Thursday, 18 September 2008

More on Archetypes and Demihumans

In many ways I do rather wish Gygax and Arneson hadn't put demihumans in D&D. Although my love for dwarves is well documented, I think I would be willing to see them removed as playable races as a sacrifice so that I never have to come across an elf or halfling character ever again in a game. (I do have my tongue half in my cheek here, but only half.)

The reason isn't just the one I mentioned yesterday (the tendency towards
"I want to be a good Xer, therefore I must play a member of race Y, because they are the best Xers" as Anonymous put it). I think it's also because Demihuman player characters ruin the sense of mystery that comes with the exploration of something truly weird and fantastical - which is one of the major cornerstones of D&D. They make everything mundane: Melville's banalifying systematisation, rearing its head again. I much prefer the theme of strangers in a strange land, and you can only really explore that fully with human characters at large in a world full of weird and incomprehensible things. Elves and dwarves and the like would be infinitely more interesting if they were unknown and unknowable - the alien "other", permanently present and yet never understood. Rather than, basically, humans who like trees or humans who like mining, respectively.

I've quoted this passage by M. John Harrison before, but the more I think about it the more I start to see his point:
The moment you begin to ask (or rather to answer) questions like, “Yes, but what did Sauron look like?”; or, “Just how might an Orc regiment organise itself?”; the moment you concern yourself with the economic geography of pseudo-feudal societies, with the real way to use swords, with the politics of courts, you have diluted the poetic power of Tolkien’s images. You have brought them under control. You have tamed, colonised and put your own cultural mark on them.

The part of me that finds great excitement, pleasure and comfort in creating finely realised fantasy world rebels against that statement with every fibre of its being, but the other half of me - which likes mystery and strangeness and romance - finds it compelling. How is it possible to reconcile the competing desires for systematisation and non-banality? For me, it's the key question not only of D&D or role-playing but of fantasy literature. Demihuman player character races are at the exact point where those two competing desires come together and are repelled; do you systematise elves to make them playable, but in doing so make them banal? Or do you preserve their sense of magic and mystery, but in so doing make them inaccessible? Not a question to keep you up at night, maybe, but one that I think the hobby itself could do more to consider.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that OD&D is the version of D&D which comes closest to reconciling both positions: although it strays into systematisation with its statting-out of the fantastic, it keeps this to a minimum while also providing a bare-bones framework on which to hang whatever strangeness your mind can come up with. There is no Forgotten Realms-esque bloat, no endless anal-retentive cataloguing of pointless minutiae. There is freedom for the unknowable to exist. Maybe there really is more to the old gal than meets the eye.


  1. D&D is a descendant of wargames, which means that it was pretty much doomed from the first to introduce systematization for many of its elements. And of course the demands of publishing also took their toll, which is why I frequently rail against setting bloat and the ruinous effect it has on the imagination.

    Good post.

  2. James: Yes, setting bloat is a disaster in most respects. I don't mind published settings, but the less detail they have, the better, and I strongly object to the idea of default settings.

  3. But Elves and Dwarves aren't mysterious and unknowable others in Tolkien. Orcs, maybe, but not Elves or Dwarves. Elves and humans, in particular, are capable of falling in love with each other and having families. Not every alien is Solaris.

    And Harrison's objection has always struck me as particularly bizarre when directed at Tolkien. You can ask how Elves conjugate verbs, but asking how Orcs might organize regiments is a category error?

  4. jamused: But there is something otherworldly about elves in Tolkien that isn't present in D&D. There's a danger and a mystery and a coldness about them. There may be some exceptions, but elves are consistently presented as incomprehensible and following a different agenda to men and hobbits. That's why a prospect of Galadriel with the One Ring is so terrifying, and why none of the elves except Legolas can be bothered trying to defeat Sauron. They're not like humans.

    Harrison wasn't criticising Tolkien; he was criticising the tendency of authors to see the superficialities and details of worldbuilding as the point, as opposed to the mere backdrop for the story. Tolkien was writing a myth and as such he had to make a world in which that myth could take place, but really the creation of middle-earth was incidental to the work. That's why you don't see population figures and sizes of military units etc. anywhere in his books.

    I don't agree with Hamilton that systematisation is necessarily a bad thing, but Tolkien (Elven languages notwithstanding) really wasn't a systematiser. He gave no thought whatsoever to economics, for example.

  5. From everything I've read, the creation of the myth was incidental to the creation of the language. In order to create believable languages, he found that he needed to create the history and myth of the people that spoke it. This is diametrically opposed to Harrison's views, which are that Tolkien's whole notion of "subcreation" is a simple logical error that even a child can see.

