Sunday, 29 May 2016

Humanoids, Part I: Giving Humanoids a Raison d'ĂȘtre

Another issue frequently blogged about in the D&D and OSR blogosphere is the neverending variety of humanoids in D&D and their vague distinctions.

Goblins,hobgoblins,bugbears,orcs,gnolls,kobolds,orogs,etc. It seems Gygax basically made a critter for each minor increment of hit dice - Their differing roles otherwise being trivial.

I've struggled myself with this as well - What really distinguishes orcs from hobgoblins? What is the point of having kobolds and goblins?

I think I have landed at what I feel is satisfactory writeup for the various humanoids that makes them distinct and gives me a reason to have them in the world.

Partly because I've identified what I think is one of the main issues with the various humanoids - It is never clearly defined how they relate differently to humanity.

I found that once I started thinking about these races having a history and then focusing on their ecology as they impact humanity, gave me inspiration to start writing. Without further ado, in descending order of the "Threats to Humanity" scale:



Beastmen cover a variety of humanoids. Gnolls, Broo, Minotaurs, Harpies, Boar Men, Ratmen, Kobolds are just among the most notorious. Common to all of species of Beastmen is that they came into being little more than 1500 years ago, when Nydecia, the Empire of Man, was at its height - With the loosening of the Beastman Plague - Think 28 days later, except that people mutated into all kinds of mutated crosses between man and beast - And all of them infected with a  blood-crazed madness and hunger for slaughter and flesh. The heartlands of the empire kept them at bay, but civilization fell apart pretty much everywhere else. 

Eventually, some Big Damn Heroes went on a quest to quell the plague - The contagion became less and those infected did not become full beastmen except in the full moon (and so Lycanthropy was born) - Those already infected had their madness slightly lessened and began to breed true. But their nature was irrevocably altered - The beastmen races would remain minions of Chaos and roam the lands of devastation they had wrought freely for centuries more. 

Today, when humanity has won back much of what was lost in those dark years, Beastmen remain one of the biggest threats to civilization, raping and pillaging villages and towns with abandon and little thought for their own survival. The thrill of killing, raping and eating of flesh continues to drive Beast-men. Though they tend to congregate according to their kin, it is common for stray beast-men of different types to join with other beast-men. Broos and Gnolls are the most common types, but most humans tend to lump them all together as simply "beast men".

Every so often, an evil wizard discovers the spells for loosening new beastman plagues. Though, unlike the original version, the contagion is of limited duration and is preventable with clerical magic, they still last long enough to devastate entire countrysides and replenish the hordes of beastmen even further.

Due to their origin as creatures of chaos magic, beast-men are especially susceptible to summoning and charm spells, making them easy picks as minions of evil wizards. Beast-men in fact desire such subjugation - Being under the effect of such charm spells weakens their ravenous appetites and gives them a small taste of their lost humanity.  Woe betide the wizard who brings such creatures under his spell without giving them outlet for their lusts however - Beastmen who go too long without following the dictates of their Chaotic nature inevitably break and end up turning on their masters.


The Beastmen themselves weren't the only tragedy of the years of the Beastman Plague. One eastern kingdom, seeking to escape the devastation of its neighbours, made bargains with the Lords of Hell for protection. The devils made good on their promise - The citizens of that now lost kingdom were made immune to the plague and furthermore imbued with unity of purpose and battlefield ferocity to fend of the hordes. In a time were other kingdoms were crumbling, the newly made "Devil-Men" began forging an empire in the east on their ruins of humanity. Ironically, many humans preferred slavery under the devilmen, safe from contagion, to being free in the lands where the Beastman Plague, and the beastmen, still roamed.

When the Beastmen Plague finally subsided, the gods of Man turned their wrath on the godforsaken devilmen, cursing them with skin averse to sunlight and driving them underground. Though this left humanity mostly free of the new "Hobgoblin" dominance, it meant a devastating blow to the Dwarven kingdoms they have never recovered from. Over the next centuries, they would lose the majority of their kingdoms to the new underworld conquerors

Deep in the underworld, the hobgoblins are also found giant reptilians lost in time to domesticate and train for battle.

Yes, hobgoblins ride dinosaurs.
You may now tremble in fear.

There is something unmistakeably infernal about all Hobgoblins - a malice that can not be ignored. Hobgoblins of Erce are in no way savage or primitive. Their devil worshipping kingdoms are highly advanced  and civilized - and as cruel as they are disciplined and ordered. It is truly humanity's good fortune that they have taken their underworld as their home. Were they not burned by sunlight, Erce would surely still be under the thumb of the devilish Hobgoblin armies, rather than  suffering the occasional surface raids and campaigns they do today.

Designer notes: Hobgoblin kingdoms essentially fill a similar role to Drow in other D&D worlds. Except, these are scary ugly rather than scary sexy. And prefer devils and dinosaurs to spiders. And no one has ever heard of a hobgoblin that wasn't infernally evil.


Where Hobgoblins are unmistakeably infernal and callous, Orcs are unmistakeably savage and ferocious. Also known as "Sub-men" - Orcs are the closest relatives to humanity of the so-called "savage races".

In the songs and epics of the pre-kingdom tribes handed down to the present (and still ongoing among the barbaric tribes today) are countless stories of the fight for territory and supremacy with the Orcish tribes roaming the same lands, hunting the same game and claiming the same right to ownership.

Today, it seems clear that humanity has won the battle. Where humans have built roads and cities, orcs have been pushed ever deeper into the wilderness, become ever more savage and nomadic and retaliated and plundered human settlements with increasing bestial savagery. 

Though the savage orcs are not the rivals they once were, their existence as nomadic marauders of the wilderness who encroach on humanity whenever they can underlines the fact their ancient nemesis is still one of the major threats to human settlements.

