Libris Monstrum #4: Will-O’-Wisp
Hey everyone, sorry for the delay but yesterday was, frankly, a bit meh. Today I have for you the 4th installment of the Libris Monstrum, as voted by you. While I would love to talk about most of the options I place there, and take every other entry to do a piece on a monster of my choice, I am glad you voted on the will-o’-wisp. It is a creature I have been thinking about recently, as I tempted my players in one game with their light. Though nothing came of it, it was a spur of the moment choice and I immediately began wondering how I would end up playing. What kind of creature would they play out as? That thought led me to include them on the list, and in turn I will show you some of the thing I have remembered and discovered about the will-o’-wisp.
A Light In The Dark
If there is one single thing that all of the mythologies about a will-o’-wisp agrees upon is what it is to would be travelers, especially in swampy areas. Traveling at night has always been something of a danger, especially in a world or time when magic and monsters are thought to be very real problems. Whether we are talking about vampires, werewolves, regular wolves, or dangerous spirits, the night is when many of the most malicious ones come out to wreck havoc on those who have not made it to safety. It is safer to stop and make a defensible camp with the large light of a fire than it is to continue journeying along the road. But what happens when the path is wet, murky, and lacks solid ground for camping? If you have not made it through the marsh by nightfall do you continue on in hopes you do not get lost, searching for dry ground that won’t get you ill and covered in leeches?
If you chose to continue on your road you had better take care to opnly pay attention to your lights. Do not follow another light in the marsh hoping to meet more travelers or find your out. It could simply be the will-o’-wisp, hinkypunk, hobby lantern, or ghost lights trying to trick you. You may just follow them to your own slow, freezing demise. The will-o’-wisp is a creature out of European folklore for the most part. There are however tales of swamp lights in other areas, such as North America, but a lot of the mythos surrounding the will-o’-wisp comes from the various cultures of Europe. While monster guides provide some rules for your will-o’-wisp encounters, there are a number of ways in which they can be used. Perhaps most importantly is all the folklore that may exist in the villages that low-level adventurers frequent.
It’s Just Gas
I thought we could start by talking briefly about what will-o’-wisps actually are thought to be with modern science and deduction being what they are. For the most part it is agreed/assumed that the will-o’-wisp or ignis fatuus, or whatever else you may call them, is simply just gas. Don’t worry about giggling here, for literally it is likely to be just swamp farts. Because of the nature of swamps as ecosystems of decomposition (among other important roles!), there are a lot of gases produced that aren’t the carbon dioxide of animals or oxygen of plants. Some of these are not just flammable, but naturally combust when they come into contact with oxygen. As they are produced, collect, and bubble up they will eventually escape the swamp and hit the air. The result is a burst of strange light. Depending on the gas, this light would be colored in interesting ways. It also explains the will-o’-wisps restriction to swamps and their reduced occurrence in modern times. You know, since we have had a habit of destroying those and not living near them.
Now, let us delve into the more interesting explanations. The ones that would be true within our game worlds. I am starting with fey because that is how we describe most of the things representative of will-o’-wisps in games today. In the times where such creatures were believed to exist, the forces and beings of nature were a lot more fluid and a lot less describable. Fearie creatures, spirits, and elementals were all approximately the same thing. They were primal, nature-bound, and strange. They were creatures of other worlds and connected to the aspects of nature (like earth or water) in ways we could only guess. Today, most games are very specifically talking about living embodiments of classical European alchemical elements or in other settings the prevailing elements (like metal or wood in Wŭ Xing). Spirits are almost exclusively undead or related to the afterlife in some way. Everything else has been redescribed. Some names have been co-opted (like kobold in modern Pathfinder and D&D settings), but many remain the realm of the Seelie and Unseelie courts.
