When baby Herman Salanen was kidnapped, it was a horror so depraved the act could only be likened to a never-ending nightmare. No worldly suffering compares to not knowing the fate of your child, and not knowing what ever became of Herman destroyed his parents. Worse still, when their child was taken it went undiscovered for possibly hours or even months, because he’d been replaced with a living doll glamoured to appear as their baby boy. The crime wasn’t revealed until, when learning to crawl at nine months old, Herman darted across the bed and fell. His cries brought Mom and Dad to rescue him, but the sight before them stopped both parents in their tracks. Their baby lay on the floor, broken into two pieces. Most of the child spasmed in pain and cried loudly, displaying only half of one chunky thigh. The other piece appeared to be a wooden sculpture of the rest of Herman’s leg. Herman’s parents stared in shock, not fully comprehending until the illusion that concealed the wechselkind failed. This revealed the wooden, clay, and ceramic deception the Salanens had treated as their own child. They realized that their son was gone, which was only the beginning of their pain.
The Salanens didn’t destroy the wechselkind immediately, hoping to use the living construct to retrieve their flesh and blood. Unfortunately, no one had any idea how to regain the child. The wechselkind never saw his “parents” again, for they could not bear the sight of him. Within the year, Mr. Salanen lost his mind, and Herman’s parents divorced. Cousin Milo showed pity, taking the wechselkind in and raising the creature. He renamed the living doll Notman One-Leg. It wasn’t always a happy life, but Notman had a home, farm work, and occasionally heard a story or sang a song. It was better than most of his kind received, and Notman felt a sense of belonging with Milo as his family.
It was in Notman’s twentieth year when the real Herman beat the details of his origin from his faerie captors and escaped. It was a miserable homecoming. Herman’s father died in the streets many years earlier. Herman’s mother contracted the Weeping Pox and passed only a month before his escape. Only cousin Milo recognized the family resemblance.
When Herman entered Milo’s home, he was stunned to find the faerie machine that had taken his place. Herman was raised by faeries. He came home speaking their fey tongue, wearing their fey scars, and sporting their fey temper. Seeing the creature that had allowed his capture in the home of the only family he had left enraged Herman. He shattered the furniture in the house before turning his fury on Notman himself. The fully grown Herman towered over Notman One-leg, hefted a broken chair leg, and swung until the living doll was smashed into pieces.
Notman did not feel physical pain, the wechselkind only able to mimic it as part of his camouflage. But as he lay before Herman, the light fading from his false eyes, Notman’s final image was the most agonizing thing he would ever experience. Milo, the man that had raised him, ran to Herman and hugged the prodigal son. Tears streamed down Milo’s cheeks as he held the cousin he never thought he’d see again. “I always prayed you’d return to us, Herman.”
As Notman expired, he realized that despite all the time he’d lived there, he was never more than a stand in for Herman. That revelation snuffed out the last of Notman One-Leg’s inner light.
Who Are The Wechselkind?
Children are a wonder. A tiny miracle in the dark and troubled world of Etharis. Despite their miraculous nature, occasionally newborns are kidnapped by faeries and replaced with a wechselkind. These living dolls are composed of wood and clay and are ensorcelled to look human. For months, the child might demonstrate exceptional intelligence for a baby, but not grow in size or weight. Unexpectedly, the glamour fades and the intellect is revealed as a ploy. The family is left with an enchanted figurine that is most certainly not their child. In short order, the miracle is over, replaced with a nightmare.
The shocking realization that they’ve loved and cared for a constructed changeling for an unknowable amount of time devastates most families. Their naturally born child has been missing for as little as a few hours or as long as a few months. Searches don’t result in rescues. Auguries reveal no trace. Often, the pursuit leaves the family worn and broken. The only place to project their rage at the situation is on each other and the wechselkind itself.
Few wechselkind survive their reveal. Those that do, contend with a dark world that sees them as collaborators instead of victims. Whether they are reared by a family, another wechselkind, in a wechselkind orphanage, by a collector, by the streets, or darker forces, their unspeakable origin damns their future. Every being that meets one knows that represents a faerie orchestrated kidnapping, the loss of family, and mortal impotence against the whimsy of the fey.
Wechselkind that make it through their reveal have a hard path ahead, as they search for a niche within society. Wechselkind fill unexpected roles in the world, with each survivor sporting a different function that ranges from criminals to entertainers.
Wechselkind Story Hooks
The wechselkind’s unique origins and uncertain place in the world predisposes them to a life of misadventure. What follows are just some of the ways that wechselkind could feature in a story or campaign.
“Welcome to the World, Wechselkind” is the most famous children’s play performed by kinderspiels, traveling acting troupes composed exclusively of wechselkind. Their baby bodies and oversized heads combined with the antics of childish comedies belie their work’s biting social commentary. Of course, if a local lord takes offense to their damning subtext, the wechselkind may need help escaping the noble’s reprisals.
