Monster Monday #3: Baba Yaga
Updated: Mar 4
This being has been rattling around my head a lot recently and I've been wanting to write on her ever since I had the idea to write this blog and do these weekly posts. In fact, it was a casual conversation in which I realised that she was not as well known a figure as I thought that inspired this idea in the first place! Baba Yaga is, in short, the stereotypical witch. When I think of words like Hag or Crone, I think of this figure. She is best known for being the child-eating villain, although many tales paint her in a more ambiguous, sometimes even helpful light. Some of the most famous of these tales are 'Vasilia The Beautiful', 'The Death of Koschei The Deathless', and 'The Maiden Tsar'.
Baba Yaga, also known as Ježibaba, most notably appears in Slavic Folklore, with the first half 'Baba' being a word that is synonymous with 'sorceress', 'fortune-teller', or coming from 'Babushka' meaning 'Grandmother' or 'old woman'. 'Yaga' has been linked to various words in many slavic languages, with meanings such as 'horror', 'anger' or 'witch'. The character appears in thousands of different Eastern-European tales, playing many different roles. She is a recurrent fairy tale character of sorts, managing to encompass the role of the ultimate villain, but also neutral wise-woman or even helping hand when the story has need of it. In some tales she is not one but three women, with may have drawn from the Fates and the Norns of Greek and Norse mythology, and may also have been the source of inspiration for Shakespeare's Macbeth and, in turn, modern-day fairy tales such as Stardust by Neil Gaiman.
While depictions of this legendary figure may vary, there are two common identifiers within most of these tales. Firstly, Baba Yaga is said to live in a hut in the woods that can move around. Most often, it is said to do so on chicken legs, and it can be quite powerfully terrifying imagery - a witch in the woods with the power to be anywhere she wants and give chase if she should want to. If her hut failed her, her flying mortar and pestle would certainly allow her to chase down a fleeing child or unprepared hero. It's certainly unusual equipment for travel, though no stranger than perhaps a broom. Synonymous with other witches such as Baba Roga, Mama Padurii (meaning 'Forest Mother' in Romanian folklore), Yama-uba (a Japanese variant that shares many similarities) and even the Ancient Greek goddess Hecate whose domains included magic and witchcraft, Baba Yaga is every bit the fairy tale archetype. I can’t help but think of the evil witch in the tale Hansel & Gretel, and her somewhat differently styled but still every bit as magical home.
It is easy to see this figure re-interpreted in many different forms in modern media and stories alike. For fans of Studio Ghibli, you might find her in 'Spirited Away's' villain - Yubaba. She is mentioned in both fear and reverence in the John Wick films and Ant-Man & The Wasp as a form of the classic 'boogeyman', and appears as a literal character in the most recent Hellboy film and the sequel to Anastasia - Bartok The Magnificent. Disney's classic animated version of Snow White also features the Evil Queen transforming into a Crone that really embeds the archetypal behaviour and place of folkloric beings such as Baba Yaga. Those who have played the video game Alan Wake may also find similarities to the antagonist of the game, Barbara Jagger.
So with that in mind, let’s look at some stat blocks! My choices from Wizards Of The Coast content are probably going to feel a little obvious given some of the above context, and the fact that Baba Yaga is an established character in the Feywild of the D&D 'Forgotten Realms' Universe (Tasha, of Tasha’s Cauldron Of Everything fame is said to be her daughter, or at least have been mentored by her).
A generic choice first - Green Hag (Basic Rules, page 319).
At a CR 3 this is far too underpowered for the terrifying, very powerful witch that Baba Yaga is. But really it depends on how you want to include her in your game. If you want her to be included in a very low level adventure this works well. If you would like Baba Yaga to take on the role of an NPC that may aid the party in some way then this is a compromise that allows her to be of use without overpowering her. If I’m going to use a generic Hag stat block though, I would probably prefer to use the Coven Variant (Monster Manual, page 177). It’s a CR 5, and has access to a lot more spells that will challenge your players. I chose the Green Hag over others purely due to the location - Baba Yaga is often depicted in forests, swamps and marshes. Their ability to become Invisible, their Mimicry ability, and their Illusory Appearance could also flavour a story well. You could check out some of the other Hag variants available - I think that the Night Hag's (Basic Rules, page 319) predilection for haunting sleep, the Dusk Hag's (Eberron: Rising From The Last War, page 292) prophetic nature and the Bheur Hag's (Mordenkainen Presents: Monsters Of The Multiverse, page 62) cannibalistic nature all work very well.
A personal favourite next - Baba Lysaga (Curse Of Strahd, page 228).
I can’t tell you how excited I was coming across this character while playing this campaign! The former Nursemaid of Strahd Von Zarovich, Baba Lysaga is a very direct, obvious reference to the real-world Baba Yaga! She even has her own Creeping Hut (complete with it‘s own stat block, page 226). Both of these creatures are CR 11 which makes for a POWERFUL encounter, and there are many interesting ways that you could use the hut for some special tactics - especially as it has such high damage output! It's honestly one of my favourite encounters and well worth checking out and drawing inspiration from if you want Baba Yaga in your game!
Though there is no official stat block for Baba Yaga herself, I mentioned that her and her very famous daughter Tasha do exist within D&D lore. With that in mind, I have picked out Iggwilv The Witch Queen (The Wild Beyond The Witchlight, page 205) as my next stat block.
