Troll Cats & Even Stranger Familiars
A strange column about folklore and tabletop RPGs
Black cats, dogs, and crows acting as familiars are such a common sight in folklore and fiction it can sometimes border on cliche — so what if you gave your witch something really weird?
For a unique take on familiars, you need look no further than Scandinavian folklore. Here we find witch’s familiars made from wool and with a hunger for milk… and blood.
The Scandinavian Troll Cat is a ball-shaped creature formed from yarn and sticks that can assume the form of a cat. Traditionally, it is created by a witch with the express purpose of stealing milk from cows, but there’s nothing to stop her from getting creative with her orders. How do you catch a murderer that can disguise itself as stray wool?
There was a risk to making a troll cat, beyond the usual punishments for witchcraft. If the familiar is harmed while in the shape of a ball, only the creature is hurt. If the familiar is cat-shaped, however, the witch suffers any injury the cat suffers. If a witch dies before her troll cat, she needs to be buried with it—lest she have to return from her grave to find it.
Iceland gives us the Tilberi(carrier), also known as a Snakkur (spindle wrapped in yarn). A serpentine creature made from wool and bone, each end of its body is a ravenous mouth. Tilberi can only be created and owned by women, an interesting point given that, in Iceland, magic was traditionally a male-dominated field.
Like the troll cat, the traditional application of a tilberi is to steal milk, drinking cows and sheep dry. When full, it would return and say “Full belly, Mummy!” before spewing the milk back out. Its loyalty to its ‘mother’ means that it could be ordered to commit other crimes too, whether that be more theft or something worse.
When shot or pierced, whatever the tilberi last drank leaks out of it. To find its master, try chasing it home, where it will give the game away by trying to hide itself under its creator’s skirt. Just be aware that they can be lightning fast.
Making Your Familiar
Creating a troll cat is surprisingly simple, as long as you have some existing dark powers (such as from selling your soul to the devil, natch). The witch just needs to collect some odds and ends, such as “human hair, nails, wood shavings, and the like”, then bring it to life with three drops of blood.
The tilberi is a little harder and involves a great deal of Christian-specific blasphemy. Luckily for non-historical settings, we can boil things down to four steps:
Dig up a recently buried body and steal its rib.
Twist stolen wool around the rib then hide it on your person.
Commit a blasphemous act once a week over three weeks to feed it (the OG is spitting sanctified communion wine on the bundle).
Then finally, feed it your own blood.
Then ta-da! You have your very own abomination. Just remember that you’re going to need to keep feeding it your blood to keep it sated.
It has a taste for it now.
Using These Familiars in Your Game
Familiars like troll cats and tilberi are great because they work just as well in a modern horror or urban fantasy setting as they do in a fantasy one. The witch or evil cultist is a cross-genre favourite and the easiest use is to have your bad guy (or ambiguously-friendly NPC) have one as a familiar.
You don’t have to work hard to incorporate one of these familiars into the scene. Just mention it! A strange cat seemingly made out of yarn makes for a quirky addition to a scene when the PCs come across a witch’s cottage. If you’d rather up the weirdness and horror instead, the witch can have a tilberi wrapping itself around their neck or arm.
In these situations, a big question to ask is: do these creatures look remarkable at a glance? Perhaps the troll cat appears to be a normal Norwegian Forest Cat until pressured into revealing itself or examined through a sixth sense.
A Vampiric Murder
Someone in town has been killed by a strange animal or monster! The victim has been drained of blood and the bite marks resemble a creature with a sucker-like mouth. Whispers of a monster from the woods, or a vampire risen from a grave, ripple through the otherwise rustic community. As helpful outsiders, can the party get to the bottom of this mystery before people begin to turn on one another? And when they finally find the true culprit, what would motivate someone to such an act?
An urban fantasy setting is a perfect place to play up the junk-based nature of the troll cat and tilberi. They are, after all, made out of rubbish (particularly the former). Perhaps they’re the favoured familiars of hobo wizards, made from whatever they can find in their travels. Or perhaps they’re made by witches who spend their lives hunting through enormous rubbish tips, ones that form between worlds from the things people misplace and never find.
Don’t Discount the Milk
Despite all this talk about how you can make tilberi and troll cats scary or dangerous, you don’t actually have to! In a more low-key or grounded game, there’s plenty to work with when they are just stealing milk. All of the cows in a community being drained of milk is still a threat worth solving, and is perfect for a party of ordinary people or kids. If your Tales from the Loop game takes place in a rural setting, you could even have the tilberi be a robot someone invented to steal milk from the local cows!
Tilberi Statistics (Old-School)
Armor Class: 5 
Hit Dice: 2* (9 hp)
Attacks: 1 x bite (1d4 + latch) or 1 x spit (1d4 + goo)
Move: 240’ (80’)
Save As: Fighter 3
Morale: 8 (or 12 in the presence of its master)
▶ Two Heads: Each head can make a separate bite or spit attack. Tilberi are gluttonous and both heads won’t latch onto the same victim, if possible.
▶ Latch: On a successful bite attack, attaches and drains victim’s blood: 1d3 automatic damage per round instead of attacking. Detaches if victim or tilberi dies.
▶ Spit: Divests its insides of whatever it last drank. 10’ range. The affected character is covered in sticky goo: -2 penalty to AC and attack rolls for 1 turn (save versus petrify).
▶ Wool: Half damage from non-magical weapons, full damage from fire.
For a Troll Cat, use the above but replace the Two Heads & Latch abilities with Disguise (can appear to be a ball of yarn) and replace its Attacks with: 2 x claw (1d4) or 1 x spit (1d4 + goo)
And that’s it for troll cats and tilberi!
Thanks for reading; come back next week for another weird and/or fantastical piece of folklore to use in your role-playing games!
Penny for your thoughts: What’s your favourite familiar you’ve had or run in a game? Were they an owl, cat, or something weirder?
~ A.C. Luke
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Kvideland, Reimund; Sehmsdorf, Henning K; Simpson, Elizabeth. 1989. Nordic Folklore: Recent Studies. Indiana University Press: Bloomington.
Simpson, Jacqueline. 2004. Icelandic Folktales and Legends. University of California Press: Los Angeles.
Kvideland, Reimund; Sehmsdorf, Henning K. 1988. Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.
Wonderful article! I wish I had seen this when I made a blog post a while back about making familiars interesting.