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  • Writer's pictureKatrina Waldman

Monster Monday #35: Will-O'-The-Wisp

Updated: Mar 4, 2023


And we are back for another Monster Monday, and this time I'm going with a mythical entity that I find endlessly fascinating - Will-O'-The-Wisps (meaning 'the will' or 'Will' of the 'Wisp', a bundle of sticks and paper often used as a torch). There is so much rich folklore surrounding this strange phenomenon, and examples of them can be found all over the world, though the name itself refers to the name given to them within British folklore. In the many legends surrounding them they are believed to be spirits, ghosts, or fairies that appear in the form of small, unexplainable lights. Often, they are dangerous and attempt to lead travellers astray, but in some tales they have been known to be helpful for the lost or weary traveller. They are also known as Jack-O'-Lanterns (though these are now commonly attributed to carved pumpkins lit up by candles, this entity was the origin of the name), Hinkypunks, or Ignis Fatuus ('giddy flame' or 'foolish fire') which was translated from the German Irrlicht or Irrwisch ('wandering light' or 'wandering wisp') and are often found in bogs, fens, or marshes.


These small orbs of glowing light, sometimes depicted as small creatures carrying lanterns, have a rich folkloric history and many tales surrounding them. Usually, a figure by the name Will or Jack is cursed or doomed to roam the marshes as punishment for some misdeed, which certainly explains the names Will O' The Wisp or Jack O' Lantern. A version in Shropshire tells of a Blacksmith named Will who is given a second chance by St. Peter at the gates of Heaven, but is still tempted by the Devil. An Irish version of the tale refers to Drunk or Stingy Jack who cheats the devil multiple times but ultimately succumbs to a terrible fate. Nowadays, glowing lights such as these are explained by science to be caused by fireflies, bioluminescent plants, and/or the oxidisation of natural gases produced by organic decay. This would indeed explain their appearance in places like swamps, which is full of this kind of decay. There are many examples of these strange lights all around the world - the European Hessdalen Light of Norway; the Australian Min Min Light, the Asian Naga Fireballs of Thailand; and in the Americas the Paulding Light of Michigan, the Spooklight of Missouri and Oklahoma, or the Marfa Lights of Texas are just a few examples of famous Will O' The Wisps. Folklorists and paranormal enthusiasts still refer to them as Ghost-Lights or Orbs however and they still resonate strongly within modern urban legends as being 'inexplicable' or 'unnatural'.


When it comes to looking at entities that are considered to be supernatural however, there are some really cool legends! Obviously British Folklore has many examples that are most often malevolent or spiteful spirits - the Pucá or Puck of Wales that holds 'fairy fire' leads lost travellers astray, with the Spunkie of Scottish folklore or the Pixy-Light of Devon and Cornwall often doing much the same. European folklore also references examples, such as the Aarnivalkea - spots of eternal flame that mark where treasure has been buried. Turning once more to the Americas I found the Feu Follet of Louisiana folklore; Luz Mala ('evil light') in both Uruguay and Argentina; the Mexican Luces Del Dinero or Luces Del Tesoro that are said to indicate hidden treasure; and the Brazilian Boi-tatá, a fiery serpent that can see all things at night. Hag-like entities are often prevalent in the folklore of South America - Mexico also refers to Brujas, witches that can transform into lights; Colombia's famous La Candileja is a ruthless grandmother that became a Will O' The Wisp, and the Soucouyant of Trinidad and Tobago is a 'fireball witch' that terrorises all and drinks blood. Asia too has stories surrounding floating lights - the Alaya of Bangladesh; the Hitodama (meaning 'human soul' and said to be spirits of the dead), Kitsunebi (mischievous balls of flame), or 'fox-fire' produced by two marrying Kitsune in Japanese folklore; and the Kollivay Pey of India!


So do these entities appear anywhere in modern media or pop culture? Of course they do! They are in fact found everywhere! There are plenty of instances of them being referenced in classic literature - Bram Stoker's Dracula sees the Count informing Jonathan Harker about the folk belief of them indicating treasure, Milton's Paradise Lost has a famous passage in which Satan is compared to the Will-O'-The-Wisp, and Goethe's The Green Snake & The Beautiful Lily contains the lights, which are capable of consuming gold. They also exist in plenty of famous fantasy stories - the Lord Of The Rings series, the Harry Potter series, The Neverending Story, and The Spiderwick Chronicles being just some examples. Within visual media you might immediately think of Disney Pixar's Brave in which they play a more helpful role, the Pokémon move 'Will-O-Wisp' that is commonly associated with the Kitsune based Pokémon Vulpix, the character Wisp in the Animal Crossing series, and plenty of other video games such as Diablo II, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Dragon Age: Origins, and the Elder Scrolls series.

