Thursday, April 28, 2011

X is for Xenophobia

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

X is for Xenophobia, of course. I mean, what else could it be? Xylophone? Xanadu? Xanth?

Actually, “Xanthian Relationships” wouldn’t have been a bad topic…except that I already touched on it a bit with romantic entanglements. And anyway, any good interbreeding adventures should lead to xenophobia at some point anyway, so there you are.

A xenophobe is a person who fears what is ALIEN to them…the outsider. Back in high school (a while after I quit playing D&D) I used to hit up the arcade by my bus stop (remember ARCADES? Wow…the good old days of burning through quarters) and there was a great game called Xenophobe or Xenophobia I used to play…when I wasn’t playing Gauntlet, of course. Roughly based on the film Aliens, you got to shoot a lot of bid monsters while trying to keep things from biting you in half or grabbing onto your face. Great, manic fun…and playable with two or three players!

However, to really explore “xenophobia” at least one of the players should’ve had to play an alien instead of a human. I mean, how else is one going to encounter the inherent nastiness that comes out when two different species are forced to operate in tight quarters with each other.

Xenophobia has been a part of the D&D game since at least 1st edition AD&D. With the introduction of both the new “sub-class” of Race (as opposed to non-human types just being a different classification of adventurer) AND the ever beloved Racial Animosity tables we were gifted with our own fantasy Civil Rights movement, care of Gary’s personal campaign setting.

I’ve written often enough of my preference for B/X and its use of Race as Class. I think it makes perfect sense for humans to be versatile (humans ARE versatile…I know this from my experience with humans) and it is equally acceptable to consider all non-human races as NON-versatile. After all, they ain’t human…they are alien creatures, with different ways of thinking, alien physiologies, lifespans far in excess of a human one (and thus providing a completely alien temporal perspective)…Lordy, “demi-humans” are WEIRD, no question.

Or at least, they should be treated as such.

Personally, I never give demihumans a break…at least I never used to in the past. If everyone wants to play an elf than by-God, I’m going to make sure that they take the shit-end of the stick whenever they’re in a human town. Which is almost always (elves don’t build towns…they live in the trees and ride wolves, don’t ya’ know). If your character is some sort of “badass” dwarf that is strutting his stuff at the tavern, you better believe he’s going to be called “Shorty” and get his beard pulled and his beer watered (and not literally with water, if you catch my drift). And should said dwarf get huffy or uppity or start a brawl, guess who’s going to get the brunt of the blame from the HUMAN constable when the town guard shows up?

Xenophobia. These are aliens walking amongst us. They grow hair on their feet and have pointed ears. They are the OTHER, those that DON’T BELONG.

And once again we see why player characters, scurrilous rogues that they might be, are still real, true, honest-to-goodness “heroes” even if you’re playing an addition that doesn’t include feats and kewl paladin powers. PCs are REAL heroes because they’re the most tolerant SOBs around. They freely adventure with other species, recognizing them for what they are: friends, companions, fellow adventurers. They’re not concerned that the dwarf smells like dry rot and the elf eats dried dandelions instead of jerky. They’re still the trusted point man or rear guard or magical support of the party. They’re trusted with the LIVES of the human adventurers, regardless of their alien differences. And that’s pretty cool.

It’s even MORE cool when you can show the difference between the fellow party members attitude and that of the local yokels.

Halflings aren’t allowed within the city limits,” should be the common refrain heard at any AD&D city’s gates. Why? Because in AD&D, Halflings are all GODDAMN THIEVES and you don’t think the town guard isn’t going to catch on? What…you say your character belongs to and is protected by the local thieves guild? Ha! Right…Halflings are too conspicuous. Sorry…we’re “human only,” son.

You don’t think human guilders aren't going to bribe town thugs to run dwarves out of town? Dwarf craftsmanship is renowned…and that means less profit in the pockets of human guildsmen. The last thing any thriving business community wants to see is a bunch of dwarves showing up and setting down roots. Best to move that riff-raff along as soon as possible!

And elves? EVERYONE hates elves! The orcs, the gnolls, the Drow…just best to keep them the hell away from ANY are of human civilization as war usually follows these jerks. Also, any one of ‘em could be a wizard…dangerous enough that they can blast you just by looking at you even if they aren’t packing a sword. Plus, they’re after our women-folk (if you play AD&D with “half-elves,” that is). Yeah, elves are weedy gits that need a good pummeling and boot-kicking whenever you get one alone in a dark alley.

My evil NPCs often sport some sort of elven ear collection.

And, oh yeah, half-orcs? See impalement.

Not that xenophobia isn’t a two-way street ‘cause it most certainly is…remember the only thing all demihumans have in common is that they’re INHUMAN. Their alien perspectives only apply to their own species (I hate the use of term “race” for demihumans). When others enter their domain, they should be treated with furtive suspicion at best.

