In 1917, two cousins Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright were playing by a stream. This was despite the protestations of Elsie’s mother who later scolded them for tracking mud into the family abode. The girls insisted they played by the stream due to the fairies that frequented there. When Elsie’s parents admonished the pair for lying, they insisted to borrow a camera to capture proof of their sighting. Elsie’s father decided to humor them. What could possibly go wrong?
Thirty minutes later, the children returned triumphant. When the negatives were processed in the dark room, Elsie’s father couldn’t believe his eyes. There, right in front of his child, was a conga line of fairies.
Surely, these photos couldn’t be faked. While photo manipulation was conceived decades earlier, Frances and Elsie were too young to be versed in the art of twentieth-century Photoshop. After an expert confirmed that the photos were real, Elsie’s mother confronted the Theosophical Society about the affair, desperately searching for answers. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – the author of the greatest literary detective of all time, Sherlock Holmes – was perplexed by the incident. Soon, people far and wide thronged to Cottingley cottage to catch a glimpse of a fairy with their own eyes. It was all for naught, of course. Sixty-six years later, both cousins confessed that the Cottingley fairies were just papercut illustrations.
People believed in these fairies for a reason, and not just because Peter Pan claimed that Tinker Belle would drop dead if you didn’t. Even as recently as 2017, an independent member of Parliament in Ireland, Danny Healy-Rae, maintained that there was continued maintenance on a major road between County Kerry and County Cork due to “numerous fairy forts in the area” [Source]. A belief in fairies arose not because these creatures were rose-cheeked cherubs, but because woe betide you if you didn’t.
Friend or Foe?
Prior to Shakespeare’s influence, fae were the crux of calamities and catastrophes. Transcending the kleptomania of the tooth fairy, fae could cause injuries ranging from a stitch to a stroke. Fae could spark changes in the weather (whirlwinds were caused by troops of fairies) or affect the fertility of fields and livestock. Even the audacity of bed hair was enough to warrant a fairy’s influence.
During the Middle Ages, fae were harbingers of chaos. Changelings – a person who was kidnapped by fairies and replaced with a fairy substitute – were built on this tradition. A changeling was the ultimate scapegoat: they were the answer to a child with disability or were the reason for a wife’s sudden insatiable appetite.
The best way to spot a changeling was through a trial by fire or water, respectively. Such was the case for four-year-old Michael Leahy, a neurodivergent child who was drowned by his mother in 1826, or Bridget Cleary who was burned to death by her husband in 1895.
Sometimes, even nosey neighbors stepped in to assist. In 1884, Ellen Cushion and Anastasia Rourke took it upon themselves to break into the house of three-year-old Philip Dillon during his mother’s absence. The cure for his quadriplegia was simple: all they had to do was roast him on a hot shovel until the fairies dispersed from his body. Luckily, Philip survived the ordeal, but the boy was scarred for life.
The mythology of changelings thrived because they provided solace. They were a way of explaining the impossible long before modern medicine offered answers. As such, it’s worthwhile for GMs to ask themselves precisely what is impossible in their world. While NPCs sudden voracious appetite might not perk an eyebrow nowadays, perhaps their sudden ability to speak fey warrants investigation. Given that changelings are portents, this could be used to explain a farmer’s exceptionally bad harvest that year, or a lady who is unlucky in love (her suitors keep dropping like flies – literally). There’s no such thing as run-of-the-mill bad luck when a changeling is nearby.
While some changelings are complicit in their deception, Grim Hollow’s wechselkind are painfully unaware of their lineage. A wechselkind is an enchanted doll that appears identical to a child who has been kidnapped by fairies. For months, a wechselkind might escape detection but they inevitably rouse suspicion due to their inability to grow or otherwise, their newfound intelligence. As time passes, so does their glamour, which slowly unveils the mannequin beneath. Once their true nature is revealed, the wechselkind becomes a target of the family’s grief.
That’s what’s so heartbreaking about the wechselkind; they are unloved by everyone through no fault of their own. They are abandoned by the fey who groom them to be a perfect pawn for their sinister schemes and they are inevitably rejected by their community who deem them complicit in such a sorry state of affairs. All that is left of their loved one is a doppelganger who is both erringly familiar and disturbingly unfamiliar.
The wechselkind has a harsh fate. What is one to do when little Chuck is replaced by Chucky? Can family learn to love a carbon copy, or is blood thicker than wood? What if a mother woke up one day to see that her two-year-old son can speak as eloquently as she? Better yet, what if a member of a party was suddenly replaced by such a creature (a handy narrative device to use during a real player’s absence)? Should your campaigns be missing a dash of existential crises, this is the creature for you.
