Monday, May 17, 2010

A Small Regret

If I had it to do over again, I'd probably not have included dwarves or elves in my Dwimmermount campaign. It's not that I really object to their presence -- this is a D&D campaign, after all -- but, as the sessions add up, I find that certain elements of the setting would probably have worked better if humans were the only playable races. For example, death, dying, and the quest for immortality have all become important elements of the campaign, with the the appeal of the cult of Turms Termax being at least partly based on its promise of eternal life to its elite members. But the lengthy lifespans of demihuman races undercut the cult's appeal somewhat, even if neither dwarves nor elves are truly immortal.

Now, as I always do, I've begun thinking about ways to address this within the campaign setting and the result might, in the end, be more satisfying than the straightforward approach I could have adopted in a human-only setting. Still, there's little question that it would have been simpler (and truer to my inspirations) if I'd ditched demihumans at the start. On the other hand, part of what makes D&D the game that it is is its selection of playable demihuman races. You can get rid of them or replace them with others, of course, but, the more you change that "starting lineup," the farther you drift away from the peculiar kind of fantasy D&D evokes. So, there's a balance to be struck, I guess, between leaving too much unchanged for tradition's sake and changing so much that the result is unrecognizable.

More food for thought, I guess.

39 comments:

  1. It seems like long-lived demi-humans may be less swayed than short-lived humans, but that may just be from our perspective as short-lived humans. I don't think it is that hard to imagine that long-lived beings would be even more interested in immortality, due to a desire not to lose all their accumulated experiences and knowledge. A culture that lives 1000 years may become even more attached to the world than beings who only spend 60 years in it.

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  2. One thing I noticed when I came back to B/X D&D was that I could only find a single reference to demihumans having extended lifespans. And I think that was simply an off-hand justification for why demihuman hirelings would be rare.

    So, I’ve been playing it as demihumans having lifespans comparable to humans.

    Except that I like the idea that halflings only live half as long.

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  3. I have been running human centric campaigns for a long while now. There are many setting reasons for this, but it mainly helps create a sense of wonder and otherworldliness that may not necessarily be there if players had access to play a member of an exotic fantasy race. An interesting result is that none of my players have complained that they miss the demihuman races.

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  4. One thing to consider is that having longer lived races in the campaign creates higher envy among the shorter lived races. While elves and dwarves may not be as interested in joining Turms Termax (at least until they see the shadow approaching, then they may be even more desperate as Tom mentions) humans certainly would be interested in immortality. This interest would be fueled by the normal fear of death and envy of those who get to live longer.

    Can you imagine the magical experiments that seemingly ordinary citizens would be willing to aid for the promise of extended life?

    Can you imagine how afraid Demi-human characters might become of entering towns converted to the cult?

    You have a perfect reason for Crusade, hatred, and heinous war crimes -- all performed by people who would otherwise be good citizens.

    The existence of longer lived races makes dreams of immortality seem even more plausible than they would otherwise be. We -- in a scientific rational world -- look for either small extensions of life through better medicine or abstract concepts of life after death.

    In a world of magic, especially necromantic, where there are long lived races the stakes are much higher.

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  5. The idea that your player came up with for Dwarves is so awesome though it just begs to be used, somehow. I have used it as an example of what I want my own players to do in my upcoming post apocalyptic game and they haven't disappointed me!

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  6. Forbidding demi-human PCs is well within standard A/D&D:

    "The Dungeon Master may have restrictions as to which races are allowed in the campaign due to the circumstances of the milieu." (AD&D Players Handbook, page 13).

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  7. A humans-only campaign has a great deal of appeal to me, if only to heighten the sense of wonder about Elves and Dwarves.

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  8. Here's what you do, James.

    Say that an all-power, overlord of the gods shows up and forces all of the other gods to be mortal avatars for a short while. Then you could say that the divine combat that takes place and the cosmic changes that result cause all demi-humans to live shorter lives or that they never really existed before.

    See? It isn't a real problem. Just wave you hand and make it so. I'm sure it will feel right to you a few sessions later.

