Category Archives: Things D&D Got Right

Ghosts of Christmas Past: Christmas Ghost Stories, Scandinavian Revenants, and the Medieval Dead in England

werwolfThis post comes with apologies for my not having posted anything last week. I was giving a rather fun lecture on Prospero at the Rose Playhouse, Bankside: a fantastic archaeological trust that also manages to be a  working theatre (despite not being allowed to have toilets, and having very strict rules against heating). I gave the talk with a skilled and patient actor friend, Suzanne Marie, and pending permissions I hope to make the whole thing available on Sound Cloud.

With that out of the way, it won’t surprise any of you to know that my thoughts have turned to Christmas. The decorations are up, I’ve started working my way through my gin-themed advent calendar, and the Christmas telly beckons…

Which brings me around to the main point of this post: Ghosts.

I’ve yet to see a culture with no traditions of ghost stories, but the dark nights of Medieval Britain gave birth to an enchanting culture of ghost stories and monstrous tales rivalled only by the great Sagas of the Northern Tradition.

And so, perhaps time has come to look into the Ghosts of Christmas: in the Northern Traditions, in Britain, and in Scotland… Continue reading

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Things That D&D Got Right: The Party Thief

H._R._Millar_-_Rudyard_Kipling_-_Puck_of_Pook's_Hill_3My first ever D&D character was a thief. My brother’s group was playing the Dragonlance setting (in fact, they were playing through the actual modules of Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance Saga) when I started playing with their group (they were in their 20s, I was someone’s annoying kid brother). He was a ginger Kender thief called Arthur, and I went on to play a lot more much beloved thieves (my favourite was the my cowardly thief Villa who backstabbed a dragon to death with his shortsword).

There are a huge number of mythological tricksters, but they weren’t right for this article. Most of them have hugely unfair advantages (e.g. they can change shape, or they’re very often Gods, or the children of Gods). Also, they don’t steal things in the right way. Yes, it’s important that Prometheus stole fire. I’m very grateful for fire, but it isn’t the same as stealing cold, hard cash.

However, I have managed to come up with a couple of thieves from the history of folklore who were exactly that: thieves.

 

The Master Thief

hrdbustPharaoh Rhampsinit is a fictitious Egyptian king from the works of the Greek historian Heroditus. In addition to talking about giant ants who mined gold, Heroditus wrote down the Egyptian tradition of stories featuring the mythical king.

The Master Thief is Continue reading

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Things That D&D Got Right: The Party Cleric

AOdo_bayeux_tapestry_detailh, the party Cleric. In my gaming experience there are two kinds of people who play the party Cleric: the pragmatic player who looks around the table, sighs, and then says “I’ll play the party Cleric”, and players who know the GM likes to fill dungeons with undead.

I’ve already touched on one of the sources of the D&D cleric class in my article on Paladins and Magic Swords. This was Turpin, the Archbishop of Rheims, who Gary Gygax’s first gaming group referenced (possibly) erroneously when they described ‘the priest Turpin who went into battle wielding a mace to avoid shedding blood.’

The ‘using blunt weapons to avoid shedding blood’ issue is one of the big non-myths of D&D: everyone Continue reading

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Things that D&D Got Right: Annoying Spell Book Limits

One of the most aggravating things about playing a magic-using character in 2nd Edition D&D was the spell book limits. Some groups ignored them, giving magic user characters a fantasyland Kindle, with full access to any spell they wanted, while others insisted on page limits, chances of correctly inscribing spells, and that worst of things: the travelling spellbook.

However, the nature of the transmission of magical books, and the condition of medieval book making, means that huge books with aggravating page limits (and having to copy things out themselves) were precisely what historical sorcerers would have had to deal with. Continue reading

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Things that D&D Got Right: Paladins and Magic Swords

RolandRoncesvallesIf you’re playing a warrior class character (or whatever they call them now, I haven’t played since 2nd Edition) the greatest thing is the awesomeness of a magic sword.

