Monday, December 27, 2010

Mythic Monday: Taken... by Elves!

A gathering of angels appeared above my head,
They sang to me this song of hope and this is what they said...

I thought that they were angels, but much to my surprise,
We climbed aboard their starship, we headed for the skies...

With all the work I'm doing on the Black City campaign, I've had aliens on the brain lately!  This week let's look at abduction folklore - the archetypical fairy story of a person being taken beneath the hill by the Fay people and losing time in the supernatural Otherworld.

Abduction folklore is not a modern phenomena; we may have Close Encounters and Fire in the Sky to thank for the pop-culture prevalence of the idea (and of course The X-Files), but folklore involving abductions has been around for a long time.  (Authors like Eric Von Daniken, Chariots of the Gods, would have us think biblical accounts like Ezekiel's vision of god's chariot, were ancient encounters with aliens).  Carl Sagan postulated the 80's abductions were just modern retellings of older stories involving demonic abduction and faerie abduction; modern victims just plugged in an appropriate perpetrator.

Regardless whether it's elves, aliens, or demons, abduction stories have common elements the victims claim to experience - a feeling of paralysis and helplessness (perhaps sleep paralysis); the perception of being taken somewhere, sometimes immaterial, perhaps in a bright light; the sense of being experimented on, probed, altered, implanted or changed; the stoppage of time or the sense that time flowed differently while abucted - so-called missing time; and often there is a sexual element too.  Sexually obsessive non-humans who live in the Otherworld, walk through walls, communicate telepathically, and perform breeding experiments on people - sounds like a good (horror) game element to me!

Fairies and elves, which had these sinister elements in medieval and earlier folklore, have been ruined by Tolkien for we gamers.  Nowadays, elves are people with pointy ears, but better than us in every way.  Nigh immortal, they excel at all the things we suck at, like taking care of the environment and talking to trees.  They're all beautiful, with excellent singing voices.  (Insert finger, barf now).  Okay, to be fair to the esteemed JRRT, his elves are closer to the vanir of Norse myth than the Sidhe or Tuatha Dé Danann of fairy abduction myth.  But let's postulate that the creatures of fairy are meant to be feared.  Their motivations are beyond the ken of mortals, or they're agents of the pagan world meant to lead good christian folk astray.  Or they're aliens.

Note - the whole folklore of changelings and replacing human children is another matter; I'll address it in a later column.

How to use abduction stories in your games:
In a humanocentric campaign, you could just jettison the Tolkien elves from your game.  The peasants and regular folk of the world have a deep fear of the wilds, and with good reason - folks disappear at night!  Tales of being taken "under the hills" and passing a night with the Tuatha Dé Danann, Sidhe, or Fay are misremembered abduction experiences.  And if you don't mind chocolate in your peanut butter, or Sci-Fi in your Fantasy, let's make those abductions perpetrated by aliens, for good measure.

The abduction of a player character (by any of the suggested agencies) makes for some uncomfortable gaming, and in a game with horror elements, uncomfortable means good gaming.  Messing with the corpus of a player character tends to make them squeamish, even if it's only insinuated.  Abduction is a fairly prevalent plot technique in Cthulhu-style gaming horror.

Imagine this scenario:  the group wakes up the next morning after camping in the wilderness and discovers one of their members is gone.  They spend hours looking for tracks and calling in the woods.  Sometime later the missing character either wanders back into camp or back into the village, with no idea what happened during the missing time.  Perhaps as the other characters begin to use ESP spells and other techniques to uncover the missing memories, glimpses of the lost time start to reveal themselves.  "Rothgar, where did that scar on your abdomen come from - look how neatly healed it is?  Is that new?"  Creepy.

Let the players puzzle over what happened - was something removed from inside him, was something implanted there, is it really Rothgar at all, and can it happen again?  It doesn't even need to be real - you as DM could have decided the player sleepwalked into the woods, knocked his head on a branch, and now has a bit of amnesia.  Just don't tell them the truth!  Horror doesn't have to involve monsters, conflict, and violence; fear of the unknown and feelings of helplessness are powerful tools to give your game a creepy vibe.

Good gaming!


  1. I like this. People bandy about this idea, but your the first I've seeen apply it to gaming, abductions and all.

    Richard Morgan's novel, Steel Remains takes elves in a direction that is at once fvery science fictional and cruel, folk-lore faerie-ish. It's worth checking out.

  2. Horror and fantasy are bestest friends in literature, but horror in games fails a lot - I'm hoping through this blog to give DM's some new tools.

    Thanks for the book referral - checked it out on Amazon, lots of controversial reviews! Would you consider it part of the gritty wave of recent fantasy (the GRR Martin effect)?

    hat would you call the GRR Martin genre - gritty and

  3. Now, this is creepy. I just had a nightmare last night - about alien abductions, no less - that apparently drew its imagery from Dark Skies (a TV series from the 1990's about MJ12 and aliens) and X-Com/UFO 1 (the famous strategy computer game where you fight the alien invasion). And then I got up, fired up the computer... And you had a post about alien abduction on your blog! CREEPY!

    Anyhow, I prefer Elves as spirits/minor "gods" with their only motives rather than demihumans. In my campaign, they won't necessarily be evil per se, but would have their own motives - which could seem quite strange and even sinister to mortals. Their mounds exist both on the Mortal Realm and on the Spirit Realm, so in their inside (which is in the Spirit Realm), time might flow in strange ways.

    What do spirits/minor "gods" gain from abducting a mortal? Well, maybe spiritual energy, maybe a part of the victim's soul, maybe nothing which is material to mortals; they are spirits after all, and follow their own, twisted rules...

  4. What do spirits/minor "gods" gain from abducting a mortal? Well, maybe spiritual energy, maybe a part of the victim's soul, maybe nothing which is material to mortals; they are spirits after all, and follow their own, twisted rules...

    I can get behind 'supernatural abductions' like elf-spirits from the Spirit Realm - it can still be something to be feared. Perhaps mortals abducted return to the world aged a decade, or wisdom drained; perhaps they lose their magic for a period of time if they're a caster.

    When the players hear about that business happening to NPC's that lingered in the wrong part of the woods after dark, you betcha they'll clear out before night falls...

  5. I like John Keel's term "ultraterrestrials"--it allows us to ditch the (potentially) false dichtomy between "demihuman" elves and "spiritual" ones. Which one is an alien biological entity of another plane of being with supernatural abilities?

    @Beedo - I like the grittiness of Steel Remains and I'm not bothered by one of the protagonists being gay. My only quibble is that its fairly modern in language and dialogue--I tend to like my fantasy a little more old school in diction--but I recognize it as a legitimate stylistic choice, just not my favorite.