Monday 2 January 2017

Monsters from Central Asian Mythology 13: The Peri

Once again I slide off the edge of Central Asia proper and onto the Iranian Plateau. Still, during the time period that ATWC is based on, Iran was ruled by the Safavid Dynasty; the Safavids were from Azerbaijan, and as a result, there was a lot of cultural interaction between the Turkic and Persian worlds during the early modern period. And besides: peris! You don't get much more 'romantic fantasy' than them...

As most readers of this blog will probably already know, peris are the fairies of Persian mythology. Like fairies, they occupy a weird position in Islamic and Zoroastrian tradition, neither angelic or demonic, but somewhere in the middle: in early stories they may sometimes have been evil, but by the Safavid period they were always benevolent, and are depicted in the Shahnameh as fighting in the army of Husheng against the evil forces of Ahriman. They are nourished by inhaling sweet smells, their spiritual bodies being far too refined for physical food. They are famous for their beauty - the Shahnameh describes both male and female characters of exceptional attractiveness as resembling peris - and they can fly, either on their own wings or by transforming themselves into birds. But they usually don't actually do very much except hang around being pretty and easily-kidnapped and occasionally mildly symbolic. 'Super-pretty love interest, damsel in distress, quest-giver, and/or magic item dispenser' is a pretty rubbish niche for an RPG monster, so for ATWC I'm going to place a bit more emphasis on the whole 'warriors in the primordial war against evil' side of peri mythology.

An Ottoman Drawing of a Peri, Turkey, 16th century:
Drawing of a Peri, Ottoman Empire.

So: while the scriptural religions of the Great Road disagree over whether the peris are imperfectly-repentant minions of evil or partially-fallen servants of the divine, everyone agrees that they are... not quite what they should be, and not at all what they once were. They're a remnant, an echo out of history, left over from some cosmic battle fought when the world was young. They linger, here and there, in high and beautiful places on the slopes of mountains; they hail the wolves and the lions and the tigers as their comrades-in-arms, and seem surprised that the beasts almost never reply to their salutations. They are creatures of air and light, surpassingly beautiful, fair and slender almost to the point of transparency, and easily mistaken for a simple glimmer of light on the waters of a mountain lake, or a flash of sunshine across the ice. Blink and you'll miss them. They could be all around you, and you'd notice nothing except how very lovely the landscape was looking today.

Image result for burgmuller la peri
Carlotta Grisi dances the title role in Burgmüller's 1843 ballet La Péri.

Peris willingly interact only with those who are beautiful or pure of heart, and indeed they seem to have difficulty telling the two qualities apart. To such individuals they will speak vaguely and grandly of their role in some great conflict against 'the enemy', but specific questions distress them: the more they are pressed over who they were fighting, and why, and whether the war is over, and why they're still here, the more anxious and unhappy and evasive they will become, until finally they simply turn into birds and fly away. Very clearly there is a great deal about their past which they have either chosen not to remember or been somehow forced to forget.

Peris may come to interact with mortals in three ways. The first is romantic: they are terribly prone to falling in love with beautiful and kind-hearted humans who pass through their domains, and provided their mortal lovers don't ask awkward questions about 'the war' and 'the enemy' they will happily dally with them for decades on end, in a rapturous if rather shallow existence of flying and dancing, sex and song. The families and communities of their lovers are often not very happy about this, especially if they had plans for the person in question that didn't involve them wasting the best years of their lives dancing around on a mountainside, and PCs could easily find themselves recruited to pry a youth or maiden away from their peri lover.

Image result for burgmuller la peri
Sketch for the costume of Natalia Trouhanova in the title role of Dukas' 1912 ballet La Péri. 

The second form of interaction between peris and humans is conflict. Peris hate all cruel and ugly things, and will attempt to drive them away from their territories - a task in which they are less successful than one might expect, as despite their considerable personal power they have no killer instinct and seem weirdly incapable of capitalising on their successes. Especially beautiful and pure-hearted individuals may even be able to entice them off their mountaintops to battle some particularly egregious manifestation of cruelty or ugliness down in the world below, especially if the peris can be persuaded that it is in league with their nebulous 'enemy'. They are potentially powerful allies, but their total lack of tactical sense means that they must be carefully managed if they are not to become a liability rather than an asset.

Their third form of interaction with mortals, and sadly the most common of the three, is imprisonment. An iron cage will suffice to trap a peri, and their fatal willingness to believe whatever they are told by anyone who appears sufficiently beautiful means that it is often not terribly difficult to entrap them into one: once trapped, their magical nature can be tapped as a source of power, enabling them to drive all manner of strange engines and machines. Peris who have lost one of their own in this way will scour nearby human communities for people who look pretty and/or kindly enough for them to trust: and when they find a suitable candidate they will appear before them, begging for help in freeing their brother or sister, and offering magical gifts in reward. The result is often an extremely bizarre asymmetrical conflict, in which ruthless individuals with peri captives are drawn into battle with their powerful but rather ineffectual peri relatives, led by a random human whose only qualifications for the task are their uncommon personal attractiveness and kindness to animals. The peris manage to win more often than one might expect.

