Not in My Game

While indulging in my yearly bout of gaming nostalgia (as this time of year marks my first foray into the world of Dungeons & Dragons) I found myself perusing an old issue of The Dragon. Issue 31, to be precise. I was amusing myself with the wondrous questions and answers in the first-ever installment of "Sage Advice" (long bows can't be used as direct-fire weapons? Whuh??) when I was stopped in my tracks by the following question, or - more precisely - by the response from Jean Wells:

This exhibits one of the fundamental things that has always bothered me about the default assumptions present in D&D: namely that many of these fantastical creatures are assigned a mundane existence rather than being fantastical.

The first time I recall encountering this was when I read of the goblin families in Keep on the Borderlands

Goblin children? I thought. 

To me, this seemed wrong. Goblins, orcs, etc., are creatures of myth and legend. Attributing to them the same properties as creatures of the natural order effectively strips them of their phantasmagorical existences. Furthermore, by making them natural beings as opposed to supernatural ones, the creators of the game made it far less believable that they could be wholly evil, as they're presented (with an alignment of chaotic or chaotic evil, depending on your flavor of the game). Surely, if they are intelligent creatures belonging to the natural order, they have as much capacity for moral range as any other intelligent creature. 

They're no longer avatars of fantastical evil, foils for the heroic player characters, then. They're just ugly, primitive men.

Where's the fun in that?

This is why I've always eschewed the default (one might argue, Gygaxian) D&D approach to monsters. These are magical creatures - one cannot ascribe to them the same beliefs, behaviors, or reproductive methods as one does to beings that belong to the natural order. D&D monsters exist outside that order, and this is what makes them wonderous and terrifying. My orcs and goblins are elemental creatures of darkness and evil, dark mirrors in which the natural creatures of the world see the worst of themselves.

"Orcs are mammals"? Not in my game they aren't!


  1. I agree with your points, but sadly TSR certainly didn't, as evidenced by decades of Monster Ecology articles in Dragon.

    My own spin on orcs has them spawned from the soil itself due to fertility magic that was deliberately misused by ancient elves who needed an expendable army fast, then discovered they couldn't halt the process after the need had passed. About the only good thing that can be said about orcs is that they don't really understand the connection between other races' children and their parents and therefore don't deliberately exploit that vulnerability through kidnapping, torture and murder. The "smalls" are just some kind of ugly, stupid pet, and given the way orcs treat their own enslaved animals it would never dawn on them that humans (or elves, Dwarves, etc) might care about what happens to theirs. Also not real clear on the differences between sexes, which is something they just plain lack.

    1. Sadly, indeed!

      Your take on orcs is awesome and just the sort of imaginative thinking that Gygax and TSR totally missed out on. Your (like mine) approach combines the supernatural, um, nature of the orcs with the fact that magic is an ever-present facet of the D&D universe, and it's too bad the creators of the game didn't seize on that sort of approach from the get-go.

      (Maybe if they had, there would be less 21st-century hand-wringing over different "races" being portrayed as evil. Instead, it would simply be: evil is as evil does, as Mr. Gump would say. :D)

      (My own approach similarly works the omnipresence of magic into their nature, as they spring from places where the evil of humans and demi-humans and magic are strong, such as - go figure - in the lairs of powerful evil magic users. Oh, and kobolds in my game aren't related to dragons - they're what happens to goblins that have been exposed to the presence of dragons, which are points of some of the most powerful magic in existence...)

    2. Thanks. Mine were pretty clearly inspired by the default setting in Pelgrane's excellent 13th Age but with a more explicitly monstrous twist to the orcs - which was a partly a response to 5th edition's insistence on de-monsterizing humanoid baddies in the name of political correctness.

      My kobolds are still weird little part-reptile, part-dogman runts whose origins are not only unclear but not something even they care much about, much less the sages of more civilized races. More like malicious toddlers than anything else, really. Maybe they were made by some drunken trickster god that didn't want to admit to being responsible or something.

