Review: Grandmother Crookbesom’s Book of Hags

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One of the most enjoyable adventures I’ve run for my players involved a hag. In the final session, the party fought and killed the hag, who wished to reclaim her ancient dominion over a fey-touched forest. I named her the Rose Lady – as she kept immaculate rose gardens – and while the final battle was intense, I failed to establish her deeper motives. How had she come to rule the forest before? What twisted schemes and methods had first attracted attention to her? How did she recruit her wicked little minions and what did she want with the forest anyway? Looking back on the encounter, I had two qualms with my villain. First, she lacked the very things I love about hags: their twisted and scheming natures, their gruesomeness, their otherworldly strangeness. Second, I didn’t understand her place within the forest’s ecology. In the end, she’d come off as a tired old trope whose lair – a sentient hut! – was far more interesting than she was. 

Since first taking my seat behind a DM screen, I’ve wanted to give my players a gripping hag encounter; I’ve just not been certain how. I’ve always loved witches, the occult, and anything involving the fey. I talk to the moon, I read tarot, I brew herbal potions; I’d be lying if I said I didn’t long for a coven of witches to scoop me up into the realm of magick. So, you can imagine my disappointment when – amidst the vast collection of well-crafted D&D modules and supplements – I just couldn’t find a hag with an interesting narrative. Volo’s Guide to Monsters has an extensive section on hags packed with names, exit strategies, Weird Magic items, treasure, and more. But pull up an adventure that features a hag and while she may be rich in body horror and the grotesque, I’ll bet she lacks a good story. There are notable exceptions in the recent Uncaged, Volume 1, a collection to which the designers in question today contributed and which offers three hag-centric modules and a new hag variant called Lauma.

And fear not, my fellow hag-lovers, for we have a delicious new supplement devoted entirely to hags and hag covens! It’s the book on hags I didn’t know I needed.

Grandmother Crookbesom’s Book of Hags, designed by Cat Evans, Oliver Clegg, Liz Gist, and Jessica Marcrum is a fabulously rich, 40-page book containing profiles and adventure hooks for 13 unique hags and covens. It’s packed with amazing lore, wickedly vivid descriptions, 3 new hag variants, Weird Magic, and more. Content warnings alert the reader to the more upsetting and/or grotesque bits and the clean, color-coded design makes flipping through the chapters a pleasant and convenient experience. 

You should buy this book.

Even if you’re a bit less obsessed with hags (I may not understand it, but I accept it), there’s another reason this product may be worth your money: it’s crafted around a solid, narrative-based formula for building encounters. Each two-page section, which highlights a unique hag or hag coven, is broken into the following categories:

  • Legend
  • Appearance
  • Traits & Personality
  • Lair
  • Long Term Goals
  • Interactions
  • Stat Blocks (fully detailed new stats and location of existing stats)

After three complete reads though this supplement, I realized that I’d internalized the basic structure of a narratively rich encounter. My mind was immediately filled with encounter ideas for my regular campaign as well as the one-shot I’d started writing last fall but was never able to finish.

So, who exactly are these hags? They’re not your run-of-the-mill schemers, evil for evil’s sake; they are hungry, confused, self-righteous, resentful, obsessed, terrified. Their motivations vary, from fear and greed to the need to hide from a greater threat. Some take on beguiling appearances while others choose not to mask their true forms.

Below is a brief summary of the cast of characters. Though I’ve included only a taste of what’s contained in these pages, it would be advisable for players to avoid reading the rest of this review, lest you spoil any future surprises planted by your DM. These creatures are worth the wait.

1. Cackling Gundred
A petty, gnarly-looking annis hag has disguised herself as a half-giant queen guarding a remote citadel in the mountains and awaits a prophecy she’d like nothing more than to prevent. Introduce her as a barrier to crossing a mountain range, give a quest from the queen, or have fun with a dangerous case of mistaken identity and the hag’s prophecy. She’s got a link to a dragon encounter as well.

