Myth Crafting in RPGs

From Jason Pasero

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0309

Myth Crafting in RPGs

Over the years, as a player and GM, I’ve struggled with the elements of religion in my games. The fault for this is likely my own fascination with myth and the types of religions typically distributed with role-playing games. Many focus on statistics, magical powers, and appearance, as if the gods were another monster to be hunted down and killed. Because GMs tend to like the format of monster appearance and statistics, and because we’ve seen gods explained this way so many times, we naturally mimic it.

Unfortunately, these are nothing more than sterile numbers, antiseptic and without feeling. It is a strange set of characteristics if we expect our campaign populations to worship them fervently and faithfully in fear and love.

There is a better way to give your religion vibrant life and compelling conflicts for your gods and game world. Don’t describe them. Instead, give them a myth story — a basic five or six sentence story that creates conflict and relationships among the gods, and adds a depth that churns up emotional reactions of fanatical populations, not to mention the PCs.

Here are a few myth story crafting tips to move religions from mere idolatry to something filled with meaning:

Keep It Simple

Myth stories are simple and direct. They carry little artifice, no complicated language or lyricism, and few complicated surprises. They have consistent, direct, and understandable plots.

Myth stories facts were important to ancient cultures because the common folk were expected to worship the gods, yet paper was non-existent or scarce, and folk were often uneducated and illiterate. Therefore, myth stories had to be easily remembered.

There are only three “literary” demands on myths.

They required:

  1. A plot revolving around a central conflict
  2. The basic character traits of the main figures
  3. A setting

The tips in this article will not address setting. Since it’s assumed you are writing your own campaign world, or are using a pre-crafted one, the setting is already finished.

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Two Approaches To Developing A Plot

Myth And Archetype, Selecting A Story Pattern

Myths are wonderful because they often follow similar design patterns. One example, The Creation Story (Genesis), is retold in cultures as ancient as the Sumerians and as modern as our own. It goes a little something like this:

A mighty god, who lives in the heavens, crafts the world from chaos or out of nothingness. After the world is created he (usually a male) creates the animals, plants, oceans, and the rest of nature. Next comes a single man. A single woman comes next, often made from parts of the man’s body.

Sometimes the creation is tasked out to helpers, sometimes not. Sometimes the god has to work hard, sometimes it’s little more than a spoken word. The particulars of the story vary from culture to culture, but the pattern is found across the globe.

Using archetypes is an excellent way to borrow meaning from myth and to ease your workload.

Here is an incomplete list of the patterns:

The Creation Story (detailed above)

The Flood Story (Noah’s Arc)

The Rise and Fall of the Shadow (Lucifer’s Pride)

The Misdeeds of the Trickster (Loki causing Baldur’s death)

Immaculate Conceptions and other Adulterous Affairs of the Gods (Zeus)

Trials between Gods and Mortals (“I’m way cuter than Aphrodite”)

Animation of Objects (often as a reward to faithful mortals, Pygmalion)

The Creation of the Tools of Divinity (Zeus’ thunderbolts or Thor’s hammer)

The Resurrection of a Dead God (Baldur, Osiris, Jesus)

Armageddon (the lovely fire-falling end of times)

The Existence of an Underworld (strangely, its creation is often left mysterious)

The Hero’s Journey (starts at home, goes through trials, faces death, returns with gift)

The Earth Mother Figure (the female equivalent to the SkyFather)

The Perfect Union (a divine love story)

The Divine Child (a god’s offspring)

It’s probably easiest to start with a creation story. It’s the most fundamental of all myth stories, and it’s the best documented out there, with tons of material on the Internet. It will also demand you make some early decisions about your pantheon, such as:

  1. The number of gods
  2. The lead god
  3. Your different sentient races
  4. The origin of the world and nature

A well-crafted creation story can also spin off into other areas appropriate for a fantasy setting, such as the source of magic and supernatural creatures.

The Myth Story As Explanation

If you don’t want to use the archetype patterns, or just want something different, remember what myths were: descriptions of the world and explanations of human events.

Ancient people were fascinated with the mysteries and wonders of the world (perhaps far more than we). They revered the things they saw and found in nature, whether it was the blooming of flowers or the quaking of the earth. Try to rediscover that sense of awe in your own pantheon.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself while establishing explanation as your plot source.

To start with, try to think like a child.

  • What fears do children have?
  • What sorts of questions do they ask?
  • What motivates a child’s interest?
  • What things in nature require explanation to a child?
  • What emotional needs and reactions do children have?

Next, look around in nature.

  • What things are powerful or awesome (like tornadoes)?
  • What things are sublime (like the industry of honey bees)?
  • What sort of cycles do you see (like day/night)?
  • What things seem hard to explain (like tides)?

Finally, examine human thoughts and emotion.

  • What are the emotions that cause the strongest reactions (love, fear, anger)?
  • What things do people fight and die for (justice, freedom)?
  • What virtues do we value (courage, honesty, honor)?
  • What vices do we despise (selfishness, infidelity, greed)?