The will-o’-wisp is one creature that could be used this way, though it is not and we will talk about that later. The best example of this is in the malicious being known as the pucca. Such creatures were thought to be malicious fairies. Horrible beings, they would prey on those who, as described above,found themselves along the swampy paths at night. Poor individuals or groups would be targeted by the pucca and it would light a lantern to lead the victims by. As the pucca leads you along a path, your hopes rise, until it leads you away and into the cold swamp. When you are as lost as you could be, with no more path in sight, and the only hope left to you the lantern you have been trying to reach, well, that is when the light goes out and the pucca leaves you to your demise. I like this iteration because it allows you to play up the superstition of the will-o’-wisp in a village but provide a party with an actual tangible individual to encounter.
This description, by name alone, elicits its own set of fear and worry. Corpse lights. What does that even mean? The idea is one of perfect description and yet so actually vague to drive ones imagination into a frenzy. Especially those worried about traveling a road at night, and especially those inexperienced villager minds. It also leaves room for a lot of speculation on the player side. Calling them will-o’-wisps provides A LOT of implication and implicit assumption. Corpse lights, though, well you might just have to investigate those. Undead are very dangerous, afterall!
In tales from Sweden, the undead is pretty much what a will-o’-wisp is. Those stories tell of the souls of individuals who were never baptized. For those who don’t know this act is supposed to eliminate original sin and allow you to start with a clean slate from which you can do good and not be punished for the acts of predecessors (mostly Eve). Those who were not would be burdened with that sin and not allowed into Heaven. Take what you may from those teachings, but one of the results is that those souls also didn’t necessarily end up in Hell either. Instead they became doomed to wander the roads, they became a version of the will-o’-wisp. These souls would seek to lead passers-by to water (hence swamp presence) so that they could be baptized and allowed to move on. Little do such mindless undead know that they just end up killing those they seek help from.
5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons finally made the choice to change the type of creature will-o’-wisps are. You’ll see more in the next section, but now they are undead. I am glad for this as it makes more sense, in general, especially in a world haunted by all manner of the restless dead. These have taken a lot of notes from other sources, and personally I prefer it. First they tend to be of a nature like the pucca. Malicious, murderous creatures that use hope to lure out victims and destroy them. The other take away, though, comes in where they lie: ancient battle sites. This is a great take away from the Lord of the Rings if you ask me. In it Sam, Frodo, and Gollum have to take a short-cut to the Black Gate through the Dead Marshes, which happens to be the site of the ancient battle between good and evil, where Isuldur put down Sauron. But so many died there in those lowlands, and now those lowlands are a vast marsh. In the movie version we see an interesting encounter of Frodo being warned to ignore the candles and promptly fail to do so almost being taken to the spiritual, dark depths by those who fell. It is eerie and fantastic, great inspiration on how to use an undead will-o’-wisp.
So I cannot really get away without discussing this. For most of the history of D&D, and in Pathfinder too, the will-o’-wisp is an aberration. It is often described as an odd, ball shape or even in the shape of an actual lantern. It is said to be spongy to the touch, and seeks to murder you outright. The will-o’-wisp is some kind if energy vampire that feeds off of the energy given off by the individual as it drowns and dies in the dark swamp. For the most part this is very similar to both fey and undead versions of the will-o’-wisp, as long as we’re just considering the malicious ones. What I find odd is the need to try to explain those actions so fantastically. There are wraiths, spectres, vampires, and more. Why not make it undead? The number of fey that exist is insane, surely it isn’t so weird as to be aberration? While I am sure someone had a good reason, and the idea was held-over, I am glad that it has ended. Such an odd classification.
At Your Table
As much as I have prattled on about the different types and what horrible ways you can try and trick your players, I though I would end with a more definitive note. Will-o’-wisps are perfect low-level monsters to get going a side trek, distraction, or encounter. They aren’t super strong but they represent something other. They are not goblins or kobolds, zombies or skeletons. They are mysterious and potentially dangerous, but they are no wraiths. Besides that, there are just so many ways to introduce and use them. It is something the villagers can be terrified of, but without much reason to. Or they can prompt a whole mission as fey stealing children. The specifics are up to you, but rest assured, using them does not have to be limited to the specifics of the book, but stats can remain the same.
Have your own tales of will-o’-wisps or a different folklore behind swamp lights? Want to see something specific covered in the next installment? Just let us know by leaving a comment or sending us an e-mail!