Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Girl in the Chair: Gathering chicory

Girl in the Chair is a blog series on research for storytellers. You can find the details about it in the opening post here

This request arrived from American storyteller Erin Johnston. She asked me to research an Italian folktale titled "The Three Chicory Gatherers" in Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales.

The story

Three girls go gathering chicory in a field, and in turn all three encounter a dragon. The dragon threatens them, ordering them to eat a human body part (a hand, and arm, a foot) otherwise he will cut off their head. The two elder sisters die, but the youngest tricks the dragon into thinking she'd eaten the foot. He marries her and gives her the keys to his house. The clever girl gets the dragon drunk, finds out the secret of how to kill him, and how to revive all the people he'd killed. She kills the dragon, saves her sisters, and all three girls marry kings and princes she'd rescued.

Step One: End notes

Italo Calvino was one of those marvelous people who included sources and end notes with their tales. In this case, the note tells us where the Italian text was published, and also that the story is from Calabria, told by Annunziata Palermo. Another thing we find out is that this story belongs to the "Bluebeard type."

Step Two: Type number

Calvino names the folktale type, but doesn't give the type number. How do we find it? With well-know tales (Grimm especially), my first stop is usually Wikipedia. In this case we are lucky, the Aarne-Thompson classification is a part of the Wiki entry. Even luckier, it tells us that Calvino was not quite right: Bluebeard's type number is 312, but "the type is closely related to Aarne–Thompson type 311 in which the heroine rescues herself and her sisters" (which does not happen in Bluebeard). So, we have our type number: ATU 311 - Rescue by the sister. To be sure, we can check it in the Multilingual Folktale Database. (Always double check Wikipedia information!)

Step Three: Original text 

Before we move on with the ATU, let's take a look at Calvino's sources. Writing the title of the book he references into Google, we can see if it is available online in the public domain (we get better results if we put the title in quotation marks, because then Google searches for the exact phrase). Sadly, all I can find is book-selling websites and library references. If you are lucky enough to get a copy through inter-library loan, that's great. You can check which libraries carry it on worldcat.org. If you don't have access to the libraries, you might have to buy the book (sadly, it's not cheap). Sometimes I reach out to friends who do have access to a certain library, and ask them to copy the story for me.
If you manage to get your hands on the original text, you can either read it (if you read Italian), or have it translated by a friend or a professional service.
(Sometimes, if you are lucky, you can find the individual folktale text online by typing in the original title - "le tre raccoglitrici di cicoria" - to Google. With this one, I had no such luck, everyone referenced Calvino, not the original source.)

Step Four: Variants

With the use of the ATU number, we can track down variants of this folktale. That means we can find all the stories that folklorists tagged "ATU 311", and see how they are similar or different. MFTD already gives some texts in English, German, and Portuguese (if you don't speak some languages, use Google Translate. It is flawed, but it is enough to get a general idea of what is going on in the story, since you already know the basic structure). You can find more variants two ways:

Step Four.One: Google Books

At this stage, I always use Google Books instead of plain Google. I type "ATU 311" in quotation marks, and see what comes up. Because the Aarne-Thompson index is internationally used, I usually try more than one search term:
"AT 311" (this is for older publications, before Uther's new edition of the index)
"AaTh 311" (Hungarian folklorists prefer this)
"ATU 311"
And then all of these again without the space, and also sometimes by typing "folktales" after the quotation mark. Sometimes there are other things the letters A and T can refer to, hence the specification.

Step Four.Two: ATU

Example page
ATU refers to the Aarne-Thompson-Uther book The types of international folktales (Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2004). This is your go-to one stop shop for folktales that belong to an internationally recognized type. Most research libraries should have a copy of this, or at least the older Aarne-Thompson edition. If you do research very often, it might be worth it to buy the three volumes, although they are not cheap.
When you look up the type number in the ATU, you find a short summary of the folktale, and a long, detailed bibliography: academic books on the tale type, and books that contain variants of the story, organized by country. At first blink, this one has dozens of variants, from the Faroe Islands all the way to Morocco. Now it's only a matter of library-diving to get the referenced books and read the tales. Heads up, though: Some of them are not in English, and some of them are regional tale type indexes that refer to further books.
Pro tip: Start with the variants from the same country or region (in this case, Italy and Sicily), and circle outwards, to get the closest cultural connections first.

