Some thoughts on world design, rather than non-gaming commentary
In theory, this blog is supposed to be about games and stuff. Instead, I’ve been on a number of weird tangents of late, some of which are only obliquely related to the topic at hand. Sadly, Mormons and Molesters happened to take up my actual 100th post, and it isn’t even a Dogs in the Vineyard module series.
So, yeah. In reading through some of Gregory’s posts of late (I would link, but I’ve also made it a point to link to his blog in every single recent entry; I feel like a bit of a stalker these days), I happened upon an entry where he talked briefly about his general distaste for Halflings and Gnomes. This is something that I’ve dealt with in my own games, off and on over the years, and it was interesting to hear someone else devote words to the problematic nature of fantasy races.
… someone that isn’t John Wick, obviously.
For me, concision is a necessary part of any game that I run. I don’t like offering too many options to my players, if I can help it, since the embarrassment of riches tends to confound people when they’re first sitting down at the table. If there’s 30 different races, with 40 different character classes, an abundance of equipment options and a myriad of feats to shop through, there’s going to be an immediate vapor lock unless the player already knows what they want to do. If any of their choices come in conflict with something that someone else wants to do, it continues to go downhill from there. A lot of the time, it can go smoothly and even out in play, but I can point to a dozen different times when things only got worse in the course of a campaign.
One time, when I ran Star Wars, the character options were restricted to what they could do as Stormtroopers. This is one of those games which the players still talk fondly of, nearly ten years gone. Another game had them building out SWAT Team members in Dade County Florida. There was a specific focus, and it worked out very well. They had limits that they could work within, and by exploring these limits, the characters were some of the best they had made.
And when I talk about Pathfinder-styled fantasy (because, let’s face it, it isn’t terribly representative of most fantasy novels in the genre), I like to keep the options somewhat limited. There’s a laziness to many role-players, where they are content to hand-wave their character backgrounds into the ‘we met in a bar’ chestnut. Oh, sure. The elves hate the dwarves, and no one assembled likes orcs in the slightest, but for the sake of playing this game, we’ll assume that they all get along just fine. More often than not, these characters have no reason to get along together, and the act of blithely ignoring this aspect of the game becomes a ludicrous endeavor as soon as anyone tries to role-play their character in the slightest.
In play, this often meant that I largely removed Gnomes and Halflings from being able to be played in the slightest. In the past, this wasn’t even a consideration, since there were many campaigns where the entire group was made up of Elves of one sort or another. My reasoning then was simply that I didn’t like the races in general, but over time I came to realize that they honestly didn’t fit into the world that I had created. These days, I recognize that Halflings owe far too much to their Tolkien roots to sit comfortably with me, and outside of being allegorical Britons, I couldn’t see how they made any sense to the somewhat darker worlds that I had put together. Gnomes … yeah. They were worse.
Fast forward to the game I ran while I was living abroad.
I had been reading quite a bit of the Eberron setting books at the time, and I was fascinated by the governing precept that it was supposed to be a high action, pulp setting that was utterly compatible with standard D&D 3.5 (mainly so it would help sell its parent line of books). There wasn’t a lot of standard fantasy in Eberron, as it cleaved more closely to action tropes and steampunk sensibilities, but it tweaked itself to be able to accommodate.
In the mean time, my players wanted some sort of high action game of their own, and I found myself sick to death of the normal experience. I suppose this is what happens when you spend too much time behind the screen. This is about the same time I first conceived of the Stormtrooper game to avoid the bog-standard ‘rag-tag band of misfits’ that I had seen over and over again.
When I sat down to design a setting for the game, I did so with the governing thought of defying expectations. If these players were looking for scholarly elves in high towers of sorcery, I wanted to turn that around. If their idea of dwarves was subterranean miners with axes and beards, I wanted to build something as far from that as I could. But in the mean time, I let them build their characters as they saw fit. After all, I wanted them to be able to hold to their expectations as much as they wanted. The stronger such things were, the more interesting the reveal would be. They built out their characters without any assumption of what I was planning.
