Jan 10, 2015

Chapter One

It began with five beans.

Of course, it had to be five.  Five is a magical number, or more to the point, it has various significances which are relevant to the subsequent events I shall relate, and to myself.  In the fortune cards that old Mahr the wise-woman consults, the number five is associated  with change, upheaval, an expanding of circumstances and horizons.  Often the change is coming out of difficult circumstances, and striving towards something new.  You might say that five has an adventurous spirit, wanting to travel and seek out new experiences.  Which may be good, bad, happy, painful, but that’s the nature of progress through life.  Five definitely lacks the proportion and solidity of four - Old Mahr often says, as she deals out her well-worn cards with stained fingers, “Four’s a bore, five’s alive”.   Five is also associated with the heavenly body Mercury, restless, articulate, quick-witted, tricky. That’s me to a pumpkin.  But it is also irresponsible, thoughtless, selfish,  easily bored. Oh dear, me again.  That pesky number seemed to know who I was, and broadcast it to all.  At least I wasn’t a boring four (“he’s just so reliable”).

So it could have been any number of beans, but it wasn’t.  It certainly wouldn’t be four  - as the saying goes:

Sow four beans in a row
One for cowscot and one for crow
One to rot and one to grow

And for that matter, it could have been any type of seed, but it had to be bean seeds.  Not because they are a staple of the villagers diet (which they are of course), but for what they represented.  The old riddle says “how many beans makes five”, to which the answer – two beans, a bean and a half, a bean, and half a bean – demonstrates a man’s sagacity and wisdom.  O yes, me again… well, not immediately.

The seeds sat like little green gems in my hand, living fertile emeralds.  Old Mahr says that every star has its own special gem, and, what do you know, Mercury’s is emerald.  I don’t understand why, but there you go, wheels within circles, circles within wheels. You find out one thing, and lo and behold its also something else.    What’s more,  according to her an emerald should be left in cows milk overnight before wearing  - a useless piece of information for poor villagers like ourselves, who would never see a gem in our lifetime. But knowledge is the first step to wisdom they say – does that work in reverse? Can an ignorant man be wise?    Its probably an irrelevant question - at the time I was holding the beans in my hand, staring bemusedly at them, I had neither knowledge nor wisdom.

This is the beginning then, me standing in the middle of the road with five beans in one hand, the rope of a cow in the other, in front of me a strange-looking fellow offering me the deal of my life.

My name is Jack – I have many tales, but one story.


“So… what do you say? These magic beans for your cow.  I swear you won’t regret it.”

The man speaking to me was tall, lanky, older, with a curious assortment of clothes and colours garbed about him.  He had no pack, nor animal, or even a staff to assist him in his travel.  He had been lounging by the side of the road, under a tree, as if expecting me.  He had introduced himself, courteously enough, and offered to buy the cow I was taking to market, but not for money.  Five beans, he was offering me, that he said were magic, though he didn’t explain how so, or what they did.  He had smiled and placed them in my hand, as if he knew I would not be returning them.  I didn’t realise it at the time (did I mention I was young and foolish at this point?) , but of course that’s the first trick of selling – get the buyer to establish a connection with the item being sold, make him feel something for the item.

But this were just beans, hard to feel any emotion for something I had eaten nearly every day of my life. I had a cunning idea though.

“Prove that they are magic” I said.  There, that showed him that I was not a simpleton, to be easily won over.

“I can’t do that.” he said, “They will only work for you. You do understand how magic works, don’t you? Have you a wise-woman in your village?  Someone who does simple magics?  Healing?”

“Well, there’s old Mahr” I said.  “But I can’t say she’s magic as such.  She just knows things, and can do certain things.”

“Exactly!” said the man, “She does things no-one else in your village can do, and no-one knows how. That’s magic, my boy.  Her magic. If some-one else tried it , it just wouldn’t work. Now these beans have your name on them, that’s why I have been waiting for you. They’re no good to me, or anyone else, they will only work for you.”

“But what do they do? We already have plenty of bean plants”

“They will bring you your heart’s desire.  Whatever it is.  What do you want Jack? The beans can give it to you. I can’t tell you how, because I don’t know your desires, do I? They are your secret.  Your special, secret wants.  Mysterious.  Just like these beans.  Here’s what to do.  Plant them tonight,  it will be a moonlit night. And you must plant them, not in a row, but in a group like this” and he arranged the seeds on my hand, four in a neat square and the fifth in the centre of the four. “And after you plant them, whisper your desires over them.  Just like your Mahr whispers secret words over herbs and potions. She does, doesn’t she?”

Well he was dead right, that’s what she did.  Second rule of selling, get the customer to say yes to something, anything, because one yes leads to another, then another, and before you know it:

“All right then. It’s a deal. “ I handed over the rope of the cow, carefully pocketed the beans, and turned for home.  I have told this story often, and it always seems to elicit gasps of amazement at this point at my complete naiveté and gullibility

It wasn’t till I was almost home that I suddenly wondered how he had known my name….

