Saturday, 16 May 2009

Towards a Theory of Demihumans

The anthropologist Donald Brown came up with a list of human universals some years ago in an attempt to disprove cultural relativism; the list contains dozens of entries, all of which are considered present in every single human society. (For political reasons I know some people are reluctant to believe in an innate 'human nature'; if you are one of those people, bear with me.) There are too many to reproduce here, but they range from "affection expressed and felt" to "males engage in more coalitional violence" to "childhood fear of loud noises" to "incest, prevention and avoidance".

My idea is this: people often complain that demihumans are, like Star Trek aliens, usually just human beings but with rubber heads. There are often vague notions like "dwarves don't like the sea" and "elves are good with magic" but nothing much more interesting or detailed than that. So why not use the list of human universals? Pick a universal, change it to its exact opposite, and try to extrapolate from there to create something markedly different from us.

Here's an example: dwarves have no concept of 'hope'. Their assessments are always brutally honest. If there is a good chance of succeeding at a given task, they'll attempt it, but otherwise, they won't - and cannot be persuaded. This obviously makes their societies extremely conservative and risk-averse, and the speed of change glacial; when a dwarven society sets itself a goal it is only ever one that can be realised through tiny, incremental steps that are relatively sure to be achieved.

Elves do not trade and have great difficulty understanding the concept. If an elf has something that you want, the only hope of getting it is to take it by force, or to try to persuade him that you need it more. If you can, he will likely give it up and expect nothing in return - the idea that goods should be exchanged being completely alien to him. This likewise extends into the more abstract realm of exchange of services. Diplomacy between humans and elves is fraught with difficulty because so many of the crutches of human diplomacy - trade agreements, tit for tat, quid pro quo - are incomprehensible to elves. Persuasion and cajoling are the only viable negotiation techniques.

Halflings have no abstraction of speech or thought - everything relates to the physical world or emotional states. Halflings can't be asked to imagine situations that they haven't encountered before, and find 'if/what' propositions impossible to comprehend. Conversely, they are highly sensitive to physical reality and almost empathic in their ability to understand the emotions of others.

For gnomes, the biological mother and social mother are different people. When a gnome woman gives birth, her child is given to a trusted friend to raise, who will likely reciprocate when she in turn has a baby. The giving and recieving of children is an important bonding mechanism in gnomish society.

And so on. It works for 'evil' races too: perhaps orc societies don't proscribe murder, or goblins have no sense of what a promise is.

Of course, changing some universals is pretty difficult to envisage. I challenge anyone to explain how a society would function in which there was no such thing as 'choice'.


  1. I think this is a really useful and interesting train of thought. It probably requires a decent level of smarts on the players' parts to actually use it well ing ames, though.

  2. A clever idea addressing a problem many gamers aren't aware of. The list only has potential and the DM must use his imagination to extrapolate a quirk. This is better than a list of fully finished ideas that may not fit into a campaign.

    Your sample extrapolations are good too. tiny, incremental steps that are relatively sure to be achieved. Dwarves as scientists then? Doesn't seem to fit with 'hope' until hopeful is read as religious and it makes sense again. I think it is a robust idea.

  3. May I ask what difficulty you have in envisioning a functioning society of persons with no concept of choice?

    It would require a Caste-system of necessary mechanical strata, where trades are transmitted initially through upbringing, and later through aptitude-based training. Repetition of standards, templates, and measures would allow near-perfect fabrication provided supply standards are able to be maintained.

    On every conceivable strata, some sort of overseer (or likely subordinate thereof) would have the task of using some sort of regimented divinatory method (I Ching; Ling Ch'i Ching; TAROT; etc.) to determine micro-variant course changes/innovations/modifications. Others in parallel divisions would be tasked with nothing else but Empirical validation tests and experimentation upon the Divinitory method(s) employed to determine the most efficient means, as well as any unwitting biases employed in the Divinations (the above mentioned three are highly complex plotting methods and can be used in varying degrees among the three for more detailed repeat inquiries, the two Chinese methods being less prone to sub-conscious abuse/alteration).

    Another branch would be required to investigate the bio-social requirements for the most-productive distribution of resources, activities (not only work but secondary 'enrichment' activities that would then have the effect to disperse a variety of secondary skills throughout the population based upon aptitude and biological inclination (reaction to colours or sounds as well as a high degree of hand-eye coordination, resulting in secondary training as an artist).

