I love Succubi. Not because they’re often portrayed as sexually aggressive women with fangs and wings. The overuse of that trope is precisely the problem, actually. My fascination for succubi is similar to my fascination with vampires; as monstrous foes, they are unique in their use of guile and charm. While vampires have been characterized in many different ways, particularly in recent years, my favorite kind of vampire has always been one which suffers from all the many weaknesses of his or her kind. Must avoid garlic, must avoid holy symbols, cannot cross running water under their own power, cannot enter a building unless invited, and of course, cannot go out during the day. Vampires are more defined by their weaknesses than by their strengths, and they compensate for these manyfold weaknesses with charm. They are suave, persuasive, and seductive. Before you know it, your attractive, pale lover is nibbling your neck. And not as foreplay.
In a fantasy world, Succubi are sex. They don’t have sex, they embody sex. Assuming you play a game with good lore, succubi are also demons. Demons are pure manifestations of chaos and evil. Ergo, succubi are everything which is chaotic and evil about sex, made manifest. They draw their greatest pleasure from adulterous spouses, breakers of chastity vows, and authority figures who abuse their power for fleshly pleasure. Any sexual immorality which exists in your game world is one which a succubus will seek to cause. And the greater the damage, the greater the succubus’ pleasure. Breaking up a marriage is lovely, but bringing down nations or causing a genocide? That’s what really gets a succubus off. Helen of Troy was perhaps the greatest succubus of all time.
Lamentably, succubi are never portrayed this way. If they happen to appear in films or literature, it is almost always as an extremely sexually aggressive woman. There’s nothing wrong with a succubus being a sexually aggressive woman, mind you, but that attitude is one tool among many, not their baseline attitude. Succubi are masters of seduction. They can switch their personalities to fit the preferences of those around them as only a master manipulator can. Of course, the portrayal of the succubus in games is arguably even worse. The index of monsters invariably includes a picture of a beautiful demon woman, naked or nearly so, resting seductively next to a statistics block which describe her ability to magically charm & dominate. D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder actually describe the succubus’ ability to bestow negative levels with a kiss.
I get it. There are not many people who want to sit around the game table feeling uncomfortable while the GM uses NPCs to play out sex fantasies. And I understand that D&D still suffers from a lot of stigmatization. Neither WotC nor Paizo want to be featured in a Fox News segment about the corruption of America’s youth. But most of the images I’ve included in this post? They come right out of D&D / Pathfinder books. I don’t think any parents are being fooled about what the succubus is. I couldn’t find a good scan of the succubus from the D&D 3.X Monster Manual. That one actually has visible areolae. Bright red ones. How’s that for cognitive dissonance? Visual representations of exposed breasts are fine, but the raciest we can get in the text is “kiss?”
I would like to make clear that I am not arguing that including a succubus in a game requires a GM to allow wanton eroticism. But these are powerful and interesting creatures with a unique place in human mythology. I don’t like to see them reduced to a thinly veiled excuse to include a pair of tits in the adventure. Too many times have I seen a succubus used as a wandering monster, as if they were no more sophisticated than a skeleton or imp. And once encountered, GMs rarely attempt guile, preferring the crack of the succubus’ inexplicable dominatrix whip instead.
I like to explore the mythology behind fantasy tropes. Often it’s a great deal more interesting than the tropes themselves. I’d like to take this opportunity to share some of the succubus’ mythology, to help illustrate my point. Bear in mind that I am not a scholar of medieval Christianity, nor am I well versed in Jewish mythology. Most of my information on the subject comes from google & wikipedia. And even assuming that the information I read is accurate, I could easily have misunderstood something. In other words, I am not a credible source.
A great many cultures have tales of demons and spirits which resemble the succubus. The succubus we know today draws primarily from the legends of medieval Europe. The Catholic church was even more ridiculous about sexual morality back then than they are now. So if a fellow awoke in the morning to find that he had pitched a tent, or – ahem – had a nocturnal emission, it wasn’t an innocent occurrence. Sex was so taboo that the source of these disturbances was deduced to be demonic. And thus was the succubus invented; a demoness who appears in men’s dreams in the form of a woman. Her goal was to steal men’s seed for her own devious ends.
A likely satirical tome called the Alphabet of Sirach provides an origin for the succubus. I’m not sure if this book was responding to existing folklore about succubi, or if said folklore only took hold after the book was written. According to the AoS, Eve was not the first wife of Adam. Before her, God created a woman from the earth and called her Lilith. And then, as the story goes:
Adam and Lilith began to fight. She said, ‘I will not lie below,’ and he said, ‘I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be in the superior one.’ Lilith responded, ‘We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.’ But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air.