The ATU also references motif numbers, so stay tuned for Step Five.

Step Five: Motifs

Traditional stories, whether or not they fall into a recognized tale type, are built from smaller parts called motifs. There is an internationally recognized system for numbering these as well, known as the Thompson motif index. Say, you are not really interested in Rescue by the Sister (ATU 311) per se, but you want to look into all the folktales that feature a forbidden chamber. The motif number of the Forbidden Chamber, noted in the ATU description of the story, is C611. By going to the Thompson index and looking up this number, you can find references to other stories that feature the same element. The index is online in various versions: I usually use this one, or this one (the latter has a great Search feature, but sadly doesn't search by number). You can also use Google Books once again, and type in "C611" and "folktales."
But what happens if you can't find the number of a certain motif? Well, you can search for it on Storyseeds. Be warned, though, the Thompson index is far from perfect, and sometimes lumps very different stories under the same number.
Motifs in this story might be worth looking into:
C611 - Forbidden chamber
C227 - Tabu: eating human flesh
E712 - Hidden soul

Step Five.One: Regional indexes

Several countries have their own motif indexes that use the same number system as Thompson, but they are not necessarily referenced in the book (sometimes for the simple reason that they were published later). In this case, it might be worth it to look at the Motif-index of Italian novella in prose. Luckily, it is available online on HathiTrust (which is one of the most useful sites for researchers).
If you want to find scholarly articles on a certain motif, you can also use the Google Scholar search option.

Step Five.Two: Storyteller's Sourcebook

The ATU and Thompson generally reference academic publications, but for storytellers it might also be useful to look at some modern adaptations and re-tellings of a story. For that, you can turn Margaret Read MacDonald's wonderful book, The Storyteller's Sourcebook (Gale Group, 2001). This one is also organized by motif numbers, but has a handy list at the end noting the key motifs of the most popular folktale types. For AT 311 it refers you to G561.1 - Girls in ogre's power not to enter forbidden chamber, and lists a few books that feature such a folktale (MacDonald's own Twenty Tellable Tales among them).

Step Six: Cultural context

If you really want to dig into the context of a folktale, you might want to read more stories and folklore from the same area. In this case, we know that we are working with a Calabrian folktale. Since I don't read Italian very well, my first attempt is to locate more Calabrian folktales, by typing "Calabrian folktales" (this time, without quotation marks for broader results) into Google Books. In this case, I came up with one interesting book and also an article. For further information you might want to search academic article databases such as JSTOR and Project Muse.

Step Seven: Details

Boys playing morra
When researching a story, I often go into details about the elements that seem strange to me. In this case, I had to look up what chicory is, and why people might be gathering it. Once again, Wikipedia is a great starting point. When telling a story, I might weave in some information about the culinary uses of chicory, if I think my audience might benefit from it. Since in the story the girls pull up a chicory bush and find the dragon's door underneath, I'm going to assume that they were gathering chicory for the roots.
The story also references a game, morra, which the rescued kings have to play to win the girls' hand in marriage. A quick Google search reveals more information about it.


This tale type has many, many variants around the world. It is one of my favorites since it does not only feature a clever female hero, but she also rescues her less fortunate sisters instead of just letting them die. Her tricks and rescues vary from text to text, so there is a lot the storyteller can pick and choose from.

What do you think? Was this helpful? Do you have lingering questions? Do I need to clarify something? Let me know in the comments!

Saturday, July 27, 2019

StorySpotting: I gave my love a cherry (Harlots)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

One of my favorite period dramas are back for a third season, and off to a strong start.

Where was the story spotted?

Harlots, season 3, episode 2

What happens?

Running away from a hellish insane asylum, Lydia Quigley and her young friend help a whole lot of other women escape in the chaos. As the women walk out of their cells, we see one of them strolling, a little dazed, humming a song to herself:
I gave my love a cherry 
That had no stone 
I gave my love a chicken 
That had no bone 
I told my love a story 
That had no end 
I gave my love a baby 
With no crying.

