In the days of World War II, when combat planes were coming off the assembly line almost as fast as automobiles and there was a greater mathematical chance of malfunctions than there would normally be in peacetime flying, the flying fraternity blamed many of its technical problems on mythical little creatures called "gremlins." When a fuel line clogged or the control surfaces on an airplane got stuck for no apparent reason, the pilots and the mechanics alike would grumble that gremlins had gotten into the system and fouled it up. It was not always the gremlins' fault. Sometimes the blame rested on the mechanic, who had failed to check a part, or on the pilot himself, who had not taken enough time to look over his airplane before he took off. In a case like this, the gremlin was simply a convenient scapegoat. When the crews had done everything humanly possible to check their planes, however, and things still went wrong, the gremlins deserved some of the blame.
— John H. Glenn Jr., in We Seven
Not all magical creatures come from the timeless wells of fairy lore; some have sprung up in the modern era. One such type is the Gremlin, a mischievous creature who delights in sabotaging machines, particularly airplanes. They were first named by aviators in the Royal Air Force serving in the Middle East; the first mention of them appears in a poem published in the journal Aeroplane, in Malta on April 10, 1929. During WWII, belief in gremlins spread throughout the RAF. If a plane would break down for some inexplicable reason, gremlins were probably the culprit.
Author Roland Dahl, who had served in the 80th Squadron of the RAF and who once experienced the Gremlin's pranks when he crash landed in the Libyan Desert, wrote a book entitled The Gremlins. Disney Studios considered making an animated movie based on the book, but could never figure out how to make the pixie saboteurs lovable. They did, however, create Gremlin airplane nose art and insignia.
According to Dahl, infant Gremlins are called Widgets and females are called Fifinellas. The Disney version of the Fiffnella became the mascot for the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during WWII.
Game and Story Use
- In a historical or time travel campaign set during WWII, any equipment malfunction or critical failure could be blamed on the Gremlins.
- In a magical campaign, the gremlins might actually exist and could be a recurring annoyance to the PCs.
- Mythago much anyone?
- The old NPC mechanic who maintains the party's plane claims to have actually seen Gremlins during the War. Of course, he also drinks a lot.
- More generally, by the end of WW2 both sides were experimenting with dosing their pilots with all sorts of performance enhancing drugs, starting with benzedrine and departing in all sorts of directions. Hallucinations are only to be expected. Assuming, of course, that the hippies aren't right about the 'perception enhancing' effects of some drugs - that they allow you to see things that actually are there but are normally invisible, rather than seeing things that aren't there.
- In a magic-vs.-technology themed setting, gremlins may even be some kind of 'immune system' that the magical world deploys to try to reduce the spread of technology.
- In a shamanistic setting, gremlins are merely machine spirits which have not been treated with the proper respect and are manifesting to object - this explains why the old fitter who talks to his machines achieves far better results … the spirits associated with them find this pleasant and are less inclined to manifest as gremlins.