    ;)

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  9. Here's yer humans only campaign. Do Runequest. Oh wait, I forgot about Dragonnewts. And Ducks. And Baboons, and...never mind.

    I prefer running humans the rare times I play, and prefer the human characters in my games. But let's face it, a lot of people play D&D cause they want to be an elf or a dwarf. Start getting into the humans only mindset, and you might as well play something else.

    Oh shit, I sounded like one of those assholes on the 1st E. forum at DF. Dammit. Sorry about that.

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  10. I agree with Robert Fisher. Unless something has happened in your campaign that requires Dwarves and Elves to have really extended lifespans why not just change it?

    e.g. Humans average 70 years, Dwarves 100 years & Elves 140 years. Or everybody 70. Halflings always 35 years.

    If one or more NPCs need to have been around 800 years or something, well there is always magic to explain their particular longevity.
    The makeup of Dwarves in your campaign is too good to lose. At least that's my excuse for "preserving" it in any future campaign of mine.

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  11. Robert Fischer said: "One thing I noticed when I came back to B/X D&D was that I could only find a single reference to demihumans having extended lifespans. And I think that was simply an off-hand justification for why demihuman hirelings would be rare."

    See the description for the 'Staff of Withering' (X49): "A hit from this item will age the victim 10 years. The effect of old age will be fatal to animals and most character classes, but elves may ignore the effect up to 200 years of aging. Dwarves may also ignore the first 50 years of aging."

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  12. You could always say dwarves have long lives because they pay their gods in treasure for long lives, so maybe this human god of immortality might cost cheaper. it could be a curse for immortality: long life for men comes at expense for elves, so the elf PC is forced to go in exile if he continues to help, or why have to try to convince the men that long life isn't what it's cracked up to be so they should focus on getting treasure instead.

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  13. The desire for more life only appears once one is old enough to appreciate living and it grows stronger with each yearly reduction of the total ahead.

    Honestly, I suspect the longer-lived races would search for longer lives with greater intensity than the short-lived races.

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  14. I had the same problem with my campaign! I used the historical timeline of humanity as the basis for my campaign (-3500 BC to about 300AD becoming -3500 Before the Empire to 300 Imperial Year), and then inadvertently realized that if elves had 1,000 year life spans that my "ancient, forgotten history" was as far back to them as World War I to us.

    My solution was borrowed from Dragon Age - Elves *used* to have far longer lifespans, but since "the Fall" their lifespans are diminishing. Dwarves, meanwhile, have a sturdy 150-year lifespan, but their numbers are decimated by war and they breed slowly, so their impact is minimal.

    I think most settings work much better if there are no playable races that have access to 4 millenia plus of unbroken history. It just makes it too hard to have lost cities and ancient lore when your grandfather was alive to see it...

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  15. I've always thought that dwarves and elves should be rarer than the other races and that their societies should be in decline.

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  16. Brunomac said:
    "Oh shit, I sounded like one of those assholes on the 1st E. forum at DF. Dammit. Sorry about that."

    Dude, not cool. I'm one of those folks who frequent Dragonsfoot.

    Be careful what you say. It might come and bite you in the ass later.

    Just sayin'...

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  17. Blackstone: Don't have to do anything particular to get a bit ass at DF. Actually speaking of experience with a couple of particularly bitter A-holes. I recently posted here about it

    http://templeofdemogorgon.blogspot.com/2010/04/meanies-of-old-school.html

    and a lot of folk share my experiences. Please don't be offended...unless you are one of the numbnuts I recently had run ins with.

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  18. that dwarves and elves should be rarer than the other races and that their societies should be in decline<

    I agree in that in my world elves, dwarves, etc. are in slow decline, after having once been the dominant races while humans were still trying to get out of the trees. I guess I blame my LOTR upbringing on long lived races whose time is running out.

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  19. A lot of my inspiration comes from literature when I deal with demihuman races, and when you discuss immortality, I can think of some great examples, all from more recent fantasy than Appendix N stuff.

