Playing with Scale

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.

OneD&D Virtual Tabletop development preview.

In extreme cases, battlemaps with miniatures (either in real life or virtually) represent the scene itself. The GM’s descriptions take a backseat. What a wonderful opportunity for monetization! What a convenient flattening of the imagination!

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"[1] 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.[2] It's worth it.

[1]. Bringhurst, A Story As Sharp as a Knife, pg. 13. For reference, we have thirty thousand lines of Old English

[2] 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. [1]
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.» [2]

She brought out a box.
She pulled out four more boxes within boxes. [3]
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

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

We can compare this to the same story told by Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay.

He took an overgrown trail. [1]
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. [2]
« Yes, grandson, here it is. »

-Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay, The Qquuna Cycle, trans. Robert Bringhurst, Ch. See also Ch. 4.2.1.

[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.

[2]. 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.

Scale-Dancing: Raven

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 
In some stories, Raven is a meta-storyteller, unable to tell stories but able to influence the story he's in.
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.

UBC Display

Impossible Visuals: Humpback Whale On A Stick Edition

Next day early in the morning, he heard an eagle scream.
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.
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. 

But it's a joke, not a lie. The incongruous whale, in the stories, is transported, carved up, speared on sticks (The Qquna Cycle,, 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. 

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


  1. I highly recommend you check out R. A. Lafferty, if you haven't already. He was able to reach the same level of ambiguity and meta-textual self-reference. I recommend his collection Nine Hundred Grandmothers as a start, if you haven't read any of his stuff before.

  2. So I somehow lost my original comment while messaging a friend about this. He may pop up - he's actually Cree (which isn't Haida, but is closer than you or I), and into RPG stuff, so may be able to provide some insight into mixing such concepts.

    I would recommend you try to learn Cree (if you learn any of the NAI languages). There are four reasons I would recommend Cree.
    First, I am in a heavily Cree area and so can put you in touch with some resources and some actual people who both play D&D and are Cree. Also, those people actually exist in number, so you can talk to them. There's not enough Haida left for that group to be significant.
    Second, there's a lot more Cree than Haida, so resources are easier to find and I suspect you would have a much easier time finding traditional stories.
    Third, it's a pleasant language where the pronunciation is fairly friendly, the spelling clear, and while the grammar structure is basically backward to English it's obviously learnable if you're good at languages despite being very much NOT European.
    Fourth, the Haida were dicks. Not that the Cree, Mikmaq and Iroquois couldn't be dicks (as could all people in the past), but the Haida culture seems to have been heavily built around raiding and slave-taking, and so I would not urge investing in it to the extent of learning the language.

    Failing Cree, I'd point you toward Mikmaq or Iroquois. The Mikmaq have an interesting history (both in that they may have interacted with the Vikings, are quite well-documented, and have a complicated relationship with the English and French). The Iroquois are why North America is English (among many other impressive influences), and are also numerous and well-documented.

    Speaking as a Canadian, the political situation around Indigenous stuff is a mess. The left basically view them all as noble savages and lionize the traditional and environmental aspects to the exclusion of anything else. The right don't do that, but also tend to excuse past (and present) mistreatment and believe that they should just be like everyone else. And that's without getting into the shocking conditions on-reserve or the over-incarceration or the victimization. It is an overly-polarized mess. Just bear that in mind when encountering stuff.

    My own observations, after ten years of life in Northern Manitoba - the traditional Cree don't think like you and me (duh) - they don't think like Indo-Europeans, really. Which makes sense, but it is one thing to know and one thing to understand. There's a fair amount of diversity within the culture, too (both individually and group-to-group), and I regularly see a national media pronouncement about universal Cree culture that, when I inquire with Cree friends and acquaintances, is confirmed to not be a universal Cree thing. Measurement and specificity definitely aren't traditional Cree or Dene things in my experience. Nor are strict time records kept (to paraphrase the leader at a sun dance I attended, "things are done when they're done"). A lot of more traditional people struggle with keeping pronouns straight (and not in a progressive sense, in a "confuse he and her" sense), and seem to struggle with the distinction between what they've personally observed and what they've been told or decided took place (though, with the possible exception of one band that none of the other Cree I've met like, they can make the distinction. It's just not how they initially think about things). Lots of focus on listening to everyone.

    Would be happy to discuss this stuff further, either on Discord or here. Or try to find you some people to talk to.

    1. Hi, thanks for your interest.
      To address one point, I'm not trying to learn Haida for RPG reasons (or aesthetic reasons, or useful day-to-day reasons, or because it's a sensible idea.) Any RPG material that comes out of this is a sort of side-effect. I'm trying to learn Haida because I am interested in one particular story, in translation, and the more I investigated it the more I realized that some familiarity with the language would be useful. I followed a footnote down the rabbit hole.

    2. I didn't figure it was specifically for RPG reasons re the language, but barring a reason as specific as yours those others seemed like they would be more useful. If you do ultimately want to look beyond the Haida, those are the directions I'd urge.

  3. Interesting. In Russian folklore when a person transformed into an animal (like a werewolf) he wore that animal skin. Even if the animal is small, like i the princess frog.

    Now I'm writing a oneshot inspired by the frog princess i want to incorporate this idea. Maybe in this kingdom they learn a magic to turn the skin of an animal into a skin changer magic item. Could it be used with human skin? Can this place be crawling with dopplegangers?