    3. " humanoid baddies in the name of political correctness..."

      This. *sigh* Proof that the world has gone silly and some people have waaaay too much time on their hands. :D

  2. Gotta agree. It hasn't come up much (or at all) in-game, but IMO there's no reason why monstrous creatures can't (and frequently do) spontaneously generate. Bad mojo in your neighborhood? You might get a cocktrice in your chickens. The presence of goblins may create worgs from wolves. Also, my gods get INVOLVED.

    Related house rule: dragons can have offspring at any age, but hatchlings born to sub-adult dragons are more likely to be mutated (ie, drakes and dragonettes) OR cannot age past their "parents'" age. (I came up with this in 3e, when there were 12 age categories). This allows for lots of small and middling dragons if I want them, and explains the dearth of older, larger dragons.

    1. "...might get a cocktrice in your chickens..."

      ^ This, for the win! :D

      Thanks for reminding me about the gods - might have to do a similar post about them. They're pretty present in my game, too. Well, the younger ones are, at least. As gods a created magically, some from mortals and some from the power of intelligent mortals' beliefs, new gods are being added as the races age. The older gods wane in power, or just get complacent and take less interest in the mortal worlds, generally.

    2. You could take the opposite approach in some cases too. The older a god gets the more powerful it becomes and the less it has in common with mere mortals, eventually reaching the point it neither needs nor desires worshippers and stops paying attention to them at all. Even other "young" gods stop being relatable after a while, and the generations of deities become increasingly and uncaring alien over time. More of a Lovecraftian cosmic horror take, that - and you can still have younger, more comprehensibly evil deities if you want, but they'll find their elders almost as creepy as mortals do.

    3. I actually do something similar - the "old gods" definitely become more and more alien and absolutely take on a Lovecraftan vibe. (My favorite author - I can't help but working Lovecraftian, cosmic horror tones into almost every game I run. :P)

      But the core of a god's power in my game is belief - the magic is always there, but a god is only invested with as much of it as his followers will allow. These Forgotten Gods, as they're called in my game (I think I may have written a post on it), are distant beings with no care of the mortal world, but remember/desire to regain their past glories and often have just enough power to be dangerous.

      Oh, and then there are the still-relevant gods who DO still care about mortal affairs, especially when some mortal upstart is drawing enough glory from their belief-base to start causing them problems. (This was the case with one of my player's PCs - a cleric, he became venerated by his god's followers, and as word spread of his deeds, they started worshipping him instead of their god, Tarak. ("What's Tarak done for me lately?" was the growing attitude toward their god.) Eventually, this caused the god to conspire with other immortals against his own cleric, with realty-fracturing results...)

      So, yeah, TL:DR - I totally get where you're coming from. :D

  3. 100% agree. In my game goblins and bugbears are basically mischievous and cruel pseudo-fairies from Elfland/the Feywild. If you kill them, their corpses soon melt into mud. My players took a bugbear's head and a few hours later discovered it had turned into a rotten pumpkin. Orcs are created by dark lords by mixing human and pig remains in a cauldron and infusing them with the souls of dead murderhobos. Monsters should feel fantastic!

    1. Perfect! I'm going to steal the pumpkin idea!

      I do the same thing with my dragons. As embodiments of elemental magic, they lose their physical form when slain. In my last campaign, the first time the player characters defeated a white dragon the players were shocked as they tried to skin it only to watch it dissolve into a heap of melting snow and ice! Hopefully that will serve as forewarning for what will happen if they try to mess with a green, black, or - best of all - red dragon corpse! >:D

      I think I'll have to start having my humanoids dissolve into corruption in the future...

    2. I like that hybrid birthing cauldron idea, consider that stolen. Might not use it for orcs as such, but beastmen and similar mockeries of nature are something you can never have enough of. Hmmm. Maybe chimera are the result of using a really big pot...

