Rule of Threes: Designing a 4e Pooka

When I first decided to stat up the fuzzy firbolg for 4th Edition, I knew I wanted to follow it up with the gruuwar. But I had always intended for there to be a third “true fey” in the lineup too.

Trouble was, there was nothing that naturally filled that third slot for me. The firbolg was motivated by the excitement of a fresh take on an old monster, the gruuwar by personal affection for a creature everybody forgot; but there was no third “forgotten fey” that I had a particular drive to rebuild.

Candidates for Conversion

I actually spent a lot of time looking through old Monster Manuals, wikis and fan repositories in an effort to find one that excited me. As it turns out, a lot of the fey that would be broadly suitable for player characters are kind of boring—or at least, not different enough to existing 4e heritages that they didn’t interest me. For example, I considered the thorn, but I couldn’t see how I’d make them meaningfully different to a wilden.

Other short list entries included…

  • Gloura: A moth-fairy native to the underdark is pretty neat, but the novelty really is the whole bit. Plus I’d kind of want to make them shadow origin rather than fey, which wouldn’t fit this particular triad too well.
  • Korred: The magic hair idea is about all they have going for them, though magical hair is pretty cool single gimmick. It almost felt too cool, like you’d want it to become the focal point of the character rather than something so banal as a class. It didn’t grab me at the time, but I might still revisit it at some stage.
  • Kith: Ultimately looked and felt too much like Gruuwar. They’ve had some interesting stuff with defensive powers and tree shapeshifting, but I didn’t want to do 2/3 small blue furry things, and gruuwar weren’t going anywhere.
  • Uldra: Kind of just a gnome, but cold? While elemental niches are maybe a bit under-served in 4e (by anything but genasi anyway) I just didn’t feel like these had very much making them unique, so they failed to excite me much.

Pookas also showed up in D&D antiquity, particularly in the very goofy days of pre-WotC editions, but they seem to have been left alone since then. Though they are a bit less specific than most of the shortlist, I think that might be their strength; they don’t shoehorn into a single concept (like the Korred or the Gloura), and they’re not just an existing creature with an element attached (like the Thorn or the Uldra).

They were also very different to the Firbolg and Gruuwar, depsite overlapping a little with both. Finding out that they also had a history of dimension-hopping abilities made them fit neatly into the triad, and they definitely felt like a true outsider fey (rather than a fey gone native, like elves or eladrin). The decision was sealed by a concept of them based visually on Pan/Dionysus as depicted by Overly Sarcastic Productions, because even in D&D I am ever following my big dumb weeb heart.

Prior Art

As fey defined by animal shape-shifting, my pooka unavoidably exists in comparison with the hengeyoukai heritage published in Dragon Magazine #404, as well the existing homebrew pooka featured on D&DWiki. And it’s definitely informed by both, though mostly in the nature of what I would change about them.

Firstly—and generally conceptually—both the hengeyouaki and the DNDW-pooka are genuinely connected to their animal forms. Hengeyoukai have “true” animal forms, literally synonymous with their humanoid forms, and the DNDW-pooka have subraces dictated by which animals they resemble and a natural weapon based on their horns.

This is very different to where I wanted to go with mine. My concept of pooka is true immortal outsiders, fundamentally disconnected from mortality and physicality; they take on meat-forms to play with mortals, but those forms never contain them. My pooka would steer away from abilities based on physical traits and instead emphasise faerie shenanigans.

Secondly—and this is the big one—the way these two handle their shifting powers is not, as far as I’m concerned, good enough for 4e. This may take a little unpacking, but it’s my blog and this is fundamental to my design choices, so unpack it I shall.

Form of: the Elephant in the Room!

The hengeyoukai has a rare gift in 4e, an at-will heritage power. This is a great start to representing the type of shapeshifting associated with kitsune and tanuki in Japanese folklore; effortless, inherent, second-nature. Unfortunately, the power itself is pretty naff, because it lacks any truly useful combat application. You get a nice movement and/or skill buff, but in exchange you give up your ability to use attack powers as long as you’re transformed, making it really only useful in fights you want to avoid.

It’s not a total loss, of course; you can have some fun using only utility powers (not including your item powers, mind you) and/or sustains for the duration of a combat. But it’s extremely limited—you can’t even pull off lazy leader shenanigans, as the champions of that form still attach most of their attack-granting to powers that are themselves attacks. Moreover, it gets on my tits in a huge way, because one of the most important foundations of 4e design is that everybody attacks. Your tank? Restricting enemy choices by being the guy constantly punching them. Your healer? Macing the bad guy so health falls out onto your allies. Your controller? There’s no action attrition like disintegrating a cloud of minions.

