elves have to be fucked up, pt. 2

Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.

(The second in a series about how either elves are the dominant humanoid species, or somehow screwed-up, the first of which is here.)

Possibility 1: Evolutionary Misfires

Elves are heavily K-selected.

Elves haven’t conquered the world because there are just too damn few of them, there are too few because they reproduce too slowly, and because they reproduce so slowly they are exceedingly risk-averse.

Roughed out for the gaming crowd, in ecological theory, r/K selection is the idea that organisms will converge on one of two reproductive strategies. An r-selected organism emphasizes speedy growth, early onset of maturity, production of many offspring, low parental involvement in the raising of those offspring, comparatively low survival rates of those offspring, along with smaller body size and shorter lifespans. Think rats, or goblins.1

Alternately, K-selection is a strategy typified by slower growth and later onset of maturity; production of fewer, but better cared-for, offspring; extensive parental involvement with those offspring leading to better survival rates; larger body size and longer lifespans. Think elephants . . . or elves.2

We know elves have a relatively large body-size for a humanoid.3 We know that they live a tremendously long time and undergo a childhood and adolescence the length of a long human lifetime; we can easily presume a parental involvement and investment in single offspring orders of magnitude greater than that provided by other humanoids. Elves are quintessential K-strategists. From what we know we can infer that elven children have superb survival rates and elven adults, exceedingly low reproductive rates. If an elven child requires a century of rearing, we can assume that each elven family—not just mothers, as that level of resource-investment likely requires the fathers, as well, or the community as a whole—spaces births in increments of scores of years.

When you have so much resource investment in each and every child, each of those children is tremendously precious. So many resources, in fact, that we could plausibly assume that any settled elven society has the majority of its resources invested in its people rather than anything material. Why would it then send those resources off—in the form of young men and women—to war for any reason short of an existential threat? Any elven society will consequently become incredibly risk-averse, perhaps to a self-defeating degree.

Even if elves overcome this risk aversion, the extremely slow reproduction rate means there just aren’t that many elves. Sure, an exquisitely trained elven swordsman may defeat a dozen orcs, but there are a dozen dozen more standing behind them. Sometimes quantity has a quality all its own.

Maybe elves haven’t conquered the world for no other reason than that there are too few of them, each is worth too much, and the elves are paralyzed thereby.

To be continued in part 3, “The Price of Purity.”

1 Actually, think of litters of rats under your floorboards. Or litters of goblins under your floorboards. Actually actually, don’t.

2 In unstable environments r-strategists tend to dominate, as survival becomes a numbers game when there is no clear superior adaptation to the changing circumstances. Conversely, in a stable environment, there is time for evolution to produce smaller and smaller incremental improvements suited to that specific environment, intensive—slow!—nurturing pays bigger dividends, and K-strategists emerge.

3 Your elves are taller than humans, right? Right?

elves have to be fucked up, pt. 1

If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet?

Why haven’t elves taken over the world? They’re just as smart (if not smarter) than humans, adaptable to many environments, generally considered attractive and charismatic by other humanoids, and, most importantly, they live for-fucking-ever. They compete with other humanoids for the same basic resources— water, arable land, game, metals and lumber, space to expand—but, for some reason, haven’t extirpated their competitors.1 Why?

John Martin, The Hubris of Elvenkind is Rewarded (1831).

Intelligence and tool-making, whether those tools be mundane or magical, are the killer advantage in conquering an ecological niche; once in the realm of technology,2 physical attributes are less relevant. With technology taken hold, strength matters little: a muscular build pales in comparison to the work that can be done with a simple lever. Dexterity matters more, but not insofar as we care about stealthy backstabs; rather, dexterity supports the manipulation of tools, the knapping of flints and the sewing of hides into clothes and the planing of spokestaves. Constitution always helps, but not to the extent we would wish: a tough guy can withstand the cold, but a whole tribe of weaklings can huddle around a bonfire.

