WorldbuildingWednesday - Myths and Legends

in OldWorldBuilding8 months ago

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Welcome to today's #WorldbuildingWednesday post! For those of you new to this series, I'm @oblivioncubed. In this series of posts, I break down what Worldbuilding means to me, how I build a setting, why I choose to build what I do, and hopefully provide you some inspiration to use in your Worldbuilding.

My world - Trothguard - is a setting I've created as a catch-all location for any tabletop RPG games I run, so everything I build is filtered through a lens of 'how will this improve the game for myself and my players?'.

Today we're looking at Myths & Legends, and how these can improve verisimilitude[1] and add some fun flavor to your world!
[1] The appearance of being real/true.


I think we've hit one of my favorite aspects of Worldbuilding with this topic. I absolutely adore creating myths and legends in my world.

Myths and Legends for me are a perfect way to pair fiction with the histories we've created for our world (or a specific place/people). They allow us to take what we know as creators and spin it into something fun and memorable by adding a dash of the fantastic to the mix. In my mind, a good myth or legend is comprised of three core elements that must be balanced - Truth, Uncertainty, and Flair. Truth grounds the myth or legend, making it believable. Uncertainty fuels it, making it a mystery and driving the imagination of those who hear it. Flair makes it worthy of the telling.

Truth

Myths and legends are rarely ever completely fictional - most have at least some grain of truth to them - though none are completely factual. Take the mythical 'Lost City of Atlantis' for example; there are enough grains of truth to this legend that we suspect it probably referenced some real place, but it's ultimate fate and location? That's lost to the sands of time, and we may never know more about this location that has spawned legends for hundreds of years. Another great example is the Bermuda Triangle, which has a plethora of myths associated with it. Despite the many stories told about this region, it's extremely likely that unexplained disappearances in this region can be accounted for simply by the normal weather in that area.

In both cases, while there are likely perfectly reasonable explanations for them, it's the myths and legends that we love to tell each other. But this touches on another part of myth and legend. These stories persist because there is some degree of unknown to them. We can't be one-hundred-percent sure that Atlantis did or didn't exist. We can't know for certain that every disappearance tied to the Bermuda Triangle was entirely explainable.

This uncertainty is core to myth. It's a breeding ground for legends. It's also our next topic today.

Uncertainty

At the core of any good myth or legend is a healthy dose of uncertainty, wrapped around enough of a grain of truth that it seems plausible. In fiction, this gives us quite a bit of freedom, since we're really only bound by the internal consistency we've established.

So, in my setting for example - the Kingdom of Mach'Lithe magically closed its borders nearly two thousand years before the events of the campaign. Even at the time it happened, few people outside of the Kingdom knew what actually happened, and in modern-day, even that uncertain knowledge is long forgotten. The only thing that remains is myth and legend. Some of the greatest magics of the past era were developed and refined in Mach'Lithe. The entire navy of airships were created and maintained there. The common-folk of Trothguard now believe that the Kingdom was cursed by the gods for creating new magics, developing airships, and delving into heretical knowledge (though none can specifically say what knowledge is heretical).

This also gives rise to myths about what happens when you cross the border into Mach'Lithe. As the writer and creator, I know exactly what happens, but in-fiction the people have many opinions. Some think you just are disintegrated. Others believe you're sent to a different world. Some believe you cross and get trapped. This uncertainty sparks the imagination and keeps some few people interested in the mystery - and in finding the truth.

Flair

Every good myth or legend has a larger-than-life aspect. Achilles was said to be a nigh-unbeatable warrior until his heel was pierced and he was finally defeated. The Chimera was said to be a fire breathing hybrid that terrorized the ancient region of Lycia. The Bible is full of fantastic legends (as are most ancient religions).

All of these have flair. They have something that sets them apart and stirs our imaginations - which is exactly what we want when we're creating a world.

We want our audience to be drawn in, as in any good tale. We want them to catch their breath during the battles and trials and cheer on the hero.

