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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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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In the time immemorial, long before the mortals killed them, the masters of the goblin races beseeched the General of Gehenna for aid. The General provided yugoloth souls to serve the goblinoid triumvirate in the Infinite Battlefields of Acheron. Yet when the time came to honor the debt, the goblin gods reneged on the deal.
The powerful entities that ruled Gehenna marked the goblinoid races for slaughter, and, as an act of vengeance, created the scourge of their nightmares...
A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing
In 5th Edition, a Barghest is born from goblin parents just like any other offspring. But this entity harbors a deadly and dreadful secret. Though it emerges in a goblin's body, it will learn quickly how to assume its true form: that of a large, fearsome, and fiendish canine. In some cultures and lore, the difference is clear: a Barghest can be a yellow-skinned goblin of bigger, more muscular frame, and is marked by the fearsome yellow glow that spills into their eyes when they're excited. In other cultures, the Barghest looks like any other of its sheep, and will do its best to hide its true nature, at least in the beginning.
A Barghest's purpose is to devour the goblinoid souls of creatures it kills, the more important or renowned the better. This means that they are discerning with whom they "honor" in consumption, and there's a limited number of seats in their mission. You see, when Maglubiyet, and others like them, broke in total 17 oaths to the General, so it is decreed that one soul be consumed for every broken oath. After this, the Barghest may return to Gehenna and reap the spoils of its completed mission. Fail, and be torn asunder for its insolence.
For this one might think that a Barghest discovered by its goblinoid brethren would be killed in fear, but it is often the exact opposite. Goblins and others of their ilk will fawn over and shower the discovered Barghest with praise, servitude, and diminutive allegiance, constantly attempting to show that they are equal parts useful to its cause AND lowly enough to be undeserving of consumption. It is this strange dance that will drive those under a Barghest's leadership to commit great deeds in their name, only to be cut down and eaten for such renown.
Rooted In Folklore
As with many of our modern edition's monsters, the classical images and inspiration we draw from have a long history of deep folklore and iteration. The Barghest is no stranger to this, summoning up dark tales across multiple peoples and regions.
According to old North English folklore, the Barghest was a mythical, monstrous black dog with huge claws and sharp teeth. This original picture holds true across time, if not for a few creative liberties and adjustments, but the etymology of the word is of note. Barghest, or Barguest, roughly translates to "bear" and "ghost" in the old tongue. Couple this with further alternative spellings and we get my favorite version, the Bahr-geist, bringing the rough translation swinging more toward "spirit of the funeral pyre."
This creature has always been connected to the consequences of death, much more than a simple ghost story. A creature of intense malice and hatred, its purpose is derived through perceived destruction of its own community, at least at first, but ends in realms of power. What began as a warning of the things that go bump in the night grew into tales of shapeshifters and long-lived fiends, doppelgängers and howling at the moon, and a lupine strength coupled with a sentient intellect, and a burning, hateful purpose.
By The Numbers
A Barghest is one tough cookie. Already resistant to most elemental damage and non-magical weapon damage, this thing boasts an AC of at least 17, and have no stat with a negative modifier. Trained in Deception, Stealth, Intimidation, and Perception, they are keen to their surroundings and good liars. Couple that with superior tracking abilities and innate charming spells at their disposal, and you've got a tricky (and STRONG) not-goblin on your hands.
Did I mention it has Blindsight and Telepathy out to 60 feet? Dude.
Despite its fiendish classification, the Barghest has a difficult relationship with fire, but not for the reasons you think. It's resistant to the stuff, which tracks, but any mass of it larger than the Barghest's body acts as a tearing of the veil between this plane and Gehenna, and poor thing can be banished there just by being in close proximity. Sure, you think, they can just bamf back, right? Unfortunately, no, as a Barghest is more likely to be caught, tortured, and killed for its failure to collect its souls for the General. Tough luck, doggo.
The Barghest In The Ionian Shadowfell
Twisted By Perpetual Darkness
The Ionian Shadowfell is one of dark purpose. Creatures born here do not hold sway in D&D's legacy of a sorrow-filled landscape. No, the creatures that spawn in this place are fueled by furious purpose and twisted by the Perpetual Night.
The Barghest is a rarity among such denizens, but their existence, especially following the engineering colonization before the turn of Io Shar, is not unheard of. Goblinoid mariners and pirates became more common beyond the Evernight, far in the reaches of Gressil's Helm.
