By - December 12, 2008 - 8 Comments

Inspiration from the Emerald Isle

A long time ago I heard something that I enjoy to much to verify, for fear it might not be true. I was told that old Irish folktales had an explanation for tangles that developed in your hair while you sleep. This explanation, obviously, was that hair-elves sneak into your home at night and tie your hair into knots. Even if that was never really believed, it embodies something that I find very fascinating about Irish myth. Everything in Irish lore is saturated with magic. Things we consider such mundane experiences, hair tangles, birth defects and plant formations all have supernatural explanations and the little hands of The Good People are involved in everything. This magic rich land has many stories and ideas you can borrow for your campaign, here are just a few samples:

Fairy Rings: Fairy rings are mushrooms that grow in a naturally circular formation. In Irish Folklore there are many explanations for these rings, all relating to fairy creatures (hence the name). In some stories these rings are simply the gathering places of fairies, where they go to dance. These spots can be hazardous, those who interrupt the festivities might find themselves attacked by the fey. Even if they are welcomed into the party there are still dangers, mortals can be enthralled by the fairy magic, making them subject to the whims of the treacherous creatures or simply unable to leave. In other stories, the rings serve as gates to the magical places where the fairies live. Someone who stumbles into a ring might be whisked away and unable to return home. Additionally some tales say that time in the fey world flows differently, a traveling mortal who is sucked in might spend only one night there but return to find that many years have passed in his own world. Fairy rings make for great adventure hooks. The characters might be searching for a lost person who has wandered into one or may fall victim to a ring themselves, being snatched away to the fairy world could even be the start of their adventures.

Changeling: Changelings, beyond being a recent film related to this concept, are a common figure in mythology. Changelings are babies that are snatched from their cribs by fairies, trolls, witches or other fantastical creatures and another tainted child is left in their place. In reality these stories were probably used to explain all manner of physical and mentally deviations in children. The changeling children being raised by humans have all been described with all manner of traits, particularly hairy, hunched, disfigured, mute, unnaturally intelligent, or gangly. Anything abnormal about a child was explained away by him or her being a changeling baby. From the modern perspective this was tragic but taken at face value these changeling tales have tremendous story potential. An adventurer could be a changeling himself, his supernatural origins could give him great potential for heroics and unnatural deeds but meant that he grew up mistreated and alienated in his home village.

Alternatively, a character could come from the other side of the changeling story, he was the one snatched! Trolls and fairies took children for all manner of reasons, such as a need for slaves or jealous of the beauty of the child. Being raised by one of these mythical creatures is a backstory that occasionally crops up in mythology to great effect. For less long term plot possibilities there is always rescue, either from the stealing fairies or trolls or the rescue of the remaining child from a paranoid community. If the characters have a relationship to any young children they had better watch out, nieces, nephews, even the protagonists’ own children might be taken!

New Beliefs vs. Old: One of the fascinating things of Irish folklore is how Christian priests interact with fairies and trolls. Ancient stories mingle with new beliefs, this balance between religion and myth can mean story potential for your game. Sometimes the two mix well, typically with religion being the dominant force. Baptisms, holy ground and other religions trappings can provide safety from evil magics and malicious sprites. Alternatively you can play the new beliefs replacing the old ones and the conflict that occurs in transition (The movie “Merlin” explores this concept very well).

Have you used any of these stories in your games? Have any ideas to add?

More articles that will spark your imagination:

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Leave a comment (8 comments so far) »

  1. Hammer says:

    I hate to disappoint you, but neither Fairy Rings nor Changelings are specifficly Irish myths.

    The Changeling stories can be found in just about every folk history in Europe. They even exist in the Roman myth, which may be why they spread around Europe so much.

    Fairy Rings seem to be a myth of the British Isles, with it being extremely popular in England. Less so in Scotland and Wales, but it is common.

    Some other myths you might be interested in investigating for inspiration are the stories of the Kelpie (a Celtic water-horse), Tír na nÓg (Irish land of eternal youth), the Ghillie Dhu from Scotland and the Shellycoat (a river monster from Scottish and German folklore).

  2. Nicholas says:

    @Hammer: I knew that actually, the inspiration for the article was reading the rather strange changeling story found in the Roman Satyricon. I choose Ireland because I like the way the stories were told there in particular and hoped you guys would too.

  3. HeirToPendragon says:

    Your idea about the circle of toadstools was suggested by WotC when they previewed the Fey Wild

    http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/4ex/20081208

  4. Steve-o says:

    I love the fey and the whole mythology surrounding them. I think they are truly fascinating. Over the years I have built up a nice library on the subject and my campaigns always have a fey/sidhe/ Tuatha deDannan/ influence and background with them eventually getting involved in the overall plot. The feywild is the only reason why I may get the Manual of the Planes or whatever it is called.

  5. Nicholas says:

    @HeirToPendragon: Yup, I noticed. It’s a folklore classic, just a coincidence we both wrote about it at the same time.

  6. phycoshane says:

    hi i live in ireland and always try to incorporate some irish mythology into my campains.i also include irish language as a language for characters.going on a quest for celtic gods that need help can make great adventure too. i have never actually seen a circle of muserooms.but i have seen circles of grass many times but whats more peculiar is that ever when cut with the grass around them at the same time they sill emerge,growing in a ring taller or somtimes shorter them the grass around them.

  7. Andrew French says:

    I was just looking through some back issues and ran across this. You’ll be happy to know that the knots in hair concept is a real piece of folk lore. They’re called “elf locks”.

  1. [... A long time ago I heard something that I enjoy to much to verify, for fear it might not be true. I was told that old Irish folktales had an ...]

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