Nymphs in your Area!

I really like the idea of Nymphs as, like, natural spirits who take the form of young women and just hang out in their environment. I think the way they are treated in pop culture sucks because they are taken as sex-crazed female divinities (which is where we get the word “nymphomania” from). In OD&D, dryads have a 90% chance of charming visitors into never leaving their forest. What gives with that?

I’ve been thinking a bit about how to handle magic for a DIY-fuck-your-book nonsense project, and it occurred to me that there might be room for nymphs in a sort of animistic setting. I’d say “This is a take on druids!”, but I’d be lying because I don’t know anything about druids. This is more like Roman folk religion where divinities called numina live just about anywhere.

Out of respect, let’s not call our figure a druid. Why not whisperer, to be vague? The whisperer can seek out and talk to nymphs to investigate or learn more about certain natural areas.

The Gist

Nymphs live anywhere. They most famously reside in trees (dryads), ponds (naiads), seas (nereids), and mountains (oreads). There are other types of nymphs with different names, but these are the most familiar few and they will suffice for a variety of outdoor environments. What matters is that they are there, and that they are tied to their particular location.

Most adventurers have to do lots of hard work to explore and investigate an area. This is something which takes up a decent chunk of the day, at least to learn about things that are not immediately obvious while passing through the area. (This is boilerplate.)

Whisperers, though, have it easy: they whisper to the environment and seek out what divinities, or nymphs, live there. The nymph(s), being divine personifications of natural things, are very familiar with the area they call home. They know whatever a tree, pond, sea, or mount might know. Have any travelers stopped by for water? Are there any new human settlements in the area? What ships sail these waters? I’d like to think the set of possible questions and answers would be endless! (But I'd rather just like hang out. Wouldn't want to bother a stranger with random questions unless I was really stuck.)

The Catch

Still, having all that without drawbacks or limitations runs into a similar issue as when a ranger is in your D&D 5e party: the character’s skills bypass opportunities for interesting play. One simple restriction might be that a whisperer can only whisper to a certain kind of nymph, like to a dryad or to a naiad. This means that a dryad whisperer cannot seek out a naiad for help.

Another complicating factor might be, if the encounter is treated as such, the reaction of the nymph. She might not always be happy to meet with a human, especially if it means waking up from her usual state. Is she groggy? Is she pissed? Is she even just cautious? This means that meeting a nymph is not a free info dump, but is calling upon a character who lives in the world and has her own thing going on. This might be even more complicated if you have a handful of nymphs nearby, like you roll your die and there’s six of them [1].

It’s late now so I can’t think of a way it makes sense for a whisperer to “level up” in the same way as the traditional classes, so it might be better for whispering to be a character ability you can claim rather than a distinct character type or whatever (not that we ever run anything for longer than a couple sessions anyway). In any case, it would just make me happy for the world to be full of nymphs just hanging out and doing their thing. Like, I’d want to be a nymph’s friend.


[1] If anyone were tempted to turn this into a fucking battle, I’d make sure the nymphs were strong enough to not take any shit. I get that nymphs getting helplessly chased is a motif, but I don't like that. A better solution: don’t play with assholes.

Comments

  1. This post goes hard. I think the trepidation around the use of druid is warranted, the class as typically imagined really doesn't have much to do with even premodern Celtic polytheisms themselves from what modern academics are able to discern (which is admittedly not all that much.) Anyways, whisperer sounds cool on its own and I'm often a fan of naturalizing roles like this where it's all too easy to hyper-exoticize: houngan as ~voodoo sorcerer~ vs. literally saying "chief priest."

    Strong agree on the gross weird take on sex and seduction that comes packaged with most nymph stuff. Says very little in the way of Cool Nymph Content and a whole lot about the writers. The most disappointing thing about it to me is that there's already a much cooler way to play with some of the ideas involved there in a more genuinely animist context in the form of Yukaghir master-spirits and their relationships with hunters. Master-spirits (Owners of the X) of a forest or hill provide humans with souls in the form of animals by revealing them to hunters. They typically do this because they're bound by the same expectations of provider obligation that humans are: people who have a lot like the master-spirits are expected to give generously to those who don't with little to no expectation of recouping losses or debt, a pretty common trait of generalized hunter-gather societies (as opposed to transegalitarian h-gs.) Humans plead poverty and the master-spirits give them souls as they should BUT sometimes the spirits of the forest or mountain take a liking to a particular hunter. They'll send out lots of souls/animals from their realm for that hunter to catch with the intention of getting them to take so many animals that the spirit is the "poorer" participant in the relationship. Then the spirit can freely claim the soul of the human, which they are obligated to provide. Humans can dodge this sometimes by dressing as predators when butchering kills so that the spirits don't recognize humans are the ones claiming souls, which in turn leads to people actually trying to seduce spirits so that they take on the hunter as a favorite. It's not super sexy in a conventional way, I suppose, it's mostly acting like an elk ready to mate (interesting side bit: spirits don't have static gender for the Yukaghir, but male hunters largely take on a feminine role when they are being sexually pursued by or seducing spirits even when the spirit is referred to as "she.") This was very dangerous, though; even besides the risk of the spirit seeing through your disguise during step II of the Steal More Souls Plan, the hunter could fall in love with the spirit they were trying to seduce! (Cont.)

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    1. Men become obsessed with a spiritually powerful elk or sable and waste away, then reincarnate in an animal body to live as the spirit's consort in their realm. This facet of the spirit-human relationship to the Yukaghir is something that I feel is extremely evocative and probably awesome for games as part of the recent push to reimagine our DnD-baked biases w/r/t lived premodern spiritualities - a complicated ambiguous dance of desire, obligation, ecology, status, and death. Really recommend reading "Rane Willerslev's ethnographic work Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs" if you have the time, there's way more to the topic than I could ever clumsily summarize in a Blogger comment. Probably not so much to do with nymphs proper but I think games tend to be a weird soup of influences anyways.

      A particular class probably isn't the best move, yeah. People wiser than I have already blogged about the weirdness of siloing "the ritual stuff" into particular classes considering the way that doings we'd collect under a religion banner often worked historically, especially (but not only) outside of the high Abrahamic stomping grounds most gamers are likely to be familiar with. Not to say that devoted ritual technicians/doings-ists in contexts like these weren't a thing, ofc - Kuba ngesh priestesses + neighboring "Mongo" and Songye institutions, Great Lakes python cultists, circumpolar shamanic (in the strict sense) specialists, and probably lots of others I'm ignorant of often seem to contain aspects specifically intended to manage difference - but a class system isn't really a great way to represent even that.

      Yet another W post from this wildly underrated blog. Don't really have much to offer that would be of service on most of the posts here beyond saying "sick" so I was glad to have something useful to say for once.

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    2. hello! thank you so much for your kind words and for the fascinating explanation about master-spirits :) incorporating more interesting ways to interact with the world, and to also understand our historical cultures versus what d&d depicts, is a really worthwhile project all around!

      i agree that the super-divisive class system typical of d&d is also not representative of how people actually related to their religion or spirituality! even on a selfish level, i want to explore non-class play because it seems rare that class actually does anything interesting (except for od&d, where it is just part of the whole weird fantasy). an approach i've really liked lately is piecewise character creation, where instead of strict class developments you can pick traits loosey goosey.

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    3. also, the gender politics of hunting for the yukaghir are super interesting! :O

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  2. I am always ready for more weird nature spirits in games.

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