[My Fairy Tale game] what kinds of problems do heroes have?

edited July 2009 in Game Design Help
Ok, so my entry for Jake's Awesome Fantasy Game Contest is going to be about fairytales. Not just any old tales, but specifically the kind where the young protagonst(s) begin with mundane problems--crippling mental or social weaknesses, family trouble, etc, and have to work them out through an arduous fantastic quest. Think The Labyrinth, Mirror Mask, Stardust, the Neverending Story, and so forth. A ton of classic tales have this quality as well, like Jack the Giant Killer, or even Hansel and Gretel. I myself dig a lot of George MacDonald's tales.

So! Help me (if you will) brainstorm a bunch of the sorts of problems that these heroes and heroines start with. I'll list a bunch, many from existing tales like those above:

Cruel step-parent
Desperate poverty
Neglected by parents
Spoiled by parents
Abandoned by parents
Bullied and lonely
Unknown parentage
Unwanted sibling

What else?



  • That list almost makes me think you should make the game about the parents.
  • Promised to monstrous bridegroom (Beauty and the Beast, Bluebeard, The Girl With No Hands, Donkeyskin)
    Fall in love with unattainable person (Faithful John; Long, Broad, and Sharp-eyes -- usually this is a guy)
    Asked/forced to prove self worthy (of inheritance) with quest (The Firebird/Golden Bird, The White Cat)
  • Extremely privileged but bored or mistreated (The Prince and The Pauper)
    Dim witted but full of common sense
    Ignored by everyone, a wallflower, who sets out to make a name for himself (or is pressed into situations where they shine)
  • Yeah, combine those parentage issues under one heading. They're all the same, really.

    Also, one more:

    Cruel nature (which presumably is healed as he learns wisdom on his adventure)
  • Deformity

    I can't for the life of me remember the names of any fairy tales off the top of my head like this, but I know there are some. The movie Penelope, with Christina Ricci is one such. You could maybe include the Beast half of the tale in Beauty and the Beast. I sort of remember a tale with a hunchback where his hump was healed at the end, but I don't recall any details.

    An excess of cleverness (The Brave Little Tailor)
    A deal with fairies (Rumplestiltskin)
  • Do you have The Zorcerer of Zo (Atomic Sock Monkey Press)? It has a very good discussion of fairy tale tropes and how to 'bring them to the table'. Its not directly focused on this niche but I've gone back to it several times to re-read even when I'm not running the ZoZ game.
  • No, I haven't read ZoZ though i'd like to.

    Thanks, peeps. Some good stuff here. I want to specifically focus on problems that are essentially mundane even if dressed up in fairy-clothing. Which means isolating the basically human issue from the problem situation. So like in Stardust, Tristram Thorn's specific problem is that he's half-fairy, but that still amounts to "I don't know who my momma is, so I got to get out of here and find out where i fit in the world."

    Eero, I'm a bit confused why I would collapse all the parent issues in one. How would that serve me? It's precisely in dissecting all the different issues one can have with one's parents that I hope to grasp the range of possible starting premises for my game. Would one collapse "cruel" and "selfish" into each other because they're both internal struggles and therefore the same thing?

  • Oh, I don't know. Might be that what you specifically need here is detail. It's just that the part this sort of list would probably play in my design would be better served by a slightly more abstract approach, something where you just put down "parental issues" and then specify it more clearly in play. Couldn't tell which is better for you without knowing more about the game itself.

    But also, many of those parental issues are the same. I don't see any dramatic difference between having distant parents, having step-parents, having been abandoned by parents and so on and so forth. As far as a fairy tale goes, those are all just "my parent situation sucks". To me the details of the parental situation seem pretty incidental, especially in this genre: the most typical fairy tale formula has the parental situation get miraculously resolved anyway, whatever it was, so the details of what it was don't matter that much. If the hero is an orphan, the king adopts him, for example. Or if the parents are still hanging around, now after the adventure they're good parents. Big dif. It'd be different if the story was actually about the parent relationship, but that's not what most fairy tales are.

    As I said, though, that all depends on what you're actually doing with this list. I'd definitely collapse all moral flaws under one heading as well, it makes little difference to the adventure that the hero ended up going because he was cruel to a magical cat instead of being greedy or whatever.
  • You can go back to Vladimir Propp's narrative functions, although they may ultimately prove too abstract for your purposes, for an exhaustive tabulation.

    If I recall aright, the problems faced by heroes include:

    Villainy: someone takes something that is rightfully the hero's (or the hero's family, community, etc.)
    Lack: the hero needs something that is missing.
    Absentation: a loved one or family member leaves, disappears, or goes missing.
    Reconnaissance: a villain seeks information about the hero.
    Trickery: a villain attempts to deceive the hero.
    Struggle: a hero and a villain engage in outright conflict.
    Interdiction: some authority forbids a hero to take some course of action.
    Violation: the hero contravenes an interdiction.
    Branding: a hero is scarred or marked.

