Important: This post has a theme song.
So. Swan maidens. (Or swanmays, if you want to be old school about it.) They’re a classic trope of folklore, one that tends to follow the similar tales involving selkies, crane wives, kitsune, etc.—either a man steals a swan maiden’s cloak and they live together until she finds it, or a mysterious woman marries a man but hides her secret from him and is compelled to leave if he ever discovers her true nature.
Thanks to the heavily influential (meaning I haven’t read it but know I should) Three Hearts and Three Lions, swan maidens have floated in and out of fantasy gaming for years, taking on a much more active role as defenders of nature with aspects of the ranger or druid classes. Sometimes they are fey; sometimes they are human; in 3.5 they were even a prestige class.
Pathfinder goes the fey route, making them agile fencers and archers with a dash of fey magic to go with. Their fey nature is still heavily tied up in their cloaks, though—a swan maiden can’t transform into swan form without one, and a good-aligned female of any humanoid race can be transformed into a swan maiden through a 24-hour ritual (which you have to imagine involves the investiture of a feathered cloak). If you’ve got a good female PC whose player wants to switch characters or leave the campaign, a retirement as a swan maiden would be a hell of a send-off.
That said, you can scrap the female requirement as far as I’m concerned. The stories of Lohengrin and the Knight of the Swan are nearly swan maiden tales already, give or take a swan-drawn chariot or two. So maybe next adventure throw some swan men your PCs’ way. Or, if you like gender fuckery—I normally keep this blog FCC-clean but it’s the appropriate term of art—maybe men become swan maidens when they acquire the cloak, too, and only retain their new gender as long as they retain the feathered mantle. So the PC hoping to get a new cohort (or a new bride) by stealing a swan maiden’s cloak might be surprised to find a very angry bearded man demanding his clothing back.
And as for trumpeter swans…dude, swans are territorial. Don’t mess with them. Urban legend has inflated their reputation somewhat, but still.
“Flush the rebels out of Durham Wood.” A seemingly simple command. But when adventurers discover that grigs, brownies, and even unicorns are aiding the rebels, it’s clear that this is no ordinarily hullabaloo over taxes and crop seizures. A scouting mission into the nearby valley reveals someone is clearcutting trees, crafting strange clockwork soldiers, and holding local children in locked pens. Do the adventurers ride out their contract or switch sides? And how can you convince the baron you’ve captured the rebels’ charismatic swan maiden leader when she turns into a man 24 hours after her cloak has been removed?
“Retrieve the king’s swan.” A seemingly simple assignment. But when the swan in question is a gift from a nixie queen a continent away, the gamekeeper has been poisoned, there are goblins on the loose, and the swan itself is rather adamant about not being retrieved…then it becomes another assignment entirely. The price for failure is the king’s displeasure…but succeed or fail this just might be the assignment that turns a ragtag band of nobles’ bastard children, acolytes, apprentices, and promising servants into a bona fide adventuring company.
“Steal the banner from the top of Château Cygnus.” A seemingly simple dare. Unlike the dapper (when they’re not publicly carousing and brawling) musketeers, church magi, halberdiers, city watch, and other public and private armies roaming the streets of Sierre, the Swan Knights spend most of their time dispatched leagues away in the Royal Game Preserves and keep to the château when in town. Musketeers who take up the challenge will find that the Swan Knights are not precisely human and have unique ways of foiling the plans of ambitious braggarts. But—assuming the swan maidens don’t kill them outright—the musketeers may also be on hand to stop a disturbing plot by some cold-iron wielding rakshasa agents intent on destroying the fey shapechangers who might spot their machinations.
—Pathfinder Bestiary 4 257
I think some Tamora Pierce snuck into that first adventure seed.
I first came across swanmays in the pages of Dragon Magazine #155, a fey-focused issue you’re probably sick to death of me talking about. (It’s so good, though!)
Dragon #266 had a whole article on variant swanmays from James Wyatt, “Feathered Friends and Foes.” It’s actually kind of great, and if you’re a big fan of swanmays/swan maidens, it's worth checking out.
For me though, that issue has always represented something grim. It came out in December 1999, amid a series of issues (the amazing Underdark-focused #267 being a very notable exception) that were clearly marking time until Third Edition came out. In fact, it was worse than that…these issues just felt exhausted and out of ideas. (Even James Wyatt’s article, while I like it for itself, in context is symptomatic of that exhaustion: “You know that one shapechanger near the end of the alphabet that you’ve never used? Here are four more of them. I hope you like gull-people.”) Normally I dread edition changes the way most people fear an IRS audit, but the decline of late-2e Dragon really makes the case that it was time. Reading from fall of 1999 through 2001 is to watch a magazine surrender to exhaustion, then be utterly reborn with the shot of adrenaline 3.0 provided.
Worse than that, this was around the time the hobby store in my local mall just gave up on RPGs whatsoever after a remodel. But for some reason, they had stacks of issue #266 lying around. Stacks. And they just lingered there unbought for months, propped up on a bottom shelf in the remodeled store as this awful mocking symbol that the magazine I loved was barely wheezing along and that my favorite hobby store didn’t care about my hobby anymore.
So I hate this issue. But props to James Wyatt for a nice article.