story ideas

For Want of a Story: Rumpelstiltskin

For my current campaign, I used the story of Rumpelstiltskin as a story hook.

Brief Synopsis

For those who are not familiar with the story, it is one of the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and can also be found in a number of other countries with the name of the main character changed. In the story, a miller wants to secure the marriage of his daughter to the king so he brags to the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. Very interested in such a gift, the king calls for her and tells her that if she cannot spin straw to gold for three nights straight, he will execute her. Obviously, the girl is quite upset by this turn of events and begins to cry. A creature hears her cries and agrees to spin the straw to gold for her in return for payment. For the first two nights, this works well, but on the third night the girl has nothing to give for payment. The creature asks her for her first-born child and she agrees.

The king is so impressed he agrees to marry the girl. Some time later, soon after the birth of the first child, the creature appears, asking for his payment. She again cries and pleas with him, offering him her newly found wealth. After a time, the creature relents and tells her that he will allow her to keep her child if she can guess his name in three days.

Knowing she does not have much time, the queen tries everything she can to find out the name. Just before the final meeting, she is able to find out his name and fulfill the challenge.

Incorporating the Tale

I'm not sure why, but I've always enjoyed this tale. It might have something to do with picturing the scene where the queen reveals the creature's name and his subsequent melt-down. Besides my enjoyment of the tale, in many ways, it is perfect for 4e. There are at least two ways of solving the problem, finding out the creature's name or just finding the creature and killing it. The process of finding the creature's name or the creature itself is a great excuse for exploring a local town and its surrounding area. In addition, a number of skills can be used for finding out any information and the skill challenge mechanic can be employed to help frame the game.

For my game, I made a few important changes. I introduced the creature, in the form of a goblin, before the characters even met the female character, Lady Margaret. On their way in between towns, they came upon an overturned cart and a farmer desperately trying to gather his chickens. There was a comic moment where it seemed like one of the chickens was leading other chickens in creating chaos but that is a story for another time. The farmer did tell the group that the reason his cart overturned is because a goblin had ran out from the woods in front of his cart, scaring his oxen. The goblin was repeating a rhyme.

I must not say my first name
for that is the object of my game.
Then that child, I will make him mine
And bring him home to Clementime.

This introduction captures the essence of the story and my players recognized it pretty much right away. Which is great because they then knew what sort of trouble might be upsetting poor Lady Margaret.

One of the biggest changes I made, and probably most important, is I changed the creature's name. My players asked the female character, Lady Margaret, right away if she tried "Rumpelstiltskin." She replied, "Oh, so you've heard the story too." I picked a pretty silly name, A Goblin, in part because it allowed me to let slip the name pretty early, before they even met Lady Margaret. During their encounter with the spriggans, my players asked the one they kept alive if he had seen the goblin, and more importantly, if they knew his name. He replied with something along the lines of "He said he was just a goblin." It was a great who's on first moment. But the name could be anything. When I told my brother my plans, he recommended the character from Superman, Mr. Mxyzptlk.

Another great part of this story is that it might seem quite strange to a modern ear that someone would trade their child, even an unborn one, for their life. In my case, I made it even a bit more absurd. Margaret had been upset because she and her now husband, Alric, were very much in love but Alric's father wanted a "more suitable" bride for his son, preferably another member of nobility. Her reason was quite simple. Since she had already heard the story, she thought she had the answer. When it turned out she did not, she was crestfallen.

Finally, I tried to answer the question why the goblin would want a baby. This is where the Clementime in the rhyme comes into play. It turns out that Clementime is really C. C. Clementime, President of Enterprised Unlimited. The spriggans had one of her cards in their treasure.

The back of the card stated that the card should be tapped three times. Doing so turns the card into a catalog of items available from the company. One of the catalog pages has a listing for children with the detail that the company is currently out of stock on that item. [The card itself is based on a card Matt Cutts found in an old book he bought at a books sale.]

For Want of a Story: Thor

Thor is the red-haired and bearded god of thunder of Norse mythology. He is the son of Odin and the giantess Jörð. Thor has two sons, Magni and Modi, with his mistress, the giantess Járnsaxa and a daughter, Thrud, with his wife, Sif. The family lives in Bilskirnir, the greatest of all buildings and containing 540 rooms. It is located in Asgard, the capital city of the Norse gods. Thor provides many interesting story lines since so many of his stories feature trickery and cunning in addition to pure physical prowess.

Ways to Incorporate Thor

Close companions can be used by enemies.
Loki was captured by Geirrod and, in exchange for his freedom, promised to bring the giant's enemy Thor to him. Thor is saved by the giantess Grid, who tells him of the plan and gives him the magic items that help him defeat Geirrod and all the other frost giants he could find.
Failure can be success in disguise.
Útgarða-Loki, a giant king, outwits Thor at one point. The king challenges Thor and his companions to several contests and they lose every one. In the first, Thor's swift servant Þjálfi runs a race against one of the king's men. Then Loki is challenged to an eating contest against the king's servant Logi. Then Thor is challenged to lift the paw of a cat, to a drinking contest and to wrestle an old woman. It turns out that none of these tasks were what they seemed. The runner represented Thought, Logi represented Wild-Fire, the cat was an illusion of the Midgard Serpent, the horn was connected to the ocean and the old woman was Old Age. Thor left the contest humiliated but it turns out that in attempting the contest at all and getting as far as he did, he had done deeds worthy of his position.
The mind can be a most dangerous weapon
At one point, Thrymr, King of the Giants, steals Thor's hammer and won't give it back unless the goddess Freyja marries him. Of course, Freyja refuses but they decided, against Thor's initial objections, to send Thor in her place, dressed in her bridal gown. He is able to play a woman well enough to convince Thrymr to have the hammer brought to his "wife."
Recurring enemies are the most fun.
Thor is in a life-long struggle to defeat the Midgard Serpent. Sometimes, he calls out the serpent and other times it appears in places, and ways, he least expects it.
A few details of his appearance make him recognizable
Thor is often represented by his uniquely shaped hammer. The weapon is so symbolic of him that it became a very popular ornament during the Viking Age and is a well-known symbol of Germanic paganism.

How might you use parts of the mythology of Thor in your campaign?

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