When I get stuck in a rut and need new ideas for games and stories, there are two sources I turn to for GM inspiration: the folklore scholars Vladimir Propp and Stith Thompson. Both individuals are renowned for having devised (different, yet equally universal) schemes for identifying and classifying the "fundamental" story-elements of all traditional folktales. In Thompson's case, he was a scholar interested in compiling an exhaustive reference for tropes and plot elements. Propp, on the other hand, had a different and somewhat more abmitious goal; his aim was to compile a set of universal functions for all true oral folk tales (fairy tales, etc.).
From a GM's perspective, I sometimes think of these schemata as two attempts to create a kind of Periodic Table of Elements, but for narrative typology instead of chemistry. If you do not make use of these amazing references already, maybe you will find them as useful as I have.
Stith Thompson's extensive system was originally published between 1931 and 1958 in 6 volumes, collectively entitled The Motif Index of Folk Literature. I'm happy to report that there is now an online version of Thompson's magnum opus. Check it out.
Vladimir Propp's study was published in his Morphology of the Folktale in 1928. The elements are made up of 31 functions and 7 characters. I haven't found an online version of Propp's schema that is fleshed out to the degree that Thompson's is, but I will try to summarize briefly here.
First, here are the theorems that Propp uses to define a function in context of the tales:
1. The functions of characters serve as stable, constant elements in a tale, independent of how and by whom they are fulfilled.Propp claims that traditional (i.e. oral) folktales all incorporate the same fundamental motifs and sequence (which together constitute a function), though they may vary by different inversions or optional complicatons. After the initial situation of a tale is depicted, it then involves the following functions-- (here, I've copied more or less from Jerry Everard's interesting blog):
2. The number of functions known to the fairy tale is limited.
3. The sequence of functions is always identical.
4. All fairy tales are of one type in regard to their structure.
- A member of a family leaves home (the hero is introduced);
- An injunction is placed upon the hero (’don’t go there’, ‘go to this place’);
- The injunction is violated (villain enters the tale);
- The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance (either villain tries to find the children/jewels etc; or intended victim questions the villain);
- The villain gains information about the victim;
- 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);
- Victim taken in by deception, unwittingly helping the enemy;
- 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);
- Misfortune or lack is made known, (hero is dispatched, hears call for help etc/ alternative is that victimised hero is sent away, freed from imprisonment);
- Seeker agrees to, or decides upon counter-action;
- Hero leaves home;
- Hero is tested, interrogated, attacked etc, preparing the way for his/her receiving magical agent or helper (donor);
- Hero reacts to actions of future donor (withstands/fails the test, frees captive, reconciles disputants, performs service, uses adversary’s powers against them);
- Hero acquires use of a magical agent (directly transferred, located, purchased, prepared, spontaneously appears, eaten/drunk, help offered by other characters);
- Hero is transferred, delivered or led to whereabouts of an object of the search;
- Hero and villain join in direct combat;
- Hero is branded (wounded/marked, receives ring or scarf);
- Villain is defeated (killed in combat, defeated in contest, killed while asleep, banished);
- Initial misfortune or lack is resolved (object of search distributed, spell broken, slain person revivied, captive freed);
- Hero returns;
- Hero is pursued (pursuer tries to kill, eat, undermine the hero);
- Hero is rescued from pursuit (obstacles delay pursuer, hero hides or is hidden, hero transforms unrecognisably, hero saved from attempt on his/her life);
- Hero unrecognised, arrives home or in another country;
- False hero presents unfounded claims;
- Difficult task proposed to the hero (trial by ordeal, riddles, test of strength/endurance, other tasks);
- Task is resolved;
- Hero is recognised (by mark, brand, or thing given to him/her);
- False hero or villain is exposed;
- Hero is given a new appearance (is made whole, handsome, new garments etc);
- Villain is punished;
- Hero marries and ascends the throne (is rewarded/promoted).
Propp's 7 broad character types are:
1. The villain — struggles against the hero.
2. The donor — prepares the hero or gives the hero some magical object.
3. The (magical) helper — helps the hero in the quest.
4. The princess and her father — gives the task to the hero, identifies the false hero, marries the hero, often sought for during the narrative. Propp noted that functionally, the princess and the father can not be clearly distinguished.
5. The dispatcher — character who makes the lack known and sends the hero off.
6. The hero or victim/seeker hero — reacts to the donor, weds the princess.
7. [False hero] — takes credit for the hero's actions or tries to marry the princess