What's the story?

This song, known as The Riddle Song or I Gave My Love a Cherry, has been known in the English and Scottish folk tradition from the 15th century, and belongs to a story often referred to as Captain Wedderburn's Courtship (Child ballad No. 46). In it, a girl challenges a captain to a game of riddles, agreeing to marry/sleep with him if he answers all of them. The suitor manages to solve all the questions. There are many different versions with many different riddles. To the ones above, the answers are as follows:
A cherry without a stone is a cherry flower
A chicken without a bone is an egg
A baby that doesn't cry is sleeping
A story without end is the story of love

There are many versions and adaptations to the song, and to the story. You can find the Child ballad here,  the Appalachian version here, info on Captain Wedderburn here, and a medieval text here. I would also like to highlight two favorite adaptations of mine:

First and foremost, American storyteller Susanna Holstein has a marvelous re-telling of Captain Wedderburn, one that I fell in love with a decade ago, and she graciously gave me permission to tell it. I have been telling it ever since, and it is one of my all-time favorite stories. It never fails with any audience; kids love guessing the riddles, teens adore the love story, and adults enjoy both. (I heard the story on a radio program, find more info here)

Another favorite of mine is Great Big Sea's song adaptation. You can listen to it on YouTube here.


The way the lady sang the song on Harlots definitely had a menacing tone to it, especially since it ends on "a baby with no crying." The episode's end credits also featured a cover of the same song. I'm curios where this is going to lead.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

StorySpotting: Moon Landing Special

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

Today's post is a little bit different from the usual, but it had too great a topic to miss.

Where was the story spotted?

Today is the 50th anniversary of a human being first setting foot on the Moon.

What happens?

A human being walks on the moon.
Also, a pop culture connection: I am a big fan of the Changeling: The Dreaming role-playing game, where July 20th, 1969 marks the Resurgence, the moment when so many people experienced wonder at the same time that the gates of the Dreaming opened again, and magic and belief returned to our world.

What's the story?

Since the whole Moon Landing is the culmination of millennia of dreams and stories, I decided to celebrate today by spotting some of my favorite tales about people (or, occasionally, animals) visiting the Moon.

The Prince of the Dolomites: A prince, raised by his widow mother, dreams about going to the Moon from an early age. One night he sees a princess in the moonlight and falls in love with her; after that, he becomes Prince Moonstruck, and admires the Moon every night, wishing to travel there to meet the princess. Luckily, he befriends a group of Dwarfs who help him ascend to the Moon - but they warn him that if he stays too long, he will go blind. Prince and princess fall in love, but when the prince starts to lose his sight, they decide to move back to Earth. To ease the princess' homesickness, the Dwarfs paint the Dolomites with the shining colors of the Moon, and they have been like that ever since.

Shooting the Moon: A Yao folktale about how long ago there was a fiery, burning moon in the sky. The archer Ya La and his wife Ni Wo worked together to assemble a magic bow and arrow to shoot it down. When chipping stars off the fiery moon was not enough, they shot up Ni Wo's embroidery that covered the Moon's surface, and cooled it down - but it also sucked the wife herself up to the sky. Not wanting to live apart from his wife, Ya La called to Ni Wo, who let her long braid down so that her husband could climb up to her. Ever since then, they have been living on the Moon in a little hut with a cassia tree and a flock of sheep - all of which you can see in the dark shapes on the surface.

Matanako and the Moon: A folktale from Tuvalu about a boy who has a special connection to the Moon. As a baby, he only sleeps in moonlight, and when he learns to talk, he says he wishes to go to the Moon. He convinces his father to take him, and they board a ship together, sailing for the place in the East where the Moon rises from the sea. On the way they pass various spirit islands, and lose some of their crew to spirit diseases. When they reach the horizon, the father throws Matanako at the Moon, and he has been living up there ever since. The dark shapes on the surface are the shape of his body.

