Sunday, April 10, 2016

Elven Snowflakes v Better Than Dracula

Here is a pair of entries for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If you're new to the contest, it's like this: these two essays are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers who were both assigned to write something interesting and original about hoary old RPG topics.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the second round Thought Eater essays are up...

The rules for the second round are here.

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "VED" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

On Tokenism [Elven Snowflakes]

There are two humans, an elven archer, and a dwarf with an axe, preparing for battle. Sixty feet of terrain - shrubs, rocks, trees, and a shallow stream - are all that stands between them and an orcish war party, brandishing deadly melee weapons as they charge. “So, what topic are you writing on?” Tolkien? 4e? Warhammer?

“So what? You’re saying elves and orcs are similar in different fantasy genres?” Maybe. “That’s the least original thing ever written on the internet.” Try and stay awake, I’ve got a point to make but I’m not sure what it is yet and we’re taking the scenic route to get there. 

Tolkien’s dwarves, elves, orcs, hobbits, they’re the archetype, the ideal, yes, of course, when fantasy becomes a genre fantasy elves are like Tolkien’s elves, and so of course when D&D becomes a fantasy game it has elves like fantasy elves like Tolkien’s elves…

“Where are you going with this, exactly?” Let’s start with a thought exercise. Imagine an arbitrary elf. “Got it.” Is it a Warhammer elf, or a Tolkien elf, or a D&D elf? “Well, it could be any of them, but I thought you said that wasn’t the point.” Right, let’s get specific, imagine an arbitrary Tolkien elf. “Easy.” Ten grand says you just imagined Legolas. “Lucky guess.” Right, so imagine two arbitrary Tolkien elves, or five, or ten. How are they different? “Well, some of them are female.” Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.

Smarter people than me have already written extensively about this next part, so I’ll be brief: we use symbols a lot, all the time, in everything; symbols and caricatures are useful for quickly familiarizing ourselves with unusual situations/places/whathaveyou (e.g. fantasy worlds); fantasy draws heavily on stereotypes (say, Tolkien elves) because as cultural / mythological symbols they are a shorthand that carries a lot of subtext, we can say “ah, an elf, I know what elves are like”. Zak may have already written an article on this, or was it Nietzsche? 

By way of example I will say only that I have referenced “Tolkien elves” extensively so far, without identifying a single characteristic of what it means to be a Tolkien elf, and I guarantee everyone reading this knows exactly what I’m talking about. Hang on to this thought, I’ll be coming back to it.

“So what exactly are you writing on?” Good question, alright, thesis statement: Tolkien’s characters were caricatures even before they became archetypes, that is, the now-iconic fantasy races (orc, elf, dwarf, ‘halfling’) as he envisioned them are too shallow to be anything but stereotypes. “So what, Tolkien was being racist? Still not original.” No, well yes, he was, but no that’s not the point, he didn’t just make these archetypes that everyone used, he obliterated any possibility of creating something else, he killed the words he used for his races (elf, dwarf), he killed the word race. I mean, yes, people let’s say “generalized” about other cultures [races] in real life, but this was the 20th century, people could be racist but even when they thought that a race had tendencies they knew they weren’t all the same person; but Tolkien simplified the concept of “race” so far that he is single-handedly responsible not only for the human-centric nature of fantasy but also the incredible shallowness of most fantasy characters that plagued the genre throughout most of its life. “Fantasy doesn’t have shallow characters.” Count yourself lucky, you never had to suffer through what passed for fantasy characters before The Black Company came along and authors realized that a world could have magic and plot both, and if you even think of trying to tell me that fantasy is not human-centric we are going to have a problem, no, Drizz’t doesn’t count, and anyway in a magical world where literally anything is possible half his companions are human.

Obvious statement time: elves existed in fantasy before Tolkien, and were not like elves after Tolkien. “We know.” It’s good to see these things written out, even if they’re obvious, this next one will drive it home: before Tolkien, elves were a “unified race” in the sense we think of in fantasy e.g. they all shared a bunch of characteristics, were not human, had their own ‘kingdom’, etc. but also, they were not all the same - elves were magical, and not of this world, but meeting one elf didn’t tell you a whole lot about what the next elf would be like, that was part of the mystique, you never knew, is this elf dangerous? Helpful? Mischievous? Getting lost in fey woods meant asking yourself, Am I going to come out of this alive? With a lei of lilies around my neck? Or with a donkey’s head? 

All of which is going a very long way to say, it’s not that Tolkien’s elves are too similar to D&D elves, it’s that Tolkien’s elves are too similar to Tolkien’s elves. 