    First, check out R. Scott Bakker's THE PRINCE OF NOTHING series and the first book of his second series, THE JUDGING EYE. The Nonmen are a great source of inspiration for non-vanilla elves. They're very alien. They lived centuries, yet still craved immortality, enough so that they made the proverbial pact with the Devil and it backfired something fierce. Now, they ARE immortal (unless slain), and as centuries go on, they can only store about 1,000 years of memories in their brains. So, all the happy memories end up forgotten, leaving them melancholics (at best) or psychotic (at worst) with only the most traumatic of memories (usually of destruction at the hands of evil races or humans).

    Another race to look to is the Sithi from Tad Williams' MEMORY, SORROW, AND THORN. Very alien, but much more traditionally elven than Bakker's Nonmen.

    The key is that the elves (and dwarves) should probably be dying out. Hence, very few of their kingdoms remain, those that do are reclusive. Few of the surviving elves are ancient. Perhaps during the wars in which humans established themselves, many of the elves' parents and grandparents died. Perhaps the presence of iron in human kingdoms erodes the natural wonder and dreamlike substance of reality that the elves constantly surround themselves with. Thus, the humans' secrets of immortality may capture the interest of some elves.

    You also have opportunities here to accentuate differing perspectives. Perhaps the longer-lived races can provide an example of how immortality can be a curse, as a kind of cautionary tale. Perhaps avaricious dwarven lords may seek the key to immortality because they can't take their riches with them beyond the grave.

    I like a lot of the stuff that Appendix N provides when it comes to gaming inspiration. However, there've been a lot of series' published after the original old school era that could really inspire a human-centric game, and darn, the quest for immortality is one of those areas where one might find a good deal of inspiration.

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  20. On the other hand, part of what makes D&D the game that it is is its selection of playable demihuman races.

    Actually I have to disagree with you here, especially when you consider the level limits idea of OD&D, which meant, especially if you played in campaigns where establishing domains was important, they really became "supporting" player characters at best.

    I think having lots of sentient races is a trademark of D&D, but unlike Runequest, most of them are not really meant to be playable.

    But one of the nice things about campaigns is how they can grow and change. Mine started out with fairly standard D&D races, but the demi-humans changed as the campaign did.

    Everyone thought orcs were nasty, chaotic, and evil - but that only ended up the popular human view because they ended up as barbarians (because they didn't have the frontal cortex to handle abstracts very effectively and so were pushed to the fringes by human inventiveness and sorcery). Their only advantage was that they were fecund and tough, often finding employment as mercenaries. And nobody likes either the barbarian raiders of the cheap muscle. But they ended up being rather down to earth and realistic. And could be quite generous, especially if there was a fight in the offing. [And do the Emperor's daughter became the eventual Queen of the Orcs (all of them; it seemed a good idea to them at the time) through play.] All the results of player discoveries.

    Similarly the one player character elf helped redefine what an elf really was, until it came to the stage where he realised he didn't actually exist and was just an illusion created by a faerie realm (which was the true "elf"). I loved the idea that a faerie rade riding across the landscape was a communication/insemination tool between two "elves". [Reducing your entire existence to a lost piece of "sentient sperm" took some bravery.]

    Without a dwarven character, there was no player hooks into dwarfdom, so they became a stuffed clannish people that rarely wandered down from their vastnesses. And then it was discovered through play that the reason for this was the Dwarven Shame, that they and the goblins (who were the nasty evil influence hidden helpfully in plain sight) were related.

    Your campaign can shape to how you and your players want it to go, and sometimes you won't have any idea how it will really develop. You've already done so with how you have defined your goblins and kobolds. And if all people have seen of your demihumans so far has been the cardboard sterotypical representations of the races that humans have always held, then that is all the humans have wanted to see, and there is a deeper depth awaiting to be discovered by your game.

    It's never too late to start, although the earlier it happens the easier the transition will be.

    Here is to hoping that your elves may soon come to be Aldryami, your dwarves Mostali, and your trolls Uz too!

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  21. Brunomac: no prob. I just don't want you to think all of us are assholes there. I know of a few who are just "too uptight" about the game at the forums, but I think there few and far between.