Alternatively in the case of a monster mythos, we want our audience appalled by the evil and frightened of its return, or perhaps sympathetic to its misunderstood nature.

Flair should entail some sort of emotional buy-in by the audience, making a story they remember and retell. A story that is referenced and talked about in daily life. The sort of emotional effect that would convince other storytellers to steal from it, and reuse its themes and tales in their own stories. That is what gives it staying power and ensures it is remembered through the ages.

Putting It Together

With these three elements balanced, our myths and legends add to our worlds, giving them a mystery to fuel the imagination of players or readers.

In my tabletop games, one thing I love to do when given the option is to make legends and myths around elements of their backstories.

The Tiefling sorceress who spent much of her life alone may be the third generation of people cursed with devilish features due to an event her ancestors had orchestrated. As the story unfolds we drop hints of this in-world, of how a powerful sorceress destroyed and corrupted a city with the help of a devil's pact.

Which is actually exactly what I did in one of my games. @arcticgypsy played the Tiefling in this example, and I hinted at this backstory first via a dream-like vision. Each player received one - though some saw the past, some saw a possible future, and some saw both. As play continued, I'd tie this more directly to the world's myths and legends by having each character stumble across NPCs and books/scrolls that would talk about the events they'd seen.

By building this up in this way, my hope was that it would buy player investment and drive them to look into the world's history and legends, as well as their own character's family history.

How many myths and legends you create will likely be informed by your purpose for building a world. You may need fewer or more than I have. When creating your own myths/legends, try to consider:

  • Why is this myth/legend important?
  • Does it relate directly to a character?
  • Does it build a picture of the culture or location?
  • Does it act as a MacGuffin to drive the plot?
  • Does it make your world feel more alive - like there are others beyond the main characters who are also heroes doing great/terrible deeds?

If you're building your world for a tabletop game, story, or other product, you'll want to have a reason to surface the myths and legends you've created.

For example, I usually want my players to get the sense that they're not the only ones in this world affecting change. So, I run one-on-one one-shot games through discord with individuals. These sessions are rules-lite and once complete, I strip it down and inject the character and their actions into my world and have that come up in conversation when appropriate.

This is exactly how Azazel Jones 'The Devil of Avensol Isle' came to be. I ran a game with a friend, and he unexpectedly convinced some kobolds to follow him and in return, he'd help get their home back. Once we finished the game, I took the character (with his permission) and added him as a legendary figure who'd created a group of Kobold mercenaries (called the Chromatic Crew because of their different scale colourings) on one of the continent's most dangerous islands. They protect merchants and are unique enough that people talk about them, and the players eventually hear about this figure. If they want, they can even go see what all the fuss is about and meet Azazel - maybe even gain a powerful ally if they play their cards right.

I hope that by showing you how I've created some myths and legends simply by using the history I'd already created, the backstories of characters, and the events of one-off games, you have found some useful ideas on how to expand your own worlds.

If you're curious about the visions each of my players saw, check my page tomorrow! I'll post a supplemental blog with each of the four visions and the accompanying artwork that had partly inspired them!


This concludes my mini-series of World Creation Story, History, and Myths & Legends. Next #WorldbuildingWednesday we could look at either: Mythical Beasts & Monsters, or, Gods & Lesser Deities. If you have a favorite option vote in the comments!

If there's something else you'd like to ask me about, please do so! I will make every effort to answer it next Wednesday.

For previous #WorldbuildingWednesday post you can read them here:
0: Introduction to WorldbuildingWednesday
1: Starting the World
2: Kingdoms, Factions, and Notable People
3: Creation Facts and Creation Myths
4: Shaping History

Thank you for reading today's #WorldbuildingWednesday post! I hope this has provided you with some inspiration! Happy Worldbuilding!

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BDvoter Team

Thank you so much!

The grain of truth is what I love about history and legends.

I fully agree. It makes the legends so much more fun when they are based off of something true to the setting.

Even things that happened in the past several years can be like myths.

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