    There may others that are problems (maybe Loss: the hero loses the aid of a magical helper or the use of a magical gift), and there are definitely others that are useful or helpful. But any good summary of Propp will at least let you know if you've got all the categories covered in the right depth.
  • Eero, I think I see where part of our disconnect is. You seem to be advising me on what to include in my text, as if this catalogue of problems is a list appearing in my as yet nonexistent game book. I, on the other hand, am just wanting to compile a bunch of ideas to think about. So specificity is good, and not necessarily reflective of what this game will eventually look like. In fact, where I'm at now it doesn't look like "The Problem" will be a specified thing in play at all, instead being a sort of Fruitful Void triangulated from other specified elements.

    Also, if I wasn't clear I apologize, but I'm specifically looking to make fairy tale stories where "what your problem is" does matter, where the emotional impact of what the young person is going through is palpable, and where "The Quest" is all about working those things out. So again, specificity is important. I don't want a shallow and fluffy tale where everything magically works out with no pain or growth. If using the term "Fairy Tale" is going to cause people to ignore that, then maybe I should look for a new term. But honestly, I'd rather reclaim Fairy Tales than abandon them.

  • Have you already checked out the Aarne-Thompson Folktale Types? There's some good inspiration there.

    I just thought of another problem:
    Unexpected windfall (e.g. Fisherman and His Wife, The Ludicrous Wishes, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves)

    It's related to Desperate Poverty, in that the recipient is always poor to start with, but the wealth/wishes cause more problems than they solve.
  • I think this element works best when the problem is something that is typically considered "Not a big thing", such as (Stolen from MirrorMask, Coraline and Noriko's Dinner Table):

    Parents are too busy for them.
    Moving away from old friends.
    Parents cause an unusual life for the kids.
    Medical problems in the family.
    Unresolved anger issues in the family.
    Living in a small town.
    Inability to make friends.
    Parent's minor selfishness.
    Parent's control of educational/locational/romantic choices.

    Or, if you think I'm wrong on that, you can always go in the opposite direction {Ala Pan's Labrynth}:

    Spainish facism.
    Serious violent threats against family.
  • Thanks Selene, I'll check that out. I'm pretty focused on adolescent problems/issues, but I still want to examkine the whole spectrum.

    Sean, I'm actually looking to encompass the whole spectrum from Labyrinth to Mirrormask to Pan's Labyrinth. I kind of want players to be able to decide how raw and vulnerable they'll go with it. On the other hand, I definitely want to find a way to bring out the emotional resonance inherent in even the "not a big thing" conflicts. Like in the Labyrinth, it's really just typical spoiled-teenager stuff--"My STUPID parents made me watch my STUPID baby brother and it's just not FAIR!"--but it's, well, extremely felt by the protagonist. ("High-strung" you might say. Or "Histrionic.") It's important that play not feel like "la la. my character's mad 'cuz her parents are too busy, y'know, whatever." It should feel like a BIG DEAL, because that's how childhood DOES feel, and adolescence especially. I'm thinking of doing that by grounding it in people's own experience, like: "What's the most grueling experience you had as a teenager? OK, let's play something like THAT."

    Have you read Paul Czege's Nicotine Girls? There's this list of hardships that can be added to the girls' lives. It goes all the way up to "death of boyfriend", but at the low end of the scale, it's stuff like "vacation" or "change in work hours." Plain ol' everyday stuff, sure, but in the context of that game and these desperate, desperate characters, you just KNOW the stakes are gonna be supremely high.

    The more I think about it, the more i realize I want, on one level, to make a sort of Nicotine Girls where both women AND men can bring their own tragic and wounded childhoods to the table, instead of, say, "the hangups of this one girl I knew in high school."


    PS Notice that even in Pan's Labyrinth, on one level that Big Problem is no more (or less!) than "Evil Stepfather." And it's gripping. That's what I'm looking for: not to bring "facism and predatory adults and gross inequality" down to the level of "mean parent," but to bring "mean parent" UP to the level of BIG FUCKING DEAL. Because we're desensitized to what it means to have a step-mom who wants to abandon you in the woods. I'm yankin' "Fairy Tales" outta the cradle, dammit!
  • edited July 2009
    Chagrined by how others see them
    Stifled by secrets
    Ill-prepared for a looming test
    Trapped in a body they hate
    Grieving a death or loss
  • Nice ones, Jarod!
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