Image courtesy of Wizards of the Coast-
My favorite summoned-demon-to-a-victorious-ravenous-war-band-of-gnolls is on the table this week!
A Shoosuva is a hyena-demon gifted by Yeenoghu (the gnoll god) to an especially powerful Gnoll (typically a Fang). A Shoosuva manifests shortly after a Yeenoghu-centric war party achieves a great victory, emerging from a billowing, fetid cloud of smoke as it arrives from its "air dnd" in the Abyss. In battle, the Shoosuva clamps its jaws around one victim while striking out with the poisonous stinger on its tail to bring down another. A creature immobilized by the poison becomes easy pickings for the savage gnolls nearby.
Each Shoosuva is bonded to a particular favored Gnoll of Yeenoghu and fights alongside its master. A gnoll that has been gifted with a shoosuva is second only to a Flind in status, and carries with them a sense of dread for any who oppose the approaching slaughter.
Let's Go A Little Deeper
Shoosuvas have a history deeper than 5th Edition.
With the prevalence of the gnoll in Dungeons and Dragons legacy, the Shoosuva went hand in hand, though their art has certainly evolved.
An artist's example of the emaciated, nearly humanoid Shoosuva from 1st Edition Dungeons and Dragons.
By 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the Shoosuva are much more...furry.
But I prefer its most recent rendition in 5th Edition. The patchwork fur, as if striated from a living corpse; the exposed rib cage, with light emanating from within, so when the thing opens its maw, the nauseating yellow glow from within pours out, the last thing a victim sees before it chomps down on their head. Leprous throats, glowing and bloated eyes, and vicious, jagged teeth...don't you just wanna' hug him?
You'll have to stand on your tippy-toes - these good boys are 6 feet tall, with a series of bony spikes and ridges running up the spine, ending in a glistening, barbed tail with a poisonous stinger (which causes paralysis). Super fun. You want one of your own? Then you'd better stock up on spare carrion, as this thing's favorite food is rancid meat. Though you might be able to coax it with your wit and wiles, as, especially by gnoll standards, these things are pretty smart (Int 6-8), but not THAT smart.
Getting a cleric on your side to turn or tame one might be a wasted effort, too. Though they look undead, their forms seemingly powered by that necrotic light within their torsos, their demonic lineage grants them the tell-tale resistances to such radiance, along with the standards of energy damage - most are resistant or immune to things like Lightning, Fire, Poison, and Cold, not-to-mention that ever-tricky "damage from non-magical weapons" deal.
By the numbers, a Shoosuva is a hefty beast for most middle-level adventurers, and a deadly encounter for young parties. Thing is, they're rarely alone; fighting alongside a gnoll war band and, most likely, a seasoned gnoll warrior who's a cut above their fellows. Their demonic nature cuts most damage in half and you can kiss that charm spell goodbye. Their natural armor isn't amazing, but they make up for it with a boatload of hit points and an extra attack. Plus, they share the gnoll's iconic Rampage ability, so the moment the wizard goes down, you can bet he's coming for your cleric next. The thing to really watch out for is its Tail Stinger - it's got a 10-15 foot reach, rocking d8s in damage, and a nasty Constitution save or be PARALYZED (hits become crits, yo). Creatures can repeat the saving throw at the end of their turns, if they survive that long.
How Much Is That Demon In The Window?
Alighted in the face of battle, Shoosuva charge in with savagery and wild abandon, pulling in as many foes as possible to rend asunder. A Shoosuva fighting alongside their bonded Gnoll will coordinate dangerous and vicious tactics, alternating from riding and vaulting the wild Gnoll into foes, feinting with their poisonous tail while the Gnoll fells attackers immobilized by the venom. Nasty stuff.
In a war band's hierarchy, a Shoosuva's companion answered only to a Flind, but even that could be usurped in the loose tribal nature of a Gnoll pack.
If you were to summon a Shoosuva directly, without the chosen of Yeenoghu, a powerful shaman could acquire instructions on how to summon their hyenadon companion - some induce visions by gorging on bad mushrooms and wandering the wastes, while others keen on linguistics may yet uncover the sparse written tomes on slabs of rock in the deep, dark caves of precursor war bands. Often the ritual involves taking the skull of a previous shaman or witch doctor, carving it into the shape of a hyena skull, then smashing it onto the ground; if it's favorable, the current shaman may utter Yeenoghu's name, opening a gate to call the Shoosuva. But these fine puppies only hang around for an hour or until slain, and do not bond to any favored warrior.
