RPGs have a tool available to almost no other form of expression. They can play with scale.
Literature struggles with this concept. Gargantua and Pantagruel seem to change size to suit the scene, without ever visibly growing or shrinking, but they are still giants. The reader can refer back to previous sections, or consult illustrations, and see the incongruity, fixed on the page in black and white.
Animated films can approach the fluid scale shifts of oral
storytelling, but it’s a pale reflection of the powers available in the theater
of the mind. Some
video games play with scale, but it’s usually more about perspective and
not about a sense of reality.
But the spoken word flows without hesitation. It does not paint a fixed picture in the minds of listeners. It suggests outlines and details. The listener doesn’t have time to engage with the story in a fully rational way. It just “makes sense” in the moment. Unless incongruities of scale are used for comic effect – more on that later – the audience simply accepts them as true.
RPGs usually try to avoid scale ambiguity. Distances are given in conventional measures. Maps are pretty close to the territory. Clarity is useful. An RPG has to create a shared imaginary vision. If everyone around the table is imagining different things, chaos and frustration are inevitable. “Can I hit it from here?” “Wait, I thought you said the corridor was wide enough for both of us to walk next to each other?” “The fireball hits all of us for how much damage!?” Etc.
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But consider an RPG that deliberately plays with scale. Not just nonstandard scales, like Mouseguard, my Flame Pomerium concept, or Arnold K's fractal complexity, but the very heart of what things are and how they are related to each other.
Scale Ambiguity in Classical Haida Myths
If we're going to learn to play with scale, we should learn from the best.
Consider this a sneak preview of a potential project. There's so much I'd like to write about that I'm not sure where to begin. Here's a compressed and oversimplified summary.
Haida Gwaii is an island chain off the west coast of Canada. Like Tasmania, it exists in a blind spot in people's mental maps of the world. If you've heard of it at all, it's probably in relation to totem poles and other art, or for the potlatch.
Through a combination of chance and quiet determination we have "approximately forty thousand lines of written text" from dozens of Haida storytellers, transcribed phonetically, line by line, in 1900-1901 by a 27-year-old linguist named John Reed Swanton. Before European contact in 1774, the population of Haida Gwaii was approximately 30,000, inhabiting villages all over the islands. By 1900, between 350 and 800 Haida remained, largely in two missionary-dominated towns. That anything at all was recorded is remarkable. That what was recorded includes some of the finest myths ever told - and I do mean ever - is extraordinary.
The tales are so interesting that, aside from looking into and
comparing all avaiable English translations of Swanton's transcriptions,
and reading a stack of other books, I'm trying to learn Haida. It's worth it.
 It's... not going well.
Shifting Scales: Mouse Woman
This is not a full story. It’s one story within a larger story, in a cycle of stories. Think of it as a musical theme, like La Folia. You’re seeing a few bars of music.
Again he set off.
After walking awhile,
he saw a small mouse in front of him.
There was a cranberry in her mouth.
Then she came to a fallen tree,
and she looked for a way to go over it.
He let her step onto his open hand
and put her across.
She laid her tail up between her ears
and ran ahead.
Not far away, she went under some ferns.
He rested there,
and something said,
« A headwoman asks if you wish to come in.»
Then he parted the fronds of the ferns.
He was standing in front of a large house.
He walked through the door.
There was the headwoman dishing up cranberries. 
She spoke with grace.
Her voice had big round eyes.
After she’d offered him something to eat,
Mouse Woman said to him,
« When I was bringing a bit of a cranberry
back from my berry patch,
you helped me.
I intend to lend you something that I wore
for stalking prey when I was younger.» 
She brought out a box.
She pulled out four more boxes within boxes. 
In the innermost box was the skin of a mouse
with small bent claws.
She said to him,
« Put this on.»
Small though it was, he got into it.
It was easy.
He went up the wall and into the roof of the house.
And Mouse Woman said to him,
« You know what to do when you wear it.
Be on your way.»
-Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas of Qaysun, Someone About to Go Out Hunting Birds, trans. Robert Bringhurst. Ch. 4.2
 Bringhurst writes that "It is understood that creatures of the sea, forest, and sky take the form of human beings anytime they enter a domesticated space - that is, a house or a canoe, - and that they dress in animal hides when they enter the wild." (Bringhurst, Being in Being, pg. 272). This seems to be only partially true. Storytellers play with the rules. Is Kuugan Jaad, Mouse Woman, a woman/spirit being who wears the skin of a mouse, a mouse-like woman, a woman-sized mouse, a mouse-sized woman, a spirit, or something else entirely? The answer appears to be whatever is in your mind when you listen to the story.
 The irony here is probably deliberate. The setup might lead the listener to expect the skin of a mighty predator, but the result is obviously what it should be; the skin of a mouse that Kuugan Jaad was just wearing.
 The dreamlike quality of this sentence is superb. It’s used by multiple storytellers, in multiple contexts, so it’s clearly a good one. See: The Qquuana Cycle, Ch. 18.104.22.168.
We can compare this to the same story told by Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay.
He took an overgrown trail. 
After walking for a time,
he saw a shrew.
stopped in her tracks by a fallen tree.
He lifted her across,
and then he watched her.
She went beneath a clump of ferns some distance off.
He went there.
He spread the fronds aside.
There was – yes! – the sewn and painted front of a house.
Then that one said to him,
« Come in and see me, grandson.
The birds have been singing
That you would be borrowing something from me.»
She hunted through her storage box
And bit off part of something for him. 
« Yes, grandson, here it is. »
-Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay, The Qquuna Cycle, trans. Robert Bringhurst, Ch. 22.214.171.124. See also Ch. 4.2.1.