The Doll Doctors are the result of neighborly wechselkind living in lands plagued by the Weeping Pox. That invisible killer meeting an intelligent construct, that can apprentice as physicians yet can’t get sick, offers a divine solution to a pandemic. Flo, a wechselkind that knows more about human medicine than many apothecaries, treats those that are suffering from this illness. Yet, as with so many of her kind, her unwitting participation in a kidnapping decades ago, plus her immunity to this epidemic, generates more suspicion than acceptance as she works to help those with the most acute needs. When the town’s human doctor disappears, all blame is laid at Flo’s feet. She may need the help of adventurers to locate the doctor and prove her innocence.
Michel Kaulin, named for the child he replaced, proved to be intelligent, articulate, and friendly. During a crisis between the Charneault Kingdom and the faerie, Michel was elevated to be the kingdom’s ambassador to the fey. He convinced the faeries that built him to reopen a road they previously blocked, in exchange for the yearly tribute of a single spellbook. The resolution was quick, yet Michel’s reward of a noble title was seen as too great a gift for a collaborating monster. There were questions about Michel’s loyalty; is he working for humanity or the fey? Michel needs assistance in demonstrating his loyalty, while others look for traitorous crimes to seal his fate.
A wechselkind as the matriarch of a family? It’s possible if the wechselkind has been with the family for seven generations. As the eldest member of the household, greatest grandaunt Myrra’s decisions are final. But what happens when one of the children makes a noise in the night, and when Myrra checks, she realizes that the baby has been replaced with another wechselkind? How can she get the child back before association and suspicion falls on her?
In all of Etharis, there is one place where the abduction of a newborn and their replacement with a wechselkind is not seen as a horror, but a blessing; the vampire ruled lands of the Ostoyan Empire. Here, the peasants fear their fanged nobles’ desire for children to sate their hunger. At any moment, a vampire noble might devour a family’s future. When faeries steal a child and leave the gift of a wechselkind in their crib, Ostoyan families celebrate the kidnapping and believes that their true child resides in the sun with the powerful fey, no longer threatened by their bloodthirsty masters. Despite the citizens love of their wechselkind children, the vampires find their celebrity status an affront. Some undead lords go to great lengths to break the idea that escaping the blood hunts is a desirable outcome. When Kyan Blue was revealed to be a wechselkind to his family, there was a feast in celebration. Kyan enjoyed his distinguished state among the Blue family. Several decades into his life, Kyan did the unthinkable. He helped a human blood cow escape Lord Rache’s dinner table. In revenge for this crime, Lord Rache turned Kyan’s human family into ghouls, and staked the wooden and ceramic wechselkind to his mantle. There the heat from the fires would dry Kyan out over the decades until he crumbled to pieces. However, that also meant that Kyan has been present to every meeting with members of the Crimson Court conducted in that room. What price would a lord of the Bürach Empire pay for such a valuable spy?
The merchant, Yadebto, offers only the finest wechselkind parts in the land. It’s a niche market, but he’s done well for himself as he provides replacement parts for the constructs when theirs wear out. However, a new client has come to him, a faerie interested in a large order, enough parts to replace a generation of babies. Yadebto wants to refuse, but how can he stand against the faerie without help?
In the Castinellan Provinces, the Arcanist Inquisition is called whenever a family suspects their child of being a wechselkind. Serena is four years old and secretly half-elven. Her father does not know because his wife, Abrila, keeps a glamour on the child’s ears. But Serena’s slow rate of growth concerns him, thus he calls upon the Inquisition. To avoid exposing the truth to her husband, or endure the horrors of the Arcanist Inquisition, Abrila and Serena need help to escape the Castinellan Provinces and to find Serena’s true father.
Wechselkind are tragic and rarely encountered. Parents fear them and what their presence represents for all families. For the religious, there have been meditations about the presence or lack thereof of a soul among these human-like constructs. There is debate about how complicit a wechselkind is in their original sin. Among those that have never known a mature wechselkind, the racist stereotype that waisenhauses, their orphanages, are gangs of child kidnappers is an unfair mark against these constructed beings. Because of their faerie origins and many rumors, humanoids question whether wechselkind are inherently evil?
What isn’t open to debate is their ingenuity and their ability to find a role within the large and diverse societies of Etharis. Wechselkind are small, look like living children’s toys, yet aren’t as helpless as they might appear. They have minimal requirements other than the need to belong. If they find a home, they will be loyal to it. Until that happenstance, they travel the world learning, doing, and waiting for a family that they can join openly.
Wechselkind characters add a variety of storytelling options to your campaign. Every wechselkind has a backstory insuring at least three options for long term conflicts. First, the family that the wechselkind was inserted into contains members that bear a grudge against the construct. If the wechselkind replaced a noble or prophesied child, these elements may be actively pushing against the false family member, while seeking the return of the true child. Second, the child that the wechselkind replaced may never learn of their true human origins any more than the wechselkind knows which faeries built them. However, a small number of abducted humans learn where they’re from and, if they escape, are eager to turn their rage on the tiny construct for its role in their imprisonment. Third, the faeries that took the child also made the wechselkind. Should the fey encounter their creation after its task is complete, their pernicious nature may lead to any sort of mischief. Should a player decide on the role of a wechselkind, the variety of stories and enemies their character will encounter offers the foundation for many memorable adventures.