Grim Games: The Robber Bridegroom
“The Robber Bridegroom” is hands down my favorite tale recorded by the brothers Grimm. It has beauty, murder, mystery, magic, terror, and revenge. The characters dance wildly in my imagination each time I read it, and the settings frighten me more than any horror film could as my imagination fills it with evil and terror. It is a tale I have told over campfires, and it frightened the poor teens who dared to listen. Best of all, the protagonist isn’t a princess waiting to be saved, but a beauty that is able to save herself.
There are a few morals to the story; the simplest one is to never trust rich strangers. But deep down there is a message that the world is full of danger and death disguised as worldly pleasure and riches, and that you may never find out what is really safe unless you are cautious and listen to that gut feeling that tells you something is wrong. It may take going into dark places and witnessing horrible things to discover just how much danger you have been in, but wits and wisdom will keep you safe.
There is also a great message that evil can be defeated by those we see as weak and insignificant. This story is one of the minority that have a strong female protagonist who is able to rely on her own wits and ability. There is no Prince Charming coming to save her, there are no magic fairies to give her power, and the only help she receives is from the old woman when she is hidden from the Robber Bridegroom. She uses her own cunning to keep from getting lost and to save herself, and it is her instincts and wisdom that tell her not to trust the man she is engaged to. Never assume the girl is helpless, as sometimes they can save themselves.
This story is one that begs to be a module or side quest, mostly because of the amount of great elements you can pull from it. The rich miller that wants to marry off his beautiful daughter could try to set her up with a PC, hoping the financial success of adventuring will be become a resource he could call upon to expand his business ventures. The wedding feast that sets up a big reveal of a plot hook is a great place to start an adventure and introduce PCs to each other. The bridegoom and his malicious merry men could be part of a secret cult responsible for a series of murders in the region. The miller’s daughter could even be made a recurring character as someone that unexpectedly assists the party from time to time.
The one major element that I love the most, though, is the solitary house in the woods. It isn’t just in any forest, but in “the dark woods,” and in the center of it where there is little to no light. The house itself is said to be dark, sinister, and totally quiet, giving a sense of danger and foreboding. The path to it is long, and the use of ashes and lentils suggests a maze-like network of paths that hide its true location. There are probably even dangers that other paths lead to, such as lairs of dangerous animals or monsters, traps, or natural hazards. The house isn’t fully described, and the story says that it has only several rooms and a cellar, but I always imagined it as a large house or small mansion. Something large and imposing that looms over you while staying just small enough that it doesn’t feel crushing or overbearing.
This house is an element of evil in and of itself. It is a secret place, with hidden terrors lurking in and around it. It is a lair where one of the greatest evils is committed regularly, hidden away from the world in a place few dare to go. It represents all the dangerous, forbidden, and dark places that we have to travel to find and defeat evil. We have to be clever to reach it and return from it, keep ourselves hidden from what lurks within, and be strong to survive what we witness. In a way, such locations are characters themselves.
To place a location like this, it needs to be kept away from civilization. This isn’t an unknown evil living among us, but one that is removed and hidden from view. It is a journey just to reach it, and someone might be lost for days if they don’t know the way. Additionally, after someone is there, he or she should instantly know this is a location of evil. It is dark, it is gloomy, and—probably the most unsettling detail—it should be found empty of life and large combat encounters.
Very few major lairs are discovered without anyone to fight while exploring it. This could be a twist that makes the location memorable and interesting. The fact that visitors don’t know everyone is gone means the sense of suspense will climb with each empty room they find. Throw in a couple of traps, spooky noises, and a creepy song bird, and you can keep the party on its toes. If you feel things are going stale while they explore, place a haunt or a single undead threat to fight, but make it something that jumps out at them and quickly puts the suspense into the forefront.
Treasure should be mostly found on the Robber Bridegroom, or whoever is the main villain for the house, and the evil followers. Coins and art pieces certainly can be found in the home, but nothing in way of magic items that could be used against the villain. That said, letting the characters take their time looting the place could be fine if you are keeping the suspense up with occasional creepy descriptions and shocking finds. Place bones, bloody trophies, and even journal entries to hint at the horrible events that take place in the house.
After the characters are beginning to leave, have the villain show up. This could be something one of the player characters sees or hears happening, such as noting loud merry making outside or seeing someone walk toward the house. Alternatively, you could have the two groups just suddenly meet each other as the villain walks through the front door. No matter how you would do it, an extra element of shock and suspense can be added with his men holding a hostage. The captured young lady the men intend to kill and eat can shock your players, especially if they put the pieces together from clues or talked to the old lady in the basement. After the player characters see the hostage, the situation turns from a sudden combat to a tense negotiation and stand off.
No matter how you use the location, make it creepy and unsettling. If the characters refuse to do normal activities like rest or eat there, you have done your job well. They should want to leave because it is horrifying, but stay because they want to cleanse the area of evil.