You could, of course, attempt to just ask Yeenoghu directly. Pray really hard, and maybe he'll port in a Shoosuva to hang out and solve a little problem you've been having. You could do that...though even the most faithful will get silence, or worse, they get a Shoosuva who promptly kills them for being unable to solve their own problems. If you are graced with a new puppy pal, the thing would only stay for minutes or even seconds; just long enough to maul a paladin or two, and then he's outsville.
Shoosuva in Ionian Lore
The gods are tricky beasts, and Yeenoghu is one to involve himself in the lives of his followers through portents, visions, and signs. To his sovereign best, however, a Shoosuva was crafted as a personal bodyguard and intermediary to his favored warriors. Shoosuva in Gnoll translates directly as "returner", and were believed to be the reincarnations of Yeenoghu's greatest disciples; a glimpse of the honorable next step for his favored here in the material. Die in glorious battle and return one day in this new form to fight again.
As the tides of time passed and Asmodeus led his mythic Consolidation, Yeenoghu and his disciples fled a collapsing Abyss and held court among the stars. This disruption led to the ascension of another demigod to bless the Gnoll tribes...and free them from their fiendish hunger, a ripple that erupted across the magical bindings of a Shoosuva and their companions. Suddenly, a demon bound for life began a journey all their own.
Would they wander the wastes of this new world? Find packs of their own, or evolve into something new? Only time (and games), will tell.
See you at the table.
The massive Girallon is something I have unleashed upon unsuspecting players, lumbering out of tundra caves and ruling over cursed, temperate forests.
For those unfamiliar, a Girallon looks like an oversized ape with pale tan skin and white fur. Sharp fangs threaten from their bulbous heads, and vicious claws seek to rend. The most surprising element many will notice, however, are its two additional arms protruding from the torso, a feature that cements this as a dangerous monstrosity.
Kings Of The Broken Tower
The giant white apes reside as the sentinels of warm forest environments teeming with life. Adept climbers, the Girallon only nests in trees or structures that can support its nearly half-ton weight. Ruined cities retaken by the forests of the world, shattered towers, and abandoned castles are the jungles they rule (and are the best "branches" to support them). Scaling battlements and walls, a Girallon will perch on tower tops and lookout hooks, anything to keep an eye on the surrounding landscape.
When branches cannot abide, Girallons stalk the forest floor. They lurk in narrow ravines, under natural bridges, and in shallow caves. Despite their size, a Girallon can be quite stealthy while awaiting prey.
Band Of Brothers
However, Girallons rarely live alone.
Forming loose bands of several individuals, including mates and offspring, led by an alpha elder, Girallons create conclaves deep within a lair. While on the hunt away from their band, they use roars and body language to communicate over great distances. While each individual typically hunts alone and far from the others, each successful kill is shared among the group, the best spoils going to the caregivers. The alpha leader may organize members to work together to make a big kill or defend the lair, and in both cases, a success is blanketed among the group. The Band and its survival always takes precedence.
Seeing the peaceful nature among their own kind, other intelligent observers have sought to establish relationships or alliances with the creatures. Beings will learn how to approach their leader, and offer food or shiny gifts as appeasement, but every Band is different. It would take quite a scholar to learn the sophistication required to move from Band to Band, without angering rival groups.
Less enlightened folk have tried to tame or subjugate the monsters. For instance, some crime lords will send wood elves to capture a young Girallon, training them up to serve as the guard to a city's thieves' guild. But care be to one that would keep a Girallon in bondage, for the creature could revert to its predatory nature at any moment.
By The Numbers
A Girallon is a Large Monstrosity without an alignment, but just because they're neutral doesn't mean they won't rip you limb from limb. With hit points ranging from upper 50s to low 90s, these guys will fight for the long haul at mid-level. They've got natural armor, so even your dagger wizard can hit them, but the real question is what happens after.
FOUR ARMS. Count 'em, four! And each one gets an attack. Also, they bite. So that's five attacks each round, with Bonus Actions that allow extra movement. These guys move like monks, and they climb at the same speed (40-50 feet). When they hit, we're talking D6-D8 damage with a solid +4 Strength bonus. If you're fighting one of my Band Elders, double those dice and expect a +5 modifier.
