The Past in RPGs

Here’s a tale from Finland’s past. It’s probably not wholly true, but who cares. (There’s probably some truth to it, but due to Christian propaganda and lack of historical documents, it’s all kind of on a shaky ground. I mean, in my childhood, this all was said to have happened in 1155, but now we are not even sure about that.) There’s probably also several versions of this, but this is how I’ve heard it.

In 1150s, when the king of Sweden, Erik, was not interested in travelling all the way to the Holy Land for a crusade, he decided to do what quite a few feudal lords decided to do: have one to lands much closer to his domain, in this case Finland. Well, we were pagans at the time (and they still exist, although in very low numbers), so I guess it’s understandable. They would then go around the south-western parts of Finland forcefully baptizing the poor folk living there. The Finns didn’t really care about these new ideas, going back to their own ways after the Swedes had moved on. I mean, Christianity probably wasn’t very meaningful for these people. A mythos born most of a continent away in a completely different environment and social structure might not actually fit what Finns needed at the time.

After Erik returned, he left behind the bishop of Uppsala, Henry, to become the first bishop of Finland. I don’t really know what Henry was doing, but apparently he visited the household of Lalli and Kerttu while Lalli (the husband) was away. As Henry was leaving, he bought some food, but after leaving and when Lalli came home, Kerttu told her husband that the bishop had stolen the food.

This enraged Lalli, who pursued the bishop and famously killed him with an axe on the ice of a nearby lake. Henry became the patron saint of Finland and Lalli went to Hell. This was told to me and has been told for centuries as a triumphant story of Christianity and especially Kerttu has been depicted as evil, but let’s look at the facts.

1) Suppose Henry did really give Kerttu coins in exchange for food. How was Kerttu supposed to know what they are? These were forest-dwellers in the mid-12th century Finland, which was very isolated from the rest of the world. Our language is one of the oldest still in existence, because it was never corrupted by outside influences to the same extent other European languages were. We were just that out of the way. Just look at a map. We are far away from everything. So, Kerttu got a few pieces of soft metal in exchange for food? Fuck that. You can’t actually make an axe out of that.

2) Henry probably disrespected Kerttu in some way. In Finland, the wife was the head of the household. Partners were equal, but there was a strict division of responsibilities. Someone from the Christian world would not have understood this and may have overstepped. How should Lalli have taken this disrespect for his wife?

3) How was Lalli able to kill Henry? Was the bishop actually travelling alone? I think that would be highly unlikely. Winter time in Finland (and it was the winter, as the story depicts Lalli skiing after Henry) is harsh, so would an upper-class Englishman (which Henry apparently was, although that’s largely speculation) really gone out there on his own? (On the other hand, don’t mess with Finns during the winter. Not a good idea. Or in the forest for that matter. Neither of these will end well for you.)

4) In some versions, Lalli killed Henry with a sword. How would that have happened? Where would Lalli have received a sword? It’s not very practical in a forest and they were often used mostly for ceremonial purposes or as a status symbol anyway. Not something you’d need in the middle of nowhere.

The story is probably completely apocryphal (well, the crusade happened and there may have been a bishop called Henry, who died around that time, but pretty much everything besides that) as obviously they needed some excuse to make a saint out of Henry. They have to perform miracles and ones after death are fine, including weird punishments for Lalli.

In the long run this weird religious propaganda hasn’t worked. Lalli is now a major folkhero in certain parts of Finland – a symbol of Finnish independence and persistence. Hundreds of years of tyrannical Swedish rule has probably also being a major inducement here. Still, someone tried. The first record of the story wasn’t written down until the early 17th century.

Where am I going with this? Actually, when I first started writing this, I felt almost compelled to. It was kind of late (like 2am) and I just felt that I need to get this story on “paper”. But let’s disregard that. What all of this does tell us that people in the past were bad at lying about their past. Now, I don’t think people were any more gullible than they are now (and while it’s months away now, I actually started writing this the night after Trump supporters stormed Capitol Hill in Washington, DC).

Social constructivism says that our whole view of the world is based on interactions with others. So, when PCs in an RPG hear a story like the one above, should they believe it?

In Glorantha (the world of RuneQuest, back in the day, and later HeroQuest) these stories held power. They are actually the building blocks of reality. The sun moves in the sky only because of an arrangement between various gods, who only let the sun live half the time, and the spring only arrives, because a goddess in a child’s body brings it every year. These are even very localized. There’s endless gods and spirits behind everything. What’s more interesting is that you can actually go back to the God Time and mess with this, which is actually a form of spiritual warfare. So, at least in this one world, you should take all such stories seriously.

In other worlds? I guess the key is context. Players have metaknowledge that the stories might be relevant if they hear one, but of course good players should also be able to see the world from the point of view of their characters. Would most people believe something on face value? If so, perhaps the PCs should as well.

Of course, this is largely up to the GM. Do they follow up on these stories? If someone went to the trouble of creating something like the story above, there must be a reason (not that the story above was concocted for RPG purposes, but had it been), both within the world and within the whatever’s going on with the characters.

Does the story give subtle clues to something? Is it actually true? Is it based on the truth, but “somewhat travelled” losing and gaining new components based on the memory, interests and motivations of the teller. The story above includes a bunch of color from me specifically and also the “facts” regarding the story are from me, meaning that I specifically both chose what I wanted to tell you there and told you them as I understand them leading me into socially constructing your worldview.

Another point is that even if stories are completely fictional even in the context, they do communicate the values in the world. Even if the author doesn’t think about it, their values will inform the story and how it’s understood, as will the audience’s interpretation of it. Take some popular movie. For example, the main villain in Ghost Busters is actually a bureaucrat working for EPA (environmental protection agency). So, apparently the creative team behind the movie had a problem with government and even if the movie doesn’t specifically say that the government sucks, the message is still quite clear.

Similarly, I might not have thought about it consciously, but I’ve definitely chosen a specific version of the story above, because when we tell stories, we always have a motivation to do so and that will change the story. Even besides the motivation to tell a story I can use as an example here, I have my own point of view on the world and that will add its own embellishments as well. Simulating these often unconscious effects can be difficult, as obviously we don’t understand our own bias, because (hopefully) we would work to get rid of them.

Despite the difficulties involved, a good story from within the world is excellent world building. On the other hand, show don’t tell, so you should use these sparingly. On yet another hand, stories from within the world can be considered showing, if done properly.

1 thought on “The Past in RPGs

  1. Good article. When I saw the header I thought that this text would be about how the GM can, and kind of has the obligation to do so, bend the time to their will. In traditional games at least it is the GM who wields the power to say ‘Ok, now X amount of time has passed’, be it a minute, a week or a century. What I did not expect at all was the story of Lalli the Peasant, and how it has been distorted with time.

    Fun fact: somewhere between Pori and Tampere there is a place called ‘Lallintalo’, (The House of Lalli) a building dedicated for festivities..

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