The key here is that elves live a tremendously long time. By itself that matters little—a bristlecone pine can live longer than five elves—but when combined with intelligence, it means that techniques, proficiencies, and advances can be continually built upon without losing ground to senility, death, or errors in transmission. Say, roughly, that an apprentice is useful at ten and spends ten years learning the trade. If you live eighty years, and ignoring senescence, that’s three quarters of your life productively working. But if you live a thousand years, that’s 98% of your life spent productively. Maybe elven children take much, much longer to develop: but even if an elven childhood is roughly the length of a human life—and holding the time spent to learn a trade the same, befitting equivalent intelligence—that’s still 90% of a life spent productively.

The more experience you have practicing a trade, the better you’re likely to be at it. It doesn’t matter if that trade is tanning or masonry or generalship. The skilled elf simply gets more time to improve, try new things, and figure out more efficient processes. Included in this mastery is improvement of teaching the trade to proteges, to get them up to speed faster, or barring that, to a higher level in the same amount of training. Absent something fundamentally wrong with the elf, an elf should be better than any other humanoid at whatever the elf chooses to do.

But what we see in most settings is that elves—along with humans, and dwarves, and secondarily with gnomes and halflings and orcs and goblins and hobgoblins3—exist in a sort of hand-wavy equilibrium. Maybe the dwarves are in the mountains, the elves in the woods, and we ignore interspecies competition for resources by pretending that they all just stay where they’re supposed to. But there’s no reason to suspect that such an unstable equilibrium would develop, and were it to spring afresh sua sponte, no reason to expect it would last. Even if everyone starts in their canon-proper places, successful reproduction means they’ll have to expand to fill their environment, and now we’ve got elves creeping down old mineshafts to take habitat from the dwarves and taking to horse to run off those plainsmen.

Elves should be able to outcompete their peer competitors for resources, and consequently either exterminate them or push them into unproductive environments and irrelevance. So why haven’t they done so? Something must be wrong with the elves.

To be continued.

1 For further commentary on the effects of competition between humanoids of overlapping ecological niches, consult your local neanderthalensis colony.

2 By technology, here, we include magical advances.

3 Bigger, stronger, faster, just as smart—and very well-organized. Why haven’t the hobgoblins subjugated the world yet?

a time for ghosts

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths[.]

Carolina Death Crawl (free PDF, here) is a storygame with a particularly interesting mechanic perfect for an OSR game. As a game, CDC is about a ragtag group of Civil War soldiers—Southerners, fighting for the North—making their way through the ravaged countryside, trying to find home or hope or redemption—and finding none—along the way.

William Strang, Come Hell or High Water, etching (1893).

Characters die. But as the game is a one-shot, there’s no rerolling (or replacing) characters. Rather, when a PC dies (and they will), it becomes a swamp ghost. That is, some fragment of the collective spirit of spite and loss and recrimination that haunts the Carolina swamps and brings grief to the living. What this means in game terms is that the player ceases playing the dead character, rises from the chair, and becomes a vengeful ghost. “The job of the Swamp Ghosts is to compel the survivors to reflect on the horrors and atrocities in their past and guide them into an unspeakable future.” The ghosts—should there be more than one—scheme and conspire in secret, then return to pace the room, always at a (still-living) player’s shoulder, whispering imprecations into an ear or casting portentous doom upon the table.

This, of course, just feels right for a certain sort of ugly D&D shitgame. But there’s a different feel here. It’s too easy to create a game of grit and unpleasantness—mire, disease, sullen go-nowhere villagers—for a mood of poverty, physical and spiritual. There’s a difference between mud and venom. CDC is about guilt and spite and the weight of your own actions accreting to you. If you’re going to have a shitgame, may as well go all the way.

Next time a PC dies, instead of rolling up another one or animating a hireling, make a ghost. And let the ghosts of PCs-passed1 remind those living just how foolish and morally bankrupt they are.

1 I see what you did there, hella.

there are no monsters in the Monster Manual

Pale manchild were there last agonies? Were you in terror, did you know? Could you feel the claw that claimed you? And who is this fool kneeling over your bones, choked with bitterness? And what could a child know of the darkness of God’s plan? Or how flesh is so frail it is hardly more than a dream.