Why the Skunk Lives Underground: A Quechua folktale about a skunk and a fox who are unlikely best friends. Fox's biggest dream is to go to the Moon, while Skunk would like to feast on the worms that live underground. When the Moon lets down two ropes for them, they decide to climb up together. Skunk doesn't really want to go, but he agrees to accompany his friend. In some versions, a guinea pig chews Skunk's rope through and he falls back down; in others, he decides that going to the Moon is not for him after all, and comes back down to live comfortably underground. Fox makes it happily to the Moon, and thus both friends fulfill their own dreams.

The Fox who was in Love with the Moon: Another Quechua story, and a very cute one. A fox falls in love with the Moon, and wants to reach her, but no matter how many mountaintops he climbs, he can't get any closer. Eventually he climbs the highest, most daunting mountain, and from the top, he jumps into Moon's arms. He's been cradled there ever since.

True History
: Lucian of Samosata wrote this piece in the 2nd century AD as a parody of the "true stories" of ancient travelers. He claims to have sailed to the Moon on a ship picked up by a whirlwind. The Moon, he says, is inhabited by Vulture Riders, people riding giant vultures into battle, ruled by Endymion, the Moon Goddess' mortal lover. They are waging a war against the Ant Riders of the Sun over who gets to colonize the Morning Star. The Armies of the Moon have 80,000 Vulture Riders, 20,000 Cauliflower Riders, Garlic Warriors and Millet Slingers. They are joined by 30,000 Flea Archers (archers riding giant fleas) and 50,000 Wind Runners. Lucian describes the whole war in great and elaborate detail. He also shares wild tales about the Moon society, including how they harvest babies from trees that grow from men's testicles planted in the ground, how their rich people dress in glass clothes, and how they have honey instead of snot.

Orlando Furioso: In one of my favorite epic moments, the knight Astolfo borrows a hippogriff (and then Elijah's chariot) to fly to the Moon, where all lost things can be found, to search for the wits/sanity of his friend Orlando, who lost them due to his love for a woman. Among the great collection of lost things on the Moon there are such curiosities as lost fame, lost desires, lost tears, lost kingdoms, wasted efforts, lost favors, unhappy marriages, lost charms... and lost time, which is the only thing one cannot claim back. Astolfo is shocked to find a bottle with his own name on it: it contains a portion of his own lost wits, which he never even realized was missing.


There are countless other folktales and legends about traveling to the Moon; most cultures seem to have at least one. This is what made the actual Moon Landing so fascinating in the eyes of the storyteller: Humanity achieved something that it has collectively been dreaming of for millennia.
So, which dream should we tackle next?

Monday, July 15, 2019

Brains over brawn (Following folktales around the world 115. - Burkina Faso)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Folktales from the Moose of Burkina Faso
Alain-Joseph Sissao
Langaa RPCID, 2010.

The book contains forty-two folktales from the Moose people of Burkina Faso, collected from the oral tradition. We get a short introduction to Moose culture and storytelling, as well as a bibliography at the end of the book. The stories have been translated to French, and then to English, keeping their original wording. This is a folklore collection, definitely not a children's book, and some of the tales sound strange even to adult European ears. However, some of the strange tales were really interesting and enjoyable.


In the tale of The warthog and the lion, the king of the animals wanted to kill the warthog because others claimed he was stronger. Hare helped the warthog to get away, with a lot of cunning and some frustration, but the lion has been hunting his kind ever since. In another, more adorable escape story, a hunter picked up a hedgehog and her children. The mother kept telling the little ones "if God does not kill, the chief cannot kill either." Eventually the hunter set his bag down to kill an antelope, and the hedgehog family got away.
There was a fun chain story about a Beautiful girl who was kidnapped by a crocodile, and rescued by a turtledove. The dove began to sing, and the crocodile left the girl with a lizard to go listen to the music. The lizard wanted to listen too, so he left the girl with a frog, and so on, until she was finally left alone, and she could escape.
My favorite clever solution in the book, however, was for the dilemma of The chief, the hawk and the turtledove. In this one, a dove fleeing a hawk found refuge in a chief's pocket, and in return promised him whatever he wished for. The hawk promised he would have many children. The chief did not know which one to pick, but luckily a child came along, and asked what the matter was. His solution was simple yet great: he asked the hawk if he was trying to kill the dove specifically, or was just hungry. Since it was the latter, the child told the chief to bring some meat, and feed the hawk. Both birds got away content, and both of them gave their gifts to the chief.
There is always a third option.