    Anywho, thanks for listening to the podcast. Glad you like it. :)

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  22. The added wonder of non-humans in human-only campaigns always appeals to me, especially in terms of culture (the perennial problem of players acting as merely funny-shaped humans and so 'devaluing' the mystique of their given race.)

    The history problem that Alexander talks about occurred to me in my campaign setting as well. I have an idea to get round it partially by having almost all demi-humans be fey in nature and their home communities being mostly in the faerie world, where time is mutable. Elves might live for centuries, but only a hundred years or so might have passed in the 'mundane' world in the meantime.

    This of course has further repercussions, especially if the players visit these faerie world pockets. I'm still thinking about that, but some interesting possibilities have arisen - like having villains grow greatly in power in a relatively short space of time.

    In the mundane world having demi-human settlements be very insular also helps - the rest of the world just passes them by.

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  23. black: lot of great things at DF, and the podcast was one of the best things I found there. I just let myself get insulted too easily by codgers who seem to hate the gameplay of others, and I let myself get sucked in just too damn much. Trying to censor myself there and other places a bit more in the future. I often take the opinions of others way too far. Kind of like road rage.

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  24. There are demi-humans in my campaign, but players can only play humans, since nobody knows what it's like to be a four hundred year old being and I am against portraying Elves as effeminate gumans with pointy ears. By same token, I have character classes, schools of magic, warriors etc, open only to NPCs. Magic is too powerful, they know too many secrets, so these are bettre off as something that players will encounter as opposed to playecr character classes.

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  25. In an old school game players have very few choices to begin with. I say let them have the demi-human races. But still if you players found it interesting I don't see why not... Campaigns are so you can experiment....

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  26. Erik Mona originally considered doing a human-only campaign setting for Pathfinder, as he said in this blog post.

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  27. I like Christian Lindke's idea, although I might take it one step further. Not only do humans envy the elves their immortality, but elves *do* want the humans to remain ignorant and ephemeral.

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  28. On the one hand, D&D is definitely a game defined by those Tolkein-esque races. Elves, Dwarves and Halflings are a central part of what I imagine when I think about D&D, even if they aren't always the same per campaign setting.

    But I also agree that sometimes non-human races don't add anything and keeping them to NPC only arguably lets you play them as more magical and mysterious and hew more closely to their mythical origins. Furthermore, it avoids some of the balance issues around non-human races if those particularly bug you.

    I must confess that this is somethign I've been thinking about lately. I stopped running a 3.5 game for a rotating-GM-slot group for a few reasons and wante dot run something else, but one player in particulary considers playing anything other than a non-human in almost any game we play absurd. Nor are "traditional" races good enough - it's got to be something really whacky, which I really wasn't interested in doing this time and so found a lot of resistance to the idea.

    We went with Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader in the end and everyoen abr him was able to come up with a PC idea with minimal fuss. For him it was a weeks-long affair which took a lot of one-on-one and group wrangling until we finally hit upon an idea (still human, ironically) he could get behind playing.


    George Q

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  29. most settings work much better if there are no playable races that have access to 4 millenia plus of unbroken history. It just makes it too hard to have lost cities and ancient lore

    I'm inclined to let a player play whatever they want unless there's a good reason (like this, above) not to. I aver that "they can't imagine it properly" is not a good reason when you're playing "let's pretend."

    That said, I like the idea that elves could reach very old ages but generally don't because the environment is so dangerous/they all got killed off in the last Magewar. Then the remaining, juvenile elves are cultural orphans who have the job of finding out the mysteries of their ancestors. And of course there's just a couple of the Old Timers left, skulking in remote deserts and swamps, waiting for the right apprentice to show up.

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  30. Hey, you're the DM in an old-school game, you can make or in this case remake the rules, EVEN IN MID-GAME. Meaning, if you want to have some universe-shifting change (like all of a sudden shortening demihuman lifespans), then you have the right to do so, and the players will have to deal. They should see it as a new challenge, if they're true roleplayers. You can justify it in game terms however you want (the demihuman gods are angry at their respective races for whatever reason so they've shortened their lifespans, etc).