    Other tasks would, of course, simply be assigned to the person based on the State's need for the position to be filled, but these would be filled by those physically capable, and mentally demonstrable of achieving success.

    'Commissars' would be redundant upon all levels of the culture, each familiar with their field and set to 'season' with experiences that allows them to spot inconsistencies or issues with production, etc.

    --The Peoples' Automatic Union of my Urutsk setting, is precisely that sort of place, using humans with cybernetic modems implanted and overseen by an Artificial Intelligence.

    Reminiscent of East Germany.

  4. I think you really have something there. And it'd be just as applicable in an sf setting for defining alien cultures. And I do mean cultures, not races. I guess I'm one of those people who believe a human raised in a dwarven culture would lack a concept of hope, and vice versa.

  5. Hm. Mostly interesting, but I always feel weird about trying to give halflings any sort of cultural oddity. My history with Tolkien, I suppose, leads me to view halflings as the most "normal" race, even moreso than humans.

  6. This is a great post. I'm definitely going to make use of this from here on out.

  7. I was just going to say "communism" but then someone broke out the academic jargon and destroyed whatever desire I had about reading anything ever again. :-)

    Anyway, this was one of my favorite posts that I've read in memory. Let me see if I've captured the primary idea here:

    What makes demi-humans "demi" is that they are lacking one or more universal cultural concepts, thus resulting in awesome opportunities for role-playing. Brilliant!

  8. Good stuff. I think the Gnomish one is quite the most interesting, even if it has no effects in typcial play.

    Although--what if Gnomes began to foster children out to other races? That might be interesting.

  9. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Nice to know this post struck a chord.

    Timeshadow, your next task is to make that a D&D campaign setting. ;)

  10. Also, Jerry Cornelius: You make an interesting point and one I might address is another post - namely, in a fantasy setting, how do you, andd should you, separate species and culture?

  11. Also also, Anonymous: Great point which I actually hadn't thought of while writing the entry. Makes perfect sense.

    Also also also, Matthew Slepin: Sounds like a fun character concept. The elf who was raised by gnomes.

  12. What about:

    "Halfings have no concept of personal property, and believe that all material possessions belong to the collective, rather than the individual?"

    It would explain why the Halfing Thief is such a fixture among that race's ilk and why their fingers tend to be so darn sticky.

    1. Dragonlance did that; they are called kender.


  13. LoL @ Anonymous :)

    @ noisms: I'll have to Tuckerise this blog in the discussion of the PAU when I get around to them in Vol. II.

  14. Great post! I've done this in my own home brew campaign; not as profound as some of the ones you thought up (off the cuff?) but I do like to tinker a bit with expectations. I'm off to blog on what my twists to the traditional demi-humans are....thanks for the push!!!

  15. Thanks for including this in your "old posts" post, as I hadn't seen it before.

    This reminds me of the standard template for speculative fiction: change one assumption about the world (or whatever) and try to work out the consequences. I think it's a great way to alien-up demi-humans.

    I think, from a practical perspective, it does have one major problem, which Zak hinted at obliquely in his comment. One of the strengths of the somewhat bland Tolkien-inspired demi-human spread is that it is a touchstone for players; it allows people who might otherwise have vastly divergent ideas about tone and setting to have some common ground. Once you start to weird that up, I think many players begin to feel unmoored, and often forget the details during roleplaying anyways. I have found that it is very easy for people to get into character when that means pretending to have motivations that they might conceivably have (for example, a PC who has lost their true love, or a PC that is obsessed with vengeance). Those are easy to keep in mind. But roleplaying the lack of understanding of exchange? I can't imagine that working very well in practice.

    Which is not to say that I think this is a bad idea. But perhaps there is an argument for using this method for NPC races or cultures rather than PCs.

  16. all of which are considered present in every single human society

    Which brings up an obvious 'universal' to invert—disbelief in society or the unity of objects made up of disparate elements.

  17. Another, perhaps complimentary approach; look at the list of cognitive biases - - to which all humans (except obviously for me) are prone, and remove a few for demi-humans. Maybe invent new ones, too.