Goblins and Hobgoblins born on the dark sea can sometimes bear the Mark of Gehenna, a sigil of deep crimson in the small of the back. Creatures bearing the Mark are both cursed and blessed with extreme bloodlust and wicked strength. At a coming of age, often in battle, the Mark can manifest, turning the skin of a "marked" jet black, and its true form will reveal itself.
Barghests take many forms in the Shadowfell, but all are lupine. Some appear like broken glass, the shards a refraction of their vision. Others are amorphous clouds with teeth. Many are hounds with sharpened, boney spurs and horns. And all are very, very dangerous.
Hounds Of The Chainbreaker
It is the Barghest's greatest will and purpose to complete its mission and return to the Generals of Gehenna. A throne awaits them in The Bleak Eternity.
Yet, this mission could take months, years, decades. In this time, a creature could gain power, prestige, and ownership. Perhaps they gain even more fulfillment than what awaits them in the worlds beyond. Which begs the question: what happens when a Barghest completes their mission...and does not wish to return?
Is it power or retribution that awaits them? To scorn their masters and their promise, and break the chains of their birthright. Or are they the husks of great warriors before, the lost soldiers of Gehenna hopelessly clinging to life and sanity, even as their masters siphon away what's left?
Unfortunately, the lore ends here. For no one seeks the Hounds of the Chainbreaker. The only thing that persists is a tiny warning scrawled in the stained journal of a deckhand, lone survivor of The Kretch Jumper and their ill-fated voyage.
"And to the poor souls that tempt venture beyond the ruins of Evynlee's Veil and seek the Moaning Gray through the Formless Cante, keep your eyes pinned to the horizon and seek not the masked hound that watches you from the peaks...for it covets all that meet its third eye."
It is worth noting that this message is written as its last entry, and the handwriting does not match previous entries.
More Of This Please
Unfortunately, in my experience so far, this critter is drastically underutilized. Their story is one of grand deception, superior command, and a cosmological mission with possible sweeping consequences. Imagine a villain poised as general of a goblin army, especially considering the complex relationship with his subjects. Imagine a hero, biting the line between the best picks of the worst people to destroy for his dark master.
There's a lot of depth here, and I can't wait for my players to begin to scrape the surface.
Sleep tight, doggo.
Source: The Barghest can be found in Volo's Guide To Monsters, published by Wizards of the Coast for use in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons; also, TONS of actual British folklore.
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Some Lore Drop and Context
Sailing through the Ionian Shadowfell, the young adults recently encountered a curious lady.
Whilst staying at the Grendal's Spindle in the machinist city of Kennrock, the captain of the group looked for a local to hang out with. As luck would have it, she came across a well-dressed woman face down on a table and surrounded by partially empty tankards. The woman, though, sprung to drunken life as the captain sat to join her.
Dressed in a fine coat of gold and crimson, she rocks a belted corset over a white silk shirt, the open collar revealing the thin mithril chain underneath. Two "gunslinger" belts cross around her hips, accenting the hip-hugging leathers below, the brand of a barbed whip just barely visible before it disappears up under the corset. Her hair is a deep magenta-red that fades to black, and her pale skin only further draws the eyes to her own; rings of topaz and black, that seem to spiral and telescope depending on her level of interest in the conversation. As she smiles, it is a tentative action; nervous, but playful, as if she is gauging how others may react. Fair, considering the not-so-subtle fangs on one side of her face...
This is Miriam Windrunner. The players know her to be the niece of one of the Vampire Lords directly connected to another Player-Character, but only the captain knows that information at the time of writing this (a lot can change in a week, though). Miriam is my play on a Fell Dhampir - a progeny born from the union of a vampire and another being, a creature always wrestling with monstrous lineage and making their own way. The "Fell" part of this complicates things; as creatures born in the Shadowfell are blessed or cursed with more mysterious abilities that only get more complicated and interesting as you get older.
To help with this, Miriam carries with her an adamantine blade. Like a cross between a longsword and a straight katana, it vibrates at a strange frequency when drawn, seeming to focus the wielder's attacks in battle somehow. Yet, Miriam rarely draws the weapon. She carries it for the little perk it offers instead; companionship.
You see, the pommel of the blade is a sculpted, ashen skull...named Bob. Bob is sentient, his eyes lighting up with blue fire and jaw unhinging to speak whenever Miriam calls his name. She quiets him by gently stroking the skull's head with her thumb. Bob serves and protects Miriam unconditionally, even if he offers unwanted advice often. Manifesting sometimes as an adorable, magenta skeleton spirit with a sword and shield, or a druidic staff, he serves both as the Dhampir's Spiritual Weapon and Healing Spirit, depending on what is required, and he would never leave her side. Beyond this accord, though, it remains a mystery on the what the depth of their relationship is, and that is a story for another day.
