Friday, January 21, 2011

An Awful Idea

So today I've been dealing with art issues, doing some prelim layouts, and doing research. Multi-tasking on a Friday. Because you care so much. :D

I was reading Handbook to Life in Renaissance Europe today (by Sandra Sider), and something struck me while getting to the chapters about European contact with indigenous people around the globe.

I don't use orcs or ogres or any of that stuff in my games these days (I have used "goblins" as a humanoid catch-all not too long ago, but my campaign is moving more and more to Earth 1600s)... but I'm reading these books and taking notes as to what the "guns (and other Renaissance things)" project would need to contain. But it's going to be a cross-clone supplement, and I do believe most people who follow my stuff go for a "fantasy standard" setting approach... that means orcs, kobolds, goblins, etc.

How to deal with that?

I could just ignore it. It's not necessary to deal with it, really, just like the core rules going back 40 years don't deal with them - humanoids are a series of entries in a monster book. Extraneous. This approach doesn't conflict with how I (don't) use humanoids, doesn't conflict with how I presume you use humanoids.

Or I could do something else with the whole humanoid thing.

See, wherever the Europeans went, they acted like the owned the place. Conquered and colonized and made slaves or slaughtered everywhere they could. Where they couldn't, only then did they actually trade. They were dicks. This is old news. But how to twist that to fit a fantasy game?

Remember that whole criticism about humanoid monsters just being stand-ins for ethnic minorities so it's OK to kill and rob them? I do believe that argument, with orcs etc as traditionally presented, is bullshit.

But what if you change the assumptions so they actually are?

What if the entire concept of "orc" and "hobgoblin" or whatever is a cultural construct of the campaign world, and these things aren't a different species at all, or "irredeemably evil" or whatever. What if they are actually human and it's just the PCs' racist cultural viewpoint that views their features as monstrous and treats them as subhuman vermin threats fit only for the sword?

What, you thought it was just coincidence that orcs and humans make half-orcs? Isn't awfully convenient that your Charm Person and Hold Person spells work on these guys just like they do those you recognize as human? Hmmmm?

Horrific, yes. But completely fitting in the mindset of the real-life Renaissance where all sorts of otherwise courageous and wise people thought nothing of slaughtering and enslaving their fellow human beings around the world (while slaughtering each other at home over minor theological differences within the same religion) just because they looked and lived differently than they...

Our heroic countrymen subdue a wicked orc from the southern jungles before it can do evil...

For best effect, reveal the truth to your players just after they finish Keep on the Borderlands.

... or not.


  1. Why bother with orcs and such as "other humans", when they can just be other humans?

    All the lessons about racism, greed and ruthless ambition work better against fake humans then they do disguised fake humans.

  2. >>Why bother with orcs and such as "other humans", when they can just be other humans?

    That's actually what I do, but it seems like I'm leaving something out by never addressing orcs etc.

    >>All the lessons about racism, greed and ruthless ambition work better against fake humans then they do disguised fake humans.

    I try not to do the lesson thing. If I dangle an immoral solution in front of the PCs, it's usually (not always) a quicker and/or easier solution than the moral one. (being a Good Person is something you have to Consciously Do, not something that's simply assumed)

    For example, in No Dignity in Death, if the PCs clear the gypsies' name, they do get a reward (because introducing a hook and not having a reward attached would be Bad Refereeing), but if they don't and the gypsies are executed? Doesn't effect the PCs' lives at all.

    Death Ferox Doom will be soaked in colonialism and the racism that represents, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the actual point of the adventure. If the PCs involve themselves in the conflict between the colonials and the natives, they're actually sidestepping the adventure as written. A valid choice, yes, but that will be neglecting more supernatural issues that need attention...

  3. I like it, although I'm not crazy about the surprise at the end. I say, let the players know up front. I don't mind a little separation and distinction between player and character. I find it more disturbing to play a character who believes he's killing orcs while the player knows they're just humans of a different color.

    As for the whole humanoids are humans of different culture, I certainly see how that is true in many / most cases, but there are exceptions. Consider Glorantha with it's many human cultures and humanoids. In that case, I think it is more of including the fantasy element since there are already plenty of human cultures warring amongst each other.

  4. Pretty good awful idea to me.

    John Wick have taken his game House of the Blooded in interesting directions like that. Check it out!

    I have been feeling this idea lurking beneath my problems of irredeemable "monsters" for a long time...

