I’m really digging Thomas Burnett Swann. So far I’ve read the first two and a half novellas/novelettes collected in The Dolphin and the Deep. If you’re looking for a writer to read to help step up your game if you’re into mythical earth historical settings, Swann is your guy. Right now, I’ll focus on the title story in this collection, because not only was it excellent, it’s the sort of piece that you can easily take stuff from to bring to your table.
Swann writes I refer to as Mythical Realism; it’s kind of like Magical Realism, but the Magical aspect is the mythological element. While the stories take place more or less on the earth we know, in this version of earth, all of the myths are true. Herodotus wrote without exaggeration, Ovid’s Metamorphosis is a history, and while mythic creatures aren’t like demi-humans in post-genre D&D making up 10%-30% of the populations of urban centers, one might have the rare fortune of catching an acrobat act that makes use of a centaur. The kind of story you end up with is something in between Frank G Slaughter’s ‘He-Man Historical Adventures of Manly Men in Ancient History’ and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass.
The title story “The Dolphin and the Deep” can best be described as a retelling of the Little Mermaid from the perspective of the Prince, who in this version is an Etruscan noble. The hero, a Triton, a pair of Scandanavian lads, an Etruscan sailor and a dolphin set out for adventure, escaping slavers, hunting a Phoenix, fighting Harpies, evading elephants, and eluding Pygmies while on a quest to seek out Circe. They learn about love and the importance of friendship, and why didn’t Don Bluth make this into a movie?
When the hero finally finds Circe, Circe offers him her love if he will forsake his friends. The hero refuses, and Circe reveals that if he had, she would have cursed him just as she had done all the other men who’d come before him. Instead, she turns the dolphin into a woman and gives the Triton boy human legs, so they can all live happily ever after as a big loving family. It was the cutest story I’ve read in ages.
Now, I said that this brings stuff to the gaming table. Well, for one thing, it was a perfectly set-up example of a party-related quest adventure. The party is gathered after the adventure hook, sequential encounters of increasing danger must be overcome leading up to the final trial and the payoff. But more importantly, I think, is the use of meta-knowledge: while the characters haven’t seen the mythical things that they’re encountering, they certainly know about them, either from hearsay, songs or bestiaries. The reaction to when they see the Phoenix is one of familiar wonder: Oh, hey, I’ve heard of this thing! Look how awesome it is that we’ve found it. That’s the same sort of feeling that your players have when you throw things against them that they may have heard of but haven’t encountered. That outside player knowledge is NOT a bad thing. Some DMs will fret if players are familiar with certain exotic monsters and their abilities and worry that somehow this outside player knowledge will somehow ruin the encounter. The opposite is true. Outside player knowledge of monsters is similar to these adventurers’ knowledge of the Phoenix, the Harpies or the Pygmies: even though they haven’t experienced these things first-hand, they are well aware of them. Just like in Swann’s stories, D&D takes place in a world where all the myths may be true. Your character may not have seen this or that monster before, but there’s a decent chance they may have heard of it. And knowing about it doesn’t make the wonder of seeing it any less. In fact, it may increase it!
Players will feel rewarded by either having their expectations met or even subverted. In a recent AD&D game, the party was pitted against a Cockatrice that had been plaguing an encampment of elves. We’re all pretty familiar with Cockatrices from mythology, so we had our expectations: we were going to get our shit ruined! Once we fought it, though, we felt that the Cockatrice wasn’t much more than an angry chicken. “Feared Cockatrice? This is what plagued you? Ha!” We felt awesome! Did our outside knowledge ‘ruin’ the encounter? On the contrary, I think it made it better.
Going back to the story, The Dolphin and the Deep is all about expectations and subversion or affirmation of those expectations. Outside knowledge is not the be-all end-all, because sometimes it is twisted, half-remembered or flat-out wrong. Even Circe herself asks if she was what the hero was expecting. Everyone has their “idea” of what the goal of an adventure is and what the trials along the way will be. So it’s better to try to play with those “ideas” and expectations than try to shut out the notion of expectations at all, because THAT is how you create a rewarding adventure experience. Next time you game, throw in a few strange beasties that your players have heard of, maybe talk about a lot, but never actually fought. They’ll appreciate it, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by just how much.