Propp was one of the most brilliant folklorists of all time, very knowledgeable of fairy tales, their meanings, and most especially their story structures. As people during his time attempted to classify stories by key features, and elements, something which led to hundreds of story types, Propp felt it would make more sense to examine story structure based on functions.
In his studies Propp found 31 fairy tale functions, it was his claim that while not all these functions where in any fairy tale, fairy tales where all driven by these functions which all occurred in the numerical order he outlined for them from least to greatest.
While it can be argued that there are perhaps folktales especially those in other cultures that do not follow exactly the outline created by Propp, he certainly discovered something that is true the majority of the time, and when talking about humans that is normally the best one can get, for humans have few if any rules regarding their imagination which are true all the time. It is wise then to utilize Propp’s functions set as a tool to understanding fairy tales, rather then simply working to dispute it, because if you try to you will find fairy tales that don’t match it, but you will find many more which do.
What Propp means for fantasy stories and RPG’s
So what do Propp’s functions have to do with fantasy role playing games and fantasy worlds? Everything, for it is Propp’s functions which have shown the outline for most all of the early fantasy stories, and certainly for the most famous of such stories. By defining this storyline Propp has not only created a tool for understanding fairy tales, he has created one for writing them, and fantasy stories structured like them, and considering the power and timeless nature of fairy tales this is indeed a valuable story tool. When creating a quest for your characters this tool is invaluable for helping to generate ideas, often times quests are merely a string of challenges rather then a story. Propp offers a more concrete structure for ideas. This way a game master creating an rpg quest could rather then simply stringing together challenges, string together events from meetings with hero’s, receiving of magical objects, and villain’s natures being revealed.
Of special interest to those creating role playing quests includes the interdiction violated (the players, or someone close to them does something they where told not to). Common in fairy tales, someone is told not to do something, and so they must inevitably do it. In the case of a hero this could be a good opportunity to use external characters to pressure them. Someone close to them bothers them until such time as they do the thing they where told not to. Or the pc’s could be forced to choose between a known negative event and an unknown, as they are chased by a dragon, poisoned, or driven to do something they normally would not do to survive. For in fleeing the dragon they enter a fairies private realm angering it. To cure themselves of the poison they make a deal with a stranger. There are many other ways to direct the PC’s towards the breaking of the interdiction, allowing you to set them up for the fantasy quest.
Once the interdiction is broken the PC’s could find themselves in trouble, and so would need the help of the villain who at this point is disguised as a helper. One of the things that make fairy tales so interesting is the way in which villains often start out as those seeming to help the hero characters. Yet they do so only to cause some sort of harm to or to get something out of the hero. In your role playing game this duality of the villain character could add interest and of course a more story like feel.
On the flip side of the hidden villain is the actual helper character, someone who provides magical aid to the hero. Fairies play in this role well for they do not have their own unknown reasons for helping and so could simply choose to be helpful if the player’s characters are friendly to them. What’s important to understand in this is that these are not simply random events; it is OK if the pc’s receive miraculous help from an outside source in this story structure because this structure is so well known to most peoples. Propp’s structure after all is the structure on which most of our fantasy stories are originally based.
Propp’s function started with an initial set up situation of who, what, when and where, after this the stories according to him would follow along in order some of the following 31 functions.
1. A member of a family leaves home (the hero is introduced);
2. An interdiction is addressed to the hero (‘don’t go there’);
3. The interdiction is violated (villain enters the tale);
4. The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance (either villain tries to find the children/jewels etc; or intended victim questions the villain);
5. The villain gains information about the victim;
6. The villain attempts to deceive the victim to take possession of victim or victim’s belongings (trickery; villain disguised, tries to win confidence of victim);
7. Victim taken in by deception, unwittingly helping the enemy;
8. Villain causes harm/injury to family member (by abduction, theft of magical agent, spoiling crops, plunders in other forms, causes a disappearance, expels someone, casts spell on someone, substitutes child etc, comits murder, imprisons/detains someone, threatens forced marriage, provides nightly torments); Alternatively, a member of family lacks something or desires something (magical potion etc);
9. Misfortune or lack is made known, (hero is dispatched, hears call for help etc/ alternative is that victimized hero is sent away, freed from imprisonment);
10. Seeker agrees to, or decides upon counter-action;
11. Hero leaves home;
12. Hero is tested, interrogated, attacked etc, preparing the way for his/her receiving magical agent or helper (donor);
13. Hero reacts to actions of future donor (withstands/fails the test, frees captive, reconciles disputants, performs service, uses adversary’s powers against him);
14. Hero acquires use of a magical agent (directly transferred, located, purchased, prepared, spontaneously appears, eaten/drunk, help offered by other characters);
15. Hero is transferred, delivered or led to whereabouts of an object of the search;
16. Hero and villain join in direct combat;
17. Hero is branded (wounded/marked, receives ring or scarf);
18. Villain is defeated (killed in combat, defeated in contest, killed while asleep, banished);
19. Initial misfortune or lack is resolved (object of search distributed, spell broken, slain person revived, captive freed);
20. Hero returns;
21. Hero is pursued (pursuer tries to kill, eat, undermine the hero);
22. Hero is rescued from pursuit (obstacles delay pursuer, hero hides or is hidden, hero transforms unrecognisably, hero saved from attempt on his/her life);
23. Hero unrecognized, arrives home or in another country;
24. False hero presents unfounded claims;
25. Difficult task proposed to the hero (trial by ordeal, riddles, test of strength/endurance, other tasks);
26. Task is resolved;
27. Hero is recognized (by mark, brand, or thing given to him/her);
28. False hero or villain is exposed;
29. Hero is given a new appearance (is made whole, handsome, new garments etc);
30. Villain is punished;
31. Hero marries and ascends the throne (is rewarded/promoted).