There were also some familiar tale types in the book - for example, two variants of the Kind and Unkind Girls, both of which had an orphan girl for a protagonist. She returned home covered in gold or riches, while the lazy stepsister only got death and scorpions. On the other hand, the "clever maid" character who solved a chief's impossible tasks in this case was a boy.
There was yet another fun "dangerous rock" type trickster tale: in this case, everyone had to go A year without criticizing, because anyone who uttered a criticism would die. Hare pretended to plant a garden on a rock, and collected the possessions of the animals that made a critical comment on his foolish behavior. Eventually Guinea Fowl turned his own trick against him.
The trickster-in-residence is still Hare, who steals fruit from the chief's tree and collects impossible gifts (e.g. djinn brains). There was also a boy who was a great liar, making a fool of the chief and the whole village (gold-shitting donkey, stick that the revives the dead, classics), and swapped his punishment with someone else.

Where to next?

Monday, July 8, 2019

Great mothers, questionable husbands (Following folktales around the world 114. - Ivory Coast)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Some Gold, a Little Ivory
Country tales from Ghana and the Ivory Coast
Edythe Rance Haskett
The John Day Company, 1971.

The book contains 24 folktales, out of which 14 are from the Ivory Coast (and the rest from Ghana). They have been collected and re-told by an African-American teacher, who spent years in the countries of West Africa. Since I will have a whole other post for Ghana, in this one I will only focus on the tales from the Ivory Coast. The stories were told in an enjoyable style with an audience of children in mind, and the book has some colorful illustrations, but I found it interesting as an adult as well.


In the tale of Mahda and the Bull Elephant, an evil elephant devoured the three children of a widow. She set out, tracked the elephant down, followed her children into his stomach, and saved everyone, people and animals alike, who had been trapped there.
In another story, Mongoose accidentally killed the king's favorite (but very annoying) goat, and tried to frame Dog for the murder. Dog's wife figured out a way to save her husband, and in the end, it was Mongoose who got sentenced to death by snake pit. This is why, according to the story, Mongoose is so good at killing snakes.
Once again, there were some dilemma tales in the collection. In one of them, a warrior loved two girls equally, and could not make up his mind about which one to marry - so he killed himself. One girl died after him in grief, while the other found a way to bring both of them back to life. The storyteller poses the lover's riddle: How should the warrior decide now?
In a short, fun pourquoi story, God entrusted Bat with a basket full of darkness, to deliver it to the Moon. On the way Bat fell asleep, and curious monkeys opened the basket, letting the night loose. Ever since them, Bat has been frantically flying around at night, trying to collect the darkness.


Binyoka, the Old Woman of the Water helped a girl named Hallah when she made a mistake and threw herself into a lake in her shame. She sunk down into the land of water spirits, where she met the Old Woman. Binyoka rewarded the girl's patience and kindness with gemstones, and made sure she found a good husband. This story reminded me of that of Frau Holle, without the "unkind girl" repetition. There was also a tale very similar to the European "handless maiden" stories - here, a girl was mutilated and chased away by her evil brother. When she was exiled into the wilderness for a second time, her father's blessing and the friendly forest snakes helped her turn her fate around.
The story of The Three Prayers reminded me of all the "three wishes" tales - a husband first wished his ugly wife to be pretty, then, when she was taken from him, he wished her to be a monkey, then when he got her back he wished her to go back to her original self. In the end, however, he concluded that he could be just as happy with an ugly wife.
As for tricksters: I was reminded of the Tar Baby stories by the tale in which a lazy thief was captured with the help of a bowl of fu-fu (and hot peppers). In the end, the thief was chased out of the village, and his wife, who wished for a better husband, became the second wife of the fu-fu's owner. There was also a version of the classic story in which a boy rescued a crocodile, and it wanted to eat him in return. Everyone they asked claimed that it is usual for good deeds to be rewarded with bad, until a chief came along and saved the boy.

Where to next?
Burkina Faso!