2. Feisty Freja
A ravenous bheur hag has taken the form of a human woman operating an outpost in the bitter, treacherous mountains. Each year, hundreds of foolhardy treasure-hunters arrive at her lairs (she has two), where she’s constructed an elaborate trap. Adventurers who venture forth will uncover the remains of a gruesome secret and a number of creatures under the hag’s command. Encounters with Freja could unfold in a number of ways, including potentially breaking a curse laid upon her.

3. Nanny Knitwerther
This bheur hag is a predatory, creeping thing that’s been hunting for centuries. She infiltrates hospitals, infirmaries, and homes for the elderly and consumes the most vulnerable patients. Nanny Knitwerther comes with a delightful list of likes and dislikes and unique and creepy regional lair effects (blizzards, age-specific confusion, voices). She also has two new Weird Magic items, including a dementia toad and magical boiled sweets. Given the unique spin, I think she would come as quite a surprise to most parties.

Nanny Knitwerther is not a witch, or a soothsayer. She gives no quests, and neither does she tamper with the lives of adventurers. She is a predator, perfectly adapted to prey on the elderly and forgotten.

4. Auntie Bumble
Auntie Bumble’s the nice, deaf old lady who lives alone in the cottage down the lane. She gets confused, she acts strangely, and her temperament shifts wildly. The thing is, Autie Bumble is actually a green hag coven; but nobody knows this, not even the hags. This coven comes with three new Weird Magic items, including magical cookies and murderous plants. I think this encounter would be a rigorous yet rewarding challenge for a DM to run.

5. Granny Grusha
Legend says she’s a kindly druid, midwife, and protector. In reality, Granny Grusha is a self-righteous green hag who’s gained a cult following. She enjoys bringing vengeance upon abusive mortals, teaching herbalism to her followers (or are they her playthings?), and consuming blood and other remnants of the birthing process. Wild animals live in and around her forest home, and she thrives on secrets and worship. Granny Grusha believes herself a hero, and that idea could become dangerous, even for her followers. Long-term campaign potential here, given her disguise and status in the community.

6. Mother Mildred
Mother Mildred is a green swamp hag, a “miserable old biddy” with an oversized following of bullywugs and a grudge against a local noble family. Her motivations are especially well-developed and varied. Mildred has a terrifying lair and an even more terrifying secret. This is a great villain with many threads to be tethered out into the region. There are also some really nice bits of lore wrapped into her background.

The few traces of her that remain in local history hint to some of her happier times. Frogs and toads, for example, are known locally as “Mildred’s jumpers” – a curious bit of folklore believed to refer to a witch who died long ago.

7. The Sisters of Hecate Theater
This coven is for Shakespeare lovers: three hags, biological sisters forming a mixed coven, lair in and above a theater of much repute, where tragic accidents are known to occur. Each has her own motivations, but they share a revisionist view on a famous bard’s tales about witches. The sisters are determined to put on a good show and gain immortality through fame, on their own terms. Each hag embodies an archetypal role – the enchanting ingenue, the predatory matron, and the resentful old crone – possessing a terrifying true form, atmospheric stage presence, and unique goals. There’s even a creepy basement guarded by what appears to be a mastiff named MacDuff. Good fun for an off-beat, bardic one-shot!

8. The Three Kindly Aunts
A night hag coven plays a slow game of power and control. They plant themselves in an urban community, performing kind deeds until the residents come to need them and they can collect their debts. The aunts wrap themselves in cloaks and scarves to hide their true nature, but their presence cannot help but creep and infest, instilling fear and respect in their neighbors. There’s a reason these hags live in the city: they’re hiding from something even more sinister.

9. La Belle Lynesse
Lynesse is a sea hag who lairs in a large river, disguised as a river goddess to whom locals pay tribute for a good catch and safe passage. She has a number of aquatic minions and foes and she’s working on something special hidden away in her drippy cave lair (hint: it comes with a new creature stat block). There are many ways to incorporate this unexpected hag into a campaign. Place her at the center of a large river that connects a series of settlements and play upon the party’s expectations of the goddess La Belle Lynesse.