An Ottoman Drawing of a Peri, attributable to Veli Can, Turkey, 16th century:
Another Ottoman Peri.

No peri will come anywhere near the Wicked City. If asked, they mutter things about 'long-standing orders' and 'strategic necessities'; if pressed, they simply turn into birds and fly away in the opposite direction as quickly as possible. Despite this, dozens of them have ended up in the city as captives, each of them powering some bizarre machinery at the behest of the Wicked King. If they could be freed, their relatives would doubtless reward their rescuers lavishly, but their normally pro-active attempts to secure the liberty of their kin seems not to apply to those of them trapped within the Wicked City's walls. Those few peris who have been freed from the city, however, seem to have been totally changed by the experience; and instead of simply returning to their mountaintops, they begin actively campaigning to gather allies with which to battle against the city's tyranny. Perhaps, in the course of their captivity, they have finally remembered who their ancient enemy is after all...

  • Peri: AC 18 (agility and semi-corporeal nature), 4 HD, AB +3, damage by weapon +1, FORT 12, REF 8, WILL 10, morale 9. Can fly or transform into birds at will, unless contained within iron walls or bars. Take half damage from non-magical attacks. 

Transluscence: Peris who do not wish to be seen have a 5-in-6 chance of evading notice, appearing to be nothing but unusually beautiful glimmers of light.

Brothers-in-Arms: No wolf, lion, or tiger will harm a peri or their companions, in honour of the ancient battles in which they fought side by side.

Magical Gifts: Peris can bestow enchanted gifts upon favoured mortals: typical gifts include feather garments which permit their wearer to transform into a bird once per day for 1d6 hours, tokens which ensure that no wolf, lion, or tiger will ever attack the wearer unless they attack them first, jewelled flowers which halve the wearer's speed of aging for as long as they are worn, and shields or weapons of +1 enchantment. Such items will only function for the person to whom they are given. 


  1. Fun factoid: the subtitle of Iolanthe is "the Peer and the Peri".

    I think "Super-pretty love interest, damsel in distress, quest-giver, and/or magic item dispenser" might possible be more interesting if it's a supernatural being who knows that that is all it can ever be, rather than a human. Being cursed to be a supporting character in someone else's story, and to have no choice but to play out that role, knowing that you don't, might make for quite a nice tragedy, and "protagonise this peri" might make an interestingly paradoxical quest.

    1. It might, and I can see it leading to some interesting scenes in play. I think that it might work better in a novel than in an RPG, though. RPGs are terribly meta-textual at the best of times - I'd be wary of giving PCs even *more* reason to treat an NPC as though they were just a static icon with a revolving exclamation mark over their head!

  2. Hey, I just found this blog randomly as I was searching for inspiration for my next D&D campaign. I wanted to build a world after I discovered the sheer variance of the mongol empire during their heyday. It looks like you have a ton of interesting stuff here and I hope you don't mind if I steal some of it. Maybe a lot.

    1. Sure, no problem - that's what it's there for!

      You can find all the campaign setting posts under the 'collected information' tab at the top of the page. If it's only the Central Asian stuff that you're after, clicking 'Central Asia' under 'labels' will get you all the relevant posts without having to suffer through my detours into clockpunk, romance fiction, adventure design, and whatnot...

  3. Hi, I've been reading your blog for almost a month non-stop. It is amazing and it has oppened entire vistas of culture that I wasn't aware of. The funny thing is that I've heard about peri, from another blog and even stated it as a race for Pathfinder (here: I still run Pathfinder because my players love it's many options but - behind the screen - I'm actually running a crude OSR-like game. I believe Pathfinder is great - for PCs - bot GMs need to ignore lots of it. I really like your approach to Paizo's Adventure Paths. Actually, I wish my table accepted OSR... so far I only got a few DCC sessions and they already wanted to go back to "heavy-mechanic" systems. Thank you!

    1. Thanks - glad you've found it useful! I like the way you've made 'I smell really nice' the signature ability of your PC-race Peri. D&D should do more with smell and taste.

      I don't think there's any reason why PCs and NPCs have to be statted up in equal detail. (OD&D didn't give attribute scores to monsters...) Back when I ran D&D 3.5, the PCs would have full character sheets with skills and feats and so on, whereas the monsters would just have scribbled statlines like 'AC 15, AB +3, 3 HD, damage 1d10, rogue-type skills +8'. I doubt most players really care whether the goblin they just stabbed had exactly the right number of skill points, after all!