Monday, March 21, 2011

Mythic Monday: The Brownie

Conquered slaves on the verge of revolt
Mythic Monday - using elements of folklore, myth and legendry in your game

Let's take a look at the typical D&D brownie. Flips to page 11, Monster Manual. "Lives in quiet, pastoral areas... helps lawful good characters... repairs things... acts as a guide?" Bizonkers, it sounds like a Keebler Elf! Yawn. I want the Brownie to be creepy and surly - a household spirit to be appeased. Time for some remodeling.

Before we give the Brownie a makeover, let's take a step back and look at a potential origin for fairy myths*. A number of folklorists have theorized that some fairy stories have their origins in the prehistoric clashes of cultures (and possibly even species). An invading culture conquers and drives out an indigenous primitive group; the indigenous group is wood wise but primitive, and is forced to retreat to the hills and caves; remembrances of these primitive folk driven to the hills become the first fairies. The fairy vulnerability to iron is an echo of the technological superiority of the iron age invaders and the fear and awe the primitives had for metal weapons and implements. Stone age arrowheads from earlier cultures were actually known as "elf-shot" in Scotland. The Picts of northern Scotland make a good historical stand-in for this kind of mythic forebearer of the fairies; in fiction, think of the neolithic primitives in the film The 13th Warrior (the book version was called Eaters of the Dead, by Michael Crichton - a good read).

Taken a step further, it's not hard to theorize how a fairy myth like the Brownie might have evolved. A primitive ancient culture was enslaved and forced to labor by their iron age conquerors. The other race would be of smaller stature, lurking on the outskirts and fringes of the new settlements, forced to live in mounds and the woods, performing domestic services and labor in return for offerings or gifts of food. They'd be blamed for pilfering goods, stealing cattle, maybe even children. They'd view the conqueror's livery and clothing as a sign of servitude and slavery. Thus the myth that a gift of clothing would drive the Brownie away…

I think we're ready to go.

The Brownie of Gothic Greyhawk
The various races of creatures in the Fairy Otherworld have diverse origins, but all of them share a common trait; they are thralls and servants of the great powers of Chaos that rule the Fairy Otherworld (the Archfey). In the case of the Brownies, they were a primitive pre-human race driven out by the ancient Flan; they fled through crossings into the realms of Fairy. These primitives made a pact with one of the Archfey of the realm and were transformed into the Brownies; soulless but immortal, they're cursed to follow obscure and confusing rules of behavior as part of their eternal servitude.

Brownies are compelled by their pact-curse to slip into the mortal world and perform services for a chosen household each evening. They hate this servitude and look for any chance to evade the terms of the pact; there are circumstances that will allow the Brownie to abandon a home. If the mortals leave out payment or an article of clothing for the Brownie, it will quit the place forever. If the mortals see the Brownie at work, or discuss the work of the Brownie openly, it will become surly and perform pranks on the members of the household. On the other hand, the mortal family must leave out offerings of food and drink discretely to appease the spirit. The Brownie will expect a small amount of honey, milk, cream, beer, or bread, to be placed on a corner platter or outside the cottage door, taking the offering when no one is looking.

Brownies that leave their chosen household will flee back to the Fairy Otherworld; eventually, their ancient pact curse will compel them to return to the mortal world and find a different household to serve.

Kreacher was a Brownie
The Brownie (remade from Labyrinth Lord)
No. Enc.: 1
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 120' (40')
Armor Class: 3
Hit Dice: 1d4 hp
Attacks: 1 (weapon)
Damage: 1d3
Save: M1
Morale: 7
Hoard Class: X, XI, XIII
XP: 12

Brownies lurk near rural households, compelled by their fey pact to perform minor domestic services for a household in return for simple offerings of food. They become surly and annoyed if seen by mortals or confronted while performing their nightly chores, and will leave forever if paid or given a gift of clothing by a member of the house. Surly Brownies are known to perform pranks on the household, and must be appeased if possible.

When they're not performing their domestic services, it's possible to bargain and seek aid from a Brownie - there's a 50% chance such a Brownie would grant a boon in return for doing something for the Brownie; they cherish the chance to borrow or use craft goods, manufactured tools, and other items of "technology". Because Brownies are immortal and often stay in a household for generations, they're a good source of local history and lore, but it might be hard to reach a suitable bargain - bargaining might involve tests of wit, riddles, or engaging in similar fairy past times.

Like most creatures from the Fairy Otherworld, Brownies are magically inclined and can become invisible to mortals once per round (like the Sidhe), though they prefer to be visible while working. They take double damage from cold iron weapons. Brownies can cast the following spells one time per day: confusion,continual light, dancing lights, dimension door, mirror image, protection from evil, and ventriloquism. Brownies speak common, elven, pixie, and sprite.

Brownies as familiars: The magic-user is granted an effective DEX of 18. In addition, the magic-user receives +2 to all saving throws, and is never surprised.

--Image is Kreacher from Harry Potter

*I used The Vanishing People, Fairy Lore and Legends, by Katharine Briggs for most of the folkloric ideas here, she had a neat chapter on theories for the origins of various fairy stories.


  1. Love this whole thing... especially the brownies not really being nationals of fairyland. I think I'd make them as grouchy about typical riddles and tricks as they are about service: that's another imposition they have to carry from the Sidhe.

    Regarding "ancestral" peoples escaping to the margins, have you seen or read Jim Scott's recent stuff on "The art of not being governed"? He picks up the idea of Zomia as a highland region with a separate identity from all the valley, seagoing empires around it - a place that people have escaped to for centuries, not so ancient but very deliberately other. It's an entertaining, if wobbly, theory. Video of Scott laying out the idea (1hr). Untested sound file: Why Civilisations Can`t Climb Hills.

  2. ...and reading in that Zomia article that the people of the hills are sometimes called Mi-zo makes me wonder about Lovecraft's Mi-go, which have more conventionally been associated with that archetypical wild man of the mountain, Migou, the Yeti.

    Maybe they eat Miso.

  3. Thanks for dropping in - you're right, many fairy tales involve a 'fate worse than death' after a deal with the Fey - why not apply that to an entire race?

    The Zomia article was pretty interesting, it's the first I heard of that theory. I wonder how that applies to "militia groups" in the wilds of the US?