Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Tolkien Toolkit

Me and D, talking (edited for concision)...

Zak: What's something you'd like to see in 5th edition D&D that was not in any previous edition of the game ?

D: I'd like to see a total replacement of the non-human races with something else (no more elves, hobbits, dwarfs or orcs)! They've made some interesting moves in that direction but leaving the old standards in there means the assumptions of the game don't change.

One-- My problem with that is the cliches make it really easy for me to explain the options to my "not the usual fantasy RPG demographic players" very fast. "You know, elves right?" "Oh, right, ok". Too much straying from cliche in initial PC choices means I need a lot more buy-in. "Like, ok, it's kind of like a hunchback but has gears for arms and cloaks for teeth and the culture is based on exchange of meerkats and..."

The issue is not feasibility but whether it'd be a good idea period. If D&D went totally Mieville (or whatever) it'd be really hard to explain to anyone who wasn't in a certain subsubgenre of cultural payingattention-ness, whereas as it is now it casts a wide net and you can funnel the game toward avant-garde fantasy ideas after you get buy-in . Seems like a decent solution to me. Somebody has to make the elfgame where there's elves.
(See: The describability problem.)

Two-- "assumptions of the game"?

Assumptions like you can play a human that can be any way any real person could be; a creature that is lucky, small and fast; something large, dumb and ugly; something tall, beautiful and graceful; or something short, tough and mean.

The short tough and mean guys don't get along with the tall graceful ones. The big ugly ones don't get along with anyone. Humans get along with everyone (kind of). The little ones just try to hide their communities or blend into the larger races lands. But really everything is not so different because some of them can mate with each other and everyone is competing for the same resources.

These are assumptions everyone goes into a game with. Your "You saw Lord of the Rings, right?" promise that is fulfilled with every setting.

Does that make sense?
(Interpolation: You may have heard this idea before, I certainly have. Only versions of this argument I usually hear are dumber and angrier than this one.)

It makes sense except the whole point of Medieval folklore is it is a bunch of incredibly stupid ideas (theocracy, monarchy etc.) thought up by our ignorant forbears and that's why the D&D world is horrible and full of bad monsters and evil kings and therefore fun to fuck around with. Also: part of the point of the game for many people is to transcend and fight personifications of these ideas.

The traditional ideas have value precisely because they expose the ignorant reptile thinking at the base of our culture. The devil being equated with sexuality for zillions of years for instance explains so much more about the way people think than if I subbed in some mutant thing I thought up yesterday. Thinking about this world is good and smart and helps people. It is not the only world worth thinking about, but D&D is a major existing cultural representation of that exact world of ideas.

I agree these things are based in folklore, but they are still interpretations of that folklore. Elves in Celtic folklore where frightening monsters that stole children, musicians and craftspeople for their amusement. In D&D they are often the good guys. An ancient race in decline. It's not quite the same thing. Tolkien's take on elves was great, it's just sad to me that there seems to be no room for anything else.

Yes, but I am also saying that the players' default position regarding the cultural assumptions behind these ideas starts out critical rather than naively accepting. Simply because their own modern world is so obviously not full of knights and orcs.

The exception is children--but if we don't grant them the ability to turn the mythology of childhood into an adult consciousness then we have to start bowdlerizing our way through every single product that resonates with them ever created--which I think is a very very dangerous cultural practice not only due to the damage it would do to all pre-1990s art for children but to child-rearing practices in general. Build skeptical children, not a padded room for them to be credulous in.

Or simply this: if you don't use "elves vs trolls" someone else willbecause it's an idea that resonates. So use the idea in an interesting, self-questioning way rather than pretending it doesn't exist. The repressed always recurs. The altered gets evolved.

OK Zak, maybe I can explain where I am coming from.

I think my main problem with what I called the assumptions of D&D is that I see them as mostly one man's interpretation of the common folklore.

I'm a bit of an odd ball because I didn't read any tolkien until I was in my 20s. As a child I was more familiar with the source material (folklore) than the shiny world of middle earth he had created. The first fantasy I read was Ursula K LeGuin's Earthsea books. Those stories operated under a different framework of ideas. Not completely different, but different enough.

D&D introduced me to tolkien's elves, dwarfs and hobbits. To me they weren't entrenched tropes, but strange new takes on old familiar stories. Elves were like the Sidhe, but nicer. Instead of coveting master craftsmanship or music they were master craftsmen and musicians themselves. It wasn't huge leap, but it was one that I had to make.