 

So now it is time for the exciting bit - stat blocks! I love exploring interesting ways of bringing mythical creatures to life, and this odd spirit is no exception.


Starting with Wizards Of The Coast then, there is actually an existing stat block for a Will-O'-Wisp (Basic Rules, page 355).


This Tiny CR 2 Undead stat block does a really good job of living up to the sinister legends and lore of the real-world Will-O'-The-Wisps. The creature typing works, but could easily be switched to Fey dependant on the tale that you are basing it upon. I also love that it is so clearly built for multiple to be encountered at once, and the low level CR should not fool you as this stat block could be very dangerous indeed. Variable Illumination, Invisibility, and a Shock attack may seem harmless enough, but its Consume Life ability has the capacity to immediately kill a party member without death saving throws. It is also exceptionally resistant (even immune) to many damage types which will make each one a little harder to kill. There is a Variant stat block available (The Wild Beyond The Witchlight, page 61) that is more friendly and has the ability to grant a Magic Boon to players.


So now moving onto Kobold Press as I always do, my first choice felt like a no brainer. I liked the Witchlight (Tome Of Beasts, page 409) for a few different reasons.


This Tiny CR 1/4 Construct definitely has a strange creature type for the lore (something that can be easily adjusted) and this is because Kobold Press's narrative has this as something created by mages and wizards to aid in their arcane work. Their similarity to Will-O'-Wisps is noted however, and there are a couple of things I might borrow. First, the Thin Of Light ability gives this creature another way to easily escape bad situations or lead travellers to almost anywhere. I also liked both Light Ray being Radiant damage (I often think that Radiant or Fire damage would be more appropriate for a Will-O'-The-Wisp), and Flash being able to blind creatures within radius for a series of rounds is definitely a fun, light-based ability.


Next up, I thought I'd look at some other Kobold Press offerings that take the concept of the Will-O'-The-Wisp in a bit of a different direction. I'll start with the Ooze, Foxfire (Creature Codex, page 283).


I adore this Large CR 10 Ooze stat block. It takes the concept of mysterious glowing lights, and the curiosity that a party may feel around that, and ramps them up to the next level by being something they would not expect at all. Reading the lore around it being mistaken for swamp gas or fireflies is super fun, and I like that it is inspired by the ozone layer. There are a lot of standard Ooze abilities here (a Pseudopod attack, Amorphous, Spider Climb etc.) but the thing that really stood out to me was its Lightning Storm ability. Anyone attacking with metal will soon learn the consequences, as will anyone else within 20 ft. This certainly strikes me as an impressive encounter idea.


While browsing for more stat blocks from Kobold Press, I did also stumble across the Drake, Light (Tome Of Beasts II, page 125).


When looking at this Tiny CR 1/2 Dragon, you may not immediately think of a Will-O'-The-Wisp. They do look VERY different to the depiction of these creatures. However - looking at these made me think of the Boi-tatá, a serpentine version of the legendary entity described above, and a lot of the lore around them hoarding treasure lines up with Will-O'-The-Wisps indicating where treasure may be found. Kobold Press even acknowledge some similarities, and name Will-O'-Wisps as the Drake, Light's natural enemy. They have some great features, even at their low CR, including Reflective Scales, some light-based Innate Spellcasting, and OF COURSE a Radiant damage Breath Weapon. There are rules to make them familiars for your PCs too, so they are well worth having a look at! For another creature that may appear to be a Will-O'-Wisp at first, check out the Tiny CR 3 Fey Lazavik (Tome Of Beasts II, page 236). Their glowing eyes are often confused for the famed orbs of light, and they too dwell within swamps.

 

I have a ton of other third party resources for you to peruse, should you want to find a different way of including Will-O'-The-Wisps in your game:

  • When it comes to expanding upon options available, Dragonix rarely lets me down and they have re-worked Wizards Of The Coast's Will-O'-Wisp into the CR 5 Dread Will-O'-Wisp (Monster Manual Expanded, page 288) which not only has Invisibility when it needs to make a getaway, but also has Whispers Of Hope And Despair, which is able to Charm those that fail the saving throw.