At best.

Most humans entering an elven wood shouldn’t be coming out alive (think Lothlorion, folks). Same with any human venturing into a mountainous dwarf kingdom (though the dwarves probably won’t shoot ‘em up like the elves…they’ll just clap ‘em in irons and put ‘em to work in the mines for the rest of their miserable lives). Halflings? Well, humans should probably never even be able to locate the Shire let alone a live Halfling. And don’t forget the “wee folk” are ALL sharpshooters (and more adept at the bow than elves, at least in B/X).

Adventurers entering these “inhuman realms” will find even more reason to bring along a companion of a different species. With a dwarf walking point, the party is much more likely to get past gnome and dwarf patrols sans incident, and possibly even a friendly greeting or some welcome aid for a “brother/cousin.” WithOUT that dwarven party member? Well, there’s more than one way to shift a stone, ja?

See, there are some people that think demihumans are “useless” in high level play…for me, I see them as essential to any adventuring party at EVERY level, both as guides and emissaries, ESPECIALLY in a world where humans are all-too-often (let’s face it) looked upon as the equivalent of an “Ugly American:” coming into other peoples’ homes and wrecking the joint all because they’re big and loud and have huge-ass stompy boots.

Humans still have to sleep sometime…even the 30th level fighters.

Just keep it in mind in your games. Adjust those Reaction Rolls for players based on who’s doing the talking and the target audience. D&D is not a shiny, happy MLK Jr Dream-place. It’s dirty and nasty and primitive and people are often in danger of being eaten. Just because you speak (heavily accented) Common doesn’t mean the inn keeper is going to give you the same price for an ale he just gave the human townie…and doesn’t mean he’s going to give you a civil word either! And just because your gal is some sort of fancy-pants goody-goody Paladin doesn’t mean the local wood elves want any part of your evangelizing and sword-swinging antics…you smell like 5 days on the road in armor, your horse poops all over the place, and you just hunted Twiggy the Elf’s furry pet for your evening meal. You REALLY think you’re going to wake up to elven singing and camaraderie?

: )


  1. Wonderful post and great insight. It gives me some truly wicked ideas for the next campaign.

  2. Nice. I've long thought modern D&D was a bit too Star Trek-ish and 'all human under the skin' in its depiction of inter-species interaction.

    Racial slurs should be the least of it; fear and loathing typical; xenophobia not unusual.

    WFRP played with this a little bit in the (tongue-in-cheek) section on taxes and tolls. Ear tax, beard tax and shank's levy (tax on anyone under 4' tall) are standard.

  3. I have to disagree. Humans are the biggest suck-ups. Oh, they'll take a dump on other humans for the slightest of differences, but alien species? Please.

    Look at the two resident sets of aliens in the US right now. They reside and work in Washington, D.C. and Hollywood, CA. They are self-entitled, self-centered morons, completely indifferent to the humans around them. And we treat them like gods. We give them more and more power, more and more freebies.

    Plenty of the Hollywoodians have killed people. Any been incarcerated for it. I can only think of one, Lane Garrison, and that was only because he accepted responsibility, and he served less than two years.

    As for the Washingtonian aliens, (BTW, there seem to be at least two types: Clerics & Thieves) they recently, because they have a common inability to put aside their petty differences, nearly shut down the very thing of which they are in charge. But they still would have got paid. The military not so much. The reason they finally pulled things together: Fear. The fear that if they stopped doing their jobs, and the world didn't come to an end we would realize how much we humans don't need our alien overlords.

    So, no. That bartender wouldn't charge the elf extra. He'd give him drinks for free, and send out the kids to tell everyone there was an elflord in The Willing Wench.

    But the halfling thing? Totally right. 5gp bounty on a set of halfling ears. And yes, halflings can collect the bounty too. That should solve the problem toot-suite!

  4. Reminds me of the part in the Dragonlance Chronicles where Riverwind asks Tanis Half-elven, "Why do they call you half-elven and not half man?" Tanis replies, "Because half-man is what you call a cripple." Later, they enter an elven settlement and Tanis whispers to Riverwind, "Here, they call me half-man." Not only can humans be racists but demi-humans could be bad, if not worse.

  5. Great post - and very similar to my campaign world, the World of Samoth. Much of the premise of the campaign is built around the races pretty much not getting along, especially since the humans breed quicker and have taken over all the land.

    The elves, dwarves, goblins, etc. have been pushed to the sidelines, and are treated as second-class citizens at best (if they have converted to the main human religion) or undesirables who need to be put to the sword (if they chose not to convert).

    Then you have the religious-convert races at odds with the ones who didn't covert and think the other ones are suck-ups and sell-outs. So, they fight among themselves.

    All of this makes the humans very happy.