Closing thoughts

I've taken a lump of humanoids here and made them into three different types of threats, meant to evoke different reactions in players when they come up:

Beastmen are akin to an infestation. They are feared the the way deadly disease is feared, invoking fever dreams of madness and dark  desires unleashes. They are a tumour on humanity, a fundamental wrongness in the world.

The Hobgoblins are basically the Dark Enemy. The humanoid nazis threatening to take over the world if good people do not stand against them. They frighten because they are not savage at all - They are ordered, but an order borne of deviltry rather than gods. Unspoken, but nagging in the hearts of men, is rather the fear that the Hobgoblins have become more than humans through their dark pacts with devils.

The Orcs are the primal rival. Imagine bloodthirsty and ferocious neanderthals surviving into the middle ages. Unlike Beast-men and Hobgoblins, Orcs are a natural foe. A savage and primitive reflection of mankind - Consequently, humanity's fight with them is an almost instinctive one of evolutionary supremacy. It helps that they are bestial raiders who continue to attack humanity with mindless abandon. But one gets the sense that even if they were peaceful and gentle, humanity would see them as an enemy to wipe out without really even understanding why.

Common to all three is the notion of a somewhat tragic backstory. 

Beastmen are the victims of a plague, mutated without any choice in the matter into horrid beasts of chaos. The fact that there are still humans today who turn into beastmen makes them an ongoing tragedy.

Hobgoblins were humans who simply wished to not be mutated into such abominations, or raped and killed by them. 

If history had been different, it could perhaps have been the Orcs who built cities and civilisations. Instead, they have become the losers in the evolutionary struggle and have succumbed to savagery, pushed into the wilderness to rage against their inevitable fate, whilst humanity languishes behinds its walls and warm beds.

Next Up

Goblins, kobolds, Bugbears and trolls!

edit: Had to nick this from Allandaros over on Of course Hobgoblins ride dinosaurs!

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Maxims for Writing the History of a World

Fantasy history is a tricky thing. As a teenager,I remember pouring the timelines and stories of worlds like Dragonlance, Greyhawk, Mystara and Faerun - The inconsistencies were a point of fascination, a sign that the world was not fully 'known'. Studying the history of the setting was a big part of the setting for me.

These days, I have to admit I find it less interesting. Mostly because I am no longer as enchanted by the history of a setting in and of itself, but rather what it brings to the present setting.

1st Maxim: Only tell the history of how the present day came to be.

This is an important maxim when writing history, that I failed to observe for a long time writing the timeline for Erce. It was hopelessly detailed with my own little vignettes of the ancients, but far too little of it told the reader anything about the present day of the setting. 

2nd Maxim: Preserve the sense of Mystery.

Writing history with a sense of mystery tends to make for more evocative study Less is often more and nowhere is it more true than setting history. History should be shards and fragments alluringly peaking through the mists of time to hit the present - This is true also for the creator himself - A world mysterious to its own creator is just a lot more fun to create for than one where everything is laid bare. 

I enjoy the sense of my own setting history far more when I myself only have sketchy ideas of the Godmakers who inadvertedly wrought cosmic destruction on the world - Or that the psychic wars were fought between two realms who were once one - and both said to have simply disappeared from Erce altogether, practically overnight. I don't know to know what really happened to the race who fought the psychic wars. Or how the godmakers invoked such destruction. Restricting myself as creator to developing in my own mind's eye only what a historian in the present could hope to learn of them is an exercise in writing evocatively and also keeps you grounded in the 1st maxim; only documenting the history that plays a part in defining the present of the setting.

3rd Maxim: Brevity, Brevity, Brevity

Refraining from too much detail tends to come with the benefit of needing to write much less.Often, this is an exercise in restraint more than justification for laziness. So it needs stating that brevity is a virtue in itself when writing a history. The rule of thumb is - players should be able to read it in half an hour and come away with a rough idea of the history of the world. Don't do a 30 pager if 5 pages can do the same. The maxims above tell you how to condense. Following a maxim from Bertrand Russell's "How I Write" should also help:

There are some simple maxims-not perhaps quite so simple as those which my brother-in-law Logan Pearsall Smith offered me-which I think might be commanded to writers of expository prose. First: never use a long word if a short word will do. 

This simple maxim really should be a golden rule of thumb for all prose writers. In my setting pack, I go over every paragraph I wrote (usually a few days later when I can distance myself better and read it anew) and see if I can cut out words or rephrase sentences to say the same thing with fewer words. Trust me, your readers will love you for it. Being able to present your information in 2 pages instead of 3 simply makes a presentation so much more accessible and digestible.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Fantasy Map Review VI: Nentir Vale

For links to all instalments in this series, go here.

For the sixth instalment, we visit Nentir Vale, the default setting of 4e. I must admit, I steered well clear of 4e for a long time. But the fluff of it possibly the strongest OSR credentials of any editions. It is eminent and at times simply brilliant.

First Impressions: I like it. As a starting DM I feel like this map is much more relate-able than the other maps. This evokes feelings more like the Domain of Greyhawk, where the local campaign asserts its relevance evocatively on the map.

Further Thoughts: In scale, it is more reminiscent of Middle Earth, but, unlike ME, it has a sense of locations that give PCs a sense of the area they are exploring. Although not as flavorful as  ME, it does give a sense of being enough for a local campaign for ant adventurers who aren't too afflicted with wanderlust.

For the far thinking explorer it falls short quickly. But it knows what it wants to be. And, unlike 4e forgotten realms, the artistic requirements are a homerun here. Lovely blend of colours, flavour and contrast. That the red dotted lines are clear yet unobtrusive is a testament to the artistic detail in this map. Lots to explore and delve into for such a small and unambitious setting map.

Style: 5/5
Substance: 2.5/5