Wendigos are one of those “Everyone go grab a snack” monsters, like doppelgangers and succubi. Your character failed a save, or had a particular dream, or heard something the rest of the party didn’t. The other players file out of the room. You and the GM stay. While everyone else reaches for pizza slices and their cell phones, the two of you reach for the dice…because something bad is about to happen.
Whether portrayed as undead or outsiders (in Pathfinder they are outsiders), thematically the wendigo has always been about the twin endemic dangers of northern winters: cabin fever and cannibalism. Greg A. Vaughan’s chapter in Mythical Monsters Revisited has much more to say on the subject (and offers up some regional variants), but basically wendigos are the result of (and often the instigation for) someone’s mind snapping in the dead of winter. The unfortunate soul does the unthinkable, murdering and consuming his kin, and then—whether driven by pure madness, spiritual possession, or shame at having broken the ultimate taboo—runs off into the air and transforms into an otherworldly creature, who then continues to cannibalize its former people and inspire more lost souls to do the same.
Maybe one of the best parts about the wendigo is that it can deliver “We’re snowed in and being stalked by a monster!” terror to even the most high-level parties. With nightmare, it can even invade a character’s dreams. What it does to the victims it doesn’t kill is just creepy. And +26 to hit ain’t nothing to sneeze at.
Since wendigos come from Native American myths and also (very, very superficially) resemble Grendel (I’ll have more to say about that subject another day), wendigo-themed adventures set in isolated longhouses automatically come to mind. Here are some other options:
In the summer, Fur Seal Island supplies everything a hunter could want to survive: fur, meat, and oil aplenty, courtesy of the seals that give the island its name. But every year a captain will grow overconfident, his hunting party will stay too long, and strange squalls and blizzards will trap their ship in harbor or sink it below the waves. This is the work of the Fur Seal Island wendigo, whose real hunting season has just begun.
Unlike most elves, the snow elves of the Crystal Fastnesses don't live with nature—they defy it. Living in palaces of heated quartz, glass-domed greenhouses, and aquamarine tunnels of ice, they live carefully tended lives of plenty that most northern races only dream of. But sometimes the magic fails…the domes crack…the cold seeps in… And with the cold comes the wendigo, and gods help the elves who hear its haunting call.
Agriculture on the Plane of Air is a tenuous thing—rainfall is sporadic, seasons don't occur with any reliability, and few of the floating islands have much in the way of topsoil. One spell of bad luck can doom the hardscrabble communities eking out a living on these flying earthbergs to starvation…and if this occurs too close to the frozen borders of the Para-Elemental Plane of Ice, a wendigo might manifest.
Looking for all the world like a child’s jack made of emerald, the Netherspine orbits the moon, quiet as a grave—which it is. The heat and artificial gravity in the “north” spine have failed, and half-eaten bodies hang in the frigid air like meat in an invisible larder. A beetle-eyed void wendigo (see Mythical Monsters Revisited) uses the floating bodies to hide its own stump-legged form until it can stow away on a new ship.
—Pathfinder #6 88–89 & Pathfinder Bestiary 2 281
I added a bonus adventure seed! Just because! (Really I just had to sneak the elves in there. I’ve tried to hide it, but I have fierce elf feels. I just finished Bastards of Golarion, and I can’t tell you a thing about it because my brain just goes, “New half-elf heritages… *drool*”)
My first exposure to the wendigo was in the first Halloween/undead-themed Dragon Magazine I ever picked up, #138, courtesy of an epic article on undead by Tom Moldvay called “The Ungrateful Dead.” Very worth checking out if you can find a copy, despite being a 26-year-old article for a different system, because Moldvay’s emphasis on going back to the folklore for each undead creature makes for incredibly engaging reading and will point you to some folktales you might not find anywhere else.
Speaking of going back to the folklore, it's nice having readers who can catch me when a monster creeps past one of my blind spots. Since I’ve never seen/read/heard the original source material, it didn't even occur to me until filbypott mentioned that whipweeds might be an homage to the John Wyndham’s triffids. Thanks! Also dr-archville took a closer look than I had time to at the dire implications of an “innocent” verdict from a water wraith and looked back at older versions of the wax golem.
While we’re hanging out up north: Vikings!
I crammed my annual SXSW, St. Patty's Day, and birthday shows all into one 2-hour block. Give it a listen—I promise it's a good one.
(For best results, let load in Firefox or Chrome, Save As an mp3, and enjoy in iTunes. Link good till Friday, 3/28, at midnight.)