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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Orthos's Observations: Kobolds

Back in the early-mid 2000s, probably around 2005, I got introduced to how awesome Kobolds were.

My then-roommate, who goes by the username Journeyman, taught me some of the ins-and-outs of GMing in those early days, back when the majority of my gaming experience was via Neverwinter Nights and my PnP participation was limited to a single game where I was playerside and a halfhearted GMing attempt that lasted maybe two months. In those early halcyon days, most of my time was occupied with trying to finagle out the differences between PnP gaming and NWN gaming (not to mention the differences between 3.5 and 3.0, respectively) so I appreciated having more experienced fellow players, particularly Journey, my future sister-in-law Belladonna/Ebon-Fyre, and the rest of that original group to give me tips, advice, corrections, and such-like.

Among the many other tips and tricks I received as a newbie player and GM, one that Journey seemed particularly fond of was the entry that was at the bottom of quite a few statblocks in the 3.5 Monster Manuals: "Advances by character class". He explained the usefulness of this in turning what could start as a relatively unimpressive opponent such as a goblin or kobold into a powerful challenge just by leveling them up, same as the normal player races. From there it was fairly simple to extract that if these creatures could be used as enemies built up with levels just like players, what's to say they can't actually BE a player's character? He was all too happy to display the answer to that unspoken question as well - one of the first campaigns we were in together was the root of a plot I would very much like to run again one day, Fimbulwinter Come, starring my half-fiend cleric (or possibly oracle, now) Alu'Vien Darkstar and his kobold sorcerer Cheel Vorastryx.

I ran the original version of FWC in NWN, creating Vien, Cheel, and their fey partner Frostwillow and wizard minion Delzomen as NPCs on the server and siccing them and their plans for an eternal winter on the unsuspecting citizens of Cormyr. It was the longest-running, farthest-spanning plot I'd ever run, almost always an ad-lib event or two from time to time, building up rivalries and enmity with various members of the adventurer population and such, eventually brewing up to some major large-scale events. And it was during this time that WotC released Races of the Dragon - a book that easily ranks among the top-ten 3.5 products I ever purchased.

Man I loved that book. I loved almost everything in it. I wasn't ever really impressed by Spellscales, admittedly, but everything else? Dragonborn! Bahamut and Tiamat! Expansions on stuff from Draconomicon! Half-Dragons! Cool prestige classes! And KOBOLDS! Kobold culture! Kobold society! Kobold mindsets! Kobold traps! Kobold magic! Kobold history! I must have read RotD a hundred or more times. Even now, years later and having moved on mostly to Pathfinder and no longer using any setting but Finiens, I still find myself referring back to stuff out of RotD.

Reading RotD and working on stuff for the Fimbulwinter plot - which, when minions were necessary, almost always fell to either Cheel's kobold tribe or Delzomen's constructs - solidified and permanized my love of the Kobold race. And unlike many of their fans, it wasn't their "eternal underdog" nature that made me love them, though I am rather fond of it as mentioned in prior posts. Rather, it was their craftiness, their cunning, and their penchant for sorcery. So when the time came for me to turn my back on other settings and begin the work on crafting my own, I knew without a doubt that Kobolds would play a major part in it.

The question was what to do with them.

Well, if you've read the preceding articles, you already know the answer to that. With Kobolds no longer being a "monstrous" race but rather a normal part of civilization, there was a sudden crowding in the "underground-dwelling, mining-and-creation-based culture" niche for the world, which was solved by the relocating of Dwarves to being seafaring traders and pirates. After that, Kobolds slid into their niche in the world without a problem. Honestly, judging by comments in places like RotD, all we really did was set up the Kobold race the way they'd started in settings such as FR and Greyhawk, and just removed the douche move by Garl Glittergold of collapsing their primary tunnel-city and setting Kurtulmak on the road of revenge that led to Kobolds being Lawful Evil as a species and not having a chance to enter normal advanced society.

As a result we also removed the built-in enmity between Kobolds and Gnomes, which frankly doesn't make sense without the imbecilic "Garl why are you performing genocide as a 'prank' and otherwise not acting Good-aligned" story anyway, and with Paizo's brilliant re-imagining of Gnomes I have no idea why that rivalry, or the mechanical bonus against reptilian humanoids, is still in their statblock (which it isn't, for Finiens Gnomes, which I'll get to in time).

Kobolds being as numerous and wide-spread as they are in Finiens is, admittedly, done mostly for my own amusement, and so I can have a Kobold show up in almost any part of the world without a second glance. I like that they, much like Halflings, can live underfoot almost anywhere, and that between them and the handful of other Small-sized races Finiens has (such as the Gnomes and Runari) there can be this sort of "under-civilization" in almost any location that caters to the vertically-challenged. And, despite their lack of physical impressiveness, their skill at craftsmanship and smithing is renown almost anywhere, much like the tradition of Dwarves having the greatest metalcraft in a setting - it seemed only fitting that if we were going to give Kobolds the traditional Dwarven niche, they should have it in full.

