A twig snaps,
A child cries.
I draw a knife,
The lantern lies.
"Hope," it whispers,
A fire warm.
But follow it, my dears,
And summon the swarm...
At A Glance
Will-O-Wisps are evil wisps of light that lift from malevolent corpses and haunt both battlefields and the lonely reaches of dark forests. Bound by dark magic, they lure unwary creatures into quicksand, lava flows, and monster lairs, reveling in the agony of their victims. Evil creatures that fall prey to the false hope of a Will-O-Wisp often become one themselves, and tend to gather in places of oppressive sorrow and death; graveyards, ghost towns, and dark forests of murder. Spiraling in these desolate places of lost hope and fragmented memory, they pull creatures toward dismal fates and feed on their misery.
Dungeons and Dragons, and its many branches, are not the only interpreters of this creature.
The story of the Will-O-Wisp harkens back hundreds of years in European and Asian folklore. These "ghost-lights" were sometimes evil spirits, other times witches or supernatural beings transformed. Whatever the influence, the creatures never spelled good fortune for those who saw them.
My own experience in the folklore of these lights ties back into Scottish folklore specifically, where the creatures were simply the spirits and fairies of the forest. I think that this simplified interpretation led my own writing down the fey path for these entities. The luring, however, was always a gimmick. I remember distinct dreams of following these wisps of dancing light and smoke as they percolated through a dense wooded trail. At the end, however, was not my demise; instead, a mysterious hooked staff covered in ancient vines. It would whisper to me like wordless whispers of the spirits that brought me there...
By The Numbers
These tiny undead orbs are quick (high AC), fast (50-60 feet hover speed), and resistant to a bunch of damage types, if not outright IMMUNE (lightning and poison). But if you can land one or two good hits on them, even at low level, you should be okay. Trouble is, they rarely move alone; where one appears, many more follow.
WoW's are Invisible until they attack (a little shock) or use their very scary "Consume Life" ability, so you literally won't see them coming. That latter ability is what makes these critters one of the nastiest in the Monster Manual, even at higher levels. Any creature with a low Constitution saving throw, even an epic hero, can straight up die from its effect. Die, not go unconscious, not become incapacitated. They die. DC 10 is standard, but that 5% chance Natural 1 could kill your character outright without a clutch Revivify in your back pocket.
Don't try to grapple these suckers either; they'll pass right through you, and their Dexterity save is stupid high. You see a swarm, you run, or let loose a big freaking fire ball...then run faster.
Will-O-Wisps In Io
Though the origins of the creature rarely differ, their intentions in Io are often less miserable. They are also HEAVILY influenced by the plane that they exist in.
WoWs of the Feywild will be more innocent and mischievous - still deadly, mind you - but their souls of dead sprites and nymphs don't understand the weight of their actions. It's tragic, really. These playful spirits are drawing creatures into their sight to feel not so alone...which kills their new friends anyway.
WoWs of the Shadowfell carry a sorrowful weight and an unending desire to consume the living. These spirits are tormented by the wales of their own death that they seek rebirth by draining the life force from other beings. This usually manifests in alternative versions of their Consume Life ability, wherein they don't kill the target. Instead, they inhabit their body, siphoning the creature of each of its attributes until only a husk remains...and a Wight is born instead.
The more I write on these creatures, the greater the permutations and variations that manifest across the planes. I consider what is in the Monster Manual as fact for the Material Plane, but as any Horizon Walker knows...Planeshift is one helluva drug.
Be safe out there, and beware the lights that drift in the forest.
Will-O-Wisps can be found all over Dungeons & Dragons, but for 5th Edition, look no further than the classic Monster Manual.
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