Keep a list of your answers. Once you’ve finished a run- through, some should feel more compelling than others. Pick the ones that get you most inspired and start generating a myth story and/or god to explain your answers.

Establish A Conflict

A good story demands tension or wonder to be memorable. Once you’ve figured out the basic plot (such as god floods the world or god creates the seasons) it’s a good idea to complicate matters to some degree. From a literary point of view, conflict comes in a variety of flavors:

  • God against other gods
  • God against himself
  • God against nature
  • God against worshippers

It’s best to start with obvious kinds of central conflict suggested by your stories. God floods the world, for example, is a solid god against worshipper type of story. All you have to do then is supply the basic rationale. Why did the god decide a flood was in order? Did the worshippers deserve it, and if so, why?

Once you’ve started writing a few of these you’ll probably want to change your myth stories around a bit and get a little messy with them. You and your players will eventually want to see something less cliche, but to begin with, keeping it simple is best.

Gods Are NPCs Too

Creating a set of names, arbitrarily assigning a sphere of influence, and slapping down a few descriptive words about the god is no basis for a game religion. A good PC isn’t defined by the weather-beaten cloak he’s wearing, or the name of the sword at his hip, but by his actions in the game. So is a god.

A god is much more than a monster. A god is an NPC, and possibly your most important one, given his or her earth striding importance. Treat them as such. Give your god character flaws and personal motivations. Then make the flaws and motivations bigger, and bigger still, to truly Olympic proportions. These are gods, and they’ve got every right to have big goals, big virtues, and bigger flaws.

Here are a short list of traits to consider; pick at least three or four.

  1. Jealousy
  2. Lust
  3. Wrathfulness
  4. Greed
  5. Vengefulness
  6. Impatience
  7. Patience
  8. Laziness
  9. Anger
  10. Honesty
  11. Dishonesty
  12. Pride
  13. Humility
  14. Melancholia
  15. Mania
  16. Vanity
  17. Intelligence
  18. Stupidity
  19. Prankishness
  20. Seriousness
  21. Rebelliousness
  22. Rigidity
  23. Creativity
  24. Gluttonous
  25. Hypocrisy
  26. Stubborn
  27. Whimsical
  28. Perfectionism
  29. Compassion
  30. Apathy
  31. Driven
  32. Cowardice
  33. Courage
  34. Rashness
  35. Selfishness
  36. Selflessness
  37. Honor
  38. Dishonor
  39. Drunkenness

Apply Your Traits To The Basic Story

Once you’ve selected a story from the list of archetypal stories, or have decided on an explanation of something, put your gods, with their traits, into the situation.

Ask yourself:

  • How would this god act in this situation?
  • What sorts of things will highlight the traits in their best light?
  • How do the god’s flaws complicate the matter?
  • How does the god overcome those complications?
  • What sort of central conflict will challenge the god most?
  • What would this god do to resolve the problem?
  • What would other gods do to help?
  • What would rivals or enemies think or do in the situation?
  • How do the mortals fit into all of this?

It’s also a good idea to ask what the god’s name is here, if you haven’t already. Given your earlier traits, and the demands placed on the god by the basic structure of the story, you should now be able to start writing the rough sketch of the story itself.

Establish Limits Early

It is easy to get carried away with numbers and end up working hard. Therefore, as you begin writing your pantheon, establish a set of clear working limits. As an arbitrary starting point, 12 deities is a good number as your top end limit. Any more than 12 and you start putting too much load on your story writing.

You’ll also cheapen the gods in your pantheon the more of them you include. The more you have, the weaker each becomes. Six is a good starting number. As you write your stories and discover a need for other gods or niche elements, add a few more, but try to stay lower than twelve.

You must also limit the number of stories per god. Each god should have at least two stories at the start, and you might want to create as many as five. Three is probably a good average.

Decide which gods are most influential and important. Those gods will have the most stories told about them, so the leader of your pantheon is likely to have five stories. The average god will be the focus of around three.

I want to emphasize here that it’s not a matter of working harder or doing more. It’s a matter of working on something more meaningful. If you start with only six gods, you’ll be able to write more material focusing on each.

The Tips In Action: Writing A Story

By way of example, let’s create our main deity, the leader of the gods. From section one, we choose several traits (I picked these semi-randomly, trying to make them fit, but also to present a challenge): incredible creativity and intelligence, a rigid perfectionist, and thoroughly lazy.

Since this is the first god, we should use the Creation myth as our archetype pattern. I find archetype patterns easier to follow than brainstorming about nature and humanity, so this example won’t explore the tip applying traits to story.

Since he’s supposed to be creating the world, his perfectionism means he’s going to plan and tinker for a good long time. Not only that, but he’s lazy, so maybe he starts by crafting a servant or a bunch of servants to help him create the world. They could be other gods, but why not make them our first sentient race.

Let’s say this is how the dwarves came into being. Dwarves, renowned smiths and craftsmen, were created with those abilities in mind to start with. They were also designed and tailored to be perfect working machines, to compensate for “our father’s” laziness, and because his perfectionism demands it.

