Harpies Through the Ages

Hark! The herald angels sing!... Oh, no, wait, it's actually the gods-forsaken song of the damnable and murderous Harpies, seeking to lure men to their doom and destruction. Let's reflect on that.


D&D Harpies are, of course, a mashup of the mythological Harpies and Sirens. Both are destructive monsters with the lower bodies of birds and the upper bodies of ugly women. Harpies are mostly the personification of destructive wind spirits; they are "snatchers" and "swift robbers" (actually, that's what the name means), but do not exhibit dangerous music. Sirens are similar-looking creatures who lure coastal sailors to shipwreck and death by means of their enchanted singing (most famously for a few lines in Homer's Odyssey).

In D&D these features are combined into one type. Interestingly, there is a distinct difference in how their song/charming works in the Basic D&D line, versus the Advanced D&D line. Two major questions arise: Does the song charm victims directly? And, are saves made once for a whole flock, or separately per creature?

Original D&D (Greyhawk)

HARPIES: Harpies have the lower bodies of eagles and the upper bodies of human females. They are always opposed to mankind and its like, and  will  attempt to kill all they can. By means of their singing the Harpies lure men to them, then enchant them with powerful charms, and kill and devour them.  Any  creature not making its saving throw vs. magic will immediately proceed towards the Harpy. and if the Harpy touches it it will Charm the creature.
The above is from D&D Supplement I, Greyhawk. Note that there are two separate mechanisms; the song which can "lure" a victim, and a touch attack which can actually "charm" them. A save is necessary for the luring song; it is unclear whether the touch warrants another save or not. In addition, it is a bit unclear whether failing the "lure" is strictly required before the touching "charm" or not.

The magic song is among the first area-effect powers usable by a monster who routinely appears in numbers. Like many such abilities, an interpretation is necessary for the ambiguous question of whether each separate monster requires or saving throw, or only one for the whole group. In the strictest reading here, with "Harpy" in the singular, we might think each creature requires a separate saving throw. On the other hand, in the Greyhawk dungeon encounter tables, Harpies appear only on the 3rd-level table (out of 6); whereas, if each creature has its own effect, Harpies rank among the most dangerous of 6th-level monsters (per author's simulations).

Advanced D&D, 1st Ed.

Harpies have the bodies of vultures but the upper torsos and heads of women. They are voracious carnivores and foul creatures. Those that dwell along seacoasts are generally known as sirens. All harpies are able to emit sweet-sounding calls. Any creature hearing these calls will proceed towards the harpies unless they save versus magic. Similarly, the touch of a harpy charms those creatures which fail to make their saving throw versus magic. The harpies attack, torture, and devour their charmed prey. What they do not want they foul with excrement. A harpy attacks with her vulture claws and some form of weapon  -  often a bone club or some weapon left from one of her farmer victims. They speak their own language and none other.
In Gygax's AD&D, the powers of harpies are mostly the same. We see the same distinction between the luring song and the charming touch. In this case, it is clarified that each power requires a separate save versus magic. Also, with the two abilities in separate sentences and with separate saves, it is more clear that they are truly distinct, and the touch is not dependent on the luring song working first. The language is also modified to speak of "harpies" and "calls" in the plural, such that it's more likely only a single save for the whole group is intended, and more in line with the implied danger level, as above. In the DMG, harpies strangely do not seem to appear in the dungeon random monster tables; but based on experience points, they should be a 4th-level monster (out of 10).

Moldvay Basic D&D

A harpy has the lower body of a giant eagle and the upper body and head of a hideous-looking woman. By their singing, harpies lure creatures to them, to be killed and devoured. Any creature hearing the harpy's song must save vs. Spells or be charmed (see special attacks at the beginning of the MONSTERS section). Charmed indivuals [sic] will move toward the harpies, resisting any attempt to stop them, but not otherwise attacking. If a character saves against the songs of a group of harpies, the character will not be affected by any of their songs during the encounter. Harpies are resistant to magic and have a + 2 on all their saves.
In the basic line as of Moldvay, the separation of effects is eliminated. The song charms victims directly; no reference to a distinct touch effect is given. The effect is clearly attributed to "a group of harpies", implying just one save for the whole flock.