  4. This is an aspect of my games I struggle with. My modern brain wants the world to make sense and trying to make it conform to other norms just breaks it. Fantastic ideas though, I need to work on this.

    1. There's a lot of mental juggling that goes on when you're a DM, and it's hard to keep up with it all, which also makes it harder. Even though I want to create a deeply immersive experience for the players, where everything gets a flavorful description and has meaning outside of the moment, but sometimes I still default to "you're attacked by a dozen kobolds" or "you find a sword +1." :P I get it.

  5. My orcs are a natural race with as much capacity for good and evil as any other. They're just thought of as supernatural forces of ruin by the "civilized" peoples of the setting due to their destruction of the ancient evil empire that is now thought of much the way we think of Rome or the Vikings today: violent, yes, but nonetheless heroic.

    However, my goblinoids are the unnatural soldiers of that empire, known as the "spirits of tyranny" today and made by the transformation of men into perfect torturers, soldiers, or secret policemen. My gnolls are criminals who made a pact with Yeengohu to escape justice, or lesser criminals who were converted by the first one who's usually a serial killer or particularly nasty mob boss who started having visions.

  6. For imagination and for the mythological aspects, I like the presentation here and some of the comments, though mine go the other way (as Kingstanll does). I appreciate the thoughts the creator of this post put together because it shows the vast diversity one can have in game worlds and how they can challenge expectations.

    One reason I think most of us grongiards might think of humanoids as being normal in terms of reproduction is AD&D left us with monster manuals that left us encounters of 2-200 orcs and if you had more than some threshold, you got females and children. It was inherent in the published description so we just went with that.

    And of course, that lead to some horrific choices that were uncomfortable - if we kill all the adults, then the kids are killed by the environment or do we do the humane thing and... kill the kids too? Ick!

    Your approach removes the difficulty of what to do with non-combatants. It removes the moral quagmire that kids and non-combatants add in a world where they will likely die or be enslaved if they lose their protectors. (Murder hobos as a term likely came from these sorts of realizations.)

    Sometimes game products walk a strange line - normal creatures but you NEVER see any females or kids in a dungeon. That makes it easier to kill all the males and not having to face the side effects. I think that's the weakest solution (more of a dodge than solution).

    On the other hand, my group are into low-fantasy so we hewed to normal species with creation in some respect (by some god, by some magical experiment, arrival from someplace other, etc) and there are relationships (my orcs hate elves so much because they were (at inception) fallen elves transformed) between the species (race is a dumb term because we can't even precisely represent 'race' but species we can...).

    I drew my inspiration from a friend's take on Orcs - Mongol raiders. They raid where the enemy is weak, fade away into the outdoors (they are excellent in wilderness) when they face a heavily formed formation or a hard target. They live in fortified pallisades in remote locations. Their society is not a kind one, championing toughness and struggle with adversity as virtues. But they can be reasoned with, bribed, threatened and intimidated, etc. which makes for interactions between players and Orcs more than just a fight.

    And I have three flavours of dragons: Drakes/land dragons (dangerous oversized lizards, but not true dragons), Dragons (current day dragons that are fearsome but limited in size and capacity), and True Dragons (who were highly intelligent, highly magical, could shape shift, had stats far beyond human, and who had a now defunct highly developed civilization... the only True Dragons left are some survivors... one once adventured with the party until they got to the dark center of an evil temple, then they found something they couldn't open and they left... that night the True Dragon went in, cracked the containment, took what was inside and left... and the players still don't know it was a True Dragon, just a very powerful user of magic....).

    Now, where I do like the 'inherently evil/not capable of any interaction than violent hostility' is Eldritch Evils from beyond the Veil. They are creepy, implaccable foes with all sorts of fear, nausea effects and they are horrific to look at or encounter (tentacle horrors or the creature with 50 eyes and no mouth or the critter that is pretty much all mouths with rings of concentric teeth). So there is a place for that sort of foe, but humanoids in my world are just races that have been marginalized to the poorer land areas and have less civilized natures partly because of surviving in these hard areas.

