This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Eighty One on 15 September 2021.
Ostron: Ryu? I thought you were headed into town for some snacks? Did you take the nightmare?
Ryu: Definitely not. I don’t care how much KayDee insists he’s a big softie. No I met a nice woman on the road who fell in a ditch and needed help. She had a bunch of apples with her and gave me a bunch, so I didn’t need to go all the way to town. See here’s one-
(loud horrific screeching explosion)
Ryu (angrily): Lennon! What are you doing?
Lennon: Saving your life! Old woman that fell in a ditch, needs help from a nice young girl, offers fruit? Did she give you anything else? Weird necklace, funny smelling potion, random baby?
Ostron: Okay, Lennon, clearly you’re excited about something but the rest of us are a bit lost.
Lennon: Ryu just described classic Hag behavior! She’d probably eat those apples and end up wandering off in the middle of the night to lend her life energy to some weird ritual in the middle of the forest! Then she’d come back here and everyone’s hair would fall out.
Ryu (teasing): And why are YOU worried about that?
Lennon: I’m very fond of my beard, thank you.
Ostron: Okay, I guess I’m not familiar enough with hags to agree or disagree. Do you have more info on them?
Lennon: Okay, prepare for fey creature infodump.
Hags are another creature that have been around in D&D from the beginning. As early as 1st edition the monster manuals contained references to various types of creatures specifically labeled as hags. They started out as simple supernatural creatures with “creepy old woman” vibes and there were different types for the various environments where adventurers might be found, but they were always depicted as dangerous and often as creatures that would be in charge of other, lesser creatures who served as their minions.
By the time you get to second edition the idea of the coven or covey was introduced to hag lore, and that’s what really bumped them up to prime threat in the mythos of D&D. Ever since then it’s been a standard rule of thumb that a single hag could be menacing and dangerous, while a group of three of them poses a significant danger.
In general, the lore on the hags hasn’t changed a great deal from edition to edition. Some abilities and lore has shifted around from one type of hag to another and the issue of how hags are made has been the subject of a number of conflicting theories, but their fundamental nature has remained pretty constant.
It’s generally agreed that hags started out as fey creatures, although they embody some of the darker aspects of the realm and nature. There are multiple subtypes of hags but all of them have a similar basic structure. In form they resemble hunched humanoids of vaguely female persuasion although the resemblance to actual humanoid females is not close enough for anyone to mistake them for one. They also usually take pains to make their appearance worse, rather than better, by donning ragged, ugly clothing, keeping themselves covered in muck, dirt, and trash, and actively maintaining open sores and weeping wounds on their bodies. All of them also exhibit tough hides resistant to normal damage, and sharp nails and teeth that can damage just as effectively as swords or other actual weapons.
The different subtypes of hags are numerous but there are five that are more common than others. Annis hags are the largest and most brutal, closely resembling giants and often found in mountains bullying ogres or less intelligent giants to work for them. Bheur hags are also called winter hags and are active during that season and in cold areas. They are evil narcissists, both engaging in and encouraging destructively selfish behavior. Green or Bog hags are found in swamps and are masters of manipulation, luring the unwary to death or other misfortune by mimicking distressed travelers or disguising themselves. Night hags have no specific environment but get their joy from invading mortals’ dreams and encouraging virtues to become vices, like pushing generosity into bitterness or love into obsession. Finally Sea hags are notoriously unattractive to all creatures and they hate all things beautiful, seeking to corrupt and destroy them. As befits their name, they live in brackish water sources and underground lakes and rivers.
While most of the hags have specific areas of interest where they focus their time, in general they all work to cause pain and suffering. Selfish and sadistic are the two things that dictate most of hags’ behavior, and they consider almost every being beneath them and therefore valid targets for their schemes, curses, and plots. With their fey origin, however, they work like a lot of creatures from that realm and don’t do anything overt like taking over a village or massacring a family in person. They specialize in small actions that explode out into longer, larger consequences, and they often target the desperate. In areas where hags exist there will often be rumors of a dark witch or a dangerous fey willing to make bargains. Any supplicants will probably be welcomed by the hag and may even enjoy short term benefits from whatever they ask, but it will always turn sour. Someone wishing for the object of their affection to notice them will end up with a crazed stalker in a few months’ time. Someone wishing to be stronger will end up being unable to gauge their own strength after a while and will accidentally hurt or kill loved ones or destroy things and frighten others. Someone wishing for a return to their youth may find themselves with more energy for a time, then their mind will slowly deteriorate until they literally have the mind of a child in the same body they always did.
Unlike Genies or Devils, there is usually no way to cleverly word a bargain or deal with a hag in a way that will avoid a ruinous fate; the hags do not respect or care about any other creatures unless they are useful to the hag, so they have no interest in respecting or honoring a bargain. The only way to avoid ending up miserable out of the deal with the hag is to go into it with something the hag desperately wants, and finding that in advance is difficult to do; a hag will never admit to anyone that they want or need anything for fear of appearing weak.