  • While we are thinking of expanding upon the existing stat block, it is definitely worth having a look at Christopher Walz, Christian Eichhorn, and Alex Clippinger's Legendary Bestiary as it takes low level stat-blocks and gives them some Legendary actions to really shake things up a bit! The Will-O'-Wisp (page 25) has been given the Entrance, Illumination, and Wink options and all are very in keeping with a more challenging Will-O'-Wisp.

  • One of the most impressive findings I had was in Ultimate Bestiary: The Dreaded Accursed by Nord Games. They had an ENTIRE CHAPTER on Will-O'-Wisps with a few new stat blocks to choose from - the CR 2 Ghostflame that haunts dreams (page 177), the CR 3 Wisp Of Yearning that lures in victims with their desires (page 178), and the Huge CR 9 Red Wisp that feeds on the fear of its prey (page 179).

  • Nathan Haslé's Book Of Beautiful Horrors contains a couple of great stat blocks related to the Will-O'-The-Wisp. The first is the Large CR 5 Undead Foglet (page 21), a creature that gives of an eery glow, has the ability to use fog to manipulate its victims and surroundings, can cast gaseous form and invisibility at will, and will become a Will-O'-Wisp if killed to find a new corpse to inhabit. The Large CR 10 Undead Ignis Fatuus (page 21) is even more powerful and can manipulate the fog further, as well as Summon Wisps.

  • I really enjoy the content released by Mage Hand Press, and their familiars in particular are a lot of fun! Their Pet Cemetery set of familiars includes a CR 0 Hitodama stat block which can shed light, and deal a small amount of Necrotic damage.

  • The stat blocks in Dave Coulson's Monsters Of The Infinite Planes are always a lot of fun, and the CR 4 Elemental Nyth (page 161) bares a lot of resemblance to the Will-O'-The-Wisp. Rather than attempting to devour souls, they instead feed on energy (Fire and Lightning in particular), deal Force damage, and resemble the lights of the Aurora Borealis.

  • Similarly, Pirate Gonzalez created a CR 10 Fey called a Banelight (page 8, The Book Of The Fey: A Fey Bestiary) which resembles a dragonfly with a human head and holds a glowing orb of light. It can create Will-O'-Wisps, has a powerful Light Vortex attack, and anyone within its Banelight Aura is under the effect of the bane spell.

  • Lastly, if you want something even more threatening the a standard Will-O'-Wisp, then check out u/TheArenaGuy's stat block for a CR 9 Swarm-O'Will-O'-Wisps! If you want to have your party completely surrounded by these terrifying creatures then this is the way to do it. Their Ghastly Shock attack is powerful, as is their Dreadful Torrent action.

 

So now that we've looked at a lot of stat block options, let's figure out how we can get them into your game! Here are some potential plot hooks:

  1. The party arrive in a village and quickly become aware of travellers, like them, that have been going missing in the surrounding area. The villagers are sending out search parties during the day, but are too afraid to try at night.

  2. A small wisp of light begins to cautiously follow the party around, though tries to hide when they become aware of it. If they gain its trust, it will be able to point them in the right direction when close to something the party might need (shelter, treasure, the right direction).

  3. The party hear on the winds, while traversing misty hills, the ghostly echoes of lost souls wandering and giving directions (some correct, some incorrect). These voices are coming from small orbs of light. If the party attack, they will become hostile. The party can however try to discover a way to help them move on.

  4. While travelling through the swamps, the party might encounter any number of odd light sources but eventually one of them will be a number of dangerous Will-O'-The-Wisps. They will attempt to lure the players in and then swarm and attack them.

  5. While stopping in a town, the party will hear people complaining of their small trinkets, coins, and treasures going missing. The trail will eventually lead to what seems to be a group of Will-O'-Wisps, but upon closer inspection will turn out to be tiny, glowing dragons that have claimed these treasures as their hoard.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post on Will-O'-The-Wisps, they are an absolutely fascinating entity with a rich folkloric history. Have you ever used them in your game? Let me know!

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2 commenti


Daniel Riquelme
Daniel Riquelme
19 set 2022

I love this article!


Excellent job as always, Kat. Thank you for writing this article!

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feyearth
19 set 2022

Love this one Kat, another great article. In my game they are a fey with a hypnotic lure to draw you to swampy places so you might drown and they can drain your life while dying. While not especially powerful or dangerous they are a lot of fun as I found when I was able to use one to draw the party gunslinger away from a fight that they badly needed her in. Took her nearly six rounds to get back!

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