Tropin’ d20 – Harping on About Harpies
It’s been almost a year since I’ve done one of these posts, but I was in the mood this morning. As usual, my goal is to hit the random trope button on TVTropes and come up with six things that can be done in a D&D-style TTRPG based on the result.
Random trope: Harping on About Harpies
I haven’t gotten a monster-species trope before, so this should be fun. I’ll try to lean in favor of adventure seeds or NPC ideas as opposed to a simple encounter, though I won’t shut down the latter if it feels sufficiently juicy.
Let’s start with some research. I’ve got Cotterell and Storm’s The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology 2008 edition, and while it doesn’t have any detailed write-ups for them, there are a pair of artworks involving harpies.
Page 16 has a painting by Francois Perrier of the Trojan warrior Aeneas and a few companions fighting off harpies who’re trying to snatch the weak and vulnerable. I knew that mythology had them harassing travelers and defecating in food, but the kidnapping angle wasn’t something I remembered off the top of my head.
Page 61 has a myth-inspired modern illustration by Glenn Steward of a couple harpies flying over a settlement on a stormy night, having kidnapped a swaddled baby. It seems like the kidnapping habit was a bigger part of their myths than I’d recalled, which might help explain why D&D conflated harpies with sirens. Also interesting is that they apparently started out as minor storm goddesses before becoming woman/bird-hybrids focused on making people miserable.
The B/X entry (page B36) spends most of its text on their siren’s song ability, but perhaps it’s notable that harpies have a slight resistance to magic (+2 to all saves) and that they can fly despite the visual description implying that they lack wings (no artwork given).
The 2E entry (page 184) introduces the unkempt appearance, foul stench, and lack of hygiene that would go on to become more defining features in Pathfinder. It keeps the same visual description as B/X, but the artwork does show wings on the back of their human torso. The harpy language is described as “a horrible collection of cackles and shrieks”, which makes it seem simple and animalistic. Their touch is also given a charm effect (originating in 1E AD&D) that leaves the target in a mesmerized stupor (for 1d10+20 hours!) if successful, which could give them a means to make mischief against heavily-armed PCs. Their lairs are described as typically being shallow caves that “they defile until no animal dare approach it”, and while “[t]his refuse can reach a depth of several feet in the oldest of harpy lairs”, the valuable possessions of past victims is often left buried in the filth. They reproduce asexually every other year by laying a single egg that is left uncared-for until their offspring are capable of participating in their hunts. They lack social structure and turn cannibalistic if one of them dies in a violent quarrel. They eat “nearly all” kinds of meat, enjoy torturing their victims (who may or may not be eaten afterwards), and have no sense of food preservation.
While I skipped over talking about their siren’s song since I want to avoid focusing on that, it’s interesting that both entries mentioned a successful save leaves the target immune to the effects of that harpy flock’s songs, which was a fairly rare caveat during the TSR editions.
As usual, each entry will have a title in bold text, some inspirational prose in italics, and some discussion for how I'd think about working it into an actual game.
1. Riders on the Storm
“Even since an earthquake shook the southern cliffs, terrible rainstorms have been a nightly occurrence. Old Melissa warned the villagers to keep lanterns lit so long as the clouds blotted out the moonlight. They laughed at the superstitious crone at first. The laughter stopped when their oil stocks were spilt on the first night. The crying started when their fish-curing basins were fouled on the second night. Their wails of lament drowned out the wind when children started to go missing after the third night.”
As I’ve mentioned before, these timeline ideas can always be shaken up by playing with the timing of when the PCs become aware of the situation. Perhaps they can avert the disaster by dealing with the harpies early if they're there when it starts, perhaps they can receive a bittersweet reward for returning the children’s remains for funerary rites, perhaps the village will just be a ghost town of painful memories at the end of an overgrown path, or anything else that makes sense. Aside from that, good questions to think about could be how the harpies survived before the earthquake opened a new exit from their lair, whether it was a natural event or something more sinister, and why Old Melissa offered her advice.
2. Appeasing the Old Gods
“No traveler speaks ill of their visits to Pisoe. The hamlet is full of hale and hearty residents, always eager to show kind hospitality to anyone staying in their inn. You'll find no meat there, but the local cheese has a unique flavor, one which the residents say is a sign of divine favor, granting them protection against ailments and disease. The source of the cheese is a mystery to the outside world, since they keep no livestock and the surrounding woodlands are curiously bereft of wildlife. Some mysteries are best left unsolved, for travelers should know better than to pry into the workings of gods.”
My intuition for using this one is that the residents have an arrangement with a group of harpies. The people keep the harpies' presence a secret and hand over their sick (as sacrifices? as patients?), while the harpies protect the hamlet from other dangerous creatures and donate their “milk” for the cheese. How long has the arrangement been kept, and what threatens it (aside from just normal PC interference)? What are the notable properties of the cheese, and what exactly is a harpy’s “milk”? Are both sides happy with the arrangement, or is one imposing its power on the other?
