Last year, I chanced upon an article over on Jeff's Gameblog that led me to read another article and gave me plenty of gaming ideas. The idea of even having bardic tales written down for my game world intrigued me, and the non-standard plots and elements made for a good break from the usual D&D stuff.
Go read Rients’s post before going on with this one. The journal article is optional.
Welcome back. As it happens, unlike Rients, I have Hans-Jörg Uther's text in my local college library. (My undergraduate alma mater, in fact, though not my current college's. This gives the irony of a library science grad student visiting his undergraduate college for its library. I feel like Randal in Clerks.) Thus I cribbed the tales that were common to more than one Proto-Indo-European branch. Mostly, it’s the 14 listed in the Wikipedia article for the ATU system, with a few others that showed up in more than one branch. They're below, with some comments about them for gaming. Some are better than others. Try rewriting a few of them to make them usable in your game world, keeping in mind two things:
- This a group of players characters involved, not just one (most of the time). Having one character get all the spotlight is going to piss off everyone else.
- For whatever your pretensions are, your players are as likely as not to try to kill and loot whatever you throw at them. No matter what scenario you pick, no matter how peaceful, be ready for combat.
You can use these however you want, but here's what I did:
- From an earlier project, I had a list of cultural values for many groups in my game world. I kept those handy to sneak little tidbits into the tales to reinforce them.
- I picked some tales. At first, I picked (and wrote up) the four Rients wrote up on his blog:
- The Boy Steals the Ogre's Treasure
- The Smith and the Devil
- The Animal Bride
- The Grateful Animals
- Then, I rewrote them to fit my game world. If something didn't work in the structure of the tale, I left it out.
- After all this, I had a bunch of foes and magic items, like a vampire trapped in his coffin and some magical purple robes fit for a king. As my game world already had many spots for adventure, I put these in existing spots. Much of the magical treasure I already had was a bunch of random magical powers, so I one by one ditched them for the ones from the tales.
- Once I had done these, I picked some other tales to do all this again:
- Rescue by the Sister
- The Faithless Sister
- Godfather Death
- The Grateful Dead
- The Dance among Thorns
- The Thieving Pot (not in the list; ATU 592)
I figure five to nine is a manageable number of tales. Also, my campaign area is about the size of Slovakia, so I didn't want to cram too much in it.
Two sisters, one right after the other, fall into the power of a demonic suitor (cannibal, dragon, magician, devil) and are taken into his (subterranean) castle. There the sisters open a forbidden room full of dead bodies, in the course of which the key (a magic egg, apple) becomes bloody, or they refuse to eat human flesh. The demon kills them for their disobedience.
Using a trick, the third (youngest) sister escapes from the same fate. She finds her sisters and resuscitates them by putting their bones together. She hides them beneath some gold in baskets (bags) and persuades the demon to carry the baskets home without looking into them.
The youngest sister pretends to marry the demon and leaves a skull (straw dummy) dressed as a bride to deceive him. Unwittingly the demon carries this sister in the third basket. Or she smears herself with honey and feathers and escapes as a "strange bird." The demon is burned in his own house or is killed in another way.
Notes: Bluebeard is akin to this one; it's ATU 312. This one is Fitcher's Bird. All the write-ups are as Uther has them, other than lacking the references to the numbered motifs (which are second author Stith Thompson's addition; weirdly, his book on these is in St. Kate's library, so I could look at it in breaks from class, if I cared). Regardless, this is a great source of gaming elements. Have the demonic suitor escape death and set up again. The key/egg, skull/straw dummy, baskets, disguise, and even means of resuscitation are all ideas for magic items. The lair, even forsaken, would be a house of horrors, doubtless haunted. These supernatural adversary ones are great fodder.
ATU 315: The Faithless Sister
Brother and sister leave home (are driven out).
The brother kills a number of robbers (devils, giants, dragons) but does not realize that the last one is merely wounded. The sister helps the wounded robber to recover, and he becomes her lover. In order to get rid of the brother, she pretends to be ill and sends him out to get her the milk (liver) of dangerous animals. The brother spares the animals and they follow him (give him a whistle).
After the first attempt fails, the sister binds her brother with a silk thread, or she sends him to a magic mill where the animals are kept.
