the pillars of a willing suspension of disbelief

These are the bedrock of how I make this fantasy setting work; everything else follows as realistically (verisimilitudinously?) as can be dreamt up. (While always maintaining a bias toward entertainment.)

Pillar 0: Gods are real. Not all of the gods that people proclaim as real are real, but there is a pantheon and they do interact with peoples’ lives on a daily basis (even if indirectly).

Pillar 1: Magic is real. It can be big, flashy, and everywhere; it can be hated, subversive, and feared; or it can be storied and rare. But it is never perfectly reliable and predictable. If magic produced the same result for any person who performed the identical actions, it would no longer be magic, but science. And that science would quickly become technology. Maybe there’s no predicting who can do magic or why; maybe it’s fundamentally unreliable and can’t be consistently replicated; maybe anyone can do it but the effects produced vary. But there’s something fundamentally unscientific about magic.

Pillar 1a: Magic does not change the human heart. Human impulses remain the basis of the dramatic, and the dramatic is what we’re here for. We’re all still the same people, telling endless iterations of the same few stories, just through different instrumentalities.

Pillar 2: Life is hard. Crops fail, and then the lord comes and levies the rest. The pox smolders through the villages, then returns the next year. Rains flood out cartroads and most labor from sunup to sundown to keep their families going. And that’s all with brigands and chevauchees and whatever eldritch creatures roam the badlands. Sometimes the dead crawl out of the ground.

Urs Graf, Tell Me Again What You Can Do for My Village, Adventurer? (1521).

Pillar 3: Violence is endemic and terrifying. Sure, ancient enmities between dwarves and goblins, orcish hordes, all that. Political and personal violence is sadly commonplace. But what’s most vicious is that it’s really about ecological pressures. With a variety of sentient humanoids all sharing overlapping, if not identical, ecological niches, competition for resources is constant and ugly. Eventually one race or another will likely win out, but that hasn’t happened yet, and it will be a red day when it does.

Pillar 4: Everything has an ecology. Most everything eats. Everyone lives somewhere. Some grow in the day and some hunt at night. Apex predators—of which there are many—tend to be individuals, but everything else forms families, packs, or colonies. Everything has a place. This is pretty easy for all the things we’re used to, but creates interesting implications for those we’re not. Orcs form warbands, but also have oatfields and settlements and mills and harvest festivals. Dragons have a large-enough ecological footprint as to warp the landscape around them. And that catoblepas has to be doing something in the 99.99% of the time that a paladin isn’t trying to slay it.

Pillar 4a: There’s a reason for that dungeon down there, and that reason isn’t “a wizard did it.” Excavating is hard work, and the use must justify the cost. It might be some beast’s burrow, or a tin mine, or the tomb of the magnificent and mighty, or an irrigation system. But there’s some damn reason.

Pillar 5: All evil is specific. Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks, “I’m going to go be wicked today.” Evil can be clever, or delusional, or callous, or lazy, or expedient, or even simply desperate. But there’s always a reason. Creatures always do evil for a goal. To gain something, or avoid losing something, something real or imagined. Evil can use good means to bad ends, or bad means to good ends, or bad means to bad ends. There’s always a reason, even if you can’t understand it from a distance.

Pillar 6: Almost everything is mysterious. There’s some impossibility, but it’s mostly ignorance and lack of communication. Sure, it would be crazy to believe that outlander’s talk of giraffes with ten-foot necks topped with a man’s head, but did you hear of the man in the cave with a bull’s head? People need to feel like they know the reason why things happen, and readily fill gaps in their knowledge with supposition and imagination. What are those fires that burn in the sky, and why does the world freeze every year? That toddler fell down the village well, but what child would just do that? Surely it was the wickedness of Goodie Kerrand, who lives by herself and quarreled with the mother that very day. When you’re like as not to never venture more than three leagues from where you were born, it’s easy to dream up what might exist out there in the beyond. The average person’s horizons hew very close indeed.

Pillar 6a: Perfect information kills plots. And Identify can’t identify everything about a hexed item, even if the rules say it can. How could it? How could an in-game spell tell an in-game character what the “+2” on a Kris +2 even means?

Pillar 7: PCs are exceptional. As in, exceptions to the normal expectations. And we’re not talking about “roll 5d6, drop lowest two.” We’re talking about people who buck the world and do what the vast majority cannot or will not. We call them “adventurers,” but no one else does. Highwaymen, blackguards, outlaws. Tomb raiders, freebooters, marauders. Looters, rievers, opportunists. Men and women like this are antithetical to order, to civilization. And that makes the common person—and those who rule over them—uneasy. In a dangerous world where stability is paramount, adventurers are a destabilizing force. Occasionally useful, maybe, but no one ever smiles when they come to town. And that’s just the business of carrying swords and killing things for private gain—leaving aside calling thunderbolts from the heavens or shooting inerrant arrows from the fingertips.

the banality of orcs, pt. 2

A bookend to a post on why orcs are all evil. Except maybe they aren’t.

