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Learning the Secret History of Merfolk

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As promised in The Secret History of Giants I’m following up with The Secret History of Mermaids and Creatures of the Deep, by Ari Berk. Along with The Secret History of Hobgoblins this series’ compelling cover art and design caught my attention and as a folklore and kitschy monster stuff fan I ordered them. Along with being enjoyable reads these interactive children’s mythology books are filled with fun ideas for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. Let’s dive into The Secret History of Mermaids and Creatures of the Deep bring some fresh ideas to the surface for our 5E D&D games.

“Long has the Order of the Golden Quills watched and studied the secret places of the world: the hollow faerie hills, giant-made mountains, bejweled dwarfish caves, and deep-sea caverns of the merfolk.”

A deep well of merfolk lore for 5E D&D

“I must be a Mermaid. I have no fear of depth and a great fear of shallow living” — Anias Nin, The Four-Chambered Heart

Like giants, merfolk like mermaids figure into our own world’s mythologies stretching back pretty far. The history of these sea creatures dates back to the First Babylonian Empire sometime between 1894-1595 BCE. Outliers aside merfolk typically don’t terrorize humans in mythology, but sometimes they’re associated with disasters like floods, storms, shipwrecks or drownings. They might even be benevolent or beneficent, granting boons or falling in love with humans. The most well known story of merfolk is probably The Little Mermaid by author Hans Christian Andersen and the Disney film loosely based on the story. Like the giants in the previous book, The Secret History of Mermaids and Creatures of the Deep presents mermaids and other Sea Folk as mythical creatures that used to be on friendly terms with humans, but through our own wrongdoings created a divide causing loss of trust and understanding. This titular secret history explains merfolk origins and how they co-exist with the surface world from past to present.

Translating the scope of sea creatures from the book into 5E D&D terms proves a bit more challenging than it did for giants. The latter is a codified creature type in the game so pulling up all the giants in one place with D&D Beyond was super easy. Before we get too deep into the book and what we can takeaway for our games it’s worthwhile to identify what creatures to include in the exercise and I’m starting with humanoid creature types from underwater environments.

  • Merfolk, merfolk salvager
  • Sea elf
  • Sahuagin, sahuagin priestess
  • Sea spawn
  • Deep scion
  • Kraken priest
  • Sahuagin baron
  • Archdruid
  • Wyllow

Not nearly the large group taken into consideration for giants but that’s on brand, right? I think we can tweak our search and really delve deep to swell the list but with merfolk topping the list it’s in a good place. Merfolk are a low challenge, nonevil creature adventurers can relate to. Campaigns taking place anywhere near large seas might feature merfolk prominently, and this can really crank up the fantasy dial. The book is written as a collection of lore gathered by an organization called the Order of the Golden Quills, and their Oceanic Council works to share their knowledge of merfolk so favorable relations with these sea cousins may be restored. If you consider the Order’s efforts successful to a degree, then merfolk interactions might be commonplace in your campaign setting. Everyday folk in our fantasy worlds accept plenty of surface creatures and civilizations, is it so strange to interact with the world beneath the waves too?

The archivists and scribes or the Order of the Golden Quills reminds me of our own Order of the Wizened. Any time you can share information with players through their characters interactions with the setting is much more engaging than expository info dumps. If your campaign setting’s fantasy and magic dial is turned down, you might incorporate the Order as an obscure or even secret organization. Characters invited to visit the Order’s castle, built centuries ago by giants and dwarves at the edge of the sea, might enjoy learning about the secret history of their world and creating their own adventure hooks. According to the giants book the castle is open to the public from midnight to 7 a.m. on the last day of February every third leap year, so even with an invitation finding and reaching the castle has adventure written all over it. The book includes a map of the Order’s Hall of the Murgen and Mermaids’ Cave of Curiosities too.