It is amazing to me just how much the tolkien take on it has invaded our culture. With the movies, books and all of the other IPs that make use of these same tropes, including 40 years of D&D, it really has become a common mythology.

You are correct, the idea of trying to ignore all that common ground would only create barriers to play. Besides, I have had tonnes of fun playing in that same framework. I guess it just bothers me that it has become the "right way" to do it, instead of one way of many.

D&D has successfully "drifted" Tolkien in the past (and Tolkien was, in turn, a "drift" of Victorian fantasy, which was a "drift" of Medieval folklore). I think further "drift" is probably the best solution.

"Drifting" is a great way of putting it. Some interesting drifting has already happened in D&D. Dark Sun and Birthright come to mind as examples.

I feel like a crazy person right now because I agree with pretty much every point you've made. The Tolkien setup still feels like a box. Drifting is a great way to turn the box on it's side, giving us a whole new perspective and set of possibilities, but it's still inside the box. I like the idea of jumping OUT of the box, even though it seems insane and impossible. Not to mention lonely.

Clearly D&D needs to remain inside it's own framework to move forward. I wonder if they can leave room for drifting or jumping in their new rules?

I think pretty much every version of D&D allows totally chucking out the Tolkien race kit. It's not a problem. Dark sun? Eberron? The options have always been at least implied since even 0e:
"There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top"

(The same author's AD&D DMG later reversed this position, but the rest of D&D overrided him, so whatever...)

This all lead to Cole starting another conversation...

What PC races besides the "Tolkien Four" have enough broad folk or mythic resonance to be accessible and quickly grasped by new players not deep in the nerdosphere?

Where we talked about the possibilities of animalpeople, devilpeople, hags, mummies etc etc and then it all ended, as usual, with us talking about Iron Maiden.

On account of they're the best way to explain Githyanki.


  1. I think there is definitely a great resonance with the "classical fantasy" races; not all the elements of classical fantasy come from Tolkien, but a good deal of them do.

    Yet, every single D&D setting has their own details in the variation on those tropes and each setting delves into the tropes from a different angle.

    Just to name three examples: Birthright elves are much more similar to the Sidhe in being mysterious and reclusive magicfolk that do not undertstand man. Forgotten Realms elves are very close to Tolkiens but they've been divided into a number of subgroups that give them flavor. My own elves in the 10th Age tread a line somewhere between the two.

    Just because they share physical features with elves the world over doesn't make every iteration of elves the same; the same goes for dwarves, halflings, and all the other races of "standard" fantasy. Re-imagining them can be interesting, but throwing them out jettisons an entire network of meanings that we all know at least something about. Elves are mysterious, dwarves are withdrawn, halflings farmfolk... we share this inherently. Breaking down those assumptions or explaining them (Elves are mysterious because, dwarves are clannish and secretive because, etc.) is enough uniqueness for me to be happy.

    1. I think when drift is really powerful it also involves how the archetypes look and act to some degree.

      It's important to kinda give the whole construct a good shove once in a while.

  2. Human beings, human beings, human beings and human beings.

    For serious, I don't see why "PC races" is a must-have thing in a fantasy RPG - but if I were going to run a fantasy RPG with multiple PC races, I'd go with the classics - elves, dwarves, orcs, maybe hobbitses and gnomes if I felt there was anything at all interesting I could do with them - because if you're going to go with that sort of fantasy you might as well go full archetypal. (Oh, and no half-anythings because either you want to be a human or you want to be an elf and half-elf offers nothing except the experience of being an outsider, which every PC in that sort of very archetypal D&D fantasy game should be undergoing anyway.)

    1. Unless there's an established class of adventurers, in which case they are not simply outsiders but members of an alternately (or perhaps both at the same time) celebrated or reviled group.

      I prefer adventurers to exist as a force in the setting; if the PCs are doing it, why shouldn't the NPCs as well? Thinking through decisions of this nature is what made the earlier iterations (pre-Wizzads) so well-designed in terms of worldcraft. Every element was explored to its full extent: if there are adventurers, how would they change society?

      I think I'm starting to get dangerously off topic.

    2. I would prefer settings where adventurers are actually very rare - yes, there might be NPCs doing the same sort of thing, but not a whole lot, and certainly not enough that there's an Adventurer's Guild in any town.