So that's the long and short of it. If nothing else, the peoples of Finiens can probably rest easy knowing that more often than not, Tucker's Kobolds are going to be on their side in this setting, rather than fending off the latest adventurer invasion.

Denizens of Finiens: Kobolds

While across the entire world other races came to be, formed of dust and the will of the Aspects on the sunlit surface of Finiens or brewed in the depths of the waters, one in particular was crafted differently. If legends are held to be true, a creative force - perhaps the Ancient of Days herself, or maybe Chthon, Lord of the Deep Places - brought forth the very stone to set to life. The ancient rock was carved into many smaller forms, carved and designed. Bodies of stone, minds of metal, and eyes of gems were combined in a shape found pleasing to the creator, then kindled with the very blood of the earth, with a drop of dragon's blood for a heart. Thus, or so their myths claim, did the Kobolds come to be.

It's very difficult to place an exact date for the creation of the Kobolds due to their subterranean origin. Born and bred deep within the earth, it was quite some time before their industrious civilization reached the open sky; while it is known that their existence predates the arrival of the Elves and their banishment from FaeReie, as the source of the name "Elf" comes from the Kobolds themselves, and therefore also predates the arrival of the Humans, Halflings, and Yuan-Ti to Stormwind, judging their timeline against their fellow natives such as the Orcs and the Leoni is more difficult. Both races' oral traditions make frequent reference to the "mountain lizards", but as with all such traditions it is difficult to put times to such methods of information exchange. Suffice to say, however, that the Kobolds are an old race, even if their presence on the surface is less ancient.

Kobolds originated within the deep crags, winding tunnels, and subterranean caverns within the heart of the Titans, the monolithic mountain range that divides the continent of Stormwind into thirds. According to their own histories, the original created Kobolds divided into pairs, male and female, and spread through the veins of the earth to establish their clans in distant regions. These parental pairs became the chieftains of the first tribes, and after bolstering their numbers with their children and grandchildren, they began the laborious task of claiming the depths for themselves, driving forth the subterranean wildlife and taming the earth to their touch.

And for Kobolds, "taming the earth" meant mining. Their hardy bodies, sturdy scales, surprising endurance, and keen minds, hands, and eyes for craftsmanship made them master craftsmen, and within a few short, swift generations the Kobolds had established their birthright - to seek the treasures buried within the earth, the hidden vaults of Ireshkigal and Chthon where riches are concealed, and to make of them something wonderful and new. Kobolds discovered and mastered smithing, smelting, alloys, and all manner of metallurgic craft well before any other race on Stormwind, perhaps even before anything else on Finiens. And as their numbers multiplied and their claims spread, they dug upward, searching ever more for greater treasures and for something they knew awaited them once there was stone no more.

What lurked beyond that final wall was the vast expanse of the surface world, and their neighbor mortal races. From oral traditions and scattered records, it is presumed that their first encounters did not go well - Kobolds were seen as small and weak by the Orcs and Leoni, and their affinity for cold metal was anathema to the fey Elves. And while small they were, the Kobolds were cunning and patient; when the Orcs attempted to subjugate and overrun the tiny "mountain lizards" they had discovered, they found themselves swiftly outdone not by strength of arms but by the tactics of a race used to dealing with opposition much larger than themselves. They faced not soldiers and war champions but traps, trickery, and overwhelming odds. It would not be until the arrival of the Humans that the Orcish conquest would surge south again, and even then, the legends of Kobold trickery still were well-known among the folk of the Ice Claw, and their invasions would steer clear of known Kobold territories.

Yet they are not without their follies. It was the Kobolds, turning their delving downwards once more upon discovering the end of their ascending journey, who dug too deep and unearthed a sleeping horror. Buried in the heart of the Titans was the first of the mighty Children of Perdition, the titanic Firbohlg. Roused by the disturbing of its slumbering chamber, the giant tore its way to the surface and began a rampage of destruction and chaos on the northern continent. So grand was the behemoth's fury that the very Titans themselves were shoved almost as a whole to the east, sending vast portions of the Sentara wood and the plains that would have become part of Olympia in the future to instead become part of the vast desert later known as Denvushain to the west, where their position between the wastes and the ranges eventually led them to decay into yet more sandy expanse. For the first time, alliance was had between the disparate races of Stormwind, and the Orcs, Leoni, Elves, and Kobolds worked together to eventually return the titan to its ageless sleep.

