Tuesday, February 24, 2015

You Can Dwarf If You Want To

Some are quick to point out when explaining DND or other RPGs to new players that when we say "Race" we don't mean race, we mean "Species," and this is true and not true. At one point the Irishman, the Dutchman, the Greek, were discussed as discreet manner of beings, not just a subset of humanity but in the manner that homo erectus was sort of human but a different creature. There were people who'd sooner their offspring breed with the horse (a different and lesser manner of creature) than a Swede, to say nothing of a Moor or a Mongol who were looked on as practically space aliens at some levels of Western culture. These were considered different animals, at least colloquially, perhaps equal but by God different. Of course, no, nobody is asking whether you want to play Swede, Jew, French Canadian, or Nigerian when they mention Race in a RPG, just like they're not asking if your character is Latino, Pacific Islander, Melungeon, nor am I championing a return to that kind of nonsense thinking. They're describing a (race-as-) class of beings completely alien to humans.

Except they're not, are they? They're describing broad caricatures of specific KINDS of humans, or suites of qualities write large with a culture extrapolated in the aftermath. This is the problem a lot of people have with, not even the WORD race, although that, too, but the typical D&D races. The Orc as barbarian savage inherently-evil other, dwarves and tieflings as warped interpretations of Jews, the perfect and blameless English aristocracy that gets to use all weapons and armor AND magic because they're just so great, so forth. To me it's as simple as saying to yourself "Well orcs and gnolls aren't black people and dwarves aren't Jews, moving on, what cool stuff can I do with a character who acts this way" because it's up to you what kind of game you're playing at the end of the day but it's enough to wreck the experience for some people, I've read.

When I was working on putting XXR together one thing I did not want to do, and one thing Deadlands and some other weird west things do and which is maybe the biggest difference between the two, was that I didn't look at every convention of the western genre and think about how to put a fantasy/horror spin on it. I went the other way, thinking about everything I'd want to throw in to a big high falutin' sword and sorcery campaign, and then beat things up until they reminded me of a wild west convention. Since BX was my original starting point this meant elves, dwarves, hobbits, and orcs were in the offering, and the worst thing I could think of was just turning them into different indigenous American tribes. There are other things to consider, too, when developing or modifying an existing 'demihuman' race, and I did want the west to be huge and terrifying and remote and unknowable which I can't get if everyone is monsters.

What I decided to do was to just transition things back to where they started: looking at these 'races' as kinds of people...looking at race-as-CLASS, basically, and determining what kind of people exist in wild west stories which fit that description. I then wrote up Classifications for some of them, although I fudged elves by making them Agarthans with the magic of hell and took a cue from the way the Aztec empire has been romanticized and just draped every single thing in their culture with gold. Especially hell.


If you want to play something weird and fucked up in a XXR game then that's fine with me. I've got a starting place and tone but we can go anywhere from there. That's the game. And if that extends to being a bog-standard fantasy critter then so be it, I am game. However, whether I'm running XXR or a more traditional D&D style game, like say a 5e one shot, here's some things that are universal with me. (Unless you bring a FLAILSNAILS guy but then interdimensional travel is assumed so you can play by whatever rules.)

  • Cliche is fine to a real extent. If you want to play a dwarf but you don't want to mine, or craft or forge, or drink, or care about honor or clan or family or tradition, or care about gold or gems, or act gruff, or DRINK, then isn't that clever and novel and so special but then you're not a dwarf. You're a pile of stat mods and abilities you wanted for your guy. You're asking to be this very specific thing and then avoiding being that thing but you want all the bonuses for that thing. So nah. Be a dwarf or don't be a dwarf. Same for everybody else.
  • That said, don't be boring. Have an angle on it. Have insight on it. Or more importantly come to PLAY it, like playground play it. "Orc" isn't a character high concept but that's not a problem if you're willing to go the extra mile and really ORC IT UP at the table. This is a party after all, let's act like it.
  • Be young old male female whatever. It'll change some decisions I make but I'm not going to punish you for it.
  • ORCS are not Klingons. They are ORKS. Like 40K orks, as in a race of Hulks. Hulk doesn't only smash, Hulk just like smash and hard stop Hulk when Hulk get going. They're not dumb but they only care about certain parts of speech. Their language is both direct and fatalistic. They are strong, they central casting for a biker movie or a British pub, and they are Shrek skinned. Hair is cut according to station and caste in society, i.e. never fuck with a hairy ork because they're rich/powerful/badass. They have 100% allegiance to whatever orklave they find themselves in at the time but they generally follow their bliss. Different ork bands and cities are always doing something active and weird and exciting and orks just migrate between their personal points of interest.
  • DWARVES are not universally Scottish like many people in the US run them. Dwarves talk like Boris Badenov and while not being offensively cartoon Russian have similar artistic traditions. There are male dwarves and female dwarves and some young dwarves and old dwarves but dwarves age 1/4 the speed of humans. This is because dwarves are undead. Dwarves are spontaneously generated from deep rock and stone every spring, beginning toddler-age, and then dig their way out into caverns or to the surface. Every winter all the dwarves die, their body is absorbed by the earth, and then they grow again in the spring. This fills dwarven life with asskicking because they have to clear their kingdoms and tunnels of squatters every year. (I say kingdoms, but there is truly only ONE dwarf kingdom, just so spread out that it seems like a bunch of remote city-states. Like Canada.) Dwarves do the nasty, sure, but only for fun. This also means that Turn Undead works on dwarves, but only to Turn never explode.
  • ELVES come from the final elf city, Arcis Enumre, which is itself a magical engine which burns the elves' history and heritage in a dungeon-shaped furnace beneath itself in order to extend the longevity of the elf kind farrrr beyond where they should have gone extinct. Each tier of the city exists in a different time sphere, stretching into the future, and the tower at its middle extends to the end of time. Elves have no souls (because they burned them) and cannot be raised from the dead, though they can lapse into living undeath. They are partying on the Titanic and have even lost the ability to talk to their own gods, and rely on other beings to parley with them and interpret their whims.
  • HALFLINGS are all cowboys. This is independent of XXR, but it applies there, too. They're the little guy who elect a sheriff or marshal to help defend them and keep order, they're adept in the wilderness, they're hospitable drinkers despite their suspicion of outsiders, and they'll shoot you in the back of the head if you start trouble and put a picnic table over your remains so the party isn't interrupted. Any halfling I ever run or play is going to have some manner of rustic hick southern accent. Y'all.
  • GOBLINS have more to them and are an article to themselves, but until I put the hyperlink here short version: they are not small orcs or Joe Dante Gremlins, they are the worst things, part cockroach part vampire and they are just the worst.