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Medusa in the backpack, and other stories about teens and role-playing games

Almost exactly a year ago, a high school invited me to their ESL summer camp for teens. I visited with my friend Danielle Bellone, we told some stories in English, and since we had a free afternoon, I decided to introduce the kids to role-playing games. Several hours and three dungeon crawls later, they were hooked. This year the organizers invited me back, by popular demand, to run some more role-playing adventures.
I love my job.

Buy it here
There were 26 teens at the camp, so we divided them into 5 and 6 person groups, and I got a three-hour session with each. Since this time I was DMing alone, I decided to bring some adventures that are perfect for beginners and also make good stories: The first volume of the Uncaged Anthology came out earlier this year, and is quickly gaining much deserved popularity. It turns old Dungeons & Dragons tropes inside out, giving voice to classic monsters, and making players reevaluate their beliefs and convictions. It's an awesome collection of short adventures, I highly recommend it!
I brought pre-made character sheets the players could pick from; my own party helped me by rolling up eight first level characters. We covered the basics (Human Cleric, Wood Elf Ranger, Half-Elf Sorcerer, Elf Rogue, Minotaur Fighter, Half-Orc Barbarian, Halfling Bard, Dragonborn Paladin). Each group selected their characters a little differently, which made for good diversity. I also brought gift D20s for everyone, so that they could continue playing on their own if they wanted.

Here are the highlights:
(SPOILERS! Also, long post, scroll to the end for TL;DR)

Team One (5 girls, all beginners both in English and in RPGs). We played From the Forest They Fled by Alison Huang. In this adventure, the party gets hired to find out why animals have been fleeing a forest. They fight some plant creatures, and eventually encounter a Dryad who is setting fire to the trees. Turns out the forest should burn down every decade or so to help new seeds germinate, but people have been controlling the forest fires, so the trees asked the Dryad for help. The party had to come up with a solution that would work both for the forest and for the people living in it. After some discussion, they decided to convince all 150 villagers to move somewhere else, promising to take care of them - and the adventure suddenly turned into a refugee saga. They were sent away from various towns and villages, until I decided to link up with another adventure, and had them arrive to Canticle Bay, from Cry of the Sea by Alicia Furness. Here, they made a deal with the mayor, who promised to take care of the refugees in exchange for the party's help. The girls worked out a second compromise between the Sirens of the bay and the human fishermen - they designated sea sanctuaries, and convinced the Sirens to teach the humans sustainable fishing methods. It was a beautiful and diplomatic solution, and I was very proud of the players.

Team Two (6 guys). We played Maid from Waterdeep by Bianca Bickford. A mute girl hired the party to look for a missing woman. She couldn't write (in my version of the adventure, anyway), so we spent some time vigorously playing charades until the party got the full story from her, which was a lot of fun. She turned out to be a former mermaid, who rescued a female Bard from a sinking ship. A rich man, who was also on the ship, got angry at her for not rescuing him first, and kidnapped the Bard in revenge. The party went looking for him, chased a servant of his across the roofs of the city, and eventually found the house where he was holed up. Fighting their way though skeletons, zombies, and a Cloaker (when in doubt, add a Cloaker), they had some amazing moments of teamwork, and defeated the rich man / witch man in a heroic fight. The crowning moment of said fight was the Storm Cleric riding on the shoulders of the Minotaur Fighter, yelling "yee-haw" and shooting crossbow bolts (until he got smacked in the face by the door frame, but still). Teamwork won the day.

