Thursday, 23 May 2019

Doing Things With Humanoids

These days when I look through a bestiary the excitement comes from digging out the stranger and more esoteric monsters (Jackalwere, anyone? Urchin? Elven cat?) and doing interesting things with them. (A civilisation of Jackalweres who farm urchins, ruled by elven cat sorcerer-brahmins...hmm.) Elves, goblins, orcs, bugbears - for the likes of me these are as cans of lager shandy to a crack fiend. They just ain't going to cut it.

Or are they?

The thing about humanoids is, each is basically a simple archetype that can be summed up in a handful of adjectives. Hence: 

Elf - Immortal, intelligent, gracile, inscrutable
Dwarf - avaricious, stubborn, unfriendly
Halfling - pastoral, naive, gluttonous
Orc - brutal, bellicose, cruel
Goblin - mean, sneaky, cowardly
Hobgoblin - militaristic, hierarchical, cruel
Gnoll - savage, violent, isolationist
&c.

Your adjectives may differ, but you get the point. 

Once you break the humanoid races down in this way and think of their essence as being mere descriptive words it becomes very easy to change them cosmetically and also alter their abilities accordingly. You could of course simply swap them round, and have hyena-men being immortal, intelligent, gracile and inscrutable, and elves being savage, violent and isolationist. More interesting, I think, is combining those adjectives with animal types - the more unusual the better. So, for example:

What if the dwarf archetype (avaricious, stubborn, unfriendly) were a race of nudibranch-people?
What if the elf archetype (immortal, intelligent, gracile, inscrutable) were otter-people?
What if the orc archetype (brutal, bellicose, cruel) were gull-people?
What if the hobgoblin archetype (militaristic, hierarchical, cruel) were African wild-dog-people?

One wouldn't have to use the term "African wild-dog-person", of course. One could continue to refer to them as "hobgoblins". But you could change their abilities accordingly - maybe hobgoblins now have immense stamina and can run for vast distances without tiring. Maybe nudibranch-dwarves can spit acid. Maybe orc-gulls can fly. And so on.

Perhaps one could also mix things up by juxtaposing archetype and animal species, so that, for example, the orc archetype is something that in common perceptions is very non-brutal, non-bellicose and non-cruel (swan?), or the elf archetype is something very un-gracile and un-intelligent (tortoise?). Again, you get the point. 

20 comments:

  1. I'm treading similar water with my Goblin Project. I'm a sucker for variety, and just want to try and stave off some of the predictability-baggage that comes with what probably amounts to one of the more common early-game encounters.

    Eventually, I might explore the re-skinning of some other Monsters (Ogres are tempting too, because I always end up using their stats for things).

    I do love how these archetypes have developed into a shorthand over time, but never considered just how exploitable they could be in terms of implied campaign setting!

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    1. Yeah, I have been really intrigued by the idea of the implied campaign setting for ages. I am sure it is possible to have a campaign setting emerge entirely in the rules, bestiary, random encounter and equipment lists.

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  2. You could also consider how each of the these races would stereotype the others with reference to themselves. Dwarfs may not consider themselves avaricious or stubborn. How would dwarfs label humans etc.

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    1. The annoying thing about humanoid races, of course, is that the stereotypes are too general. Some humans are avaricious and stubborn, some are generous and flighty. Why not the same variety for other humanoid races?

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  3. And if the race is worse than humans in at least one aspect, that aspect is almost always one or more of these three adjectives: nasty, brutish, and short.

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  4. I love the [animal]-men races, but I sometimes worry that their overabundance creates a world a bit more Redwall than I wanted. It's fun to expand this idea to other forms of life, or even inanimate objects. Stout pitcher-plant people who are gluttonous and beguiling. Beings made of glass that are open,transparent (wink), and bad at keeping secrets.

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  5. For the life of me i cant remember where it was spoken of but someone had the idea to have all monsters to be former humans who had morphed after giving into one of the deadly sins.

