Monday, October 10, 2011

Legend & Folklore in a Fantasy World


Perusing The Sutton Companion to British Folklore, Myths, & Legends got me thinking about the place of the strange, mysterious, and magical in fantasy worlds. The British Isles have got stories of all sorts of fairies, lake (and well) monsters, and more than a few witches--all of which could be easily approximated in local tales of nearby monsters in any fantasy rpg setting.

But real world folklore gets weirder than that. Ned Dickson’s skull on Tunstead Farm in Derbyshire would tap against windows to warn farmers about sick animals or cause the walls to shake as a sort of burglar alarm. Several phantom coaches roam the night roads. Every ghost is a story, not a monster to be battled.

It seems to me that most fantasy game encounters are mundane compared to this sort of stuff--or perhaps, utilitarian is a better word. As it has been said before, there ought to be more weird, unpredictable things in game settings.  Not just in the Weird Tales sense, but in the good, old-fashion folktale sense.

Beyond that, there ought to be more stories told by the local tavern denizens that are just stories. I don’t think the demonstrable existence of magic in a world, would make people less likely to make up tales to explain odd events or simply to pass the time--if anything, a world full of magic that the common man doesn't understand would seem likely to increase this sort of thing.  More events would need folk explanations; more fears would need comforting.

Player characters (no paragons of scientific rationalism, themselves) ought to never know whether the rumor they’re hearing is the inside-scoop on a local monster or another tavern tale. There ought to be as many fake magic items being horded away as real ones--maybe more.

17 comments:

The Angry Lurker said...

Well the British isles have one of the most famous in Nessie.

JF said...

"Strange" and "mysterious" is how every fantasy game experience ought to feel, but, too often, they just don't. At a Pathfinder game table this weekend, we players had deduced the nature of the "final boss" monster well in advance of the climax without really trying because the game was nothing more than a predictable series of encounters with stat blocks rather than a challenge to make sense out of the bizarre. This was unfortunate because the monster was indeed bizarre, but its presentation was awfully mundane or, as you put it, utilitarian. That's why, when it comes to adventure design and prep, I'm a strong proponent of themes first, storyline second, and then monsters.

Sean Robson said...

I agree; role playing games, particularly some of the more modern ones, tend to reduce myth and legend to nothing more than an encounter to be defeated. To maintain a sense of myth and wonder, a campaign needs to contain elements that are beyond mortal ken.

Tavern legends are an excellent way to communicate such legends. Misinformation and red herrings are a great way to increase a sense of mystery.

Trey said...

@Angry Lurker - Yep, she's right up there with Bigfoot, but Latin America's contender El Chupacabra is coming on strong.

@JF and Sean - It would seem to me just wanting to kill well-defined things and take their equally well-defined stuff, is probably a play style supported just as well (if not better) by computer games.

Trey said...

@Angry Lurker - Yep, she's right up there with Bigfoot, but Latin America's contender El Chupacabra is coming on strong.

@JF and Sean - It would seem to me just wanting to kill well-defined things and take their equally well-defined stuff, is probably a play style supported just as well (if not better) by computer games.

Lee Reynoldson said...

All the magic items in Redwald are wrapped up in a myth, fairytale, or tragic saga like this one . . .

http://redwald.blogspot.com/2011/03/fairy-tale-and-three-dwarven-treasures.html

Although, I think that makes me some kind of tragic figure as I believe the OSR Zeitgeist has declared anything other than a line of prose to go along with your stat-blocks and random tables, and you've committed fan-fiction badwrongfun. :D

ze bulette said...

Rumors and stories are good hooks - I like to use the local superstitions too.

Trey said...

@Lee - Indeed, Redwald is made of exactly this sort of stuff. While I think their are so OSR thinkers that seem to be of the opinion that any nire than the barest prose is too much, I think there's still a hearty appreciation for interesting setting stuff. At least I hope so, since my approach is similar to yours! ;)

ze_bulette - I have noticed some of that in stuff you've posted, as I recall.

Roger the GS said...

The Chimera is a good candidate for being just a gaffed-up carny fake.

Jason said...

I'd go as far as saying any text you show or say to the PC should have the potential of being a hoax or a trick.

Which is why I have write up setting information under the guise of learned societies or individuals. Who knows the motives or the actual knowledge these armchair explorers actually have? Perhaps they are getting their info from people who are all too happy to take their coin in exchange for stories that are bunk or feed into the notions these people have about the wilderness and the underworld?



Also, we do not understand all there is to know about animals and animal behavior. Why should we expect people living in the fantasy worlds of our making to?

scottsz said...

Excellent post, Trey. Spot on.

I bought a book a while back about ghosts of the Carolinas on a whim (link) and was amazed how really shocking tragedies/events become woven into a locality.

In a fantasy RPG, it's even more mysterious, because a strange occurrence could range from a mortal hoax all the way over to the work of the gods.

Trey said...

@Roger - Good point! I can see magic-users (maybe illusionists?) involved in helping "mock-up" such fakes for travelling shows.

@Jason - I think that's a good technique, so long as the player's have a clear delineation between accurate info given by the GM and the "all bets are off" info of other sources.

@scottsz - exactly! And as with those ghost stories, things have the capacity to be misunderstood or misremembered, too.

scottsz said...

@Trey: What struck me about the book in question was how many 'haunted' myths focus on lighthouses.

I started thinking about such functionally important places in a fantasy world and the mythological impact on cartographers (i.e. adventurers are surely necessary for us to build this lighthouse, as no one wants to draw a map of that area of the shore - it's haunted!) Instant adventure...

Trey said...

@scottsz - Good thoughts! The intersection of cartography, adventuring, and fantasy worlds is something I hadn't thought about before but it makes sense. Instant adventure, indeed!

Jason said...

@Trey I tend to view blogging as getting my thoughts together and hoping others will poke at the faults as opposed to actual play where things are more concrete in nature.

Trey said...

@Jason - Yeah, I think the blogosphere is absolutely the place for that.

Needles said...

Nice post Trey & I completely agree!
New England & many regions have their ghost tales, tall tales, & plain weirdness happening