Monday, November 12, 2012

Shared Inexperience

I have several post ideas I'd like to get to this week as time and enthusiasm allow. I may be able to squeeze in the former but I am still struggling a bit to squeeze out the latter.


This past Saturday I ran another installment of our Ars Magica campaign, 'Something Rotten In Denmark'. Rather than recapping it, I would like to address and (hopefully) discuss on odd moment we had.

But first...

One of the elements of medieval fantasy fiction and gaming taughted as a major component of its popularity, is that it draws on our shared past. Reiterating something I've brought up a few times before, while we may have different visions of the future, we all, pretty much, share the same view of what the past was like.

While there is no denying there is some truth to the statement, I feel less and less like it's a factor in medieval fantasy RPGs. For one thing, how many of us are actually setting our games in the historic past of the real world? Furthermore, it would seem our shared pop culture knowledge of what a dragon or a magic spell or a knight is means a lot more than any actual understanding of the middle ages.

Now, what if that shared knowledge of what is to be found in a medieval fantasy setting isn't so shared? What do I mean? Case in point...

After a battle with some trolls seeking a crown of some kind, the PC and NPC Magi of the Covenant of The Silver Stag (or The Silver Elk Lodge) look at the cryptic last words of their recently departed leader...

"They will pass the ring...
Go for the crown.
Speak to the stone.
Our niece knows the way."

It took my players a long while to figure out what any of this meant. There were tons of clues to outright evidence but, as I may have mentioned before, investigating and solving mysteries and puzzles is not their forte'. I tried to make it as easy as possible so they would get it and feel encouraged to expand their abilities in this regard. Marcus can be pretty good at it from time to time but it's really hit or miss it seems. Anyway...

The 'ring' turned out to be (not the kind you wear but rather...) a circle of standing stones about 200 feet beyond the perimeter of the covenant house. The standing stones are each inscribed with a rune and must be read one after the other, out loud as if talking to the stone, in a clockwise fashion each morning at sunrise. They later find out you can actually read them anytime but the enchantment only lasts until the Sun rises the next day no matter when you 'started' it. This enchantment provides protection against the trolls during the night.

OK, problem: No one at the covenant except the old leader (who is dead) knows how to read these runes.

"But wait!", you exclaim. "The niece knows how right?"

Excellent observation dear reader. One that it took the players a bit to figure out since the PC who was there when the leader died, Dave's Bjornaer Magus, Adalfrid, could not remember exactly what Oshemming the Stout (now Oshemming the Deceased) had said exactly. Actually Dave couldn't remember. No one remembered and no one took notes. And they wonder why they get baffled by easy mysteries. I sometimes wonder why I bother. *Sigh*

Anyway, who's niece? Oshemming? No, it's confirmed that he had no remaining family. He said 'Our'. The covenant? His house?

It was then that an NPC realized that Adalfrid's Danish isn't particularly good. His native language is German. It's not 'Niece', it's 'Nisse', a type of Gnome or Brownie.

And then the breaks hit.

None of my three players were familiar with what a Brownie is. To them, a Gnome is a slim Dwarf or hairy Halfling in D&D or the tinkering artificers of Dragonlace and World of Warcraft.

I tried to explain it as a household spirit that fixes things when the people of the house are asleep. Like Dobie and the House Elves of Harry Potter.

Not one a Harry Potter fan.

'Like Thimbletack in The Spiderwick Chronicles', started bubbling up in my head but I knew that if they didn't know Harry Potter they weren't going to know Spiderwick. I eventually explained what a Brownie was or Nisse was and the PCs asked the other Magi how to find him. They didn't know. They didn't know there was a Nisse in the building. Lady Hildebritte was particularly stunned and flustered as a member of House Merinita (the house specializing in Faerie knowledge and magic). She was thoroughly embarrased.

When it came to figuring out who other than the departed Oshemming would know about the Nisse, the players flumoxed and stumbled again. I said simply, "If none of the Magi know, who would?"

Nothing. Then mentions of the different Magi in the Lodge. Then me reminding them that none of the Magi knew. Then crazy, no basis guesses. Then me feeling like taking up golf might be a better way to enjoy my Saturdays.*

"The Nisse fixes things, finishes chores for hard working people who fall asleep trying to complete them. Who is giving it the honey and bread or bowl of milk or portridge I mentioned? You think the Mages do that?"

"Of course not," Dave says jokingly, "I bet they don't even know how to cook. They have Grogs to cook...for...them...". Light bulb sputters on. The Grogs. point is that the idea of a house spirit is a very old and very common one native to many, many regions. From the Scandinavian Nisse or Tomte to the the slavic Domovoi, the British Brownie and Scottish Urisk to the German Heinzelmännchen and even places as varied as Japan and many nations in Africa, there have been stories of this type of creature.

Not one of three guys, 26-34 years of age, who are into Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Comic Book, etc and who play RPGs, including D&D, knew what a Brownie was.

Yet they all know what the Central Power Battery is and what a Spartan soldier is. Hmmm.

Something to think about as I plan future games.

Barking Alien

*Golf. I despise Golf.


  1. I don't understand how anyone of a western background can not know what a gnome is. Haven't they ever heard that story about the elves who make shoes for the cobbler? What do they think garden gnomes are supposed to be?

  2. Wow....but it's something I've noticed over the years, as video games and modern fiction replace familiarity with mythology and folklore as a common frame of reference. I grew up with a mother who talked about the house tomte as a child and would put out milk and honey (a game for the kids, basically, but it got us interested in folklore as we grew older). Not everyone gets that, I suppose.