    I understand your desire for exoticism, I even share it; many of my settings start from a desire to create something more exotic than bog-standard D&D fantasy. But IMO, making something unknowable is a cheap substitute for making something genuinely exotic. Real exotic things remain exotic even when known and studied. E.g. knowing about the practice of foot-binding doesn't make it homey and familiar.

    If Elves and Dwarves in campaign you've been in aren't exotic enough for your tastes, the fault is that the details that the setting authors set forth are themselves too familiar and prosaic; the solution is to give them stranger history, customs and motives. Refusing to reveal anything about their history, customs and motives is just a hack; it might temporarily give the illusion of depth but that won't stand up.

  6. Why do Oldschoolers hate demihumans so much?

    Do you find Orcs or Gnolls more mysterious when you play D&D because they aren't PC races? I guess it's possible, but the fact is PC race or NPC race you have probably similar amounts of data on them, both of which will go towards 'ruining' the mystery. It sounds like part of the problem is having players who don't know how to play a non-human PC and they ruin it by playing them just like humans with pointy ears.

    Isn't part of the point of Roleplaying to step outside of what you know (and are) and try to get inside something else? Why then restrict players to only playing humans?

    Also on another point I think you overly simplify Tolkien's worldbuilding. Linguistics was certainly his forte and where the bulk of the truly complicated stuff is, but from all accounts he worked strenuously to get all the details right inasmuch as he was able. He agonized over the correct phases of the moon at any given point in the story, for example, and tried to ensure that things like the correct plant life for a given geographic area were represented. Now, many of the elements outside his range of professional expertise (such as economics) may not be able to stand up to the rigorous analysis of a professional in that field, but it was not as though he did not try and take those elements/issues into account.

  7. There's a line of thinking that often comes up in discussions about Basic D&D and the demihuman class limits. It's something along the lines that human pcs get to go from 1st to 20th (or whatever) because the campaign is the story of their entire, hopefully heroically epic, lives. With the elves and dwarfs, their lives are detached from human concerns, so the 1st to 9th (again, or whatever) spread we see in-game is simply a representation of their time in the human world; afterwards, they bugger off to the Grey Havens or Fangthane or wherever.

    I don't know if this was an intention of the designers, or something that's been read into the system later on, but I think it does much to emphasise the otherness of the demihuman pc, while keeping them playable.

  8. @terry l- Which oldschoolers hate demihumans? noisms and I both (to the extent that we're oldschoolers, which I'm not certain about) would like demihumans to be more interesting than a package of stat bonuses that you take in order to min-max your archer. He thinks that maybe means you can't let them be PCs, I disagree, but if there's any hatred going on it's just of games that make them "rubber forehead aliens."

  9. I also feel a vague discomfort with demihumans in bog-standard D&D settings. I think it's the conflict that arises between D&D's largely pulp roots--which are almost exclusively humano-centric--and the Tolkienized elf/dwarf/hobbit races.

    Jim LOTFP just posted some interesting thoughts on how to handle elves and dwarves in more pulpish way. It basically makes them unplayable in a mixed group, which is maybe the best approach. In other words, elves and dwarves should be handled the same way as if you wanted to do a campaign with all orcs & goblins.

    (One of the things that's great about Planescape, BTW, is the fact that it explains demihumans in a D&D environment perfectly. I really think it's the ideal D&D setting, and it's a shame that, as much as I hate default settings too, WotC didn't pick it up for their "core" setting.)

  10. @jamused: I am, no doubt, over simplifying...but I have seen it as a common thread in several OD&D blogs and discussions that demihumans are some kind of mis-step in the creation/development of D&D and should be either excised (the extreme version) or have the (to me ridiculous) level caps and race=class issue strenuosly enforced or even expanded. YMMV and obviously if you don't like demihumans then don't play with them...I just don't understand the dislike and it seems (perhaps erroneously) to me to be somehow connected with 'old-schoolness' and the grail-like search for some 'perfect' iteration of D&D.

  11. One other thing: I understand the issue of people harking back to D&D's pulp roots to say it should therefore be humano-centric, but quite frankly if you're really going to follow that model to its logical conclusion you'd better be prepared to say good-bye to Orcs (Tolkien more or less created them as well as Hobbits) and really most, if not all non-human races.

    All you'd be left with are a few 'true' monsters and perhaps serpent people, but the fantasy pulps of yore are human-only to the core with the exception of a few eldritch beasts from beyond.