When the couple is about to kill the brother, he whistles for the animals. They (break out of the mill and) tear the robber to pieces. The faithless sister is imprisoned (has to repent and to fill a barrel with her tears).
The brother takes to the road, rescues a princess from a dragon, and marries her.
The sister is brought to the court. She tries to take revenge on her brother by putting a (poisoned) bone into his bed. The brother dies. The animals lick the bone out of his body and he revives. The sister is punished by death.
Notes: When you rewrite these tales, try to explain the weird stuff. Why does the sister fall in love with the robber/devil/giant/dragon? (How the hell does a woman shag a dragon, anyways?) Why does the brother not realize that the wounded robber is not dead, only wounded? Anyways, not only do you have a couple of monsters (robber/whatever, and the dragon), you also have animal helpers. How does he communicate with the animals, anyways? You also have their milk or liver, maybe a whistle, some silk thread, maybe a magic mill, and a poisoned bone. Works well with the Grateful Animals.
Introduction (sometimes missing):
Three (twelve, thirteen, thirty, etc.) brothers arrive at the house of an ogre (devil). He would kill them in the night, but the smart youngest brother saves them by exchanging their caps with those of the ogre’s daughters. The brothers take service at the king’s court.
The jealous brothers claim that the youngest can steal the ogre’s treasures: magic horse, bedspread, carpet, parrot (lamp, sword, silver or golden poultry, musical instruments, etc.). Using tricks the youth gets these objects.
At last the brothers claim that the youngest can kidnap the ogre himself. In disguise the youth tells the ogre that the thief died and persuades him to lie down in the coffin to measure it. The youth nails up the coffin, traps the ogre, and is given a princess as his wife.
In some variants, the youth sets out to steal from the ogre in order to get revenge for some former ill-treatment or to help a friendly king.
In some variants, mainly from northern and north-western Europe and the Americas, the protagonist is female.
Notes: Obviously, Jeff Rients already covered this tale a bit, and we all know the “Jack and the Beanstalk” version (IIRC, it had its own number, something like ATU 328C). The last sentence in the story summary is handy advice for many of these: swap genders. This ain’t the Fifties, folks; women play these games, and we all like to see a spunky woman. The version of Rescue by the Sister I wrote for my own campaign world has the genders swapped, with the brothers wedding Baba Yaga. Who says women always have to wed someone ugly? Heck, the women could wed Baba Yaga, or the boys could wed Dracula, if that works in your game. Oh, and speaking of Dracula, a vampire is a good choice for the monster in this one. Why else does it have a coffin lying around?
A smith, who because of poverty (other reasons) sold his soul to the devil (death), gives shelter to Christ and St. Peter during their visit on earth. In reward, three of his wishes shall be fulfilled. St. Peter warns him to wish for a place in paradise, but the smith wants a tree and a bench (chair) to which people a stick and a knapsack that draws people into it (a pack of cards with which he shall always win, etc.).
When the devil (death) is about the carry the smith away, he sticks to the bench and the tree and has to give the smith more time to live (terminate the contract), or no one would be able to die. At last the devil is put into a sack and beaten up (on the anvil).
The smith, tired of life, cannot go either to heaven or to hell. He tricks St. Peter by pushing his knapsack into heaven, where it pulls him in (throws his cards inside the gate of heaven and is permitted inside to pick them up).
In some variants the trickster-protagonist is an allegorical figure (e.g. Misery, Envy, Poverty) who traps the devil in a tree until the devil promises him immortality. Then he sets the devil free.
Notes: Another one Rients already covered. Apparently, it’s the one the kurgan-dwellers in Sredny Stog most likely told. Wayland the Smith or whatever you call him would be a great source of magic swords. Give ‘em histories.
A poor man with many children wants a (just) godfather for his newborn son. He refuses God (saint, devil) and chooses death (angel of death, plague) because he treats everyone alike. As a gift the father (son) receives the magic power of forecasting recovery or death, depending on whether death stands at the head or the foot of the sick person’s bed. Thus the man becomes a famous doctor and grows wealthy.
The doctor betrays death (several times): When promised wealth (the princess), the doctor turns the bed and thus saves the life of a person who was supposed to die (in the doctor’s dying hour, death grants him time to say a last Paternoster, but the doctor does not finish the prayer. Death tricks the doctor into finishing the prayer.)