You could go further and develop the Order of the Golden Quills as a full blown guild with all the bells and whistles and run a whole campaign with the party as agents of the organization. The campaign begins on the last day of February in the third leap year since the castle was last open to the public. The place is abuzz with visitors while the party meets with their liason in the Order who gives them their first assignment — collecting information about merfolk and other creatures of the deep. Characters can hang around the castle a bit and find their sea legs, and after they exit the castle disaster strikes! A magical malfunction, sabotage or other irregularity causes the castle to vanish. Will the party have to wait until the next public opening? They’re not sure but they do have an important task to focus on at present. And the sea is right there…

5E D&D merfolk secret history

The best way to explore the depths of the sea in 5E D&D is probably as a native! [Art by Lake Hurwitz]

But with all the captivating folklore and cultural examination of merfolk life in the book, I think this secret history is best served with the players taking the role of Sea Folk. Something about sea adventures, whether aboard a ship or traveling beneath the waves, appeals to lots of 5E D&D players. Imagine the potential for aquatic adventure when the entire party are natives! You might be surprised to note there’s quite a few official 5E D&D races with no problem living underwater. Some of these might have some issues in the movement department but there’s ways around it and maybe it becomes a running gag for the group to get their companions without swim speed around.

  • Sea elf
  • Water genasi
  • Triton
  • Warforged
  • Simic hybrid
  • Locathah
  • Grung

A true aquatic campaign like this gives you a chance to flip perspectives and consider how these characters interact with the surface world. Even though some races are amphibious or equally capable on land or underwater, maybe the characters in the party spent their whole lives under the sea. Movement, weather and natural forces, difference in sound and all the qualities that make land lubbers feel out of their element beneath the water apply to these characters on land. On top of these challenges, a pesky group of air breathers called the Order of the Golden Quills keeps pestering for an interview.

In a campaign like this, The Secret History of Mermaids and Creatures of the Deep could guide you through as many adventures as you’ve got time to play. Any of the snippets of folklore can spin into a 5E D&D quest. In a section on Appearance and Anatomy of merfolk, the Order speculates if merfolk grow to resemble the types of local fish alongside whom they evolve. A quest like this involves exploration and travel to various merfolk communities, social interaction with the merfolk there and it’s 5E D&D so combat happens pretty much whenever you want between the other two things. Trouble on the journey, trouble threatening the merfolk community, trouble from the merfolk community…it’s not difficult to insert combat (assuming players haven’t instigated themselves along the way).

Merfolk language and communication, along with a frankly adorable foldout booklet shares Useful Sayings and Charms of the Merfolk along with how to read whale fluke signs and gather meaning from the sea.

“The sea tells all.” — One of the oldest merfolk sayings

Merfolk villages, mermaid caves, notable Sea Folk, treasures, enchantments, laws, customs, perilous monsters and powerful artifacts fill the book with page after page of inspiring tidbits and although it isn’t a book of game content in any way, I certainly find myself taken away by ideas to incorporate into 5E D&D games. If I’m honest I strongly want to run that campaign with all underwater characters. The back half of the book delves ever deeper into merfolk lore with accounts of cruelty to Sea Folk, vengeance and curses, lost lands, sea zones and hazards. Any and all of these succinct stories check my boxes for adventure hooks, answering the Five W’s and in many cases including adventuresome sounding titles. The Fegee Mermaid, Extortion and Exhibition, The Storm Council, The Doom Bar and The Avenging Wave all have seeds for great adventure.

The sections on the Trident and Other Weapons and Merfolk Artifacts give homebrew Dungeon Masters something to do creating 5E D&D stats for things like Triton’s Trumpet and players can learn more about merfolk culture through Songs of the Sea (including a foldout booklet or Merfolk Songs) and Human and Merfolk Relations. Since Secret History of Mermaids and Creatures of the Deep is a purely fictional book without any ties to 5E D&D or game mechanics of any sort, it might be the perfect prop for a campaign. If your group is really interested in a game involving merfolk and underwater adventure, consider giving the players and their characters a copy of the book. They might spend time adventuring to get their copy or maybe the Order of the Golden Quill provides one to aid their goal of going out to gather evidence and information on current merfolk culture. Merfolk might be hiding in plain sight anywhere in your campaign setting. Just make sure their copy is waterproof.

I perused The Secret History of Hobgoblins already and *spoiler alert* folklore hobgoblins aren’t a militaristic warrior culture. Check out my thoughts on Secret History of Giants and how it relates to 5E D&D over here. In that case I did not feel compelled to start a new campaign exploring giant folklore. But only because the Nerdarchy team game we just started already leaned in that direction. The list of campaign ideas continues to grow, and never enough time to play them all so hopefully some of you will be inspired by the Secret History of Mermaids and Creatures of the Deep for your own campaign and then tell me all about them.

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Doug Vehovec

Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, worldbuilding or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy he enjoys cryptozoology trips and eating awesome food.

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