Sometimes listening to a podcast is a little like eavesdropping on a conversation. The topic is so interesting you want to jump in and contribute.
So it was when I was listening to a recent installment of “In Our Time” hosted by Melvyn Bragg for BBC4. The show regularly invites a panel of experts to have a discussion on a given subject, usually history and the humanities, but occasionally science.
The episode that had me on my seat was on Beowulf, the poem about the Scandinavian champion, and later, king, who fought Grendel, its mother, then five decades later, defended his kingdom against an honest-to-goodness fire-breathing dragon.
Yes, discussing Beowulf as a thousand-year-old example of Christian literature about an obviously pagan world, and listing the finer points of why the earliest surviving copy is a literary work intended to be recited rather than merely a transcription of an oral performance is good geekery for me during my hour-long commute. And it’s not for everyone.
But let’s get to the good part for us GMs. That’s when guest Andy Orchard, Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at University of Oxford, talks about swords.
“Maybe it’s the geeky boy in me, but Beowulf really’s into swords,” Orchard says.Â Orchard says the author uses 29 or 30 different words to describe swords that are unique to Old English.
And then Clare Lees of King’s College London chimes in: “The best swords carry their own names,” she says. The GM in me is nodding vigorously, wishing I could jump in. “You’re darn tootin’ the best ones do.”
If this group of ivory-tower literature buffs aren’t roleplayers, they should be. Imagine a D&D game in which Orchard commands the room with a recitation in Old English. Or when Lees describes how the Queen of the Dames praises Beowulf for dispatching Grendal in single combat.
This moves into a discussion of objects. Laura Ashe ofÂ theÂ University of Oxford says objects move through time, observing pithily: “An exchange of objects, an exchange of tales.”
This is related to how objects, including swords, are fuel for the seemingly never-ending conflicts that are the hallmark of life in northern Europe in the early Middle Ages.
Ashe relates a portion of the poem when Beowulf warns about every sword having a story. Beowulf predicts woe unto the king’s plans to marry off a daughter as part of a truce, because at the ceremony a “man will see his father’s sword on another man’s belt and it will all kick off” again.
So, what’s the takeaway for GMs?
Every bit of treasure, every magical item, but most especially, swords, has a story — and a previous owner. Now, in the landscape of D&D, that’s fairly usual.
Every once in a while it’s good for those previous owners (or their vengeful kin) to come a-calling and want that pretty thing back.
Those are good roleplaying and combat opportunities. While such episodes won’t dictate an entire campaign, let alone a whole session, they are essential for world-building.
For GMs, this is a chance to portray a world where slights and feuds are never forgotten, where the need to exact revenge is instilled in succeeding generations. If it sounds brutal, it is. But it is also, as Beowulf points out, a part of our history, and part of the reason the story was written down.