Thursday, 20 September 2018

No Straight Thing Was Ever Made

I have always liked human characters, and human-centered fantasy fiction; there are lots of reasons for this, but I think fundamentally it is because there is something compelling about ordinary people in extraordinary situations (you might call that the root of all good fiction) and a fantasy setting is another layer of extraordinariness to stack on top of that. I was never the kind of person to favour playing a tiefling PC, for example. For me it was always much more interesting to wonder what it would be like to be a common-or-garden schmuck trying to get by in the multiverse.

(The same was always true of 40k, too. The Imperial Guard are the most interesting army, because the idea of ordinary human soldiers trying to take on chaos marines, tyrannids or eldar is itself simply the stuff of a good story.)

Let's face it, I also rather like the romantic mystery of the "other": dwarves, elves, etc., are much more compelling to me as inscrutable non-humans whose motivations and impulses might be gleaned from observation and experience but only very imperfectly. They are rendered much less interesting by having the human mind of an RPG player inhabiting them. 

That said, fantasy settings, particularly RPG ones, tend to revolve around four ways of presenting humans, all of which I think are honourable and good in their own way, but there is a neglected fifth option which would be worth exploring.

The first way of presenting humans is found in settings in which human beings tend to dominate because of some reason to do with their nature: they are more lively or creative, perhaps, than other races, or they are able to master commerce better, or there are simply more of them. Mystara overall presents humans in this way.

The second way is settings in which human beings are just another race jostling alongside others, a la Planescape or Faerun - you might call this the Mos Eisley cantina model. 

The third way is settings in which human beings are fighting for survival in a world full of monsters and horrible nasties, and indeed much of the excitement of the game comes from this - this is the "points of light" model found in 4th edition D&D and, I suppose, the Conan stories and sword & sorcery in general.

The fourth way is settings in which humans are the main focus simply because the setting is predicated on there being a human world and some sort of mythic otherworld along the lines of Mythago Wood or Narnia which can be entered but has a discrete existence of its own.

The neglected fifth option is the setting which takes seriously the question: what niches would human beings actually occupy in a fantasy world in which there were dragons, giants, elves and the like? What would human beings do in that kind of a world? Particularly one in which they were only a minor race, a bit like sverfneblin or gnomes in your standard D&D world.

Think of a civilization ruled by cloud giants. What would humans do in it? Humans are a lot smaller than cloud giants: maybe they'd be used for the delicate tasks - tailoring, lock-making, clock-repair etc. - that giant fingers are ill-equipped for. How about a civilization ruled by dwarves? Humans are more creative and artistic: maybe they'd be the entertainers, dramatists and painters. How about a civilization ruled by elves? Humans might be their warrior class, doing all the fighting for their risk-averse long-lived rulers (you could easily imagine elven city states fighting vast wars all entirely fought-out by human underlings). Maybe in a civilization ruled by derro or dark elves there would be space for human beings as tenders to the sick; no self-respecting derro is going to look after a fallen comrade, but humans might. 

In such a world, human PCs might be looked upon as vaguely exotic, but not very special, outsiders suited to certain roles but firmly on the periphery of society. How they navigate that world might end up being just as interesting if not more so than the dungeon-delving or whatever else they got up to. 


  1. John Christopher's The Tripods might be an example of the fifth option in fiction.

    I tend to favour options one or four (I think those two are easily elided), except when running games for kids, when it's Mos Eisley (I call that approach that too!) all the way.

    The trouble with five is that you need to invest a lot in creating the non-human society, rather than just reaching for an off-the-shelf analogue. But it's certainly got possibilities.

    Perhaps an obvious thing to do here would be to take Perrault's ogres as he presents them: greedy, outsized aristocrats. It wouldn't take much work to imagine something like pre-Revolutionary France in which ogres lord it over human peasantry. And there's certainly room in that world for adventurers - especially if accompanied by talking cats ...

  2. This was one of the few things I found disappointing about Oathbound. Humans were the most common race but made up only 16% of the world's population. And though the books did comment on that a few times, it was never examined or used.

  3. There is at least one "option 5", which is Fasa's Earthdawn rpg, the world being Barsaive. Last time I played it was the 90ies, but I clearly remember dwarves being the dominant race. I don't think any good exploration of the theme was made and in fact, I think it was more a "option 2" with dwarves being the dominant one.

    1. Yeah, I forgot about that. I played a little bit of Earthdawn back in the day, but like you I don't remember any real exploration of that theme of dwarves being dominant.

  4. I am currently working on a world that is set in a mythic age where powerful supernatural fey folk are really the rulers of the world, who see people as being somewhere between them and animals. But more like animals. The common place in the world for humans is as small barbaric tribes of hunters and herders. Any type of true, though still ver small scale civilization is entirely dependent on and at the mercy of the local god of the land. If its favor is lost, the town is quickly swept away by the chaotic weather and monsters that are the natural state of the world.
    People are just somewhere in the middle of the food chain and their situation always precarious. All the magic available to them is asking their gods for helpful visions and summoning lesser spirits with which to negotiate for services. Everything they believe they know about the world is based on trial and error and they cling to doing what worked in the past. Until it doesn't. But since the spirits never explain themselves to lesser beings, humans have only guesses what lies beyond and is going on beyond the borders of their homes, which regularly contradict each other.

  5. My last couple of games have been set in a world where hobgoblins are the dominant civilization. Most other widespread races (dwarfs, elves, halflings, a couple of custom ones) are also small. Humans by comparison are physically imposing outsiders some forty pounds of muscle stronger and several heads taller than anyone else. I like niche-human as a trope.

  6. I like the idea your idea about what to do with cloud giants. It instantly lead to an unique world that still has archetypal imagery for the brain to latch onto. Just make ordinary things much bigger and see if the players are able to figure out how to work with it.

    1. It would be a cool campaign I think. I'm sure people have run games like it, in fact.

  7. "Humans might be their warrior class, doing all the fighting for their risk-averse long-lived rulers (you could easily imagine elven city states fighting vast wars all entirely fought-out by human underlings). " -- the humans don't even have to realize that is what's going on. The puppet-masters of humanity could have long invisible threads manipulating everything for their goals not the goals of their subjects. Through multiple layers of manipulation generation long wars could be fought where humans thought they were fighting for their ideals and prosperity yet the whole time the elves in their distant towerhouses and hidden valleys were gaining the lion's share from the strife.

  8. I think my world tends toward your fifth option: I see humanoids as all being members of the same "stock," evolutionarily speaking. Elves, dwarves and orcs are the same as humans in that they all share the same ancestor race, like homo erectus or something similar. Yet I also tend toward your first option by giving humans two traits that other races don't get: bonus experience points and the ability to interbreed (leading to "halflings"). In this way, they've maintained slight dominance over the other races (on a worldwide scale).

    "They are rendered much less interesting by having the human mind of an RPG player inhabiting them."

    Well said. It is a constant problem for anyone who seeks to achieve the highest level of immersion, that of "being" a person who is not yourself. It's partly why we can't escape the interpretation of fantasy races as "other," with all the problems that involves.

    I think this is ultimately the hurdle we must overcome if we're ever to present a fantasy race as truly non-human ~ which is probably an impossible task because the player (audience) is always limited by their own human-centric experiences.

  9. Might be interesting to run a campaign around the idea that humans are the minority servant class in amongst all those super states. Flee the land of cloud giants and end up in elven lands? Great, everything is closer to being human sized, but how's your sword arm?

    Might be interesting if there are just three different and competing "ancient" races. The interplay between how human slaves are treated in say, vampire, elven, and aboleth kingdoms. Are you chattel, canon fodder, or puppeted?