The best kinds are the intelligent ones that come with a Swiss Army Knife’s worth of special powers (yes, when I was a teenager I spent some quality time with the Intelligent Weapon creation table in the DMG), but a good second choice is the Holy Avenger, the sword that can only be wielded at full power by a Paladin, the Lawful Good holy warriors of D&D cannon.

The Real Paladins

In this case ‘real’ is a relative term. I wouldn’t usually make this distinction, but there’s a great deal of mythology coming up that glamourises holy war, particularly war in the Middle East, which is something I want to be clear I don’t endorse.

The above disclaimer aside, there were real people behind the Paladins, or at least some of them. The word Paladin might come from the Latin word Palatinus, via the archaic French word Palatine, which was a word for imperial officials in the Roman Empire.

The Mythological Paladins were the twelve companions of Charlemagne’s steward Roland. Rather than doing all the hero-ing himself, Charlemagne delegates a fair share of it to Roland, acting as a medieval Charlie to his armoured, male angels.

While many of the Twelves Peers of Charlemagne, or Paladins, aren’t real (you have a cool Saracen warrior, a Ranger who uses fairy magic, a Danish warrior, and a treacherous Mordred-like turncoat) both Roland and the Archbishop Turpin were almost certainly based on real people. Continue reading

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Things D&D Got Right: Magical Rings

One RingMagical Rings are one of my favourite things about D&D. The idea of having something that won’t ever wear out, but gives you superpowers, is one of the coolest things I could possibly imagine. My only regret was that my group only allowed you to have one ring on each hand. I would have been the Mr. T of magical jewellery.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, one of the greatest Neoplatonic thinkers of the 16th century (who also became a doctor, a feminist, a sceptic, and a lawyer who defended witches while humiliating witch-hunters) talked about rings:

“Rings impress their virtue upon us, inasmuch as they do affect the spirit of him that carries them with gladness or sadness, and render him courteous or terrible, bold or fearful, amiable or hateful; inasmuch as they do fortify us against sicknessm poisons, enemies, evil spirits, and all manner of hurtful things, or, at least will not suffer us to be kept under them.”

And for every wacky D&D power you can find in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, you can find works of magical artistry merging astrological theories with ‘Natural Magic’ and Christian mysticism.

Whether or not magic has ever really existed, people have been making magical rings for thousands of years. In what was Chaldea, a semitic nation nestled in the corner of the Babylonian Empire, archaeologists are still finding rings dedicated to the seven planetary spirits, corresponding with the planets of astrology.

Likewise, the ancient Hebrews made astrological talismans out of parchment and knotted chord, and seem to have worn them as rings – not to mention that runic rings have been found in pre-Christian Nordic burials. Continue reading

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Medieval Folklore that D&D Got Right: Undead Knights and Dungeons Full of Treasure

skeleton_warrior_by_skullsdirectIf you follow this blog, you might have realised that I’m a bit of a geek: not just a folklore and mythology geek, but a geek in general. Knowing this, it probably won’t be a surprise that I spent much of my childhood playing Dungeons and Dragons. Even as an adult, I can still be found playing tabletop from time to time (but not D&D anymore, now I play 1930s-style pulp adventure games, where sexy occult historians get dragged into adventures with breathy femme fatales…)

Dungeons and Dragons was the creation of Gary Gygax, and was originally released as a supplement for a wargaming system called Chainmail. Over the years, and certainly by the time I was playing, a number of fantasy words were released with increasingly different world-building to anything you’d ever seen in real medieval history.

However, hidden at the core of D&D, buried, unspoken, in the rules and mechanics of the system (a system widely mocked for being pernickety and bureaucratic) are a set of tropes that represent a loving recreation of Medieval European folklore.

Just as the Ancient Egyptians worried about how the dead would support themselves in the afterlife, so did the Medieval Europeans. In the Early Middle Ages it was an important part of German Law that the dead were entitled to be buried with up to a third of their wealth so that they could support themselves in the life after death. Continue reading

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