Mythology in D&D

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 13 October 2009

A recent episode of Fear the Boot explores the, at least perceived, lack of mythology in fantasy role playing games. The main thrust of the argument appears to be that since there is a known pantheon of gods and that clerics of those gods have known and provable powers, there is no superstition or mythology in the game. It is based on the opinion that the reason we have gods, myths and the like is that things happen in the course of our lives that we have a hard time explaining and that we create explanations for these events. Over time, these explanations become the basis of the myths and legends that form our cultural knowledge. In many fantasy RPGs however, there is this lack of mystery about how and why things happen. Or more succinctly, "they lack mythology because everything is real." In the end, however, it's less about what is and isn't detailed in the rule books and more about the fundamental tensions of playing a cooperative, story-based game on top of a number of competitive encounters and challenges with characters whose knowledge does not mirror the player's own.

While it's true that many of the things that we, as players, consider to be myth are "true" in many fantasy rpgs, this is not the reason why myths and superstitions are so hard to create in fantasy role playing games. Instead, one of the hardest problems to overcome is that people don't like to do poorly in a game, particularly among friends.

This leads many players, particularly power gamers, to read as many of the rule books as they can. Shelly Mazzanoble illustrates this tendency in her book, Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress. She states that in preparation for her first game, she read Dungeons & Dragons for Dummies, the Player's Handbook and the Monster Manual. Most people don't enjoy failure and they will try whatever tricks will give them an edge even if they interfere with the atmosphere the dungeon master might be trying to create. It becomes socially more difficult to create new monsters who don't act or behave in ways the players expect.

In addition, players who have been around the block a few times have gained quite a bit of their own knowledge regarding the game and its tropes. While this isn't an issue in itself, it leads to a situation in which players assume certain things mean x because that is how the books mean them. Since they are not the dungeon master, they forget the fundamental rule that all of the books are meant to provide guidance and a bare framework for the dungeon master's game. This makes it a lot harder for DMs to create a sense of myth and legend using known monsters.

Finally, most dungeon masters, at heart, want to be nice guys. While they might stack the encounter against the player characters, they are still supposed to be the impartial judge of the rules and, well, they are usually friends with the other players. This often leads to a situation where dungeon masters don't want to overly harm the players without warning. But this warning dispels the magic of the story and makes it much harder to create the atmosphere required to have superstitions and myths. Mythology, as mentioned in the podcast, requires a sense of mystery and the easiest way to create this sense is to add terrain elements and powers that are uncommon knowledge and may lead to a feeling of "unfairness" among players.

* While it may seem difficult or wrong to not give your players every bit of knowledge that you have about the world, hold some info back if they don't make the appropriate skill roll. The campaign guide for Eberron has some nice examples of this.
* Players shouldn't assume that the stuff available from the books is how things work in a particular world. It's not true until the dungeon master says it and, even then, it still might not be true.
* Richer, more detailed environments have more chances to create the sense of mystery. This includes terrain features, non-player characters, and even the marking of time. Does the whole town pray at a certain time of day? Why do they celebrate their mid-autumn festival with large paper lanterns?


Slighty different, FtB ep 164 had one on lack of mythology for characters in a rpg.

I go back and forth on how "predicatble" a fantasy world should be. On side its nice to be suprrised, but there is also a benefit of recognizing something and knowing what to expect and how to act, like a little reward pellet. I think the ending of the adventure shouldn't be predictable, but making the world recognizable gives more things for the player to attach to.

It can be frustrating to constantly expect one thing and have it turn out to be different, so I think where that happens should be used for maximum surprise/delight/effect.

When it comes to the last point, not everything should be a mystery. For instance, in last week's adventure the fall festival seemed a bit of a mystery, "what is it?", "what do people do there?," "how long does it last?" etc. Without much detail to go on, I tried to participate in fleshing out the ceremony by assuming that the Raven Queen would play a role, and that there would be some kind of pageantry (that would allow the evil NPC to escape notice).

But I got the feeling that this festival was already designed and had a role to play out. For my particular style of play, I find that bit of mystery annoying since it seemed like it would be important information that we couldn't find out, yet not central enough to the main quest to spend time investigating.

For my style of play, the level of mystery would be something like "in this town they hang palm fronds from the lamp posts to celebrate Pelor, but in The Big City, they usually use purple streamers, why does this town do it differently?" But the answer would either have to simple to find out, or important enough to the quest to track down o/w we get sidetracked. Or more likely one character stays behind to do that while the others go talk to the Duke.

..sorry for the digression, its not meant as a criticism but as way of organizing my thoughts and describing my style of play to make it easier.

hmmm...didn't require me to login. -from mike

I did update the settings to optionally allow users to add their contact info if desired.

now all it needs is email notify is someone else replies to the same post.

It's not perfect but I added the ability to watch comments.

I understand about the frustration regarding the festival. I was just trying to add some detail to the world without necessarily tying to any one particular god. The world is a little closer to Oktoberfest/Harvest Moon than the day of the dead. I am planning on doing something more related to the raven queen, and I would love to hear any suggestions you might have. And I did pick up on your thoughts about what types of things might be possible during the festival and am changing parts in response, but I didn't necessarily feel like taking the time to do that at the table. So far I think the only person you've talked to about it in any depth is the inn keeper. I hope this helps.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

Resources for FAQs



Syndicate content