Not in My Game

While indulging in my yearly bout of gaming nostalgia (as this time of year marks my first foray into the world of Dungeons & Dragons) I found myself perusing an old issue of The Dragon. Issue 31, to be precise. I was amusing myself with the wondrous questions and answers in the first-ever installment of "Sage Advice" (long bows can't be used as direct-fire weapons? Whuh??) when I was stopped in my tracks by the following question, or - more precisely - by the response from Jean Wells:

This exhibits one of the fundamental things that has always bothered me about the default assumptions present in D&D: namely that many of these fantastical creatures are assigned a mundane existence rather than being fantastical.

The first time I recall encountering this was when I read of the goblin families in Keep on the Borderlands

Goblin children? I thought. 

To me, this seemed wrong. Goblins, orcs, etc., are creatures of myth and legend. Attributing to them the same properties as creatures of the natural order effectively strips them of their phantasmagorical existences. Furthermore, by making them natural beings as opposed to supernatural ones, the creators of the game made it far less believable that they could be wholly evil, as they're presented (with an alignment of chaotic or chaotic evil, depending on your flavor of the game). Surely, if they are intelligent creatures belonging to the natural order, they have as much capacity for moral range as any other intelligent creature. 

They're no longer avatars of fantastical evil, foils for the heroic player characters, then. They're just ugly, primitive men.

Where's the fun in that?

This is why I've always eschewed the default (one might argue, Gygaxian) D&D approach to monsters. These are magical creatures - one cannot ascribe to them the same beliefs, behaviors, or reproductive methods as one does to beings that belong to the natural order. D&D monsters exist outside that order, and this is what makes them wonderous and terrifying. My orcs and goblins are elemental creatures of darkness and evil, dark mirrors in which the natural creatures of the world see the worst of themselves.

"Orcs are mammals"? Not in my game they aren't!


Comments

  1. I agree with your points, but sadly TSR certainly didn't, as evidenced by decades of Monster Ecology articles in Dragon.

    My own spin on orcs has them spawned from the soil itself due to fertility magic that was deliberately misused by ancient elves who needed an expendable army fast, then discovered they couldn't halt the process after the need had passed. About the only good thing that can be said about orcs is that they don't really understand the connection between other races' children and their parents and therefore don't deliberately exploit that vulnerability through kidnapping, torture and murder. The "smalls" are just some kind of ugly, stupid pet, and given the way orcs treat their own enslaved animals it would never dawn on them that humans (or elves, Dwarves, etc) might care about what happens to theirs. Also not real clear on the differences between sexes, which is something they just plain lack.

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    1. Sadly, indeed!

      Your take on orcs is awesome and just the sort of imaginative thinking that Gygax and TSR totally missed out on. Your (like mine) approach combines the supernatural, um, nature of the orcs with the fact that magic is an ever-present facet of the D&D universe, and it's too bad the creators of the game didn't seize on that sort of approach from the get-go.

      (Maybe if they had, there would be less 21st-century hand-wringing over different "races" being portrayed as evil. Instead, it would simply be: evil is as evil does, as Mr. Gump would say. :D)

      (My own approach similarly works the omnipresence of magic into their nature, as they spring from places where the evil of humans and demi-humans and magic are strong, such as - go figure - in the lairs of powerful evil magic users. Oh, and kobolds in my game aren't related to dragons - they're what happens to goblins that have been exposed to the presence of dragons, which are points of some of the most powerful magic in existence...)

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    2. Thanks. Mine were pretty clearly inspired by the default setting in Pelgrane's excellent 13th Age but with a more explicitly monstrous twist to the orcs - which was a partly a response to 5th edition's insistence on de-monsterizing humanoid baddies in the name of political correctness.

      My kobolds are still weird little part-reptile, part-dogman runts whose origins are not only unclear but not something even they care much about, much less the sages of more civilized races. More like malicious toddlers than anything else, really. Maybe they were made by some drunken trickster god that didn't want to admit to being responsible or something.

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    3. "...de-monsterizing humanoid baddies in the name of political correctness..."

      This. *sigh* Proof that the world has gone silly and some people have waaaay too much time on their hands. :D

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  2. Gotta agree. It hasn't come up much (or at all) in-game, but IMO there's no reason why monstrous creatures can't (and frequently do) spontaneously generate. Bad mojo in your neighborhood? You might get a cocktrice in your chickens. The presence of goblins may create worgs from wolves. Also, my gods get INVOLVED.

