All the stories that were collected by the Brothers Grimm were folktales of the time and region, and most of them were very simple and short. In Tales About Snakes, we find a trio of stories that tell of magical snakes that are helpful and giving to those who show kindness. One version of these tales has translated the creature as a “paddock,” which is an archaic word for frog or toad. The type of creature isn’t actually important—what is important is that it isn’t a desirable creature for a child to play with. These very short stories are excellent examples of the changing nature of folk tales and how details can change over time. They also display a great tool that can be used in your games to pass on information to the players about the creatures they are going to come across.
Folklore is a collection of stories, customs, items, and traditions, often passed down through word of mouth. One of the more common forms are folktales, and during much of history, storytelling was the main source of entertainment and education. Even today we have the creation and passing of folklore. Back in times and places where literacy was rare, people learned by listening to the stories they were told, and, in turn, passed those stories on to others. You would find these stories not just in homes or during religious services, but also in taverns or drinking halls. Unlike stories we find in books or movies, folklore changes with each telling.
Much like the game “Telephone,” once a tale has passed through many people telling it, it does not share all the same aspects of the original story. The information, so to speak, has been corrupted or mutated into something that may resemble its origins but stands on its own as a unique creation. This is something that is unavoidable and organic, and it happens constantly and consistently in our daily lives as we tell and retell life experiences we either experienced personally or by others. Stories like how your grandparents met, that time you saved someone’s life, or when your friend saw a zombie in the library (true story!!).
How can you use the changing nature of folk tales in your games? All too often we use dice rolls for our knowledge but don’t consider where this knowledge came from. Was it a book? Did you hear a story about it from your father or mentor? Was it a mad rambling from that drunk in the tavern? There are two methods we can use to decide if information is from folklore. The first is to have NPCs tell the tales about important or common creatures that may be encountered. The second is to use the knowledge check to decide if you should tell a quick tale or if you should spout facts.
Taking the trio of stories about snakes or paddocks, we can have the party hear about a magical creature that supposedly enjoys hiding valuable treasure and giving it to people who are kind to it. The first story tells the party that they are harmless and that they like milk. The second tells the party to be patient and let the animal bring them all the treasure before picking it up, as well as the fact that they like to lair inside walls. The third could just tell them that they can speak or are willing to be helpful. In their search for information you could have them hear one, two, or even all three of the stories to inform them about magical snakes. Maybe one was told by a town lorekeeper or by an innkeeper, but no matter who tells them you should have a pedigree of the story told along with it. “I heard from my sister that her daughter played with one of those snakes,” or “My granny had a friend who saw one of them,” are typical folktale pedigrees—in other words who heard it from whom. The pedigree is just as important because it can hint at the validity or accuracy of the story, which will never be fully complete or whole.
As your party encounters the creatures, their knowledge should still be incomplete. They won’t know, for example, that the snake is fond of goat’s milk only, or that it likes only the walls of certain ruins. Incomplete knowledge is fine, as folktales are supposed to only hint at the truth in this case. It will be up to the players to go and investigate what facts they can glean and discover all those unknowns that were either left out or lost in the constant retell of the stories they heard.
But what about creatures for which you just rolled combat initiative? When a player rolls a knowledge check and either hits the target DC or just falls short of it, you can use something that resembles folktales. If they are far off, their information can be misleading, but the closer they are to the needed result, the more accurate the information. You can even use a pedigree to hint at the accuracy. Spot on could be a tale where the character’s father fought the creature. Far off could be an old tale from the village told by a grandmother to scare children into coming indoors before sunset.
This method takes some practice in storytelling, but it isn’t hard to master. You simply need to know something about the creature that you could pass along in a tale, and then you can make up a short story about that attribute. Let’s say, for example, that your party is facing an uncommon type of dryad that can turn into a treant. For a spot-on result, you could tell a tale about the dryad turning into a tree for protection, while a far-off result could have the dryad turn all the trees around her into elder treants. Don’t try to be long-winded, and make the tale as brief as possible. I would recommend a couple of sentences with only a minute or two being taken by the telling.
However you use folklore like stories, it will add a great, organic flavor to your games. With it, you can quickly give more details to bring your game and setting to life. You will be able to take all those little details in monster backgrounds and setting descriptions you might not be able to share easily in other ways and give them to your players in a short amount of time. By using short folklore like tales, your players will experience more of your world without having to spend significant time exploring it.
So what is your favorite story? Let me know which fairy tale you enjoy the most, and I might use it in a future article.