Gamebook Review: Faeries: A Complete Handbook of the Seelie

Faeries: A Complete Handbook of the Seelie, by Sarah Link and John Snead. Five out of five for art, information, and worldbuilding potential; yes, it’s a White Wolf gamebook, but the writers dug deep into old fairy lore and it’s old enough (circa 1991) that it missed most of the infestation of “woke” afflicting too many modern gamebooks.

This book was originally written to go with the Ars Magica setting, and has stats and scenario suggestions accordingly. But if you want to sink your teeth into fairies before the Victorians got hold of them, this is an excellent place to start and find out about creatures and magic you want to research in more detail.

Straying into and out of fay realms? It’s here. Typical fairy abilities, flight, glamour, potion-brewing, shape-changing, and many others? Lots of those. The difference between Seelie and Unseelie, and what fairies don’t give two hoots about the Courts? Got it. Sea-fairies, skin-changers; fay of forests, wind, mountains, guardians of churches and households, faerie animals, plants, fungi, and less definable things? All here.

Chapter 3 on the Faerie Realm is particularly intriguing if you want to write a story where a magical world “overlaps” the mundane one. That’s exactly what the regio setup handles. Some areas of reality have multiple “layers” from the mundane base to the mystical “topmost” layer that may lead into the greater dimension of Arcadia itself. Different times of day and days of the year are more or less magical, making the barriers between the levels either more permeable, or less. So a hapless mortal wandering a faerie forest on Halloween might trip right into fairyland, but if he tries to get back out on All Saint’s Day… he’s going to need some help.

(And help is oh, so perilous to come by, when you deal with the fay.)

One of the neat stray bits in the book is, “your characters are lost in Arcadia looking for the Tuatha de Danann’s Caer Arionrhod, which is the constellation Corona Borealis. What do they do?” Several ways of giving the players hints are suggested, plus some odd solutions they might come up with on their own. I particularly liked the one where the astrologer reasoned they must already be in the sky, so she could use her star-charts as a map.

Fairy weaknesses, bargains, and changelings are covered in enough detail to make a good story start. Note, though, that this is a gamebook, so it simplifies things by giving all fairies a weakness to religion. Dig into actual lore and you’ll find varying accounts of what fay are weakened or destroyed by prayers, and which are simply annoyed.

All told this is an excellent sum-up of how fairies were perceived in Europe prior to Tolkien’s elves and Victorian sprites with butterfly wings. If you can find a paperback copy (there are some on eBay, and warehouse23 apparently has a PDF) it’s worth adding to your library of fantasy inspiration.

A/N: Yes, I’m reviewing some older books lately. Part of that is finally unpacking some things! And part is going through older stuff deliberately in case some of it comes in handy for newer ideas I’ve been poking. This one, in particular, is giving the bunnies twitches about “may be useful for building a Western cultivation-style fantasy”, if I can assemble a few more elements!

28 thoughts on “Gamebook Review: Faeries: A Complete Handbook of the Seelie

  1. I’m surprised that one was actually good. The White Wolf era of Ars Magica was notorious for ruining both the historical lore and the game-setting lore in their attempt to shoehorn it into their greater WoD setting (with its diametrically opposed basic cosmology and mutually contradictory key setting details). Were there obvious places where the book described lore, but then the mechanics it gave to go with the lore would make the lore impossible (like in the old Mage book I read)? Or did this one just manage to be one of the few that slipped past the editors?

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    1. I have to admit I never played Ars Magica. I picked it up because Faeries. (Also the cover art is lovely, and you have to wonder how it skated through as “bookshelf safe” because there’s one little detail on the female satyr….)

      But yes. I was later able to get my hands on some older books on fairy lore – Yeats being one of the classics – and the sourcebook didn’t mess up much.

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      1. I haven’t actually played Ars Magica (tho the core book for ArM 4e is free from the official site, now that ArM 5e is out), but when I was looking into which books to get I found quite a few explanations of the dark period where White Wolf had access to the property and why the changes made to it to make it fit WoD were directly contrary to the very core of what ArM’s setting and mechanics were based around. But then, I’m not completely surprised that a White Wolf book could manage to get the lore part “right”, even with that (the term “rules toxic to the setting” exists for a reason, and that’s because there frequently is a disconnect between their lore and their mechanics, where each contradicts/undermines the other).