Despite their immense overwhelming attack economy, a decent party with even marginal balance will be fine in combat with one of these. However, if ever they find themselves on the unlucky end of a GROUP HUNT, this can get bad very quickly.
Girallons In The Ionian Worldscape
The original sage's lore for the Girallon paint them as so much more than gigantic apes. Their hereditary affinity for ancient ruins and their strange anatomical appearance lead many historians to believe that they were created or manufactured through magical means - a guardian for some lost empire long ago.
In my worlds and others, the Girallon lost this purpose whenever that civilization fell, turning feral and spreading out into the realms at large. However, tales of intelligent Girallon tribes have made their way into the bardic lores. These mythic monstrosities communicate through sophisticated sign language and evolved vocalizations, their own form of Beast Speech. Some bards even say a few can lurch their way through Common. More importantly, they have learned to use their superior strength and dexterity to industrialize - creating armor, weapons, and simple tools.
If you're keen on a death wish, one can try to find them in the fog-covered continent of Vysoria, beyond the Great Expanse to the east from our central continent. A few have ventured there; wayward, plucky scholars with dreams of discovery glinting in their eyes.
...None have returned...
Now go eat a banana.
The monsters of Dungeons and Dragons sometimes fall into the swirling cyclone of the diametric. Two sides of an arcane coin, unequivocally linked to one another. Some grow out of opposition, while others are twisted transformations of one - a dark miasma of spitting fire and screaming madness.
With all my talk of pendulums swinging and balances shifting, my lens lingers on creatures of this influence. They are fascinating to consider - beyond our stats and alignments, to explore the STORY of their nature and what gives way in the imagination's gates when you do.
The Purity Of The Pegasus
The white winged horses known as Pegasi soar through moon-touched skies, a vision of grace and majesty. When glimpsed by mortals, they linger only for a moment, touching down for a drink from mountain springs or crystal lakes. Intelligent and vigilant, any sound or sign from the local wildlife will send them back into the safety of the clouds above.
Born in dens of starlight in the realms of Arborea, the overwhelming positive good of a newborn Pegasus would spill out into the astral sky, alighting new stars and sending the nearby plants to bloom. An equine marvel hatched from an egg, a Pegasus embraces flight almost immediately, its feathered wings glinting with astral efflorescence.
Pegasi nests are commonplace in Arborea, and the wondrous sentience of the creatures makes them loyal mounts to the Seldarine - the pantheon of Elven gods. Faster and calmer than any wyvern, a Pegasus must be persuaded to serve their rider, entering a partnership that can last millennia. The Seldarine will sometimes send Pegasi to the Material Realms to aid their followers or serve as messengers of their will, but depending on the forces in play, sending these faithful creatures has its own risks...
The Twisted Amalgamate Of A Nightmare
A visage of hellish terror, a Nightmare often appears in a cloud of roiling smoke, its mane, tail, and hooves wreathed in fire. The creature's onyx form moves with a wraith's speed, vanishing into the night in a burst of brimstone.
Though it can be ridden by the occasional antihero on a redemption kick, the Nightmare is a prime mount for creatures of exceptional evil. Demons, devils, death knights, and liches all call this fiendish horse a steed, and many more repugnant souls seek to claim their own by summoning one from the Lower Planes. Thing is, if you don't feed that hell horse a worthy sacrifice upon its arrival, it has no reason to stay loyal to you. A good many cultists have been burned to a crisp due to this small omission in the fine print.
The Story Between The Two
This is where things get interesting.
According to Dungeons & Dragons canon, a Nightmare isn't BORN, they are MADE. It takes a dark ritual involving the torturous removal of a Pegasus's wings, the more brutal the better. Literature is mixed, but the theme here is cruelty; the slower and more horrific the removal, the greater the Nightmare produced. And this isn't a bait and switch situation; the Nightmare IS that tortured Pegasus, driven insane by brutality and dark magic.
t's sick. And I kind of love it.
Because this relationship raises a few pathways that I want to consider:
First, the inner circle of the Seldarine would be indirectly responsible for the creation of a Nightmare in most cases, as these dark rituals often take place at the hands of mortals - or those directly tied to them. To send a Pegasus as an avatar of the Seldarine opens them to possible capture through dark forces, perpetuating a dangerous silent war of astral attrition. How insane to fathom an Archfey riding into battle only to come face-to-face with their old trusty mount, twisted by darkness and brutality.
