As I’ve been working on a setting for a new Dungeons and Dragons campaign, I’ve been thinking about alternate ways to inform my players and manage various things like lore, legends, myths, and what a person in the world I’m creating would consider the truth of things. There’s a lot of willing-suspension-of-disbelief that happens for most D&D games, so there isn’t a lot most GMs and players need to make it work, but the particular game I’m running is reliant on very specific knowledge and mythology. I can expect my players to ask questions to help fill out what their characters know and I can work to understand what the average person in this world would know so I can avoid making my players roll for the basics, but I can also use my degree in English literature to create mythology and legends for the world in a way that establishes the basics. Plus, then I get to have fun writing stuff and I LOVE writing stuff.
When it comes to creating these chunks of mythology and legendary tales for the game’s setting, there are a few things I try to keep in mind. First, not every thing can have a full myth written about it. Mythology is so expansive that I would be hard-pressed to identify all of the myths I know and was raised on, and I’ve literally studied that. Everything from ancient Greek and Roman Mythology to Mythic figures in the US like Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, John Henry, and George Washington. Most of those are typically referred to as “Folk Heroes” but they’re all mythic figures.
There’s an important distinction between the two, of course, but they’re close enough that I’m not going to bother with it for right now since all that really matters is that they’re tales meant to explain why the world is the way it is. And yes, George Washington is a mythic figure. He was just some dude the US has turned into a demi-god because we have zero ability to appreciate historical figures in the entirety of their lives so we focus on and expand upon their significant deeds.
Secondly, all you really need for a myth or legend is a basic story. It doesn’t need to be huge and detailed, since most people don’t remember every detail of most myths as it is. For instance, all I remember about Paul Bunyan is that he chopped down trees because logging was equated with industrial advance and apparently had a blue cow or bull that maybe was involved in forming the Grand Canyon? Also, he was super tall and is frequently depicted in stereotypical lumberjack gear. And while I remember many stories about Zeus in detail, I also remember that, at some point, he turned into a bull and impregnated a woman. That was kinda his whole deal. I think that story is start of the whole minotaur legend, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m wrong. All that’s really important from this bit of mythology is that it reminds me that turning into various animals to get laid was just as much a part of Zeus’s whole deal as lightning was.
Thirdly, the goal of myths, legends, and historic tales is to impart information onto the audience. What does the tale teach the listener? Well, most of Paul Bunyan’s stuff is about manifest destiny, colonial expansion, and the power of industry (which is more of a cautionary tale these days), so any tales should feature those themes. Zeus’ stories are all about the strength, folly, capriciousness, and Humanity of the gods. He is a flawed but immensely powerful being, so there are many lessons that can be drawn from his bad example, including that sometimes even the worst people can do something just and useful from time to time.
All of which means that when I produce these documents for my players, they’re a smattering of rhymes, short stories, and what amount to informational flyers. After all, most of the people in the world grew up there. They’ve spent their whole lives gathering most basic information, so I have to write a whole bunch of “do not touch this fire” level warnings for the stuff that is unique to the world if my players are to understand the world their characters inhabit.
Which is also useful for me. That’s the nice thing about formal reference documents like this. In addition to being enjoyable to make and beneficial to my players, They’re also incredibly useful for me!