Monster Monday #30: Night Hag
Updated: Mar 4
Monday is upon us once more, and that can ONLY mean that it is time for a Monster Monday post! This week, I'm focusing on something of a phenomenon - the Night Hag. Those of you that have experienced the bizarre and often terrifying ordeal that is sleep paralysis, the Night Hag or Old Hag is the original English term used to describe such an ordeal, and the folkloric creature believed to be responsible. It is a fascinating thing though, because this creature goes by many different names, has many different looks, and is even organised into many different creature classifications, dependant on where in the world you are. The sheer amount of folklore and mythology surrounding this is quite astonishing and after all the research and reading I've been doing, I honestly feel I could write a whole book!
The original definition of sleep paralysis was coded as the word 'nightmare', which has now come to describe a bad dream or night terror in our modern lexicon. Specifically, the 'nightmare' was considered the work of demons that sat on the chest of person as they slept. In fact in Slavic and Scandinavian folklore, sleep paralysis and night terrors are caused by a creature known as a Mare or Mara which is most likely the source of the 'mare' in 'nightmare'. This creature was commonly known to resemble a Goblin or Hag, though also associated with the demonic Incubi and Succubi, as it preyed upon its victims as they slept. The Mare was also believed to ride horses in the night, causing them to be exhausted in the morning, and would tangle the hair of those it visited. Mares were also commonly associated with witches, and this association was prevalent in England and its various American settlements. It was particularly prevalent in Newfoundland in Canada, as well as southern United States where the negative figure of a Hag was believed to leave its body and cause sleep paralysis by sitting on the chest of its victims. Sleep paralysis is often given the name 'witch-riding' or being 'hag-ridden' as a result, and is sometimes said to portend a tragedy.
Sleep paralysis is an unusual state and it is incredibly easy to see why so many places around the world have explained it with some form of supernatural entity. The stories are incredibly varied as well, though share common themes. In Greece or Cyprus, you might find tales of the demonic Mora that tries to steal the victims speech and asphyxiate them. Latvian folklore refers to the Lietuvēns, the soul of someone who was strangled, hung, or drowned that attacks people and animals. Moving your left toe was the common way to stop them, and indeed many people cite attempting to move fingers and toes as a way of ending sleep paralysis. Catalonian legend refers to the Pesanta, an enormous dog (or cat) with steel paws that roams at night and sits on the chests of its victims. Much of Asian folklore attributes sleep paralysis to some form of ghost or spirit pressing down on a person while they rest - this is known as guǐ yā shēn in China, kanashibari in Japan, gawi nulim in Korea, and ma đè in Vietnam. Folklore of the Philippines refers to the Batibat or Bangungot, a grotesque female tree-sprit that sits one the chest of their victims and suffocates them while inducing horrible nightmares. In Brazil, a creature known as Pisadeira or 'she who steps' is an old, tall, skinny woman with long nails that lives on the rooftops and waits to step on the chests of those sleeping with a full stomach.
Modern media is full to the brim of references to creatures that haunt the dreams of their victims, take advantage of them while they are asleep, and induce some kind of nightmare or night terror. The Batibat actually appears in an episode of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and induces them into dream states. The Swedish film Marianne also focuses on the curse of a Mare, as does Mara. In The Haunting Of Hill House, Nelly suffers from episodes of sleep paralysis in which she is haunted by the terrifying 'bent-neck lady'. Video games such as God Of War also reference the Mare, and both Don't Open Your Eyes and The Deep Sleep Trilogy both focus on terrifying demons that cause sleep paralysis and nightmares. The Sandman universe also references the Night Hag specifically.
So when it comes to putting this creature into our game, where do we start? After all...the depictions of an entity that might CAUSE sleep paralysis vary wildly and so one DM may choose a nightmarish hag, while another might prefer a demonic goblin-like creature. My emphasis when choosing stat blocks will firmly be on the sleep-related abilities and actions of each creature, though I will comment on their aesthetic where appropriate.
So first up from Wizards Of The Coast, let's take a look at the rather obvious choice - the Night Hag (Basic Rules, page 319).