In some variants, death shows the man his life-light in the underworld and suddenly extinguishes it. Or the man attempts to lengthen his life by various means (usually without success).
Notes: This one is a little tricky. Obviously, if you have a god/dess of death, this works well for him or her. The life-lights in this tale are often candles, and one would be an interesting item, even if as a MacGuffin (“Journey to the dead lands to keep the bad guy from snuffing out your life candles!”). The magic power of forecasting death would work as an item, something like death glasses. They don’t have to have skulls on them; I think looking like Charlie Sheen in Major League would work.
A young woman mourns for her bridegroom who did not return from war (brings him back to life by magic). One night he appears, invites her to ride with him, and carries her behind on his horse. Two times he asks her whether she is afraid. She says no because her lover is with her. The third time they arrive at a graveyard. When the bridegroom wants to entice her into an open grave, she realizes that he is dead. He grasps at her and tears her clothing. The bride escapes (is pulled into the grave, danced to death by the dancing dead, or torn to pieces).
Notes: Oh, Godfather Death was tricky? This one is trickier. The bride might have to die to let everyone know there’s a grave with a ghost that likes to pull folks into it. It seems like it works best as a smaller threat in a bigger adventure.
Supernatural or Enchanted Wife
A father is not able to decide which of his (three) sons should inherit his property (kingdom) and sends them all on a quest for one year. They are told to bring back a special object (yarn, linen, fine chain, ring, horse, smallest dog, money) or they must learn a profession. Whoever performs the task best will be the heir.
The youngest son, often a fool, goes into a forest and becomes the servant of an animal (cat, rat, frog, mouse). As a payment he is given the object that his father had asked for. It proves to be the most beautiful one, and thus he should be the heir. Because his brothers (parents) are envious, two further tasks are set, and finally the brothers are required to bring a bride (most beautiful woman).
The youngest returns to the animal which again promises to help. The animal is disenchanted by burning, mutilation, decapitation, or by crossing a river, and becomes a beautiful princess with a castle. They return happily to his parents as bride and bridegroom. Sometimes they deceive the parents: The youngest son arrives dressed in rags and is ridiculed; then the bride arrives and they reveal their identities. When the son arrives in the first place dressed as a prince, a mole helps to identify him. Often the youngest son renounces his inheritance and goes with his wife back to her castle.
In some variants from eastern and southeastern Europe and the Near East, the youngest son takes the animal (often a frog or toad) to his home and hides it from the family. The father assigns tasks to his daughters-in-law which the frog performs best. The last (third) task requires the brides to attend a feast, where the frog turns into the most beautiful woman. The bridegroom burns the frog’s skin so that the bride cannot change back. As a consequence she leaves him, and he sets out on a quest and is finally able to retrieve her.
Notes: Again, one Rients already covered. It’s a great one for lycanthropes, especially ones that aren’t apex predators, like wererats. Or werefrogs. Or wereplatypuses. Maybe they could be classical skin-turners instead, with the might of turning into a beast in a magic pelt or something.
Supernatural or Enchanted Husband
A merchant sets out on a journey and intends to bring back presents for his three daughters. The two elder ones demand jewels and clothes, the youngest a rose. The father is not able to find one.
He loses his way and stays overnight in a deserted castle, where he breaks off a rose. An (invisible) animal (beast) demands that the man return or send a substitute. The youngest daughter meets her father’s obligation but refuses to marry the (ugly) animal, who treats her kindly.
In a magic mirror she sees her father is ill. She is allowed to visit him but (influenced by her envious sisters) overstays the allowed time. She returns and finds the animal near death, realizes she loves him, and caresses or kisses him. By this means she disenchants the prince from his animal shape. They marry.
Notes: While there are some good elements here (the magic mirror, taking a flower makes you a prisoner of the owner), the French version has been so legendary for years, even before Disney got its paws on it. You need to emphasize elements other than the romance. Were I to use it, I’d have something in the castle that someone needs and the PCs have to grab (say, a flower or the talking teapot or something), and the beast (which is a badass fighter with loads of minions, like fierce candlesticks or something, and so will be a tough fight) then dooms the PCs to stay forever or find a suitable substitute. Something of a last twist to another adventure. It’s up to the PCs to figure out that the beast just needs to get laid.