      Remember, the question isn't just "why don't NPCs do this as well?" but also "Why don't we just get one of these NPCs to do it?" and "Why didn't any of those NPCs do it already?" Answer: adventuring is an insanely dangerous activity partaken of by people whose ambitions or ideals outweigh their sense of self-preservation, and who don't have a better way to get the job done.

    3. At the risk of driving this whole conversation off a cliff with derailments...

      I enjoy competitive NPC parties. They lend a sense of danger to any setting, in that they are probably as well outfitted (or better) as you are, and they're definitely clever.

      I treat NPC adventuring parties in the 10th Age as something like a cross between rockstar celebrities, tombrobbers, and angry thugs. There are enough that you could find another party of adventurers (or three) in any major city, but there aren't so many of them that they band together and form organizations.

      And let us not forget that high level characters will found strongholds! There are a number of mercenary companies in the 10th Age also that are simple adventuring companies (with or without charters depending on the region) that are assumed to have reached levels 9-10 and begun attracting large numbers of followers.

      I suppose to address the frequency issue, anyone can be an adventurer: there are a fairly large number of first or second level adventurers in the world. However, not anyone can be a successful adventurer, and dying before level 3 is hideously common. Thus, high level parties are as rare as A-list actors and everyone knows their names.

      Just the same, folks are likely to look down their nose at adventurers, who are essentially a filthy underclass of thieves and brigands given only the faintest trappings of civilization. That is, until they come back from some tomb with more wealth than the local king and begin spreading the coin around.

  3. I didn't know, until I watched the making-of features on the LotR DVDs, that Tolkien's big book was the most printed book in English after the Bible (or among the top few according to the Fount of Knowledge. That explains a whole lot. Probably nothing has the same cultural reach except for Star Wars.

    So my vote for potentially successful and recognisable fantasy races would be Wookiees, Jawas and Droids. And whatever they had in the prequels, I kinda burned that part out of my brain.
    Or maybe Angels, Devils and possessed pigs? Honestly, I don't remember my Bible well enough to say if there were demi-humans in there.

    Looking down the rest of the top selling list, the standout surprise (for me) and other possible ray of sunshine is H. Rider Haggard's She. Although I think it would be kinda interesting to try to build a gameworld out of Anne of Green Gables, The Catcher in the Rye and The Name of the Rose (go Eco!). And/or The Little Prince.

    1. "Although I think it would be kinda interesting to try to build a gameworld out of Anne of Green Gables, The Catcher in the Rye and The Name of the Rose (go Eco!). And/or The Little Prince."

      I can see things like huge old trees and doors drawn out of chalk leading to various "dungeons" (a la Pan's Labyrinth) - and of course, you could always try and nab a shooting star to go to a very different locale.

  4. Another vote for "humans, humans, humans", with a side of humans. (No Pepsi, humans.) _Iron Heroes_ among others had a list of traits to customize its all-human PCs, based on place of birth, physique, and mental talents. The most exotic was Shadow Born, a whiff of infernal ancestry, which manifested as magical aptitude, precognition, or an uncanny and intimidating demeanor. Others included Bewitching (as in beauty), Short, and Nondescript (useful for hiding in crowds).

    Not all of IH's list are winners, but the same principle could apply to creating characters or entire nations. A rules appendix might demonstrate how to build the Tolkien races, Lizard People, Deep One hybrids, and another exotic species using said trait system (possibly expanded).

    I for one would prefer to play a dwarf (Tyrion Lannister) than a Dwarf (Gimli son of Gloin), or a Melnibonean-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off than an Elf. Then again, I'd also like to choose how magic works (if at all) and not have assumptions about magic items and spells/powers embedded in the "math" and creature descriptions, but that's another discussion.

  5. I think there's some tensions that inevitably develop here on either side of the screen. I'm running a Fantasy Craft game right now that I pitched to my players as sort of Firefly meets The Alloy of Law with a smattering of Skyrim tropes. They latched on and seemed pretty excited, but no one was happy that I wanted to cut out some of FC's 12 races (despite the book being so keen about DMs being able to do just that and encouraging players to ask about it), even though they largely agreed that my decisions pushed the desired themes.

    I'm not entirely sure how to resolve that. There was too much separation between "I want to fit into that general sort of genre narrative and mess around, that sounds like fun" and "I want to play what I want to play." Maybe it's just my players instead of a general trend.

    1. I think your group is probably not singular in that way. Indeed, there is a strong wave of player entitlement that seems to have undermined the authority of DMs in the present roleplaying market.

      I, for one, find the "I want to play what I want to play" attitude to be rude, destructive, and childish.