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  31. I find removing options to be very effective at differentiating a setting. It's one of the reasons I have a fondness for Dark Sun, despite the many flaws; it was a setting willing to take a pile of D&D assumptions and light them on fire. Functionally getting rid of clerics really drove home, "This is not a nice place."

    That said, I agree with others that longer lived races could very well inspire jealously among the shorter lived races. Just such jealously lead to the fall of Númenor when Sauron convinced the Númenóreans to try and steal immortality from the elves of Valar.

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  32. Personally, I always play elves. I don't know why; maybe it's a Legolas fetish. But like Prof. Tolkein, I love elves and love playing them. If you went with a human-centric campaign, I wouldn't be interested in play. You'd lose me at the start.

    I like the idea of subverting the existence of demi-humans to the cult's purposes. 1) those demi-humans with long life spans might be interested in the cult simply because they have a taste of immortality (200+ life span) and don't want to lose their accumulated memories/experiences. 2) The cult itself might teach that elves and dwarves were somehow "failed" experiments at immortality, early first attempts that didn't succeed. 3) Hard-line elements of the cult might really, really, really want to experiment on elves and dwarves as perhaps holders to the secret of immortality.

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  33. Personally, I always play elves. I don't know why; maybe it's a Legolas fetish. But like Prof. Tolkein, I love elves and love playing them. If you went with a human-centric campaign, I wouldn't be interested in play. You'd lose me at the start.

    I like the idea of subverting the existence of demi-humans to the cult's purposes. 1) those demi-humans with long life spans might be interested in the cult simply because they have a taste of immortality (200+ life span) and don't want to lose their accumulated memories/experiences. 2) The cult itself might teach that elves and dwarves were somehow "failed" experiments at immortality, early first attempts that didn't succeed. 3) Hard-line elements of the cult might really, really, really want to experiment on elves and dwarves as perhaps holders to the secret of immortality.

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  34. You can always do what Moorcock does and vary demihuman lifespans to fit the needs of the setting - his Eldren are immortal, his Vadhagh immensely long-lived, while his Melniboneans have regular human lifespans. No reason why Dwarves and Elves should have more than three score years and ten, esp in a Sword & Sorcery setting.

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  35. The treatment of the Vadhagh by the humans was one of the things that inspired by "humans hunting down demi-humans for immortality experiments" idea.

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  36. The makeup of Dwarves in your campaign is too good to lose.

    Thank you -- and I agree. That's why I said this is a "small regret." I'm actually quite happy with the campaign as is and have already begun to work out ways to incorporate the existence of long-lived demihumans into my ideas. n fact, with regard to the elves, I'm actually very happy with what I've done and, when the players find out, it'll make for a better campaign than if I'd just had humans. But there'll always be a part of me that wishes I'd been less baroque in my initial campaign design.

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  37. Maybe it's the humans who are dying out, and the demihuman races that are gradually taking over. Boy, would that feed the Turms Turmax hate.

    I mean, if the demihumans are really tougher and longer-lived and have higher technology levels and magic abilities, who knows what the population figures are like in their remote fastnesses? If elves and dwarves just have really good civic engineering of sewers, that alone could give them a huge survival edge.

    So then humans slaughter them for a while, they retreat to their fastnesses and have lots of kids, and sooner or later their numbers increase again, and....

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  38. @suburbanshee - you've just turned to demihumans into bourgeois European colonists and the humans into colonized populations (the goblin spot): a very interesting proposition - probably more interesting than having them stand in for the regrets of industrialisation and the romanticised noble savage. I'm guessing (if we pursue the analogy) that the elves would alternate between paternalism and horror regarding the humans. They'd be occasionally worried that the humans might all die out and occasionally worried that the humans were outbreeding them. They'd probably reach reproductive equilibrium, though, if they got enough peacetime.

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  39. I never understood why demi-humans were included in the game but then limited so tightly. Level limits are weird to me because we never got to levels where they mattered, but the idea of a limit to the character's future chafed a lot. Anyway, people like playing demi-humans; why rain on that parade?

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