The first glimpse you catch of Melusine herself is just this bioluminescent light as she tends to this undersea garden with centuries of precision, she is a long serpentine glow – not even glow, just like a flash and a hint here and there, moving between corals and columns and forms flashing in these mesmerizing patterns. She is beautiful and deadly.
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Lucas: Hello, and welcome to Making a Monster season two, where game designers, once again, show you their favorite monster and we discover how it works, why it works and what it means. I’m Lucas. Zellers. This season, we’ll bring you more of the best monsters tabletop gaming has to offer along with deep dives in the new bonus episode format. More on that at the end of the show for now, let me introduce you to this week’s monster.
Almost every tabletop role-playing game has three elements: a chance operator, like a 20-sided die; mechanics to influence those random results; and at least the one setting that defines the genre and storytelling expectations of the game we’re about to play.
Dungeons & Dragons has had around two dozen official settings over its 47-year history, from the epic fantasy of Forgotten Realms to the quirky space-faring adventures of Spelljammer, but the possibilities are still far from exhausted. Community creators are adding new settings on top of D&D’s mechanics all the time. The sub-aquatic monster in today’s episode comes from a setting based on the myths of King Arthur. And if you listen carefully, you might find you’ve seen it before on your morning cup of coffee.
Chris Hopper: My name is Chris Hopper, I am a contributing writer for Realmwarp Media which creates Cities of Myth, a several-part Kickstarter series exploring different famous cities in our shared mythological backgrounds. His first chapter is fallen Camelot.
Arthur Pendragon ruled Camelot and fought with various factions all across Albion, which is the modern-day island of Britain. I am taking what I would call a pseudo-historical bent. So our setting has a year. Modern day is 601 CE in the setting. Yeah, our Arthur is very much the post-Roman Arthur he’s, this Celt that rose out of the chaos and turmoil that happened when Rome packed up and left after getting their butts handed to them by the Picts for a hundred years.
Arthur is this warlord who people loved, but who they also really feared because he, like his father Uther, is mainly very good at starting fights. And so in fallen Camelot, Arthur is dead. He’s gone. Morgana set him up to fail and the big fight with Mordred and they wipe out each other. Morgana assumes the throne and she’s ruling and making everything peaceful. And so that’s the background, Morgana le Fay, this powerful sorceress is ruling Camelot quite well. She’s doing well at it, but she can’t outrun her past. And she came out we’re on the corrupting effect that her magic has on it.
Chris Hopper: People talk about the Saxon invasion like it was a Saturday night rave. The Saxons came across Britain over the course of hundreds of years, over and over and over again. And each time these groups of Saxons came over, they didn’t just pillage and plunder – they settled and started farming lives and made generations and generations of Saxo-Britannic, Celt-ish, people that at the end of the day were just their own new thing.
That’s interesting to me as a storyteller because the concept of home is something that means something very different to a Saxon who’s been on, who’s spent their whole life on this little patch of land in Albion than it would to the raging barbarian, that’s coming off the boat, swinging his sword and beheading all of the peasants that are in his way. And so in creating this myth of Arthurian Saxons – the actual text doesn’t give you much to work with. Arthurian Saxons in Le Morte d’Arthur and the other historical components are the “enemy other” that Arthur is going to go fight.
But the historical context of them as Britons, as these people who have settled this land and intermingled and brought their own faiths, but ultimately created new traditions and lives within a new context is what I was, what I really enjoy exploring when I tell stories of the Saxons in Albion. And so that’s what Memories of the Sea is. It’s a callback to the, the shared cultural understanding that they brought with them across the ocean and how that shapes their experience when their new Homeland Albion goes to pot.
Lucas: Chris has chosen a monster that reflects the seafaring origin of the Saxon people.
Chris Hopper: The origin traces itself back to Roman times, back to Gaulic legends around these regions of North France and Brittany. But she’s an old myth that’s been retold by the franchisee told by the Germans and the Luxembourgs and into Czechoslovakia.
In the original myth, the Melusine is the daughter of a human Prince and a Fay mother. As, as Melusine grows up, she resents her father and she’s furious at her father for being this righteous King that has disowned his weird, half-fay family. And so she goes off and murders him or walls him up and stone or otherwise removes them from the picture. And her mom gets furious and curses her for it. And so she’s cursed to, every seventh day, transform into a serpent from the waist down. So on Saturdays, she transforms into a serpent from the waist down.
