I began prep for the Horn & Crown story arc fresh off of Mark Chadbourn’s third Swords of Albion novel, the Devil’s Looking Glass. As four of the seven PCs in the witch hunter game are from England, I had always planned on having part of the campaign take place in the British Isles. And to me, that meant involving the fey. The question became how to approach faeries in the world of Witch Hunter.
I’ve loved the imagery and spectacle of Guillermo del Toro’s take on the fey in Hellboy 2 and Pan’s Labyrinth. But most RPGs treat the fey as beautiful wish fulfillment. So game-able details on spooky, creepy, otherworldly fey that adhere to folklore (and the Monster Manual 12) are hard to come by.
Recently, two OSR blogs have touched on the subject: Elfmaids and Octopi and They Might be Gazebos have posted articles on making elves alien again. Of course, they are working at something of a disadvantage, from my perspective anyway. They are trying to maintain the feys’ playability as a race. Therefore, most of the recommendations they put forward were cosmetic at best. With Witch Hunter, I don’t have any such restrictions. There are no elves or dwarves. And the fey are free to be as alien and hostile to humanity as the GM pleases.
So herein are a collection of various articles to give the fey and those who serve the Summer and Winter courts a real shot in the arm. Apply liberally. Most Witch Hunter players are probably coming from other RPGs that present the fey in more favorable terms. You’ll need to shock them out of that misconception quickly. They fey of the Invisible World are not your friends. They have an agenda, one most of us would probably find horrifying or just downright queer. Even their best habits should be unsettling.
The Unseelie of Swords of Albion
Mark Chadbourn does a good job of injecting the fey of his novels with unsettling creepiness. Granted, they are the villains, monsters in vaguely human guise. Some of his stuff works, some of it doesn’t. But it’s a great place to cull from for our purposes. Granted, the Seelie should hedge towards more alien beauty, which when done right can be just as unsettling as the grotesqueness of the Unseelie fey.
The voice was like the wind across snow. In the corner of the hall, a woman stood, motionless, shoulders slightly hunched like an animal on the brink of attacking. Her hair hung lank around a bloodless face, her eyes red-rimmed, unblinking. There was something of the grave about her. With excruciating slowness, she stalked towards him.
— Mark Chadbourn, The Silver Skull
“Do you hear music?” Mayhew cocked his head. “Like pipes playing, caught on the breeze?” As he breathed deeply of the night air, he realized the foul odour of the city had been replaced by sweet, seductive scents that took him back to his childhood. A tear stung his eye. “That aroma,” he noted, “like cornfields beneath the summer moon.” He inhaled. “Honey, from the hive my grandfather kept.”
— Mark Chadbourn, The Silver Skull
In the sweet places inhabited by the Unseelie Court, there is always music in the air, and beauty, and joy, and the haunting fragrance of honeysuckle.
— Mark Chadbourn, The Scar-Crow Men
Their clothes, while of the finest material, appeared to be on the brink of rot, stained here and there with silvery mildew, the style harking back to a distant age. A scent of loam accompanied them. Their cheekbones were high, their hair long, their eyes pale, but there was an odd quality to their features that meant they rarely registered on the mind; once they had passed from view it was almost impossible to recall the details of their appearance.
— Mark Chadbourn, The Silver Skull
As the doors to the State Rooms swung open, the light from the candles grew dimmer, although the flames burned as strong. Shadows fell at strange angles, and a suffocating atmosphere descended. Here and there across the room, blood began to drip from noses.
— Mark Chadbourn, The Silver Skull
Polemic, 10′ did an interesting article on the topic of weird fey variants. Rather than mess with keeping dozens of variants, it was easy enough to distill them down to their base interests. When you want to flesh out a faerie (villain, lieutenant, or hero), simply choose one from the following list or roll a d10 and assign the result.
- Stealing children
These fey use their powers of persuasion to part the starving poor, or otherwise misfortunate, with their offspring. Perhaps they steal an infant from its crib, replacing it with a grotesque (a changeling). Either way, the fey views this as a proper exchange.
- Magical trinkets and relics
These fey might collect magical devices from throughout the Invisible World (including the mortal realm), stealing them when necessary or trading and bartering for them. Or perhaps they make mischief by circulating powerful cursed items (a monkey’s paw) among mortals.
- Perform “miraculous” deeds for the dispossessed and easily duped
These fey answer the desperate cries of those in need, but at a hefty the price, whether it be a soul or firstborn son (daughter, or child). My like a daemon, the fey will arrive to collect its prize at the appointed time without fail.
- The unfinished task, cut short by the bent nail or the wrong screwdriver.
These fey become invisible to make mischief by bedeviling craftsmen with broken tools, changing measurements, and all other manners of misdeeds. Naturally, they always fix what they have broken after the craftsman has gone to sleep. Those whom these fey take a liking too, they sometimes aid in their craft during these times. These fey are particularly sensitive to offers of gifts!
- Following after the wayward with wolfish intent.
This fey is driven to inflict pain and mischief upon foolish women, men, or children who wander alone after dark. The hunt, the gnawing fear of its victim, is intoxicating for the fey. Some have learned to brew this into a tonic that is in high demand throughout both faerie courts.
- Visit villages on cold moonless nights, tapping thin fingers on windows as they create intricate traceries in the frost.
This fey is an artist and graces those who please it with wondrous images born of frost traced on a window. Of course, the subtitles and nuances of this art is sometimes too great for human perception. Sometimes this serves as a warning of bad things to come.
- Yearn merely to caress the placid faces of the wayward dead. Living beings are too coarse and earthly for them.
