It was late on Christmas Eve, and I was staying in the town of Cowbridge, when the strange knock came to the quaint rented house. When I answered it a chill wind filled the air around me, colder than the December night air. There it was, a phantom in a white shroud with a horse skull head, glowing eyes, and a crown of holly on its head. Before I could scream or shut the door it started singing. My Welsh was terrible, after so many years living in New York, but I could just make out the lyrics…it wanted something to eat? It wanted to come in? Then I remembered tales my grandmother told me…this could be only one thing…a Mari Lwyd! When it was finished singing, I licked my lips, cleared my throat, and started to sing an answer….
Most know the Mari Lwyd from the Welsh Christmas caroling custom—that region’s particular take on the British hooded animal tradition. The tradition’s origins are still being debated by historians but can be traced back to the 1800’s. The Mari Lwyd is basically a horse’s skull, mounted on a pole, and covered with a long sackcloth shroud. They are sometimes decorated with crowns of flowers or holly and may have decorative baubles for eyes. Some Mari Lwyd are designed to have claw-like hands at the edges of their shrouds, usually the rib bones of some large animal.
The Mari Lwyd is then carried about as a living thing, with a pair of puppeteers carting it about, followed by a group of costumed men. The tradition is that the Mari Lwyd knocks on the door of a house and sings a request to enter, claiming that it and its company are hungry and thirsty. The owner then opens the door and sings back their refusal. Once refused, the Mari Lwyd sings another request and is typically answered by another refusal in song by the resident. This goes back and forth until the Mari Lwyd gives up and wanders off to find another home, or the resident invites the creature and its company inside and grants their request for food and drink.
But there are true Mari Lwyd in the world, usually manifesting during the yuletide holiday. These creatures appear out of mysterious fog banks to stalk about on lonely streets. They are often accompanied by a group of spectral figures, leading them in a quest to find comfort and kindness from those within warm, secure homes. These creatures drift about like ghosts and their eyes often glow with a cold silver fire, their presence chilling the air around them.
Some say they are the spirits of the poor who starved to death on cold winter nights during advent (the four weeks before Christmas). Others say they are demonic creatures, sent to test the generosity of mankind. Still others say they are the specters of ancient bards and minstrels, mournfully looking for comfort, eager to share songs with strangers on a cold winter’s night.
Whatever they actually are, a true Mari Lwyd can be a rather dangerous entity. When they knock upon a door, that house becomes separated from reality. All within it are effectively trapped as time stops all around them. They cannot leave the house, nor can they call for help. This lasts until the Mari Lwyd is dealt with.
If the door is answered, the Mari Lwyd sings its request to enter and to be given food and drink. Those answering the door are expected to sing back their refusal. The quality of the singing doesn’t matter, any reply is accepted by the Mari Lwyd, who seems happy to have the game being played properly. Each round, those visited must sing a different reply, and the Keeper may require them to make an Idea roll each round to come up with one (optional). After 2–5 rounds back and forth, the creature departs peacefully. The danger comes from those answering the door either refusing to sing a reply, or are took horrified to remain composed enough to do so (failing their Sanity check).
If the Mari Lwyd wins the game, meaning the resident cannot come up with another song of refusal, they demand to be let inside to be given food and drink. If the resident allows the Mari Lwyd inside, it happily enters without causing harm. If given a generous helping of food and drink, by the standard of the household, it consumes the offering and departs, uttering a blessing on the household as it drifts back out into the night and vanishes.
However, if the owner refuses the Mari Lwyd entry or fails to give it food and drink, it attacks, forcing its way inside and going on a rampage until it has killed at least one person. For those inside who choose to ignore the creature, after it knocks for a fifth and final time, the owner of the house must make a Hard Luck roll. If the roll is successful, the creature departs, looking for another home to visit. If the roll fails, the creature knocks down the door, barges in, and goes on a rampage until it kills one person within or is driven off.
In Combat: Mari Lwyd use their powerful jaws to deliver bites. If they have boney claws (50% chance), they have the option of delivering slashing attacks as well. Mundane weapons seem to pass through them, as they become semi-corporal when touched by such things. However, such contact does tear off a small wisp of vapor, causing the Mari Lwyd minimum damage from such attacks.
MARI LWYD, wassailing terrors
(4D6+6) × 5
(6D6+6) × 5
(3D6+6) × 5
(3D6+5) × 5
(2D6+6) × 5
4D6 × 5
Average Hit Points: 19
Average Damage Bonus: +1D6
Average Build: +2
Average Magic Points: 14
Attacks per round: 1 (bite or slash)
Mari Lwyds bite with their jaws, and there is a 50% chance ofone having sharp boney claws that they may slash with when in combat.
Fighting 40% (20/8), damage 1D4+DB
Dodge 30% (15/6)
Art/Craft (Singing) 65%, Language (Welsh) 100%, Persuade 50%, Stealth 75%.
Armor: Takes minimal possible damage from mundane weapons; immune to fire, acid, electricity, and poison; fully affected by enchanted weapons and spells.
Spells: Each Mari Lwyd knows 1D3+1 spells. These are typically spells that help conceal them, such as Dampen Light or Raise Night Fog; spells to cause fear or madness, such as Implant Fear or Pipes of Madness; or spells that impart blessings or curses, such as Blight/Bless Crops or Lame/Heal Animal.
Sanity Loss: 1/1D8 Sanity points to see a Mari Lwyd.