Wednesday, May 28, 2014

[AFHOTWTTGS] Kapt. Von vs. The Generic D&D Setting

"Look at us. We're an age so steeped in escapism that we manage to find mundanity in something that doesn't exist, and never will, no matter what your Otherkin friend might say. Why is it accepted fact that elves fire arrows and commune with trees? That was Tolkien's thing - without him, elves would just about be qualified to sell Rice Krispies - and he made dwarves all wear braids and beards and have battleaxes... Are we all but children, playing on the same swing set while J. R. R. is the grumpy dad watching from the park bench and trying not to get aroused?"
-- some other British beardy-weirdy gaming type who is funnier and more successful than me because he's into console gaming and yellow backgrounds

Libellous comments at the expense of Professor Tolkien aside, the man has a point. One of the things that's always ground my gears about D&D is the rather slavish adherence to Appendix N - and yes, yes, there's nothing inherently wrong with the four Tolkienan races, Vancian magic, stealing all your best lines from Robert E. Howard or any of the other flim-flam that fantasy indulges in. I can see the argument for them being the default choice for those players out there who are not in and of themselves predisposed to arguing about the novelty or otherwise of fantasy settings, for whom 'fantasy' is either Middle Earth or, I guess, in these modern times, Westeros.

(As an aside: I'll take a setting with politically interesting humans, ominous armies of undead or whatever amassing on the far side of a capital-W Wall built by our ancestors and patrolled by bastards of all stripes, and dragons that actually do things, thanks. Game of Thrones has a lot to answer for, not least the sudden rise of everyone sticking 'of House' between their characters' names and incompetently running political storylines all over my WoW-RP server... but Westeros itself has potential. ANYWAY.)

There's already quite enough buy-in crap with RPGs - a hobby where you have to fill out forms before you can participate is always going to impose buy-in problems, and if you have to recruit newbies as often as I do you become very, very good at streamlining that process of getting people into the game - without asking people to negotiate a quagmire full of unfamiliar choices. A player like this one is not going to have the patience to wade through your setting bible before they even choose who they want to be - hell, I'm not going to and I am naturally predisposed to playing these games.

'Elf', 'dwarf', 'orc' and - sigh - 'hobbit' have a certain cachet. They are recognisable: they are, as some smug bastard who nevertheless says halfway clever things about D&D now and then puts it, things you can refer to and generally expect people to recognise and have some idea about, regardless of what those people get up to at the weekend.

However. The new players I tend to recruit are people who already know Fantasy and are often in similar positions to me; they look at post-Tolkien generic 'elf' and 'dwarf' and bloody 'hobbit' as concepts, yawn hugely, and ask why we can't play Race for the Galaxy instead. Right now, as I snuffle around the prospect of doing a spot of D&D over the summer holidays, I find myself wondering about how to handle these core notions and the concept of buy-in. My instincts are pulling me every which way. My options, as I see it, are as follows.

  1. Roll with the generic D&D experience, regardless of my contempt for it, and save any bright-eyed ideas I might have about My Fantasy Setting for some more appropriate medium.
  2. Keep the elves and dwarves on board, mechanics unchanged, but alter their manifestations within the setting. My elves are urbanised and virtually extinct, bred in with humans (lots of half-elves), but pure-blood ones occasionally pop up as a kind of parasitic supra-aristocracy in 'high magic' parts of the setting, with playable ones being minor scions on some eldritch elf business of their own; my dwarves are heavy metal theocratic fascists who live in an infernal underworld, summon fire demon things to do their dirty work, and occasionally throw up someone who's not a complete gobshite and runs off to be an adventurer instead. My hobbits are absent without leave because this isn't Middle-Earth and I insist on drawing the line somewhere.
  3. Say 'sod the lot of them' and maybe allocate the same niches to things I find more interesting, or maybe not. Rakshasa are interesting; they wander into your reality from their own and act like they own the place. Goblins are interesting; the little blighters get everywhere and anyone who's seen and likes Labyrinth should see the merit in a playable one. Hamakai (vulture-headed geezers I might have stolen from Fighting Fantasy and who did something catastrophic and stupid to their civilisation a long time ago) are interesting. Even drow are quite interesting (matriarchal, highly stratified but still 'chaotic' society, murder as legitimate tool of advancement, deranged theocracy, slave-taking... I can work with that) and are more uniquely D&D than anything nicked from Tolkien. Humans are... not especially interesting but feel more or less mandatory so that there's something pretty familiar, something to contrast the fantasy elements against.
1 would be accessible and reassuringly 'this is the D&D thing I've always wanted to try' for the newbies' sake, 2 seems like an unfortunate compromise since the whole point of having elves and dwarves is that you know what they're like, and 3 is intrinsically cool but I worry about creating buy-in issues.

What would you do if you were me?

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