Tamlin, the Feywild’s white rabbit

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Joe Gaylord: [00:00:00]  You are at the festival for the King’s wedding.  You’ve been brought here, seeking the attention of the various nobility who are here gathered, and you are walking amongst all of the chaos that pervades a medieval festival of this kind. You have people hocking fruits and vegetables around you. You have a Punch and Judy show going on one corner. You have feats of strength. You have side shows. All of the sounds and sights and smells of a medieval festival are happening around you and out of the corner of your eye, you see someone’s slightly out of place, a little taller, a little “dandier” than most, of those around them.

He might pass as an elf, if a slightly, aloof, slightly taller, slightly paler  form of an elf and as he approaches you, you see a tall man in a vest and a cutaway jacket, a tricorn hat perched above a very long narrow face. His legs look odd, bending almost more like goat or rabbit legs than you might expect.

And behind his back, what you might have taken for a curtain of pale hair are two long ears that hang down as he approaches. You hear him calmly say to you, “Oh, you have to come with me.” And with a snap of his fingers, you find yourself no longer in that fair, no longer in that festival, but standing in a grove lit by fireflies at sunset, a grove in more brilliant colors than you’ve ever seen in the world before.

And everything has slightly changed.  Now your adventure begins.

Lucas: [00:02:53] Hello and welcome to Making a Monster, the bite-sized podcast where game designers show us their favorite monster and we discover how it works, why it works, and what it means. I’m Lucas Zellers.

The centaur, the hippogriff, and the owlbear are all called monsters because they’re two things smooshed together that shouldn’t be smooshed together – human and horse, horse and eagle, owl and bear. In those instances the separate animals function as archetypes, I think, rather than species, so it’s a hop and a skip from there to using actual fictional archetypes instead of animals. We saw an example in episode 10 of this season with the monsters in a game called Delirium. This week’s guest took a subtler approach using a story from Scottish folklore – Tam Lin.

Like many stories from Ireland, Tamlin has been enshrined in a folk tune, this one also called the Glasgow Reel, and I made this episode late recording my own version of it to play under the opening narration. Stick around to find out how you can download a copy of that recording, in the meantime let me introduce you to this week’s designer.

https://www.patreon.com/posts/tamlin-52811654

Joe Gaylord: [00:04:01] Hi,  my name is Joe Gaylord. I am a designer writer, for D&D 5E  published on DM’s Guild. And I am the creator of the tamlin, which is available in Tasha’s Crucible of Everything Else volume two, coming out in the spring.

Lucas: [00:04:19] How long have you been playing role-playing games, D and D et cetera?

Joe Gaylord: [00:04:23] A long time. So I got started just at the end of the second edition, AD&D era. So all through high school, all through college, I played a lot various campaigns, all 3, 3.5. Then probably about the time that I left for Europe around 2010, 2009, somewhere in there, I kind of just stopped. It was always in my head, but I was never actually playing until 2018.  I came home and all of my nieces and nephews who are very close to me in age were all starting to play D&D 5E and my nephew, the oldest of them, was super into this thing Critical Role that I hadn’t heard of and was playing this new rule set. And I was like, yeah, but fourth edition was really kind of not my deal. And, eh?

And he’s like, no, you have to give it a shot. So I rolled up the character and I jumped on a one shot that was actually set in the Tal’Dorei setting that had just come out and I was like, ” Okay, this is legit. I’m okay with this.”

So, yeah, we got, we got going with it. And at that point I started to run a campaign with them. And I had put so much work into that campaign that toward the end of it, I’m like, “ah, this is awful, that all of this is just going to kind of dissolve when I moved back to Italy because I’m not going to have my playgroup.”