Second, the Nightmare retains the intelligence of Pegasus form. This is no mindless beast bent to one's will, and though the rituals require sacrifice to link the mare to the rider, I would venture that a mental or verbal bargain is still required. In fact, I could see the maddening steps of a certain ritual play out deliciously - fool a Pegasus into believing it is making a heroic pact and companion, only for the creature's true nature to slowly twist the poor being into its Nightmare; like a frog slowly boiling in the pot.
You're not breaking down a pet, you're convincing a sentient creature - this requires more nuance. I like to think that every Pegasus has a name, a personality; hopes, dreams, goals, not unlike a heroic PC. How does one twist and manipulate a hero into becoming a villain? If the Star Wars prequels taught us anything, it was how NOT to portray one's turn to the dark side (sudden is bad writing) - what if this process could be more insidious? Slow and manipulative, with a grand payoff.
Finally, the monster lore stated that the more brutal the shift, the STRONGER the Nightmare. Which pulls me down the jackal hole. If you have a particularly twisted or prolonged "ritual", could you create a "greater" Nightmare? I'd imagine that Pegasi under the Seldarine would make names for themselves similar to their heroic riders. Perhaps the greater the renown, the harder the fall. Such a change might yield something along the lines of a Night Terror (or "Knight Terror"); the twisted mirror of a once great heroic steed.
And if this is possible, could a Nightmare be redeemed? Perhaps its flight is never restored, but its good nature and starlit white coat, with blue fire for its crest, restored. What story could that creature tell?
As I research, I leave you with one more idea through the ether. A Nightmare canonically can pass through the Ethereal Plane, carrying its rider and several others along for the journey. Imagine what it sees in the mist of the dead. Old soldiers failing to pass on? The spirits of lingering beasts and the wisps of old sages? Or do they see themselves...the Pegasus inside, a haunting specter of their past life.
And does a Pegasus dream of its other possible lives? Does its innate senses of fate and danger paint the picture of its dark future, its Nightmare, in cool reflections of mountain springs.
The pendulum swings.
Take care, lovely people.
A Shadow Betrayed
A cursed mix of wings, talons, and a vampiric stag's head, the Peryton is a monstrous entity. It is depraved relentless in its vicious pursuit to maim and devour the hearts of other creatures, holding a specific hatred for humans and elves. Even injured, these creatures will hunt down detected foes, until at least one of them is dead.
Their feathering from a distance could be considered beautiful, and with wings tucked, settled upon the ground, the Peryton might pass for a lesser woodland being. The moment one gets closer, though, you'll notice a good many things are off.
First, actually, would be the smell. In this case, a lack of one. Less sensitive noses would identify the creature as human, but those with a modicum of training or enhanced primal senses would pick no smell at all, coupled with an overwhelming sense of dread.
Standing over 7 feet tall, the Peryton's demonic stag face smiles with rows of razor-sharp teeth. The plumage of their chest might tell you their gender (males tend to be blue, while females are a pale white), but soon you won't care. Their antlers, jet black and harder than steel, are used to rend and impale, and their depraved form is resilient to all but magical weapons.
As their eyes of orange flame pierce through the fog, any light that passes over them lies about their true form.
For you see, the most peculiar element of a Peryton is their shadow. This winged, evil beast will hiss before you, but its shadow will present as human. Always. Human.
This oddity presents a plethora of curious theories, but few had evidence to match.
Some Loremasters believe the false shadow to be an echo of the last creature the Peryton killed. Given its penchant for violence against humans and elves, this was the prevailing theory for hundreds of years. It wasn't until the haphazard findings of one Grenaldi Mayweather, a gnomish priest under the cover of twilight, who one night happened upon a nest of the creatures in the Ghastshadow Mountains. She observed the flock tear into a pack of roaming Aarakocran, ambushed or set upon as they slept. Just as history told us, the Peryton ripped open the chests of their victims, consuming the still-warm hearts with grim satisfaction. Mayweather watched in dread curiosity, eager to solve the riddle of the shadow... But the humanoid echo remained. No winged shadows manifested.
Mayweather was lucky to escape with her life, but returned soon after for more observation, this time with an elite guard to watch her back; the knowledge was too important not to be careful...