460B: The Journey in Search of Fortune
Two brothers live together on their farm but only one of them does the work. This brother wants to divide the farm so he can run his part alone. He works harder than his brother but after a while he wonders why the farm of his lazy brother is more successful. He goes to find Fortune to ask her why. On his way he meets things and people that give him questions, and he promises to ask Fortune for answers.
When he arrives at Fortune he is told that he was born on an unlucky day. He sees that Fortune from day to day has less to eat. When her servants tell her how many people are born on that day she orders that they should have as much as she had on that day. On the homeward journey, the man answers the questions of the things and people he has met.
Sometimes he marries a lucky woman who brings him good luck. Later he gives someone who had asked him about the owner of the farm an untrue answer, and loses his luck.
Notes: The journey itself strikes me as highly railroad-y. This one might be Lady Luck stuck in a dungeon or something to fight the railroad. I do like the idea that some folks get more than others for no good reason, and use that as a reason to explain bad rolls in character creation. If you’re so pissed off about it, you can go find the Luck Goddess and get her to raise your stats. Of course, this needs to be tough, but if you find her, she lets you raise your stats by a total of (80-Str+Int+Wis+Con+Dex+Cha)/5 or something. Oh, you had really high stats and went looking for Lady Luck? Lowered. You got greedy after your good rolls, and she doesn’t like it when folks don’t appreciate her gifts.
ATU 470: Friends in Life and Death
Two friends promise each other to be guests at each other’s weddings. One of them dies but takes part invisibly in the wedding of the living friend. He invites him for a return visit.
The living friend also takes part in the wedding of his friend in the otherworld. They take a long journey through the otherworld and see strange things: a broad and a narrow road to heaven and hell, fat cattle in a poor pasture and lean cattle in a green one (formerly rich and poor people), people and animals who argue, etc.
When the living man returns he finds that he has been away for many (three) centuries. All is changed and he knows no one. He dies or turns to dust.
Notes: While itself an awful scenario for gaming, it does establish a realm of the dead and a way to get into and out from it, albeit at a price. The fat and lean cattle make a good image.
ATU 471A: The Monk and the Bird
A monk, thinking about the everlasting life in the monastery gardens, listens to the singing of a bird. He believes it lasts only a short moment but when he returns to the monastery he has grown old and nobody recognizes him because decades (three centuries) have gone by.
Notes: This one isn’t as far out there for gaming as you would think. Go into Monsters & Treasure and look up the nixie. It sets up a Save vs. Go Away for a Few Years situation. Shorten the time to a few months, and come up with a way to save trapped characters, and this is an interesting encounter.
ATU 500: The Name of the Supernatural Helper
A father (mother) boasts that his daughter can spin gold or impossible amounts of yarn. Or, a mother beats her daughter because she is lazy. The king asks why and the mother says she will not stop spinning.
The young woman’s talent is to be tested and she is shut in a room to spin. If she fails she will die, but if she succeeds the king will marry her. She cries. A supernatural being (a little man) agrees to help her if she will promise him her first child (herself) if she cannot guess his name. In some variants she has to remember his name after a long time.
The young woman passes the test and the king marries her. After a year the little man, certain that she could not guess his name, comes back to take her child away. By chance the name is discovered (by a servant, the husband or the woman herself) when the little man sings it triumphantly in the forest. When the woman says the correct name to the helper he vanishes or sinks into the earth.
Notes: You should easily be able to find the name of this supernatural helper online or from your childhood. I don’t think the scenario itself is good for gaming, but the idea that a Rumpelstiltskin-like (a hint for those folks who couldn't easily guess the first sentence) being who can help you with anything for a big price lets the PCs get out of a pinch, with another adventure to get out of the price later.
Through a false boast of her mother of a young woman herself, she is compelled to spin an impossible amount of thread. If she is successful a prince will marry her.
She receives help from three old women who are deformed from too much spinning: the first has an enormous foot, the second has drooping lips, and the third has a thick thumb.
In payment she must invite them to her wedding. The price sees them and exclaims in disgust. They tell him that their deformities come from spinning. He swears that he will never let his wife spin again.
Notes: Not really gameworthy itself, though this is another spinning wheel scenario. The whole spinning wheel bit does remind us that we are talking about a pre-industrial world, so put one somewhere. Make it magical. The three women could be the three Fates; this is common among the Indo-Europeans. If so, they'd be good oracles.
