The Monster Monday posts I've been doing where I focus on creatures of myth and legend and find ways of incorporating them into your DnD game have been a lot of fun! I wanted to expand upon that and start looking at elements of world-building, comparing them to real-world tropes, and archetypes to give some inspiration! And today I'm starting with my favourite - Tricksters!
Spreading mischief, discord, chaos, and merriment wherever they go, these figures have such range and potential in any campaign setting and are found throughout history and pop culture as lovable heroes that fool the villains with their wit and charm; anti-heroes that help or hinder dependant on their own goals and motivations; or the villains that manipulate their way to the top. They can be found in pantheons of gods, mortal or demigod heroes, anthropomorphic animals, or powerful and enigmatic creatures and spirits. They often act as a big plot device too - whether it's starting wars, using their pranks to get revenge for a past slight against them, or causing some kind of divide within a group setting that is usually very tight-knit. Their intelligence is often their weapon of choice as they are normally rather lacking in their ability to physically fight their way out of a situation.
So, let's start by looking at some real-world examples of trickster beings. There are an absolute multitude to choose from and what I personally love about them is that they often share some very similar powers, methods, and motives but each one does it in their own unique way.
Almost every pantheon has a trickster god of some kind, and they are often in charge of some other aspect of life too. For example Hermes, the fleet-footed messenger god, is also known as the god of thieves for stealing Apollo's cattle and was a more positive trickster within Greek mythology. Meanwhile Eris, the Greek goddess of discord and strife, is most famous for starting the Trojan War simply because she was upset for not being invited to a wedding. She threw an apple into the party marked for 'The Fairest' and the three goddesses - Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite began to squabble about whom it was for. Odin, of Norse mythology, certainly has a few tricks up his sleeve, especially when it comes to testing mortals. Sibú is the deity within Talamancan mythology that is attributed to forming the earth, but some of his tricks include pranking demons by bringing the animals they were about to eat back to life. Another trickster god known for benefiting humans with his tricks is Māui, of Polynesian mythology. Recently depicted in Disney's Moana, he is a hero and is famous for raising islands, bringing fire to the world, slowing the sun, and introducing the previously invisible birds to the attention of mortals.
Trickster figures also often share the ability to shape-change and that plays a big part in their pranks. If Odin was a beloved prankster, then Loki was often attributed with some of the more negative tricks in Norse myth. Shape-changing was a huge part of it though, and one of the most famous times he did this was when he became a mare and mothered the eight-legged stallion, Sleipnir. Satan, or The Devil in Christian tradition is most likely the ultimate shape-shifting trickster, using his abilities to tempt and manipulate people to turn away from God. Another shape-changer that comes to mind is far less deity-like, but is found in Japanese folklore - the Kitsune. They are known for being fox spirits and incredibly powerful, able to shift into human form with ease. Most often they turn into beautiful, young maidens, though they are not limited by age or gender, and in many legends they have difficulty hiding their tails.
Speaking of animals - something that I've found is that tricksters often take animal guises or actually are animals! In African mythology, Anansi the Spider is the god of stories and knowledge because he tricked the sky god, Nyame, into giving up the stories to him. Native American groups of the southwest tell stories of The Coyote, a figure that is often unreliable and chaotic but is friendly to humanity. For northern tribes, this role is instead filled by The Raven whose most famous act is stealing the sun from it's keeper. In medieval Europe you might have stumbled across stories of Reynard the Fox, an anthropomorphic red fox that tricks his fellow animals, usually for his own personal gain. My personal favourite animal trickster is Br'er Rabbit - a central figure in African-American storytelling whose roots can be traced back to Leuk, the rabbit trickster in Senegalese folklore. The ultimate anarchist, he represents a figure that goes to extremes in the face of adversity and would have been a folk-hero of sorts in a time where slavery, racism, and colonialism was rife.
Outside of mythology, tales, and folklore and into pop culture tricksters live on and can be found throughout pop culture everywhere! Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream contains the mischievous fairy, Puck. Many fairy tales contain a trickster, but Rumplestiltskin is probably one of the more famous, my favourite interpretation of him being in the hit TV Show Once Upon A Time. The popular TV show Game Of Thrones, adapted from the A Song Of Ice & Fire books, has this archetype in spades - manipulators with good intentions such as Tyrion Lannister or Varis, or the man that everyone loves to hate, Petyr Baelish, known also as Littlefinger. Trickster tropes can be found in the famous Batman villains The Joker and The Riddler. The rabbit deity in Watership Down known as El-Ahrairah is very obviously based on the previously mentioned Br'er Rabbit, as is the more famous cartoon prankster - Bugs Bunny.
So how do we bring trickery, chaos, and pandemonium into our DnD games?
There are a variety of ways - we can find them in the characters that players create for games; in NPCs, creatures or gods that DMs might put in their plots and worlds; magical items or spells could trick the players or incorporate pranks within them; even whole settings may end up being a trick of some sort. I'm going to come up with a few ideas here and refer to some of the source material to provide some inspiration for your one-shot, campaign, or encounter!
CHARACTER CREATION: Perhaps you want to PLAY a Trickster, or include an NPC Trickster in a game you are DMing. Well that's certainly a fantastic character choice option and there are a variety of ways to do this. Let me give some ideas here.