  5. All I can suggest is if you do it don't let it devolve into caricature like the orcs=minorities thing is.

    Have orcs (coastal peoples) sell goblins (inland peoples) who they capture in war as slaves to the colonials and sell hobgoblins (colonials) they capture to bugbears (colonials from the opposite side of the continent) as slaves much as happened in the time period in Africa. Even today slavery is on-going in Africa and the Middle East while sex trafficking of women is a problem even in Europe and the US (and not just of non-European women but of European women as well).

    So go for it, but go all out...remember, everyone historically has divided the world into "us" (humans) and "them" (not humans). Get Elves and Dwarves involved (maybe that's why the long hatred).

  6. I think about the age of exploration and the age of colonialism and consider Europe vs Islam. The Islamic world held its own against Europe because it had a similar level of technology and military might.

    I like the idea of having native humans in the new world areas being technologically inferior and steeping the game in colonialism; I also like the juxtaposition of putting the orcs back on the mainland, making them just as advanced as the nations of humanity there, and letting them be one of the colonial powers too.

  7. Awfully good idea! How about making Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings racially distinct minorities within the setting too!

  8. I'm intrigued by the notion of a human "going native" and becoming an orc, or of being religiously "converted" over to a hobgoblinry.

  9. Europeans had long thought anything comming from the new world was dwarfs compared to the continent. Benjamin Franklin had to prove them wrong with a stuffed moose.

    Why couldn't a French Canadian trapper be a 'dwarf' in the eyes of te aristocracy. What if 'elf' is just another name for a overly educated foppish noble.

  10. I'm also reminded of The Worm Ouroboros, where all the (human) people hail from kingdoms like Demonland, Witchland, Goblinland, etc, and are called things like Demons, Witches, Goblins, all the way to Ghouls and Pixies.

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  12. The problem you have (that will go away if you do more research about the 'orcs') is the concept 'Europeans were dicks'. Its more like 'everyone was dicks'.

    African slavery? Came about because west african's didn't think central africans were people (West Africa was considerably more advanced and powerful than Europe in the middle ages). Islam was a happy buyer at first (they couldn't get enough eastern european slav's, origin of the word, to fill demand anymore). Wasn't until Abubakari the 2nd destroyed the entire fleet looking for America (trade winds don't work that way) and his successor Mansu Musa immediatly went about destroying the treasury on his pilgrimage to mecca (devaluing gold in Cairo for 7 years) that the portugese got involved at all.

    Those new world peoples? Just as big of dicks as the Europeans. They talk about 500 spaniards overthrowing the Aztecs, they forget the part about the tens of thousands of rebelling soldiers from occupied subject nations who joined them. The Aztecs made the spaniards look nice (a tough feat).

    The Inca? Their empire didn't get so big with flowers and candy, they took the same map to power as the Romans in europe. Bad Juju.

    The Golden Horde? Ghengis Khan is not synonamous with happy fun time.

    Even the Polynesian's weren't super friendly.

    Its not that European's were dicks, they just got lucky and ended up the last dicks standing. It was touch and go at a few points, Islam or the Golden Horde could have ended up on top just as easily.

  13. Having thought this over, it seems to me that this is just adding an anvilicious moral to the game, which is something I can probably do without.

  14. Woodwose - human but sufficiently uncivilised and 'other' that kicking him about was inherently meritorious.

    Orcs are the degenerated remains of what bandits and mercenaries become if they revel too much in the rape and slaughter of the sack. These creatures, once human, have been intimately and indelibly marked by the Chaos they themselves have inflicted on the world.
    source: well, me

    Just a thought...

  15. "See, wherever the Europeans went, they acted like the owned the place."

    I think you need to read about the Ottomans, Arabs, Chinese, Mongols, Japanese and Aztecs.

  16. Europeans had a farther-reaching effect than any of them. Five continents (including their own) in the time period I'm concerned about, adding a sixth later on.

    I'm almost completely ignorant of Chinese and Japanese history but I'm pretty sure they didn't have a worldwide impact like that... although of course every empire-building civilization would have been glad to do so if they could.

    Not arguing that Europeans were unusual in their mentality or ambitions, just more able to inflict it on a wider area.

  17. I see what you are doing there but it seems to be a bit too "occidentalist". You say they had a farther reaching effect and inflicted it on a wider area but that is an accident on timing and technology.
    Whats important to remember is that while they may have had the widest impact, the fact is that other peoples had just as great (if not greater) an impact on their own 'known worlds':

    Look at the spread of Islam across old roman n. Africa, across old roman Syria, into visogothic spain and later into india and africa. Then later, the Turks into Byzantium and Rumalia.