    2. I think if you think your "authority" as a DM is affected by anything but the way you treat people and PCs then there's trouble.

      Communicating effectively with players is more than half of the job.

  6. I'm kind of surprised to hear people talking about the Tolkein races being well known. The films changed things but when I was a kid they were about as pop-culturey as Klingons or Vulcans - people recognised the names but anyone who had a mental image of them would know about tons of other fantasy stuff as well. Man-sized, wingless elves in particular always threw people.

    Genuinely pop-culture saturated, doesn't need an explanation races would be: fairies, golbins, trolls, centaurs, giants, demons and leprechauns. And I guess vampires, robots, mummies, ghosts. Lizardman/Cat-people/Ape-things/Dragonfolk are self explanatory enough to qualify too.

    Granted cultural differences and so on make it hard to judge anything universal, but the big four are associated with a single touchstone whereas the other things I mentioned are in hundreds of films and children's books and cereal boxes. They are iconic in a way that Gimli Dwarves aren't.

    At the very least, "troll" and "ogre" are much more well known than "orc" as words for big scary cannibals, and leprechaun/gnome is easier to grasp than hobbit/halfling.

    1. I don't know about anyone else but at my table even a player who only knows Keebler elves who is shown a picture of a d&D elf PC and then I go "that's an elf" gets the picture. The word has weight with or without tolkien and the weight is there.

      I would say the same is true of everything you list except lizardman, catpeople and dragonfolk which--while perfectly resonant--need a line or two of cultural information for the total newbie. Like are these dragonfolk savage or noble, powerful and sophisticated or troglodytic? It's not too difficult to integrate them, but "mummy" or "leprechaun" has a lot more weight.

  7. "What PC races besides the "Tolkien Four" have enough broad folk or mythic resonance to be accessible and quickly grasped by new players not deep in the nerdosphere?"


    If you understand Elves & Dwarves at all, then you *are* in "the nerdosphere", period.

    If you really are *not* in it, then you need your Tolkien-esque Dwarves and your almost-Tolkien-but-not-quite Elves explained to you; in which case it would take the exact same time and brainpower to explain you Lankhmar Ghouls and Wererats, or WHATEVER.

    1. @Rafu

      I don't really understand what you're saying.

      I have actual experience with players new to the game who have an idea of what an "elf" and a "dwarf" are but have not seen or read LOTR and don't play videogames etc. etc.

      With these actual players I have met in actual real life, doing the amount of work it would to (a sentence or two) two explain wererats or Lankhmar ghouls on their first day of play would be difficult.

      If you are assuming I am lying, let me know. If you are not, you'll have to accede my point .

      In case you still do not understand I will paste some stuff from an thread where I explained it to someone else:
      I think the "describe in a single sentence" thing is actually further than I'd go. For some of my players, to get buy-in, I need races I can describe in a single word or a single picture.

      That word or picture (if it's an archetypal one like "elf") sets off what amounts to paragraphs and paragraphs of associations in most people.

      If I say to most of my players "bladeling" I get a blank stare. So then I need more words.

      Let's assume I need just 8 words to describe a bladeling. That's a sentence, ok. But if that's one sentence for each of 3-6 races. So now we've got 3-6 sentences to juggle (plus then they have to pick a class and find out what "armor class" means and stuff) and so it begins to creep into an amount of buy-in I don't want to have to throw at a first-time player.

      Second PC? Go crazy, pick anything.

      I have at least one new player in like 70% of my game sessions--often people with no grounding in the source material-I like to get them up and running with a PC they understand in less than 15 minutes. I have found that the "fantasy archetype" thing works pretty well for this. None of them run around moaning that their character is boring.

      Not everyone has those kinds of players. I can only speak for myself.
      Also and maybe more importantly--"elf" and "dwarf" and stuff don't just export ideas into peoples' heads, they make them seem organic and believable and part of a kind of world players can kinda get--they are exported with a fantasy context of mines and forests etc etc all without saying a word. A race may be described as short, spiky and warlike but if it doesn't come from a familiar english word then that context isn't there. The way a bladeling fits into the world is then only as good as whatever ilustration of a bladeling the player is shown.

      It's the same reason "goblin" is a far more useful and evocative word than "kobold". At least until you've got a few levels under your belt.

      For me, the biggest barrier to entry with RPGs is just people assume they have to know stuff and become steeped in lore in order to get started or be good (as opposed to more passive forms of entertainment where the learning of the lore is part of the fun of the narrative of the thing unfolding). Relying on cliches about knights and fantasy and elves gets them past this-they don't feel like they have to get it "right".