The only creatures they show a modicum of respect to are other hags, but even there it’s more like they are all frenemies with each other. Even in the context of a coven the hags are together like a group of stereotypical high school mean girls; they’ll present a united front against any outside threat, but they’ll also buy that designer prom dress before their friend who said how much she loves it and wants to wear it. And then she’ll ask their crush to the prom as well. Agreements between hags are respected and hags will generally not encroach on each others’ territory without notice or directly assault one another. However, if a hag can legitimately put another hag in their debt or screw them over they’ll still do that. It won’t make them popular with the other hags if they do it regularly, and may result in some hags making “deals” to get the other hag killed, but they still won’t attack each other.
So you may be wondering “if they hate each other that much, how do covens even form?” Again, the hags selfishness mostly comes into play here; in general there are more benefits to working within a coven than not. For various reasons lost to time, hags’ experimentation and manipulation of magic has allowed them to find rituals and spells that literally no one else has access to. None of them are world-ending superpower spells or anything like that, but they can produce effects and artifacts that are unavailable anywhere else, and a lot of them need the power only a coven can provide.
Covens have to form between at least three hags. They can be any mixture of types as long as they’re all hags, and can even all be the same kind of hag. Technically they can also be larger than three, but historically that’s ended badly for all involved; with three hags, whenever two of them start going at it the third can act as a mediator. With four or more, alliances and subgroups start forming and split the group.
Covens automatically bolster each others’ ability and access to magic and allow them to perform any number of those unique spells and rituals mentioned earlier. One of the most well-known ones is the creation of a hag eye; an item made from a real eyeball that is enchanted so that any of the hags can see through it from anywhere as long as it’s on the same plane. They usually give these to a minion so they can scout the surrounding areas without leaving their lair themselves.
The problem for everyone else around where a coven operates is that all of the rituals they perform require the deaths of one or more living humanoid creatures, so the rate of people going missing and dying increases quite a bit where a coven has set up shop. Also the magic the coven performs starts to corrupt the surrounding area, so like old dragons that have laired for a long time in a particular location, if a coven has been around for a while the surrounding terrain will be hostile, trees and plants will look uglier and less healthy, and the wildlife will be more aggressive and diseased.
How hags reproduce is a murky subject but there are two primary methods that seem to have at least been verified and both are horrible. Option one is the less bloody one; a hag will disguise herself as an attractive woman through either illusion magic or actually grafting an attractive body onto theirs and then seduce an unwitting mortal male. After they are pregnant the male is usually killed and the hag goes into a state of lethargy until they give birth, at which point they find parents that have recently had a child, steal theirs, and replace it with the hag they just spawned. What happens to the stolen baby is better not to think on.
Except we actually have to, because option two is that the hag will consume some number of mortal babies, and the resulting consumption will result in them giving birth, again, to a hag spawn. That spawn will be given to one of the sets of parents whose child was consumed, supposedly their child returned to them.
Regardless of how the child was created, once they reach maturity their hag nature will begin to assert itself, and usually by the time they’re 40 they’ll unmistakably be a hag. They’ve usually long since left or killed their adoptive family as their behavior would have reached intolerable levels. Note that these children are usually referred to as changelings, but that has nothing to do with the race of shapeshifters. The hag’s mother generally has no interest in the child’s fate after they’re fostered off; their narcissism prevents them from wasting their time in anything like motherly concern because they have better things to do.
Other than as a source for creating and rearing children the only interest hags have in humanoids are as a food source or an outlet for amusement, usually sadistic in nature. Again, they see every other being as inferior to them and while they will admit certain creatures like dragons and fiends are powerful enough to be dangerous, they still believe that with the right circumstances they can get the upper hand over them, always. They are less likely to act against fey creatures or fiends, not out of any sense of respect, but just because with most of those creatures’ lengthy or immortal lifespans it means they have a lot more time and resources to plan revenge and it’s usually something the hag would rather not deal with. They do plan for it though; hags rarely see the percentage in fighting to the death and if they’re outmatched they will escape through any one of three methods they design in advance. They may have to leave a lot of their stuff behind but they’ll be alive. And very, very bitter about what happened to them.
Hags generally don’t worship any gods and will regularly blaspheme and mock the ones they know about. There are only three god-like beings hags will even consider paying attention to. The first is Baba Yaga, an archfey with motives so convoluted people can’t figure out if she actually has any. She arguably exhibits hag-like traits but is nowhere near as sadistic as hags, but still some see her as part of the “hag sisterhood” as it were. Still, none of them really worship her.