Hearts and Minds
It would also be Mayweather that would witness the first instance of a Peryton being born. Though there are documented family units of a male and a female Peryton (though they'd be hard-pressed to care for their young, if not kill them), this instance within the nest involved two females.
Both left to hunt, smelling blood on the wind. They were gone for hours. When they returned, blood dripping from their claws, they delivered several chunks of flesh to the next to feast upon, and a still writhing human man! Mayweather watched as her lookout - a young brown-eyed ranger - was clutched by one of the pair and pulled toward the other, like it was presenting a gift. Firey smoke and twisting gray tendrils spilled from the one in waiting, before its teeth sank into the man's chest, ripping his beating heart from the cavity. His body went limp, and Peryton female scarfed down the heart, her eyes shifting translucence in the penumbra.
Then Mayweather heard a sound that sent chills down her spine.
Like an echo of a child's laugh. A giggle in the gloom, small and innocent. Then it grew, warping and dancing along the walls, raising in pitch and warble, until it is a chorus of cackling. The other eyes in the nest rise and join in, their necks convulsing and twisting backward with the sound, a malevolent inversion of mirth and satisfaction. The sound becomes a beast in and of itself, a roiling mass of whoops and hollers, striking chords and stark dissonance. Vibrations spill out the mouth of the cave, whispers at the ears of the hidden spies, and shouts upon the walls that surround them.
The guards around the gnome begin to clutch and claw at their ears, the cacophony bringing a few to tears. Mayweather instinctually covers the sob of her closest ranger, insisting that he get himself together.
The smell of dread hits Mayweather's nostrils as she dares to peer into the nest. All the Peryton stare straight ahead, their mouths gaping open - a frozen, terrifying smile. Until they all snap their eyes...to her.
They made it out with one casualty. Her second blue-eyed scout, snatched by a rogue talon before he could slip into the wooden door of a magnificent mansion.
Safe within the dimensional space, Mayweather vigorously wrote down her conclusions:
1. New Peryton are born by a female consuming the heart of a freshly killed humanoid.
2. Their shadows flicker into monstrous forms during the process of incubation.
3. When incubation begins, nearby Peryton gain heightened senses to protect the pregnant female, becoming even more violent. The more there are, the stronger the pack's senses.
Her fourth note she added weeks later, when her guards - while out hunting - were set upon by a pair of Peryton, seemingly tracking them for miles. When they finally confronted the creatures, they were surprised to see two young Peryton, newborns - one with brown eyes and the other with blue, both with shadows of human form. ...Felling the creatures was tough, but much worse for their psychology. Poor guys.
4. Newborn Peryton share the eyes of the creature whose heart they were born from. As they get older, and kill more for their own survival and pleasure, the blood tarnishes the eye color, shifting it to match the orange-red of the others.
Mayweather and others theorized that the first Peryton was a cursed human or elf, twisted by a god of chaos. The bards of old expanded upon this, marking its origin to infidelity, curses, and carrions feasting on cursed corpses.
Given Mayweather's most recent expeditions, however, the clearest line exists through pure vehemence. These aren't cursed humans - they were MADE by something. Sometime in the first age, when great magics could be wielded by mere mortals, a wizard general - whose name is lost to time - sought a tactical edge against the elven and human alliances. So he juxtaposed what he had on hand with fiendish blood. An intellect unmatched, the alchemist rivaled the gods for a moment - before his heart was ripped from his chest...
Mind the shadows. Watch the skies.
See you next time.
Benny Jimbob Leonardo Wolfgang III was a curious boy. Carving ingots from the congealed remains of adventurers passed in the womb of gelatinous ooze, he pondered on intricacies of their deaths. He wore these trinkets like trophies; cursed fingers, lost teeth, errant tongues...and one very curious music box. They shook collected in this case, jangling to and fro like percussive reminders to never mess with a wizard...
Pulling our visions into messy arcane studies, pits flanked by dangerous ooze, and dark caverns of mystery, we rest our eye upon one of my favorite little critters in this whole game.
Sporting leathery skin and angry spikes, with claws for climbing, and a mouth often gaped, the Nothic is unnerving on its own, but its enormous, unblinking eye sets it far apart from its other cave kin. Despite its stark appearance, though, the Nothic can form rich bonds and motivations, even spilling themselves into an industry all their own.
