Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mythic Monday: The Sidhe

I met a lady in the meads, 
Full beautiful—a faery’s child, 
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
...
I saw pale kings and princes too, 
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; 
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci 
Hath thee in thrall!”

--John Keats, La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Mythic Monday - using elements of folklore, myth and legendry in your game.

It's funny how many quotes you read, either from Gary Gygax or his defenders, that minimize the influence of Tolkien on Dungeons & Dragons and argue that D&D is based primarily on pulp fantasy.  Regardless of Gary's intention, every time a new person picks up a book, the first thing they see when they build a character are dwarves, elves and hobbits halflings - 3 out of the 4 character types are straight out of Tolkien.  It's inevitable the first thought is, "Oh, this game is based on Lord of the Rings!"  The Conan or Lankhmar advocates never stand a chance.  Our actual games may resemble the adventures of pulp fantasy more than high fantasy, but at that point, the horse has already left the barn.

There wouldn't be halflings in the game without Tolkien; I find the Tolkien influence is equally ingrained in the D&D elf.

The pre-Christian folklore of Europe is populated with mysterious, semi-divine beings that were the inspiration for the modern elf - the Alves and Vanir of old Norse, the Tuatha de Danann of ancient Ireland, the Daoine Sidhe of Gaelic folklore, the Fairies of medieval romance.  Yet with all that myth and folklore available, we get the Tolkien-style elves.  It demonstrates the long shadow Middle Earth casts on modern fantasy.

Luckily, many of the fantasy authors on the Appendix N list were well versed in folklore and willing  to develop interpretations of the Fair Folk that were quite a bit different than the esteemed Professor's.  I'm a realist; the Tolkien elf is so well-rooted in D&D and the popular conscience, there's no going back.  Rather than go down the path of "My Elves Are Different", we can leave the elf alone and use these different approaches to create a figure that fits the role of the elf of legend before Tolkien's powerful vision dominated the field.

The Daoine Sidhe of Fairy
The Daioine Sidhe (dee-na shee) are the immortal inhabitants of the Fairy otherworld.  I'm drawing inspiration for them directly from some Appendix N materials, The King of Elfland's Daughter, Three Hearts and Three Lions, and The Broken Sword.  (And a healthy dose of Hellboy comics and Dresden).

The Sidhe inhabit the fantastic palaces and forests of the twilit realm of Fairy.  There was a time when portals between the Fairy otherworld and the mortal world were common, and the Sidhe walked the forests of the mortal world and took endless delight observing and interfering in the world of men.  As the power of Law waxes throughout the realms of man, and the reach of the church grows, the realm of Fairy withdraws deeper into itself.  Encounters with the Sidhe are often tinged with the sadness of this long withdrawal and their loss of relevance.  The world is changing.

Morgan Le Fay, from Hellboy
The Sidhe exist with a morality defined by Chaos and magic, that predates the influence of Law.  Their motives are otherworldly and alien to mortals; they abduct peasants in darkened woods and play cruel pranks; they lure devoted spouses of both sexes into amorous trysts; they exchange mortal infants for sickly changelings.  Sidhe lords and ladies are haughty, dismissive and capricious.  Queens of faerie, such as Morgan le Fay (pictured), take particular delight in luring mortal knights (especially paladins) into the realm of Fairy and distracting them with sensual delights until their cause is lost.

The Sidhe are immortal but soulless.  They are gifted with magic and touched by Chaos, but their powers are limited against Law.  They fear the holy church and cannot intrude on consecrated ground without taking damage.  They are driven off by the sound of church bells, and are burned by the touch of iron weapons.  The church prosecutes a war against the inhabitants of Fairy by barring and sealing fairy portals with holy symbols and chains of iron.  Churchmen urge their followers not to be led astray by the guise of beauty these beings display through their glamours.

While many of the Sidhe recognize with sadness that the day approaches when the last Fairie portal to the mortal realm will close forever, there are those that fight back - they commune with demons and other thralls of Chaos, incite the pagan folk in the borderlands and wilds against the realms of Law, and seek  to return the mortal world to the eternal twilight before the cycles of day and night were established by divine decree.

