Stranger Than Fiction: The Lambton Worm

The Lambton Worm

The Lambton Worm

Stranger Than Fiction is an ongoing series looking at history, mythology, and folk tales.  These stories offer a wealth of inspiration for your games.  Just about any theme you can think of can be found by looking back at human history: battles, intrigue, treachery, and heroism.  It may seem strange that we group these sources together.  In the end, though, they’re all just stories, just like the ones we’re trying to create in our games, and there’s a reason these stories have weathered the ages.

I’ve always liked old stories, which is likely what spawned the idea for this series.  A lot of the books I read as a kid were the tales of different cultures.  Among my favorites was a picture book of the Lambton Worm.  This story is rife with ideas, especially for a medieval fantasy game.

The Story

Like any old folk tale, there are a lot of details that change with each retelling.  I highly recommend that you read at least one of the versions linked below before continuing.  If you’re not in the mood for reading, there’s even an audio version.  It’s not a long story, so choose one, and we’ll wait here…

Game Content

Okay, now that you’re back, what elements of that story can be used for a game?  Some of these details will fit best in a medieval fantasy.  However, many can be taken in the abstract to be used in any game.

The Dragon

Everybody loves a good dragon story, but this story demonstrates an effective way to use one.  Especially in the later editions of D&D, dragons have become just a powerful magical animal.  In old western stories, however, dragons are disgusting, evil things.  This Worm is slimy, stinky, and vicious.

Even aside from killing the warriors who come after it, the Worm causes real problems.  It spoils water sources, kills livestock, requires tribute, and menaces the surrounding communities.  If you use a dragon in a game, make sure that it has a real effect upon its environment.  These are really large creatures that consume lots of resources, and are horribly difficult to get rid of.

In addition, this particular dragon has demonstrated its immunity to a normal attack, and it requires a different strategy.  Beings who can only be killed under certain circumstances pop up pretty frequently in myths: Dracula, Achilles, the Lernaean Hydra, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, etc.  This adds an element to the game’s story that will be familiar, while providing a greater sense of danger and mystery.

The Hero

The thing that makes John Lambton such an interesting character is his growth.  The story isn’t that long, but the character goes from a rebellious youth to a brave, self-sacrificing man.  He starts out skipping church to go fishing, and ends as a victorious warrior.  Adding character growth to your games will not only make it more fun, but will also make the resulting story that much more interesting.

In addition, the Worm is John’s fault.  He has caused all the problems his community has endured in his years of absence.  Having the results of the characters’ actions come back to haunt them can be an effective way to make the world seem alive, and to show that bad decisions have repercussions.  This should tie back to a particular action, and there should be foreshadowing that it would have dire consequences; after all, the characters shouldn’t be constantly afraid that every footfall will spawn a dragon.

The Witch/Wise-Woman

This side character represents a link to the ancient lore needed by the youthful protagonist.  She’s a witch in some versions, which adds a bit of danger to the otherwise pious warrior.  She provides the secret of how to kill the beast, and also a warning about how to avoid its curse.

Including such a guide in your story can help to make the world seem like an older place, with people in it who have gained wisdom through experience.  She can add a sense of danger by demonstrating exactly how much they don’t know, or if there is doubt as to whether she can be trusted. She can even be a whole side quest, with the characters seeking her aid, or seeking a gift to trade for it.

Lord Lambton

John’s father represents his connection to the community.  His futile efforts to mollify the Worm give a face to the problems of the area’s inhabitants.  This can be a good technique to get the players invested in a story, especially if you can find a suitable NPC from a character’s background.

The Curse

When curses show up in games, they’re usually something like “-1 to hit” or the ever popular “character switches gender”.  Most of them seem insignificant, impersonal, and pale in comparison to “you and your descendants will die violent deaths out to the ninth generation.”  Though popular in stories, targeting the descendants isn’t quite as popular in RPGs, possibly because those unfortunate inheritors are unlikely to appear in game-play to suffer the consequences.  It’s an interesting possibility, though, since it makes the curse seem much more harsh as long as the player is interested in the character.

In this story the curse is also a driver of the action.  Once John finds out about it, he has to make plans to circumvent it.  A curse could be the impetus for quests in multiple ways: seeking out the details, preventing it from taking effect, or trying to counter it afterward.  It could provide an interesting complication for an encounter to not just figure out how to vanquish the enemy, but how to do so without triggering its curse.  The same could be done with an item or a location that has a reputation for evil befalling those who come near.

The Legend

Finally, among the coolest aspects of this story are the ripples it has left in its wake.  You could go today to see the River Wear, Worm Well, or the two hills that vie to be that from the legend.  There are songs, engravings, derivative stories, and movies commemorating the events.  The lesson here is that when these momentous adventures occur, they are burned into the surrounding culture.  If a party vanquishes the mighty beast, the grateful townsfolk should remember it.  They may name things after the heroes, or even the monster they once feared.  The party could return to the area to find that songs are sung of their deeds, though the details may have changed in the telling.

3 Responses to Stranger Than Fiction: The Lambton Worm

  1. Or the slightly-less-popular “you and your descendants will switch genders out to the ninth generation.” Wait… no that’s not right.

  2. Dude, I love the idea of a curse like this in games. Particularly games that allow for time travel.

    Thanks for introducing me to John Lambton and his worm.

    (Wait, that doesn’t sound right…)

  3. Yeah, I think the curse and how the legends affected the locals were the neatest things I saw from an RPG perspective from this story.