This is RPG-ology #35: Believable Nonsense, for October 2020.
This article is named for the lost Game Ideas Unlimited: Believable Nonsense, whose original ideas are recalled here.
Years ago I assisted two of my sons in burying a beloved cat, somewhere along the outside of the fence around our yard. That event inspired the original thoughts for a number of articles, most recently Faith in Play #16: Mourning. However, the aftermath of that event inspired an entirely different line of thought.
On my way back into the house I left the spade on the deck by the front door. I should have known better, merely because it’s the kind of thing my wife would consider unsightly and inappropriate—you don’t leave garden tools lying by the front door. It wasn’t long before she saw it and objected—but her objection completely surprised me. Didn’t I know, she said, that it was bad luck to track dirt from a grave through the front door of the house? Did I not know that this was why whenever you returned from a funeral you entered the house through the back door?
In fact I did not know any of that. Dirt is dirt, and its origin is not particularly interesting to me most of the time. Perhaps it would be different were I a geologist or a forensic scientist, but these things are of only general interest to me. When I return home from anywhere I always use whatever door is most convenient for me, which is usually the front. I can usually fathom the origins of most superstitions—walking under ladders has a chance of dislodging tools from above or knocking someone over, breaking mirrors in dressing rooms where you’re likely to use them probably means slivers of broken glass which will be in the floor boards for a long time before vacuum cleaners are invented, and black cats are easy to overlook particularly in the dark. I’m afraid, though, that I don’t grasp the danger in grave dirt.
What intrigued me at the time, though, was the realization that the world is filled with superstitions, every culture having developed its own. I wondered, how do you bring these into the game? How do you create believable nonsense for your non-player characters, taboos some fully believe and others claim not to believe but are still wary about?
It strikes me that many of these would have a forgotten origin story—someone got sick eating a melon on the new moon, and so now it’s bad luck to eat melons on the new moon; someone was fishing from Long Point at high tide and got swept away, so it’s bad luck to fish from Long Point at high tide. Or reverse it: the only crewman to survive the wreck of the Sarsaparilla was also the only one wearing a blue shirt, so it’s good luck to wear blue shirts aboard ships.
Of course, if you can keep your wits about you you can slip these into non-player character interactions, even invent them on the fly: “Don’t do that! Don’t you know it’s bad luck to…” It’s more difficult if you want it to be a superstition of a player character race, because you have to give these summary versions to the player and discuss to what degree his character believes them—fully, or only in that incomplete way in which they make us nervous, or truly not at all?
That then leads to the tougher question: how many of them are true? What happens if the player characters ignore the seemingly nonsensical superstitious wisdom of the locals? There might be something to the local belief that you shouldn’t touch the rock at the end of the village, or drink from the fountain on the side of the mountain. Superstitious nonsense might be true; there might be hidden dangers in the claptrap spoken in the village.
Anyway, it can make for a good story.