    I tend to think locationally, so having hyena men being those that live on the veldt and giving in to the qualia of hierarchy and small gluttony while losing the scruples of of things like taboo (hyena being notorious scavengers) makes the most sense to me here. Following the 'Just Use Bears' logic they could either be regular human stats or something like brigands or hobgoblins, etc

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    1. Yeah, I vaguely remember that idea too.

      The beauty of all the humanoid races is that basically you're talking 1 HD (or 1+1, or 1-1). Same thing mechanically at the end of the day.

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  6. "What if the elf archetype (immortal, intelligent, gracile, inscrutable) were otter-people?"
    Hrossa?

    Out of the Silent Planet has some fun races. Like the frog/tapir Pfifltriggi as that world's dwarf equivalents.

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  7. You can see the influence of things like the Princess of Mars in a lot of D&D in that a lot of D&D races are basically sci-fi aliens with funny foreheads in that there's nothing intrinsically fantastic about them, they're just humans with the DNA tweaked a bit.

    I like interpretations of other races that just wouldn't work in a sci-fi setting.

    For example (some I've read, some I've made up and used in my games):

    -In a more historical setting elves as half-fallen angels (the angels that didn't pick a side when Satan rebelled against Heaven).

    -Dwarves aren't born, they're made Pygmalion-style, to create a true dwarf requires immense skill and great expense.

    -Dragons live so long that their brains cannot remember everything that happens to them, so when they slumber their old memories slough off and become kobolds. Each kobold is the spirit of a specific thing that a dragon has forgotten.

    -Goblins as the animistic spirits of oak trees. Much dancing around by moonlight and feeding oak trees fresh blood of captives. Mad shamans whose oak trees were hit by lightning, etc. etc.

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    1. I love stuff like that. You can communicate a heck of a lot about the setting that way.

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  8. Oh man I love the idea of flying bird orcs.

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    1. Some bird seem more orcish than others. Gulls are a good example. As I think are jackdaws.

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  9. Swans can be pretty bloody savage, though. One of my players decided to play a swanmay, but actually swan-like: more inclined to hiss at you and attempt to break your arm with its wing than to be all graceful and serene.

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    1. No bird is to be trusted. Even sparrows are vicious little buggers - you have to be grateful they aren't bigger than they are.

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    2. A lot of traditional Norse names include the word for 'swan' precisely because of swans' ferocity (they also use the words for 'wolf' and 'bear' a lot).

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  10. This is a great little formula.

    I wonder, though, how long the D&D humanoid names could be retained without becoming unmoored from any connotations they possess (I realise you aren't necessarily advocating continuing to call them hobgoblins or whatever). That said, -goblin, -elf and -orc could probably all be appended to any animal name to create an evocative-sounding humanoid: "The hyena-elves of the veldt are as mirthsome as they are cruel ...".

    Oddly, enough, your hunting-dog-hobgoblins go full circle: "maybe hobgoblins now have immense stamina and can run for vast distances without tiring". They sound rather like the original inspiration for D&D hobgoblins - Tolkien's Uruks:

    "Behind them came two battalions of Uruks, heavily armed but trained to move at great speed for many miles."

    I'd probably just call them the Dog People, though!

    My preference with humanoids is to distinguish them more by tribe than by species or subtype. I like doing that because it adds a bit more statistical variation to encounters (the scouts use kobold stats, the warriors use gnoll stats, and the chieftains are ogres, for example), because it allows for lots of livery-related malarkey ("You don't want to go carrying *their* tokens into Mordor if you need to replace your broken shield ...") and because it keeps the various monstrous terms as loose and elastic as they are in folkore. I put a few thoughts on this down here a while back:

    https://hobgoblinry.blogspot.com/2018/07/how-i-handle-humanoids.html

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    1. Yes, my current project involves things like gull-aarakocra, puffin-orcs, sea otter-halflings, cormorant-elves, etc. Definitely works.

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