The bandit in D&D is a strange creature. Medieval bandits were bullies who wanted money, so they hid out by the roads of trade routes or pilgrimages and then threatened to whack people with big sticks. The D&D bandit, however, is wealthy enough to afford leather armor, a scimitar, and a crossbow with ammunition, yet is somehow still poor enough to need to turn to a life of crime. What’s more, these bandits aren’t content to simply ambush unarmed civilians and bully them for money – for some reason they love to pick fights with heavily armed and armored Player Characters (presumably for the greater rewards of their weapons, armor and gold).
So in D&D, what narrative role does the not-so-humble bandit fill? Even if the bandit makes no sense in-universe, a bandit company provides a humanoid threat for early-level adventurers, which means they’re more relatable than orcs and goblins. Easily understandable goals – such as greed for material goods – drive the bandits.
More importantly, bandits are geographical creatures. Bandits set up their lairs near abandoned human structures, preferably on the edges of the wilderness where lawbringers are found in fewer quantities. Abandoned mills, dilapidated farms, as well as mines and caves all have the little nooks and crannies that bandits love for stashing loot and gear, especially if they’re near a road where there’s high civilian traffic. Once the bandits have set themselves up in position, they won’t go on the move until someone gets sent to clear them out – *cough cough like the Player Characters*.
They’re greedy, territorial thugs that like violence and loot, taking sick thrills from preying on the weak. The NPC Bandit is to the PC Murderhobo.
You know who else are greedy, territorial assholes who like to dunk on the defenseless? Faeries.
Everyone has this image of fairies in their head. It’s Tinkerbell. Faeries are supposed to be small, sweet, and kind-hearted. But even in Peter Pan, Tinkerbell was a jealous prankster. In most traditional folklore, faeries are nasty tricksters at their best, and downright vicious antagonists at their worst. They’ll tie your hair to your bed frame, steal your money straight out of your pocket, kill your pets, magically enchant you to dance until your feet break, and kidnap your babies to raise as their own. If you’re lucky, they’ll leave a changeling behind which looks like the child they abducted, which will stick around until it hits puberty, at which point it scurries off into the woods to return to its faerie kin.
What’s more, like bandits, they’re aggressively territorial. Don’t go into a faerie wood. Don’t.
So, when we stop and think about it, bandits and faeries fulfill very similar archetypes. However, fey have more magical abilities, which forces the players to use their own magical abilities to counter them. This makes fey more interesting tactically than bandits.
Blink dogs are effectively the faerie equivalent of a mastiff, serving as hunting dogs and trackers. However, blink dogs can use their teleport ability to disappear after attacking in melee, re-appearing behind cover to protect themselves from ranged attacks before their prey has the chance to counter-attack.
Satyrs serve as your mainline bandit analogues, armed with bows and swords, and you can use them the same way you’d use normal bandits. Sprites can also be used to backup your Satyrs and fill the gap of less deadly but still dangerous enemies. Sprites don’t deal much damage on their own, so they use their poisoned arrows to debuff characters, making the job of fighting easier for the rest of their team. Sprites will target low-AC characters who look physically frail, such as wizards and sorcerers, to maximize the chances of their arrows landing and poisoning their targets.
A trio of a Satyr, a sprite, and a blink dog will make a good challenge for a second-level adventuring party. If your party is higher-level, you can add more enemies or throw in a dryad as the group’s leader. The dryad will use her tree stride ability to keep at a thirty-foot distance from the main body of the party, casting entangle on as many players as she can to slow them down and lock them in place for ranged attacks from the satyrs and sprites. Once that’s done, she attempts to charm whoever looks the weakest-willed, targeting obvious brutes like fighters and barbarians first.
Instead of just sending the players to clear out another bandit encampment, pitting them against fey can provide a very different type of adventure than players might be used to. Encounters with small groups of fey can foreshadow the presence of a planar gate to the feywild, possibly taking the form of a secret pools, a wild groves of shifting mists, or a circle of mushrooms and standing stones. How the players choose to proceed with this knowledge will lead to new narrative and world-building options for your story.