A baleful eye peers out from the darkness, its gleam hinting at a weird intelligence and unnerving malevolence. Most times, a nothic is content to watch, weighing and analyzing the entities it encounters. Not particularly powerful, the elder evils bestowed upon the curious gothic a horrific gaze - an unblinking eye to rot the flesh from bones.
But the arcane nature and lust for knowledge has cursed the Nothic. Once wizards of their own make, their lives are twisted by the dark curse left behind by Vecna, the Whispered One. Vecna was a powerful lich who sought to transcend his undead form to godhood, and threatens to consume the material realm in his wrath.
A Nothic retains no awareness of their former glory, skulking amid the shadows in places rich in magical knowledge, their memories only strange dreams and hallucinations, twisted specters of liars and illusions. It is these memories, though, that grant them a unique magical insight to extract knowledge from the creatures they stalk. This information they may give, for a price, be it gold, magical artifacts, or secrets to be traded.
Their love of magic and obsession with artifacts drive them to infiltrate arcane sanctuaries and academies, some seeking a vague assertion that their state could be reversible, like a splinter in their mind. They covet magical script and scry, some going so far as to organize and categorize existing spaces. Some wizards even look upon the appearance of a Nothic as a blessing; a creature to keep safe their secrets in exchange for knowledge.
By The Numbers
Not prone to overt violence, the Nothic isn't built for battle. Their claws are negligible, and though they sport a decent AC (15), and a good average hit points, one can be felled by a few good rolls. That is, if you don't get caught in its Rotting Gaze first.
The iconic move can severely damage a low-level PC, and outright murder your wizard or sorcerer. And straight look at their basic numbers doesn't call into account what resources their coveted "sanctuary" may carry. A Nothic with a Blink scroll is infinitely more dangerous than one you'd find in a field, and a DM (like myself) that chooses to build upon the striated knowledge of a twisted once-wizard may find some curious surprises to spring on a low-level party.
Like I said, the Nothic uses to be a spell caster - a creature devoted to the arcane. This means that those cognitively aware enough of their own affliction would seek to remedy it. Which births Nothic alchemists and artificers, brewing elixirs and constructing shadows, seeking to silence the incessant voices of their fragmented memories.
For those who drink the ill-made elixirs, further mutations plague their forms. Orcish blood infuses their body with resistance; devilish magic turns their blood to smoke, their steps to shadow; Fey magic infuses the spines and spurs with wild magic that explodes with their emotions.
On the other side, the unhinged artifice breathes new terrifying life into their visage. An extra set of arms of offset their twitchy nature; electric infusers to inject them with strange mutagens, all the better to defend their workshop from intruders. If you were driven to mad industry to silence the voices in your head, what would you make?
See you at the table.
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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His name was Ozzy.
Perched on the cracked navy railing, his spike of a nose slick with mud, he flexed his dripping wings and rocked back and forth. Viscous tendrils of wet earth leaked from his shifting form, coiling down the bars of the crib and soaking into the edges of the sheets below. He tilted his head at the giggling creature swaddled in fine cloth, the deep motes of gold within his eye sockets darting along its details, like flecks of glowing sand drifting above a campfire in the night sky.
There wasn't much time. Little Ozzy could feel the rumble in his body, an early warning of the coming quake. Bubbling gently, he extended his dripping arms around the half-elven babe and pulled her close to him. When the house shook he hardened his wings for flight - he only had a few seconds to honor this bargain. When the glass shattered, he soared out, his greedy tail snatching a necklace as he went, and disappeared into the sunlight. Its warmth would ensure the child's safety, at least until he could deliver her to his master. "You will persist, tiny elf," he bubbled in Terran, "Too important you will be..."
Creatures Of Two Planes
Mephits are imp-like creatures of mischief and chaos forged in the elemental planes. They prefer to dwell in places where their base elements are prevalent, so a Mud Mephit may reside in the plane of earth or water, while a Magma Mephit adores earth and fire. As pairings go, the Elemental Chaos has forged six slices of these little critters.
DUST - composed of earth and air, Dust Mephits are drawn to death. Adventurers can encounter them in deep catacombs, deadly streets, or in the eye of a shredding sandstorm.
ICE - a creature born of frigid air and water, an Ice Mephit is devoid of pity. Aloof and cold, they show little mercy or compassion to those around them.
MAGMA - dangerous to the touch, a Magma Mephit is comprised of earth and fire. Considered the least intelligent, they are slow to understand commands and are often used as living walls of molten death by more cunning creatures.
