Designing a Damsel in Distress

Today I want to explore an idea I’ve had on the list for a while… an Insta-NPCs product about “Damsels.” If you’ve spent any time reading traditional fairy tales, there always seems to be a damsel in distress. The term “damsel” itself means “a young unmarried woman” but implies so much more. The old tales imply that damsels always need saving, but in my experience I find that to be a very outdated concept. Plus, in the modern era I think there are just as many male damsels as females, but it’s tough to tell.

Though this book could talk about the traditional damsel, we are going to change things up a little and use the term to refer to anyone needing rescue. As you might imagine, that opens our storytelling tremendously.

[Editor’s Update: The product is now available! Check out Insta-NPCs #7: Damsels in Distress today!]

Let’s look at some of the properties of one of these damsels and see how it works out…

  • Who? (Man, woman, child, elderly, animal, supernatural)
  • Why? (Self-created, outsider)
  • Where? (Forest, cave, mine, city, swamp)
  • How? (Lost, kidnapped, family dispute, military action, happenstance, accident, supernatural)
  • Condition? (hungry, thirsty, hurt, dead, devoured, brainwashed)

Using some of these, let’s put together a few examples.

Example 1 – Daniel Havens (Man, self, forest, lost, hungry)

Daniel Havens decided it was time to take control of his fate. He left his job as apprentice to the local blacksmith (a horror of a man who delighted in making his life miserable), gathered his meager possessions, and dove headlong into the forest to start another life. The road out of town headed through the forest into the Beyond and yet he became turned around in moments. Every tree looked the same. Everything was dark and forbidding. And he became lost before he knew it.

That was three days ago. He attempted to eat berries from a tree and felt ill immediately, vomiting them back up in a mess. He tried to use his few tools to fashion a trap of some sort for some of the smaller woodland creatures and only succeeded in breaking his tools and slashing his hands. He was able to find water, but even that was a short-lived victory as he discovered it had long ago gone bad.

Would anyone come for him, he wondered? He was ill, thirsty, and hungry – not necessarily in that order – and he wished for the old life he’d left behind, as awful as it was.

Example 2 – Rhoda Birge (Woman, Outsider, Cave, Kidnapped, Thirsty)

Rhoda Birge was a precocious fourteen year old girl who believed her parents to be monsters, her teachers to be uncaring creatures from the Nether Regions, and her friends to be a group of lying, cheating horrors who tormented her day and night. But that was before she woke up one morning in a bed of rancid furs, lost in a maze of caves, and watched by a red-eyed hellbeast.

For the first few hours she screamed for help. Then she spent a few hours crying herself to sleep, hoping she would wake up safe in her own bed. When she woke up in the same pile of smelly skins in a dark place lit by a few candles that never melted and the reddish glow of her captor’s eyes, she knew that wasn’t going to work.

Starving, sad, and thirsty, she cautiously moved around the cavern seeking any way out until she found a pool of crystal clear water fed by the constant drip of a hanging stalagtite. It tasted cool and fresh and she sated her thirst, even if only momentarily, wondering why she was taken of all people and what her captor wanted…

Example 3 – (Child, self, mine, family dispute, hurt)

Nine year old Bert Homm was lost. He’d run away from his absentee mother while she was working one of her three jobs and found the path to a local closed mine entrance. The mine closed years ago, but some of the vents and entrances remained open if you looked hard enough. Sure, the signs said “Keep Out!” and “Danger! Unsafe!” but he was a bright adventurous kid nobody really wanted, so he slipped between some of the wooden slats at the entrance and blundered into the dark.

Though he’d brought a flashlight, the batteries failed after only an hour and he stepped into a shaft, falling 25 feet to the top of a rickety elevator car. The pain was excruciating and he discovered he’d broken his leg in the fall. Though he tried climbing the cable back out, he hardly got five feet before he could no longer hang on and fell again.

He’s been yelling for help ever since, on the off chance that someone might hear his cries while walking somewhere nearby. But secretly he hoped that his mom might discover that he was gone and send help… He had left clues to where he’d gone in his bedroom, so hopefully she’d get the message.


All of these sound dark and depressing, like they’re part of some episode of CSI, Grimm or Constantine. But let’s see if we can turn one towards a traditional fantasy or horror genre story.