    2. Not thinking you were lying, no, sorry. I was… surprised. And now I'm even more, actually.

      Maybe it's that we have different working definitions of what a "nerd" is? Because, if I'm talking to Hypothetical New Player, and I tell them "you can play a human, or elf or dwarf…" and they're like "OK", like they don't need any further explanation 'cause they already know what a elf or dwarf is supposed to be… then I'm like "Oh, you are a nerd/geek after all! I didn't know. Welcome home, then."
      Because this whole affection for romantic-medieval images and tolkien-esque half-human folks… I think it's a distinguishing feature of the "nerdosphere", as you called it. That anybody who "gets it" is already part of the club - they're not "fresh blood". While mainstream human beings, out there, don't have knightly armors and wizard hats as the default costuming for their imagination.
      And then, of course, I may be wrong.

      Or maybe it's just a language/national/cultural thing, you know… Maybe words like "elf" or "dwarf" inspire a much more D&D-like image to the average English-speaking American person than the equivalent Italian words would to the average Italian (I expect somebody not already "in the know", here, to picture "elves" as Santa's little helpers or maybe pixies, "dwarfs" as ordinary midgets or characters from Disney's Snow-white).

      Can you see where I was coming from?

      But the interesting part, really, is your last paragraph, with which I agree. I agree that's a barrier to entry! And one we need to get rid of!
      What doesn't resonate with my own experience is just that "cliches about knights and fantasy and elves" can get people past that. Which is what prompted my reaction. But obviously we've had very different experiences, which is great!

  8. I've always thought the major races sort of embodied medieval/renaissance memes about social class and bloodlines, which we today no longer subscribe to because they have been scientifically and historically discredited. I posit that Tolkien, too, used them in the same way, since he also knew the idea that it was impossible for some human men to be intrinsically "better" than others, he created the elves and the men of the west.*

    Elves represent the idea of nobility as heritage, the divine right of kings and the important of bloodline in determining role. Elves are naturally aristocratic, long-lived as a result, and difficult to corrupt, in both moral and physical senses. Dwarves are a middle class, of sorts, one of the few basic character types associated with skilled labor (mining, digging, fortifications, smithing, crafting) and who participate most strongly in the trade of gold, silver, and gemstones, which have no intrinsic worth but are a part of the middle-class wealth-creation chain. Orcs are like brutish savages, whether Picts or Vikings or Cossacks, who have their own system of values that is apart from, and often directly opposed to, that of the "civilized" world. Halflings are playable race of children, basically, at a time when actually having children in the game would have been a public relations nightmare. They are at home in the everyday world of humans/adults, but they are nevertheless apart from it, and their frequent association with thieving classes is more about their penchant for mischievousness than cynicism. Halflings are tough and honest and loyal in the way that heroic children are generally described.

    Obviously this isn't a perfect model (where do humans and gnomes fit in?) but I think it explains a lot of the appeal of the "generic D&D" race array, and also why more exotic races like Tiefling or Dragonborn, while popular, never have the same iconic status, because they are precisely so interesting that they cannot be fit, as a group, into the quasi-medieval worldview of D&D.

    *It's also worth noting that the way the races functioned in Tolkien's later works are vastly different than their characteristics in the Hobbit, which strikes me as being more in line with their antecedents in English folklore (dwarves are more magical, elves more spritely, etc). One thing that looks to be extremely disappointing about Jackson's Hobbit movies is that he's just retelling the Hobbit story in the LotR universe, which rips out all of its charm and most of what makes it interesting.

    1. If elves are aristocrats and dwarves are craftsmen, I'd say that hobbits are farmers and orcs are industrial workers.

  9. Arguably there are sets of non-humans which are more familiar than elves, dwarves and hobbits/halflings (to the general public, not to gamers).

    Three obvious examples are talking animals, angels and devils, and vampires.

    1. Yes. None of that contradicts what I've said here though

    2. Sorry. I didn't see this bit:

      What PC races besides the "Tolkien Four" have enough broad folk or mythic resonance to be accessible and quickly grasped by new players not deep in the nerdosphere?

      Without this bit, it sounds like you're implying that dwarfs, elves and halflings are the most easily graspable set of possible non-humans.

  10. It's always sort of surprised me that talking animals and fairies never made much inroad into gaming, I'd say if anything has the resonance, it's those two.