There is a lot about this stat block that really works, and that is very unsurprising considering it's name. As a CR 5 Fiend, this stat block is fairly accessible as a long-term villain for lower tier play, a challenge for mid-tier play, or something of a nuisance encounter for higher tiers. It's Innate Spellcasting of course gives it access to sleep, a staple for a sleep-oriented creature. It also has the ability Nightmare Haunting which is where the sleep paralysis and nightmare related effects really shine. Beyond this, Magic Resistance, Change Shape, and Etherealness are all incredibly useful abilities that will help to flavour the encounter immensely. I love the lore around the items that it carries and the slow-burning method of driving people to evil before killing them in their sleep and capturing their soul. It is a Fiend which nods to the real-world demon-related folklore, but also has previous connections to the Feywild! It also aesthetically fits a lot of the folklore discussed above and can be flavoured in lots of different ways! If you want to up the challenge rating of such a creature, try the Coven Variant (Monster Manual, page 178) for a CR 7 alternative with access to more spells. I also really love the Dusk Hag (Eberron: Rising From The Last War, page 292) for a sleep haunting creature - its a CR 6 Fey with access to Nightmare Touch and Dream Eater!
So this next choice may be more surprising aesthetically, but has actually got a fair amount of potential as a dream-haunting creature - the Hashalaq Quori (Eberron: Rising From The Last War, page 305).
The Quori in DnD lore are residents of Dal Quor, or the Dream Plane. With that in mind, it is quite unsurprising that a creature like this would make it on this list! They are a Medium CR 9 Aberration, and behave a little like parasites when possessing their hosts or feeding off of them. Their abilities are based in psionic however, and there are a couple of things I'd really love to note. First of all - their Innate Spellcasting gives them disguise self (so they can be flavoured to look by a DM however they like), as well as dominate person and dream. It also has Idyllic Touch and Mind Thrust which work well as a way of incapacitating then attacking its victims. There are other versions of the Quori - the CR 7 Tsucora Quori (Eberron: Rising From The Last War, page 307) and the incredibly powerful CR 19 Kalaraq Quori (Eberron: Rising from the Last War, page 306) - that might serve as inspiration!
So now, onto Kobold Press and I have a couple of options here! The first is exactly what you might imagine - the Dream Wraith (Creature Codex, page 135).
The lore surrounding this creature very much reminds me of everything I have been reading about more spectral, Asian interpretations of the sleep paralysis phenomenon. It is a CR 5 Undead which is born in the Dream Realm and seeks to steal the souls of it's victims. It has actions such as Sleep Touch and Steal Dreams, and even a reaction - Dreamer's Gaze. This one has a lot of potential, and it certainly seems to be following an appropriate CR for this kind of encounter.
Now for something a little more...unexpected. I know you are all staring at this art in confusion and horror, and believe me when I say that I was too, but trust me - the Heggarna (Tome Of Beasts II, page 196) is a contender.
Where to begin. Well. The official lore literally cites the sleep paralysis phenomena as a direct result of creatures such as this Tiny CR 1 Aberration. It sneaks into the homes of it's victims, usually disguised as a cat, and sits on their chests while draining their essence and turning their dreams to horrible nightmares. It's Dream Eating ability is particularly terrifying, and it's Dream Rift action will definitely cause some issues for an unprepared party. I can't decide whether I want to ridicule this one or consider it the stuff of nightmares, but I DID say that aesthetic would not be my main focus for this creature. In terms of a Night Hag specifically, it would be very easy to change up this creature's look for a completely different one!
So now we head to some plot hooks, and I'm excited for these because there are so many ways that these creatures could be implemented!
An NPC that is well-established as a contact for the party seems a little changed every time they visit. Fatigued and distracted, as if they are ill. Their temperament is changed too, becoming crankier. A Night Hag is visiting them and ruining their sleep with visions and nightmares that will provoke paranoia and drive them to do something awful if the party does not stop them.
A member of the party begins to experience visions and dreams in which they are powerless to move, seemingly from their chosen deity or patron. It is of course the work of a powerful Night Hag.
The party visit a village in which the inhabitants are experiencing sleep paralysis. They are beginning to turn on each other due to the lack of sleep and the paranoia induced. A couple of them have even died in the last couple of weeks, though the inhabitants have not connected the dots yet.
The party meet an NPC who has developed a symbiotic relationship with a creature that feeds from their dreams and nightmares, and in return aids them in their goals.
A creature is caught mid-feeding, sitting on the chest of it's victim. It makes it's escape but seeks to come and feed from them again and the party are tasked with finding a way to protect that NPC while hunting the creature!
I hope you enjoyed this article on the Night Hag! I learnt a lot about sleep paralysis and folklore surrounding it, and in a lot of ways this article barely scratches the surface. Have you ever used a creature that has attacked the party while they slept? Let me know!