The first and the last could be easily twisted into adventure plots in a fantasy campaign. Perhaps Havens has family, friends, or a romantic interest who gets concerned when he’s not heard from and asks the PCs for help. Or perhaps his horrific boss employs the PCs to recover his employee (as an apprentice he may owe time or money towards his contracted apprenticeship period). The same could be done for the boy lost in a local mine. Bert’s mother might seek help to find her lost son and hire the PCs to locate him.

In both cases, it’s quite possible that Bert and Havens stumble into more than just their own trouble. They may discover darker things in the forest or the mines who are awakened by their mere presence.

And in the girl’s case, it would likely work well as a Dresden Files adventure where the PCs are hired to locate the girl when the local cops or FBI come up dry. It’s possible that the cave is outside of time and her captor is a demon, devil, or other monster seeking a sacrifice for some dark purpose.

As with everything, it depends on what you’re looking for… and context is important. Without knowing the world that these “damsels” are coming from, it’s impossible to put their situations in perspective. Each damsel deserves some chance of rescue, don’t they? Perhaps that’s up to you to decide…

What do you think? Should we explore further?

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6 thoughts on “Designing a Damsel in Distress”

  1. Hello!

    Given that you are now turning to fairy tale motifs (even though you add some twists), I am wondering about the possibility of Little Spaces going fairy tale as well. After all, Little Spaces has thus far been horror, then man-made (dinner guests, tavern, pirates, …) and finally now SF. When it comes to the mythical grove or the enchanted mountain top, Little Spaces does not have a good fitting tool yet (I recently needed a fairy tale location for a dream situation and used the Big Book of Little Spaces: Haunts; in the end it did work out, but only because the dream was indeed influenced by beneficial ghosts and I was willing to drive that point forward directly).

    In addition, I really like the extensive sense tables from the Big Book of Little Spaces: Haunts and hope that you will eventually do something similar again (maybe with fantasy/fairy tale in mind, or maybe even with more NPC-focused things like tavern trouble and dinner guests).


    1. @Deathworks – First, thanks for the great suggestion. I really appreciate it and the kind words for the series so far. If I was to explore Fairy Tales in Little Spaces, I can see a few possibilities… Fairy Rings, for example. Or possibly Castles. And there are plans to do more compilation projects for Little Spaces (another Big Book is down the line).

      Do you have anything in particular that would have helped in the case of your campaign? Beyond “Mythic Grove” or “Mountain Top”? Dreams would be interesting, for sure.

  2. Hello!

    Good to hear about the plans for the collections (that was really what I needed for the dream as I was open to various locations, like a village, a fair, woods, a mountain top, a castle, you know, those places you have in fairy tales). I just recalled that I also faced a problem with a garden plot a PC was tending to. I figured it would be more of a vegetable plot, still, I wanted to get some random flavour for the plot, and again, the current Little Spaces were not very-well suited for the task.

    However, I want to mention that the Big Book of Little Spaces: Haunts worked really great for getting a name/flavour for a fast food restaurant in Horizon, the Gothic quarter of the setting of Chuubo’s).

    Come to think of it, a supplement or two for parks would be neat – both one for normal/benign parks and one for haunted ones… although the haunted one can probably be dealt with using the Big Book of Little Spaces: Haunts…


  3. A bit late, Fitz, I know but I’m here finally. 🙂

    I like the idea of a Damsel and the first snippet of Daniel Haven made me think of him falling in with some Conan-type character by chance. A story / game could be told of how the 2 of them come to rely on each other and maybe become friends.

    I can see it now how in a moment of weakness the Conan-type drops a winesack and cheese next to Daniel. He sees this, grabs a bite and a drink, then darts off after the Conan-type. Somehow he manages to keep up and when Conan-type sets up a fire Dainel joins the fire despite the obvious hints that Conan-type wants to be alone.

    Umm… Me like. 🙂

    1. @Kenny – That’s a fun twist I hadn’t considered, but one that flows naturally from this little snippet for sure! That’s the beauty of this sort of creative development in my eyes… no two writers or GMs are going to interpret things the same way and then when you add a group to the mix, it has the potential to go a million places. 🙂 Thanks for the vote of confidence!

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