The Book of Jack - the Novel

So after all this time,  I am back to this blog, but now for a different reason.  I am starting  a Jack novel - and hopefully one day finishing it!  I plan to post my progress online, in the hope it acts as an extra spur   to me.  What is it about?  Its the story of Jack, in many forms and guises.  If you want to know more, you'll have to read it, lol.   Here we go....

"It began with five beans.."

Jan 28, 2009

Jack Once More - Shared or Collaborative Storytelling, Mythic, Once Upon a Time

Several big things in the last twelve months. The first is the discovery of something called the Mythic Game Master Emulator . Despite the portentous title, it is a basic set of rules/guidelines with about four charts, that can act as a "gamemaster', instead of having a .... live one. In other words, Mythic provides a way for a group to play an improvised roleplaying game without a GM.

Or to put it this way, if you haven't played a roleplaying game - Mythic is simply a way for a group of people to tell an improvised , shared story, where you play characters in the story. Or you don't have to play characters - your group could tell a story in the third person.

My friend Andrew and I have played three 2-player games, one in a Wild West setting, a "Call of Cthulhu" 1920's gangster game, and a futuristic "Gamma World" style game. Each time we've played characters in a story, where we didn't know what would happen next, or how it would end. Each time the story completed itself in an unpredictable but satisfying manner.

So this has been like, a Holy Grail thing.. playing a roleplaying game, but without all the rules, preparation, etc..

Which brings me to the second big thing. I've discovered I'm no longer as interested in traditional roleplaying games. I still run a fortnightly Harn game, because I have a dedicated group of players that have been meeting for 13 or 14 years, and I figure that as long as they're getting something from it, I don't want to disappoint them. But what I'm really interested in is shared storytelling games.

Which is pretty well what our Mythic games have been. Sure, we play characters as in a traditional rpg, but what is important is not what our characters can 'do", but how the story progesses and resolves - ie, telling a good story. So now my interest is "storytelling games" rather than 'roleplaying games". I'm hoping that very gradually I'll shift the focus of my Harn group to the "story", rather than "my character", but this may be a long process :).

And then the third big thing - the other week Andrew and I tried a 2-player storytelling game using the cards from Once Upon a Time , a fairytale storytelling game. Normally its played with a group, where each player has a hand of cards of traditional fairytale motifs eg Prince, Witch, Tower, Two People Fall In Love. Each person takes a turn playing any number of cards, and making a story from the cards as they do so. Players build on the existing story, the object is to be the first to get rid of all your cards.

But I didn't want to make a game of it, I just wanted us to tell a simple, improvised fairytale. So what we did is : we each had a hand of cards, we could play up to three cards, make a story around them, then the other person had their turn, building on the exisiting story. Play 1-3 cards, tell a story, refill your hand .

It worked wonderfully - better than I expected, and you can read the full tale of Teresa and the King. We found that halfway through the story, when the plotlines and characters were established, we were feeling constrained by the cards in our hand, and began interpreting them liberally and adding a lot of story in between :). We also used the Mythic Fate Chart to ask several important questions that altered the course of the story. (This chart gives you a yes/no, or extraordinary yes/no answer to a question).

So now I am keen to explore these two methods of storytelling - not just for fairytales, but for other genres. Mythic was the big breakthrough, and I'm now excited about the use of the Once Upon A Time cards. In the next few weeks I'll post more session reports.

Feb 15, 2008

Jack (again)

As I said in my introduction, Jack is the Everyman, and the Trickster.. the Trickster pops up in folktales all over the world in different guises... Loki in Norse mythology, Raven and Coyote in North American Indians, Anansi in West Africa, Brer Rabbit in American folk tales... and the Brave Little Tailor and Puss In Boots are also trickster characters...

But at the heart of it, in traditonal European fairytales, Jack is simply a right little sneaky bastard - in the figurative sense. The Hallmark series
"Jack and the Beanstalk - The Real Story" portrays this nicely. The modern-day descendant of Jack is cursed, because his forbear was a thief who snuck into someone else's home (the Giant's) and stole what didn't belong to him.... then brutally murdered the Giant when he was found out. Its up to the modern descendant to go back to the Giants and right the wrongs.

Feb 14, 2008

A Few Changes & Arabian Nights

The other night I watched the 2000 Hallmark miniseries of Arabian Nights. Its a delightful production that stresses the importance of stories and storytelling:

"People need stories more than bread itself. They tell us how to live and why."

It helped me over a hump I've had with trying to work out how to make a "game" out of fairytales, and yet stay true to their spirit. The answer is don't try - simply aim to tell, or have the players create and tell, a good story. If its a good story it will have an integrity shared with fairytales and folktales. This starts to sound more like shared storytelling than traditional roleplaying, so I'm really not sure where its heading.

Does this sound prententious ? ("Pretentious? Moi? " ). The other necessary ingredient is fun.. stories, storytelling, roleplaying, gaming, should be fun. Fun is not pretentious, or obsessive.