While traveling, a man sees a corpse which is not allowed to be buried or is ill-treated by its creditors. He uses all his money to pay the debts of the dead man and for his funeral. Later he meets the grateful dead man in the form of a traveling companion (old man, servant) who wants to help him on the condition that they will divide all their winnings.
(1) The man ransoms a princess, who had been kidnapped, from slavery and marries her. While the man is away in another country, the father of the princess recognizes the sail of the ship which is embroidered with the princess’s coat of arms and learns that his daughter is alive. When the man goes back to fetch his wife, he finds that she has been abducted by one of her father’s courtiers. The man searches for his wife, and the traveling companion helps him to return to his father-in-law’s court. There the man discloses his identity as the husband of the princess and gets his bride back.
(2) The man rescues a young woman from robbers. On their way home by ship the man is thrown overboard by a rival but is rescued by the traveling companion and brought to the princess. He is recognized by means of a ring or otherwise. The rival is unmasked or punished.
(3) The traveling companion equips the man with a magnificent horse. A tournament takes place in which the winner is to marry a princess. The man wins her.
The traveling companion asks for his part of the winnings and wants to divide the princess (their baby). When the man, trying to save the princess, offers the whole kingdom, the traveling companion reveals himself as the grateful dead man, says his demand was only a test of faith, and vanishes.
In some variants the grateful dead man is a saint, who helps the hero because he has redeemed a saint’s picture that was mistreated.
Notes: Regardless of the scenario, have at least one encounter somewhere wherein casting Final Rest (or whatever your game calls the spell to keep the dead from rising as undead) or otherwise giving an unknown dead body a funeral gives the player some kind of hidden boon. The test of troth doesn't strike me as needed, especially as not all the heroes will wed the same princess. Or maybe they will. It's your world. I’d keep it if the tale is background, otherwise it goes.
This miscellaneous type comprises various tales dealing with a clever horse. The tale exists in three different forms, “The Godchild of the King and the Unfaithful Companion,” “The Golden-haired Maiden,” and “The Clever Horse.”
A poor boy goes in search of his godfather, the king (God, Virgin Mary, etc.). On the way he obtains a clever magic horse that offers to help him. Against the horse’s advice he picks up a glimmering feather (golden hair, golden horse-shoe, other bright object), which he later gives to the king.
En route the boy is accompanied by a companion (devil, beardless man, Gypsy, etc.) who forces him to change places and to swear silence. At the king’s court the boy is employed as a groom. He helps different animals, who in return promise to help him.
A treacherous employee of the king (the boy’s companion) slanders him to the king, saying that he had boasted that he could find the bird that had lost the feather and/or to bring the golden-haired maiden (princess) as bride for the king. On pain of death he is assigned to accomplish the dangerous tasks. He succeeds with the help of his horse.
The abducted princess refuses to marry the old king until she receives certain things (her castle, keys that have fallen into the sea, water of life, etc.). The boy brings these with the help of his horse and of the helpers he had met on his way (grateful animals).
As the last condition for marriage the princess demands the boy be killed (burned, beheaded, dismembered, by taking a bath in boiling milk or oil of a herd of wild mares, by water of death, etc.). The horse saves the boy or he is resuscitated by the princess, rejuvenated, and beautified. The king has the same thing done to him with fatal results (the princess does not resuscitate him, he dies in the milk, etc.).
The magic horse turns into a young woman (man). The boy marries her (the princess) and becomes king.
Notes: Maybe it’s that time or something, but strangely I’m not getting as many ideas from this one as I should. Still, some thoughts. Why does this companion switch places, and how does he get the boy’s silence? This one dovetails well with the Grateful Animals, as does the Faithless Sister. The glimmering feather is a good example of a cursed item, but in my experience, players will heed an NPC, especially a magical one like a talking horse, who says, "Don't pick that up!"
ATU 554: The Grateful Animals
This miscellaneous type comprises various tales dealing with helpful deeds of grateful animals. In numerous tales the type occurs only as an episode. Most of the variants present the following basic structure:
A man while traveling meets three animals (from air, water, and earth) who are in trouble. Because he rescues them, they promise to help him if needed. Later he falls in love with a princess whose father sets three impossible tasks for him to accomplish. With the help of the grateful animals he succeeds on three successive days and wins the princess.
