How to Role-Play a Harpy in D&D
Updated: Feb 19, 2019
Originally found in Greek folklore, harpies were half-human, half-avian monstrosities, who were associated with punishment and the stealing of food. Zeus famously employed the harpies to torment King Phineus of Thrace, after King Phineus’ gift of foresight became too much of a nuisance for Zeus to bear.
Zeus trapped Phineus on an island, with an endless buffet of food. Each time Phineus reached for a roasted chicken wing or lamb shank, a harpy would appear and snatch the food away, causing him to slowly and ironically starve to death.
Known for taking joy in the merciless torture of humanoids, harpies are imagined in Dungeons and Dragons as humanoids with scaly, reptilian legs, and large birdlike wings. Varying by region, harpies’ wings will most likely resemble birds of the same area. Harpies in arctic regions may have pale and snow-like wings with flecks of grey, while tropical harpies may have brilliantly colored wings, patterned in striking yellows, greens, blues, and reds.
Harpies generally wear either rags or nothing at all, and appear scraggly and dirty, as they care little for their personal appearance. However, harpies deeply treasure trinkets and baubles collected from their kills, regardless of their monetary value. These monsters may have personal collections of body parts and other collected novelties, which they may display as shrines inside their nests or wear as crude jewelry. Harpies are commonly seen wearing belts and necklaces of humanoid skulls, or weaving pieces of jewelry and baubles into their nests, much like bowerbirds.
Harpies are typically found in small groups of four to eight, though they are known to coalesce in swarms of up to 200 individuals. Harpy society is aggressive and violent, where strength in numbers is required to survive fights over territory and mates. Though lone harpies may be found, they are typically unfit for harpy society.
With a tendency towards chaotic-evil, harpies care only for their own survival, and take great joy in torturing and devouring humanoids. Because harpies tend to have low intelligence, they often are short-sighted in their goals. This causes them to fail in understanding any larger plan, focusing solely on instant gratification instead. Greater monsters can easily take advantage of this, manipulating the harpies with promises of meat, trophies, or immediate power.
Harpies may be used to guard territories or roads, often deployed as scouts to spot intruders from the sky. They may also be utilized as couriers, delivering messages between the Big Bad Villain and their minions.
Without direction from more intelligent beings, harpies are left to their own devices, which involve hunting humanoids for fun and sustenance. Harpy nests may be in treetops, caves, or whatever sheltered environment is appropriate for the area, with preference for areas that are high-up and hard to reach by foot.
While investigating a harpy nest, characters may discover partially-devoured humanoid corpses with their clothes ripped up and their bodies decaying. Gruesomely arranged baubles and trophies are likely to decorate small outcroppings or natural shelves, with piles of bones tattered with the remains of clothing serving as the nest. Harpies are likely to be in their lair unless they are out hunting.
Similar to mermaids, harpies possess a siren song, which they use to charm humanoids in order to lure them closer. Once adjacent to a charmed humanoid, harpies draw them in and attack with their claws and crude weapons (typically a club).
Alternatively, harpies may take the opportunity to grapple the charmed humanoid and fly away with them in order to take the adventurer to another location or fly high up and drop the humanoid to their death. This can include dropping their prey into a pit of lava, a deep lake if they are wearing heavy armor, or simply onto a field from a great height.
Generally unintelligent, harpies will not necessarily focus on spellcasters, but instead focus on characters who are isolated from the group, or have lots of shiny treasures which the harpy wants as trophies.
Cowards in battle, harpies will flee if they find themselves to be outnumbered or if their companions die quickly, utilizing their fly-speed to quickly leave the range of melee characters.
Creating Harpy NPCs
While harpies tend to be chaotic evil and a tad unintelligent, exceptional harpies do exist, and some societies may have evolved beyond their chaotic tendencies. Imagine a harpy society, hidden away in the treetops of a vast rain-forest inside the island of Chult. Led by a distinguished queen, this society collects trinkets and baubles throughout their territory, displaying their trophies in extensive treetop shrines. Adventurers are seeking one of these treasures, and must now infiltrate their ancient home.
Or imagine a druidic harpy, abandoned as a child, and raised by a kindly centaur. As she grew older, she birthed of flock of harpies, which help her to protect her childhood home, an ancient oldwood forest. Rather than collecting the skulls of adventurers, they collect and tend to rare flowers in a garden that flourishes within the heart of the forest.