Can Elves be fat?

June 19, 2012

Thinking about the next tabletop RPG campaign I could run when my current Dragon Age game has run to a conclusion, and I find I am ruminating a lot of the standard fantasy races.  There are some definite clichés out there, and I know my own background of early and sustained reading of Tolkien means that for me Dwarves, Elves and Orcs will always look in my mind like how Tolkien described them.  Part of my ruminations are thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of hewing close to genre convention, and whether or not a wide array of fantasy races helps or hinders the campaign.

Interestingly, in my current campaign, only one player chose to be non-human.  He chose to be a Telchari – a hairless Dwarf with a reputation for poison and treachery.  No one was interested in Elf (three exciting flavours), Half-Elf (created in a way similar to Alexander the Great’s marriage of Persians and Macedonians), Goblin (a quirky underdog), or Vargr (Viking culture bipedal wolves imported from Traveller).  Everyone else is human, although two of the characters emphasise the two of the different human cultures I designed (and the other two don’t make much of their background).

Uses of Race for a GM

Fantasy races come pre-packaged with useful sterotypes in way that pet cultures do not.  An elf is an elf, in any world, although I might have to say, these are elves with the following twist that makes them not like everybody else’s elves.  But if I told you the main human cultures in my current campaign were Talian, Ostian, Musorian, Kamarian, and Mandanese … well there is no short cut to knowledge there, you would have to go do some background reading or pay attention to what I have the NPCs say in-game.

So in a sense, the cliché is a useful short cut for rapid world building, in much the same way as the corrupt republic, fanatic caliphate and the remnant empire are (those are terms I think from the Rough Guide to Fantasyland).

Uses of Race for Players

Lets pretend … races often have appealing attributes for lets pretend games, such as Charisma for Elves and Toughness for Dwarves.  People might also want to indulge in flavour of the month make believe – I mean, who wasn’t tempted by the wood elf ranger template after seeing Orlando Bloom as Legolas in the Lord of the Rings movies?

Niche: when you’re the only pointy eared, scaly, whatsit in the party, its easier for the other players to remember who you are, or to at least make reference to you.  This suggests that there are diminishing returns from designing more races than players in your campaign, unless one or more of the races are intended as significant enemies.

Languages: different races often have access to a wider array of languages, which can be useful for investigation, research, diplomacy, bargaining and other communication related endeavours.

Friends: being the right race can mean access to exclusive areas (such as the Elf-Queen’s bath house), and might mean that accompanying heroes are not executed on sight.

Enemies: and the Elder races usually come with roleplaying hook baggage of a long list of other elder races they have pissed off over the millenia.  A little animosity can be a good hook for roleplaying interactions between characters (although too much can break the party).

Themepark Dungeons: Elven ruins are different from Dwarven Ruins.

Is Race Just a Stat Sticker?

Most tabletop RPGs happily modify characteristics based on race, a +1 bonus here, a -1 penalty there.  Definite emphasis on nature, not nature, in how characters start games.  Your parents are more likely to influence skills and initial wealth, and their ability to buy oranges during a famine has no effect on whether or not you reach your full height.  Gender differences also tend to be underplayed, and its rare for a lot of sexual dimorphism (the Drow come close, with the favouring of women over men, like their Spider Goddess Lolth) so you don’t get 7 feet tall male Ogres and 5 feet tall female Ogres with different CON and DEX modifiers.

Both Dragonquest and Empire of the Petal Throne were two early RPGs that established their worlds were sexist, but had a cultural out for women to behave like men.  Some RPGs also have lifepath systems for background, and these could take into account influences other than racial background to make characters more varied. Partly I just think the natural bell curve of differentiation within a race is more important than the difference between races.

The mechanics of racial modifiers, bonuses and penalties are important to me, because in order to be able to GM a gaming system, I have to be able to translate ideas and concepts into game mechanics. A major reason I could not run 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons was my inability to understand the mechanics they gave player characters in that ruleset.  I just could not fit all the options into my head.  Dragon Age on the other hand, was simple and old school, easy for me to develop campaign material for.