    1. I guess it all comes down to the style of game you want to run. I have run low-magic campaigns (non-D&D) with orc-like creatures that did have mammalian reproductive traits, and they fit well there.

      And I agree that the assumption that orcs as a "normal" species was heavily fueled by the early modules and running into humanoid lairs full of families. It certainly informed my perspective of humanoids for many decades, but it was clearly at odds with the game's declaration of one alignment for them (Chaotic Evil, or just Chaotic, depending on your flavor of the game).

      That always rubbed me the wrong way, and definitely didn't jibe with the high fantasy games I wanted to run. I wanted my evil to be Evil, if you know what I mean. It was like a ray of light shone upon me when I discovered a discussion many years ago on this topic, and the author of the post discussed how his goblinoids were magical creatures. I've been firmly in the "In My High Fantasy, Orcs Aren't Mundane Creatures" camp ever since.

      Now, the "brown men" in my grim and gritty, pulp-fueled Sword & Sorcery campaign were a different story. Fortunately for the players, the story took a twist, and after encountering them they were not forced with having to decide the fate of their entire village...

    2. The alignment system I adhered to early, then recognized as vastly insufficient but kept in place and then finally just discarded. I'd make players describe their character's values and any codes they lived by and used that as a guide more than any two axis system that fails to really cover a lot of what people actually think and do.

      Of course, in my game world, the difference between Wizards/Sorcerers and Priests is that the first two use mental discipline and a 7th stat (Talent) to access and control magick. Priests get their 'hook' (that lets them draw from the grid of Meridians) from their God so violations can get the Priest's capability to cast disabled for transgressions.

      Which leads then to say that Priests were the bureaucracy of the church that used teachings, dogma, and theology (mixed with secular concerns just like the Catholic Church had and would be common given 3rd sons of nobles going into the Clergy) whereas Paladin's were a vessel for a finite portion of their deity and thus were more creatures of 'knowing' or 'feeling' how to act in situations vs. relying on principles or rules. That's also why they were scary warriors because they were very confident of their righteousness while a Priest might at times waver.

      So alignments were too much of a straightjacket.

      I guess the only large scale opera I like is Star Wars. Otherwise, I prefer some degree of pragmatism and plausibility to my space games. In fantasy, I find the further I stray from some historical parallel or analogy, the more the game feels like it lacks verisimilitude (my lord, 1st edition Gamma world was terrible for making insane mutants...). I want dragons and orcs, but I want them to feel like they just live in world with one or two major changes (magick and gods exist, maybe that's most of it right there). I want the play of games to feel like what you might see out of Medici, Machiavelli, or other historical tales. The wonder comes in the few areas we've changed greatly because those alone put a lot of kinks in day to day life and into societies.

      I have a friend who got an undergrad degree in Religious Studies (not theology). It was mostly differential religions. He learned a lot about mythology, about aboriginal religions, about philosophy and theology, about non-deity driven religions, about sacred practices around the world, etc. When I was writing up my Gods, he gave me so many different ways to think about myth and origin stories (there wasn't one origin story, there were just about as many as there were churches or Gods and those were sometimes flavours of the same, but not necessarily). He'd get your 'Orcs from the magick in the ground'. He was able to add those odd bits about Gods that bring them to life as 'something more than the rest' (Gods as omnipotent and partly omniscient if they look for something, but not omnipresent, the wierd quirks assigned to Gods, their miracles, their holy days and festivals, their practices like fasts or morning prayers, etc). Some of that list is more about the secular & pragmatic parts of the Church itself, other parts are very much engaged with the mythic/deistic parts of the faith.

      There is so much room for so many different flavours of fantasy that it is the font we all come back to (even if we stray for a while).


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