Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Undead Beginnings III

I don’t think I need to talk long on the subject of mummies. Their origin is quite obvious: various cultures indulge in the preservation of flesh following the death of an individual, and it is due to some abnormal success in this capacity from which springs the mummy. I generally think of the soul as being separate from the preserved body, until such a time as the body is disturbed; then, like an alarm system, the soul returns to the body, bringing with it malevolence and some of the out worldly powers it has attained in the afterlife, in order to take out its vengeance on the invaders to its crypt. While not terribly innovative, it is effective when properly presented in having characters question whether or not the tomb is worth entering.

I grant that the mummy idea from the film goes a long way beyond this, but I’ve never understood why the priests would take the step to create this incredibly powerful and dangerous creature only so that its soul would suffer throughout the centuries. Must be a cultural thing.

Before I go on, I’d like to make a comment about the roleplaying aspect of these origin proposals. For storyteller DMs, the goal is always that somehow the players will be caught up in the mystery…where did this wraith come from, what does it want, what is it trying to tell us, what awful portent does it promise will be fulfilled?

The problem is, unlike the ordinary characters of Lovecraftian novels, most D&D players are not frightened ignorant village folk—they’re familiar with what they’re facing and they’re prepared for it. So there arises a dichotomy between the mystery format and actual D&D roleplaying:

What the DM wants:

Watson: I saw it, Holmes—moving on the master bedroom’s balcony. The apparition was clearly that of the miller’s son, Frank.
Holmes: Yes Watson, I begin to see what’s happening. We must hurry to Goslings-on-the-Marsh and speak at once with Frank’s mother, whose testimony undoubtedly will reveal how we should proceed. It may be that Frank’s brother Peter, who died four years ago, is the key to this circumstance.

What the DM gets:

Sgt. Rock: All right Easy Co—there’s a spectre on the third floor balcony. How many here are armed with +2 swords?
Zack: Just yours and mine, Sarge. Four Eyes is armed with +2 arrows.
Sgt. Rock: Good. We go up the stairs in teams of two. When we break into the room, the cleric sets up a perimeter of protection evil while the thief and the mage bombard the area with holy water and magic missiles. Come on you apes!

Because the books are usually as well understood by the players as by the DM (the “Brian” factor), there is no mystery. The overriding methodology remains: “We know what the problem is and we know how to handle it. Don’t pester us with details.”

That said, I still find the process interesting.

There are three “ghosts” from the Monster Manual: the actual ghost, the spectre and the groaning spirit, or banshee, which some may have noticed is exempt from the clerics turning undead table and is not actually specified as an undead in the original text. The descriptions for all three are fairly lame: they are evil or very evil; the banshee description has the added info that it is an evil female elf.

This has always been a bone of contention for me. In Celtic mythology, both elves and faeries are the souls of the dead—neither are mythical creatures separate from mankind. I don’t mind that there are elves and faeries in D&D…but I do mind that because of a Graeco-Christian bias in western mythology, Celtic forms are not understood at all. When reading the mythology, describing the banshee as an “elf” does not mean an alternative humanoid creature, it means “dead human”…not that I expect a short clarification of the facts to change the prejudices of my gentle reader. Still, you might do a little investigation into pre-Christian mythology, for your own good.

None of the three monsters comes with an origin explanation—spectres only create half-spectres (then what makes a full spectre?) and ghosts are just bad persons. I just don’t think that’s good enough.

From ordinary western culture over the last four centuries it’s generally been believed that ghosts occur as the result of some form of traumatic death: specifically, murder, suicide or heartbreak. I’m happy to use these three forms to explain ghostly origins: the ghost (murder), the spectre (suicide) and the banshee (a heartbroken woman).

One of the benefits allows for a wider range in emotional states for the three creatures. Not all ghosts are “evil”; I grew up on ghost stories about persons who had been murdered who simply asked for their bones to be properly laid to rest—instead the bones laid at the bottom of an ancient woodpile where the murdered body had been buried. A spectre might be considered a subject of pity, allowing for more than the Sgt. Rock episode. The loss of the banshee’s lover makes a pretty good story, and helps explain why a town might be inclined to tolerate the banshee’s existence, rather than seek its doom.

All three then lend themselves to a wider story that violence and destruction. The ghost’s bones found and returned to their place of rest. The soul of the spectre somehow purged of its sin. The ghost of the banshee’s lover somehow reunited with its mournful spirit.

Which is not to say that all three monsters could not have their typical malevolent motivations. Murderers are murdered, also—in prisons or on rural scaffolds. Suicidal souls may do so out of pure hatred for the rest of the world. Women mourning their lovers may have lost those lovers because they were maniacal freaks. I only wish to point out that, by providing a more motivational back-story, the party can be raised out of its automatic assumptions that the thing is EVIL and must be destroyed without exception.

It’s a matter of presentation.


Carl said...

It is all in the presentation. I think this is the heart of the story-teller DM's game. Present your enemies as complex and add hooks for empathy with the players. Also, make sure your players follow your plot at all cost. :-)

What is the "Brian" factor?

Very nice Sgt. Rock reference, Alexis. I was a pretty big fan of his back in the day. No one called him, "Sir," though, if I may be so bold. He worked for a living.

K. Forest said...

"When reading the mythology, describing the banshee as an “elf” does not mean an alternative humanoid creature, it means “dead human”…not that I expect a short clarification of the facts to change the prejudices of my gentle reader. Still, you might do a little investigation into pre-Christian mythology, for your own good."

So you're suggesting that calling the banshee a "dead elf" is a misreading (or at least a sloppy reading) of banshee folklore. After checking out the Wiki articles on "elf" and "banshee" I think that's pretty spot-on.

It's pretty easy to find other examples in the Monster Manuals where Gary et al modified mythic beasties without any particular deference for the source material. I guess it all depends on what the DM considers authoritative -- the Manuals or the mythologies they draw from. If it's the latter, things can get pretty murky. What is an elf essentially? Depending on where you go for answers -- Celtic myth, Norse myth, 19th Century English folklore, etc -- you'll find a different entity.

Anyway, as you've illustrated, we all have license as DMs to interpret this stuff as we see fit. Ultimately the only authority is the guy designing the gameworld.

Alexis said...


Quite right. He did work for a living. I'll be editing out the error.

K. Forest,

Also quite right. I only add the information for the sake of the information. The more you know and all. It's not a misreading, unless you consider that elf has another meaning in D&D.

C'nor said...

Speaking of banshees, the way I understood them was that they the scream of a banshee, was a warning of some terrible danger. Never really learned the origins of them though, or where that came from.