Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Races for Rach

Rach, at her new blog, Rach’s Reflections, has a request:

Tell me about what you do with your non-human races to set them apart.

She then discusses briefly how she’s handled the different races when creating her own campaigns. I love this sort of stuff, so here are my contributions:


Dwarves – I use a lot of Anglo-Saxon motifs with dwarves, from the clothing and wind-sock pennons to elective kingship and jewelry. Most dwarves live in clans and each clan has a specialization like mining, silversmithing, goat herding, or lumbering. Dwarves are strictly monogamous. Some communities shun kingship all together and are ruled by elected councils of elders, while others have hereditary kings. Almost all dwarven communities shun slavery, and any slave who sets foot in a dwarven warren is freed immediately. Dwarves almost always get along well with their neighbors, though relations can be strained by dwarven greed. Dwarves are the traditional shapers of adamantium.

Elves – My elves tend to be very fey, when they’re not melnibonéan. Sometimes, they have left the lands of faerie to enjoy a more physical existence, or to live more fully in the stream of time. These elves maintain close ties to faerie and live on good terms with the other fey. Other times, they are outcasts and exiles who have been banished from faerie. In either case, they are often distrusted by their neighbors, and with good reason. Elves tend to be amoral hedonists whose views of right and wrong are “warped” by their long lifespans and a perspective that takes into account centuries. Children are rare and are treasured by their communities. Elves recognize a wide range of personal relationships, from one-night flings to life-long bonds, and even ties that supposedly bind beyond the span of a singe lifetime.

Gnomes – The tinker-gnome thing never really clicked with me. I’ve never used those sorts of gnomes in my games. In the past, my gnomes have been closely related to dwarves. These gnomes were fierce capitalists and wide-ranging traders, and in some games Common was a form of gnomish trade cant. More recently, I’ve made gnomes fey, and more closely related to elves. They have a strong bond to the wilderness and animals, and tend to be charismatic.

Halflings – I haven’t done much with halflings that’s terribly interesting. I tend to think of them as free farmers, clearing the wilderness and building communities in the shadow of human civilizations. They tend to share dwarven conservative values, and favor order and tranquility over freedom. They are fierce defenders of their homes. (Most of this came from the vibes I got from this great Jeff Dee illustration.)


Merfolk – My merfolk are heavily based on the city-states of classical Greece. They tend to live in spots that are a few miles from the coastline, no more than a mile deep, and close to ocean currents which they exploit for trade as well as food. The outer territories are farms (worked by poorer families) and plantations (worked by slaves) of sea floor or floating crops. These homes are woven baskets, usually anchored to the ocean floor. Small communities will be built around a taller hut with an air pocket and chimney to the surface where a communal fire will be kept. The actual cities themselves are usually tall, slender towers fashioned from stone, shell, and glass, with many chambers housing air pockets. At the center of the city will be the temple complex, for religious devotion is always at the center of civic life. Nearby will be the seat of government, either a democratic council theater, fortress of a warlord, or temple-palace of a priest-king. All free mermen are expected to fight in defense of their city, and all free mermaids are expected to devote some of their time to religious duties. They tend to get along poorly with surface dwellers and skirmishes between raiding merfolk and human merchants and fishermen are common. As merfolk use tattoos to mark their slaves, tattooed PCs entering merfolk territory usually run into trouble when dealing with the locals.

Sea Elves – Sea elves dwell in the deeper parts of the ocean, where the sunlight fades to gloaming, or fails entirely. They use magic to light their domed cities, fashioned from magically shaped stone. They are the smiths of the undersea world, using strong relationships with the Elemental Planes to supply the air, fire, and much of the materials needed to craft steel, bronze, and highly prized mithril which does not rust or tarnish, even in the saltiest of seas. They are among the most fey of the elves, having almost no dealings with the surface folk. They trade frequently with the merfolk, and war almost as frequently against the sahuagin.

