Thursday, September 3, 2009

Where is Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut?

I love mythology.  I am not sure if this love is a result of playing Dungeons & Dragons at a young age or if I began playing Dungeons & Dragons at a young age because I love mythology.  In the end I don’t think it matters though since these two interests fed off of one another.

This is not the cover of Dragon Magazine #83.  It is cool though. Dungeons & Dragons definitely lead me into mythologies I would not have experienced otherwise.  One notable example is Slavic mythology.   I remember reading The Dancing Hut adventure in Dragon Magazine #83 and loving it.  I ended up going to the local library (this is before the Internet) and finding related myths like stories of Koschei the Deathless and Vasilissa the Beautiful.

Slavic mythology is something I highly doubt I would have sought out at age twelve by myself! 

Of course, this isn’t the only bit of real world mythology I was inspired to seek out after first encountering it in Dungeons & Dragons.  Deities & Demigods inspired me to seek out Greek, Norse, Egyptian, and Arthurian myth.  Reading about how the Gauntlets of Ogre Power, a Belt of Storm Giant Strength, and a Hammer of Thunderbolts combined into a super combo caused me to learn mythic Thor was somewhat different than comic book Thor.

The fact that the Dungeons & Dragons source material wasn’t afraid to dump myths from disparate sources together definitely influenced my early game worlds.  If I wanted my characters to compete in the Olympics, then by Zeus they could go to “Aegis” and compete.  If I wanted them to search for the Holy Grail, then they were off to “Odeland” and the court of King Artorius.  I wasn’t worried as much about consistency as I was about creating a mythic melting pot where Apollo, Loki, and Set could coexist side by side if the story required it.

This is something I think Dungeons & Dragons 4e has lost.

To be fair, this concept was pretty much dead in Dungeons & Dragons 3e as well.  In an attempt to create a more self-consistent world, Dungeons & Dragons has been moving from an“anything goes” fantasy setting towards a more “myth neutral” outlook.  Rather than directly incorporating Earth mythology, Wizards of the Coasts is building its own mythology.

In many ways this makes sense.  This gives them a great deal of control over their pantheon and cosmology, which they can then tailor for maximum usefulness in a game.  It also allows them to avoid debates like whether or not Hercules should be Chaotic Evil or if he could defeat Thor in a smackdown.

Heck, if I was a game designer at Wizards of the Coast I might even go he same route.

On the other hand, real world myths are probably more meaningful to the casual gamer.  Having an avatar of The Raven Queen show up may mean little to the player who just reads the parts of the Player’s Handbook that they need know in order to play.  The same player may be awed by an avatar of Hades simply because of name recognition.

Thankfully, this is a relatively easy problem to fix yourself.  Inserting real world mythology back into your game is not hard.  The easiest way is to simply insert the myth with little or no explanation.  While your game world may lose some internal consistency, it may be worth it for the additional flavor. 

Of course, if you feel the need to explain the mix of mythologies, there are plenty of ways to do it.  Perhaps there are portals between the real world and your game world, much like the old-school Forgotten Realms setting had.  Real world gods may be interloper gods who followed their worshipers from the old world to the new.

Another option is to have the Earth mythologies as competing factions. These factions may even have gone through a war for dominance, leaving a “super-pantheon” which is a mish-mash of different Earth pantheons behind.  Both the Knights of the Dinner Table and the Order of the Stick comics have used this concept to great effect.

All this talk of real world myth has made me realize how much I miss it.  I may just have to dig up my copy of Dragon Magazine #83 to convert The Dancing Hut adventure to Dungeons & Dragons 4e. 

It has been too long since my players have had an encounter with their “little grandmother”.


I can't delete this said...

Books of magic (Gaiman) had an excellent cameo by Baba Yaga... She was just as I imagined..

Medraut said...

I agree. Baba Yaga also makes some excellent appearances in Hellboy and Fables.

satyre said...

The myths are there, just cunningly hidden by virtue of filing the names off; if you renamed The Raven Queen Morrigan or Zehir, say Set then you'd have something like it.

I agree though, incorporating stuff from myth is very cool indeed - I think one of the best versions of Baba Yaga was done IIRC by CJ Cherryh who describes her iron teeth in almost obsessive detail.

Medraut said...

@satyre - "The myths are there, just cunningly hidden by virtue of filing the names off"

That is certainly true. In fact, while it is probably not evident from this post, I think the new D&D pantheon is pretty well designed. I am especially a fan of the Raven Queen because she hearkens back to Morrigan (one of my favorite death gods).

I suppose I am just an aging fan who is in the unenviable position of appreciating the new while still missing the old.

Dennis N. Santana said...

Mythology is one of my main inspirations for my Spirits of Eden campaign setting, though I dislike "dumping" mythology. I'd rather see it interpreted in ways that do directly link to the original myth but do not just run it par the course, but instead give it a twist.

Medraut said...

@Wyatt - " I'd rather see it interpreted in ways that do directly link to the original myth but do not just run it par the course, but instead give it a twist."

I love when a twist is put on classic myths. This is one reason why I love Stephen Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle and King Raven trilogy. These series retell the stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood specifically, but shift them away from their traditional settings.

On a vaguely related note, I do think D&D 4e does a much better job of handling the fey than previous editions.