How to Make the Fey Less Twee

How can I make the fey into something they'd actually respect? Either as adversaries or as allies.
I sympathize with your players, because I also hate trickster fey. I think they're silly, and that they detract from any setting where they exist. It's not a matter of fear or respect, though. The issue is that they don't make logical sense.

If you ask a wizard how they cast spells, then they can give you complex theories about natural laws and interactions between elemental planes. If you ask a cleric how they cast spells, then they can tell you about faith in their deity and how they channel energies from the outer planes. If you ask a sorcerer how they cast spells, then they'll mumble a bunch of nonsense that doesn't mean anything, and the wizard will go back to explaining how it really works.

Fey aren't like that. Fey work because of 'magic' and there is no deeper explanation. If your players are anything like me, and you want them to take the fey seriously, then you need to give them a solid origin that makes sense, and which your players can accept. Make them more mundane, like a race of even-smaller elves, with a greater affinity for the sorts of magic that wizards use. Make them knowable. Don't use their nature as an excuse for unpredictable things to happen, because that's the easiest way to make a serious player stop caring.
 

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One of the common themes of the fey is obligation and bargain. The concept of binding agreements is all but mandatory to do them justice. They're almost always required to follow very strict rules, but anything not explicitly covered by those rules is fair game. One common one is that nothing is given or taken for free. There are no gifts unless explicitly mentioned, and if you don't know the terms of the deal before you take something, well, you can end up in lifelong service because you took a cookie without checking to see what the exchange was. It may be that the Feywild itself enforces these bargains. Who knows? But once agreed to, there's no way out of them.

Fey are very common in modern urban fantasy. If you've read Rivers of London, Iron Druid, Harry Dresden, Alex Verus, or any other of a variety of similar stories, you've encountered this idea before. The fey are very powerful, but they're required by some law not to interfere or involve themselves unless invited. And inviting them is always a bad idea. I think the Kingkiller Chronicle's Cthaeh is perhaps one of the most terrifying creations in fiction.

IMO, the problem isn't that the fey aren't terrifying. It's that the Fey type is grossly underrepresented in the Monster Manual. Take the Rakshasa stats and create a fey creature with them. Take a lycanthrope and change the damage immunity to everything that's not iron. Shapeshifters as well. Make heavy use of geas, bestow curse, suggestion, charm, and dominate. I'd consider making fey bargains even more binding than the above, however, should the fey be powerful enough.

Use mazes of illusion, sleep traps, charmed poisons, etc. Lethal seduction that makes a succubus look like a cheap knock-off. To the fey, mere mortals are just so much chattel to be taken, enjoyed, and disposed of. Not because they have some end. No, it is it's own end. And the PCs agreed to it! It's like quicksand, or a pitcher plant. It looks beautiful, harmless and inviting. But when it turns on you, they won't even find your broken bones.
 

The Tome of Beasts has some Fey Lords and Ladies that are pretty well-done (along with a bunch of other fey-type monsters).

Considering red caps traditionally dye their caps with the blood of their slain foes, that seems pretty grim to begin with. Maybe having them encounter one in the process of harvesting dye might work?

Admittedly, most people into fantasy know that whole food trope. I could see certain types of players having a go at it just to see what happens. While I could also see doing it as a trick by not revealing that they're fey until it's too late, that seems cheap, and honestly, that seems against the very rules that govern the fey, such as they are.

I thought about that, but even Redcaps and Changelings seem ... petty, somehow. Small-scale. Is there a way to make fey dignified, something that would make your first reaction not be to crack a joke about them?

Would be nice if I could pull that off, but I fear my players are too genre-savvy. Also, I'm afraid they'll hear that, think "Fairy tale, kid stuff!" and check out.
 


squibbles

Adventurer
I suggest watching Pan's Labyrinth for inspiration. All the supernatural weirdness in it is fey--fauns, faeries, giant animals--but it comes off as ominous and creepy.

Part of that creepiness is that the fey are a constant physical threat to the protagonist.

So I suggest, whatever else you do, make the fey in your campaign able to convincingly threaten your PCs with death. They may be regarded as annoying or silly otherwise.
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
I ran a dark fey campaign once (Pathfinder's Kingmaker). Conversion needed, but check out Paizo's "Carnival of Tears." Too much to include here, but I scattered in medieval-style dark nursery rhymes the party would hear walking through town and other lore at low levels, foreshadowing when the nightmares became real. The "Carnival of Tears" is great because the fey-mind runs on a whole different page than humans, and it's twisted and dark and alien. They have a set of rules that mortals don't get to play by, and it lets them gleefully take your children, curse you, and ultimately make you the apparent cause of your own detriments.

And fey don't pull punches. They're playfully gleeful, which may make them seem harmless, but if you violate the Rules by which they play, they get nasty fast. Minor fey might pull pranks because by their rules, you're supposed to get irritated and irate, but if the humans don't play by the rules and pull a blade or the like, they turn dark, perhaps turning your food to poison while you rest. The greater fey, the single legendary ones, in Kingmaker were seeking to pull a portion of land (coincidentally the kingdom) into their faerie realm, a ship in a bottle if you will. For that to happen, the land had to become like fey lands, and that didn't translate well for the life expectancy of mortals.
 



Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
If cats looked like frogs we'd realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That's what people remember.
― Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies

The problem of course is that the modern take on Fey has emphasized their beauty and style and turned their tricks into playful mischief rather than the truly terrifying events they should be.

iirc there was a Story Hour here that had an awesome take on the fey, I remember something about three severed heads in a well, and the Bone man who would beat you with a femur?

Its those horror elements that need to be brought back into Fey bargains - they are not just mischievous, they are capricious and amoral. For my own take on Fey 'Elves' I took inspiration from Leannan Sidhe, so Elves are ethereal creatures of mist who can only take on bodies by draining the 'substance' from mortals (they suck the life from mortals via their kiss). Beware the mist and the voices you might hear within...

Really the modern romantic depiction of vampires (including Anne Rices, Buffys and the sparkly ones of Twilight) depict Fey more than the depict historic Nosferatu

Anyway, as T Pratchett put in when referring to his Fey 'Elves'
Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror

No one ever said elves are nice.
Elves are bad.
 
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