You know those childhood shaping Studio Ghibli movies? Whether it’s the bloody Princess Mononoke or the captivating Howl’s Moving Castle there’s always been something special about the fantastical worlds crafted by the Japanese production company. Today, I want to hone in on one aspect they get really right: the idea of the magical crone. To avoid spoilers for Critical Role Episode 96 onward, skip the following spoiler section. All the spoiler people gone? Cool.
Hags break rules, but never deals
Recently, we of the Nerdarchy crew were discussing hags in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. Someone mentioned how hags are generally such a low challenge rating and they voiced a desire for more powerful hags. I actually disagree with this idea though. Hags don’t need to have a higher CR to be scary. Part of what makes hags so scary is that their magic is… weird. It’s fine for them to be fragile because hags do things with magic others couldn’t dream, and what’s more, they break the expectations of magic.
From a narrative standpoint, codified magic systems are a means of foreshadowing. If you want to solve problems with magic the rules need to be grounded. If your magic system lacks rules (called a soft magic system), it evokes a sense of wonder and awe. If a soft magic system complicates things for the players, it evokes dread.
Hags are perfect for evoking dread in your players. Break the rules of magic. Do weird things with their casting! Evocative descriptions are your best friend when running a hag. Maybe her ray of sickness manifests as a character beginning to wither, or maybe they begin vomiting worms or something else terrifying.
Instead of a direct conflict try incorporating puzzles into your hag encounter. Maybe the characters have to use an action to extinguish a certain number of candles in order to be able to damage her in the first place. Try setting flavorfully described traps throughout the encounter, and long before the characters ever meet their hag nemesis put them in a position to meet her.
Hags readily interact with player characters in D&D. They love it. If your characters are more murder hobo inclined, make sure the way they meet her defines a distinct power discrepancy or otherwise render the characters helpless when she talks to them.
Anytime a hag converses with characters she’ll likely want to make a deal. Much like genies, these deals are always skewed in the favor of the hag. If you have her ask for something immaterial (such as your memories before age 6, or your voice for a day), that makes things really interesting, and the nonsensical nature of the request can set the players on edge. Just always remember to keep the terms of any agreements made, if only in the most technical sense.
Swampy lairs and candy huts
Returning to the hag’s CR, it really doesn’t matter that she’s a low CR, particularly if you use the idea of making the combat less of a hack-n-slash and more of a puzzle encounter. Many Dungeon Masters don’t think of hags as having lairs, as such, because they tend to live in mystical forests or swamps. However, there’s no reason these locations can’t mechanically be dungeons.
Give your hag lair actions in their favored terrain. Make them creepy. Really lean into that Halloween vibe of nature. Spiders, worms and other creepy crawlies are your staples here, plus black ichor mud, carnivorous trees and other nasty business.
Alternatively, go sugar sweet with it and stage the dungeon in a candy mansion. There’s something inherently disturbing about an elderly woman surrounded by childlike dreamscapes, waiting to prey on those who enter.
Mistresses of illusion and enchantment
Hags are masters of enchantment and illusion. As such, while they may actually be gruesome fey elders the size of a bear they can easily alter their form or appearance to be young, comely or any other combination of traits.
One interesting idea for your campaign might be to introduce a young woman to the party, someone with whom they quickly connect. Possibly, this is a recurring NPC quest giver your characters can build a friendship with. Then their whole world comes crashing down when it’s revealed they’ve been manipulated by their friend the whole time, and she’s actually a horrifying hag bent on destroying people’s lives.
Ultimately, a lot of what makes hags so scary and vile has nothing to do with mechanics or CR. It’s all about flavorful descriptions and twisting things in weird ways. A well run hag can be as emotionally devastating as any Studio Ghibli villain or as terrifying as the most nefarious vampire.
What do you think?
What are your thoughts on hags in D&D? Have you ever run an especially memorable hag in one of your campaigns? Let us know in the comments!