Much of the forest is foreboding since you stepped foot into its boundaries. The trees are twisted with roots exposed to look like gnarled toes. The forest has been too dense to make camp for several hours, and you are becoming weary of your travels. However, you can see a cottage through the branches just ahead with light illuminating from within. Thin, wispy trails of smoke slowly lift from the chimney. Normally you would gladly welcome this sight, but you know the reputation of what lies within this part of the woods as you cautiously sneak up to get a better view. Through the crack of a window, you peer inside to see three human-sized rats, each holding large wooden spoons dance around a steaming cauldron. The smell hits your nostrils, and the sensation of vomiting is overwhelming. The distinct stench of burning flesh rises from the boiling liquid of the cauldron. They have cooked someone this night.
There is no question that Brothers Grimm’s Fairytales contains elements of darkness. Although they almost always have happy endings, their lead up to that point often brings the reader into a deeper part where foreboding and uneasiness fills their minds. There is quite a few that have déjà vu sensations as the structure is the same as many others. For example, it is often the youngest of a series of brothers who often is the one who succeeds where his other brothers failed. They usually personify animals, giving many of them the ability to either speak or have logical thoughts. This is true in Town Musicians of Bremen involving a donkey, dog, cat and rooster who team up to thwart a band of robbers.
Fantasy Flight Games re-released an updated version of their take on Grimm’s Fairytales around 2008 or 09, I believe, using a D6 system. The premise, however, was more lighthearted because the players took control over children who explored a more structured world set to Grimm. The world is smaller, built on a checkerboard area, with boundaries on the West Coast with ocean and mountains on the other edges. While the premise definitely has dark elements, the use of children as player characters lightens the atmosphere up a bit. Oddly enough, sometimes a simpler system can release the tension a bit of a game as well due to the relation with “simple games for younger audiences.” That really is highly subjective, but really if we take the rules of Milton Bradley’s “Candyland,” strip the colorful game away and apply the rules to a sinister themed board game, we still come up with a very simplistic feel that associates with children more.
In any event, Grimm’s Fairytales can really add more flavor to a setting looking to spice things up. I often look for inspiration from sources while running adventures to keep things feeling fresh. Although their stories are reflected often in classic fantasy RPG settings such as Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms, the true form of each story is ripe for the taking to make a familiar, yet challenging experience.
Take Rumpelstiltskin for example. A miller lies to the king that the miller’s daughter has the ability to spin straw into gold in order to look important. The greedy king locks her away demanding she produce huge amounts. A small imp-like creature appears and is able to create plenty of gold strands numerous times, asking for valuables in exchange for the gold. This leads up to the girl marrying the king by force and giving up her firstborn as payment. Many already know she had to guess his name to save her child. However, the general concept of Rumpelstiltskin can be made into a very interesting creature. Highly intelligent, his entire species has the knack for kidnapping small children. We could ignore the silliness of guessing their names to win children back because there really is no merit to the challenge in that. Instead, the creature could be associated with a hell of some kind with sinister plans for the kidnapped children. The fact he can create gold by magic shows how powerful the creature is, which would hold up as a solid foe. Place their species in underground barrows where crude tunnels connect large cavities used for horrible rituals, and you have the start of an adventure.
Let’s take another example, The Seven Ravens. A couple had 7 sons and one sickly girl who the father wanted to baptize before she passed away. The brothers went to fetch water, but took too long and tried the father’s patience. He cursed out for the boys to be turned into ravens, which they were, but the daughter grew well because of it. When she was old enough, she searched for her lost brothers, traveling to the end of the world where the sun devoured children, then to the moon who was malicious who also tried to eat her. She met the stars, personified to be kind and able to speak to her. Giving her a chicken drumstick, they told her it would open the Glass Mountain where her brothers would be found. This particular story may feel a bit too extreme for most GM’s taste, but the originality and imaginative depiction can really spark a campaign. The Seven Ravens grows a bit darker as the drumstick mysteriously vanishes, and she has the compulsion to chop off one of her fingers and use it to open the Glass Mountain. Fortunately a dwarf inside greets her, reuniting the brothers with her with a wish from one of the ravens, and they head home just fine. An odd ending, but sometimes we just need snippets of stories to get the creative juices flowing.
Sometimes it isn’t so much the plot as it is the character within. The Town Musicians of Bremen has a wonderful NPC line up of the donkey, dog, cat, and rooster. They travel on each other’s backs in a sort of cheerleader pyramid, scaring off bandits. They clearly have intelligence in the story, and they can be reoccurring characters the party meets either in unlikely areas such as dungeons or always out traveling the country roads. They could have more personality by their distinct harmony they produce when the four sing together as they approach.
Some players and GMs may feel Brothers Grimm stories are cliché. In reality, a lot of clichés came from Brothers Grimm. They lay a foundation of classic folklore that really brings out a different kind of fantasy from what we take from how Dungeons & Dragons laid out for us. With over 200 stories told, a more accurate representation could be created for a campaign setting. World building could be created in such a way that all of the characters would comprise into one geographical continent. It need not feel like a Shrek movie with Mother Goose characters running about. Bringing the richness of the harsh realities the Grimm boys established in their work easily sets the somber mood in much of the world. Each story could be its own arc for the campaign, or perhaps one of the longer stories that has more of a significant opposition, be it animal, monster or human, could have a scheme that drives the story along on a grander scale. Greed and corruption runs strongly in many of the stories, much of which could be fathomed into a central focal point in a campaign. As quite a number of their stories are only a page or two, several could be referenced with relative ease and quickness to get the ball rolling. Even purely as inspiration, Brothers Grimm offer great folklore ideas that may surprise you from the lack of sugar coating much of their work contains.
Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with. Thanks for stopping by.