Monday, February 14, 2011

Mythic Monday: Down with Love

Mythic monday - using elements of folklore, myth and legendry in your game.

Love in the Time of Dungeons & Dragons
I pondered what elements of Feb 14th's folklore would be interesting for gaming - perhaps the story of the St Valentines, the imagery of Cupid, something to do with the Roman Lupercalia feast?  How about love itself?  How often do themes of love appear in your games?

I know, I know - "We explore dungeons, not characters".  Leave those fruity stories and plot narratives at the door when playing old school D&D - we kick down doors and kill monsters.  The D&D character's role in the game world is defined by their actions, not by their relationships.  (See White Wolf for that).

But tales involving magic and love make a few appearances in D&D's source literature, and certainly in the larger ecosystem of folkore, fairy tales, myth and legendry.  Perhaps your medieval game has elements of chivalry and courtly love.  Maybe your long-running campaign has seen characters create dominions and (gasp) take spouses.  What I've typically observed is that the character in a D&D game is more likely to have a regular room at the brothel instead of a spouse or love interest.  And how does this relate to the cheesecake art discussion?

Players don't need to initiate a love story.  In a world where geases and quests are real, where magical curses, oaths and promises are binding, why not adopt the classic (Disney) trope - "true love's kiss can break any curse".  Curse a character with a malign effect that no spell caster's magic can undo, but can be broken through the kiss of a princess or the character's true love.  I can hear my players groaning now, "You have got to be kidding me".  Muhaha.  Could make for some interesting problem solving.

How about the theme of forsaking love to gain power?  It has mythic roots and would work well for a D&D villain.  I'm a big fan of Der Ring Des Nibelungen; I've managed to see live performances of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and Siegfried through the years, though never yet gotten to see Götterdämmerung.  The Ring is an epic cycle of operas that draws heavily from themes of Norse and Teutonic mythology, the Edda, and the Nibelungenlied.  One of the central themes of the cycle is love versus power.

Early in Das Rheingold, a lecherous dwarf, Alberich, lusts after the beautiful Rhinemaidens.  They taunt him, laugh at him, flash their boobies, and splash away through the water, while driving the dwarf to extremes of rage.  In their taunting, they reveal that they possess a wonderful treasure, the Rhine gold, which can be used to forge an all-powerful ring; only "he who forsakes love forever" can steal it.  Certainly they have nothing to fear from the lustful Alberich, mock the nymphs.  But Alberich, realizing he can't win the attention of the water nymphs with either his charms or by chasing them down, renounces love forever, steals the gold, and goes on to forge the ring of power.  He enslaves the race of dwarves and industrializes them.  (He uses his new found wealth to get a lady, too, fathering the villainous Hagen; even in Teutonic pre-history, money can't buy you love, but it can get you laid).

As the story develops, the ring is cursed.  It becomes an artifact coveted by the Norse gods, the giants, and various heroes; it spends time in a dragon's horde, and it brings doom to all its owners.  The stories are rich in symbolism and open to multiple interpretations, but a simplistic reading is that exploitive, antisocial behavior results from the absence of love (especially sexual love).  Loveless people turn to materialism and power politics; they use their power to enslave those around them.  It's a simple interpretation that makes me laugh - "He never found love, so he turned to a life of utter evil."

Industry and exploitation are the opposite of the romantic ideal.  Power displaces love.  I see elements of it in The Lord of the Rings movies with the despoiling of Isengard:

The old world will burn in the fires of industry. The forests will fall. A new order will rise. We will drive the machine of war with the sword and the spear and the iron fists of the Orc.  - Saruman

Spoken like a  true mad wizard who's not getting any love action.  Think how differently the trilogy could have been if Saruman had a girlfriend.

Time for a new poll
I had a dominion game a few years back where a player's character got married, but those situations tend to be rare.  More often than not, D&D is our beer and pretzels game and there are very few relationships in the game.  How about your games?  Drop a comment and/or chime in on the new poll.

Happy Valentine's day!


  1. Honestly can't recall any romance in my games, but there has been lust (usually after NPCs) and that helped drive one player character to evil, if I recall. And I like the idea of a love-lost villain, plaguing the party because his mother never loved him, or the evil witch was spurned by the man she loved. It would make a memorable nemesis, especially if they learnt his back story and discovered that his lost love still lives...

  2. My thought is that love and romance are best left in the real world. Aren't we playing the game, at least to some extent, to escape reality? I don't really want it interfering with my game time. Besides, if I want to watch those kinds of problems manifest, I 'll just turn on the Jerry Springer show...Love you Sue:)

  3. I love it - I'm already married in real life, why would I ever get married in the game...?

    We'll see how the poll develops. DMG p192 is a popular choice.

  4. Great post. I've only seen PCs get married when we were playing more of an "end game, build your territory" sort of game. I have had a few tidbits in m current game along these lines, though. I had a "sleeping princess awoken by a kiss" cliche, with suitable twists, as well as a hideous witch hag that offered to trade a potion for a kiss by the PC with highest Charisma. The player thought it seemed like an equitable trade at the time...

    Most of the time, its explore, fight, loot, and run.

  5. @Welleran:

    Until you pulled out the D20/D30 Table of Dungeon Funk, right?