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.
Longtime readers may know that I've covered legends before in the Stranger Than Fiction series. I'm a big fan of stealing details and themes from mythology for my games. The fact that these old stories have stuck around for so long means that something about them resonates with people.
In addition, they get intermingled as a storyteller incorporates an element from one tale into another, perhaps as two cultures come into contact. Older tales can also be "translated" into the local culture as the story spreads, creating a variety of similar stories. This is where the field of Comparative Mythology comes in, whose wikipedia pages I can browse for hours.
Today's topic is more of a pattern of legends than a single one. It must definitely have struck a nerve, judging from just the number of related stories listed on its wikipedia page. I can certainly see the appeal too. In the wake of a great person, good or bad, some just have trouble believing they're gone. Thus the tales of the King in the Mountain.
King in the Mountain
There are a wide variety of legends that use this idea. They tend to go like this:
- Important person X (usually a warrior or a ruler) does great things (or tries and fails)
- Person X dies or disappears
- Someday, X will return to save his country/people/co-religionists
Sometimes there's a prophecy of the great person's return when they "die". Other times somebody stumbles upon their sleeping form. Alternately, there might be a statue or geographical feature (hill, cliff, etc) that is reputed to be the transformed sleeping hero.
Readers can probably think of a bunch of such stories. I can just about guarantee, though, there are some on the linked Wikipedia page that you've never even heard of. You might even find it in an unexpected reference to stories you thought you knew.
In a Game
This trope is just begging to be added to a story. Whenever a hero dies, there's going to be a constituency that want her to return. These people will probably cling to any scrap of hope that their champion will come back to save them from whatever new danger is on the horizon.
Remember that villains too are heroes to some. Even in modern times, you'll find groups lobbying for the safety, pardon, or return to power of deposed brutal dictators. How do the heroic PCs feel when they encounter the King in the Mountain legend of the villain they just risked their lives to vanquish?
Perhaps the PCs are somehow involved in the fulfillment of the legend. Maybe they somehow bring about the return of the hero. They could go to the extent of raising her from the dead. They could also somehow be the fulfillment of the prophecy, as in being a new incarnation of the subject.
Alternately, the prophecy could be brought to pass metaphorically. They do tend to be tricky that way after all. Maybe the hero's long lost son makes his appearance. Maybe the PCs use the hero's famous sword to slay the enemy. Perhaps it's as simple as killing the invading army with a landslide of the cliff in which the lost king resides.
Then again, perhaps you're just using the legend as flavor. The PCs might be confident in their cause, knowing that the prophecy will be fulfilled. At what point do they stop relying on fallen heroes, and take matters into their own hands?
Fabric of Legend
Elements of old myths are useful in games, in part because they're familiar. Your players have probably encountered them several times before. They'll feel realistic, despite the fact that your story is fiction.
You don't want every powerful person to have such a legend, of course. Otherwise, this passes quickly from pattern to cliche. It should be reserved for the ones who embody the hopes of their people, especially if those people feel threatened or oppressed. In those cases, however, you can evoke a powerful mix of prophecy, myth, and the hopes of the masses using a single legend with ancient roots.
Does your game have its own King in the Mountain? Have you made use of other similar myths. Were you completely unaware that William Tell will come back to defend the Swiss? Let us know in the comments!