This fey will lead the wayward, lost, or foolish to an early death for its own romantic (or carnal) pleasures. While usually a trait of the Unseelie fey, there are those of the Summer Court who share this trait, though not in the same malicious sense.
- Shambling about in the twilight seeking the unwary with groping fingers and muttering dark lullabies.
Locks of maiden’s hair; this is a desired commodity, even a currency, for whole communities of fey. The more pure (or more tarnished) the maid, the more valuable the hair. This could be the Focus of the fey (Focus Bound Price).
These fey dwell apart from their brethren, whether out of fear, grief, or animosity. Their loneliness (their tendency to drink immoderately) makes them unpredictable. They might invite a wayward soul in out of the rain, masquerading as a simple hermit, offer him food and drink (never take food or drink offered from a faerie – it gives them power over you) and then torture the guest for their amusement.
- Fingers tipped with gossamer strands float down, touching skin through fabric and causing tiny itches that are all too easily scratched. Wake too soon and you might feel it crouching on your chest, trailing its subtle threads across your face and ears and throat. Hide under the covers and it will crawl in with you.
Dreams and nightmares; this fey will steal into the home of a sleeping victim, crouch upon his chest and lay its long, delicate fingers across his sleeping face. The victim is visited by intense and realistic dreams or nightmares. The fey might drink from the intoxicating emotions that these dreams cause, or perhaps it is simply curious and wishes to understand humanity better. These fey are sometimes confused with the more horrid (though not necessarily more thoroughly evil) incubus.
Weaknesses and Wards
These are culled from folklore. They are useful as superstitions surrounding the fey. Consider changing them up in strange, unexpected ways for the fey of your game. Also remember, each fey is unique so no two will be exactly the same. Still, I would settle on a few constants (like vulnerability to Cold Iron), if only to make those variations more dramatic.
- On entering a Fairy dwelling, a piece of steel stuck in the door, takes from the Fairies the power of closing it till the intruder comes out again.
- A knife stuck in a deer carried home at night keeps them from laying their weight on the animal.
- A knife or nail in one’s pocket prevents his being `lifted’ at night. Nails in the front bench of the bed keep elves from women `in the straw’, and their babes. As additional safe-guards, the smoothing iron should be put below the bed, and the reaping-hook in the window.
- A nail in the carcass of a bull that fell over a rock was believed to preserve its flesh from them.
- church bells
- the bells worn by morris dancers
- the bells round the necks of sheeps and oxen
- one can leap to safety across running water, particularly a southward-flowing stream.
- descending to the shoreline below the high-tide mark. The Fairies were unable to go below that tide mark.
- Fire thrown into water in which the feet have been washed takes away the power of the water to admit the Fairies into the house at night
- burning peat put in sowens to hasten their fermenting (greasadh gortachadh) kept the substance in them till ready to boil.
- fire was carried round lying-in women, and round about children before they were christened, to keep mother and infant from the power of evil spirits.
- When the Fairies were seen coming in at the door burning embers thrown towards them drove them away.
- When sprinkled on one’s clothes or carried in the pocket no Fairy will venture near (it was usual with people going on journeys after nightfall to adopt the precaution of taking some with them).
- Oatmeal, taken out of the house after dark, was sprinkled with salt, and unless this was done, the Fairies might through its instrumentality take the substance out of the farmer’s whole grain.
- Oakmen are created when a felled oak stump sends up shoots. One should never take food offered by them since it is poisonous.
- Four-leafed clover: brake fairy glamour, as well as the fairy ointment, which was indeed said by Hunt to be made of four-leafed clovers.
- St John’s Wort, the herb of Midsummer: potent against spells and the power of fairies, evil spirits and the Devil.
- Red verbena was almost equally potent, partly because of its pure and brilliant colour.
- Daisies, particularly the little field daisies, were protective plants, and a child wearing daisy chains was supposed to be safe from fairy kidnapping.
- Red-berried trees were also protective, above them all rowan.
- A staff made of rowan wood, or a rowan cross or a bunch of ripe berries were all sure protections
- it was customary in the Highlands to plant a rowan-tree outside every house.
- Where rowans were scarce, ash- An ashen gad was supposed to be protective of cattle.
Power & Price Descriptions and Variants
With the above guidelines, here are some Power and Price variations you can apply to fey creatures in your game.
Debilitative Aura (Veneficum/Sorcerous): Describe the suffocating aura that accompanies the fey, as if a heavy weight pressed on your chest; the instinctive urge to avert one’s eyes from their presence; the heady scent of honeysuckle or the grave; the sensation of blood dripping from your nose.
Mortal Mask (Corpus/Body): The fey know their appearance is unsettling to mortals, and will quickly shift to a less alien appearance. A brief glimpse of their true form might be allowed to cow or intimidate the mortal(s) in their presence. This isn’t on the official list of powers, but is simple enough to add.
Allergen (Corpus/Body): includes church bells, iron, and salt.
Atmospheric Disturbance (Veneficum/Sorcerous): The appearance of any fey is preceded by the faint sound of pipes, and a sweet, seductive aura that is as peaceful as it is unsettling.
Avoidance (Malus/Offensive): Mystical plants (oak, holly, rowan, ash, thorne, sage, sweetgrass, four-leafed clover, St. John’s Wart, daisies), oatmeal
Damage (Corpus/Body): Cold Iron
Repulsion (Malus/Offensive): Church bells, Inverted clothing
Restriction (Cursus/Movement): Hanging an iron instrument (bell, cross, fence, horse shoe, scissors, etc) above a arch or doorway will bar the passage of a fey being. Mystical plants (see Avoidance) and salt may be used as a substitute.
Weakness (Malus/Offensive): Cold Iron