Not sure why Lilith can fly. Again, I’m no scholar, but my guess would be that “the Ineffable Name” would be the true name of god. Speaking it is blasphemous in the Jewish tradition, so perhaps simply by speaking she has already taken on demonic traits such as wings.
Regardless, Adam then calls to God, complaining that his woman has run away. God pursues her, but finds her unwilling to return, and so she is cursed so that each day, one hundred of her children will die. God then returns to Adam, and makes Eve out of his rib. Apparently, ribs make for much more demure, obedient women than earth does. Lilith later mated with an archangel, spawning the demon queens, and eventually, the entire race of succubi.
So, as established above, succubi harvest semen from sleeping men. But what do they do with it? I found a couple different explanations, but my favorite comes from an Inquisitor named Heinrich Kramer in 1486. To quote him:
Another terrible thing which God permits to happen to men is when their own children are taken away from women, and strange children are put in their place by devils. And these children, which are commonly called changelings, or in the German tongue Wechselkinder, are of three kinds. For some are always ailing and crying, and yet the milk of four women is not enough to satisfy them. Some are generated by the operation of Incubus devils, of whom, however, they are not the sons, but of that man from whom the devil has received the semen as a Succubus, or whose semen he has collected from some nocturnal pollution in sleep. For these children are sometimes, by Divine permission, substituted for the real children.
There is no better fantasy sourcebook than religion.
The emphasis above is mine. To put it into slightly more clear language, what the inquisitor is saying is that a succubus is able to transform between the female form, and the male (incubus) form. So first, the demon harvests a man’s seed as a succubus, then transforms itself into an incubus, and impregnates a woman with the semen stolen from the man. And let me just say that, as a philosophy major, it tickles the hell out of me to see respected scholars like Aquinas taking this stuff seriously.
Of course, we need not tie ourselves to mythology as though it is dogma. Study of the source material merely gives us some perspective to help ground our own ideas. Part of the fun of being a game master in a fantasy game is the opportunity to place our own fantastical ideas next to time tested ones like the succubus, vampire, or Medusa. We can even modify those creatures themselves if we so choose, though, my experience is that keeping a creature grounded in its core concept always produces the best results.
- Taking on pleasing forms is basic to a succubus’ art. They become tall, short, blonde, brunette, thin, round, whatever their victim desires most. So for a creature which relies on its shape shifting ability constantly, a permanent mark which cannot be shape-shifted could lead to interesting situations. Perhaps many succubi get tattooed in obscure locations to associate themselves with a specific demon lord or lady. And while most weapons would leave no scar on a succubus, a weapon of strong good alignment could leave a small mark behind even after healing. Not much of one, but something a perceptive character could spot.
- Succubi have their own aesthetic. In their natural state, all succubi demonstrate some number of demonic traits. Some have cloven feet, some have tails, some have spines. Some even have scales or glowing red eyes. The only demonic traits which all succubi share are wings and horns. But there is a great deal of variance in the types of even those two features. Some wings are leathery, while others are feathered, and still others seem to be made of shadow, or silk. Horns most often sprout from the head, but they could sprout from the chin, or even the cheeks of a succubus, and they form in any number of shapes.
- Succubi have the ability to enter into the dreams of any sleeping character at will. While in a character’s dreams, the Succubi plants enticing suggestions. When the character wakes, he or she will be less capable of resisting the succubus’ charm.
- Succubi have no technical gender. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say they are all hermaphrodites, capable of switching between the male and the female form at will. So each succubus is also an incubus.
- Succubi may breed with any species that reproduces sexually.
- Succubi have absolute control over their own reproduction. They may choose the gender of their children, gestation period, and even how many children will be produced from a single coupling.
- They may also control how much of their demonic blood infuses the child. At their will, they may produce a small flock of imps, a half demon, a creature which appears completely human, or anything in between. Their only limitation is that they can never birth a child with no demonic blood whatsoever. At the very least, the child will have a predilection for chaos and evil.
- Succubi are immune to disease themselves, but may store and pass on diseases to others.
- Succubi feed on the suffering which sexual immorality causes. They can gain experience from any acts which result from their manipulations. (Ex. Helen of Troy would get experience for every Trojan and Greek killed. Ka-ching.)
As a final word on this post, I would like to give a shout out to one of the few sourcebooks which I felt actually did succubi some justice. Two of the best supplements which ever came out for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 were the Fiendish Codex I & II. FC I: Hordes of the Abyss, provided a lot of detail about demons, and the abyss they live in. Aside from including some very useful demonic archetypes (along with charts for each archetype, indicating how likely it was for a particular type of demon to fill that role), the book introduced Malcanthet, queen of the succubi. A mere four pages were all they were able to devote to her in a book which was packed tight with awesome abyssal lore, but those four pages (plus the dragon magazine article released about the same time) were fantastic. I would heartily recommend the book to anyone, regardless of what system you use.