Note that the earlier Holmes Basic D&D keeps the same language as from OD&D; a separate song and touch effect to charm. Later Mentzer and Allston versions of the basic D&D game keep exactly the same text as laid down by Moldvay.

Advanced D&D, 2nd Ed.

Combat: The song of the harpies has the ability to charm all humans and demihumans who hear it (elves are resistant to the charm). Those who fail their saving throw versus spell will proceed towards the harpy with all possible speed, only to stand entranced while the harpy slays them at its leisure. This charm will last as long as the harpy continues to sing. Harpies can sing even while engaged in melee...

The touch of a harpy upon a charmed individual has a similar, though somewhat less potent, effect. Those who are touched and miss their saving throw versus spell will stand mesmerized for 20+1d10 hours.
In Dave Cook's revision to AD&D, he somewhat changes the effect of harpies' powers from 1E, moving it closer to the B/X edition that he worked on earlier with Moldvay. Here the song charms its victims directly. The touch has a separate and slightly reduced effect, stunning the victim for a limited time, but is not required for the destructive charm.

D&D, 3rd Ed.

Captivating Song (Su): The most insidious ability of the harpy is its song. When a harpy sings, all creatures (other than harpies) within a 300-foot spread must succeed at a Will save (DC 15) or become utterly captivated. This is a sonic, mind-affecting charm. If the save is successful, that creature cannot be affected again by that harpy’s song for one day. A captivated victim walks toward the harpy, taking the most direct route available. If the path leads into a dangerous area, that creature gets a second saving throw. Captivated creatures can take no actions other than to defend themselves. A victim within 5 feet of the harpy stands there and offers no resistance to the monster’s attacks. The effect continues for as long as the harpy sings. A bard’s countersong ability allows the captivated creature to attempt a new Will save.
In 3rd edition, all reference to the harpy's touch attack, as in the Basic D&D line, is gone. The song directly "captivates" its victims, who march forward to their destruction (but are allowed possibly other saves and the ability to defend themselves from other dangers along the way). Interestingly, the language here again refers to a "harpy" in the singular, implying in a strict reading that each creature forces a separate save vs. the magic (which would be completely devastating in large numbers to parties of almost any level).


Gygax's editions of OD&D and AD&D were consistent in laying down separate effects for a luring song and a charming touch. All other editions moved away from that towards a single charming song; first by fiat in Moldvay's Basic D&D game, and meanwhile via a more gradual evolution through the mainline 2nd and 3rd Editions.

What is your preference: Gygax's separate lure-and-charm effects, or the single charming song? Should the save (for this and other similar group area effects) be one per separate harpy, or only one for a whole group of same?


  1. I think the Charm touch is meant to cause the victim to be a subject of the harpy as if affected by a Charm spell (Charm Person, Monster, etc). I say this because in OD&D the "Charm" word is emphasised, so her special ability is one ability that has two steps: first sing to lure the victim then touch to complete the charming. With this in mind, I would give one save only when the victim hear the song but no save when touched.

    My house roles would be... One save for the whole flock but the victim can only be charmed by one harpy. Maybe the save is one point harder for each extra harpy singing.

  2. I use the AD&D separate save rules.

    I interpret the song as an individual attack by one harpy on a victim. That the creature will sing in general, but only one person (roll randomly for target unless circumstances make it applicable to one only) will be the focus and require a save. This does mean that for a flock of harpies, there will possibly be multiple targets... or the harpies focusing on one that they will fight over!

    1. That's an interesting interpretation I hadn't considered!

  3. My thought would be that a Harpy Song is a singular song, whether sung by an individual or a chorus of Harpies. So one save per song/group/encounter.
    With that in mind I like the idea that an individual Harpy can choose to charm/enslave a target for a time as a plaything before devouring them. (it also allows for player's to have a fighting chance/rescue) So I like the idea of keeping a separate Charm ability (touch/gaze).
    I can see a fun encounter where one or some Harpies in a flock want a new plaything, but others want to devour their catch right away, allows PC's to escape or fight back when the infighting starts.
    So: singular luring song/save that can affect folks from far away; a close up charm with its own individual save.