    Related house rule: dragons can have offspring at any age, but hatchlings born to sub-adult dragons are more likely to be mutated (ie, drakes and dragonettes) OR cannot age past their "parents'" age. (I came up with this in 3e, when there were 12 age categories). This allows for lots of small and middling dragons if I want them, and explains the dearth of older, larger dragons.

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    1. "...might get a cocktrice in your chickens..."

      ^ This, for the win! :D

      Thanks for reminding me about the gods - might have to do a similar post about them. They're pretty present in my game, too. Well, the younger ones are, at least. As gods a created magically, some from mortals and some from the power of intelligent mortals' beliefs, new gods are being added as the races age. The older gods wane in power, or just get complacent and take less interest in the mortal worlds, generally.

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    2. You could take the opposite approach in some cases too. The older a god gets the more powerful it becomes and the less it has in common with mere mortals, eventually reaching the point it neither needs nor desires worshippers and stops paying attention to them at all. Even other "young" gods stop being relatable after a while, and the generations of deities become increasingly and uncaring alien over time. More of a Lovecraftian cosmic horror take, that - and you can still have younger, more comprehensibly evil deities if you want, but they'll find their elders almost as creepy as mortals do.

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    3. I actually do something similar - the "old gods" definitely become more and more alien and absolutely take on a Lovecraftan vibe. (My favorite author - I can't help but working Lovecraftian, cosmic horror tones into almost every game I run. :P)

      But the core of a god's power in my game is belief - the magic is always there, but a god is only invested with as much of it as his followers will allow. These Forgotten Gods, as they're called in my game (I think I may have written a post on it), are distant beings with no care of the mortal world, but remember/desire to regain their past glories and often have just enough power to be dangerous.

      Oh, and then there are the still-relevant gods who DO still care about mortal affairs, especially when some mortal upstart is drawing enough glory from their belief-base to start causing them problems. (This was the case with one of my player's PCs - a cleric, he became venerated by his god's followers, and as word spread of his deeds, they started worshipping him instead of their god, Tarak. ("What's Tarak done for me lately?" was the growing attitude toward their god.) Eventually, this caused the god to conspire with other immortals against his own cleric, with realty-fracturing results...)

      So, yeah, TL:DR - I totally get where you're coming from. :D

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  3. 100% agree. In my game goblins and bugbears are basically mischievous and cruel pseudo-fairies from Elfland/the Feywild. If you kill them, their corpses soon melt into mud. My players took a bugbear's head and a few hours later discovered it had turned into a rotten pumpkin. Orcs are created by dark lords by mixing human and pig remains in a cauldron and infusing them with the souls of dead murderhobos. Monsters should feel fantastic!

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    1. Perfect! I'm going to steal the pumpkin idea!

      I do the same thing with my dragons. As embodiments of elemental magic, they lose their physical form when slain. In my last campaign, the first time the player characters defeated a white dragon the players were shocked as they tried to skin it only to watch it dissolve into a heap of melting snow and ice! Hopefully that will serve as forewarning for what will happen if they try to mess with a green, black, or - best of all - red dragon corpse! >:D

      I think I'll have to start having my humanoids dissolve into corruption in the future...

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    2. I like that hybrid birthing cauldron idea, consider that stolen. Might not use it for orcs as such, but beastmen and similar mockeries of nature are something you can never have enough of. Hmmm. Maybe chimera are the result of using a really big pot...

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  4. This is an aspect of my games I struggle with. My modern brain wants the world to make sense and trying to make it conform to other norms just breaks it. Fantastic ideas though, I need to work on this.

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    1. There's a lot of mental juggling that goes on when you're a DM, and it's hard to keep up with it all, which also makes it harder. Even though I want to create a deeply immersive experience for the players, where everything gets a flavorful description and has meaning outside of the moment, but sometimes I still default to "you're attacked by a dozen kobolds" or "you find a sword +1." :P I get it.

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  5. My orcs are a natural race with as much capacity for good and evil as any other. They're just thought of as supernatural forces of ruin by the "civilized" peoples of the setting due to their destruction of the ancient evil empire that is now thought of much the way we think of Rome or the Vikings today: violent, yes, but nonetheless heroic.

    However, my goblinoids are the unnatural soldiers of that empire, known as the "spirits of tyranny" today and made by the transformation of men into perfect torturers, soldiers, or secret policemen. My gnolls are criminals who made a pact with Yeengohu to escape justice, or lesser criminals who were converted by the first one who's usually a serial killer or particularly nasty mob boss who started having visions.

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