Those that know the story of this particular adventure will probably understand why this is a great choice for this legendary figure. She is also the perfect challenge for higher tier play at a CR 20 and there is so much to unpack with this one. First up - this stat block is formidable with actions, bonus actions, reactions and legendary actions all available to her. Not only that, but she has legendary resistances and magic items that buffer her! Beyond this - Iggwilv The Witch Queen can cast some powerful spells at will, wish once per day, and has links to both Fey-themed and Fiend-themed powers which really makes sense for a Baba Yaga-esque character. Aesthetically, she doesn't bring to mind a powerful elderly hag, but she certainly has the stats of one.
Another cracking interpretation from Kobold Press - Baba Yaga, Arch-Crone (Creature Codex, page 46).
At CR 20 I love the fact that this is a challenging encounter for Tier 3/Tier 4 play and contains some intriguing legendary actions and resistances! There is even a mini stat-block for her famed iron teeth (Gvozdenzuba is another name that is associated with her in folklore, literally meaning 'Iron Tooth'). The art work for this one is evocative of the villainous, terrifying cannibal from folklore and she makes better use of her mortar and pestle in this encounter idea, but there is a lot of information written in the book about her love for making deals and successfully interacting with adventurers too. As well as this, check out Kobold Press's Baba Yaga's Horsemen stat block (Tome Of Beasts, page 29). This feels like a nod to Ruth Manning-Sanders book - 'A Book Of Enchantments & Curses' - in which Baba Yaga is served by three knights, each representing a different time of day. Another great higher tier stat block from Kobold Press comes in the form of the Queen Of Witches (Tome Of Beasts, page 194). This Large CR 18 Fey has some amazing inspiration for a Baba Yaga stat block, though aesthetically may look a little too young to properly represent her. I love the spells available to her, her ability Absorb The Weave has some really nice flavour for a being that has such a mastery over magic, and as well as having legendary actions, she has lair actions and regional effects also.
Looking further afield, I found a few more suggestions:
Dragonix rarely disappoints me with the content found in their expanded Monster Manuals, and this was no exception. In Monster Manual Expanded I stumbled across the CR 10 Green Hag, Elder (page 146) which has access to an excellent array of spells, Maddening Cackle, Illusory Appearance, and Change Shape.
I found a similar stat block within The Complete Hag by Daniel Chivers & Marco Bertini - the Green Hag, Grandmother Merry Covenstead (page 112). At CR 10, I like this one for a number of reasons - mostly that I think it adds a lot to the generic Green Hag stat block? There is also an actual CR 22 Baba Yaga stat block in this book (page 132) alongside the CR 12 Baba Yaga's Hut (page 133). They make use of a lot of cool items and spells introduced within the book!
In The Book Of Beautiful Horrors by Nathan Haslé, I found that the CR 15 Crone (page 9) was a really cool option for Baba Yaga! The base stat block has a really interesting Mistress Of Hexes action, as well as Limited Magic Immunity and legendary actions. Each 'type' of Crone then allow for further customisation - I would probably recommend the Norn (page 12) or Primeval Crone (page 12) for Baba Yaga.
I'm always a big fan of higher tier play for such a legendary figure, and this CR 23 Baba Yaga, Mother Of All Witches stat block (Ned Turner's Lords and Ladies, page 42) presents her as a powerful Archfey. This is great option as it comes complete with lair actions (bumping CR to 25), legendary actions, legendary resistances and a stat block for Baba Yaga's Dancing Hut (CR 16), as well as a stat block for the Solar Knight (CR 13) champion of hers!
EN Publishing created a CR 24 Baba Yaga stat block for their book Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters which perhaps contains a little too much in the way of abilities for one stat block, but certainly has lots to draw from when creating your own!
More you ask? Okay! Well try out Cze and Peku's Patreon for free stat blocks and hut tokens, and check out their stunning maps for this encounter too! They are beautifully designed and perfect for either using the stats they provide OR any of the suggestions above.
Once again, I love the idea that Baba Yaga can be slotted into many types of settings and with plenty of different stories. Is she a child-snatching witch? A mysterious old crone who prefers solitude? Or will she even aid your party, and at what cost? You decide! Here is some inspiration:
A distraught Father is desperately searching for his two missing children. They ran into the woods to play as they usually do, but did not return home all night. Perhaps they are lost?
The town speaks in low whispers about an evil witch that terrorises those that venture deep into the swamps. They do say however that she guards a mysterious treasure, if she can be defeated.
The party, while travelling, stumble across an old hut in the middle of the woods. There are large bird tracks leading up to it, though no sign of what made them. No lights come from it - it looks abandoned.
While struggling in combat or with some other obstacle, an old crone appears and aids the party, inviting them to her home. She offers to help them in some way, though she will of course need something in return...
As the party deal with a hag that has been terrorising their quest-giver, on her dying breath she appeals to the 'Mother Of All Witches' or the 'Bone Mother' to dole out retribution on them. The party now have Baba Yaga's attention...will she seek to destroy them or ask for something in exchange for the life they took of one of her favoured followers?
Have you ever heard of or included Baba Yaga in your game? Is this the first you'd heard of Baba Lysaga's real-world inspiration? What interesting inclusion ideas do you have? Let me know!