Team Three (5 guys). They were the most prepared and the most experienced of them all. They had been playing regularly since last year, they knew the lingo, and they were more than ready to clear some dungeons, kill some monsters, and grab some loot. I picked Lost Gods by Natalie Wallace for them, because that adventure starts out as a classic dungeon crawl - and then takes an unexpected turn. The party is hired by a slowly dying city to find their disappeared goddess. They descend into a cave system looking for her, and encounter all kinds of ghosts and specters. The party methodically worked their way through the dungeon, investigating every room, killing every monster, collecting all the loot. Before the last room, where they though the boss monster might be, they took a rest, sharpened their weapons, prepared their spells - they were all locked and loaded for an epic boss fight. Except, when they walked in... a Medusa looked at them from a mirror, and said "Don't come in, I don't want to hurt you!" There was an awesome moment of stunned silence, as gears turned in the players' heads. "Wait, what?" After some hesitation, they began talking to the monster, who told them her story, how she had been turned into a monster by a cruel god, and how she just wants to find a home where she can't hurt people, but she can't sneak out of the city alone.
The party, surprised that they had to plan a prison break instead of a boss fight, eventually decided that they would help her. The brainstorming session that followed was as epic as any fight, until they settled on a plan: the Bard and the Sorcerer went back to the people of the city, and told them that he goddess had sent a message, and wants them to celebrate. Then they threw an epic concert on the main square, drawing all the attention while the rest of the party sneaked out of the city with the Medusa, and went to find her a safe, quiet cave up in the mountains. The next day the Bard and the Sorcerer told the people that their goddess wants them to move to a better place, and pointed them to some more fertile lands. Away from the mountains.
I loved this adventure because it made the players reevaluate their mentality about what a role-playing adventure can be. They were surprised at first that the monster wasn't evil, but once they got over that, they did some stellar teamwork and planning, and made mutually beneficial and very emphatic decisions. They showed compassion and creativity, and it was beautiful to DM them through that.

Pic from here
Team Four (5 girls). Cheerful, talkative, excited group of players. I decided on From the Forest again, because I wanted to see if there would be any difference between two girl teams in terms of solutions and outcomes. There was! They were taken by surprise by the first forest fight, but after that they immediately started brainstorming about how they could capture a creature instead of killing it, or even make friends with one. Since I am a big supporter of non-violent solutions and the Rule of Cool, I allowed them some rolls, and they successfully befriended two Vine Blights along the way. Next followed some charades, in which they gathered information from the non-verbal plant creatures, and found out about the Dryad. They even had a working theory, they thought the Dryad was trying to take over the forest for her monsters, and planned to offer her a nature reserve where she could keep them, Jurassic World style. When they actually met the Dryad (all prepared to negotiate), and found out the truth about the trees, they put their minds to coming up with another solution. The result was pretty spectacular: They negotiated a deal between the Dryad and the people, in which the humans were allowed to cut down enough trees around their village to protect themselves from the fire (promising they would replant, and also leave the Ash Gums alone), and sell the wood so they could have money until the forest regenerates. In return, they promised not to stop the forest fires. It was an elaborate and well thought out deal, and I was very proud of the girls.

Team Five (5 guys, 1 girl). Saved the most chaotic one for last :) They had been waiting all week to get their turn, and jumped in with both feet, picking their characters and preparing for great adventures. I picked Lost Gods, because it worked so well with the previous enthusiastic party. Once again, the differences between two groups of players were both significant and kind of awesome. This party got a little bit more lost in the dungeon, but they did manage to kill off all the ghosts and monsters they encountered. They were also taken aback by the Medusa's confession and friendly nature, but after some consideration, they, too, decided to help her - in their own special way. They stuffed the Medusa in a giant backpack, and had the Minotaur member of the party simply carry her out of the cave. When they encountered the people of the city, they claimed that they did not find the goddess, but they would keep looking - and which point the grateful civilians invited them for dinner. So, Medusa in the backpack, they went and had a nice dinner at the mayor's house... then they waited until everyone was asleep, looted the mayor's office, and sneaked out of the place. Sadly, they Stealth was not exactly the best, so they woke half the city up before they made it to the city wall. In a moment of desperation, the Minotaur threw the bag up on the wall, followed by the (disgruntled) Elf Ranger, and then the party bluffed their way through the crowd, telling the civilians that the Ranger had betrayed them and looted the mayor, and they were going to go catch him. Long story short, they all made it out of the city, went to find a cave for Medusa, cleared it of monsters, and helped her move in.
It was not the most convenient of all solutions, and the party was definitely bringing the Chaotic, but it was, honestly, tons of fun. And some good teamwork.

