As promised, here are some tidbits from one of Baring-Gould’s books (Curious myths of the Middle Ages) that provide some interesting inspiration for FRPGs.
1. Leonard & the lovelyish snake lady. (from the chapter: The mountain of Venus)
“In the year 1520, there lived at Basle, in Switzerland, a tailor’s son, named Leonard. He entered a cave which penetrated far into the bowels of the earth, holding a consecrated taper in his hand. He came to an enchanted land, where was a beautiful woman wearing a golden crown, but from her waist downwards she was a serpent. She gave him gold and silver, and entreated him to kiss her three times. He complied twice, but the writhing of her tail so horrified him, that he fled without giving her the third kiss. Afterwards he prowled about the mountains, seeking the entrance to the cave, filled with a craving for the society of the lady, but he never could find it again.”
The lady in this myth sounds a bit like the Greek monster Echidna, or perhaps Lamia. (Apart from not eating Leonard, as Lamia or Echidna would. I’m surprised Baring-Gould did not comment on this. There are so many snake-people in myth and legend, though, that it would probably take another whole book to explore the topic.) A repulsive but potentially helpful monster like this seems like a good roleplaying encounter. I’m not especially fond of roleplaying ‘romantic’ encounters but you could also modify the situation so that the monster wants the the PCs to fix her up with some other NPC, or even another monster. Yes it is goofy but it is a change of pace from hacking and slashing.
2. The Sangreal (from the chapter: The Sangreal)
According to some of the older sources, these are the powers of the Holy Grail:
- It can be seen only by the baptized and is only fully visible to those untainted by sin.
- Oracles appear in writing on the surface of its bowl.
- It provides food, drink, & youth to any who use it.
- Those who see it can’t be harmed that day, and can’t be killed (but might still be wounded) for 8 days afterward.
Clearly you don’t want this falling into the PCs’ hands, though it is one of the archetypal quest items. Instead consider how this item might make a pilgrimage site. Your paladins or knights will certainly want to try to get a quick look before going off to war or undertaking some dangerous mission. Or perhaps the guardians of the Grail will give the party a quick, protective peep at the Grail before sending them on a very dangerous journey, which naturally takes at least 8 days to complete, and then the party has come back and face whatever terrors the Grail protected them on the way. Being woundable but unkillable might best be modeled with a form of regeneration. And obviously the PCs can still be captured, robbed, etc. even if they can’t be killed for the eight days. I think I’d give the PCs a peep at the Grail before sending them through a hell mouth into Hell. Once the Grail wears off, the stakes get a lot higher…
3. Bishop Hatto (from the chapter of the same name)
One myth I’d never heard of before is described and interpreted at length in the chapter “Bishop Hatto.” The general pattern — as this is really a whole genre of legends — is that an evil ruler is pursued and eaten by rats and mice, or other vermin like lizards, toads, insects, etc. The ruler in some cases takes extraordinary measures to avoid the vermin — climbing a tree, hiding in a locked chest, or sailing to an island off shore — but in any case the vermin always catch their prey and leave nothing but a skeleton. (Perhaps this legend inspired the “Creeping doom” spell in D&D. ) Bishop Hatto and his analogues usually deny charity to the poor, and are punished by the divinely sent vermin. Imagine now a mission revolving around some selfish ruler (not irredeemably evil, just someone who made some bad decisions and possibly has been an ally of the party in the past) who finds himself besieged by vermin. Kill as many vermin as you want, more keep coming. There is clearly a curse and the solution must be some arduous quest to make things right. Some grim humor could be injected into the situation if the vermin generally ignore everyone but the ruler and his family, and the party has to make a few trips back to his increasingly vermin-chewed and crumbling fortress. By the end of the mission, the ruler might be sitting atop a bare metal pole while the vermin slowly pile themselves around the unclimbable base…they will form high enough a pyramid eventually.