RACE: In all honesty, the best example I can think of here for a character that might want to root itself in trickery is the Changeling (Eberron: Rising From The Last War). They have the ability to change their looks and voices AT WILL, which is huge for impersonating others, and can choose to be proficient in two CHA based skills. They aren't the only option though - the Kenku (Volo's Guide To Monsters) is a master of mimicry and forgery which could be very useful, Firbolgs (Volo's Guide To Monsters) have access to temporary invisibility and the spell disguise self naturally, as does the Hexblood (Van Richten's Guide To Ravenloft) lineage. For a trickster that is a little more mirthful, Satyrs (Mythic Odysseys Of Theros) are an excellent option also, as are Gnomes (The Player's Handbook) because they are naturally intelligent and cunning.
CLASS/SUBCLASS: If trickery and misdirection is your jam then perhaps you want it to be a core part of your character's magic or skillset. The obvious choice is the Cleric - Trickery Domain. The clue is in the name, right? Clerics of this domain will certainly get to access some mischievous, useful abilities. The Rogue - Arcane Trickster also lends itself well to this archetype if you're after some themed magic, though I also like the Rogue - Inquisitive or Rogue - Mastermind if your idea of a Trickster is someone a little more manipulative. Seeing as Tricksters will most likely be charismatic, a Bard - College Of Glamour is another great option thanks to it's Feywild connections and I would also recommend Warlock - The Archfey for the same reasons! Lastly, I'm going to throw both Wizard - School Of Enchantment and Wizard - School Of Illusion into the mix - the first because of it's aptitude for charming and beguiling people, and the second because illusory magic is a trickster's best friend!
BACKGROUND: When creating your character, your background can be whatever you make it and however long you'd like. Of the pre-determined backgrounds however there are some great choices for a Trickster. My first choice is going to be Charlatan as you gain proficiency with Disguise Kits and Forgery Kits, as well as Sleight Of Hand and Deception. From a more manipulative standpoint I love Courtier or Criminal/Spy. Both just give that extra edge in the manipulation of other people that is so often found in Tricksters. Another choice, maybe a little unexpected? Folk Hero. Many of the greatest Tricksters in real-world folklore fit this archetype and if you want one to root for, this might be the way to go!
GODS: Trickster gods are a huge part of world-wide mythology and so it's a common choice for a DnD pantheon too. There are some amazing suggestions within the various pantheons of DnD if you are playing a pre-built setting or using the pantheon from them:
Tymora (Forgotten Realms, also known as Lady Luck)
Beshaba (Forgotten Realms, or The Maid of Misfortune)
The Traveler (Eberron)
Olidammara (Greyhawk, known as The Laughing Rogue)
Garl Glittergold (Greyhawk, known as The Sparkling Wit)
The campaign setting Mythic Odysseys Of Theros suggests three of its Gods for those looking for some trickery in their lives:
Erebos, god of the dead
Kruphix, god of horizons
Phenax, god of deception
Looking to home-brew? Well then my first piece of advice is to look at some of the examples above, and those from real-world mythology I've named, and gather some inspiration. Perhaps ask yourself some questions - do you prefer the idea of a good-natured prankster whose intentions are ultimately good but methods a little unorthodox, pulling silly pranks along the way? Or perhaps your god is selfish, or even villainous, and plans to trick and deceive their way to achieving their ambitions. Are they wanting your players' help to pull off the greatest trick of all? Or are they deceiving your players? Trickster gods are often chaotic by nature and it's important to decide just how far into that they fall.
It's also a fun idea, I think, to give them a quirk of sorts that can be identified by their followers. I adore, for example, the idea of a folk-hero god reminiscent of Br'er Rabbit worshipped by the Harengon (The Wild Beyond The Witchlight) based on stories they tell of him with some very distinct trademark. Or perhaps a goddess that appears to the chosen player in various animal forms, each with the same marking on their cheek. Perhaps instead of animals, they turn up and keep an eye on things by disguising themselves as various NPCs dotted around the campaign, as Odin would. Perhaps their mirthful laughter haunts the dreams of players that worship them...
CREATURES: There are some really cool monsters in DnD of course, and some of them are very closely affiliated with trickery, mirth, and chaos. I've come up with a few suggestions that could make interesting encounters for your players! Doppelgangers (CR 3) have stealth based ambushing abilities, shape changing powers, and advantage on charisma checks thanks to the fact that they can read thoughts, and so make EXCELLENT tricksters. There is also a stat block for Changelings (CR 1/2) which are a similar encounter idea, but have Unsettling Visage instead. Nilbogs (CR 1) are goblinoids possessed by trickster spirits. How cool does that sound?! Don't let the low CR put you off, a group of these could be absolutely TERRIFYING. Lycanthropy gives a lot of different options (Werewolves, Werebears, Wereboars, etc.) and seeing as they can choose to change form, they could make an interesting trickery-based plot hook. Hags or Devils are also a great inspiration source (as are most Fey and Fiendish creatures) because of their love of making deals and deception.
Hopefully reading this article has opened up your eyes to the potential of the Trickster. There are many ways to make combat interesting - but involving trickery just adds to that because it forces your players to think and makes them a little on edge. Whether it's through the use of Illusion spells such as hallucinatory terrain, phantasmal killer or project image or through interesting creatures such as those above. When looking at the bigger picture, Tricksters make excellent plot hooks! Maybe one of your players worships a known Trickster god? Maybe a powerful Trickster deity or being is pretending to be a different god and amassing followers? Perhaps a recurring NPC that loves to play pranks and get the party into trouble will be their new favourite/most-hated NPC? However you include them, I thoroughly recommend this trope.
Let me know how you have used these themes in your adventures!