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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Adventuring” humans, that is. The PCs, the kind we pretend to be. Some NPCs do, too, the bigfolk, those sitting in the manor house with the bailiff delivering the rents.
Goblins are different when you don’t carry a broadsword for a living, or can’t afford the smithing of one, or haven’t ever seen one beyond the make-believe type the shepherd-boys pretend their crooks to be.
Comfortably civilized folk may think goblins are vermin, but let’s not forget that vermin kill more people than war does. If we really want to understand a setting, maybe the correct perspective isn’t that of the one-in-a-thousand who fight when they want to, but the thousand who fight only when they have to.
Say you’re a cottager, well-worn from trying to feed your wife and children off a few acres of someone else’s land, miles from the trade road and miles more from the market town. You’ve got a good oaken cudgel, a door that never does fit in the frame just right, and just enough firewood to use every other night or so. And your dog.
Your dog was lying in the garden this morning, and you had to figure out what to tell your little girl about why all those little black arrows were sticking out of it. But thankfully your wife got everyone to sleep, save you, awake with the weight of care.
Those crazed little eyes out in the darkness, whispering in the barley rows, how harmless do they feel now?
1 “The Drover’s Wife,” by Henry Lawson, a (very) short story about a mother, her children, their dog, and a snake. It hasn’t aged well, but it is quite good at conveying what it’s like when you’re poor, and the sun is going down, and the next neighbor is nineteen miles off.