Feb 7, 2008

The Fairy Tale Path

Most fairy tales follow the same path. The hero or heroine begins the story in poor circumstances, either externally(eg poor and starving), or internally (longing for that thing that will bring them fulfillment). They then enter on a path of trials, sometimes this is thrust upon them, other times they choose it willingly, as in many trickster tales. By meeting these trials with courage, fortitude, cunning, patience and gallantry, the hero/heroine reaches a new dimension in their life, where they reap both external rewards - riches, princesses, castles - and internal rewards - they have become a 'whole" or 'complete" person. This doesn't mean a "better" or "perfect" person, it means they have fulfilled their own personal destiny and found their true self.

Seen in this light , the evil stepmother or witch is a necessary part of the hero/heroine's path. They are the catalyst for change, without which the hero/heroine would stay a poor child, a simple tailor, a stuck-up princess. If the wicked stepmother had allowed Cinderella to go to the ball with her daughters, dressed the same as them, would the prince have noticed her? If Hansel and Gretel had not been dumped in the woods by their stepmother (or in some versions by both parents), they would not have encountered the witch's edible house and overcome her, thereby maturing and earning rewards.

Feb 3, 2008

Fairy tale morality

Below is a comment from from SurLaLune Fairy Tales, its an annotation to Puss-In Boots. Puss is another version of the trickster character, like Jack, or the Brave Little Tailor. The quote highlights something I've noticed as I've been reading fairytales, and I've been trying to work out how to reconcile in terms of a roleplaying campaign - perhaps one can't? Maybe one has to decide which is going to be the basis of one's campaign?

"Fairy tales have two very different moralities, one low and one high. Many romantic fairy tales have high moralities in which the protagonist earns honor, advancement, and riches through compassion, humility, and other types of good behavior. Cinderella and Beauty in Beauty and the Beast provide two such examples.

In contrast, the trickster tales tend towards a lower morality in which cunning and trickery is rewarded, often with wealth that has been essentially stolen from the original owner. Frequently, the trickster directly causes the death of his antagonist in the process of robbing him. Another famous trickster is Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk. Puss is the intelligent alter ego of the youngest son in this tale. "

Jan 28, 2008

Humour or Humor in Fairy Tales

I'm finding some of the classic tales are making me laugh out loud as I read them. In some cases I reckon its deliberate - there's a comic undertone to stories like The Brave Little Tailor, or Donkeyskin, where the fairy godmother actually gets things wrong and it says: "The goddaughter did not feel much faith in the fairy after her two previous failures."

But sometimes the humour is unintentional - maybe its related to what one's been drinking:):

“Here," said he, "are the keys of the two great wardrobes, wherein I have my best furniture; these are of my silver and gold plate, which is not every day in use; these open my strong boxes, which hold my money, both gold and silver; these my caskets of jewels; and this is the master-key to all my apartments. But for this little one here, it is the key of the closet at the end of the great gallery on the ground floor. Open them all; go into all and every one of them, except that little closet, which I forbid you, and forbid it in such a manner that, if you happen to open it, there's nothing but what you may expect from my just anger and resentment."

Like - we've seen the trailers dude! We know whats going to happen!

Or sometimes a description adds insult to injury: "Her own daughter, who was as hideous as night and had only one eye" (italics mine !)

Of course, there is a dark side to many fairytales - but finding humour in them has been been a minor revelation to me.

Jan 26, 2008

Want to Read Fairy Tales?

SurLaLune Fairy Tales is a great, one-stop site if you want to read fairy tales. As well as a good selection of the popular tales, the site also has links to ebooks of Grimm, Jacobs, Perrault, Andersen, and many others. There are 210 tales in Grimm alone. If you read all the stories this site links to, you won't have time to game. But if you do want more, here are stories arranged under broad themes.

Fairy Tale Motifs

I've started a separate page of common motifs I find as I'm reading fairy tales. There are already highly academic breakdowns and analyses of motifs available - I just want to put down a few that I observe myself, that seem relevant to the game. Some come from the rpg The Zorceror of Zo, and coincide with my own observations. Suggestions from players or strangers are welcome!

Jan 21, 2008


The Book of Jack is my online journal of a new roleplaying campaign I hope to start/ am starting. On it will be background info for the players, and a record of the sessions. This is a fairytale campaign, using ideas, characters, motifs, plots, and general inspiration from traditional western fairy tales and folktales, particularly those popularised by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. Over the next few weeks I will gradually add background notes for players.

You can find links on the left sidebar to rules I may use, fairy tale motifs and the game world.

So why the Book of Jack? Jack appears in many fairy tales and folk tales, he is the everyman and unlikely hero. Unlikely, in that he is not a noble knight or lord, rather, he is the commoner, with an element of the rogue or trickster about him, who triumphs using his wits. In the twentieth century, he appears regularly in films, from Jack Colton in Romancing the Stone
to Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, from Jack O'Neill in Stargate to Jack Bauer in 24. Even John MClean in Die Hard - Jack is a common English diminutive of John. Its easy to see the trickster in Jack Sparrow, but the other characters all possess a certain defiance of societal norms, and the ability to outwit opponents.

In America, there is a whole oral tradition of "Jack Tales", derived from earlier English stories, featuring Jack the "self-made man who uses trickery and quick thinking as his main tools".