She’s still absolutely beautiful. She’s still beloved. She’s still this perfect being. The rest of the time. And so eventually she’s noticed by a wandering Prince who encounters her alongside a stream and they get married and they have a wonderful marriage in which he’s just not allowed to see her on Saturdays.
Lucas: This shows up a lot in old myths. The thing that you must not do that’s right. You’re told at the beginning of the story, don’t do this one very specific thing.
Chris Hopper: And of course, because you’re human. Eventually you do it. Yup. So they live for decades. She has, and again, depending on the myth, most of the time it’s ten charming princes with this guy and brings prosperity to the land.
Everyone loves her. And then yeah, he eventually either bursts in to see the birth of one of his kids or he spies on her while she’s bathing. He eventually catches her on a Saturday sometime, sees that she’s half surfing, freaks out, she freaks out, everyone runs away and then she, she flees the same and still keeps watch at a distance of her children.
Like she’s still watching over her children today. And so that’s the part that I ran with where, where she’s this invisible force that is watching over her children.
Lucas: Unlike Medusa of Greek myth, which Dungeons & Dragons transmuted into a species of monster, Chris has maintained Melusine’s identity as a single non-player character.
Chris Hopper: She is an all-powerful singular NPC in this setting – she is the Melusine. The original legend is intact and told as is. And then after her husband discovered her and she laughed and she’s been spying on her children for ages and. Now her children’s children’s children, she’s developed smarter and smarter ways to go about watching the surface world in general stats-wise and settings wise, she’s, what’s called a lay finder, which is a specific type of magic user unique to the setting that draws on kind of magic directly.
Lay finders. Lay finders experience the energy of magic through their senses and raw, different ways. So lay energy is this interconnected web that criss-crosses all of Albion. It’s a big plot point. It’s the thing that Morgana has been corrupting. It’s also kind of the underlying network of the universe and life finder’s experience that energy directly.
And so the contemporary mellow scene is essentially a spymaster she’s a, an informant or she is a, I like the term “contagonist” – she’s a very solid place to create a block that the players didn’t know that they had. So whether she’s withholding information that they need or whether she is preventing them from getting further toward her goal, she, she’s very much a, a side character to make life more difficult, but she knows a lot of things. She’s been a lot of places and she’s watched a whole lot go down in the century since she was cast out by her former King.
This gets back to the mythology. I love the repeated story of identity, acceptance, human happiness, and these very humanizing things applied to non-human beings.
She’s a Fay and the Fay are enigmatic and weird and uncomfortable above all else. They’re reflections of the counter-society parts of the culture. And players are the same thing. Characters are somewhere between murder-hobos and extremely noble truth-seekers, but whatever, their particular alignment, they’re always operating outside of societal norms.
Everybody doesn’t pick up a sword to go kill things. And so the Melusine at her core can be a reflection of operating outside societal norms as a piece of power.
Besides that she’s, chockfull of all the old symbols of the feminine and all of the water prosperity fertility things that come from Celtic and Gaelic roots, where again, you’re kind of countering that patriarchal force that was the prominent power in the time.
And so you, you have this, you have this gender-oriented subversion that runs through medieval mythology. For people that play toward that direction – I’m not saying you have to it that direction, but if you’re playing a really high-Arthurian romance interpretation of this campaign – she can lean into that concept of the feminine other as an empowering force.
The other thing that I guess you can do with her is that because she is this concept of forbidden knowledge, she’s also an anthropomorphization of the land itself. And you hear me talking about the lay network and about all of this natural magic energy.
She can be that personified as a counterbalance to Morgana’s usurping of power. Morgana has claimed this throne and she is whether rightfully or not she’s there. And she is by being there, she’s messing things up. You can spin the Melusine as kind of a nature force that is by her very existence, corrective as kind of a counterbalance to that.
Lucas: That’s amazing. I often have to work much harder to get this level of generalization out of my guests. So you’re making it very easy, I appreciate that.
Chris Hopper: I am very excited about this setting.
Lucas: I can tell.