“Isn’t that a tautology?” Bear with me, we’re jumping back to symbolism for a bit; “The symbolism of Tolkien’s elves?” No, the symbolism of the word elves, in different contexts; it’s not that Tolkien reinvented the concept of an elf (which of course he did, but that’s not the point), it’s that he defined it too precisely:

If we are talking Shakespeare (which in this context draws heavily on Celtic mythology) and I say elf, you think “magic, mystery, danger”, you think Titania and Oberon and Puck and any one of them has the power to kill you but they’re too busy chasing each other with magic flowers, the word elf in this context is broad, it’s a handful of big symbols, and that means you can have a Titania and an Oberon and a Puck and they’re all very different, some of them can fly and some can’t, some of them are invisible, they have their own realm that’s part of our world but not and only specific rituals can get you in, but there’s room for a bunch more rituals and a bunch more elves and a bunch more stories about elves and you can make up your own elf that acts however you want and is still an elf and still fits in with the other elves because the elves are a people, a race of people, not a race of person, singular.

But if we talk Tolkien (and by extension, D&D, all fantasy) and I say elf you think “longbow, dual-wielding, austere, lives in the trees, ancient, detached, mildly xenophobic”, which is to say that the word “elf” doesn’t make you think of some cultural similarities the way e.g. “French” does, it makes you think of a specific person, and you’re not wrong to do so; all the elves have those characteristics, yes there’s a Legolas and an Elrond and a Galadriel but an elf by any other name...they’re interchangeable, the symbol is too strong and too specific, they all have the same strengths and the same flaws, just to greater or lesser degrees, it’s the same person over and over again, and it’s why fantasy stories focus on humans, or skip characterization entirely, because “elf’ is already the entire character, there’s no room to go deeper, and it’s why when I say “Tolkien elves”, or D&D elves, or Warhammer elves, I don’t have to explain what I mean or give them names, they’re all the same person, Tolkien elves are all Legolases, and D&D elves all have +2 Dexterity, and Warhammer elves even have interchangeable pieces.

If I had a dollar for every time an author told me how lithe an elf was, I’d never need to work again; and yet not once, not even one time, has an elf been “bulky”, or “fat”, or “rotund”, you’d think with hundreds of authors fighting for this space someone would want to be original, but they can’t, if they want to stand out the elf uses a gun or has dark skin but the symbol is so strong that when they ask the question “how can I, an author with limitless power over my world, make this elf unique” all they can think to do is change what he’s holding; and that’s because they are asking the wrong question, the word “elf” is a trap, and it stands always in Tolkien’s shadow. 

I will wager everything I have that not only will Wizards of the Coast never, ever, ever put out an illustration of an Elven powerlifter or a Dwarf-Raistlin, it will never even occur to them to do so. This is not a complicated (or even, dare I say, original?) concept - it’s the very simplest inversion of the trope - but the symbol is so specific that it’s fragile, Dark Sun has planet killing magic and Eberron has sci-fi spaceships and they’re still D&D, but if you put out a D&D sourcebook where the cover shows an elf with a bodybuilder’s physique and a cigar it breaks the symbolism, the shared understanding of what game we’re playing, and now it’s a radical statement about masculinity or feminism or something but it’s definitely making a statement, in your face and on purpose, you can’t look at that picture without thinking that’s not an elf, I guess elves are all cigar-smoking jocks in this adventure, why did they make elves into something they’re not?

I’ve read the books twice, I’m literally watching The Two Towers right this second as I write this to see if it helps, and Lord help me even while they’re on the screen right in front of me I couldn’t tell you which of the hobbits is Merry and which is Pippin. 

Final thoughts: first rule of D&D blogging is if you’re going to make people sit through your ravings offer them something they can take back to the table in exchange, so here it is: break the cycle. Tolkien elves are slender and good with bows, so D&D elves get “good with bows”, so when a player sits down and wants to use a bow they end up with an elf; Tolkien orcs are good with axes, so D&D orcs get “good with axes”, so if a player wants to use an axe they end up with a (half) orc, who’s going to pass up those sweet stat bonuses just to be original when the game is explicitly telling them which race is better? “I play a gnome barbarian”. Your party hates you. 

This is going to be controversial, standard DIY D&D “this won’t work for everyone” disclaimers apply, but I feel very strongly that the play experience is improved by decoupling racial bonuses from race, call it something else, “training bonuses”, your players will thank you. Let them play an elf character with the dwarven racial traits, or an orc character with the halfling racial traits. “It doesn’t make sense for an orc to be able to hide behind a gnome.” That same orc can summon a magical floating hand, is so good at crime that he can steal prepared spell slots, and that’s the part you want to complain about? I promise you, everything I have, your players will have fun explaining how they got their ‘racials’, they’ll be more invested in their characters, and they’ll have more fun. 

If nothing else, the next elf your players roll up will be a little more memorable.

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "IHP" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Cooler than Dracula

Spoiler Alert: There will be spoilers regarding Ravenloft (module I6), and this will be your only warning, so if you continue reading, do so freely, and of your own will.