Nevertheless, many tribes were admonished and scorned for their part in the wakening of the creature, and as opportunity arose, they removed themselves from what were increasingly becoming unfriendly lands. Dwarven sailors arrived within a few generations following the destructive events; where they brought exotic strangers such as Humans and Halflings to Stormwind, they departed with crews and passengers of many Kobolds, who made the returning journey to Wachara then spread as broadly as they had in their original homeland, seeking anywhere that promised the riches hidden beneath the earth yet to be plundered. As time wore away the hostility and infamy of their misadventures, the Kobold race came to be yet greater respected by their peers for their enviable talents in working with metal, and it was through their labors that smithing and smelting were brought to most of the other races of Finiens. And even now, millennia after, though any smith with a hammer and anvil can make a blade, there is inimitable mastery in the work of a Kobold that no other culture can truly duplicate.

Industrious and energetic by culture and subterranean by nature, Kobolds are rarely idle; they are, almost instinctively, a race of constant workers, regardless what task they find themselves assigned to. For the most part, this work is in some form or fashion related to the art of mining - be it digging up the metals, ores, and gems that their bounty hides, or refining and smithing those materials into more useful or efficient shapes and forms, or putting those new resources to work - quite often, in starting the whole cycle over again. Necessity is the root of invention, and for working Kobolds, there is always a need for new tools, new resources, and new ideas. Inventive to the core, Kobolds are as eager to mix traditional methods with new experiments, always striving for the ultimate goal of efficiency.

As a race, Kobolds have almost no enemies. They can live nearly anywhere that allows for subterranean delving; once they have breached the surface and established a tunnel, they are swift to create barrows where they can dwell, mining out the resources and expanding their network of winding paths into the below searching for yet more treasures. Kobolds reside on every continent save the scattered isles of Senkaku, and even in the most extreme temperatures have adapted - through mundane or sorcerous means - to survive in otherwise inhospitable terrain. Individual clans may have rivalries or enemies, but as a race the only overall opposition they face is among cultures such as Anhur who revile and refuse all other species but their own.


Notable Edits: Mechanics
 Kobold Stats
* Ability Score Racial Traits: Kobolds are fast and nimble, and have become hardy and resilient after years spent toiling beneath the earth, but their small size makes them individually weak. They gain +2 Dexterity, +2 Constitution, and –2 Strength.
* Type: Kobolds are Humanoid creatures with the reptilian subtype.
* Size: Kobolds are Small creatures and gain a +1 size bonus to their AC, a +1 size bonus on attack rolls, a –1 penalty to their CMB and CMD, and a +4 size bonus on Stealth checks.
* Base Speed: Kobolds have a base speed of 30 feet.
* Languages: Kobolds begin play speaking Common and Draconic. Kobolds with high Intelligence scores can choose from the following: Aklo, Giant, Goblin, Naga, Orc, Terran, and Undercommon.
* Armored: A Kobold's naturally scaly skin grants them a +1 natural armor bonus.
* Crafty: Kobolds gain a +2 racial bonus on Craft (trapmaking), Craft (any metalworking), Perception, and Profession (miner) checks. Craft (traps), Craft (any metalworking), and Stealth are always class skills for a kobold.
* Weapon Familiarity: Kobolds are proficient with all picks and hammers, and treat any weapon with the word "kobold" in its name as a martial weapon. (Note: Most of the core rulebook "dwarven" and "gnomish" weapons are usually kobold or orc make, and thus may be associated with this talent.)
* Minesight: Kobolds can see perfectly in the dark up to 90 feet, but are automatically dazzled in bright light and take a –2 penalty on saving throws against effects with the light descriptor. Kobolds regularly produce sundark goggles from obsidian or onyx chips to protect their eyes when traveling on the surface; kobolds wearing such goggles lose the dazzled effect from light and reduce their save penalty versus light spells to -1.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Mythopoeic Rambling: Frightful Fridays! Intellect Spirit

Mythopoeic Rambling: Frightful Fridays! Intellect Spirit: Hello, and welcome back to another Frightful Fridays! The first monster for today is not my creation. Instead Paizo friends Orthos (aka Bri...

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Orthos's Observations: The Shadow Curse

I rambled on and on about all that bit on how prior games and GMs have colored my perceptions of Elves, and I completely skipped over the thing that took up half of the original article.

So the Shadow Curse. Kind of a nasty little thing, isn't it? A symptomless disease, pretty much untraceable, that screws up the mind of anybody infected - leaves them perfectly capable, doesn't mess with any of their physical or magical abilities, or their power to reason or their logic, just nukes their moral constraints and implants a strong tendency toward being pointlessly destructive. A wonderful weapon of war if you want to sit back and watch your enemy destroy themselves ... and since it only affects creatures of Elven blood, so long as you're not an Elf, you don't have to worry about it backfiring on you!

