Friday, April 13, 2012

L is for Layers of Legend

This is the 5th entry in my Building a Better Hero sub-thread of my A to Z with Character.

When creating a fantastic world, centered on a fantastic hero, or heroes, you will likely also find yourself creating layers of legend within your legendary tale. I believe it is human nature to mythologize our history and to draw references to that mythology when crafting our own behavior, or attempting to emphasize significance or summarize a remarkable person place or thing. The same goes for our fantastic fiction. I can’t think of a single fantasy, or space fantasy story that doesn’t include some aspect of legend within the story.
Legends found within stories help deepen the world, or plant hooks for adventure. Cultural origin myths help define the character of a particular society, their values and social practices. Tales of monsters or ancient ruins warn away the cautious or point the way to adventure. 

Often, the protagonist of a fantasy story is associated with a legendary figure from his or her own fictional culture. Paul Atreides from Dune is the manifestation of the prophesied Kwisatz Haderach, Rand al’Thor from the Wheel of Time is the Dragon Reborn, in the Elenium, the child Flute is actually the Goddess, Aphrael. In these fictional examples, these characters are legend made real. The real world also has examples of such spectacular comparisons from the divine origin stories of the Pharaohs and the Japanese Emperors, to more everyday comparisons like, Natalie Portman is the new Audrey Hepburn, or [insert politician’s name here] is the new Abraham Lincoln or Hitler, depending on the comparers point of view. 

If a GM wants to tap into the "hero as manifestation of legend" theme, he/she could work directly with their players to build those comparisons from the time of character creation. A lucky GM might be able to convince his or her players to write or outline a legend in tandem with their character's backstory. Even a sentence like "Bob the skulk got into his sneaky business after reading tales of Jak the Shadow as a child" can potentially provoke an interplay in which the character's arc becomes an intricate interweaving of the player fleshing out his character while the GM fleshes out the legend. Of course, such an approach would require close communication between the GM and the player.

Perhaps even more fun are the legends that arise directly from the action within a story. As the protagonists grow as characters, and their deeds become known, they are likely to spread across the land. As things tend to do when spread by word of mouth, the stories will change and grow, giving birth to legends of the still-present heroes. They must live within their own ever changing legend. Of course, some of the details are likely to get distorted, which can have all sorts of implications for the story.

Here’s an example of a legend in progress from my own game: Once, my players were helping a prince retake his manor house. During the assault, one of the PCs decided to sneak around back in an effort to cause a distraction and hopefully draw some of the guards out the back door. His distraction consisted of casting a spell that raised the phantom sound of women screaming horribly in distress (her character was invisible) When no guards checked the back door to rescue the phantom damsels, he gave up and began pounding on the locked portal while shouting the group’s secret code word, “bunk-bed”. Well, when the story got out, rumors of a fiend called the Bunk-bed Banshee began to spread across the land. Supposedly a malevolent spirit that signals impending doom, the Banshee makes her presence known with horrible wailing and repeated cries of “Bunk-bed! Bunk-bed!” Thus, a legend was born.

Did someone say, wailing?

A GM can leverage this last type of legend to any number of ends. He/she can have the heroes’ celebrity grow, changing their very relationship with the world around them. They may be dogged by petitioners pleading for help, stalked or confronted or defamed by rivals. They may also be able to leverage their own growing influence to achieve things they couldn’t have done before, marshalling whole armies to their cause, or even drawing the direct attention of the Gods.

I plan to take a deeper look at the effects of a character’s deeds on his or her reputation a week from now in “R for Reputation”.

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