For Want of a Story: Rumpelstiltskin

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 13 November 2009

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.]

I think you found a story.

Thus, the campaign was not lost ;-)

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