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?

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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.

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.

On Cursed Items

The wrath of God lies sleeping. It was hid a million years before men were and only men have power to wake it. Hell ain’t half full.

Beneficial magic items often come about through intentional enchantment. Typically an enchantress will decide what sort of magical effects she desires to imbue upon an object, gather the requisite eldritch knowledge and mundane materials, and will either craft the object or saturate a pre-fabricated object with the appropriate boons. These enchanted items are nigh-always beneficial to their users, as befitting the expenditure of time, expertise, and materials required for their creation.

Very occasionally the item will be hexed, designed to cause some deleterious effect on the bearer. These are manufactured, if ever, for the injury of some remote, inaccessible, or well-protected target—the expense of common use quickly becomes prohibitive. There are far cheaper, easier ways of wishing someone ill.

Cursed items, properly, are truly cursed, rather than intentionally hexed. Tragedy, blood, and the most malign of intention can impress themselves onto the mundaneness of objects; envy, cowardice, or simple rage will also do. Any sufficiently strong or sufficiently negative emotion can quite unintentionally become imprinted on a material substrate. Such a thing becomes cursed.

As pseudo-hexes unguided by conscious intent, curses tend to replicate in effect the circumstances of their creation. Consider the man who, through derangement or demon-influence, begins thinking that his family are actually impostors, fey-placed fetches sent to torment him. He takes up his hammer and murders them in their beds. This is an act of wickedness that cries out to the gods. That hammer—regardless of the fate of the man—may become cursed. Thenceforth it will, if ever taken up again, exert a malign influence on its bearer. It may become useless for smithing, turning aside when swung in useful work; it may refuse to move in the hand if used in combat against a dangerous foe; but it may leap to grisly work when the holder sees anyone who resembles (to whatever degree of resemblance) the slain family.

No wizard enchanted this hammer. But cursed it is, and woe betide the adventurer who plucks it up as loot.

A cursed item is likely very difficult to be rid of. Let’s think back to the creation of a magic item. An enchanted item—conveying some sort of boon—is easy to transfer. Either it has been enchanted so as to be ambivalent as to its owner, or what power it contains wants to be put to its best and highest use, and ready transferability facilitates that. (An intentionally hexed item, by contrast, is probably hexed so as to be unriddable by its victim.)

But a cursed item knows in some ineffable way that it is unwanted. In the same sense that wildfire knows to spread or winter knows to be cold, the accursed thing knows that any person it touches would otherwise be likely to toss it in a bonfire or throw it down a chasm. It does not want to let go. How this manifests is individual to the object and the circumstances of its creation. The cursed hammer above may simply be impossible to set down, or it may reappear in hand whenever a woman or child is nearby, or it may ensorcel the bearer as to never desire to be rid of it. Another object, like the One Ring, may cause a pathological possessiveness in all who see it. Another may simply shadow a person, like an ioun stone that cannot be grasped or a wraith-pennant forever fluttering from the head of a weapon.

There are ways of being rid of a cursed object. There are even people who make it their lives’ work to expunge the world of them. But that is the topic of another post.

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.