TL;DR: Conclusions
People still tend to believe that role-playing is some weird, nerdy hobby played by weird, nerdy people (or, you know, Satanists). They are wrong. Tabletop role-playing is essentially communal storytelling which inspires people to work together, create stories, and have lots of fun. In addition, this camp was for ESL students (several of whom were beginners), so I got to watch them speak English enthusiastically, learn new expressions, and forget that they were learning a language while also fighting monsters. All of their solutions were genius, creative, and emphatic, and they instinctively found compromises and mutually beneficial arrangements between people of different backgrounds. Not a single one of the five parties resorted to violence instead of diplomacy. They played well, had fun, and as a DM, I enjoyed the whole experience immensely. I am proud of my players, and I hope I will get to meet them again next year!

Monday, July 1, 2019

Humor and hard lessons (Following folktales around the world 113. - Liberia)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Grains of Pepper
Folktales from Liberia
Edythe Rance Haskett
The John Day Company, 1967.

The book contains twenty-five folktales collected and retold by an American woman for American children, so that she could show a glimpse of the storytelling tradition of Liberia. In the introduction we can read a little about the country's history, and at the end there is a list of Liberian proverbs. The colorful illustrations are pretty neat, and I found a lot of fun stories in this collection.


In the tale of Sima and the crocodile, a crocodile kidnapped Sima's wife and daughter - he, in return, stole the animal's skin when it went to play cards in its human form. The story had some fun rhyming dialogues. Similarly fun, although with a dark ending, was the story of the Catfish, whose bird friend lent him some feathers so they could fly up and steal palm wine from trees together. Sadly, when the owner of the trees appeared, the bird took its feathers back and escaped, leaving the catfish behind. This was not the only fun-and-dark story in the book either. Another one explained Why yam and cassava grow underground - apparently because they used to march around villages, making rude noises and disturbing people with their "frisky dancing", until people found out they are edible, and they had to go into hiding. Similarly, we got to learn about how Leopard bullied Dog about his noisy eating habits at an animal feast - and that is why dog lives with the humans now.
I liked the underlying message of The dicot tree and the deer - the tree refused to hide a deer, saying it was not his problem, even though the deer pointed out that whatever could kill him would also kill the tree. He turned out to be right: After killing the deer, the hunter wanted to make a drum from the skin, so he chopped the tree down as well. As far as morals went, the most adorable was that of The king of the monkeys, in which an ugly bird hid underground in a hole, and made the monkeys believe that it was a terrifying monster. It was the baby monkeys who found out that their leader is in fact nothing but an ugly, thieving creature. (Ahem.)
I liked the genderswapped dilemma tale of The four wives, who all saved their husband in their own way - one ran away with him, one fed him, one led him out of the woods, and one protected him. At the end of the story, the teller asks the audience: Whose help was the most important?
I liked the local beliefs about The Wuuni who ate nine evil spirits. The Wuuni is an invisible creature that can be summoned by magic that devours bad spirits. The interesting part of the story was when they put the spirit on trial, and figured out why it turned evil after its death, due to its family's bad treatment.
The most unexpected turn happened in the story of Disobedient Hawa. She was warned not to fish in a certain river - but she did anyway, and managed to escape the bad spirits dwelling in the water. The story set an unexpected moral: The girl's disobedience to the old rules was what saved her starving family's live.


There was a beautiful variant for the tale type of the handsome suitor (here titled Tola and the Sea Monster). Here the monster pretended to be perfect by borrowing the sea goddess' smooth skin. The girl was saved by her ugly yet clever magician brother, who turned into a fly and followed her into the underwater realms.
I found a more complete version of a tale I read from Guinea-Bissau. A father could not decide which one of four suitors should get his daughter, so he made three copies of her out of a dog, a cat, and a rooster - they became the ancestors of different personalities.
There was, yet again, a Magic Flight story, and also a version of Cinderella with a male protagonist.
The resident trickster was definitely Hare. He asked for wisdom from Man (I have seen this type in Africa and the Caribbean before), but when he fulfilled all set tasks with trickery, he was told he already has enough wisdom to go around. There was also the classic story of Hare riding Leopard like a horse to win the hand of Miss Deer. In another tale it was the monkeys who fooled Leopard, who tried to trick them into being his dinner.

Where to next?
Ivory Coast!