The basic idea for the game was that the characters were members of an expeditionary force sent to re-establish some vaguely mythical trade route to a southern continent. This allowed them the comfort of familiar character builds even as they became the strangers in a strange land. Naturally, this lasted until such time as they were shipwrecked and had to contend with the savagery and isolation of a lost continent.
I had worked together a fairly intricate history for the continent in question, casting it more along the lines of a sort of Thai or Indian motif of lost ruins and ancient civilizations. Back in high school and early college, I had grown enamored of the Yuan-Ti as a campaign-centered source of villainy, so I followed the logical threads of an ancient serpent kingdom from the mists of time for this new game. (This also allowed me to put together some truly wonderful source material, including some of the current sourcebooks from Wizards and a number of third party offerings.) I wanted to include a heavy psionic component, using Bruce Cordell’s various supplements of the era, and I had in mind to cast everything in a civilization that had rebuilt from the ashes of this long-dead empire.
In the end, I set most of the post-collapse culture as being directly based on the Yuan-Ti and their machinations. This meant delving into the alchemical basis of the race itself. (For those unfamiliar with it, there’s an old article that first appeared in Dragon Magazine about 25 years back, postulating the idea of Yuan-Ti creating an alchemical means to transform people into breeding stock.) In the process, I decided that the Gnomes and Halflings could have been the product of a similar mutagenic ritual, one that split them off from their genetic forebears – respectively, the Dwarves and Elves of a standard Western Fantasy game.
Naturally, the different races rose up and overthrew the Yuan-Ti empire at some point. And of course, they weren’t able to wholly eradicate all of the influence of their hated masters, else there wouldn’t be any interesting hooks. There was a brief period of peace, when the four races lived in relative harmony and built a new society in the aftermath of the lost empire. I say four because the humans became something of an outcast race, due to their implied collusion with the Yuan-Ti masters. (For my own mythology, I kept them as being breed stock, through the graces of alchemy. Yuan-Ti could still breed true with their own kind, but they favored fresh genetic lines.)
At some point in the post-empire history, agents of the Yuan-Ti fomented war between the Dwarves and the Elves, one that largely destroyed the Elven civilization. The Dwarves left the remnants of the Elven nation, retreated to the coasts and built great cities of geomantic power and majesty. In this world, they were the masters of an extremely precise form of hermetic magic that crossed over into fantasy physics. The Elves, when their civilization was at its height, were more inclined toward artistic and chaotic forms of magic.
The Halflings, once they had been freed from their bondage under the Yuan-Ti, had retreated to the high mountains to live in relative seclusion. The Gnomes continued secret contact with the mummified Yuan-Ti remnants, acting under the auspices of their dead masters. They made their home deep beneath the earth, receding into myth as the centuries passed. And the servitor races of the Yuan-Ti, the degenerate LIzardmen and Troglodytes, dwelt on the fringes of the different societies, content to live as they had in relative barbarism.
Being a game in D&D 3.5, I built the races out according to Favored Class ideas. This pushed Dwarves into being cast as Wizards, Elves as Barbarians, Halflings as Monks and Gnomes as Necromancers. (This last one was a bit of a headache, but I believe there was a Necromancer class in one of the side books. It didn’t particularly matter, as I wasn’t figuring to ever let one show up as a Player Character.) Each race also had its own favored material, where most of the armor and weapons were cast in that particular motif. Elves had once used glass (and it would show up as remnants of the older civilization), but in the present, they used living wood as the basis for their weapons and armor. The Dwarves, logically, were prone to using metal of a given sort. Halflings had perfected a sort of magically hardened ceramic, and the Gnomes used bone of a similar cast.
I spent a lot of time on the world, to the point that I would occasionally run the campaign as a fresh idea to new groups for various purposes. What was most interesting was that Paizo’s Serpent’s Skull Adventure Path ran through a lot of weirdly parallel ideas, to the point that I doubt I will ever try to publish this setting. It’s a little disheartening, but at the end of the day, I can point to things in their game design that I feel I could have done better.
So I have that going for me. Which is nice.