MUD - slow creatures of earth and water, Mud Mephits are full of complaints and seek endless attention and treasure, stuffing the little trinkets inside their warping bodies.
SMOKE - crude and lazy, Smoke Mephits billow constantly. Though they are often gifted with superior speech, they like to use it to spin lies and lead creatures astray.
STEAM - nearly ethereal in sight, Steam Mephits can be tracked by the trails of hot water they leave behind. Fire and water yield bossy and self-absorbed creatures, and each will tend to appoint themselves lord of all other mephits.
By The Numbers
From a technical side, a Mephit on its own doesn't pose much threat. They have a decent hit point load for their CR (around 20 HP), but a low AC (10-12). However, Mephits aren't usually alone, and those that are tend to have a powerful master nearby. Throw in that many carry the variant ability to summon extra Mephits when they get hurt, and tend to explode in a dangerous bubble when they die, and you have a serious situation on your hands for low-level adventurers.
Each has their own breath weapon that can recharge (1/6 chance, but you know), some have nasty innate spell casting (Heat Metal, watch out!), and at least four of the six types can blend into their surroundings, waiting for a deadly ambush. Remember, especially in 5th Edition D&D, an army of squirrels is still an army. That's why they call it a "death of a thousand cuts."
Mephits In Io
Though a mephit will give off the air of a fiend, it is important to bear in mind their elemental origins. Though they are each born of the Elemental Chaos, they are, in fact, neutral beings. They can be reasoned with, summoned, employed, tricked, and otherwise used. Some are smarter than others, and hold specific traits built on their element, but a knowledgeable combatant can exploit these factors to their benefit, such is the case in the parallel planes of shadow and fey that flank our material world in Ionian Lore.
In The Ionian Shadowfell
Dust and Smoke find great meaning in Ionian Shadowfell, as both can be easily satiated by the natural surroundings, but they are certainly not alone. Given a Mephit's ability to squeeze, melt, and morph, they are highly suited and trainable in acts of espionage, information, and theft. It is this practice that birthed the Smoke and Shard - a Mephit spy network created by a vampire lady in the Court Of Whispers.
Even the Mud Mephit's greed can be entwined into valuable service. A Mud Mephits for treasure and reward gives it purpose in its employ, and it can promised boons and glittering prizes for tasks and services. Though slower than the cruelest among them, a Mud Mephit, given enough time, can be trained well to serve a single master, as long as that master has kept their promises of treasure. Given the immortal nature of a mephit, as steadfast as the element that creates them, a master with a similar lifespan and the correct resources could secure a loyal servant indefinitely. When considering the vampire Court that rules the Ionian Shadowfell, such service would be invaluable...
In The Ionian Feywild
Mephits carry the mischief they love through the veil of the Fey, and it is amplified. They tend to join the ranks of sprytes, nymphs, and dryads that align with their elements, which pulls them toward the Fey Courts and Curtain Compendium. The Erlking and lords of the Wild Hunt have little need for their simple nature, but Steam and Ice Mephits find great service in Court of Winter, happy to punish those that would insult their Queen. Magma and Mud drift in packs to toward The Reach, auroras of light where the Elemental Chaos and the Astral Sea pierce the vibrant and endless sunset of the Feywild sky. Dust and Smoke find sanctuary in the Willowoods, surrounded by spirits and starlight.
So when you see that precarious mound of magma just sitting there in your path, think twice about kicking it. You just might upset all of its brothers.
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.
Sergeant Leonard heard the cries in the brush.
He abandoned his post minutes before the yips began, and even then, he trusted his lightfoot roots to carry him over the marsh to where the child lay. He was certain everyone had evacuated; the militias were ready on the rooftops. Their intel was good, their scouts intact. Someone must have been left behind.
His boots sink into dense muck and mud, noting the deer footprints that surrounded him. He checks the horizon once more, columns of ominous smoke rising. Must be the war party, I still have time. The cries sound again - someone is sobbing. "It's all right, little one! You can come out. It's just me."
The sobbing stops, a choked reply comes shaking, "ArE yoU here TO KiLl mE?"
Poor thing; must be scared all to hell. He sheathes his sword, holding his hands out to the brush. "No one's here to hurt you. See? Just a friendly halfling. Let's get you out of here and home safely." He flashes a warm smile.
