Look at that! We’re through the A’s and into the B’s of the Monster Manual. First up in this new segment, we’ve got a real treat–a classic beastie that’s a real scream: the banshee!
Banshees fall into my favorite category of monsters: the undead. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always loved using undead monsters against my players, whether they be zombies, ghosts, mummies, or anything else. That said, I’m not sure that I’ve ever unleashed a banshee on a party before… but there’s a first time for everything, right?
Fifth Edition is a bit more specific with its banshee lore than I’d have guessed. According to the Monster Manual, banshees are elvish spirits–particularly those who used their great beauty to seduce, manipulate, and control others. These vain folk are cursed to an afterlife of abject misery, trapped in the place where they died. They love beautiful objects, but hate mirrors, because they don’t want to see how their own looks have been tarnished by the banshee’s curse.
At first, I thought it was a bit odd to say that all banshees are elves; looking at their mythological origins, however, it makes sense. Banshees come from Irish myth, where they were considered fairy spirits. In fact, their Old Irish name, ben side, translates roughly to “fairy woman.” Considering elves also have their roots in fairy folklore, the connection makes quite a bit of sense! Of course, there’s nothing stopping DMs from simply ignoring the ‘”always elvish spirits” thing if it doesn’t serve the story they want to tell.
Now that the fluff is out of the way, how about the crunch? Banshees have a fairly meaty stat block for a CR4 monster. As incorporeal spirits, they are able to move through creatures and objects, and they have all the damage resistances one might expect of a ghostly being. They also have the ability to detect life within a five-mile radius, making them pretty good at hunting down prey.
Offensively, their main attack is a corrupting touch, which deals a nice bit of necrotic damage but isn’t particularly flashy. A banshee doesn’t have to get up close to be a threat, though–just looking at the monster’s horrifying visage is enough to scare off most adventurers. Anyone who sees a banshee needs to pass a Wisdom save or be frightened for a full minute. Of course, the keystone of a banshee’s article isn’t their creepy claws or frightening faces–it’s that famous banshee wail! In the traditional folk tales, the keening of a banshee indicates the death of a loved one; in the more, uh, combat-oriented world of Dungeons & Dragons, however, the banshee’s wail is a deadly weapon. Creatures who hear the wail and fail a Constitution saving throw are instantly reduced to zero hit points. This ability alone makes the banshee one of the deadliest creatures I’ve covered so far–a bad roll on your saving throw could spell the end for you, regardless of your level!
So, how do you work a banshee into your game? Well, you could certainly make one the focal point of a murder mystery-style story: some noble has been murdered, and their spirit now lingers in their manse as a banshee. The townsfolk are haunted by its chilling shrieks every night, and they hire the players to investigate. This could be fun because there’s multiple ways to resolve it–do they players simply fight and banish the banshee, or do they investigate the murder and help the soul find peace? Admittedly, that kind of story isn’t really banshee-specific; it could work for any kind of ghost. Using a banshee gives it that extra creep factor, though, because you can describe the horrid wailing that assails the town each night until the situation is resolved.
In all honesty, you really can use a banshee anywhere you’d use a ghost–they’re just a more specialized brand of specter. If you need to fill a place up with spirits, mix a banshee or two in for flavor!
If you want to really do something special, though, consider this: ignore the fluff presented in the Monster Manual and lean into the banshee’s more traditional lore. Next time your party is traveling, have them pass by a tumulus, or barrow–a large earthen mound covering a burial site. These sites were called fairy mounds in Irish folklore. You don’t need to describe it overmuch, just mention it among the scenery of their travel. Then, when they stop for rest that night, don’t roll on the random encounters table. Instead, describe the awful keening that comes to the party on the wind. Perhaps a player standing guard could see a veiled woman fly past in the moonlight, shrieking.
From there, you could take it in a few directions. To hew closest to the classic banshee, do this shortly before the reveal of a climactic death in your campaign–for instance, if you’ve been planning to have the Big Bad take out an important NPC, use the banshee to foreshadow that death. The players hear its mournful wail, but it never attacks them; there’s not combat to be had. It might seem like a random, creepy occurrence at the time, but once they learn about the NPC’s death, savvy players will understand the omen the banshee provided.
Alternately, you could have the banshee track the players down via its life-sensing ability and attack. This could lead to a fun fight, and enterprising players searching the area afterward could perhaps find the poor soul’s original body, providing some context and–more importantly–a few pieces of loot.
You could even go the whole nine yards and let the players follow the wailing back to the barrow, which could serve as a small dungeon: an underground labyrinth of tombs, filled with the restless dead, with the banshee at its center. This could be a neat, memorable diversion for the players, and it offers plenty of opportunity for handing out new gear!
Banshees are fun, creepy monsters that are far more interesting than your garden-variety ghost. Their wail isn’t just deadly; it adds a whole new layer of terror to any encounter, and the ability to use it not just as an attack but as an omen carrying real narrative weight makes its one of the more interesting monster abilities I’ve discussed here so far. Next time you’re looking to add a bit of unease and fright to your game, add a banshee–you’ll be glad you did!