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      1. I’m actually currently reading an HP fanfic that makes use of those. It also notes that Voldemort basically went down the checklist of “asking for it”, what with being a kin-slayer, violating guest-right, styling himself a lord on his own recognizance, forsaking the duties of a lord by standing forsworn to at least one of his liegemen, etc. As it says after the rest of that analysis of how he was taunting murphy and all other possible entities that could be taunted; “Acting like Tom did goes beyond hubris and well into ‘what an idiot’ territory.” You might find it interesting for all the little notes the author puts in there explaining where he’s getting stuff from.
        https://www.fanfiction.net/s/13436100/1/Ghost-of-Privet-Drive

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      2. I’d assume that if you reach a certain level of power, you can largely ignore the taboos that ‘street level’ characters might have to live or die by. Of course, if you aren’t actually doing anything to make yourself exempt, that’s building in some mystic brittleness that can come bite you in the butt later.

        And Voldemort had a huge blind spot for esoteric rules that he hadn’t already researched and taken advantage of.

        -Albert

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      3. Oh, hey, while we’re at it, I saw the other day that one of the old meanings of “riddle” was a sieve. Because a sieve is riddled with holes. And it turned out that Tom Riddle made lots of holes in himself….

        (Riddle as an enigma is from “raedan,” to understand or interpret and “raedelse,” opinion, but riddle as in holes is from “hriddel,” sieve, and “hrid-“, to shake.)

        Also, of course, there’s the older translation of 1 Corinthians 13:12 — “Videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate” — “Now we see through a mirror, in a riddle” — which is a pretty direct translation of the Greek “di’ esoptrou en ainigmati.” (I mean, yes, it means, “in an obscure puzzling way,” but that’s what the words say.) So I always thought it was funny that Rowling had the mirror and the Riddle in the first book.

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      4. Actually, looking at some of the myths, it’s more the other way around. Some random nobody may be able to get away with it, but someone power comes with responsibility so someone powerful is actually more vulnerable rather than less (which was why one of the listed flaws of Voldemort was that he claimed to be a lord, and then forsook his duties by forswearing himself to his liegemen). The “being more powerful means getting away with stuff and being less subject to the consequences” is actually more of a modern fiction thing rather than historical mythology. Even when the powerful entities did manage to get away with stuff, in the myths it almost always either came back to bite them even more strongly because they had gotten away with it for a while, or it took fighting for it and literally overpowering whatever would have enforced the penalties. It tended to only be purely mundane consequences that could be straight up avoided by being powerful, and even then there were usually non-mundane consequences too (like a king getting away with stuff in the mundane sense, but getting his kingdom cursed as a result).

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      5. I would assume that Voldemort’s vulnerability to claiming lord status and then betraying an underling is due to position, rather than personal power. Beyond that, wizards aren’t angels, priests, spirits, fae, or other holders of position within a supernatural hierarchy. Wizards are the ones who figure out the cheat codes to the universe, and within the wizarding world you only have to worry about those kinds of taboos when dealing non-human magicals.

        -Albert

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  2. Yay! It’s always fun to hear about your bunnies. And quite frankly, I like reading your book reviews. It tends to steer me in new directions that I find rather enjoyable. And a lot of the older books are so fun! I’m now getting more deeply into Andre Norton books, or trying to. Some of the books *coughYearoftheUnicorn* didn’t make the transition to audiobooks very well, but that actually is an excellent source for the early novels.

    Sigh, I really wish I’d been actually into those books before we picked them all into boxes. And now I’m stuck, because remodeling needs mean we’re getting rid of the boxes of books. And there are some that I really want to read again, but I can remember the cover art and the plot and nothing else. Oh, except I still remember where the books were located, even after we got rid of those book shelves.

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      1. That’s been my dad’s reaction too. Frankly, I’m kinda grumpy myself. But, well. I’m a bookwyrm, I want my hoard to stay even if I haven’t read most of it. (Though as I ge folder, I wish I had. Some of the old stuff is interesting, and I’m less likely to run into things that squick me out. (Until I do. Some of the old-time stuff is, well. Squicky.))

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  3. Atlas Games did Faerie supplements a couple more times: Faeries for 4e and Realms of Power: Faeries for 5e. There’s some mention of faeries who have other weaknesses, or who work in a church as part of a local treaty — tacit or not — between Fae and Dominion, and so on. 5e especially tries to be broadly flexible, although I think it manages to lose some of the charm/allure/fascination (not entirely sure what word I’m looking for, here) that was present in earlier editions.

    My own interests in putting together a coherent ‘heartbreaker’ take a great deal of inspiration from Ars Magica, but since a lot of faerie folklore arises from liminal times and spaces, my inclination is to have humans and other sophont territory-holders apply phrenic weight to the boundaries they observe. This is an instinctive thing, reinforced by the beliefs of an entire community, allowing for weird details to develop naturally over time. Specific ward-offs that only apply to creatures influenced by the local folklore, for example.