 Different “he”, in this story. Different conception of Mouse Woman too. First, she appears as a shrew, which is a whole separate discussion I’m not going to get into here, and second, she’s appeared before in the cycle, where she definitely decapitates someone.
. We don’t find out what she bit off for another 100
lines, give or take. This is part of Skaay’s style, possibly an element of what
Bringhurst calls his “hunterly reserve”. He uses the ambiguities of Haida to
their best possible effect.
In the sensible, sanitized, and catalogued book of tales,
these stories resemble ATU 75 or maybe 554 (I'm not an expert), where the mouse remains a mouse. Admittedly, a more than
usually perspicacious mouse, but still a mouse-sized mouse helped by, and later
helping, a human-sized human or a lion-sized lion.
Raven, the trickster, is the master of scale. “In Nisgha, Tsimshian and Haida oral literature alike, he is forever using peapods for canoes, or carving riverboats from elderberry twigs, or giving other proofs that he has no regard for measurement or scale, whether physical or moral.” (Bringhurst, A Story As Sharp as a Knife, pg. 623).
Before they had even started eating,
he headed toward the woods, they say.
He made ten canoes from hunks of punkwood
and filled them with spruce cones for crewmen.
He put flowerstalks of dunegrass
in the crewmens’ hands for lances.
The fleet rounded the point,
and he walked by the tideline, pointing, they say.
« Iixyaaaaay ! How can it be ?
Canoes rounding the point !
And they bristle with crewmen !»
They dropped their food and flew away, they say.
Then he entered the house
and gorged himself on the bark cakes.
Down on the beach, the canoes kept arriving.
They washed up on shore in a heap.
-Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay, Raven Travelling, trans. Robert Bringhurst. Ch. 5.2
The one who hooked him hauled him in
and came ashore
and gave him to his child,
and they skewered him for roasting.
When his backside started cooking,
he could hear himself thinking, they say.
« Why don’t they run to the edge of the village for something ?»
They ran outside right after that, they say.
They left the child sitting there alone.
At that moment, he put on his skin
and flew through the smokehole.
The child started crying for its mother.
« Mommy ! My dinner is flying awaaaaay !»
-Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay, Raven Travelling, trans. Robert Bringhurst. Ch. 5.1
Raven is thinking of himself in his own story, like a dreamer. This is one of Raven's names Nangkilslas, He Whose Voice Is Obeyed (The Haida, Swanton, pg. 28). He speaks/dreams what will happen and it happens. I'm sure something like this has happened in your dreams. See also: Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll, Chapter IV.
Impossible Visuals: Humpback Whale On A Stick Edition
Next day early in the morning, he heard an eagle scream.The 50' long humpback whale is used as a scale-based punchline in a number of Haida stories. You can hear the timing. “Some of them were carrying spring salmon.” Normal. “Others were carrying red snapper.” Again, normal. “Others... had humpback whale.” Uproarious laughter, small children falling over, etc.
He went outside to look, they say.
There was something set up in front of the house.
Eagles were perched on it in a row.
They were calling each other
and sharpening their talons.
Then they went out hunting.
Later in the day, they came back in.
Some of them were carrying spring salmon.
Others were carrying red snapper.
Others had humpback whale.
-Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas of Qaysun, The One Who Got Rid Of His Nine Nephews, trans. Robert Bringhurst. Ch. 3.2.
But it's a joke, not a lie. The incongruous whale, in the stories, is transported, carved up, speared on sticks (The Qquna Cycle, 126.96.36.199), etc. It's a mental paradox. It's possible to imagine but difficult to visualize.
Mutable Terrain: The Mallard Stick
She was angry after that.
Swinging something long and thing,
bluegreen for half its length,
she gave the town a whack.
The town of Qquuna lurched and tilted partway over.
Then he walked outside
and stomped it back in place.
-Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay, The Qquuna Cycle, trans. Robert Bringhurst, Ch.3.3.3. See also Ch. 188.8.131.52.
Once again, it's easy to imagine but difficult to visualize a town tipping on its side.
Then he went behind the screen again,
and he pulled up the trap and folded it flat.
The same with the house.
Then he set them by the lakeside
and rolled them up together with the lake
And put the bundle under his arm.
He climbed a tree that used to stand beside the lake,
and halfway up there he sat and waited.
-Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay, Raven Travelling, trans. Robert Bringhurst. Ch. 2.3.4
Raven steals a whole lake. Who steals a lake? See also Isaiah 34:4. It's a bit easier to imagine a lake being rolled up compared to the sky. You can assume grass is below a lake, but what's behind the sky?
Implementing Scale Ambiguity
RPG systems are largely defined by what they consider important and what they consider unimportant.
OSR-type games are probably not the best vehicle for the concept of scale ambiguity. How many Hit Dice does a whale have when it can be stored in your back pocket and also contains a village and it's one whale and it's The Whale and it's your maternal aunt?
This isn't the anxious pattern-shifting of my Drow posts, where the players are on the outside looking in. For this concept to work, I feel like it has to be available to everyone.
A custom PbtA system? Digging up a copy of How We Came To Live Here? Fate, maybe? Aspects could be a handy dodge for scale issues. A lot of mythology-based RPGs seem to take a superheroes-in-togas approach to mythology, which feels like it wouldn't lead anywhere useful.
I don't know. I'll keep thinking about it.
For traditional RPG/OSR purposes, item-based problem solving is integral to some Haida stories and I will try cover it at some point. There are also some "spells" and "monsters" (note quotation marks) that are well worth examining.
And, of course, more jokes.
|Sghaagya of the Yaakkw Gitinaay|
Haida Texts and Myths: Skidegate Dialect, Swanton, pg. 44