Sunday, 18 September 2011

Dinosaurs, Myths, Monsters

This was the title of a fascinating programme on BBC Four in which historian and novelist Dr. Tom Holland charts the alternative history of Paleontonlogy.  The premise being that the fossilised bones and footprints which make up the fossil record have been misinterpreted by different cultures across the ages, from the early Chinese Dynasties through Ancient Greece to the Victorians.

I was aware that the origins of many western dragon myths lay in the discoveries made by earlier civilisations, but not in any level of detail.  The Greeks believed that they were descended from the Gods and Titans and that paleontological evidence uncovered during this age was ascribed not just to mythical beasts but to the Gods and demigods themselves.  Holland recounts that the successful conquest of the city of Tegea by the Spartans who recovered a Mastodon leg bone which they mistook for the leg of the giant hero Orestes.

Every bestiary I've ever read has had it's fair share of mythical beasts or giant this, that and the other, so much so that that you don't think twice about their origins.  Players also take for granted that if their patrons say their village was attacked by a dragon, they ask "did you see what colour it was?"  This blase approach to the origins of mythology got me thinking about some plot options which I could throw at my players.

Leg-endary Hero - The villagers have long revered their most treasured artifact a leg bone of a giant hero which they keep in their long house and bring out on feast days.  During one such feast day, the village is attacked by a dragon who has caught the scent of the bone and swoops down to attack right in the middle of the festivities.  The hero's leg bone is in fact that of another dragon which even though it is hundreds of years old, still contains plenty of tasty marrow.  For the PCs there's a village to be saved, a dragon to be hunted and a precious artifact to be recovered.

Skeletal Jigsaw - A scholarly wizard contracts the PCs to recover the final piece of his paleontological puzzle which he has pieced together over many decades.  He is now far too old to go digging around in the mud himself and pays handsomely for the party to recover and escort the bone from the dig site to the university where it will be installed along with the other bones in a reconstruction of a giant mythological beast.  Unfortunately the wizard has gotten his reconstruction all wrong and has put the bones together in the wrong order.  When the all the pieces are in place, the mage has unwittingly reunited the bones of some terrifying ancient magical beast which rearranges itself in its correct configuration before going on a rampage.

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