The Problem of Origins

In an evolutionary paradigm, how likely is the co-existence of multiple sentient species in close proximity to each other?  We don’t have a lot of evidence on Earth, although there is an overlap between early humans and Neanderthals.  An awful lot of fantasy backgrounds just handwave it by saying the Gods did it.  Empire of the Petal Throne did well by saying its a terraformed world that was a luxury resort, so the inimical aliens are the natives and everything else settled there before the world fell into apocket universe.

Interbreeding … just what exactly is a half-Elf?  Notice you hardly every see it referred to as half-Man?  Miscgenation is okay for Elves, but something about being less than 50% human makes people twitchy.  Somehow in RPGs, half-races only tend to appear when they have some kind of cool factor, like half-Dragons.  You don’t see half-Dwarves/Gnomes or even half-Halflings very often.  If such hybrids are a bit like mules, should they be sterile?

Some possible reasons for lots of different sentient species:

  • outsiders from the otherworld/fey realms
  • exiles from Heaven/Hell/the Moon
  • alien invaders from elsewhere (via ley line gates perhaps)
  • created in ye olde God wayes
  • first people (only works for the first race you design)
  • long-lost cousins, separated by vast distance and now reunited
  • not dead, just sleeping
  • occupied very different environments (water/land/poison vales/carnivorous forests/underground)
  • dying out/last of its kind, being replaced by upwardly mobile species.

So, How About Those Fat Elves?

Webcomic The Noob is one of the few places I have seen overweight elves depicted – in part because the portrayal of the avatar characters in the online game is made to resemble what I presume is the real world person.  Doing a quick google image I found exactly one non-Christmas elf image of a fat elf at: http://sleepless-katith.deviantart.com/art/Fat-Elven-Warrior-v-01-77252912.  So fat elves is not a common idea out there.

So why would elves be fat?

  • Perhaps its a comedy moment in an otherwise fairly straight fantasy (thin elf, thin elf, thin elf, fat elf, thin elf …. wait a moment…)
  • In a world wracked by famine, being overweight would be a sign of wealth and power, and could also be seen as a sign of beauty (as was I think the case in some late medieval/renaissance paintings)
  • It could be a sign of sin, such as gluttony, in which case the overweight elf is also a fallen elf
  • Magic curse “Cannot Resist Cupcakes” (probably the weakest idea here)
  • Lotuseaters, the elves eat food that makes them indolent
  • Perhaps the Elves simply appear fat due to good nutrition, unlike those poor malnourished humans.  This implies some degree of wealth for the Elves, so perhaps they are prosperous merchants
  • Habitat: maybe they live in a nice food rich swamp, unlike those wasteland forests where their poor thin cousins dwell
  • Supply and demand, not many Elves, and a whole lot of elf berries in the forest (“Yes, its tragic, last of our kind, fading out, but got to keep our strength up  – would you like another crumpet?”)
  • Body chemistry, if the elves are outsiders to the world, they may have trouble digesting its food properly (“If only we had an appendix like you cursed humans!”)
  • Oppression of the Elven Tyrants: they eat cake, while the serfs eat … nothing.

Kitset Package

I think I need to avoid woodland feral Elves, remnants of an ancient Empire, as I am seeing a bit too much of them lately in Witcher 2 or the Dragon Age computer games.  When I build a race I do like a couple of varieties, perhaps an 80/20 split between dominant culture and subversive culture, or some kind of triumvirate (good/bad/ugly or rich/poor/MIA).  So let’s have a few different types of Elves:

  • Fat Merchants: with their mastery of languages and natural charisma, aided by the odd strategic marriage, these elves survived the fall through trade, and with prosperity comes a degree of girth and belt expansion usually associated with Dwarves.
  • Feudal Fanatics: remnants of an age of chivalry fading in an age of gunpowder, devoted to their lost Queen, and at war with the Black Prince. Not as overweight as the other two types of elves presented here, but their prediliction to chivalric charges against overwhelming odds mitigates their toherwise healthy outdoor lifestyle.
  • Yakuza Clans: urban elves surviving in the underworld of the human hegemony, their diet is ruined by awful human junk food.  A fat urban elf is a very dangerous elf, because they will be the high elf in the local crime clan.  Notched ear initiation symbols and freaky tattoos optional.
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A Dune-like RPG campaign

May 16, 2012

The only roleplaying game adaptation of the DUNE universe was released by Last Unicorn Games in 2000.  Only 2-3,000 copies were ever printed, as LUG had just been purchased by WotC, and the license was never exploited by WotC before it lapsed.  So while I have read some reviews, I’m unlikely to be picking up a copy any time soon.

So today I started thinking about the background elements in Dune, and what they might look like in a fantasy setting (setting aside the possibility of a straight take on Dune, its just a bit hard to travel around that universe, and it suffers a bit from plot inevitability).

  • No elves, its 100% human (having no intelligent non-humans though, does cut down on your range of opponents for conflicts with the PCs)
  • A decadent and/or weakening central authority (the Emperor was losing power slowly in the Landsrad as Dukes like Leto II became more powerful)
  • A shadow government of viziers/mages (the Bene Gesserit in the novels, in which they were referred to as witches by some characters)
  • Noble houses controlling significant political, military and economic resources (not big on culture though)
  • the Great Houses have access to a “nuke” (Family Atomics) but
  • Factions with near absolute monopolies on critical resources or infrastructure (water, spice, transport, communication, technology, prescience)
  • A static culture where nothing much has changed in a very long time (technology/research is seen as evil/forbidden or tightly controlled, warfare is limited and controlled)
  • A god-like messiah who turns into a tyrant, then repents (probably not much fun for PCs to be around that kind of train-wreck)
  • ancient conspiracies manipulating events
  • bad guys who wear black hats made from kitten fur
  • a fated reincarnating hero who always dies (Tleilaxu gholas imply a form of resurrection, albeit one in which no one will ever trust you again)
  • perilous wastelands, where the environment is as likely to kill you as the locals are, and spawn super soldiers/nomad hordes that conquer the world from time to time (penal colonies as well)
  • Shapeshifters (Tleilaxu Face-dancers)
  • secret battle languages, assassins, poison (food, drink, weapons) and quite a few tech toys
  • super powers such as precognition, mentats and the voice, as well as Charles Atlas peak human conditioning
  • a defence mechanism that combines cataclysmicly with one rare form of attack (shield + lasgun = boom!)
  • including some theme of contemporary interest (in Dune its the environment, I have been interested in piracy and slavery/human trafficking lately)
  • a mega-corporation controlling commerce (CHOAM, OPEC, etc)
  • an ancient jihad that proscribes some otherwise sensible forms of behaviour (science is bad)
  • a technique for avoiding scrying (the No rooms).

Spice itself has a range of significant attributes as the big McGuffin of the Duniverse:

  • extends lifespan, enhances vitality and perception (but does it act like Viagra?)
  • limited supply, high demand (both difficult and dangerous to harvest, a metaphor for both water and oil)
  • one source (substitutes are poisonous) source is embedded in the ecosystem (unobtanium)
  • catalyst for travel, communication (shipping and commerce)
  • coin, currency substitute
  • mixed with food and drink (spice beer, spice coffee, etc)
  • addictive (but with few serious side effects unless you stop taking it).

Thinking of fantasy games, for Vampires blood is a bit like spice, what other substitutes can I devise?  Runequest had Truestone – a finite supply of cosmic stuff from before the dawn of time (and the supply was guarded by anti-chaos berserkers who didn’t want the one remaining spike of it removed from the body of the Devil). Relics of prophets and saints, milking angels tears, demon essence, slime eggs, magic gems/focuses, and my current campaign has Dragon’s Blood as a source of restorative magic potions.  Overall though, I think its hard to get away from something drug-like, which is ingested/eaten or smoked.  It could be the gateway drug that triggers magical abilities in people, perhaps its essential in teleport spells, and a requirement for immortality.  Black lotus perhaps? Or just Lotus, with the possibility of different effects from different varieties of Lotus.  Then we get a Lotus-eaters riff to make a classical allusion with.