I’m thinking about monsters again. I pulled out GURPS Horror recently, which made quite an impact on me way back in the day (the one with the not terribly scary skeleton-slasher on the front). I don’t care for GURPS—less for that certain sort of “but there’s a rule for everything!” GURPS evangelist—but this splatbook is good, and has been through the editions.

I don’t play GURPS and I don’t play WoD, but I read the splatbooks because they can, when good, be really good, at least insofar as conveying a certain grim tone and bevy of evocative ideas you don’t usually get from D&D. It’s hardly new to complain that whatever edition and whatever setting of D&D you play, it feels the same. Oerth and Faerun and Krynn differ in the details, but can anyone straightfacedly say they feel like fundamentally different worlds? There have been a few settings that stand out as “yes, this is a different thing”—Athas comes to mind—but how many have there been in the last forty years?

GURPS Horror is pretty good at conveying (if you ignore the crunch) what makes things scary and how to use them in games. But where it shines is in taking a fundamentally different (coming from a D&D perspective) approach to monsters. The Monster Manuals aren’t really about monsters; they’re really just encyclopedias of various animals. There’s nothing there to tell you why these things are scary, or how to really make them so. They’re only frightening to the extent that the combination of numbers in the statblock compares to that of your character; there’s nothing about what is fearful, to the player’s psyche, about this creature.

Alfred Kubin, No Shit, There I Was, Rowing This Boat (1905).

GURPS Horror takes a different approach, which is as breathtakingly obvious as it is woefully underused: there, they categorize the monsters by what archetypal human fear they embody. That is, the process is reversed: “here’s a universal human fear, and here’s how it has been reflected in our cultural imagination,” rather than “here’s a creature, and here’s why it’s scary.” Thus the fear of our own sin gives shape to demons; fear of the unnatural gives us ghosts and doppelgangers; fear of the wilderness, werewolves and the fae; fear of the monolithic state, men in black; fear of starvation, wendigo.

For D&D, you have to think about monsters in this reverse order, or else your monsters are just creatures you’re hunting. A wight isn’t horrifying because it drains abstract levels; the fear is of men who lived by terrifying violence whom even death won’t stop, and will continue regardless. An ogre isn’t scary, but the childborne fear of huge, violent, and capricious authority is. A lich isn’t inherently dreadful, but the dead hand of generations past living on to control the world through the present, is.

A “monster manual,” isn’t. It’s just a list of creatures to hunt. If you want real monsters in your game, start with a very-human fear—corruption, disease, starvation, the uncanny, the vastness of the sky—and find or write a monster that embodies that fear.

As a special aside, you won’t find much better than Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, Vol. I.

how to make your cleric hate you, vol. 1

There is no description of a fool, he said, that you fail to satisfy.

You went off to seminary. Spent three years as a novice, baking bread and calling the hours. You read four languages, two of which no one even bothers to speak anymore. You can refute even the finer points of both the Anacian and Jerevite heresies, convincingly. And you’re bold enough to carry the Word into the dark places of the earth so that others may know light and joy.

And your party thinks you’re a healbot, hanging around for no other damn reason but to patch them up after they do dumb things. You carry healing and grace with you everywhere you go; the common people flock to your touch. Turns out, you’re their healbot, too.

What stupid shit do they need your learned help with today? Roll d10.

1: Buddy bet him a groat that he couldn’t punch himself unconscious. Buddy lost.

2: Got drunk as a skunk and passed out with his legs too close to the fire.

3: Has all the STDs. Doesn’t want to have STDs. Wants to show you.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, oil on oak panel (1559).

4: Got drunker than two skunks and fell off the plowhorse. Still drunk.

5: Attempted suicide via crossbow-and-string trap.

6: Happy (human) mom and proud (human) dad are in labor with their first. She delivers a beautiful baby (half-elven) boy.

7: Shoot an arrow in the air. Whoever is standing closest to where it lands, wins. This kid won.