  4. Huh. Having started with B/X, I've always used the harpy as laid out by Moldvay (as far as I can remember). After reviewing the other possible options you've pointed out, I'd STILL go with Moldvay...it's seems the simplest, most sensible way to deal with the creature's power.

    Of course, the last time I used harpies in a B/X game, they were "zombified" and had no songs (or charm effect) at all, having been surgically modified.

    When I was writing my Five Ancient Kingdoms, I removed the siren muddling from my version of the harpy. Here's my entry for the creature:

    "Harpy: a demonic vulture, with humanoid features. Foes must save versus magic or stand paralyzed in fear while the harpy is present. They are both intelligent and cruel."

    1. Oh, that's nice that you split out those monster types. I agree if you were accustomed to Moldvay's simplicity it would be a hard sell to go in the other direction.

  5. It's an interesting question. What if there are two competing harpies, one to the right and one to the left of a person? Not that this would be a common occurrence, but it doesn't seem impossible either.

    I think that I'd say that all harpies singing together count as a single "attack" lure, requiring a single save. The Charm effect would be just like any other Charm.

    I'm also imagining what this would look like on a Battlesystem 1E tabletop. For that purpose, maybe a 30" (AD&D inches) range, plus 2" for every full doubling of the number of harpies, since more harpies sing louder?

    1. Hmmm, I think I would have the victims make a single save first to see if they are lured by the song(s). If they fail, then I would make some roll (d20 + HD or Cha?) on behalf of each of the two competing harpies to see which "wins".
      I could even see some fun if the victims are more than a single rounds movement from each Harpy as they get into a singing duel to see who gets the prey.

    2. Good question about the mass effect (with no range given until 3E). The weren't in any edition of Battlesystem that I can see.

  6. My first thoughts are that there should be a sort of damage track for enchanting song (and related effects, like lotus-eating or sex pollen), that goes from fascination to attraction to charm to helplessness.

    Then this power is scoped based on 1) the individual power of the creatures creating it and 2) the number cooperating to create it. So, a single vampire might be able to move a single target several steps at once, or a swarm/mod one step. A single nixie might not have any power, while a swarm of them could affect one target at a time. And sirens could affect single targets or a group could coordinate to affect a group.

    My second thoughts are that this is potentially interesting, but almost certainly too much overhead at the table.

  7. For completeness' sake, I would mention the Sirine from the AD&D Monster Manual II (p.109). Although not hideous, nor part avian, they do have analogous powers:
    "Sirines have the following magical powers: _song_, which will _charm person_ at 3" range all subject creatures of hostile nature within hearing suggestion [sic]; _polymorph self_; _fog cloud_; and _improved invisibility_. Each is usable once per day, 1 at a time, at will. Additionally, any intelligent creature touched in melee by a sirine must save vs. poison or become an idiot (intelligence=2). The idiocy so caused can be removed at will but requires a touch from the sirine. Otherwise, _dispel magic_ may be used to bring back intelligence."
    Also of interest: "Alignment of a group of sirines will always be the same with respect to good, evil, and absolute neutral alignment. In a group of evil sirines, for example, there can be lawful, neutral, and chaotic members."

    1. That's a really good example! Pounds home the Gygaxian commitment to the song/touch distinction. I wonder, was there some prior myth or tradition he was getting that from?

  8. If you are lured, but not charmed, can you attack the Harpy when you see it? If it attacks you and misses, such that you are not charmed, can you run away? If the Harpy does not touch you after it lures you can you run away? I’m not sure what the purpose/distinction is between the charm and the lure. If the lure is absolute, why do you need the charm. The only thing I can think is damage breaks you out of the lure, but at that point your charmed. Seems to be a point less distinction, unless you can attack them on sight.

    1. I agree I find it quizzical. But for some reason EGG was really committed to it (see above).