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Your Frog Grandpa Vodyanoy
A toady column on using folklore in tabletop RPGs
In folklore, is there anything more dangerous than a body of water? A humble stream, a forest spring, a roaring river, an expansive lake; all places that teem with spirits the world over. And, unluckily for us humans, these are usually the kind of spirits with murderous intent.
In Slavic mythology, this primordial fear of drowning gives us the world’s froggiest old man.
The vodyanoy (or vodyanoi, both meaning “the one in the water” or “water entity”) is a dangerous male water spirit.
Unlike many water spirits that choose to manifest as attractive naked women, the Slavic vodyanoy appears as an old merman with a frog-like face and a long, algae-filled beard. His skin is covered in green or black scales, his hands are webbed, and he has the tail of a large fish. Rather than use his name, locals refer to him by the honorific “grandfather”.
As with many water spirits, when a tragedy happens near a waterway, it’s likely the vodyanoy’s doing. Broken dams, flooded mills, and drowned people and animals are all his handiwork. Some tales even say that he imprisons the souls of those he kills, making them his slaves in an underwater kingdom.
To avoid death and disruption, fishermen, millers, and all who make their livelihoods on or near the river offer the vodyanoy tribute. Bread, salt, vodka, and tobacco are all accepted, and it’s hard to go wrong with some good old-fashioned animal sacrifice. Of course, if one merely needs to cross a river or stream, a sign of the cross might be enough as temporary protection. Worst comes to worst, as with many human grandfathers, placating words and a slow backing away is also a time-honoured strategy.
In Czech, Slovene, and Slovak folklore, they have the vodník rather than the vodyanoy. Appearing more like a gilled, web-handed, algae-green human, vodníci love bizarre dress and wearing strange hats. Outside their ponds, one can be recognised by the fact they’re always dripping wet.
Vodníci can be benevolent or hostile, depending on each individual’s disposition. Some might still drown you, but others are more chill. If they do drown you, however, the vodník will store your soul in a porcelain teapot. Among vodníci, the size of one’s teapot collection reflects wealth and status. So, even if you think you've met a friendly vodník, remember to play nice—just in case.
Using Vodyanoy & Vodník in Your Game
So, now you know the story, how can you use it in your game?
As part of travelling, or maybe as an encounter in a hex crawl, you can have your party encounter a body of water that belongs to a vodyanoy (or vodník). Perhaps the PCs need to reach a shrine on an island in the centre of a lake, or there’s only one safe river crossing for miles in either direction. They just need to get past the vodyanoy first. This could be a combat encounter, but it’ll be even better if the party can trick or bribe the spirit into giving them safe passage.
Some Russian legends tell of the Vodyan Tsar, a royal vodyanoy who rides a black cloud and can create new rivers and lakes at will. If the party ever has reason to petition him—to reign in one of his subjects or to lend his magical assistance to a drought-stricken land—then reaching his kingdom in the clouds or beneath the water could be an adventure in its own right.
Souls in a Teapot
Perhaps the most interesting story hook raised by the vodníci is their soul-in-a-teapot-based economy. For example:
In an urban fantasy, a vodník might run a stall at the local goblin market, selling magical teas brewed from human souls.
In an epic fantasy, the party might need to journey to the underwater land of the vodníci to rescue a trapped spirit.
In a dark fantasy, what will the PCs do if a vodník has something they want but demands souls in return?
In a cyberpunk setting, perhaps Vodník is the handle of a malicious hacker who traps people’s consciousness in cyberspace in exchange for a ransom.
And in all of these scenarios, the option of a ‘teapot-breaking rampage’ is always available as a feel-good conclusion!
Vodyanoy Statistics (Old-School)
Armor Class: 5 
Hit Dice: 4* (18 hp)
Attacks: 2 x claw (1d6) or flood (2d6)
THAC0: 16 [+3]
Move: 90’ (30’) / 180’ (60’) swimming
Save As: Fighter 4
▶ Surprise: On a 1–4, when hiding in water.
▶ Flood: While in contact with water, can create 60’ long, 20’ wide wave of water. All caught in the area must save versus breath or suffer damage and be swept up to 60’ away. Can be used up to three times per day.
▶ Immunities: Unharmed by poison and fire (including magical fire).
Legends speak of Tsar Vodyanoy, royalty amongst their kind, with greater HD and more powerful magical abilities.
And that’s it for vodyanoy and vodník!
Thanks for reading; Mythoi will be back again in two weeks for another fantastical piece of folklore to use in your role-playing games!
Penny for your thoughts: D&D seems to love having a bunch of different types of frog people—have you ever had a memorable experience with them?
~ A.C. Luke
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MacCulloch, John Arnott; Máchal, Jan Hanuš. 1918. The Mythology of All Races Volume 3 (Celtic and Slavic). Marshall Jones Company: Boston.
Horton, Kaleb. “The Proud, Demanding Vodyanoy Rules Russia’s Rivers and Lakes”. Atlas Obscura. Viewed 1 February 2022.
“Vodník: An Animation Based on The Traditional Czech Fairytale”. Everything Czech. Viewed 22 July 2022.
Levkievskaya, Elena. 2000. Myths of the Russian Folk. Astrel.