Influences and Theming
Anyone that knows my affinity for Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files can clearly see where I'm pulling Bob from, but the narrative device of a spiritual companion is one that's been explored fifty times over in fantasy. And in the dark and dangerous Shadowfell, it felt right to introduce such a thing for a creature that, at least at one time, would have been very lost.
Miriam Windrunner is, now, a capable young woman. Not a loner by any means, she will protect those she finds connections with, even at great risk to herself. Yet, once they are safe, she finds little need to follow; she is currently a creature of instances - wayward, strong, but directionless and mysterious. When I ponder her, it is an image of drifting fog, like smoke on the water; yet, when you meet her, she is immediately intriguing.
So I wanted to explore that idea with flavors.
Now, I'm not some nuanced scholar of mixology, I just wanted to make something with a certain aesthetic that tastes nice. If it evokes a few subtle feelings, even better.
Hanging on to that image of smoke on the water, I am drawn to one of my silver liquors. Silver Rum ain't my jam at the moment, so I pull out the Tequila. It also doubles as a distinct, vibrant flavor. A splash of lime will bring out the hints of sour. But now we just have a "mostly water" with a rusty green from the lime.
I've been experimenting with syrups lately, so let's bring out the Orgeat, a hazelnut syrup popular in rum drinks, and mix that in. Yes. After a quick stir, the thicker marzipan syrup "muddies the waters" if you will. And, after a sip, smooths that Tequila right away without sacrificing it.
The first flavor that came to mind when considering Miriam, however, was the underrated Stella Rosa Pink. Bright, silky flavors without being overpowering, I thought it aligned beautifully with her personality. And following my success in blending Pink and cinnamon, I am overconfident this will work out.
2 oz Silver Tequila
1 oz Orgeat
1/2 oz Lime Juice
3 oz Stella Rosa Pink Wine
+ A lovely drink
+ Tequila is a flavor you don't hide, so the Pink and Orgeat only smooths its finish
+ A great vehicle to accent the Orgeat without overpowering other flavors
+ Pleasant and smooth and bright
+ I could drink this easily and quickly...be careful
Adding on that the wine brings a silky pink chamise to the visual is just icing on the cake, as it reminds me of her crimson coat, which is awesome.
See you in the shadows.
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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Setting: Io (all ages)
Legacies carry weight in the expansive timeline of Io. A name can be earned, or stolen, or bound, or lost, and all carry a legacy of rich history and meaning. Much like the etymology of language, a name's path and purpose can change given their circumstances; heroes become villains, tyrants become priests, and thieves become nobles.
Yet these developments benefit most from a structured timeline. Instances and events of momentous growth and change powered by the metaphorical jet engine of past transgressions. There is a line to follow in this madness.
What if the line were broken? What if your name, your legacy, was taken from you; displaced somehow? Without the benefit of a past to learn from, what new future does a creature forge?
In today's Lore Drop, on November's theme of Legacy Names, let's take a look at one of the most curious of NPCs - the Va'Orodin.
Temporal imbalance in magic and arcanum is a running theme across every Age of Io, but in no other age was it felt more than at the turn of the 4th Age. The event that triggered the turn was the manipulation of an Ancient called the Riftskin - a terrifying creature made up of an endless cloud of indestructible, semi-sentient spikes - who tore through both the Infinite Battlefields of Acheron and the Plane of Water, flooding the Material Plane with volatile surges of magic and gigantic aquatic beasts. The event would usher in an age of steampunk piracy and expand the world and its industry, laying the groundwork for the sky ships of Cloudsinger...and their eventual fall.
But this surge of the untapped Aether sent ripples across the Feywild and Shadowfell, their oceans and tides rising to match their Material parallel, and with them, a torrent of storm fronts buffeted the once forgotten continents at the edges of the world. These storms, though, were special. Echoes of the tears - tattered remnants of the veils between worlds - these screaming tempests were gateways to other planes of existence, and, for some, a path across time.
The Loremasters of Io-Shar began documenting reports of expeditions to the far continents whose fleets were set upon by these temporal storms. Entire sections of ships struck by strange purple lightning; but the wood, cannons, and occupants were not destroyed...they were taken. Chunks of cities missing. Mountains and forests with impossible, gaping holes in their geography, only to be discovered hundreds of years later in Elysium or Pandemonium.