Game Statistics for a Sidhe Lord
Laybrinth Lord / BX

No. 1(1)
AL C
MV 120(40)
AC 0
HD 10d6**
ATK  weapon +2
D 1d8 +2 or by weapon+2 or spell
Save E10
Morale 8
Hoard XVIII
XP 2300

Suggested Spells:
1. Charm person, Darkness, Sleep, Ventriloquism
2. Detect Invisible, ESP, Levitate, Phantasmal Force
3. Clairvoyance, Hold Person, Lightning Bolt
4. Charm Monster, Polymorph Others
5. Geas, Flesh to Stone


The Sidhe lord will have fairy armor, shield and sword granting +2 enchantment bonuses in the land of Fairy, but will crumble to dust after spending too much time in the mortal world without exposure to the magicks of Fairy.

In game terms, the Sidhe are similar to elves in appearance, with some important differences.

All Sidhe can become invisible at will (limit  once per round); elves are not affected and can see invisible fairies.  There are rare magical ointments, spells, and boons that will allow mortals to pierce fairy invisibility (and the spell Detect Invisibility works as well).  The Sidhe speak their own language, Fairy, along with the common tongue, and numerous woodland dialects.  Elves have an increased chance of knowing Fairy (I'm using the excellent LotFP language rules).

The Sidhe have unusual vulnerabilities.  They can be turned by clerics as an undead of the same level.  (I would suggest waiving this in the realm of Fairy.  Additionally, I'm using Turn Undead as a 1st level spell, so it's not a ridiculous every-round super power).  They take 1hp per round of damage when intruding on consecrated ground, and take 1d4 hp per round from the touch of iron.  Iron weapons (not steel) deal an extra 1d4 hp per attack.  The tolling of a church bell will force a save vs death or cause the Sidhe to flee the area.

There are rules of magic that may place a mortal within the Sidhe's power.  A mortal forfeits the ability to make a saving throw against Sidhe magic (until the next dawn) whenever they partake of Sidhe food and drink or willingly enter a fairy ring beneath a full moon.  This vulnerability is most often used for Charm Person or Geas spells.

A very small percentage of mortals are born with the ability to see fairies (let's make it 1%).

Relation to Elves
The elves are those Sidhe that chose to permanently remain in the mortal world ages ago when the current relationship of the planes was fixed in place by the great powers of Greyhawk; the elves of that bygone age forfeited their immortality and some of their magic, but gained immunity to the vulnerabilities that plague their distant cousins.  The Sidhe consider elves flawed, lesser beings.

Faeries in my Gothic Greyhawk game
Pig-headed Pooka from Helboy
There was an incident earlier in the campaign where the characters were accosted by a pooka, Hogsbottom, at a cross roads.  Hogsbottom appeared as a small pig-headed fairy wearing a suit and vest with buckled shoes.  In the best tradition of slippery deals with faeries, he managed to get the players to agree to perform a service for his mistress, sight unseen.  I loved it.

They later learned the job was to remove the iron chains and holy symbols draped all around the faerie circle in a local grove, placed their by the devout churchmen of the nearby village (Poignard).  The grove was a fairy crossing for Hogsbottom's mistress, the sidhe Lady of Dawn, and he desperately wanted to let her and her court of revelers back into the mortal realm in time for the equinox.

The players liberated the grove, and decided to visit the fairies on the night of the equinox and collect their boons in person.  Much fun and revelry was had ala A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the Lady of Dawn turned out to be pleased that her crossing was opened.  However, their cleric at the time, Friar Crimson, didn't fare well in the deal - they were separated from him during the revel, and he ended up cursed, stripped, shaved and tattooed for his troubles.  They found him sometime the next day, caught in a bramble.  It was funny watching him explain his new appearance back at the monastery.

Upcoming Development
One of the next cosmology articles will feature the Realm of Fairy, and I'll include details on fairy crossings and portals.