Orcs are not evil. At least, no moreso than anyone else. Orcs are merely competitors.

In a world where humans are the end-all be-all of all things, everything is seen through a human lens.1 Humans want a lot of things (every thing, depending on whom you ask). Humans want water to drink and arable land to crop and grass to graze upon and byways to traverse. They also want the same lead and copper and iron and sapphires and spices and dyestuffs everyone always wants.

And that’s the problem. Orcs want all of those things too. And of those which are needs, they need them just as much as humans do. But orcs tend toward stupid, foolhardy, and unlovely. They’re just smart enough to seriously compete with humans (and the other demihumans) for resources, but not smart enough to consistently win, or even subsist. If they were stupider, more feral and beastly, they may have carved out an ecological niche not in direct competition with humans; as it stands, however, they’re in a tough spot.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Ain’t No Party Like an Orc Party, ’cause an Orc Party Don’t Stop (1609).

Orcs are always winning battles and losing wars. They have managed to survive on grit and strength and an ability to make a hardscrabble life of places humans care least for. Their strength has allowed them to survive, but never thrive. Their life is one of war: war against the elements, against aching bellies, against pestilence, and against everyone else who wants the same subsistence as they do.

And it’s not always blood-and-billhooks war, either. Orcs tend to get the shit end of the deal in trade, both in receiving less than expected from the cleverer folk and in finding few markets for their own goods, which tend to be shoddier than others’. Even amongst those who are willing to trade with orcs, the orcs can only compete on price: their goods tend to be simple, strong, and unsophisticated.2 They tend to copy technological improvement rather than create it, and always find themselves one step behind the power curve.

Orcs are not inherently bloodthirsty, any more than anyone else is. They simply have to play to their strengths. Where they can’t compete on technological or thaumaturgical prowess, in sharp dealing or collective endeavor, they can compete with fire and falchion and ferocity. But that’s a mug’s game, and they know it. And resent it. They resent it in the shit-smelling foetid marshes, in the howling tundra of the wild north, and on the scrubbrush slopes of arid mesas. They resent it in driftwood hovels and tattered rawhide tents; they resent it in their frenzied dances and childrens’ stories and hearts. They resent it when breastplowing stony barrens and when hauling poorly-coopered buckets of fresh water and when undermining dwarven fortifications.

Humans think orcs are evil because they compete for the same resources, resources that are “rightfully” humanity’s; orcs’ consistent losses in that competition bolster humans’ self-congratulatory impulse to attribute market failure to moral failure; and because orcs are, to human eyes, ugly.3

With many thanks to Frank Trollman, who put the idea into my head that orcs aren’t bad, they’re just evolutionarily obsolete.

1 Of course. We’re humans playing a game with humans in it: everything becomes about humans. Which is why, in these complacent latter days, our elves are just skinny, pretty human dudes, and dwarves are just short, stocky human dudes. I’d prefer, of course, my elves to materialize out of hedgerows and eat the baby in trade for a peacock’s tear, or whatever high-weirdness your crazy brain and centuries of batshit folk mythology can come up with.

2 Interestingly, orc-made farm implements tend to be pretty good. That plow might be heavier than you’d like, but it’s not going to chip off when you turn a stone.

3 Ugly things are evil. Obvs. Disney told me so. Also—and I digress—I enjoy footnotes. One of the oddnesses of blogging is that footnotes and endnotes become sort of the same thing, depending on the length of your post, despite the fact that footnotes are useful and good, while endnotes are the page-flipping abominations of information design.1

1 I can footnote my footnotes. This is useful for cascading digressions.

the evil of orcs, pt. 1

Hatred is gained as much by good works as by evil.

Orcs are intrinsically evil.

There are no “orcs” and “elves.” They are the same thing. They are polymorphs (no, not like that, wizard) of the same creature.

The switch is, somewhat inexplicably, the moral choices of the individual. At most basic, an elf is one which has consistently made good—altruistic, empathetic, righteous—choices in her life; an orc, one who has made wicked—selfish, callous, violent—choices in hers. The making of these choices moves the individual along a spectrum, one little bit at a time. The spectrum runs from the most ethereal elf to the most brutish orc, and while there are no hard stops along the way, every observer seems to exhibit a desire toward amateur taxonomy. Barring extraordinary event,1 each little choice—keeping the last bit of butter to oneself, lending a hand in another’s garden, standing with one’s friends, or casting insult—changes one imperceptibly in one direction or another. It is the sum of innumerable unthought-of actions that produce the dramatic change in phenotype.

