Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Rabbit Pie

This post may be a bit "all over the place," but it's better than the alternative I was contemplating yesterday (something along the lines of a personal existential crisis which seems, mercifully, to be under control at the moment...). I'll do my best to come up with a title by the end.

SO...I was catching up on my "adventure review" reading over at Bryce's blog and stumbled across this little gem in the pile of dross he usually digs through (meaning no offense to Bryce by the way...I find his work of buying and reviewing adventures "so you don't have to" is an invaluable service to those of us interested in adventure design).

"Little gem" is probably too complimentary, for Game of Kobolds; "interesting nugget" probably should have been the term coined. What it is: a 42 page supplement of material that fleshes out the classic adventure module The Keep on the Borderlands with specifically motivated characters and factions interlinked through a complex web of relationships, providing the basis for the type of "blood opera" one might find in George Martin's Game of Thrones.

[this was the impetus for Corbett Kirkley's design; the origin of the product is described in its introduction, which I will let the interested reader dig into, rather than relate here]

[oh, BTW...it's not a "for purchase" product; you can download a copy here if you like. I'm not a scribd user, so Bryce's link doesn't work for me]

As an idea, the thing is more than just "interesting," but its execution is a little meh. My quibbles are about the same as Bryce: definitions aren't tight enough, not enough Keep characters, the timeline/fallout parts need to be elaborated upon. Furthermore, I prefer a more xenophobic brand of humanoid interaction in D&D to this mixture of "fantasy diversity" which smacks of all the kind of [insert derogatory-term-that-isn't-too-offensive-yet-communicates-disdain] found in the most recent versions of the game.

Still, it's not a terrible idea. For one thing, the scenario presented provides plenty of motivation for players' involvement, without forcing them down a particular path. For another, it presents a more unique situation than just hunting bugbear pelts or goblin skulls for reward. For a third thing, it provides a method of interacting with B2's Caves of Chaos that (hopefully) won't result in the immediate extinction of low-level player characters that so often follows from a frontal assault. For a fourth, it also provides a (slightly wonky) justification for why there's this giant horde of rando humanoid tribes living in harmony and practically on the doorstep of this fully stocked human garrison.

Even so, the idea of running it doesn't appeal (to me) very much, nor even the idea of doing a similar supplement for a different adventure like, say, the various factions found in module I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City. The thing is, much as I enjoy Byzantine politics and Machiavellian machinations, I consider these a particular vice/component of humanity, and would confine them as such. Bugbears and bullywugs and kobolds and orcs? No. I do not look at them as allegorical or surrogate humans. Heck, I try hard not to even look at elves and dwarves as such.

This morning, the idea that dragged my sorry ass out of bed (or, rather, kept me from returning to sleep after my beagles woke me at the crack of dawn) was this idea I have for cataloguing all the OD&D/AD&D monsters so that I cull the list for the specific creatures that function in my campaign setting, especially with regard to "sentient" species. I've pretty much decided that all "goblinoids" (including kobolds up through bugbear) are going to be a single species (of various sizes), while orcs are going to be a race that was magically created, rather than natural. Some sentients (most notably elves) I plan on categorizing as "protohumans," older variations of humanity (like neanderthals) that have since disappeared or become inseparably bonded with "normal humans" through interbreeding, but in general I really want to limit the amount of creatures with above-animal intelligence.

Still not sure what I want to do with dragons: would like to make them (mostly) a vermin-like species. But then, what's the reason for the treasure hoards? Or is that just a myth ungrounded in fact?

Giving a species the ability to reason invites identification with that creature...and I don't want that. I already intend to have multiple human cultures in my setting, each with the potentials for good, evil, and indifference and of course the various human flaws (hamartia, to borrow from Game of Kobolds) that can lead to drama, intrigue, and tragedy.  The non-humans in my campaign are NOT allegorical stand-ins for other races, ethnicities, and cultures...my intention is to create them as alien cultures based on their own biological strangeness, drives, and environments. The default alignment of these non-human cultures (as I intend to use it) will be in relationship to how harmonious they are with needs and desires of human civilization...my campaign being human-centric.

Recently I started re-reading The Hobbit (for the upteenth time), because I had this idea (brought on by my encumbrance posts) of statting out the dwarvish "pony train" that initially sets out from the Shire. Unfortunately, there's little description of their actual goods to be found, save that it is "mostly food" (as one should probably expect). However, getting to the part where their ponies were eventually lost (in the Misty Mountains) I was struck by Tolkien's description of the goblins as a species, in his initial introduction of the creature. He writes in part:

"Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and hard-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they do make clever many clever ones. They can tunnel and mine as well as any but the most skilled dwarves, when they take the trouble, though they are usually untidy and dirty. Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and other instruments of torture, they make very well, or get other people to make to their design, prisoners and slaves that have to work till they die for want of air and light...they did not hate dwarves especially, no more than they hated everybody and everything, and particularly the orderly and prosperous; in some parts wicked dwarves had even made alliances with them. But they had a special grudge against Thorin's people, because of the war which you heard mentioned..."