Okay, now working some of this stuff into the basis of a campaign setting.  Lets start with a world that is mostly mundane, but has some fey like wild zones and an unfortunate habit of spawning a Hellmouth every few thousand years, through which enters a ravaging horde (which is how all the various sentient races arrive).  The first race are good builders, Dwarves perhaps, which gives us some nice scenic ruins to dungeon crawl through later on.  Lets postulate unreconcileable philsophical differences between the Dwarven clans lead to a war of annihilation. Exit stage right, the Dwarves, leaving the ruins filled with dangerous artifacts.  Perhaps at the tail end of this conflict the Elves turn up, just enough time to learn/steal a few secrets and to put the boot into the survivors.

So, start of glorious Elven Empire and its golden age.  More incipient ruins are constructed, but more of an above ground nature.  Elves use Lotus to extend their lifespans and to enhance their magical powers, and proceed to live in harmony with the environment (by limiting their numbers there is enough Lotus to go around for everyone).  Ugly Trolls turn up, and proceed to be subjugated by the Elves for slave labour.  Cue time of decadence in the Elven Empire.  Then nasty Goblins turn up, for a quantity versus quality series of battles, ending with the Elves triumphant and the few surviving Goblins fleeing into the wastelands (where over time they can turn themselves into super-soldiers, or at least Uppity Rabid Gobboes).

Humans turn up before the Elves have fully recovered from the Goblin Wars and there is a very chaotic century during which a lot of shit goes down.  The turning point is when one elven Family defects after being slighted by the Emperor, and the Humans figure out how to persuade the Trolls to change sides (“How about ten years of service rather than a lifetime of slavery?”)  At the end of all this the Humans have now established some kind of Empire, and the Elven remnants are hiding out in swamps, forests and concealed fortresses and suddenly having to deal with Lotus withdrawal symptoms and the prospect of having their lifespan reduced by 75% even if the humans don’t kill them first.  This process also creates a lot of ruins.

A while later the Humans are dealing with a major rebellion, when a clan of Dwarves turns up with an offer to good to refuse.  Rebellion collapses as the Dwarves demonstrate how useful this “technology” stuff is.  The clan gets recognised as a noble house, the nobles get exclusive use of the whizzo tech, and the Elves start wondering if the Dwarves still hold a grudge from way back when.

Other bits and pieces:

  • use some Turkish language, because I think jadu (witchcraft) and jadugar (witch) are neat words
  • use some Ottoman Empire culture, because then we can have evil Viziers
  • half-elves are just elves that have fully assimilated into human culture (the term for a human that assimilates into elven culture is “traitor”)
  • Trolls are short-lived, so once they have done their decade of service, they have about five years left to enjoy their retirement (its a Janissary/Mameluke role)
  • some kind of epic transport system (monorail, canals, teleport chambers?) that can be used to circumvent the nasty wastelands, with an order of “neutral” mages that maintain it
  • the Imperial Guard have a level in Badass
  • Goblins are the designated mooks
  • 7-12 Great Houses and many more Minor Houses (including one Elf House and one Dwarven House), each House has at least one thing it can do, either a unique power, or something they are just the best above all others at
  • the Great Houses have access to some kind of “nuke”, but everyone keeps warfare limited to make sure the nukes don’t get used
  • in Dune the Great Houses had planets, here we can probably give them entire cities.
  • why have Gholas when you can have Ghouls?
  • Lets make the facechangers undead as well as doppelgangers.

So, here is hoping that Runequest VI comes out soon, and then I can start playing with stat blocs.