Selkies – They call themselves the princes of the seas. They live a semi-nomadic existence, usually possessing a summer home and a winter home many leagues apart. They live in the oceans, but their homes are always near the coast, in shallow, clear waters, far from the settlements of surface dwellers. Their herds are fish and they use dry land for forage. They live in large clans and practice communal marriage, where entire clans merge in a single, mass ceremony. When a clan grows too large for its undersea “palace”, it will usually divide into three clans, and two will travel in opposite directions for hundreds of miles before settling down again. Selkie clans tend to be rather rich, as they trade between surface dwellers, usually elves and humans, and the merfolk and sea elves. While they are fey, they tend to have very little to do with other worlds or the realms of fairie.


Goblins – Imagine sentient, sadistic chimpanzees and you’re not too far off from my interpretation of goblins. They value cleverness above all else, and eagerly seek ways to steal from any and all, especially if they can get away with pointing the blame at others. Literacy is reserved for the tribal crones, who rule the tribes in a bloody and precarious balance with male chieftain and his circle of trusted warriors. A strong chieftain can force the crones to support his rule, but if a chieftain stumbles or if times are hard for the tribe, the chieftain can be replaced. The crones usually choose a new chief by reading the entrails of the old, and the reading is considered to be far more accurate if the old chieftain hasn’t finished dying while the reading is taking place.

Orcs – My orcs are heavily influenced by the art of Frekrik K.T. Andersson. Orcs prize brute strength over all other virtues. Almost all orcs fight without armour to prove their strength, and use tattoos to highlight their battle scars. The fiercest charge into battle naked and without weapons to prove their might over the enemy. You can only own what you can keep by strength; theft is not a crime in orcish society, though being overly sneaky and cowardly is. Polygamy is common though most orcs of both sexes prefer to take concubines rather than engage in marriage, which is more about political and economic alliance rather than love or affection. Orcs are so fertile, it is said they can mate with anything. This is not strictly true, but they are able to have children with nearly every mammalian humanoid race.

Gnolls – I love gnolls, and have for quite some time. The females rule the gnollish tribes through intimidation, fear, and politics. Each tribe is dominated by a clique of females in the prime of their years. Hunting and raiding are the responsibilities of the younger females, and uppity girls or the daughters of hated rivals frequently meet with unfortunate “hunting accidents”. Males constantly compete for the patronage of powerful females, proving their worth through their skills. Smithing is the most valued skill, though weaving, leatherworking, and pottery are also highly valued. Countering the supremacy of the female cliques are the red-cloaked bards, warrior-poets who retain the lore of the gnolls. It is they who decide how a gnoll is remembered after death, and it is this remembrance which decides a gnoll’s station in the afterlife.

Trolls – The gangly, scrawny troll of old school AD&D never clicked for me. My trolls are massive, craggy monsters, dangerous fey (and thus related to the elves) who ward the places where the Prime Material and fairie leak into one another. They tend to possess ancient and chthonian wisdom.


David said...

An excellent post. I like a number of things about your racial characterizations here. I've found Andersson's art to be enjoyable and often funny for quite some time now, though honestly I'd rather see new Pawn than new random sketches.

Anyway, other races always seem too human in my campaigns, and this gives me something to think about. Again, great post.

trollsmyth said...

Thanks! A lot of this is just fun for me, because I love anthropology. But some of it came from struggling with a few of the issues you've brought up on your blog. As humans, we grow ill, physically and emotionally, if we're hidden away and not allowed to socialize with others, or suffer from sensory deprivation, or not allowed to exercise our skills. Orcs grow ill in the same way if they're not allowed to express the rightness of might. Can you make a deal with the orcs? Absolutely, but the moment they are stronger, they're going to raid and run off with everything and everyone who isn't nailed down. But that still doesn't make genocide a good solution. It might be the only viable solution, but anyone who claims to champion the good is going to have to atone for these actions.

Since this is fantasy, you don't have to step too far afield to make your races feel "alien". Not too far from where I live, the locals once thought the gods were hungry monsters who must be fed with regular human sacrifice or else they would tear up the world and the heavens. Build a culture around this notion, a society that knows that this is an immutable fact, just like fire is hot and rain is wet, and you'll have a group that feels very alien to your typical suburban Westerner.

- Brian