Saturday, December 31, 2016

On Beast Races

Lizard-people. Bird-people. Rat-people.

Y'know, "beast races."

Obviously they are well-attested in many modern fantasy games (and other media, too), but they have a LONG history. We have wolf-people ("werewolf" is just Old English for "wolfman") from medieval Europe, horse-people (centaurs) from ancient Greece, and scorpion-people from janking Akkad (like, y'know, around the time and place of THE DAWN OF CIVILIZATION ITSELF). And I'm not even GETTING into Celtic or Norse or Egyptian or Indian or Native American or Mesoamerican or Central Asian or Sinic mythologies (mostly because I don't know as much as I'd like, haha). Suffice it to say that beast races have been an important presence in storytelling in most times and places.

Perhaps this points to something really compelling about the concept. Are there echoes of humankind grappling with its origins, or with its worst ("bestial") tendencies, or instead showing a sort of appreciation for nature (and oneness with it)? I dunno, ask a mythologist. There sure are some gameable concepts here, though, whether they are true in our reality or not. In your campaign:
1) Are humans (or humanoids at large) in danger of partially reverting to animalistic ways (and, indeed, animalistic bodies!)
2) Are certain groups of human(oid)s somehow enriched or elevated by gaining some semblance of animal shape?
3) Are the "beast races" reminders of the uncomfortable past of the human(oid)s?

Given these thoughts, it may surprise the reader that I've NEVER used a member of a beast race in one of my campaigns. No werewolves, satyrs, gnolls, centaurs, lizard-men, kenku, yuan-ti. Worse, I couldn't give you a solid reason WHY. Maybe I just don't want to embark on a path to which I see no end - ferret people, antelope people, centipede people, penguin people? The dizzying array of possibilities - many of them ridiculous, some of them great - is simply too deep to plumb. Maybe a drive toward a "naturalistic" aesthetic keeps me from exploring ridiculous hybrids - but what place does "naturalism" have in fantasy settings fraught with magic and the supernatural?

I guess the takeaway from this is that if you're going to make beast races a part of your game world, play it to the hilt. Think of how the physical (and perhaps psychological) differences of these peoples would affect their society and culture. Explore existing mythologies and the beast races present in them. Use beast races as indirect commentary about our own origins, or our deeper tendencies. (And, I'd be tickled pink to see penguin people or antelope people crop up in a reader's campaign. I dare you to do use one! Tell me how it goes. Also, Reader, tell me your favorite gaming encounter with beast races, if you've had one!)
Antelope people?

ADDENDUM: as best as I can foresee, I won't ever make beast races an integral part of my own campaigns. BUT, I could foresee them used in a specific adventure or two - perhaps as the consequence of animistic shamanism in some especially magical wilderland, or of ever-popular mad wizard experimentation. I will let you know if I ever try this.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Aethra's Cairn

Sometimes, to add a bit of flavor to my campaigns, I slip in the lyrics from any of many deserving death metal bands. Below is a song by Be'lakor, "Outlive the Hand" - it recently featured as an inscription on a lonely cairn on a barren hill, the burial place of one Aethra.

In death she spoke of waiting;
Her final days were long.
These fields have changed since last she wept
Before the silent throng.

She sits where childhood memories lie:
Above, beside, within them.
These carvings have outlived the hand
Which bled to first begin them.

As features of the landscape merge,
The oldest trees are falling.
Awareness sweeps the view aside;
She stares as if recalling.

Seen first beyond the canopy,
They soon had reached the borders.
The clouds, infused with burning breath,
Arrived from coldest corners.

The windswept valley hastens now
As dying words are uttered
From lips of earth and sapling’s strain,
Like leaves, her last thoughts fluttered.

Again it darkens overhead;
The knowledge of it stills me.
And, when the water starts to fall,
Preserve the drop that kills me.

Player reaction was favorable. This will not be the last (nor is it the first) such experiment.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Bandit Ecology

They want your money, and they are everywhere. The hills are full of them, leering brutes and sneering cougars, with almost as much body hair as body odor. The forests are full of them, caves and shacks (and treehouses?) teeming with stupid but aggressive thieves. The highways are full of them, men and women brandishing stolen weapons and shouting to "stand and deliver!"

Scum and Villainy
How did the gameworld become so infested with these lazy louts?

One quickly gets the sense that there are more outlaws than law-abiding citizens, sometimes FAR more. A province may have one major town, surrounded by scattered villages and fields, but bandit hideouts dot every crag and thicket. That the sparse fields would support even the town alone is doubtful, but the entire province, bandits and all? No way. The brigands of the wilds must subsist as hunter-gatherers, as there is neither trade nor agriculture enough for all of them to prey upon.

And, who do they prey upon? Citizens and travelers like yourself, yes, but there are few enough of those compared to the swarming plague of banditry. Mostly, a bandit robs from other bandits, and a bandit gang robs from other bandit gangs. With all this internecine strife and violence, the death rate of a garden-variety bandit must be grim. How do they maintain their overwhelming numbers? If you're ambushed by a bandit gang, you may see women, more often than not, but never are they pregnant. (Strange, given bandits' well-known proclivity to lewdness.) Raid a bandit den, and you never find children - at least, not BANDIT children. Maybe some captive town children, if the raiders have been particularly bold. Bandits are not born, they are joined. 

And so, we have a picture of a prolific socio-economic group (or even separate culture), outnumbering the other major demographics, but maintaining this numerical superiority only by having an influx of poor, desperate, thuggish outcasts that rivals the prodigious outflux of dead bandits (victims of all causes from homicide to disease to wandering adventurers). Imagine what life must be like in the towns and villages that the nasty, brutish, and short life of a bandit is a preferable alternative.

The alternative to banditry?
(This post inspired by some nostalgic replaying of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. But, as we gamers know, this post could be speaking about any number of other games, D&D included!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Black Ships

They come in the night, once or twice a year, often when the ripening corn begins to wave slow and sluggish in the winds from the sea. Black ships with black sails - so say those alert enough to awake at their coming, craven enough to attempt flight, and spry enough to succeed. Black ships and black figures, dragging loved ones and friends through the whispering surf and into the ocean's night. Those who are taken never return. Only the black ships ever return, year upon year.

They come to coastal villages, where fishers and farmers toil on land and sea to make it through another winter, where petty lords and struggling guilds lack the power and funds to raise a standing army or shelter their populace behind high curtain walls. Even in territories of greater standing and cohesion, there are always those too poor or rooted to move into the walled towns, and always those fog-shrouded autumn nights where sea and sky meld into swirling darkness broken suddenly and quietly by black ships and black sails.

The slave markets of Syr-Marad and of the Inner Six continue their grinding trade in dispossessed and broken persons, but those taken by the black ships do not pass through those marts. It is as if they were taken not by ships and men in black, but by the brooding sea itself, never to wash ashore from its hungry depths.

[For these adventure hook / lore posts, I have two questions for the reader:
1) how, as a player, would you react to the above adventure hook?
2) how, as a GM, would you incorporate the above lore into your gameworld?
I'd love to see your answers to one or both questions.]

Monday, December 26, 2016

Spellcaster: Fantasy Retro Heavy Metal

Spellcaster, out of Oregon, isn't normally the kind of music I'm into; but, listening through their latest album (Night Hides the World), something about their effortless fusion of the classic heavy metal aesthetic with modern production value and variety really grabbed me.

Would recommend for: a journey through dark woods far from home, quiet moments spent reading of long-forgotten heroes, or a noble quest to defeat a malevolent sorcerer.