8: Snuck into the hedgewitch’s hovel and drank all the potions. All the philters, elixirs, and decoctions, too. Now freaking the fuck out. With miscellaneous magical effects.

9: Demands—demands!—to be healed of some nonexistent ailments.

10: Has dagger pommel lodged somewhere unpleasant. Swears he was just reaching for something on a shelf, naked, when he slipped and fell right on it. One-in-a-million chance, he says.

Shamelessly stolen from various emergency-medicine fora.

a wormbent tabernacle

[W]hat rabid god decocted out of the smoking lobes of hydrophobia could have devised a keeping place for souls so poor as in this flesh. This mawky wormbent tabernacle.

Sometimes the dead don’t just fall. Flesh does strange things, and us blackguards and scavengers make more dead than most. What happens after the deathblow? Roll d10.

1: Collapses into a pile of leaves.

2: Turns to a cloud of blackflies.

3: Falls into a clatter of painted woods and wires, a marionette unstrung.

4: Acrid smoke billows from rent wounds; moments later, the corpse is consumed from within by brilliant fire.

5: Arms and legs detach and slither off, ophidian and fat.

6: With a thunderclap, it disappears.

7: Before the body even falls, it liquefies and runs off underfoot. Stinks something fierce, too.

8: As the corpse cools, parasites make their way out. A lengthy tapeworm emerges from an orifice, curling tight. Other critters from nose and ears.

9: Spores—looking for all the world like dust—puff from the wounds. They sift down through the air, emergent life in a blossoming of mushrooms.

10: The corpse just lies there. You are sad.

on warbeasts, of the eat-people kind

So Scrap Princess asked about creating warbeasts and how to do so in an effective way.1

The (too?) obvious answer to “how do I create warbeasts that eat people?” is necromantic compulsion. Every other answer has to contend with thorny, species-specific issues of biology, with which necromancers need not concern themselves. Find a dead beast, or create a dead beast (that is, create the deadness, rather than creating the beast), raise it up, and send it at the enemy.

The efficiency of this approach—rather than the efficacy, I think—is reliant upon just how necromancy works in your world. That is, does the difficulty in raising derive from the complexity of the mind of the being you’re reanimating, or from the mass of material you’re prying from the earth’s grip? If the former, creating warbeasts—juggernauts of reanimated bone and flesh held together by grim forces—is relatively easy. As smart as mammoths are, they aren’t as smart as the dullest farmboy, and so for less work than it would take to make a shambling ghoul, you’ve got a multi-ton war-construct that doesn’t feel pain, doesn’t spook, and never tramples backwards into your own men.

If the latter, and it’s a matter of size, well, your necromancers have some calculating to do. If it consumes the same resources (measured in wealth, man-hours, unhappy deviltry and deals struck, whatever) to create one enormous undead siege-tortoise, or X revenants where X = tortoise!mass / average!human!mass, you have to ponder your objectives and whether one siege-tortoise accomplishes those better than a minor horde of shamblers. If you have to breach fortifications to clear a lane, maybe yes; if you’re just trying to overrun enemy countryside and destroy their farming sector, maybe no.

“But hella,” you say, “Scrap asked about warbeasts that eat people.” Well, that also depends on the nature of infernal necromancy in your world. Hordemaster Romero’s shambling legions are probably better than creating a warbeast anyway. Why would you sink the resources into animating a warbeast if it’s just going to stop at first contact and chomp on the first shitheel conscript it tusk-gores, when what you really want is for it to plunge a bloody path to your objective? If your undead eat people, well, you need to make a lot of little undead, so that if one peels off to eat a brain, the rest keep going after other brains. If you make warbeasts, you want them to blindly thresh through opposition and leave it in terrified disarray. You don’t need your warbeasts to eat the flesh of the fallen foe to create terrified disarray.

So I guess this is just a roundabout way of objecting to Scrap’s premise. You don’t want your warbeasts to eat people. It’s bad generalship.

1 As opposed to a fucking awesome way, in which case I recommend the Matryoshka dogs. It’s canines1 all the way down.

1 I see what you did there.