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.
I also like what the above tales tells us about scarcity. Are these warriors seizing or passing around swords of the fallen as mementos, or just because good iron workers were rare–waste not want not?
By their very nature, swords were rare in the early medieval period. Swords were the weapons of nobles, or their bodyguard. Spears were far more common than most RPGs portray. The average member of an army would have carried a spear, and maybe a long knife, such as the Saxon’s namesake seax.
It would have been easier to track the movements of swords, and their names, as there were simply fewer of them.
Doubtless, there was some circular logic here: swords were valued by nobles as a status symbol because nobles carried them. ‘Twas ever thus!
All the best
Appreciate the clarification, Phil. So if you want to replicate and early medieval period in your game, swords are scarce but we have spears aplenty. Oh, and angry warriors that carry grudges.
Kind of an Old English Alzheimer’s disease: can’t remember anything except a grudge.
Good question. I just don’t know. From the discussion it seems to be about claiming and displaying trophies won in battle. Wearing a claimed sword might also fall into the category of “trash talking” and taunting. “Oh, look what I’ve strapped to my waist. I could have worn any sword. There are even better swords in my collection. But this sword is one I know will get a rise out of you losers. Think you can come and get it!”
I’m geeking out just reading this. Maybe I’ll look this podcast over; I might like to use an excerpt the next time I use “The Hobbit” in an ESL reading class. Part of my schtick with that is mini-lectures about northern European mythology and how Tolkien took inspiration from and retooled it; the idea of named weapons isn’t unique to Celtic and Germanic cultures, but this might still help communicate some of the flavor of it.
I think for most English speakers, Old English can be treated as a second language, if not a distant third. We probably recognize more words in Spanish, French and German than we would Old English, at least at first blush.
It would be a pretty distant second language, at that. I point out to my students that Tolkien made an effort to use words with Old English roots whenever he could (though I see that preference more clearly in LotR than in “The Hobbit”).Part of the fun and empowerment in what I do with Tolkien is that my students learn things about Germanic culture and language that many native speakers don’t consciously recognize. I try to point that out to them from time to time, and I hope it makes them feel a little more involved with their second language.
“This sword belonged to my father, and his father before him. It is Gobs Bane, the slayer of Goblin kind. It has defended villages from the accursed hordes for generations–”
“The dead bugbear has a +1 Longsword.”
*chucks Gobs Bane into a dung pile*
“OOOoooOOO! Shiny +1 sword….”
great article, and love the discussion afterwards. Not a D&D player so will ask those of you more knowledgeable about the system –
At what point would this ‘storied history’ of enchanted weapons and items become relevant? +2? +5? and then what would be the in game mechanisms to enforce the effect of losing a storied weapon to an enemy or having your captured storied weapon being stolen back by its rightful owners?
Is there a mechanism in the system to foster this kind of game play (i.e. in combat rewards for fighting ‘for’ your family sword?)
In KAP for example you could emulate this effect by using the passions system to trigger an in game bonus during combat if using your family weapon against an ancestral enemy.
I’d say the beauty of this is that there need not be a mechanical element. The value of a sword is that given by the NPC and their particular story. Neither need the sword be enchanted, though it could be.
I see your point; but if you want to apply this style to a typical D&D campaign, as I have experienced them many years ago… I cant see many players caring more about the family short sword of +1 vs goblins than they would about the new and very shiny +10 blade of stabby-hurtiness (thats a thing right?); I always liked systems that encourage given modes of behavior in line with the game genre; but if the answer to my question is ‘there isnt any, its all down the PC to act it out’ thats ok too 🙂
Maybe you could house rule it that you only get the +10 if remain true to the story of the sword (so you only get +10 if you always act as the history of the blade dictates)? I guess at its most simple you could align it to alignment if thats still in the game.
One solution I’ve seen thrown around would be to give the weapon magical qualities that mature with the character. So a seemingly mundane sword becomes a +1 weapon, and gains more/other powers that the PC essentially unlocks through play. The idea being that the magic in the weapon is being reawakened.
Another one I’ve seen in play: a character died a notable death. From thereafter his spirit was imbued in his weapon, and expressed itself when the weapon scored a critical.
yup, there both common ways of handling things, but acting in accordance with the story of the sword sounds like a rich vein of RP and plot ideas to me; I think the idea of replicating the importance of ‘storied swords’ would benefit from the application of rules pressure so that the mode of behavior (you must go smite goblins!) is enhanced. Imagine the +10 sword of hurtiness reacquires you to cleanse the world of goblins no matter where they are to keep the +10? Now that is interesting; imaging your uber-powerful thief type being forced to deal with every petty goblin incursion he hears about, or he risks that +10 short sword becoming a +9, then +8 etc. etc. Then after a while, as all evil GMs must, lets have a major goblin incursion, once again the PC must decide if they retreat from a fight and live,or risk death to keep the +10. Add in another PC storied weapon, that perhaps contradicts the first one slightly, and we have a relay nice in party dilemma to shake things up a bit! Almost makes me feel like buying 5th Ed! 🙂