Collected in their archives were also minute entries, many tens to hundreds of years apart, of individuals seemingly displaced by these storms. Their stories are always the same; a thunderclap, a vision in the clouds, a flash, and now they are here. Most do not remember their past lives, but carry knowledge of past ages and their history, general and specific, and when asked their names, they can repeat them, save for one curious addition: first names are recalled perfectly, but each surname is precisely the same - "Va'Orodin."
Originally believed to an ancient, shared lineage across multiple races, the Loremasters of Empyr - the 5th Age - derived through their studies alongside the tribes of Air Elementals and the Skyborn Aarakocran that this name carried great power. In fact, its utterance was once a word of power among the Auran people. Roughly, it translates to "Storm-Touched."
Entities Out Of Time
In every Age of Io, a Va'Orodin has crossed the paths of the dozens of heroes ignited by furious purpose, but few gave their names. Of the ones that did, even fewer stuck around.
Io-Shar: Ja'Naya Va'Orodin was discovered by a pirate crew under the leadership of a stalwart lizardfolk (Ricin) and a grumpy elf (Grim). Ja'Naya was fiercely loyal to Captain Grim, devoting her life to his cause of vengeance and dominance over the flooded world. An adept cleric of some ancient neutral angel, Ja'Naya entered hailed from Io-Sooth, the 2nd Age, and carried with her a terrible sacrifice. The first keeper of the legendary Sunraker Gauntlet, she was surprised to find that when she would remove the item from her arm, her skin and muscle came with it. At some point in her past life, she willingly or unwillingly traded the flesh of her right arm for a legendary item. Whatever the case, though, the Gauntlet would leave her body at her passing nearly 20 years later, and serve the Valenwood family for nearly 100 years before passing into Loremaster care.
Io-Ren / Io-Shar: Once a cleric of Istus, the deity of fate and chance, Straiga Va'Orodin was undeterred by his displacement. An adept tactician and pole arm master, this red trifling would find rewarding work among others like him - the lost and forgotten. He found this home through the mercenary band known as the Knight Owls, and would rise through its ranks to command his own team in the 4th Age (Knight Owls - Season 3).
Io-Shar (Feywild): Yasha Va'Orodin is a creature of subtle, athletic frame, and stalwart reserve. She is one of the Gatekeepers of the nexus city of Astrazalian. Where and when she came from, no one really knows, but she holds great respect for the Fey Court, especially Lady Winter Sarissa. Perhaps we'll see more of her...perhaps not.
In the sky battles of Cloudsinger, during the 5th Age known as Empyr, the Va'Orodin of this age would find a dread purpose to follow. Once called The Smoking Banners, a coup within the ranks of this pirate legion would repurpose its resources to chase the temporal storms that ravaged the surface of the Material Plane. These "Stormsingers" would ride the dark lightning currents and attempt to harness the tears between worlds, trying to shift planes with their ships. Some sought conquest, while others yearned for the astral frontier. Many...just wanted to go home. And many, failed and died.
But one, a charismatic swashbuckler named Gideon Briarios (Va'Orodin), with his fleet of Singing Hammers, found the gateway to Elysium this way. In fact, it was the event that ushered in the 5th Age, when he broke the coveted Seal Of Heaven, and ignited the dormant World Engines in the First Cities of Io-Temm (the 1st Age). It was this event that lifted the old civilizations into the clouds and awakened the dragon lords to reclaim the sky. It is his song that the bards sing when they sing of Stormsingers, and it his banner they rally behind.
Flames Of A Second Chance
And what say the Raven Queen, the one who holds memory and time and antiquity aloft to the thousands of souls that pass her bastion in the planes of shadow? Or the Angels of the Sunrake? Or the Valkyrum of the Evernight? Powerful overlords and dissonant factions pull a curious lens over those in ages without belonging, so what purpose awaits creatures like this?
This old Loremaster is pulled to consider instead the Equation of Potential. As long-lived as I am, I know not everything, nor did my past lives, but if you'll humor a fellow ancient for a moment, we may yet find common ground. There are many across the Ages whose actions have sent ripples unknown; great things, terrible things, powerful things. All without knowledge of the future. Yet, we know there to be entities whose intelligence and memory are ageless; the mere concept of our mortality is a single drop in the river of their understanding. Perhaps, say, they drop a pebble into that river. Each ripple is a lifetime, and three lifetimes over, a ripple shifts a stone ever so slightly, and the river flows a different direction. Such a tiny act can have a tremendous impact. And if that pebble had free will? Yes, I think we understand each other.
So are the Storm-Touched spilled by design of some great entity, or are their fateful tempests random? This one knows not. Only time will tell.
Safe travels, Stormsinger.
-Loremaster Arteza Rainmaker
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
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