Folklore is full of villains and antagonists. By a striking coincidence, so are RPG campaigns! Here are four villains drawn from folklore: a Russian singer-sorcerer, a Roma witch-queen, a Persian hero-villain, and an Irish kidnapper-princess.
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We lead with a bandit outlaw who, in Russian folklore, once preyed upon the road between Chernigov and Kiev. The road wound through lonely forests and marshes where the Nightingale sat waiting atop his giant nest, built amid the branches of twelve oaks. When he saw travelers, the Nightingale whistled at them. The sound started low, causing pain. Gradually, the whistle grew louder. Trees bent in the wind of the whistle, and grass lay flat before the gale. Eventually, the sound grew so loud and so piercing, it killed the listeners. Then the Nightingale would descend and rob the corpses.
In what will be a theme for this post, the Nightingale met his end when he faced a true hero. The knight’s name was Ilya Ivanovich (curiously, the same name as the Soviet scientist behind those failed ‘ape-man’ experiments). Ilya was too powerful to be killed by the Nightingale’s whistle, and captured the bandit. When Ilya arrived in Kiev, the prince of the city commanded the Nightingale to whistle at half strength and show everyone what he was so famous for. The Nightingale saw an opportunity. He whistled at full strength instead and tried to get away in the chaos. But he hadn’t counted on Ilya, who struck him down and ended the outlaw’s fabulous career.
First off, this super-weird, bird-themed bandit is an amazing random encounter. You’re just traveling along, minding your own business, when BAM! Some crazy bandit is whistling at you from a tree and your horse is too weak to carry you. Second, the inadvertent collision of the bird bandit and the ape-man scientist is too beautiful not to use. It implies the existence of a larger team-up of animal-themed Russian villains, appropriate for a supers campaign or anywhere Russians and the paranormal meet at the table!
Some bird’s nests can be enormous! I love the detail that the Nightingale lives in one.
The Roma (Gypsy) hero János (pronouned Yah-nosh) fought numerous enemies across his long career, but perhaps none so colorful as the witch-queen of Duck Castle. She was a formidable physical opponent. Her teeth were filed to points, and her battle with János reads a lot like the Roma fighting a lioness: all ambushing, pouncing, and biting. More impressive still, the witch-queen could not be killed as long as she was in her own kingdom. Every time János thought he killed her and tore her to pieces, she re-formed within seconds. She had a related weakness, though: when hurled beyond the border of her kingdom, she turned to dust.
The witch-queen had a daughter, and she was mighty too. The princess was strong and fast enough to smash a man into the ground and break every bone in his body. She was mistrustful of strangers, but overall a decent sort. She and the Golden Prince of the neighboring kingdom were in love, but her mother nixed the relationship, so she just sat in the castle and pined until János showed up to help her escape.
As a weird, fairytale villain, the witch-queen had an appropriately weird, fairytale castle! It was made all of porcelain and stood atop an enormous duck’s leg. The castle turned slowly to follow the sun and could hop along to relocate itself. To enter the castle, János had to slash at the duck leg with his sword, making the castle tumble to the ground. (In related stories, the hero can just threaten the leg to make it squat down.) Once inside, János found every room full of gold and silver. The story doesn’t say, but I’ll wager that treasure would turn to dust too if taken outside the borders of the witch-queen’s kingdom.
At your table, a villain inspired by the witch-queen might be causing trouble outside her borders. The PCs need to track down her moving castle to put an end to it! If in exploring the castle they encounter the princess before finding the witch-queen, how they treat her may be the difference between success and failure. If the PCs can keep the princess from smashing them before they’ve explained themselves, they can probably get her to help instead of hinder them. I might ditch the Golden Prince angle, though. It’s a little hokey for most gaming groups.
Next we have a tragic and unwilling villain, Isfandiyar the Invulnerable. The Shahnameh, a Persian epic, tells how the shah (emperor) of Persia was angry at the great hero Rostam, because Rostam would not come to the capital to kowtow to the shah. So the shah sent his son, the equally-great hero Isfandiyar, to bring Rostam in. Isfandiyar respected Rostam and believed the shah was wrong to debase such a noble man. But Isfandiyar could not go against his father. He traveled to Rostam’s home to bring him in. He begged Rostam to come quietly, but Rostam would not agree to be chained. And the shah was unambiguous: Rostam must come to the capital in chains. With heavy hearts, the two heroes drew their swords and began to fight.
Both men were invulnerable, save for a specific exception. Rostam could be hurt by arrows, and Isfandiyar at last peppered the old man with shafts. Rostam quit the field, presumably to bleed out and die, and Isfandiyar let him go. But Rostam was saved by his guardian angel, the great bird Simorgh. Simorgh told Rostam that Isfandiyar swam in the pool of invulnerability as a child – but as he swam, he kept his eyes closed. When the two heroes fought the next day, Rostam aimed for Isfandiyar’s eyes and killed him. Rostam never forgave the shah for making him kill noble, tragic Isfandiyar.
Fighting an invulnerable opponent is dull and frustrating. But an invulnerable-except-for-X opponent can be a lot of fun. This is doubly true if your adversary is morally conflicted! The first time the PCs fight an enemy like Isfandiyar, they have to flee – they just can’t win. But uncovering his weakness before the rematch then becomes an awesome adventure! Note that a story like this requires a fair bit of trust between the players and the GM. If the players suspect you’re throwing an invulnerable enemy at them for a laugh, they’ll resent you and no one will have a good time. Instead, treat the first fight more as a roleplay encounter and assure them that you’re not just going on a power trip.
Rostam slays Isfandiyar. Note the arrows protruding from Isfandiyar’s eyes, on the left.
In Irish myth, the sister of the King of the Island of the Big Men once quarreled with her brother. He exiled her to another island, where this princess built a castle: a single tower of black glass without even windows to interrupt its sheer surface. There, she plotted revenge against her brother, the king.
This princess was a horror, with scaly skin, gnarled fingers and yellow nails like claws. She could stretch her limbs like putty, fly, and turn invisible. She was truly a terrible enemy for the King of the Big Men to have made! Every time the king had a child, she would fly to his castle in the middle of the night, stretch her arm down the chimney, and steal the newborn baby from its cradle. She raised her stolen nieces and nephews as if they were her own children, but she didn’t tell the king that. For added revenge, she made him stew, ignorant of his family’s fate.
In myth, the princess met her end at the hands of the Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhaill and his comrades, the Fenians. The first night after the king’s wife gave birth, the Fenians waited at the bottom of the chimney and tore off the princess’ arm when she reached down. If only she’d bothered to turn invisible, she might have survived the night!
We never do learn what the source of the dispute was between the princess and the king, and that’s a good hook for bringing this to the table. When a character based on the king of the Island of the Big Men is about to have another child, he might send for the party. At first, this seems like a cut-and-dry case. If a monster is stealing babies, you kill the monster and save the babies. But if the PCs learn the ‘monster’ is just the king’s sister – or even that the babies are fine! – it might make them dig deeper. Maybe this is just kidnapping for revenge and the children should be reunited with their parents. Or maybe the king is the real monster, and the princess is saving her nieces and nephews from a terrible fate!
Source: Tales of Superhuman Powers: 55 Traditional Stories from Around the World by Csenge Virág Zalka (2013)