In some variants a part is added in which the man accompanies his elder brothers. When they try to injure some animals, he prevents them from doing so or compensates for their misdeeds and carelessness. When they trample on an ant-hill, he builds it up again, when they leave wounded animals, he takes care of them, etc.
Notes: The fourth one Rients treated. As you can see, this one keeps cropping up elsewhere, like in the Faithless Sister and the Clever Horse, though sometimes stands on its own. Basically, help three animals, and they'll help you later. Take the chance with this one to use more common animals of your game world. I used a wolf, a snipe, and a beaver. Above all, this and the Grateful Dead teaches the lesson of reciprocity, something big for the Indo-Europeans. (The Grateful Dead also teaches you that if you’re going to go on long jams, you’re best off being a full prog band, not some stoned guys who just meander through a song forever. Though “Dark Star” is pretty cool.)
A poor boy, driven from home by his evil stepmother (dismissed from service with a pittance), gives all his money as alms to a beggar (supernatural being) who in return grants the boy three wishes: a never failing gun (crossbow), a fiddle (flute) that compels people to dance, another magic object or the magic power of having his wishes obeyed.
He shoots a bird (on a wager) which falls into a thorn bush. When a monk (Jew, the loser of the wager) tries to take the bird out, the boy's magic fiddle makes him dance in the thorn.
The boy is condemned and led to the gallows. He asks for permission to play his fiddle for the last time. The judge and whole assembly have to dance until the boy is released.
Notes: Oooh, items galore! Some kind of magical missile weapon, a magical musical instrument, and something that makes others heed your wishes. Heck, you can make the thorn bush special, too. And the victim? Write the most hated group in your campaign world into that role; this guy gets a miserable end that he doesn't warrant for some kid's fun. And don’t tell me your game world is so filled with moral villains when your heroes are murder hobos. There will be bigotry, sadly.
Supernatural Power or Knowledge
A young man, born of an animal (son of a bear) or from a giant (troll-woman, forged from iron by a smith) develops great strength (at the forge, in the forest, in war, by suckling for many years, by his great appetite, by tests of strength, etc.)
Because of his enormous appetite he is sent away from home. He works for a smith but (often) injures his master, who tries to get rid of him by setting trials of strength. The young man has to uproot trees, to catch wolves and bears (lions, etc.), to tame devils, etc. When he is sent to catch wild animals, he harnesses them to a coach. When he is in a well and a mill stone (bell) is thrown on him, he wears it as a collar or complains that chickens are scratching dirt onto him. When he is sent to the devil's mill (hell), he drives the devil to his master's house. When he goes to the king to be paid, the king shoots him (in vain) with cannons. The young man accomplishes every task and overcomes all difficulties (kills his master and finally marries).
Notes: This is the basis for the Heracles legend. This strikes me as setting up a potential friend or foe, living off in the woods after making life hell for everyone near him. The PCs will first hear of him from the folks whom he has bothered. Have him off in a hut a few hexes away from everyone else and make his role dependent on good role-playing and a reaction roll. Think of the dwarves meeting Beorn in The Hobbit. If Gandalf had brought them all at the same time, would he have let them inside? Don't treat Charisma as a dump stat; it might make a friend out of someone who can kick your ass.
ATU 675: The Lazy Boy
A lazy stupid boy releases a fish (frog, serpent, supernatural being), which gives him the power of making all his wishes come true.
The lazy boy then makes an axe cut trees itself, water carry itself, an oven carry him, etc. When the princess laughs at him, he wishes her pregnant (from eating an apple, etc.). She does not know the father of her beautiful child. The king orders a test of paternity, and the child picks the lazy boy out as the father (by handing him an apple, ball, golden ball, etc.).
The king orders father and mother (and child) to be abandoned in a cask at sea (in the mountains). By the power of wishing they reach land. The young man wishes to be beautified and makes a castle appear next to the king's. When the king comes to visit, the young man wishes that an object (golden apple, golden cup) would appear in his pocket. The king is accused of stealing. Thus he is shown that the appearance of guilt and innocence (unwitting pregnancy, unwitting theft) is often deceptive.
Notes: More cool items. Make the boy's special power also dependent on an item; blah blah blah be careful with wishes blah blah blah "Who knocked up the virgin princess?" would make a good mystery, to use this medias in res. The plot isn't something I'd do to player characters, however. Way too railroad-y.