Yesterday’s post at the RPG Athenaeum delved into the topic of creating Dungeons & Dragons adventures or campaigns around in-game prophecies. Of course, prophecies are not the only way a dungeon master (DM) can use campaign lore to draw heroes into adventure; a similar technique involves using the use of legends, on a local or global scope, as adventure hooks.
Although they often don’t carry as much dramatic weight as prophecies, legends can create a colorful background for a D&D adventure, with the added advantage that, unlike prophecies, player actions can’t oppose or invalidate legends, unless the DM so chooses. In addition, the use of legends establishes a level of expectation in the players’ minds about what is to come. Even a false legend can heighten drama and suspense in an adventure if it involves something truly dreadful.
This posting will explore two approaches to creating legends for a D&D game, labeled “story first” and “result first” for ease of reference. A list of ways through which legends from either approach can lead to adventure will follow explanations and examples of the approaches.
The “Story First” Approach
This approach to legend design is best expressed through the following formula:
Legend = Accurate Events + Time
Thus, the DM begins with a true story, then allows for portions of it to be misrepresented, either accidentally or intentionally, until the tale becomes legendary with the passage of time.
For example, consider a young couple that settles in a borderland cottage just after their wedding. Four days after the ceremony, the wife returns to the nearest town alone, reporting that her new husband was slain by wild creatures in the forest. A guard patrol was sent to the area to investigate; it discovered that the husband’s body was nearly picked clean, but it was clear from examining the skull that a great claw had gouged out that portion of the face containing both eyes. The wife was so distraught by the experience that she devoted her life to a church and planned to live out her days in a convent. The cottage was abandoned. Two years later, a hunter came to town, stating that he had seen a humanoid figure stumbling through the wood in the vicinity of the cottage, with its hands covering its eyes. When the locals added the hunter’s story to the wife’s story, it was apparent to everyone that the husband’s spirit was haunting the area, looking for his lost eyes so he may journey on to the Afterlife. When the local priest suggested that any pair of eyes would help the spirit on its way, people began to give the cottage a wide berth, afraid that the ghost may trap them and take their eyes. The whole town was closed up two hours before sundown on the anniversary of the husband’s death, as some folk suggested that the ghost may have more power on that night and might be able to reach the town.
By the time the D&D campaign begins – 20 years after the husband’s death – the husband’s ghost is as real as any non-player character in the game, if one measures a thing’s “reality” based upon its impact on the behavior of common folk. Whether or not a ghost really exists is the DM’s decision, but the legend makes the campaign world more realistic to the players just by hearing the story at the local inn. Some heroes may even be inspired to visit the wife at the convent, even though she is now advanced in age, to glean some insight into the legend.
This example shows how the bare, accurate facts of a natural event – a man killed by beasts in the wood – can take on the elements of a legend through circumstance and time. Other natural (as opposed to supernatural) tales that make effective story first legends include:
- Evil figures who were driven off, but may not be truly gone;
- Lost items or people, whose whereabouts are still unknown; or
- Tragic events, such as plague, suicide, sacrifices, murders, or pacts with infernal forces.
The “Result First” Approach
Unlike the story first approach, which begins with historical truth that deteriorates as time moves toward the present, the result first approach begins with measurable, physical evidence of a supernatural event, the apparent origins of which deteriorate as one looks backward in time.
Consider a patch of ground, situated in the middle of a fertile, well-watered valley, with a strange, ancient dolmen at its center. No vegetation will grow within a bowshot of the dolmen in any direction. No one knows what tribe of ancients constructed the dolmen, why it was built, or what transpired in or upon it. What people do know is that the very land about the structure has died, and local shepherds won’t even let their flocks graze near it. A few generations ago, the grandparents of the nearest village elder were involved in rooting out a primordial cult that performed sacrificial rites at the dolmen, but the land was dead long before those heinous crimes.
In this case, the strength of the legend isn’t knowledge of what happened; it’s the fear of what may have happened that grips people, and what will attract heroes to the site.
Unusual or supernatural conditions that could spawn a result first legend include:
- Curious landforms, such as odd rock formations or dried-up river beds;
- Unexplained interruptions in nature’s cycle, like areas that don’t thaw after winter;
- Apparently random magical effects;
- Natural disasters, like floods, earthquakes and wildfires; or
- Monster sightings.
Involving the Heroes
Often, simply presenting a legend during a D&D game is inducement enough for the players to investigate it. On those occasions when the players don’t jump at that opportunity, there are numerous ways a DM can use a legend to hook the heroes into an adventure, such as:
- An “unfinished” legend may require action on the part of mortals to right a wrong or appease a restless ghost. For example, to appease a ghost haunting an area, the heroes may need to do anything from performing a proper burial of the ghost’s earthly form to bringing the ghost’s murderer to justice.
- A villain may use the fear of a local legend to deter people from investigating her activities. Imagine a warlock who is searching for lost tomb, in a reputedly haunted forest. By taking pains to make the forest seem even “more haunted” to the locals, she can search without interruption.
- A third party might tamper with a legendary site, triggering or releasing magical effects or monsters. What if that dolmen is actually preventing a blight upon the earth from spreading, and an unknowing party of adventurers accidentally breaks the seal upon the structure? Someone must find a way to contain the blight, or all plant and animal life in the valley will die within a month. Other actions, like construction, excavation, disturbing graves or the theft of items can also trigger a response from this sort of site.
- Someone wants to prove or debunk a legend, and they hire the heroes as escorts. Consider a “haunted” area. If the heroes’ patron thinks the ghost is there, they want the heroes for protection against the ghost; if they think the haunting is a hoax, they want protection from natural predators in the location. Either way, the heroes end up at the legendary site.
Have you ever employed a legend in your D&D game as a catalyst for adventure? If so, please consider sharing how it went with readers in the comment box below.