Next is Malagard. Malagard was a hag who managed to ingratiate herself into the Nine Hells and got in good with Asmodeus. Over time, she actually raised to the rank of archdevil and was put in charge of Malbolge, but then she died rather suddenly and inexplicably and was replaced by Asmodeus’s daughter Glasya. The idea that Asmodeus killed her so his daughter could have a job is absolutely never mentioned by anyone in the Nine Hells, ever.
Finally there is an actual god of the hags named Cegilune. Nominally a moon goddess, tradition said she was one of the earliest goddesses and was one of extreme beauty. Since there were few other goddesses around, many people wanted to worship her, but she would reject any worshippers she didn’t find attractive enough. Also, while she chose a few worshippers to be her beloved daughters and granted them abilities like walking on water, for the most part she ignored her followers and simply basked in her own beauty. When other gods showed up offering better customer service, she started to lose followers. She didn’t even notice that until the lack of followers resulted in a physical change; she displayed a wrinkle in the skin of her form. That sight enraged her and she began hunting down and murdering people who’d once followed her and turned to other gods. Unfortunately her lack of followers meant she didn’t have the power to sustain this and burned herself out, becoming a ragged, ugly crone in form, and supposedly corrupting all of her chosen followers into the hags that exist now. She retreated into the Grey Wastes of Hades and continually tries to gather souls to reenergize herself and get her vengeance.
While almost all hags acknowledge the existence of Cegilune, the relationship is not one of worship; hags treat her basically as an abusive relative. She will make demands of the hags on occasion, usually to gain more souls, but the hags despise dealing with her, correctly assuming she has no interest in their well being. They can’t directly oppose her because despite her weakened state she is still stronger than any of the hags alive and can easily snuff them out. If or when that ever changes, however, any hag in existence would have no problem eliminating their so-called “goddess”. The hags don’t team up to eliminate her because Cegilune still has power and secrets she will give to hags on occasion, so if it looks like too many of them are scheming to get rid of her, she’ll start playing them off each other.
Working hags into a campaign or adventure is at least easy in theory but it should be done with some caution. Individually hags are not large threats to most parties, depending on which variety the characters are facing, but covens can represent a real threat.
Alone, hags are best used as sources of rumors and possibly final confrontation-level enemies who can be identified as the source of problems but not actually fought until the end of events, if at all. Remember, hags like to work indirectly and not advertise their presence, so rumors of a witch in the woods or a fortune teller who grants wishes for the right price combined with misfortunes in a local town or village could point to a hag, or the characters could encounter them while disguised, but you definitely won’t see a hag just happen to be sitting in the final room of a dungeon.
Covens are a much bigger deal and will be the source of widespread concern, misery, and hardship in an area. Entire campaigns can easily be set up around discovering, locating, and eliminating a coven of hags. Covens will have layers of minions with various magical enhancements and artifacts, as well as the results of the various curses and hexes they’ve inflicted upon the local populace, including possibly some hag children around. With all of that, there’s enough material to conceivably start characters off by investigating why the local goats are suddenly murdering people named “Bill” and eventually work their way up through the levels to take on the hags directly.
A hag or hag coven also makes a good source for obscure eldritch knowledge. As mentioned, they are capable of magic and rituals no one else knows or can do, so they could be the subject of a side-quest for characters focused on another issue if they are in search of unknown magic or knowledge. In that scenario the characters would deal with the coven or the hag to get the knowledge or whatever but the hags would not be the central focus of the campaign.
One other note about the use of hags. While there is very little directly tying them to the practices, some of the lore around hags borrows from both the beliefs of Neopaganism and Wicca, specifically the idea that three of them enhances power, and the fact that their deity is or was a moon goddess. Also a lot of the lore that is literally true for D&D hags has its origins in prejudicial beliefs of people around witches throughout history, mostly the ideas about seducing men, stealing and replacing children, and cursing or bringing misfortune on locals just for the sake of being cruel. If hags are going to feature heavily in your campaign, and particularly if you’re going to make use of any of the lore we just mentioned, it’s worth including a mention of it in your session 0 to make sure it won’t cause problems with any players.
Lennon: Or, you know, cause problems because someone you know took food from them. You’re lucky I stopped you eating that apple.
Ryu: …it might have been the third one I was going to eat.
Ostron (sighing): I’ll go check the wards and such.
Lennon: Do you know how hard it is to deal with hag curses?
Ryu: Will you calm down! Do you really think KayDee is just going to let some strange woman have her way with me?
Lennon: I’ve talked to the KDM, remember? Her ideas around what’s funny and entertaining aren’t that far off from the hags a lot of the time.
Ryu: I…can’t actually argue with that, unfortunately. Hooo I’m going to have to have a chat with her.
Lennon: Yeah, well you’ll understand if I hex first and ask questions later if I see you doing weird things around a bubbling cauldron.
Ostron: Speaking of cauldrons full of weird stuff, we should probably check the scrying pool. At least we know hags aren’t likely to send a notarized letter.