n.b. Welcome to Troglodyte Tuesday! This is a feature in which I present (or re-present) monsters I have created or adapted for use in my own 5E D&D campaigns, including lore, tips for running them and a stat block. Despite the name, this feature will present monsters other than troglodytes, for example, this week we have HOW I RUN IT‘s version of the harpy.
When writing the notes for my remix of N1 – Assault of the Reptile God, I found the inclusion of a harpy in the swamp lair troubling. Older D&D adventures have a penchant for putting monsters in close proximity without bothering to explain how or why that monster came to be there or why it’d cooperate with other monsters in the vicinity. (They will, however, explain if monsters are explicitly hostile towards each other). It was not just that I had trouble reconciling the monstrous and not very intelligent harpy coming under the sway of the naga, but that the very figure of the harpy was problematic. While they have their origin most notably in Greek Mythology, and other ancient cultural legends, harpies are also metaphorical stand-ins for the what I’d call a misogynistic view of women’s qualities. To simply have this race of monster-women that eat carrion and lure men to their deaths as just another thing to fight didn’t sit right to me.
I guess, I could have simply removed the harpy and replaced it with some other monster, or even removed the encounter altogether. But that is not my style. I like to dig into and unpack this stuff in my role-playing games. I know that is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is important to me as a way of “playing through” the game’s (and its sources’) problematic relationships with gender (and with race, but that is for a different post). Understanding that not everyone wants that kind of thing out a D&D campaign, I start the explanation of this version of the harpy with a content warning.
It is the first time I have done that, but my guess it that it won’t be my last.
Rather than make “harpy” a generic monstrous species, I decided instead that they’d be the victims of a specific curse aimed at women. A curse that could be broken, not simply by a Remove Curse spell (I find that too easy and too boring), but by the completion of a ritual or ritualistic (and thus allegorical) actions involving specific objects and/or people. These women-turned-harpies are actually the targets of misogynist violence in the form of this curse. I see them as women who are cursed by patriarchal forces for violating some social norm related to their gender. The curse turns them into a physical manifestation of what the dealer of the curse imagines such women to be.
Take for example, Calaeno, the very harpy I ended up writing a little backstory for when I re-wrote her place in the adventure and whose name I adapted from the Aeneid. As I explain in the lore below, she is a young woman who broke her marriage vows of obedience to her necromancer husband when she realized his nefarious plans. In her case, their marriage certificate served as the contract that bound her and thus held her in the curse’s grips. By destroying it once her former husband was dead, she was able to change back.
What would I have done if the PCs had destroyed it? I am not sure. I would not let that eliminate all possibility for breaking the curse. Instead, I would have remained open to a creative idea from the players. If what they came up with made sense I would have run with it. As it was, “getting her to destroy the certificate herself” was among the information the party gathered with some research and skill rolls.
Symbolically, destroying the certificate herself represents taking control again and this time with impunity, and counts on the PCs taking a risk in providing her a way to break her curse without knowing it will pay off. In this case, a little bit of sympathy for a monster is more productive than simply killing her – though I can imagine a group of adventurers deciding it was a hard but necessary choice.
I like hard choices in the games I run.
Of course, I don’t want to make these cursed women to simply be victims. This is why when including such a harpy I think it is important to give their inclusion some space in the game narrative. In my Ghosts of Saltmarsh+ campaign, Caelaeno’s inclusion connected to the very first adventure the party was ever on. They took trying to help her seriously, even when Rollo the Barbarian was charmed by her song and walking blindly towards his doom. It also means that these women have complex motivations that have run afoul of patriarchy, which we should remember sometimes works through other women. The backstory possibilities are limitless, but this also makes the harpy the kind of monster you probably would not have more than once in a campaign. They are not just something to run into randomly on the road. Instead, they can provide the game narrative context for explicitly fighting fantasy representation of real-world evils and an opportunity for the catharsis that comes with that kind of play.
When creating a stat block for the harpy (and the one presented here is closer to what I ran than what I printed in HOW I RUN IT #3: Swamp Lair of the LOAF Cult), I wanted to make sure she was tough when encountered as a lone monster. I wanted the Luring Song to be tougher. I am not a huge fan of the ubiquity of the “save at the end of every one of your turns” thing in 5E. I prefer reinforcing the need for the player’s to act to force the additional saves to break the effect. However, if your group of PCs is so unlucky as to have the entire party fail their saves against the Luring Song, I’d allow new saves when they witness the first of their band start to get torn apart.
Furthermore, by granting the harpy the Cunning Action ability they are more apt to keep away from foes not effected by their charm, especially since they are clumsy flyers without the fly-by attack ability.
I also wanted this version of the harpy to have some gross aspects associated with the curse and their mythological sources. Thus, I made them cause disease and throw up rancid meat, since they can never really digest and enjoy what they tear up and devour. I wanted to connect their method of attack with their abject lives and re-emphasize that their fate is one not deserved by anyone.
Below you will find descriptions of the creature, a full stat block, and a link to PDF version of the full description and 5E stat block.
Click here for a PDF version of full description and stat block.