Ravenloft (module I6) by Tracy and Laura Hickman, is a classic AD&D adventure starring Count Strahd von Zarovich, the first vampire, who longs for the woman that he loved and killed. Strahd dominates Ravenloft both in the adventure and on the gaming table. He is certainly the master of the land, but the Hickmans also made him the master of the adventure. Strahd, the authors inform us, must be kept alive for the sake of the story (Ravenloft, page 2) until it is time to kill him, yet Strahd’s strategic options are quite limited (Ravenloft, page 3), likely to protect the party from him since Strahd’s audience needs to survive too1 in order to witness the fall of Strahd, the romantic, brooding, tragic, brilliant wizard-vampire dark hero of this story. The familiar and correct critique of Ravenloft is that Ravenloft is indeed Strahd’s story, and that the adventure as written manipulates the PCs in order to tell Strahd’s tale of woe2.

This manipulation includes the PCs receiving a letter pleading for help that the PCs are assumed to rush off to (Ravenloft, page 7) without any pause for investigation, doubt. or preparation. Another example of the manipulation was mentioned earlier: Strahd, according to the authors, must live since the adventure ends with him, and yet Strahd  is so powerful that if his strategic options were not greatly limited, he would simply destroy the PCs. The Vistani are another example. Madame Eva tells the PCs the truth when she reads their fortunes, since this  furthers the objectives of the story, even though she is “very neutral” and “serves Strahd as long as it benefits her and her troupe” (Ravenloft, page 11). There is simply no reason for her to read the PCs fortunes and tell them the truth about Strahd’s location and the location of important items. If the PCs fail, Strahd (the genius) will likely deduce that Madame Eva gave the PCs the information, and Strahd will kill Madame Eva and perhaps all the Vistani. If the PCs succeed, the Vistani will lose a powerful benefactor. Since the Vistani have the ability to leave Ravenloft when they like, they have no need to kill Strahd or to help others do so in order to escape him, and lying to the PCs, and then warning Strahd, would likely earn them a reward. 

Unfortunately, the familiar and correct critique stops short of being useful. Ravenloft is manipulative. So what? People still enjoy it. The truth is, however, that more people would enjoy it if it were less manipulative, and the irony is that although Ravenloft, is manipulative, it does not need to be manipulative in order to create a gothic, horror experience for the PCs, out of which a gothic horror story can emerge, and fixing Ravenloft to remove the manipulation is quite simple.

One fix involves going back to the original source: Dracula. The fearless vampire hunters in Dracula know something about vampires, thanks to Van Helsing. Dracula is reluctant to simply attack them head on, despite his superior strength, due to their preparation and due to his being on foreign soil. The PCs could have a Van Helsing of their own, whether a PC who knows a lot about vampires, or an NPC sage, or the village priest who has been protecting Ireena. 

In addition, just as Dracula felt vulnerable on foreign soil (I believe Dracula would have been much more aggressive in Transylvania), Strahd needs to feel vulnerable too. Rather than have artificial restrictions on his attacks, Strahd should be careful for good reason. For the fragment of the Sunsword that the PCs possess (of course they do) might be a lesser but still potent version of the whole sword, and thus Strahd does not want to face it in a fight unless he absolutely must.

Something else that could make Strahd vulnerable, protect the PCs a bit, and add to the gothic mood would be to give Ireena insight into her past life as Tatyana. In fact, a PC could be the reincarnated version of Tatyana or Sergei, both of whom Strahd mourns greatly. As the reincarnated Tatyana or Sergei gets closer to Strahd, more memories resurface, and the PC gains valuable insight into how to fight Strahd.

The Vistani would make much more sense in the adventure if they were dissatisfied with Strahd for some reason. Perhaps he takes Vistani too when he feeds, and for this reason, Madame Eva does tell the truth when she gives the PCs their reading, but, also for this reason, she does not allow her fellow Vistani to share or sell to the PCs the potion that protects them from the mists. She wants Strahd dead, she wants to keep her connection to Ravenloft, but she does not want her people endangered. 

These are not the only changes that could be made to Ravenloft, but these changes would involve minimal alterations to the text of the adventure, and they would provide in-game reasons for what had once been contrivances. Ravenloft has had a  well-deserved reputation of putting story above player agency, but it has also earned its reputation as a fun, classic adventure. Those of us who criticize a great work owe it to ourselves and to other fans of it to improve it, rather than simply repeat the same critique over and over again.

1. This point was made clear in House of Strahd, module RM4, a revised version of Ravenloft.

2. This is often expressed as “railroading,” but that term is used too loosely. 

1 comment:

  1. "On Tokenism [Elven Snowflakes]" lays out a mammoth issue with PRG's. I am so glad VED has come up with sound logic to kick JRR in the balls!