Of Halflings and Hippos coverAnd my nephew said, “Well, why don’t you publish it?” So that turned into my first published adventure on DMS Guild, summer of 2018, which is Of Halflings and Hippos.  And yeah, that’s how, it all got going

Lucas: [00:06:05] And you were part of Tasha’s Crucible of Everything Else?Tasha's Crucible of Everything Else cover art

Tamlin- Joe Gaylord: [00:06:09] Yeah. so this year’s been kind of crazy. It’s definitely been a year for me, to to, to level up the work that I’ve been doing. It kind of came out. A feeling that I’ve had that, like, I either have to do this in a more serious way, do more professional work with what I’m doing, or I have to stop spending so much time on it.

So I decided to lean into it. And that got me working with Andrew on Tasha’s Crucible of Everything Else.

The idea is  this is  all fan-created content that is designed to expand on the same kinds of areas that Tasha’s is expanding.

So, new magic items, new spells, new character classes, some additional rule systems that people can pick up. And that, that was really the first thing that I’ve put out. That’s like hit, I guess. It’s number two on DMS Guild. It’s been hanging number two since it came out, which is wild.

So that was really cool.

As part of that, we also created some creatures. What I’m here to talk about is actually in the second volume, which will be coming out this spring.

Lucas: [00:07:25] And eventually if you do enough work on monsters, I start to sniff you out. So here we are on the monster podcast. Favorite is probably not a very kind word to designers when asking which monster they want to talk about, but I always leave it up to your choice.

So,  what’s the monster you want to talk about and why did you choose this one?

Joe Gaylord: [00:07:44] Right. The Tamlin is the name of the monster. I chose it because  there was so much material for third edition, fourth edition especially, covering the Feywild and that doesn’t exist in the same way for fifth edition.

Lucas: [00:08:00] Or at least it didn’t at the time of this recording in early January. Since then, we can look forward to a lot more about the Feywild with D&D’s September 2021 adventure line, The Wild Beyond the Witchlight.

Joe Gaylord: [00:08:13] So one of the things about it is it’s a really good monster to use with the Feywild. It’s kind of a medium CR fey and something that  I also find just really fun from a strategic point of view, from a storytelling point of view, it’s kind of a neat structure.

A lot of people might look at it and see it as a top-down design, but it started out bottom up. I was writing an adventure for the Feywild based loosely on Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s probably never actually going to get published, but the rough outline was that the party gets kidnapped by a fey theater troupe because they want mortals as a curiosity in their play.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing by William Blake, c. 1786

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing by William Blake, c. 1786

The party is kidnapped from the King’s wedding feast and they get pulled over to the wedding feast of two archfey. So that’s kind of the note from Midsummer that you have these two weddings that are happening in parallel. And then there’s a whole bunch of adventures where the party has to find their way back to the Material Plane.

But I needed a creature that could be that introductory point where you get pulled into the Feywild. And as I mentioned, there’s kind of a paucity of fey in 5E materials, right? So often when I’m writing something that has that Feywild connection, I end up using elementals, fiends, celestials, all these kinds of things to just pad that out. And I wanted some especially mid-tier fey that could be  part of this whole deal. I specifically needed a, what I call a portal creature.  The best example in 5E that I’m aware of is the aikilith from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, which for those who don’t know, it’s a kind of demon that forms portals to the Abyss wherever it is. So if it’s left on its own, It inhabits doorways and forms portals to the Abyss.

https://forgottenrealms.fandom.com/wiki/Alkilith

And this was something that existed a lot in older editions. The ethereal filcher is kind of the big example that I remember from third edition as a creature that in combat could just pull you in that case over to the Ethereal Plane. But I remember there being creatures that could pull you over to the Shadowfell or into the Feywild.

https://dungeonsdragons.fandom.com/wiki/Ethereal_filcher

And this is something that’s so common in storytelling, right? The idea that there’s a creature that can just pull you into the other world. Obviously, you know, you talk about Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces, the idea that half the story has to be spent in the underworld or the other world, or the magical world, whatever term you want for that. That’s the thing that drives the existence of these in so much storytelling.

Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite contemporary authors, he uses that trope all the time. If you talk about Neverwhere, American Gods, Anansi Boys, so many of his stories.  That’s very much something that I like as a trope. And of course the white rabbit is kind of the, THE creature that does it.

Lucas: [00:11:26] Right. It’s a bit like the Kleenex of tissues.

Joe Gaylord: [00:11:29] Yeah, exactly. Well, it’s a stand-in. You, you, you can actually talk about, “Oh, this is the white rabbit for my story.” So yeah, the Kleenex is a perfect example for that. And so I wanted this creature that needed to be kind of mid-CR, needed to have this, kidnapping ability where it can bop you over into the Feywild, ideally against your will, it needed some spell casting ability. And I started to look around for stories that I could get this from.

That core ability was what it needed and I then started to look around for what would be the logical story to tie this to, because I couldn’t just name it the white rabbit, that would be overblowing it, frankly, and, and a little too on the nose. The white rabbit traits made their way back in, late in the design process I think. Actually I didn’t introduce that until I was bringing it over to Tasha’s where I said, oh, well, let’s have a nod to that.

And so I gave him those kinds of leopardine ears and the gait with the rabbit-like legs. But I didn’t want it to be like, too, this is a white rabbit. So I found this story the, the tale of the Tamlin.  It’s “Tom of the Lane” in English that then gets brought over to Scott’s Gaelic and then back into English.

So there’s a million variations of this name: Tamlin, Tam’o’lain, Tam’o’lin, Tam’o’lon, whatever you want to call it. But, it’s actually a song, a folk song in Scotland that goes along with this fairy tale. And the story trigger warnings because the story never states, but strongly implies discussions of sexual assault.

So I’m not going to be graphic about it, but if you’re easily bothered by that implication be aware. This woman, Janet is walking through the woods and depending on the version, she often picks a rose and is immediately accosted by a fairy who appears as a well-dressed gentlemen and he comes up to her and says, “Oh, you have trespassed in my forest. You have stolen my rose. So I have to take the toll from you.”

Depending on the version of the story, the toll could be something physical taken from her. And in some versions it is actually stated as her virginity. And then shortly after that,  she finds herself pregnant . And she goes into the woods, either looking to find this man  or looking to find an herb to end her pregnancy and is confronted by Tamlin again. And he tells her his story and asks her for help. Now, fairy tale: she agrees to help him – okay.

But he says that he was a mortal and, as a mortal taken by the fey, is going to be sacrificed by the queen of the fey as part of a ritual in the next few days. And he asks Janet to help him escape.

And what she has to do is grab hold of him and hold on to him as he transforms kind of like the myth of Proteus. And then if she holds onto him the whole time by tradition he turns into a coal and she throws him into a well.  Whatever the end result of all those transformations are, if she holds onto him the whole time, she can pull him into the real world.

So this worked for me really well as the story of a creature that kind of walked between the two worlds and the idea of something that could jump into the mortal realm and pull you into the fairy realm.

Now obviously a lot of the detail of the story gets brought out, the gut gets taken out, but that notion of a fey creature that can swap in and out of the mortal realm and pull mortals into the fey with it kind of stays there from the story. A lot of this also goes back to other storytelling tropes and devices and traditions rather than explicitly this one story.

The story gives mostly the name and a little bit of the visual of a man, a country gentlemen, dressed of that period, 17 hundreds, 18 hundreds, England with that, that Regency style clothing. So, yeah, that’s where a lot of the development came from on this creature and this idea.

Lucas: [00:16:22] Among the many things that we could talk about in, the Tamlin stat block as you’ve written it, which are the abilities that code for those story elements or traditions that you wanted to keep?

Joe Gaylord: [00:16:34] Yeah. biggest one is the fey step ability. Like I said, that’s kind of the key piece that this started from. I’ll read out the information as an exists realize we’re still in the last steps of editing. So some of these numbers and things may change, but it’s an ability recharge six, so it can do it a couple of times in a fight, but probably not too many.