Absolutely no one is happy with this situation.2 Elves, thinking themselves (often rightly) so very virtuous, want no mention made of any relation to that most brutish of humanoids. These are the bedside whispers given to little elflings: “Be good, or your sins will show themselves on your hairy body!” Everyone knows, or thinks they know, someone who has fallen; one day, someone disappears, is never seen again. It is said, if anything is said, that they killed themselves, a less-embarrassing story. A whole line can be besmirched by the fall of one son. What does it say about you, they’ll mutter when your back is turned, that you raised a son so wicked that he turned into a beast?

The orcs don’t much care for it either. For a people built on strength and ruthlessness and a narrow-eyed focus on getting things done, any kinship with the effeminate lightweights is a snub, like the birth of nearsighted runt. But where an elf making the turn quietly disappears, self-exiling into either a period of contemplation in an attempt to reverse the process or a rampage free of the oppressive strictures of elven society, an orc turning slight will, with any sense, just disappear into the night. Those with less sense will awaken—for a few sputum-gasping moments—with knives lodged between their ribs. So hated are the elves, and those looking as though they will turn to one, that any sign of wasting or emaciation or weakness will often be taken as the turn, and culled nonetheless.

But the turn is a slow one, and is a progression along a spectrum rather than an on-off switch. Hence, half-elves and half-orcs. They would like to have you believe that these folks are the result of forbidden love or more vicious abuse, but that’s a façade all pretend to. A half-elf or half-orc is simply an intermediate step along the spectrum. A fallen elf slowly gains strength and loses some grace, and becomes what is commonly called a half-elf. The process continues from half-elf to half-orc, and from half-orc to orc. And these poor folks have the worst of both worlds, hated from all ends for not being enough … whatever “enough” means. Is it any surprise that such people tend to the extreme, either paragons of goodwill or redoubts of perfidy, in an effort to become all one or all the other?

Orcs are, by definition, evil. Elves are, by definition, good. An elf who does evil becomes strong and coarse and brutish. An orc who does good becomes slim and graceful and clever. Can there be any surprise that they—flip sides of the same coin—hate each other so? The sight of the other reminds each of what they could become if they stray from their path. There is no thing so hated as the incarnate reminder of one’s own shortcoming.

1 Some acts of enormous import—saintliness or atrocity—can change one much more quickly. It is these sudden transformations, typically an elf turning into a beast overnight, that is what most commonly betrays the truth of the situation to outsiders.

2 This is a lie. There are some remarkably well-informed sages who both know of this situation and think it is, intellectually, interesting as shit. They don’t get out much.

Continued in: “the banality of orcs, pt. 2

on treants

Treants are not the avuncular protectors of the woods.

Treants are wise in the way that hedgehogs are wise: they may not know many things, but they know a few very well. A treant is wise in the way of stillness, of the whisper on the breeze, of circumspection, and of patience. It is not wise in the ways of cities, men, manners, councils, governments.

Treants care about the protection of the woods in the same way that a man cares for the protection of a crowd, or the crow of the flock. To take or leave, if useful for a purpose or reviled for its nature. An exceptional individual may put the many above itself; most will not, will find the easiest excuse to desert and the kindest words to justify doing so. Each has its mind, goals.

A treant growing among others will tend to the wood as, maybe, a neglectful sitter. But one grown alone sees the wood as may a girl raised in a sculpture garden: ornaments, playthings and objects to project personality upon, inanimate and cold.

Treants are not moral beings. They have interests—in the nutrients below and the energy above and the structure that holds them erect—but not judgments. They neither support nor oppose men, except insofar as their inscrutable actions intersect the path of the treant. If a treant can ever be said to want something, that something would be strong roots to grip and hold the soil, height to reach above competitors toward the sun.

The popular imagination sees a treant as a bemossed elder oak, craggy and imposing. But treants come from all kinds of trees, anything that drops roots and lifts leaf to sky. Enormous witless baobobs stomp, monolithic and lonely. Flocks of quivering aspen sprint the northern slopes, incomparable colonizers. Ancient juniper walk higher in the mountains than any other, wizened and twisted with age and wind. Far-seeing communal eucalyptids spread poison to prevent other trees from sprouting.

One oaken treant represents all trees the way one bear represents all men. A tree will do what a tree will do.

on storyspace

The bigger the storyspace the more stories you can tell within that space. This seems pretty obvious, isn’t it? But it doesn’t seem to be—revealed preference shows us that the majority of players (and all GMs, at root, are players) prefer to limit their storyspaces rather than expand them. If this weren’t the case, how is it that that we see the same much-lamented clichés over and over, edition through edition, game across game?

