the crux of a Quickling's lineage.
Once a race of egotistical, lazy, and narcissistic Fey, these gluttonous creatures ignored and delayed a summons one too many from their great Queen. So, as an Archfey is want to do, she cursed them.
Their tall frames were shrunk to tiny sprites. Their slow minds quickened to an alarming, maddening speed. These Fey, under their new life, would never be late again, the insolence of their hubris burned into the fibers of their being.
By The Numbers
These are tiny, fast, hyper dextrous creatures with itty-bitty hit points and decent AC. They won't last long in a fight, though, at least not one on one. But just as an army of squirrels is still an army, 1d4+6 (Dexterity of at least 22!?) adds up right quick, and with their evasive, blurred movement, if ever your adventures happen upon a batch of them, they'll need a better strategy than "stab it until it dies."
Quicklings in the Ionian Feywild
Unlike other entries, the Quickling's Faerunian lore fits perfectly already into the core concepts and forces that rule my Feywild and its regions. The only adjustment here may be in the relationship of the Quickling's curse.
While I am certain that some Quicklings worship their Queen openly, I would assume that many harbor a great ill will toward the Queen, and a great fear to never act on it. I, being a cruel world-builder, have woven a long, manipulated memory into the Quickling that spins the Queen's actions as an act of salvation.
The lazy Fey would certainly have perished without her "blessing," so they worship and serve her without question. In fact, the most zealous and devout Quicklings will create "orders" and guilds in direct service to the Winter Court so as to gain the Queen's favor. Such favor achieved...is rare, and if ever it happens, THAT Quickling may actually last in a one-on-one fight.
So if a chill breeze follows a Quickling, exercise caution if you mean to chase it into the Deep Wood.
See you in the forest.
Source: Quicklings and their official 5th Edition attributes can be found in Volo's Guide To Monsters, published by Wizards of the Coast.
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Settings: Ionian Feywild, Faerun, D&D in general
As you bed down in the lush planes of the Feywild, a rustling nearby gives you pause. A hand goes to your sword hilt as your eyes trace the horizon. The red, long grasses point and shift in gentle breeze, and you scan the stalks for movement. You see none, and that's the problem.
There, flanked by the grass, you see a pointed leather hat, the silhouette of a hunched, twisted creature. You hesitate, thinking it a nymph or fairy, but then you hear it. The harsh, raspy sound of a rusted blade being dragged through the grass. It sends a shiver up your spine and a tight, cold knot settles in your stomach as a pair of red eyes stare back at you from the darkness. A chuckle drips from between yellowed teeth stained with blood as its name reaches your mind and you draw your sword.
A face wild with bloodlust rushes at you from the brush as dozens of other hats rise from the grass around you...
Blood Lust Muffins
Don't let this giggling little murder Santa fool you, a Redcap is a nasty little bugger.
Literally born of bloodlust, these homicidal Fey form and gather wherever a sentient creature has spilled fresh blood. If they chance to appear, they often grow out of the ground as tiny bloodstained mushrooms trying to push their way out of the soil. If a ray of moonlight, magical or otherwise, shines upon the bloody mushroom cap, a creature claws its way out of the loose soil.
A twisted, sinewy, wizened gnome creature with wild eyes and a shock-white beard, the vision of a Redcap is unnerving to say the least. Wearing a blood-soaked red leader cap (originally the mushroom's top), patchwork leather shirt and pants, heavy steel boots (used for kicking, see below), and a vicious, heavy blade. Some sprout with sickles or scimitars, others with knives and pitchforks; the nastiest carry fine chef cutlery with a dreadful grin across yellowed teeth.
It is a sight to behold, and if you linger long enough that they notice you, best prepare to fight for your life.
Slaughter By Necessity
A Redcap's time on this plane is not long. In order to persist in its personal mission of murder, it must soak its hat in the blood of its victims. The hat will slowly soak up the blood, drying out over the course of three days. If the Redcap cannot wet the hat with more fresh blood by then, it ceases to be, and this fact drives its bloodlust forward with an intense need. Some explorers have ventured that the removal of the cap may also end a Redcap's lifespan, but tearing it from its head has proven very difficult and dangerous; none have succeeded thus far.
Some Redcaps enter existence with some knowledge of the murderous act that brought them to bear, and may seek the creature responsible as their first victim. It is unclear if they feel empathy for the murderer, or some measure of tracking link to them, but they tend to track them down either to satiate their cap or be led to more slaughter. Either way, perpetuating their own existence is rooted in killing, so they are their own vicious cycle.
Notes and Features
These danger boys are Small creatures, so around 25 feet of movement per round. Darkvision's a given, but their iron boots won't help their stealth. Not sure they care though.
Unnaturally strong, a Redcap boasts an impressive attack and Strength score (+6 / 18). And they're vicious little buggers, attacking at least 3 times each turn. I say it like that because a Redcap has a nasty attack tied to its movement. These little jerks can charge you and punt you over with a heavy iron kick from one of their boots.
Yeah, yeah, it's funny now. See how much you laugh when a swarm of them start curb stomping your Paladin into goo (3d10+4 bludgeoning damage ain't a joke).
Lucky for you, they're AC / HP outputs are pretty small (13-14 / 40 or so), and a decent Barbarian build should smash a few before things get too dicey. But don't underestimate them. When these bad boys grapple, they do it as Medium creatures, and being Small to begin with, they can pile on you. Remember, killing you cements their lifespan for another three days. I'd say they're pretty MOTIVATED.
Redcaps in Ionian Lore
On the neutral grounds of the Fey Court, many lords and ladies hold special stations. Some employ or barter their own personal bards, cooks, and butlers from the denizens of the Wylds, or from the ranks of foolish travelers that wander into their theaters. For if a creature does their job well, a Fey will often covet such skill, adopting it into their folds for future use and entertainment.
Most of the time, the subjects are unwilling participants in this display of power, and depending on the season, their servitude is short-lived, for The Accords must be maintained while the trade routes are open. But some...subjects...feel a calling to remain, and for these willing mortals, great positions of power await. This is a path to Knighthood under the Queens of the Air and Fire, or to swell the ranks of The Wild Hunt. And to others, another position awaits. Someone to tend the gardens and landscapes of the grand, opulent noble manors, and, when needed, cull the flock.
If the subtext is not yet clear, these "Gardeners" serve a dual purpose. As with so many facets of the Fey, there is always a darker side to the coin, and these otherwise calculating taskmasters are universally feared among the Courts. If ever you are invited to a Lady or Lord's home and find yourself alone with their Gardener, one is advised to exit the premises as soon as possible, leaving the way you came in. A noble should always greet you themselves to allow passage into their home; if they do not, another might deem you a threat. Remember, a Gardener's job is to keep the grounds safe and tidy. Little pests cannot be allowed to roam.
So when you invariably find yourself lost and alone in a vibrant, intoxicating floral maze of high thorns and broad bush, remember...we warned you. Your blood is their water, your flesh their fertilizer, so don't be surprised by the knife as it plunges deep with a twist, nor of the sprouting red mushrooms that bubble up around your corpse. For every garden needs tending, and new children need to eat...
And with that terrible thought...sleep well and I'll see you at the table.
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