Much like the story of Faust. I covered briefly in the first season, the Mela scene has made so many ripples in our modern cultural heritage that you’ve probably already seen her and didn’t even know it, Chris.
And I will tell you where right after the break, but I want to take a minute to tell you how you can become a contagonist of this show and get some pretty sweet stuff in the deal.
Good stories start with good monsters and the best monsters are at patreon.com/scintilla studio. Tabletop gaming is about telling stories together and since there’s almost never time for the whole story of the monsters, I feature on this show, I’ve created a space where we can tell those stories together. Get exclusive access to cut tape, meet my guests and shape future episodes of the show. Plus there’s stickers! Find out more at patreon.com/scintilla studio.
I am going to take the chance to ask this, and it’s unfortunate that I have to, I think, but I think the most similar touch point to this, that the average listener might have is Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Are there any similarities or differences that you want to point out to Ursula the sea witch?
Chris Hopper: Yeah, it’s hard to not make them. I agree entirely. And I, I would be lying if I said the thought didn’t cross my mind as I’m crafting her cave, right? So it, and it it’s worth noting that actually, um, Hans Christian Anderson was inspired by the Melusine myth. There’s a, there is a direct line all the way back. Ursula’s role was a Disney thing, but Ursula herself . . .
So, okay. You don’t have 30 minutes here. Ursula herself borrowed from the other side of the same coin as ariel. Those are both mer-folk, and they’re both part of this same mythological grounding. Which is fascinating to me because you, you took Ursula, you took this beautiful, wonderful, uh, beautiful, wonderful, happy fish tailed, singy woman, and you made this tentacled scary thieving dwelling thing. And Ursula’s tentacles are reflective of the Mellesons tale. Um, Mellison is also the Starbucks logo and in most versions of the story it’s actually a split serpent tail. Hers. Her tail is like a snake, but picture a snake at the end and it just splits. That’s the Melusine tale in a lot of the tales.
And so the comparison to Ursula isn’t entirely unfair. The difference I would say is that, is that my Melusine is not that evil. Melusine is certainly self-motivated. She is certainly concerned with the going ons of the world, but she is – and I suppose the gathering her garden of children isn’t an entirely unfair comparison either – she is mostly concerned with keeping her children and her children’s children and keeping all of these magical beings, which are spread across the surface, safe in whatever her definition of safe is.
And so earlier I used the term “contagonist” because she’s not necessarily working against your characters. It’s entirely possible, depending on how the story goes, that you could find this to be a very powerful ally and undoing some of this magical curse that’s descended on Albion, but it’s much more likely that you’re going to run into some agent of the Melusine or you’re going to cross paths with some particular part of her mission that struggles against yours.
And so in that way, I would say that she’s ideally not as villainous. And not, not to Rob Ursula of a particular brand of beauty, but I like to think that she’s a little bit more striking.
Lucas: My guest Chris Hopper and the team at Realmwarp Media have graciously made available the Holy Grail of podcast extras, the full stat block for the Melusine. So you can see exactly how she works and how her story has been coded into the game. It’s a great preview for the work Chris has done on Memories of the Sea and you can get it by trusting me with your email address. VIsit scintilla.studio/monster, or follow the link in the show notes.
Where is the best place to find cities of myth and memories of the sea. Specifically,
Chris Hopper: You can find Cities of Myth on Drive Thru RPG and at Realmwarpmedia.carrd.co It is available in softcover, it’s a 60-odd page softcover and a PDF. I’m excited to finally get it out there. I finished this book in September. I can tell stories in Fallen Camelot for years, just based on the 300-odd core page core book .
Lucas: The Cities of Myth series by Realmwarp Media will continue in Atlantis Divided, a new core rule book focused on the sunken city of Atlantis and intersecting with the work Chris has done with the Melusine in Memories of the Sea.
Both Memories of the Sea and its companion volume Magic of the Celts are slated to be part of the Kickstarter for Atlantis divided, which is set to launch in April. You’ll find all those links in the show notes or at scintilla.studio/monster. And don’t forget to visit the all new patreon.com/scintilla studio.
Music in this episode is from Will Savino. It’s called “The Fathomless” from his album “Tasha’s Musical Concoction.” Find out more at patreon.com/musicd20