    Entities with a larger existence in the Unseen could find themselves sustained by taking up available liminal roles, but accepting such a role would gradually change them to more accurately reflect the folklore. For DMing purposes, I’d probably have a rating of ‘folkloric assimilation’ that governs how much the entity is subject to the rules of the nearby humans.

    (Deliberately regulating a community’s phrenic weight would of course be a thing, ranging from rather sophisticated to entirely ad-hoc, depending on the culture. I believe it was the Chinese who had their Emperor’s lives almost entirely regulated in order to behave aptly and derive spiritual protection for the Empire, for example.)

    -Albert

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  4. Depending on your natural philosophers of choice (and early Christians and Jews really liked natural philosophy, because it was a lot less problematic for them than other philosophies that required gods, god-coercive magic, lack of freewill, and so on), a lot of fairy creatures would either be considered “humans who just look different and have different qualities than other humans, possibly because of curses, but who are still children of Adam and Eve,” “angelic beings who mean well and obey God but have their own business,” or “creatures of nature who are just different from the creatures we know,” ie, the longaevi or long-lived ones.

    So there were various tests, and the inability to bear prayer was definitely a sign that a being was demonic in nature. Mostly people were worried about demonic creatures, the whole powers of the air and powers of darkness thing. Anything else, and you were basically dealing with strange, dangerous, but doable phenomena.

    Some people believed in the “neutral angels who got thrown out of heaven for not taking a side, or waiting around to see who won,” but that was kind of a late-period joke and didn’t fit most theologies.

    Now, obviously the most fruitful category for most medieval-contemporary fantasy purposes was the nephilim and their descendants, and/or Cain and his descendants, because they could be giants, heroes, have freaky powers and notable appearances, etc. Hence Beowulf’s Grendel being a descendant of Cain. But they didn’t have to be bad, necessarily, because Ruth was a giant-descendant, and hence the entire House of David also. (Insert red hair thing here, because the medievals loved the red hair/giants/house of David thing. Sort of a counterbalance against the red-haired-Judas idea.)

    And we’ve talked about this before, but basically the ideas about magic were goetia, which was dealing with demons and using their powers, and magia, which was (theoretically) the use of unknown but totally normal natural properties. (Which would literally make it science and technology; so it’s not really a category anymore, unless you posit time travelers and awiens.)

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    1. I did not know the bit about red hair and giants! Cool. 🙂

      And given I have a fondness for Sufficiently Analyzed Magic, yes, magia sounds like more the way to go. Thanks! This might be a very helpful search word. FYI: Searching alchemy has not really been helpful, besides some intriguing bits on aether!

      (Which would fit nicely into magia anyway, as “part of the world most people don’t know about.”)

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  5. I have to admit, I’m not a gamer but my first reaction at the title was ‘OOOhhh!’ There is some really interesting stuff in Faerie lore that doesn’t seem to get touched on in a lot of modern fiction. Though I think Patricia Briggs did a decent job with her Mercy Thompson series.

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  6. This is on topic, I promise.

    A while ago a former police officer got asked to research hundreds, possibly thousands, of strange disappearances in wilderness areas in North America. -Remember when stories about fae started most of Europe still had forests- Now, although most of these are still “unexplained” because there is no proof the usual mundane explanations can apply – ->experienced person, but maybe experiencing health problems causing confusion; predator, animal or human; young child wandering away on their own. He wrote a series about it title Missing:411.

    But…Sometimes, the circumstances surrounding the disappearance make no sense. And sometimes the person is found alive and can be questioned. A four year old disappears from a locked car near his uncle, but never cries out. Three, four days later he is found, alive, seven miles away, up a cliff that requires climbing equipment to traverse. There is no other way up, and the lone tree growing there, has had its branches wrapped around the child holding him in place. Despite near zero weather, he is not suffering from exposure. He can’t tell them anything about how he got there.

    A six year old girl, berry picking with her parents, disappears, to be found two days later, miles away. She tells searchers she was hiding from “tramps” and that it was sunny the whole time she was gone. That entire area for miles around was overcast during that time.

    A skier disappears off a ski slope after staying behind for one last run. His wallet, drivers license, and car are still at the lodge. He reappears two days later hundreds of miles away, still wearing his snow suit and boots, with a new haircut and phone, and no memory of how he got there.

    The four year old who followed a “creature” into the woods, and was lead back by a “giant”.

    There were similar stories that make me wonder if things like this have been happening for centuries and been turned into the faerie stories we know today.

    Also, not all the stories have happy endings, so if you decide to get further into it, make sure you are in a good head space first. I find them interesting but can only read so many at one sitting.

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    1. There are books collecting modern and old versions of such stories, yes. I used one as reference for “Thrower of the Dart” – “struck by a fairy” was used to explain some very grotesque medical weirdness.

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