The tamlin teleports itself and any creature within five feet of it from the material plane to the Feywild or vice versa. Unwilling creatures must succeed on a Strength saving throw to resist the pull of an interplanar energy. So the idea that this creature, as you’re fighting, it can kind of split your party between the Feywild and the Material Plane. Or, if you are dealing with a gang or a group of these or an extended encounter with one of them, can pluck all of your party into the Feywild as as a more extended process. And that’s really the reason that this thing exists. The tamlin was created in order to pull the party against their will into the wild as the kickoff, as a hook for an adventure that would keep going.

Then it kind of gains these other abilities because of the idea of this dandified country gentlemen type vibe that, that you get from the idea of someone that, that owns forests in Scotland and has this kind of noble place within the fey, It, it has the Misty escape ability from the the archfey warlock and that among other things that it does, it also has a fairly high speed and access to, ensnaring strike and sleep as spells gives it this really great ability to skip around the battlefield. And hopefully we’ll feel very kind of “shwashbucklery” as it plays.

It has a decent spell casting suite as well. So it’s got this nice kind of Gish component to its abilities where it can, you know, fight with a rapier, but then it also has access to fairy fire and ensnaring strike and it can also conjure woodland beings and  as a nod to the original story has also the access to polymorph spell. Only once a day, as opposed to the story which implies the shapechange spell, but In this case it works well as something where it can  take on a more powerful, more physically impressive form if it needs to in a fight.

https://screenrant.com/dungeons-dragons-gish-character-build-meaning-magic-warrior/

So it has this very kind of dualist, skip around the battlefield and keep a very dynamic combat, and split the party in particular, which is an interesting piece that you can kind of find yourself. with only half the party being able to fight it at a time as it moves from Feywild to Material Plane and back.

Lucas: [00:19:40] Often the white rabbit is there at the inciting incident and then sorta disappears. But  you’ve given this enough staying power in a combat situation, once initiative is rolled, for it to be a real force for us to get to know it as players at the table.

I know what function, now, this is meant to serve within the game, but if we could explode this a little bit into  what function it’s meant to serve at the table: what sort of issues or questions does encountering this monster ask your players to grapple with?

Joe Gaylord: [00:20:08] It depends on how you want to use it. The way I put it together it’s designed to be something where you’re directly fighting with the fey and it’s designed to be kind of that slippery, tricky, going to make your life very complicated as you fight it.

And one key thing that in game you’re going to be dealing with is this is not usually the boss, right? This is not usually the big, bad creature at the end of the game. This is a mid-level creature. This is an errand boy. This is a messenger. This is designed to fetch you for the boss. And that, kind of leads to a really nice story arc.

Being humanoid or relatively humanoid in shape, you’re able to deal with this as an NPC, as well as a monster, right? So you can actually have conversations with this. You can actually deal with this as a social encounter. And that, that creates an interesting dynamic because you don’t have to just come up and kill it. You can negotiate, you can talk, you can make deals, you can use this ability to move from the, the, the Feywild to the Material Plane as a service that it  can give you if you are willing to do what it wants for it.

So, Yeah. there’s, there’s a lot of that kind of stuff that comes into it. And then also, I mean, as you mentioned, traditionally, when the white rabbit pulls you into Wonderland it, then scarpers. Which, if you are the kind of DM who is looking to split up your party, that’s a really interesting moment where maybe half the party gets pulled into the Feywild and then the tamlin just runs off, either cause it looks like it’s going to lose or because it gets bored or it’s done its job. And now you’ve got either half the party in the Feywild and half the party in the material realm. And you’ve got to figure out how to reunite. Or you have the whole party potentially in the Feywild, and now you’ve got to figure out how to get home. And that’s an interesting thing to deal with from a strategic, from a in-game perspective.

Lucas: [00:22:31] From an out-of-game perspective, what does this monster tell us about the world we live in?

