Popular Myth-Conceptions: Subverting Mythology to Enrich Your Campaign (Guest Post from Chris Lewis Carter of Camp Myth)

Somebody once told me that all successful storytelling can be summed up in one word: Contrast. It’s the art of combining two things which – on the surface – are so strikingly different from each other that you can’t help but want to know more.

It seems obvious when you think about it, right? And it’s everywhere. From dusty old fairy tales (say, The Tortoise and the Hare) to the fact that Lord Voldemort was defeated by an infant Harry Potter, using the contrast between two characters as dramatic fuel is a sure-fire way to hold someone’s attention.

As a writer, it’s a technique that I use all the time in my stories. In fact, my latest project, Camp Myth is about a summer camp for mythological creatures. Right off the bat, there’s a double-take moment of, “Wait a second, creatures don’t attend summer camps!” but it goes even deeper than that, as the three main characters are brought together because of how they don’t fit in with their respective races (like a Cyclops who just wants to read and learn about nature).

With that said, I’ve also been a gamer for as long as I can remember, and I’ve found that contrast works just as well around the table as it does on the page. In keeping with the mythic theme of Camp Myth, let’s look at how you can take a well-worn concept like mythology and turn it into a fresh, new experience for you or your players.

When most people think mythology, they more often than not think of the Greek and Roman variety. Don’t get me wrong, there are a million great stories to tell with those characters, but I’ve found that all cultures have myths worth exploring further (for example, Camp Myth is a place for all mythic creatures to come together, so it’s a lot of fun to think about how all of those races would interact with each other).

Okay, so we’ve all used goblins at one time or another, right? They’re the perfect fodder for any campaign, but they’re also one of the most overused monsters of all-time. So, instead, let’s look at a similar monster from Celtic myth: the Redcap. According to my good friend, Wikipedia:

“A Red Cap or Redcap is a type of malevolent murderous goblin, elf or fairy found in Border Folklore. They are said to inhabit ruined castles found along the border between England and Scotland. Redcaps are said to murder travellers who stray into their homes and dye their hats with their victims’ blood (from which they get their name). Redcaps must kill regularly, for if the blood staining their hats dries out, they die.”

Seriously, how awesome is that? Right off the bat, we have an interesting type of monster that could inspire an adventure by itself, or an amazingly fun character to play. Let’s flip the concept of a Redcap on its head from what you’d typically expect, and create a party member who desperately wants to be good, but constantly needs to kill in order to keep their hat covered in fresh blood. Kind of like a vampire, except way into hats. There’s a fantastic moral dilemma built right in the character, and a remorseful goblin is the last thing most players would expect to encounter. (Oh, it’s probably a good time to mention that I’ve never much been interested in the intricacies of how something should work, stat-wise. My view has always been, “If it seems cool, make it happen,” so feel free to run wild with how this character should be drawn up.)

Next, let’s tackle the time-honoured trope of shape-shifters. They’re a dime a dozen, so lets look to mythology again for our inspiration. How about Japan, which has a great creature called the Kitsune. Take it away, Wiki:

“It is widely agreed that many fox myths in Japan can be traced to China, Korea, or India. Chinese folk tales tell of fox spirits called huli jing that may have up to nine tails, or Kyūbi no Kitsune in Japanese. Stories depict them as intelligent beings and as possessing magical abilities that increase with their age and wisdom. Foremost among these is the ability to assume human form. While some folktales speak of kitsune employing this ability to trick others — as foxes in folklore often do — other stories portray them as faithful guardians, friends, lovers, and wives.”

Again, another neat twist on an old favourite. If you’re looking to play a Kitsune, why not have them unable to control their shape-shifting powers, forcing them to transform into a fox at the worst possible moments. Or, as a neat treat for a player, why not have their Kitsune start off with one tail, and have them grow a new tail with each level up, giving them a physical representation of their increasing power. I guarantee it’ll help them become more attached to the character. And for those of you with a quiet-type around the table, the promise of being rewarded with more power/tails would be a great incentive for them to RP more often.

Finally, let’s look at a creature that has its roots in Greek mythology, but also plays a major role in Egyptian culture. If you really want to have fun with a character, why not consider a Sphinx. They come in two different varieties, you know:

“In Greek tradition, it has the haunches of a lion, the wings of a great bird, and the face of a woman. She is mythologized as treacherous and merciless. Those who cannot answer her riddle suffer a fate typical in such mythological stories, as they are killed and eaten by this ravenous monster. Unlike the Greek sphinx which was a woman, the Egyptian sphinx is typically shown as a man (an Androsphinx). In addition, the Egyptian sphinx was viewed as benevolent in contrast to the malevolent Greek version and was thought of as a guardian often flanking the entrances to temples.”

This one just might be my favourite, mainly because there are a dozen hilarious scenarios that instantly come to mind. If you want to play the traditional version of a Sphinx, your character can be the mythic equivalent of Jigsaw from the Saw movies, testing people with riddles, then striking if they answer incorrectly. Or, to play against type, how great would it be to have a good-natured Sphinx that fancied itself as a sort of bard, talking in rhymes and puzzles, and constantly getting the party bogged down with needless riddles. You could really chew the scenery here, and I promise it would be a blast for everyone involved.

These are just a few examples of how Mythic creatures can not only be added to a campaign, but twisted into something fun and unexpected that the entire table can enjoy. I encourage everyone to use contrast in their next game, and to research more legends from around the world. There are a ton of great stories out there just waiting to be discovered…

And I’d hate for you to myth any of them 🙂

***

From high-school textbooks to award-winning magazines and podcasts, Chris Lewis Carter has been featured in nearly two dozen publications – both online and print – including Nelson Literacy 8,
Word Riot, 3AM Magazine, Murky Depths, Niteblade, and Pseudopod. When he isn’t writing, Chris can usually be found playing games or listening to podcasts. He is a lead writer for Rival Threads: Last Class Heroes, a video game scheduled to be released for iOS, Windows, and Mac in 2012, and the creator of Camp Myth.

For more, check out his home page at www.chrislewiscarter.com.

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