The Bridge of Dread
A dirgeful column on using folklore in tabletop RPGs
Death, resurrection, and travelling to the planes beyond are all common sights in many RPGs. But combine these all together and you can create a journey that’s just as interesting as the destination—all you need is a bridge.
The Bridge of Dread
In Northumbrian folklore, the Bridge of Dread (or, if you prefer, the Brig o’ Dread) is what a dead soul must pass over to reach purgatory. The danger is in falling over the side and into Hell, which is the fate of all evil souls.
The "Lyke-Wake Dirge" is a traditional English folk song that details a soul’s travel from Earth to purgatory over the Bridge. Here, charity is the virtue that allows one to safely cross:
From Brig o' Dread when thou may'st pass,
To Purgatory fire thou com'st at last;
If ever thou gavest meat or drink,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;
If meat or drink thou ne'er gav'st nane,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
You can read the full lyrics here and listen to two renditions here and here.
Although it may seem that the Bridge of Dread is a purely Christian idea, it shares similarities with many other world cultures. Close to home for the English are the Norse concepts of the Bifröst and the Gjallarbrú, which both connect the mortal world with the realms of the supernatural.
From the Norse too we can draw inspiration for a guardian, and we all know that no bridge is worth it’s salt without one. Modgud is the female giant who guards Gjallarbrú, the bridge over the river Gjöll that leads to Hel. She sees the dead as they arrive and pass over, and is polite in her discussion with the god Hermod when he asks if she has seen his brother Baldr pass by. Whether she could be entreated thus by a party of mortals, on the other hand, remains to be seen.
A Dread Bridge By Any Other Name…
The idea of crossing a bridge to the afterlife can be found in religions and folklore across the world, not just England and Scandinavia. In Islam, the Hadith mention the As-Sirāt, finer than a hair and sharper than a sword. In Japanese Buddhist tradition, a bridge is one of the three crossings a soul must make to pass over the Sanzu River. In Zoroastrianism, all souls pass to the afterlife over the Chinvat Bridge, which is guarded by two four-eyed dogs. And in many traditions, mountains are a liminal space between heaven and earth—perhaps atop one’s peak is the bridge you seek.
Using The Brig o’ Dead in Your Game
At its heart, this probably all seems rather simple. It’s a bridge, you cross it to get to your setting’s version of the afterlife. So, how can you use it in your game?
A Liminal Space
Sometimes you just need to create emphasis, and liminal spaces are a powerful way to do so. The PCs don’t just teleport into the underworld, or walk through a portal. Instead, they have to cross an ancient bridge between their world and another. The sky is dark but empty of all stars. The stone beneath them threatens to give way as they feel the weight of every evil deed they’ve ever committed. They can hear the souls of the condemned dead scream out to them. Perhaps they recognise some of them.
And then they step off the bridge and through an entryway to further adventure. All that’s happened is that you’ve included an additional simple scene, but now the players truly feel like things have changed.
A Daring Intervention
When tangling with resurrection, strong stakes are essential for giving death and any returns proper thematic weight. Rather than simply casting a spell, perhaps your PCs can attempt to stop the soul of their deceased friend from passing on in a more hands-on manner. If a soul can’t be brought back once it reaches the underworld, they’ll need to act fast to intervene on the bridge itself. And, of course, that means they’ll need to tangle with any guardian whose job it is to keep the dead moving in one direction.
The most powerful of foes always seem to have a way of coming back from the dead. Perhaps to finish the job, the PCs will need to confront them on the Bridge of Dread as they attempt to return to the mortal realm. This is perfect for an undead monster like a lich or a dracula, one last fight where their true form is revealed in all its monstrous glory. Everyone involved just needs to make sure that they watch their footing—lest they get knocked over the bridge’s edge and plummet into Hell itself!
And that’s a wrap of the Brig o’ Dread!
Thanks for reading! Next week we’ll enter the murky boglands and tangle with what might lie beneath the still waters.
Penny for your thoughts: Have you, or your players, ever attempted a daring rescue or mission into the underworld? Did you, or they, succeed?
~ A.C. Luke
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Quiller-Couch, Arthur. 1900. The Oxford Book of English Verse. Clarendon: Oxford.
Atkinson, John C. 1868. A Glossary of the Cleveland Dialect: Explanatory, Derivative, and Critical. John Russell Smith: London.
Smith, Jane I; Haddad, Yvonne Y. 1981. The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection. SUNY Press: Albany.
Stone, Jacqueline; Walter, Mariko N. 2008. Death and the Afterlife in Japanese Buddhism. University of Hawaiʻi Press: Honolulu.
Doniger, Wendy; Merriam-Webster, Inc. 1999. Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions. Merriam-Webster: Springfield.