    Unless they're ok simply because they are NPCs, but what's really the distinction there? Either they help or hinder the pulp world-view regardless of whether they are PCs or not.

  12. The issue for me is the PC/NPC divide, as you surmised.

    I don't think D&D should be a faithful recreation of Howard or Leiber, and there's plenty of room for bringing in new species. After all, one man's serpent people are another man's orcs. And I don't mind the Tolkien flavor either. It's just, like noisms said, once you start systematizing elves, they lose that inherent mysterious other-worldliness. Truly fantastical things should, I think, be reserved for NPCs and monsters, or else form the focus of the game in their own right.

  13. There are all sorts of "Others."

    OD&D was invented in the wake of Star Trek, so perhaps there might be a way to use it to explore some of the logic behind the invention.

    Like the Vulcans, perhaps Elves & Dwarves were added to the player character options because they could represent the familiar "Other" as ally. A touch of the "exotic" for the willing.

    In turn, they contrast to the alien "Others" of Orcs, Gnolls, & Goblins of OD&D, who parallel the Klingons & Romulans of Star Trek.

  14. jamused: I'm no Tolkien scholar, but as I understood it he wanted to create an 'English' myth of the kind which the Scandinavians enjoyed. He wanted to create the language because he was a linguistics professor, but the story of middle-earth wasn't dependent on it.

    As I said in the entry, half of me does agree with you. I'm conflicted between the desire for truly exotic and yet knowable elves and dwarves on the one hand, and elves and dwarves who are so exotic that it is actually impossible for human beings to understand them on the other. It's certainly not a new theme in fantasy: there's a strand running through Lord Dunsany, John Crowley, M. John Harrison, Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe and even China Mieville which says, "The alien is utterly alien and don't even bother trying to understand it." And it works!

    So half of me absolutely agrees with you and half of me doesn't. ;)

    Terry I: I don't hate demihumans! I just hate them when they're boring. I hoped I'd made it clear in the entry but apparently not: I can't decide what the best way is to deal with them; do we take the "Harrisonian" approach and make them so truly strange and magical that PCs can't play them, or do we make them playable but a bit less weird and interesting?

    For the record I don't identify myself as an Old Schooler. As I used to say to Soren Kierkegaard, "If you label me, you negate me." And some of those guys on Dragonsfoot are ridiculous - I'd hate to associate myself with the kind of blinkered refusenik attitudes held by one or two of the people there. I'm not even a big pulp fantasy fan: I've read Leiber, Vance and Howard and thought they were solidly Good, but certainly nothing on the level Tolkien was at. I don't want to ape the pulp writers. I just like the idea of all-human D&D because I'm sure that will make it more fantastical and less humdrum.

    Sirlarkins: The PC/NPC divide isn't so much of an issue for me. I've never felt that PCs and NPCs have to operate on the same rules. As long as the rules governing their interactions are consistent, it's fine with me.

    the_myth: I think you're probably right that was a big part of it.

  15. I agree mostly with what The Myth and Jamused had to say. I actually have a couple ideas it might interest you to put forward.

    1) Don't use the demihumans as demihumans. Use them as different tribes/castes of humans who have focused themselves in different ways.

    2) Take the Star Trek approach. Make the demihumans familiar, but never fully explain every aspect of them.

    3) Do something unique with them that makes them more interesting to you.

    4) (This can relate to 1 if you let it) Go whole hog. Make race a purely cosmetic choice. If your players want to be demihumans, refer them back to #2.

    I hope these suggestions are helpful.

  16. As I flick through your archives I find you again and again raise interesting questions without simple answers. Tolkien held Sauron at one remove in lotr but presented the Balrog in magnificent detail so maybe the principle is to illumine in varying detail at your will. I dont believe those who say everything must be equally detailed in advance or else the DM is railroading. Have your cake and eat it. I would detail what interests me about demi humans as and when I require, retaining the mystery. I am not in favour of demi-human PCs. They are invariably played as humans in costume with some quirky or irritating mannerism. Would you be able to role-play a Japanese man? I dont mean *acting* just capturing some interesting differences. Shouldn't an elf or dwarf be more difficult?

  17. Kent: I am not in favour of demi-human PCs. They are invariably played as humans in costume with some quirky or irritating mannerism. Would you be able to role-play a Japanese man? I dont mean *acting* just capturing some interesting differences. Shouldn't an elf or dwarf be more difficult?

    That summarises my position very well. I'm becoming less and less interested in dwarves who are just xenophobic and stubborn humans, and elves who are just proud and nature-loving humans. What's the point, if that's all they're going to be?