Monster Of The Week: The Barghest
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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Campaign: Ionian Shadowfell, across the Ocean Styx
When: as Styx is flooded in direct parallel to the Material Plane being flooded, we must be somewhere in the 4th Age Of Shar.
The Ionian Shadowfell
In Dungeons & Dragons's legacy, the Shadowfell is a bleak, desolate place full of decay and death. A dark reflection of the Material Plane, like a mourning echo, it is said to pull color and vitality away from those that pass into it, like color itself were bleached from its lands. As a mirror to the Material world, its geography is similar, but not identical, and because it passes into the prime world much the same way the Ethereal Plane would, skilled arcanists and cosmologists can use the Shadowfell as a means to travel great distances across the known world.
But to LIVE in the Shadowfell is very different. Adventurers of any merit would have been unheard of, as it is assumed that creatures who reside here are so devoid of hope and purpose that they would never amount to more than a pile of sad, broken bits of useless flesh and bone...
But that's boring and stupid sad.
So in Ionian Lore, there came a moment in cosmological history called The Sewing. As the Astral Seas churned, the Material Plane found its seasons in the Elemental Chaos, its laws and legends by the positive and negative planes beyond, and its magic from the influences of the multiverse. And the days and nights...from the Feywild and Shadowfell.
At the close of the 3rd Age of Io, when an Ancient called The Riftskin tore open the Plane Of Water and the battlefields of Acheron, a flood of magic and mayhem spilled across the Material Plane. However, its echoes - the Feywild and the Shadowfell, so too mirrored this cataclysm, and what they tore open...was each other.
Influences of the Fey seeped into the lands of Shadow, while dark beings wormed their way into the lands of fairies beyond. The Darklands gained surges of color and inspiration, and the Torchwick gained its first true form of depression and malice. Tears and veils between both worlds; pockets and portals shifting with the tides. These connections - new threads of travel and magic - would help maintain the vitality of both planes. At least, for now...
And with this, a surge of vitality. Inspiration, heroism, and creatures who come from dark beginnings fighting for purpose and perhaps a small measure of good, whilst surrounded by vampire lords, devilish valkyries, and a flooded ocean of the dead.
The War Of Dominion (Shar 146-195)
As the pirate lords of The Ashen Horn and Scarborough battled for dominance over the new world in the Material Plane, their parallels did the same, carving out new territory across the Ocean Styx and claiming dominion over the ruined and dissonant nations still scrambling to survive.
During this time, five cities arose to seize power.
The Valkurym Of The Evernight - the Honor Guard of the Shadowfell's Capitol
The Thuulian Imperium - a motivated sect of Mindflayer engineers and alchemists.
The Brakenork of Krakenspire - The Orks of the Blake - an orc-like civilization that values strength and renown.
The Factories Of Kennrock - Eldritch machines and industrial weaponry.
The Gladiators Of Jotunheim - a city of many races, battle, and coin.
The next 50 years would cut a bloody swath across the dark sea, where no nation was safe and no action disavowed. In the chaos, the Valkurym, with their dread wings and fallen celestial tactics, easily seized control of the skies. After only 10 years in the fray, they rained fire upon Jotunheim and Kennrock, reducing the proud cities nearly to rubble. Each swore allegiance to the Evernight, if only to cease the heavenly onslaught.
Meanwhile, the seas churned with cannon fire, blood, and steel. Dennisen Thuul, Lord King Corsair of the Mindscythe, was busy. The Mindscythe is a ship of legend; living and breathing and slicing through the black sea, it sails as if to drink the ocean dry. Flanked by his vicious Echo Fleet, Dennisen, in the name of the Imperium, continued to stake and stretch the borders on his massive nation. Only the proud barbarian Orks of the Blake were able to push Dennisen back from their waters, but only just. And as the Mindflayer nation continued to sink its tendrils into the fallen ruins and outposts deep beneath the Styx, a sixth nation chose neutrality in the conflict.
These would be the Artisans of the Kuriale.
A nation of twin cities, Onyxheart and Undraaken, Kuriale was tasked with protecting the ancient relics drudged up from the flooded ruins beneath the Ocean Styx. They are a mixed people of elven tribes; beliefs in high art, study, and creative expression rule their ideals, laws, and exports. In fact, marked at the edge of the Azraelian Kretch, they are the region's main source of magical weapons, items, potions, scrolls, and magical services.
Though news of the War reached their shores quickly, the people of Kuriale decided against entering the conflict. In fact, when Jotunheim and Krakenspire each approached the Artisan Guilds for aid, the Drow council of Onyxheart emphatically refused. Even the sister city of Undraaken, and their Council of Seven, spoke no ill will of the visiting nations, but declared themselves neutral ground to any side. No trade, however, was to be given to participants in the conflict.
And though Kuriale remained neutral in this conflict for its total 54 years of bloodshed, this choice painted them as cowards on every side. Their kindness was exploited, and their artisan work raided and plundered by every city. Though they remain nearly pacifists, the backlash following the Dominion War has forced the city to raise its own elemental protections.
The Plight Of The Drow
Under the Evernight Vale (the region where our main campaign began) Drow women are not treated particularly badly, but they tend to be pushed toward lower class work and servanthood. However, the males of the species, are treated more like cattle. Creatures to be herded, expendable, and worthless; a leftover stigma from the soldiers of Lolth.
This belief, especially the latter, has informed an extra layer of prejudice toward the Kuriale, especially their "princes." The Vampire Lords, their Courts, and others with cruel, long memory enjoy dominating these Drow; crushing their will and expression, as a last insult to their neutrality. Even the White Court, the most empathetic of the Vampire Lords, deem these creatures "mongrels," as they chose indecision over carving their own destiny...so they must deserve to be forever used and manipulated. Many Lords will take these Drow and use them as humiliating labor, then toss them to the hounds, or sell them to another Lord as a joke. But those that have been around long enough realize the value a Kuriale can have, even as a bargaining chip, and will risk renown and rebuke to protect all those that cross their threshold, even if they dominate them first to steal claim from another more vicious lord.
The Difficulty Of Prejudice and Racism
Though these elements exist in the world, none of them are painted in a positive light. When they have shown up, the players are distinctly uncomfortable or frustrated, and will find ways to either divert attention away, cause a disturbance, or even try to undermine the system from within. They know it's wrong, and though they don't have a lot of power yet, they're planning to fix it. No matter our setting, the players nor the DM are siding with these manipulative Lords and Ladies; it's definitely NOT a good thing.
But it IS the Shadowfell, and I am honored to share a table with people mature enough to tackle these painful challenges and seek the light on the other side.
No matter what realm we share, it's worth it to fight for one another.
See you at the table.
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