3. The Convent of the Wing
“So, you want to know about that building down in the moor valley? Legends say it used to be an abbey dedicated to some forgotten pagan bird god, back in the times of my grandfather’s grandfather. They say there was a sisterhood in charge of the place back then. Some say Nara’s great grandmother was once in charge of it and that’s why she has that birthmark, but she won’t speak a word about it no matter how drunk she gets. Anyway, the place has been abandoned ever since the valley was flooded way back when. Rumor has it there’s a jeweled statue to the god somewhere within its halls, with great sapphire eyes the size of fists and a moonstone beak stained black from the blood of human sacrifices, but no man who’s ventured down has ever returned.”
Of course I’d have to have at least one idea that would fit right into some swords-and-sorcery pulp fantasy. This one should be simple enough to implement as an entry in a rumor table or as something that a patron would want to hire some intrepid explorers to investigate (just be mindful to give the players a more explicit goal, because “investigate the ruins” is painfully vague by itself). Most of the questions to help flesh this one out should be fairly obvious, but a big one that’s often overlooked is how much truth is there to that story? I’m not fond of having random NPCs be manipulative liars, but it’s easy for details to become distorted, to be forgotten, or to get fabricated out of thin air when being relayed from person to person, especially when there’s also a significant passage of time to consider. The last year was an object lesson in how easily misinformation/disinformation can spread, and it'd be more prevalent in a setting without an equivalent to easy online fact-checking.
4. Tremor Peak
“They say the stairway to the sky is at the top of Mount Urlama, but you’ll never make it to the peak. It’s guarded by a sadistic beast that sets off avalanches with its horrid shrieks. Anyone who gets isolated by the rockslides is never seen again, vanishing without a trace aside from cries of pain that echo throughout the valley for three days and three nights. That always makes it hard to sleep, so even if you don’t care about your own lives, do us a favor and find somewhere else to die.”
Here’s another pulpy idea that can spring out of a rumor table or come from a patron. Aside from the intrigue of “the stairway to the sky”, what I like here is being upfront about having the harpy exploit both its flight capabilities and its loud voice to present far more of a threat than it would in direct combat (flying creatures confining themselves to caves and dungeons has always been a peeve of mine, since their mobility should be a huge factor in their tactics). Running this would require some fleshing out of a separation/escape/survival minigame for the avalanches (I’d suggest looking at information on SERE training as a starting point for inspiration).
5. Angel of Filth
“Nobody is sure exactly how the angel came to Durantia, but her provenance is unquestionable. Why else would such a beautiful woman know nothing about basic cleaning and language than because she came from a place where it was unnecessary? Why else would she be able to fly with neither wings nor spells nor magical devices? Why else would those she touches slip into a dream-filled state of bliss until the next day? Why else would she be able to sing an unearthly song that soothes all the troubles in your heart? Why else would she test our faith by seeing how we’d react to her debasements and see fit to grant beatific smiles to those who endure? Why else would she cut the sins from our flawed flesh until we can be broken down and remade as better people?”
I’m sure it’s been played up in plenty of places, but regardless of whether you’re playing in a low fantasy or high fantasy setting, I’d have to imagine that magical creatures would have a huge impact on the development of religions (either because any magic would be wondrously supernatural or because magic could prove the objective existence of different dimensions and godlike beings, respectively). In order to make this one more interesting, it’s important to emphasize the alien mindset of the harpy (or whatever the "angel" is). Playing her in the same way as a magical human would be a disservice. Give her a sense of morality that doesn’t match up with our ideas of good and bad, or give her some faerie-like unusual taboos and customs, or give her some animal-inspired behavioral quirks. As for her singing, try to depict it in an inhuman way (Dimash’s, Jane Zhang’s, or Laura’s performances of the second part of the Diva Dance song from The Fifth Element might be a nice starting point for inspiration, though definitely try to find something without instrumentals if you want to actually play it during a game).
6. Dark Corners of the Earth
“If you’re going down into the Deadman Caves, you’d best be able to see in the dark, because your other senses won’t do you any good. The things down there make all sorts of unholy clicks and screeches that’ll confound your hearing if it doesn’t just knock you deaf. Most of the ground’s covered in slimy shit, and there’s no telling if it’s just a surface slick or a cesspit deep enough to drown in, so forget about feeling your way. It stinks to hell and back, too, so you won’t be able to smell anything. And trying to light a torch is just asking for that shit to explode, so leave your lights behind. Maybe there’s some way to use your taste to navigate, but you’d probably poison yourself from licking whatever’s down there. And that’s all before even getting to the monsters. If I were you, I’d cut my losses and go home.”
Harpies were inspired by birds, of course, but why not imagine a similar creature inspired by bats? While this does risk running afoul of the whole “flying creatures in confined spaces” complaint I had in idea 4, the environment would give them so many other natural advantages that I could accept that as a bit of necessary mercy for weaker parties (for a stronger party, there’s more latitude to say “fuck it” and make the caves huge). The obvious bit of work to be done here is giving the players a reason to want to enter the caves despite the dangers, since “because it’s there” often isn’t enough unless they’re really into exploration. Keep in mind that bats are loud even in open spaces due to their reliance on echolocation, so it should be louder than the front row of a heavy metal concert in there if the harpies start screeching.