There are two things of especial note (to me) in this description. The first is that these are fairytale creatures, more or less a shadowy version of dwarves, and not analogous to any particular human ethnicity (I left out the part about goblins taking delight in engines and explosions and ingenious machines for killing large numbers of people: inventions pioneered for the most part by Western European cultures).  The second is that despite their brutality, they are not above dealing with other races, including dwarves, with whom (in D&D literature and elsewhere) they are generally portrayed as having an entirely genocidal attitude. In fact, it is only Thorin's people in particular with whom they have an issue, due to a previous war/feud, not any fundamental inter-species hatred.

And this is born out later in the interaction between Thorin and the Great Goblin. The proud dwarf is far more humble and polite with goblin chief than in any of his interaction (later in the book) with the king of the wood elves, with whom he has no family quarrel. Of course, a conciliatory tone might be expected after being beaten and chained and at the mercy of one's captors...but the elves treat Thorin nearly as rough as he still has the gall to give the elf king snark. I personally find this fascinating.

The conversation started
politely enough.
But fascinating as it may be, it doesn't change my outlook: these are two alien species, not "fantasy human cultures." If dwarves have some type of kinship with goblins, it is due (in my world at least) due to their shared, subterranean physiology and culture, not any kind of human-like empathy and compassion for each other as fellow sentients. And with regard to the sea of humanity swimming around the foothills of these creatures mountain homes, they are BOTH a strange and eerie species...however, one rates as "lawful" for being interested in crafting useful items and doing honest trade with surface dwellers, while the other (perhaps because of their shorter lifespan and, thus, perspective) are judged "chaotic" for their raiding, slave-taking, and violent methods. And neither species has any interest in human politics except so much as it might further their (inhuman) interests.

My campaign setting isn't about creating understanding between different sentient species. It's about survival. And I already know which species will (eventually) come out on top, because my setting is 10,000 years ago in Earth's past. The individual actions of player characters can be judged for themselves, but I'm not interested in "decolonizing" my D&D game by humanizing the non-humans. If anything, I want to make sure they are MORE "othered" than recent editions would have them be, standing in for diversity against a homogeneity of Euro-type humanity.

That's not to say that I intend my setting to be all Incan and Charrua and Mayan with cloth armor and atlatl and whatnot. There's a reason I'm using a setting of 9,000 BCE and not 1550. But even within a single region, you can have a number of nations of diverse peoples with various cultures, languages, and ways of life, even with a shared "group identity." I've been watching Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation the last week or so and found it to be a fascinating look at my own country and the plethora of cultures sharing an "American" identity. I intend the humanity of my setting to be something like that: a society composed of many different peoples, cooperating as best they can (though sometimes failing due to past wrongs and grievances) for survival of their species.

There will be very, very few monsters (i.e. non-humans) that carry a Lawful alignment.

SO...I've come to the end of my rambling post, and I have no idea what to title it. I guess I'll go with "non-existential crisis" since that's the subject these meandering thoughts ended up supplanting. Or I could call it "rabbit pie" (which would make as much sense), as that's what I plan on baking for lunch. Ooo, I feel like Farmer MacGregor this morning.

Hope everyone's having a good week. Today's pretty sunny here in Seattle.


  1. The update of Keep on the Borderlands you describe is really not a terrible idea. In fact, I had it myself independently just three weeks ago, as I’m thinking about my recent venture of writing modules. I probably never would have done something about it, though. Now I have an excuse not to.

    Tales about goblins have been around in Europe for more than a thousand years. I don’t believe they’ve all been literary metaphors for some human ethnic group.

  2. I have my cake and eat it to with dragons by saying that dragons of (almost?) all ages can lay eggs and bear young, but only dragons of adult age or higher can have "true" dragons. Younger dragons have offspring that never age past their (younger) parent. So fairly young dragons can have broods and nests of wyrmlings that never get much bigger and are plagues upon the local villages.

    1. Yeah, but why the hoards? That’s the part I’m still working out.

    2. Peter Dickinson's The Flight of Dragons is essential reading here.

      Put succinctly, a bed of gold, a nonreactive metal, prevents the volatile biochemistry of a sleeping dragon from eating through the floor of the limestone cave in which it lairs.

    3. Can the hordes not be gold from a pre-Incan culture that we, in our time, know absolutely nothing about? Is it not possible that some collecting culture of placer gold and silver settled in your setting forty or fifty thousand years ago, became semi-advanced, then knocked themselves off in an Easter Island manner, only to leave rich piles of gold and silver nuggets? Does the horde have to be coin? Won't pure gold and silver do?

    4. @ BBBB:

      Yep, I am exceptionally familiar with this work.

      @ Alexis:

      That was one idea I had. Another is the something that ties the creature to ore veins (some link of biology and habitat)...like "if there's a dragon there, chances are it's a good place to sink a mine."

      Kind of a symbiotic relationship a la the sand worms and spice of Dune.