    What we call Chinese is really a minority group (the Han) that subdued hundreds of other minority groups and came to culture dominate the fring peoples: Koreans, japanese, vietnamese, etc....

    Japan is a similar story: look into the slaughter of the Ainu, the conquest of Hokkaido, the conquest of Okinawa.

    The mongols conquest from Germany to Japan and the overlordship of russia.


    I think these off the cuff examples actually prove your point, particular if you look into the strategies of dehumanization employed in cultural and political expansion. I think the problem is if you apply it exclusively to (neo)european peoples; then it comes of as a little too "PC" and personally, I'd rather the academy stay out of the sand table. Something more intresting might be to confront that directly: players as "native peoples" whose homelands are suffering under an invasion of "orc' or 'ogres'; when they meet up and offer resistance to the invaders, they find out they are..... human.

  18. >>I think the problem is if you apply it exclusively to (neo)european peoples; then it comes of as a little too "PC"

    I think it would be rather un-PC - assigning real-life non-white ethnicities monstrous identities is a pretty rude thing to do if the idea is still to be dealt with as orcs and goblins traditionally are.

    "So wait, hobgoblins are Mongols, got that, but the Africans are gnolls and the Arabs are orcs, right? Native Americans are elves like in Brotherhood of the Wolf, right? Was it the Jews or the gypsies who are the gnomes? The Scandinavians are the ogres with the 4 hit dice, but are Irish something too or not? Is it realistic that Dracula leads the kobold nation? This is confusing and it's creeping me out."


    But of course to use the idea the home campaign culture needs to be the "human" default, whether it resembles real-life European history or not.

    If the campaign cultures don't adhere to strict historic equivalencies (the co-existent, multi-pantheon, polytheistic, objectively true nature of most fantasy game world religions throws history out the window more than the presence of magic, I'd say) then this becomes much easier to implement.

  19. I played briefly in a campaign that pretty much did this. It seemed to work fine. And yeah, the overriding principle was, pretty much, "Everyone's tribe/nation is pretty much a dick to everyone else. Of course, within any given society, pretty much everyone is pretty much a dick to almost everyone else."

  20. I just say what the characters see. If they come along and there's this hunting camp of Goblins and the PCs slaughter them, ok, whatever. I don't need to pluck their heartstrings, they do that enough to themselves as it is. I do notice that there is a definite shift when we start to deal with non-bipedal creatures though. Anything with anything other than two legs is an animal or a monster to these folks, depending on how tameable it is. Of bipeds, they value the lives of those bipeds who appear in the player's guide as playable races, but hardly anybody else.

    Which seems odd to me. Let's take a look at a creature from 1st edition AD&D:

    * Lives underground
    * Greedy, miserly
    * Known to have treasure
    * Might steal from you
    * Might carry armor and weapons
    * Can see in the dark
    * Is worth EXP if you kill it
    * Kills or drives out anyone who tries to raid its lair

    CONGRATULATIONS we have a Dwarf! But it's also the basic resume of the Orc.

    I think the people who have moral objections to their characters fighting racial wars need to stick to taking out Manticores and Hydras.

    I did see a blogger who decided that Goblins in his game would be plant-sort-of creatures who grow in the bad old places of the world, and are supernaturally evil and anathema to "people" objectively. At that point a Goblin is the equivalent of an Earth Elemental or a Shambling Mound - who cares?

    But wait - if we care about killing off all these wayward Orcish youths, why not care about the slavery of Invisible Stalkers, Elementals, Familiars, and Genies? The perpetual tax evasion and wanton negligence of adventurers? The inhospitable work conditions for henchmen? Inadequate provision for pensions, medical plans, dental, vision, psychiatric care, etc. for adventuring parties? The fraud built into the game with magic like Fools' Gold and Philters of Glibness? How many adventurers are licensed and bonded as exterminators? How many have a business license under which they can work as independent contractors?

    Really the game is founded on immorality, or I should say the false morality of the historical source material.

  21. In the time span you seem to be setting the game (early ren), then european christianity did not have the biggest impact on the known world yet. It was still dwarfed by both the Mongols and the spread of islam in terms of the number of peoples impacted (as Europe didn't really get into africa during this period, nor much of asia).

    Not only that it destroys the wierd aspect. If supernatural creatures are metaphors for other races and how terrible white christian europeans are then every monster just becomes a metaphor..."Is this a ghost or a metaphor for the historical oppression of homosexuals, am I supposed to banish it or help it kill the townspeople that are supposed to represent..uh.. Nazi's I guess?..who wants to play battletech!"