I’m tired of calling him father, so let’s christen him Fesslin the Creator. Fesslin would work, when he felt like it, in his palace, demanding the dwarves see him each day for new tasks. Each day the dwarves would go and fulfill his orders, sometimes with success, sometimes not.

Fesslin’s creativity and intelligence led him to produce a great many strange and varied creatures, which is why so many weird beasts can be found in the world. When his world was finished, he wanted worshippers to appreciate his creation, as all creative artists love an audience, and so he set about inventing the other sentient beings, starting with his favorite (let’s say elves, since, by stereotype, they like art and are a more sublime sort of people).

In all likelihood Fesslin should get at least another story. Since he’s lazy, maybe he’s the kind of god who sets things in motion, then steps back to let it go as is. That might let us limit him to just one more story, one that involves the creation of other gods. However, such a figure would be fun to include in at least a third, one that added a new dimension to him. What that other story might be would depend on what seemed important to add to him, maybe one that explained how or why he aids his worshippers, given he’s too lazy to want to be bothered.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks

Speed Up Play With Spellbooks

From Jason Lord

An easy way to deal with spellcasters’ organization: have the player start with an exercise book and fill in the spells their character knows as they go, having 6 or so pages per spell level.

The player can then jot down the spell name and a brief description of each spell their PC knows as they learn it, helping them to know the spell better as well as giving them a quick reference system. Use small sticky notes as tabs out the side to delineate where the spell levels start.

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Use Stones To Track Things

From Mark Hoffman

I recently tried using gaming stones in my game to determine spell duration, arrows, etc. It works great and the players like it because, as they use up arrows or spell durations count down, they take a stone away.

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Use Sandtimers To Keep The Game Moving

From Ted

I keep 2 sand-glass timers–a 3 minute egg timer and a 30 second timer from some boxed game (like Boggle, or one of those.) The 3 minute timer is for when party dithering seems to be getting out of hand. I’ll say “ok folks, 3 more minutes,” and flip the timer. (Sometimes, I’ll just flip it without saying anything. This often makes them nervous, as they know that I’ve got something planned for what will happen when the timer runs out.)

The 30 second timer is for folks who are habitually long to make decisions in combat. When the sand runs out, you’d better have made a decision and be executing it on the battlemat, or you’re automatically “delay”ed.

The slow-pokes don’t like it the first time they get caught but, overall, everyone seems to enjoy that the game moves along. We make it clear that “it’s not personal, we’re just playing the game.” In a party of 6, that means everyone has 3 minutes to think about what they want to do next, look up complicated rules, whisper to others not immediately in combat, etc.

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Creating Battlemaps In GIMP – Two Tutorials

From Joachim de Ravenbel

I recently downloaded The GIMP (The GNU Image Manipulation Program) and it can yield what I name “cool” battlemaps.

Here are two tutorials I created that fellow DMs might find useful:

GIMP is free and available for several operating systems:

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Document Routine Rituals

From Chris J. Whitcomb

One GM I played with, on the first session before we got into playing, sat everyone down and handed them a blank sheet of paper. He told us to write down anything we “always did” or any sort of routine rituals.

  • Sharpening weapons
  • Preparing spells
  • Combat training, practice
  • Reading, studying, research.

My character was a cleric of Egyptian pantheon, so one of the things I put down was waking before dawn to “greet the sky-rider”–spending half hour before dawn and half hour after dawn meditating while the sun rose.

Other things that got mentioned: always looting the bodies, dropping packs/extra gear before combat, and picking them up afterwards.

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Adventure Bookies Redux

From Edward Shackcloth

I got this idea from a past reader tip about adventure bookies.

A Bunch More Tips From Your Fellow Readers – RPT#98

Ever started to find it increasingly hard to think of realistic explanations for a good dungeon crawl? Here’s a neat adventure idea then.

A powerful somebody has started running a competition of sorts in his magical dungeon, and he has sent out a challenge to any would-be adventurers who would brave his domain. They are told of fierce monsters, outlandish traps, puzzles, and more that they will have to overcome; but the rewards are amazing treasures and mountains of coin.

The Dungeon is a labyrinth made to test and challenge the adventurers, fame seekers, and treasure hunters. The powerful being makes use of powerful magic and plenty of tricks, illusion, and other things to create different adventures each time. Common folk pay to watch public scryings of the heroes and bet on how they perform.

The heroes pay a fee to get in, but provided they succeed, they gain far more. Money earned by the enterprise goes towards desirable treasures to keep pulling in competitors (and profit of course). It’s like a magical video game, but where the danger and the rewards are very real.

If you think this could fit into your campaign, then it provides a great way of giving your players the classic, simple, and fun dungeon crawl without having to weave elaborate story lines.

How you use and present The Dungeon is up to you. Maybe it is run by the King as entertainment and to find skilled minions. Perhaps there are more sinister motives behind it all. And there’s nothing saying some good roleplaying can’t come out of this–what starts as a method to give believable dungeon crawls can easily turn into an involved plot line.