    I look forward to the next adventure when the troop has to find a green power battery...heh....

  3. Also, consider my players...

    They are younger than me by roughly 10 to 15 years. I read the Alan Lee/Brian Froud Faeries book and the Gnomes book when they came out (1979 and 1976 respectively). These were new books for me. When was the last time a book like those came out and was popular on the mass market?

    They were after all mass market books and not books only gamers or geeks purchased. At one time many a coffee table had copies of these books on them. I've been to numerous homes over the years of friends, family, clients, etc. and many of them have one or both of those two books and not a gamer or fanstasy fan in the house. But always it is an older crowd. My age or older.

    My players are also from a very different ethnic background to that of the 'average' gamer.

    While the boys and girls over in the demographics department will tell you that the vast majority of RPG gamers are White, the vast majority of my guys are not. My group of three consists of two African-Americans and one young man of mixed heritage, being half Caucasian and half Japanese.

    Sure I know a lot of Russian stories from my Russian heritage but its not unlikely for these fellows to know very different stories. I know for a fact that Dave has much more knowledge about the history, mythology and cultures of East and West Africa than I do.

    By the way guys, thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I really enjoy getting comments and opening up discussions but I do always write posts that seem to do it well.

    We appreciate your patronage.

  4. Interesting wrinkle - I think you're running into a couple of things here:

    Brownies were quite popular in AD&D because I think you could get one as a familiar if you played your cards right and they were right there near the front of the original Monster Manual. So if you had an old-schooler in the crowd that might actually have worked in your favor this time.

    The note about the Elves above - note that in English it is typically "elves" and not gnomes or brownies. A few decades back that's what an elf meant to most people, the Santa's toymakers and other helpful types. It used to frustrate me to no end when trying to describe Tolkien to non-believers : ) Now that we've won though, people hear elf and think tal pointy-eared archer types.

    Also, in general I think there's a lot less interest in Mythology and folklore with kids as there is so much other fantasy stuff out there, whole shelves of it in the "young adult" part of the bookstores, unlike when some of us were starting out and had a much narrower selection. We read the myths because they were cool and available - now there is much cooler stuff to some younger eyes. Why read the originals when you can read Percy Jackson? I have to correct the Apprentices here all the time because most of their knowledge of that type comes from those books, not Bullfinch or Hamilton. Their knowledge of the Norse comes mostly from Avengers/Thor stuff, not the original tales. I have to work on that.

    Finally, don't despair: there are weird little pockets of extreme knowledge in any gaming group, and weird little gaps or blind spots too. This sounds like one of those. Standing stones, their protective nature (which I probably would have first assumed was tied to the stone circle itself, honestly) and the German word for gnome are probably a level up from elves and dwarves although: Brave - though that does probably become more relevant if you have kids. I've used lyrics from songs that I thought were fairly well known that none of my players recognized. I've used the names of NFL players as the names of NPCs and no one got it. Sometimes it's a joke, sometimes it's a hint, but they rarely recognize some of the little things I drop into my games at times. As long as you give them a way to discover the meaning and you keep yourself entertained then it's probably fine.

  5. The part that actually strikes me as strange is the subject of 'weird little pockets of extreme knowledge'.

    I expected that my personal knowledge of faerie folklore, especially the folklore of places other than England and France, would be far in excess of the rest of the group. As a matter of fact, I was pretty much aware that the group would basically have no real knowledge of the subject at all and therefore I would have to introduce it as brand new experiences for them.

    The thing about not knowing what a Brownie was, regardless of what alternative name you might call it, surprised me because I didn't even think of that being 'faerie folklore' so much as a shared or common knowledge thing. As I mentioned, we see it in pop culture books and films like Harry Potter and the Spiderwick Chronicles. We grew up on fairy tales like the Elves and The Shoemaker. They've never heard of any of this?

    Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings are, to me at least, the start of this. You can blame modern young adult novels but in my experience those are the books bringing the old folklore back. Potter, Artemis Fowl, Fablehaven, Tithe...these are books for young adults seeped in faerie folklore, where as much classic fantasy literature that inspired D&D ignores much of this in favor of things we can attack for money and that attack us 'cause they have tattoos stamped on their butts that say 'EVIL'.

    The students in my Sunday class (grades 3-6) know more folklore and mythology than my gaming group of adults. We watched the movie 'Thor' with the older kids last week and we had to let them know that is was based more on the Marvel comic than the myths they knew. Many were a little confused by some of the changes.

    To me this is very encouraging and reassuring that we as a world society won't lose our traditional folk tales. It is also what makes me prefer Ars Magica to D&D.

  6. Actually I was thinking of their not getting the Brownie thing as an odd gap rather than your knowledge being the extreme. Note that you even said they don't know Harry Potter and common fairy tales and that seems fairly unusual - I think it's one of those weird little things, like I said, maybe due to the age and cultural things you noted.

    The literature that inspired D&D included plenty of Norse and Greek mythology but probably less folklore, though as I noted gnomes and brownies and various faerie types are a part of the older editions of the game.

    In the note on your students, I'd say that points to kids not reading comics as much now as much as it does them knowing their mythology : )

    I don't think we're in danger of losing any of this - if anything the internet age makes all of his stuff more accessible rather than more likely to be lost. I just think that now Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and the like are as far as many are likely to go and they are largely secondary sources, not the original tales. A few will be interested enough to pursue it further, and others will get research projects in school so one way or another there is hope.