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?

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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.

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?

an impoverishment of language, pt. 1

Weak, imprecise language makes for bland storytelling. If you’re playing a storytelling game (and we all are), which would you rather encounter:

“A huge group of barbarians is coming toward you dressed in mismatched armor and ragged clothing, some on horses. What do you do?”

or:

“A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a [] conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of [] reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools. What do you do?1

No, none of us are Cormac McCarthy, and yes, this is probably too much text to speak or read in an actual game session. But both are saying, fundamentally, the same thing. In the first, detail and specificity are elided. There’s a horde of bad guys coming at the party, and that’s it. Any party knows what to do when generic bad guys approach: you attack. The cue given by the GM allows no other reaction: there’s no hook to parley or negotiate; there’s no detail to indicate whether the party is under- or overmatched and consequently convey to the party whether they should scoff, grandstand, deceive, or take to heels. Our games tend to be (over recent years, particularly) designed to encourage the perfect tailoring of challenge to PC ability. The consequence of this is that we have trained our players that in the absence of explicit indication to the contrary, every encounter will be a fair fight.

If you’re always guaranteed a fair fight, you’re likely to get into a lot of fights.

But consider the second. Yes, it’s likely too long to see use in any but the most set-piece of games. But it conveys information, tone, setting. The tone is what draws attention: no one here is run-of-the-mill, and the aggregate is just as interesting as the individual. We know this is a horde of savages.2 There’s a lot of them, many quite distinguishable. The juxtaposition of those in “the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform” shows us that there’s nothing homogeneous or regimented here. The warrior nonetheless clad in “white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil” shows us that he cares not about the significance of these items in the culture he is being contrasted against, or does and is wearing them for effect, or doesn’t understand their meaning in a culture beyond their purely functional use as items of clothing. (Let’s ignore what we can guess about how, exactly, this man got a blood-stained wedding veil in the first place.) While the bare paragraph is lengthy, each of the warriors depicted is described–in just a few words per–evocatively enough to be an interesting antagonist by himself.

Here, we get information. The horde is savage. They are “horribles,” great in number and fierce in aspect, armed for war but clad as though they care not for what fate befalls them. Armed for war–massacre and counter-massacre–of the oldest sort. They are fearsome: they wear bits of uniform “still tracked with the blood of prior owner,” armor “deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber,” and they ride down on the PCs “like a horde from a hell more horrible yet.” We get information. You can bet they can be neither greeted nor pacified. You can fight, or flee, and the odds are good you ought to choose the latter.

But most of all, the PCs have knowledge, and can use that knowledge to make realistic choices. There’s no treasure here, only the strong probability of having your blood used to daub crimson to a horse. Maybe the PCs are powerful enough to win, maybe not, depending on your party. Maybe you have previously given them a reason to stand and fight. But here, they know that if they do, they are standing against nothing less than a force of nature, the wrath of an angry god, the collective avatar of all that opposes civilization. Doesn’t that sound like a lot more fun than the first encounter?

1 Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (slightly amended).

2 Let us disregard, for the moment, McCarthy’s characterization of the Comanches as barbarous, if for no other reason than that everyone in Blood Meridian is barbarous. It is a book of “ever bloodier and more damnable outrages” (Banville) with a villain who is, “short of Moby Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature” (Bloom). It is not a light read, but no one is more evocative.