Materializing Mother Nature
It is in the woods, amidst a world of towering firs, flora and fungi, where fairies can be found. It is no wonder then, that green is the color of the wee folk. For this reason, it has long been suspected that Sir Gawain’s Green Knight was a fairy in Arthurian clothing, given his verdant pallor. While the jury is still out, a recent film adaptation of the legend provides an apt explanation of his curious complexion:
“We deck our halls with [green] and dye our linens. But should it come creeping up the cobbles, we scrub it out, fast as we can. When it blooms beneath our skin, we bleed it out. And when we, together all, find that our reach has exceeded our grasp, we cut it down, we stamp it out, we spread ourselves atop it and smother it beneath our bellies, but it comes back. It does not dally, nor does it wait to plot or conspire. Pull it out by the roots one day and then next, there it is, creeping in around the edges … When you go, your footprints will fill with grass. Moss shall cover your tombstone, and as the sun rises, green shall spread over all, in all its shades and hues. This verdigris will overtake your swords and your coins and your battlements and, try as you might, all you hold dear will succumb to it. Your skin, your bones. Your virtue” (The Green Knight 2021).
Green is a marker of the natural world, just as much as the supernatural. Like nature, fairies are unpredictable and vie against control. They are as melodramatic as they are maternal, as calamitous as they are compassionate. More importantly, like Mother Nature herself, they are elusive and harness a power that cannot be fathomed.
Given that fairies are part and parcel of the natural world, it’s no surprise that this is reflected in the base game of 5e in which both pixies and sprites can turn invisible. As an unseen force to be reckoned with, player characters shouldn’t see them coming – literally.
Fey are not unformidable. As personifications of nature, they harness the raw strength of the natural world in their tiny hands, whether it be through faerie fire or the druidcraft cantrip. Given their intrinsic connection to their environment, GM’s can play with this symbiotic relationship.
Perhaps the best way to intimidate an invisible foe is to attack their treasured abode – causing damage to the environment might even directly cause a fairy’s concentration spell to fail? In this way, the forest is more than a setting, but a literal extension of all fey. It best be revered if player characters are to make friends in unlikely places.
Beware the Fairy Bread
This brings us to the next characteristic of which fairies are known for – fairyland. Fairyland is a parallel dimension adjacent to the material plane. Time flies when you’re having fun, especially in fairyland. Seconds spent in the fairy realm are days spent on the material plane. In many myths and legends, eating fairy food prolongs a visitor’s stay, so characters best forgo the fairy bread if they’re only planning on a stopover.
Given these stakes, it’s worth asking player characters what brings them to this neck of the woods? Are the stakes high enough to warrant such a visit? Should players dip their toes into fairy rings and portals, they should do so on the proviso that they may not return to the same year in which they left. Of course, players might enter this world accidentally, but given that portals between realms open sporadically, leaving fairyland might not be as easy as following the exit signs.
In the Middle English poem Sir Orfeo, the titular protagonist knows this all too well. Orfeo’s wife Heurodis had the nerve to sleep under an orchid tree which attracted the attention of the fairy king. While she slept, she dreamed of the fairy king would kidnap her to his Otherworld. Awakening with a fright, she implored the knights around her to protect her from such a claim, but it was all for naught. She soon disappeared in front of their very eyes.
Having borne witness the worst form of ghosting imaginable, Orfeo takes it upon himself to reclaim Heurodis. His solution? To wonder the forest for ten years. After a decade, he finally sees Heurodis riding with sixty ladies. He follows them into the Otherworld which is filled with men who were slain in battle and women who appear fast asleep. Amidst the crowd, Ofeo notices Heurodis. To placate her captor, Orfeo plays a jaunty tune. Orfeo must have rolled high on his performance check because, after hearing his song, the fairy king concedes to release Heurodis and the two are finally reunited.
One of the best tips of advice I ever received in an undergraduate degree dedicated to professional and creative writing was to place characters in a setting in which there was no escape – literally or figuratively. The fairy realm provides an apt space to allow for this narrative device.
Given that the laws of physics operate differently in fairyland, GM’s can play cat and mouse with player characters in such a sphere. Perhaps the time spent in the fairy realm requires a timed skill-test so that player characters can return to the same year in which they left? Perhaps, like Orfeo, they will need to think of a way out intellectually rather than through brute force? While fairies are not exactly known for their machismo, they can certainly lock players within a battle of the wits.
More than Meets the Eye
It wasn’t until Puck sauntered along the Shakespearean stage that fairies turned from maleficent murderers to pesky pranksters. This gave rise to later associations of fairies in the Victorian period as childlike or inherently innocent. Fairies received a serious makeover. Not only did they shrink considerably in size; they also got their wings. These days, you can’t imagine a fairy without a pair of silvery wings.
While there isn’t anything wrong with such a representation, it plays upon the player character’s expectations. They expect an infantilized crew. They expect fragility emphasized by high-pitched voices. However, given the etymological link between the word ‘fairy’ and the word ‘fates’ – figures who spin, measure, and cut the thread of destiny in many mythologies – fairies are certainly more than meets the eye, even if their size suggests otherwise.
While fairies are certainly suited to wizards or sorcerers as opposed to the brute strength of paladins or barbarians, their Sibyl’s knowledge of past, present, and future grants players the opportunity for a meeting of the minds.