A storyspace is just the range of storytelling options in your game that don’t break plausibility; that is, things and actions that can be portrayed without blowing up your suspension of disbelief. On Krynn, for instance, elves can live in the woods, they can live in glittering cities, then can interbreed with humans. They can’t have obsidian skin, they can’t chomp cigars while driving tanks. On Toril, conversely, they can do all the former things, and they can also have obsidian skin and live in caves, but they still can’t fire the main gun. On Shadowrun’s Earth, they can do all of the above, except birth half-elves. If any of those proscribed things happened on one of those worlds, all involved would pause, blink, and question what game they were playing.

The bigger the storyspace, the more stories you can tell. You could drop a BattleMech into Mordor, but that doesn’t mean that you should. (Hey, if your players are up for it, go ahead.) And so we have a tension: how far can you loosen the rules of your world before it stops being your world anymore? Anyone who’s been around for more than a day has heard the fights between those who don’t mind firearms—primitive ones, at least—in their fantasy, and those for whom they are anathema. But at least it’s a reasonable expansion of setting—Golarion is still recognizably a fantasy setting. But put just one AK-47 into it, and your setting is fantastical, not fantasy.

But you don’t need the creativity of a Patrick Stuart or Zak S. to enlarge a storyspace. In fact, you don’t need to add anything at all—adding elements is often the road to bloat and incomprehensibility. More often the best results can come from removing elements. And by that I mean, take a hard look at what you can’t do in your setting and ask “why?”

If you can’t justify that limitation, try getting rid of it.

Some of the most memorable—whether you care for them or not—characters are those that play against type, that break in the individual instance the rules of how things are supposed to be done in that world. Drizzt is a drow who rejects his evil heritage and does good in the world. Frodo leaves the Shire to go on epic adventure. Lancelot is the most puissant of knights who betrays his king in the most personal way.

Drizzt is interesting in this way.1 Drow came about as an expansion of what it means to be an elf—previously noble, fair, and just creatures. That got boring. So now we have venal, dark, and wicked elves. But they were so popular that they became trite. So, almost closing the circle, we have a noble, virtuous drow. Where that goes next, who knows—but the as the attention span wanes, as we get sick of the overdone, the circle spins.

1 Yeah, I know many of us despise Drizzt because our angsty, dual-wielding, invincible friend is so overdone and hence, boring. But just try and tell me you didn’t think he was badass when you read that first novel.

made wrong

It’s like a lot of things, said the smith. Do the least part of it wrong and ye’d just as well to do it all wrong.

Setting: Not every cursed item started that way. Sometimes something is just made wrong. Sometimes some confluence of ill events turns something wrong. Sometimes things just are what they are. Roll d10.

1: A shard of flint and a steel peg. When struck together they produce a ball of blossoming flame the size of a bonfire.

2: A well-worn leathern rucksack. When items are placed within and carried over distance, something will disappear as though out a hole in the bottom. But there isn’t a hole.

3: A hempen rope. Whenever it is knotted it instantly snarls, snags, and shortens to an almost undisentangleable mass.

4: A cord of pacecount beads of the sort used by scouts to keep record of distance walked. When used the navigator becomes terribly lost, and no others can find her.

5: A torch formed of twisted tow dipped in wax. When lit it becomes unmovable until doused.

6: A fireblackened iron frypan. When food is cooked within, half the food imperceptibly disappears. If it is ever broken,1 all of the food it has ever consumed reappears, fresh and hot.

7: A stoppered goatskin. Any liquid put within becomes seawater.

8: A boiled-leather tube and pair of lenses, assemblable into a spyglass. It sees an hour ago.

9: An iron kettle. Heat freezes the contents; cold heats them.

10: A rude sheepskin poncho. Donning it turns you into an ordinary lamb for a day.

And what happens when you realize that a boon is often just a curse flipped on its head?

1 Have you ever tried to break a cast-iron skillet?

signs of passing, pt. 2

Setting: Sometimes things just go wrong. You sit down to rest, breathless with effort, and soon as not comes again the old foe. Time to move again, comforts forgotten. But haste leaves things behind, telltales of those ahead. Roll d10.

1: A half-reshaped broken saber, a grindstone.

2: A sawn-off gangrenous leg and cut tourniquet.

3: Six silken masks, crumpled.

4: Small crocken pots, each with a verdant sprout.

5: A mannequin of sackcloth and wheatstalks; paintdaub face.

6: A singed set of woodworker’s tools, within a ritual sigil.

7: Pulled-apart skeletons of cooked rats.

8: Pictures of dicks, scrawled in charcoal. Nonhuman.1

9: A broken circle of salt.

10: A swaddling cloth. No baby.

And what if they return?

1 How do you know?