Libris Monstrum #28: Doppelgangers
Good evening everyone! Tonight we return to the Libris Monstrum and come ever-so-closer to the halfway point of our second series. In this entry we are going to talk about a classic monster that helps bring a level of intrigue to any game: the doppelganger. Strange creatures who take the form of someone else. these guys are often responsible for replacing key NPCs or having been the NPC the whole time! When where they replaced? Did we ever know the true NPC???? These are the questions that your players might ask, but for my part I want to know where the doppelganger comes from.
I want to begin here because there is plenty of lore surrounding the concept of a doppelganger, but only one place from which the name comes. That place is the German language and their mythological creature. These are beings who name translates roughly to double walker, a clear indication of what we all recognize by the term. For this mythology the doppelganger was a look-alike or even a double of a person. Sometimes the whole event is paranormal or supernatural in description. Regardless, the sighting of your double is seen as a bad thing and generally labeled as a harbinger of bad luck. The other idea surrounding this is that the doppelganger represents your “evil twin”, but we will talk more on that later on, possibly in the revisit. Something you may have heard from a movie or story is that the doppelganger isn’t just an omen of poor luck coming your way but foretells your coming demise. This however, might be more the result of other, similar beings.
Throughout various myths there are a surprising number of doppelganger-like beings. These might be spirits or creatures or something else entirely, but the obsession with seeing your self is not a new one. It has had significance through history, either as a sign or omen, or simply as a method of getting into the viewer’s head. For example the ancient Egyptians believed that there could be ka which could be seen as a spirit-like double of a person with their knowledge and memories. The truth of the belief is a bit more complex featuring 5 different parts that make up a human soul with ka being one of them. Neverthless, the ka could be separate from the body and some tales tell of a ka being used to impersonate a person and trick someone else. Delving into the full mythology might convolute whether we consider it the person, a double, or something in between but the concept is very similar to the doppelganger.
There are a few other beings which trim more closely to what we think of when we hear doppelganger though: the fetch, the Ankou, and the vardoger. The vardoger is something from Norse mythology which might appear to someone. Like the doppelganger it looks just like the person and is even said to be performing the acts that they are about to take. This is much less ominous than our friend from Germon mythology and much more like physical deja’vu. The Ankou is something less sinister to the doppelganger but no less a harbinger of something you would rather avoid. Part of old Cornish and Breton lore, this was a spirit that would appear to those who were about to die. The key difference here (other than the obvious Ankou definitely equals death) is that the Ankou is not a double of the person viewing it, it is a much more specific double. During the year there are plenty of deaths, but the last person to die is the one whose form become the Ankou for the next year. They have the responsibility to toll the dead, as it were, and call to those spirit who are dying or dead. Finally we arrive at the fetch, a creature from Irish folklore. This supernatural apparition appears to those as a bad omen and sign of what is to come. Generally speaking, a sighting of the fetch foretells your not-to-distant death.
Much as I would like to get into doppelganger-adjacent concepts beyond those of history, I think we need to save those for the revisit. Instead, let’s talk about some occurrences in psychology that are all too similar to the doppelgangers we see at the table. First, let’s discuss the alter ego. This is a word that gets thrown around for a lot of things, especially in day and age. You might recognize it from comic books or other supers media. Often it is used as another way to say secret identity. This usage isn’t exactly wrong. The alter ego is something of a second personality, and was coined during a time when psychology began exploring the possibility that one might dissociate from another within a person. However, this has expanded over the years to be a little more analytical and comparative where the two personalities are distinct but not necessarily separate. Or the personality might not be real, as when an author writes a version of themselves into a story. In many ways the alter ego is a doppelganger we cannot always see, isn’t necessarily obvious, but nevertheless reveals much.
The next topic comes from a different angle, but still concerns psychology. This is a disorder known as Capgras delusion. You probably have never heard of it, or at least you have never heard it called this, but I am sure you have heard of you seen something like it. Capgras delusion is the idea that someone or something has been replaced with a double. Often associated with it is a sense that time has been shifted or is warped in some way but the key takeaway is that there is a double, an imposter. The person is delusional and, thus, fully believes that the other is replaced. Unlike the case of a doppelganger where you might see your own double, the Capgras delusion leads you to believe that someone or something is the double and you can only guess what happened to the original. If nothing else it is a wonderful concept to draw on for intrigue plots that actually do involve a doppelganger, though maybe the PCs don’t think so yet….
Okay, for next time I think we will definitely start with the evil twin concept and some of the ways that has been explored. I also may talk about ways in which there have been doubles that aren’t dopplegangers. Of course, there are plenty of movies and stories involving similar beings. Pod-people anyone?? If you have a story about doppelgangers, a favorite creature like them, or one from a story you remember then let us know in the comments below!!!