Joe Gaylord: [00:22:35] So , he’s a creature from a fairy tale and also a creature that, like I said, has this very humanoid and PC type role, right? So independently, that leaves him a little bit of a blank slate. You can project a lot of things onto him because he can speak for himself.

However some obvious things that come to me, first off, he makes a “hero’s journey” adventure,  on that  Joseph Campbell framework, a lot easier to run as a DM. You can, literally pull the party into the Feywild and then do their thing there and return home changed. And that’s a really nice package that, that this creature can give you as a DM.

There’s also this notion that the Feywild is always just outside the peripheral. It’s always right there. And the idea of this creature, that process, that veil so smoothly gives that feeling in a very clear way, right? If you want a world where the Feywild feels close and potentially involved with your situation this is a good way to bring that in.

Then I tend not to write games that are very explicit in their allegory in the connections that they’re drawing to the real world. I tend not to do that.  It’s a personal choice and I’ll admit one that is facilitated absolutely by the privilege of being a straight white dude uh, the global north, you know, th there’s a lot of that. But I run games that ask philosophical questions, but more on a abstract, moral level than in connecting to real-world quandaries. However there’s a pretty clear notion that if you want to confront colonial issues there’s a very easy way to to draw that in where you have a wealthy dandified gentlemen who pops up on the road and then boom, you’re pulled into another world, a strange world. And all of a sudden you might be told, oh, you belong to my boss. That has real connections back to colonialism.  If you want to look at the fey as a colonial power, that could be imposing their will on mortals. That’s interesting. And something that people with a more political bent to their game might really want to look at.

And as I mentioned the original story has strong implications of sexual violence to it. Fairy tales kind of scrub that out by the nature of how they’re put together. But if you want to lean into that, that’s also something you can lean into. And that paints this as a much darker creature than I had necessarily initially planned it as being, but dMS who want to run in that direction there’s space for that to happen here. And something you can absolutely do, if you want to get really deep and think heavily about the nature of this creature.

Lucas: [00:25:47] Like a lot of episodes discussing older editions of D&D, this episode is full of gamer nerd jargon from decades past, but never fear – there’s a full transcript on the show’s website with links to things like the ethereal filcher and gish characters so you won’t have to Google all that like I did.

I’ve also linked to a video by the inimitable Overly Sarcastic Productions on YouTube summarizing the Scottish folk tale of Tam Lin. They have a different take on the sexual overtones and liminal spaces in the story, and if you like this show you’ll enjoy what Red and Blue do on the channel. Let them know I sent you, and let’s see if we can get Red to do a Trope Talk on white rabbits – that would make me deliriously happy.

To hear Tamlin the Scottish folk song shredded into electric guitar, you can support the show at any tier on Patreon at Patreon dot com slash scintilla studio.

Here’s how to get the tamlin in your home game and support my guest Joe Gaylord.

Joe Gaylord: [00:26:43] The Tamlin is in Tasha’s Crucible of Everything Else volume two, that is coming out in spring 2021 on DM’s Guild.  You can find my other material, my other adventures, my other supplemental material, et cetera, on DM’s Guild by searching Joe Gaylord J O E G a Y L O R D.

And you can find me on Twitter at lab Lazarus. That’s where this will be when it is available.

Lucas: [00:27:14] Thanks for listening to Making a Monster. If you want to know more about the monsters in games and what they say about folklore, music history, and literary tropes, you can support the show on Patreon at Patreon dot com slash scintilla studio that’s Patreon dot com slash SCINTILLA studio.

https://www.patreon.com/posts/tamlin-52811654

If supporting the show monetarily isn’t an option for you, you can also help the show grow and continue by sharing with the people who play games with you. Your recommendation lets people know the show will be worth the investment of their time and attention, and it’s a real gift to me and the creators I feature.

I’ve got three episodes left before the end of Making a Monster season 2 and they will be coming out between now and June 28. Make sure you follow this podcast on your player of choice so you don’t miss an episode! I will see you in the next one.

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