10. The Turtle Sisters
A once-treasured lagoon has become a treacherous, rotting, slime-infested place, thanks to the arrival and ill will of a sea hag coven. Their names are Driftwood Mathilda, Turtleback Agatha, and Drowned May, the latter a disturbed romantic with a grotesque collection of corpses of those who’ve died at sea. The Turtle Sisters are particularly unique in their individual machinations and secrets, offering a rich variety of narrative hooks. They take only their true forms, the depiction of which is reason enough to place these terrifying creatures in your game. This profile emphasizes the hags’ terrain and environment, setting the stage for some memorable combat scenarios. There’s even a fun random effects table.

Drowned May is as haggard to look upon as her sisters, but resembles a drowned woman after the corpse has dried out. She drips constantly with sea water that crusts her skin, while jellyfish hang from her tangled hair like ribbons. Unlike her sisters, May wears the ragged remnants of fine gowns that have been lost at sea.

11. Verita Foxsong (CR 8)
Verita Foxsong seems like your average grandmother running a quaint roadside inn. In truth, she’s a hearth hag: a new hag variant. Hearth hags are secretive and obsessive, building eccentric homes around a hearth, homes which begin to change form as a result of their obsessions. Perhaps they grow chicken legs, or take the form of irresistible sweets, you know? Hearth hags can polymorph and turn invisible and they possess a terrifying spell list. When they’re dropped to 0 hit points, a flavorful feature kicks in. The hearth hag comes with lair actions – including passing through walls, doors, and ceilings – and highly individualized regional effects. Verita is obsessed with an elaborate dollhouse which she keeps in her humble little cottage along with her cat Mitzy and hilarious familiar Gubbins. The roadside inn is a just a rouse, a charming trap through which she feeds her dark obsessions.

12. Little Women (CR 3)
Tiny, humanoid fey no larger than a thumbnail with alabaster skin and no eyes, the thimble hags are possibly the creepiest in this collection. They empty their victims’ skulls of brain matter, insert a tiny bone house, and enter through the nostrils, piloting the corpses as they seek out their next host. The Little Women are a coven of thimble hags who take turns controlling the bodies they occupy, using Weird Magic to create each new home. These hags lack the long term plots of other variants, continuously hunting for new beauties to murder and occupy. The thimble hag comes with a stat block and some cool features: for example, they can touch the minds of long dead spirits, even without bodily remains, opening the door for some appealing plot hooks. Their Inside Out ritual, which allows them to take over a host body, takes several hours to perform but creates a zombie out of a relatively fresh corpse. Body horror abounds!

The main form of decoration for a Thimble hag’s lair is how they choose to dress their host body. The Little Women like to dress in dirty white gowns or nightdresses, accentuated by garlands of withered flowers.

13. Empress Éhesh (CR 16)
By far the most powerful of the hags, Empress Éhesh is old, fearsome, paranoid, and ravenous. She is always hungry, and always on the move. Standing 15 feet tall, her body hunched, pores infested with maggots, hands skeletal and talon-like, she is terrifying to mortals and hags alike. The self-titled Empress feels more like a force of nature than anything else; she is the embodiment of hunger, an inevitable conclusion born of a morbid revelation about the origin of hags. This unique creature is powerful and gruesome, and I don’t wish to spoil her surprises here. She’ll definitely be lurking in the wildernesses of my campaign until the adventurers are strong enough to face her.

With 13 fully fleshed-out hags and covens, each with a variety of possible interactions with adventuring parties, this supplement offers 65 different ways to introduce hags into your campaign. With so much material at your fingertips, there’s no reason to pass over this supplement. There is a cohesiveness and polish to the book that demonstrates not only impeccable writing but excellent editing as well. It is a true delight to read.

Grandmother Crookbesom’s Book of Hags is available for purchase on the dmsguild starting June 18th!

Update: you may now purchase this book here!

For players looking to bring more hags into their games, check out Cat Evans’s Warlock Patron: The HagI own it; it’s creepy and brilliant.

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