As far as I’m concerned, taking a heritage power—typically the most important part of any heritage package, and definitely the most important aspect of a creature defined entirely by its shapeshifting—and making it bad for combat, is some real garbo design. Yes, I know it could be useful for scouting or investigation, but that just doesn’t sway me, because this edition is balanced around combat. Make it a feat power or a utility swap or something. Don’t waste a non-optional heritage power on an ability that’s useless in any fight you’re not trying to flee.

The racial power for the DNDW-pooka, then, is… somehow worse. I’m not generally in the business of trashing other amateur designers’ work, but this design is baffling to me. Take the existing weak hengeyoukai power, remove all its mechanical benefits, make it an encounter power, require a minor action to sustain (but no duration—something must be a typo), and also block utility power usage? It’s like they thought the hengeyoukai power was somehow too pushed—not an opinion I can share.

The DNDW-pooka does get a smattering of other benefits over the hengeyoukai, but nothing I find more useful than 7 squares base movement. I’m also not a fan of “subrace” design, particularly when it goes as far as giving one heritage four different stat combos. Always reminds me too much of the 3.5 days, with boring elf subraces filling every niche as far as the eye could see (or as I will now call it, “there’s an elf for that”).

So, while I don’t find the DNDW-pooka to be good mechanical design, it definitely inspired some of the feeling I tried to capture with mine. It’s obviously made my somebody who cares a lot about these creatures, and that makes it a good touchstone for understanding their core appeal.

One’s true form

Enough of what I don’t want this to be—what do I want? Well, it was a little trickier than the first two forgotten fey, but as I played with ideas an identity really came together in my head.

  • Shapeshifting: In any myth, this is a fundamental part of what a pooka can do. It’s a clear candidate for heritage power, but I’m just not convinced it makes a good combat ability (and I think the hengeyoukai and the DNDW-pooka back that up). So I’m going to do something wild; I’m just going to let them have two heritage powers.
    I’m sure some people out there will disagree with me, but as far as I’m concerned, the animal shapeshift is more equivalent to a skill bonus or movement bonus than a heritage power, so that’s how I’m going to treat it. I look upon this a bit like the pixie—if it really does need more than one power to work right, maybe it can just have more than one1.
  • Consummate tricksters: A pooka feels like they should always have the upper hand in social challenges—whether by a silver tongue, by always having the right lie, or by being supernaturally intimidating no matter how nice they seem. Charisma is a no-brainer pick for their fixed stat bonus. Their first secondary stat bonus went to Wis, which once again just seemed like a natural fit; the better you can read other people, the better you can manipulate them.
  • A motivation for manipulation: Pooka are also harvest spirits in a lot of stories, seeking tribute from humans to stave off agricultural misfortune. I wanted to tie into that concept somehow, but in a way that works with 4e’s light-touch lore and avoidance of flavour-based penalties. Ultimately this led to Con as a secondary stat pick, based on the idea that they’re better at faking mortality than other true fey, mostly by learning to consume material things—as long as they are, or were, alive. This incidentally gives them a flavour reason to dislike salt and favour live cultures like honey, which to me that feels very on-brand for fae folk.
  • Jack of all Trades: This neatly dovetails with my preference to defer skill bonuses to the animal form, since I won’t be giving them any always-on heritage skill bonuses.
  • Stepping outside time: In folklore (and particularly in their original D&D incarnation) pooka often have the ability to distort the flow of time, stop entirely, or move outside of it with chosen allies. Obviously I wasn’t going to give them any time stop nonsense, but I did think that this would be a great alternative framing for a teleport power.
    The power I came up with lets them piggyback on somebody else’s movement, which I think provides an entirely different feeling to most of the teleports in the game. I particularly enjoy how it can borrow somebody else’s teleportation; I love the idea that an enemy might try to disengage with a teleport—normally the most foolproof form of movement—only to turn and face glowing golden eyes.

Putting it all together, we arrive at the final third of my “forgotten fey”, the pooka. As with its counterparts, its feat support still needs filling out, but I’m more than happy with its base version. Enjoy!

1 This really makes me want to make a revised hengeyoukai heritage using the same principle—probably also dividing them into several heritage options, since the folklore they draw from usually attributes different powers to different animals.

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