Tuesday, April 20, 2010

DnD: Monomyth as a DM Tool - Part 3: Supernatural Aid

Once the hero - by hook or by crook, consciously or unconsciously - begins to undertake his quest in earnest, they usually do not have to wait very long before a guide or magical helper of some sort is introduced into the story. The arrival of supernatural aid in fantasy literature is such a common occurrence that fans of the genre are generally more surprised when it does not occur. Consequently, the event is often taken for granted and treated as little more than a plot device - a means by which the hero obtains possession of some trinket or knowledge they would (or could) not gain on their own.

Campbell, however, proposes that there exists a deeper significance in role played by this mystical, mysterious mentor. "For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass. What such a figure represents is the benign, protecting power of destiny. The fantasy is a reassurance - a promise that the peace of Paradise, which was known first within the mother womb, is not to be lost; that is supports the present and stands in the future as well as in the past (is omega as well as alpha); that though omnipotence may seem to be endangered by the threshold passages and life awakenings, protective power is always and ever present within or just behind the unfamiliar features of the world. One has only to know and trust, and the ageless guardians will appear."

Pardon me while I drag out my soap box, but there were some terms in that description that should really jump out to anyone with a Bible-based Christian upbringing: alpha and omega, omnipotence, always and ever present, trust, the mention of an antagonistic dragon and the persistence/restoration of Paradise. It sounds like Campbell is equating his supernatural helper with God. Whether this is a direct manifestation or an agent acting on behalf of the divine is up for speculation, though some hints are likely to be found in the source material.

Examples of Supernatural Aid

In Tolkien's Ring's Trilogy, Gandalf metamorphoses before Frodo's eyes from a wizened old conjurer to a mighty wizard, mentor, and protector. He identifies the One Ring the Bilbo left to Frodo (which, I'll admit, is not exactly the same as giving it to him), guides and protects the Fellowship from a demon in the darkness and death of Moria ("I am a servant of the Secret Fire . . ."; flame ~> Holy Spirit -> God), returns from the dead (!), arrives just in time to save Rohan at Helm's Deep, bolsters and leads the forces of Gondor until Aragorn can arrive with even more supernatural reinforcements, and flies into Mordor on Gwaihir to rescue Frodo and Sam.

In Star Wars Episode 4, Obi-Won Kenobi arrives just in time to save Luke from the Sand Raiders, gives him his first lightsaber (soooo jealous) and introduces him to The Force. Later, he sacrifices himself against the embodiment of a fallen nature in the form of Darth Vader. Even after dying, Obi-Won provides reassurance and guidance to Luke.

Despite the confusion and many varied accounts of the legend of King Arthur, the half-human, half-demon Merlin figures prominently in almost all of them. The famous wizard engineers the famous king's birth through magic and intrigue, provides advice, and leads him (at varying points and in varying ways) into possession of the mighty Excalibur.

Held by a rash promise to present the head of Medusa as a wedding gift, Perseus is instructed by Athena to find the Hesperides and obtain the magical items he will need to overcome the Gorgon. The goddess herself, who cursed Medusa in the first place, provides the hero with a polished shield which plays an important part in the tale, popularized first by the campy 80's movie and again by the 2010 remake.

Pretty much any occurrence of a hero being given or directed to find 'The [blank] of [blank]' is a pretty good indicator that supernatural aid is being given.

Supernatural Aid as a DM Tool

Providing unexpected help in the form of a mysterious NPC is pretty much right up the DM's alley. It's hard to envision a campaign, or even an adventure, in which the party does not get some form of advice, guidance, direction, help, equipment, missing spell component, etc. from a stranger with some uncanny insight and/or understanding of the situation. Video RPG's, in particular, rely on these figures to give the players momentum and keep the story moving forward. The trick, then, is not so much knowing how to use Supernatural Aid, but doing so in an engaging, meaningful way.

Can you remember the first time you saw Star Wars, or read Fellowship? Can you remember how you felt when Obi-Won powered down his lightsaber or Gandalf fell from the bridge of Khazad-Dum? The main characters had developed a strong attachment to these mentor-guides by this point - their comforting presence having given direction and meaning and excitement to an otherwise ordinary and rather dull existence. The protagonists had come to rely on these figures and were expecting them to be present for the duration of the adventure.

Now, stripped of this important relationship, the heroes are made suddenly aware of the dangers of the fantastic world in which they find themselves, and the frailty of (demi-)human existence. If the protagonists had simply been simply been using the mentor-guide as a resource, having no more connection to them than they might some impersonal macguffin found lying on the side of the road, then the loss would have little or no meaning and the journey would remain much less personal. Additionally, the continued presence of a powerful, otherworldly ally puts the protagonists at risk for relying on them too heavily for the duration of their journey. Any personal growth the heroes might experience becomes stunted as they take for granted the achievements made with the assistance of another, and the adventure as a whole is cheapened.

Consider one additional feature of the mentor-guide NPC: A party can pretty much hack-and-slash its way through an adventure without having to speak to any NPC's - often times, just seeing a group of monsters or the entrance to a lair of some sort in more than enough motivation. But, when presented with a situation that cannot be overcome by the (often considerable) power wielded by the heroes, there will be at least one NPC with which they could/should have a social (in-character?) interaction.

Pondering Supernatural Aid
  • Does it make sense to have a mentor-guide for the duration of an adventure? A campaign? Why or why not?

  • What are some ways you can cultivate a meaningful relationship between your PC's and their mentor-guide?

  • Is the loss of a mentor-guide more meaningful when it occurs at the hands of a villain, or when they must be abandoned/sacrificed by the PC's?

  • What if the role of the mentor-guide was split among several NPC's? What if there were conflict or opposing goals among them?

  • Can you think of an example (games, movies, RPG's, etc.) of a mentor-guide turning into an antagonist? How did such a turn affect the overall experience for you as a viewer/player?
Other posts in this series
Part 1 - The Call
Part 2 - Refusing the Call

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