"What is it, Sergeant?" A call resounds behind him from the outpost.
He turns. "Just a child. Don't worry, I'll get them..." A stench fills his nostrils. Pungent and rotting, like the bile that spills forth from a rancid stomach. The sergeant's heart drops as his hand grabs the hilt of his saber, a low rumbling chuckle vibrating the tall marsh grass surrounding him.
Powerful, rotting jaws clamp onto his leg. They rend his plated greaves to ribbons and he cries out in pain. He is yanked backwards, his saber flying from his fingers, and his body disappears into the brush. His screams of pain are echoed by the frenetic laughter of hyenas, and the war party crests the hill, charging the town.
Children of Yeenoghu
The first of these creatures came from the hordes of hyenas spilling into the material world during Yeenoghu's rampages. Some of the beasts that feasted on the corpses of the fallen underwent different transformations than the traditional gnolls. Of those twisted amalgamations, Leucrotta were the most numerous.
Clever and cruel, a Leucrotta loves to deceive, torture, and kill. Despite there lupine appearance, these are not pets. In fact, Leucrottas tend to be smarter and more controlled than the gnolls that often surround them. The gnolls are entertained by a Leucrotta's ability to mimic the sounds of a suffering victim, or by its ability to "play with their food," prolonging suffering as long as possible. With such deceptive and terrible intelligence, a Leucrotta can hold an elevated position within a tribe, but rarely leads one. However, a gnoll chieftain might be seen riding one into battle. But this is not a noble steed; this is a tactical advisor - an influencer to draw the most out of a kill. Beware the fleet of gnolls that ride the dreaded Leucrottas - for they will do much worse than kill you.
The Leucrotta is a stinky boi.
Its horrible body of transformed hyena and deer oozes a toxic stench that pollutes and desecrates anywhere it lairs. Its breath is worse. Dripping from its maw, fluid corrupted with rot and digestive juices kills the plant life around it. In place of fangs, it has bony ridges harder than steel that can crush bones and open up a paladin like a soup can.
The stench alone should probably ward off any prey before they get too close, but the Leucrotta has a few advantages on their side. Due to their amalgamation, their tracks are indistinguishable from deer and other fauna. Also, and more alarming, they possess a mimicry ability that they use to duplicate the call and vocal expressions of just about anything they've heard. A crying child, a wounded bird, a missing ally; they'll use anything from their massive library to lure in potential prey and strike while they are confused.
By The Numbers
The attribute suite of this critter compliments the physical well, with a +2-4 in Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution. Unlike other dread doggos we've come across, this one's pretty smart and perceptive, but don't count on it for any Charisma checks. AC and HP are what you'd expect for something with natural armor, but just because most strikers can hit it, don't rush in half-cocked.
With its connections to Yeenoghu, this creature utilizes ferocity and tactics shared by its gnoll cousins, like their Rampage feature - where if they drop a creature, they can move and attack again. Also, a Leucrotta has multiattack, one of those attacks being with its hooves. Couple this with a special feature that allows it to Disengage as a Bonus Action after a hoof attack, and you've got a mobile (50 speed!) threat. And if this thing gets lucky on its bite, watch out - a critical hit from a Leucrotta rolls the damage three times, instead of twice. If you're using doubling rules, they triple their critical hits. OUCH.
Leucrotta In The Ionian Planes
A Leucrotta is a creature of cruelty and killing, but one that enjoys the sport of it all more than its gnoll brothers and sisters. This even minute level of control lends to each greater opportunities for planning, tactics, and learning. I imagine behind the most successful chieftains sits a Leucrotta, bending agendas, granting advice, and guiding the power like a terrible surgeon. Their intellect, though stronger than most of their counterparts, is outmatched by many others, so garnering a pack instead of soldiers is where their above-average wisdom shines. However, at least in Io, packs blessed with a Leucrotta find great value in them, but can only seem to have one at a time. This is less the gnolls's predicament and more the pride of a Leucrotta, for once it has tasted power, it has little want or use for a rival. And if another were adopted into a pack, it is only a matter of time before one ends up dead at the bottom of a ravine.
And that does it for December, and 2020! Up next? Not sure. The polls haven't closed yet.
Celestials and Fiends are extensive. We'll see who wins next week. Happy New Year, friends.
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Honestly, I write what I want when I want. Often monster lore, sometimes miniature showcases, and the occasional movie/show review.