Ebon/Bella actually came up with this one. A lot about Elves is her doing; they're one of her favorite races. She got along better with people who generally played Elves than I did, though that first group of Smug Elf players and super-picky GMs got on her bad side as much as mine, she played alongside the second group for quite some time. We were always on opposite sides of the grand old Elf/Dwarf rivalry - I've always been a far bigger fan of Dwarves and she's always been more fond of Elves, even after both of their Finiens revisions.

So why would someone clearly a fan of Elves create something as Elf-hating as the Shadow Curse? The answer is a race that otherwise doesn't exist on Finiens: Drow.

We created the Shadow Curse to "do Drow right". The purpose of Drow, we decided, was to have an destabilizing element in Elven society. A bogeyman that lurked in the shadows of the "perfect" culture, turning everything beautiful about it into evil. We both like Drow, and we even kept their appearance - obsidian skin and pale gem-colored hair - as a standard for subterranean-dwelling Elves in the setting, since let's face it, Drow look cool, and there's a lot of good art out there that if we were to completely remove that appearance from the setting we'd never be able to use. Yet we didn't want to have the matriarchal, demon-worshiping, inherently-evil society that other settings have slotted the Drow into. I don't remember exactly what sparked it, but sometime she said to me something like "Wouldn't it be better and more evil if you couldn't tell a normal Elf and a Drow apart from just looking at them?"

We'd always intended to have the relationship between Elf and Drow be something transformative, where in the right circumstances an Elf could become a Drow; the original idea was actually something fairly similar to what Paizo has done, except instead of their change just being initiated by evil behavior, we intended actual possession to be involved. (I think there was a point where the idea was a specific spider-like demon, so that if a possessed Elf turned Drow lasted long enough, the demon would evolve further, creating a Drider.) But this new idea changed everything. It was the perfect chaos: an Elf would look no different, show no external symptoms, and thus give no clue to his/her surroundings that s/he was here to tear everything apart.

Thus was born the Shadow Curse, which did exactly that. We decided that for creatures who were supposed to be nearly all settings' epitome of mortal Chaotic Evil, the hierarchies and strict social structure and all the trappings of Drow civilization were just way too organized. We wanted these creatures to be disorganized, chaotic to the extreme, and completely without restraint, structure, or authority. No matron mothers, no archmages or high priests, nothing to suggest a pecking order other than pure power. More like the demons most Drow worship, actually, which is exactly what we were going for.

Most of this has been worked out for some time, and just waiting for me to get to writing about Elves before I went into much detail on it. However, two bits were added just in the space of the past couple of days in which I wrote the Elf article - the Curse rendering victims infertile and severing a portion of their soul. The former seemed only logical, otherwise I would have to explain why these demon-like people with no moral compass weren't copulating or raping their way to a society full of amoral psychopath babies.

The second is completely due to Mikaze over on Paizo. A few months back, in a discussion I can't quite remember the original purpose of, Mikaze pointed out how many different ways D&D and Pathfinder have to ruin a good person's soul, damning them without recourse or dooming them to a slow degradation of character they cannot avoid, so that even the promise of a blessed existence after death to those who do good in life is not guaranteed. Ebon/Bella and I always intended the Curse to be indiscriminate - there's no "increased chance" to catch the infection if you're already Evil or anything, nor does it specifically strike at those who would be more changed by losing their morality. So when I noted that the Curse can turn even the most kindhearted Elf into a raging psychopath, Mikaze's argument immediately popped into my mind. I immediately added a revision, adding in that clause about the soul being cast away to its eternal reward, whatever it was due, and thus the actions of the diseased body not being held against (or toward) the actual person they once were. Conveniently, it also helped explain a few things I hadn't considered before, such as why the disease wasn't curable - there's no one there to cure, the disease is all the body has left, and as far as it's concerned, it's exactly as it's always been, ever since it got there.

For those of you who want your scheming, conniving, plotting, House War-having, bizarre politics Drow, fear not. We kept that part of Drow in the setting too, somewhere else - the Yuan-Ti. If I were to ever run Second Darkness or any other Drow-centric plot on Finiens, I'd rearrange things so the Yuan-Ti are the ones behind the schemes. (Second Darkness + Serpent's Skull? Hmmmmmm....) I'll be getting to them fairly shortly, too: most Yuan-Ti in Finiens dwell on the continent of Stormwind, where the Elves mostly reside, and the rest of that continent's native or immigrated denizens - Half-Elves, Orcs, Kobolds, Leoni, and Glaistigs - will be elaborated on in the next few articles to follow.

Orthos's Observations: Elves

I'm of two minds (at least) on Elves.

On the one hand, they're a classic part of nearly every fantasy setting. They're expected, or perhaps even demanded. Unless you go specifically looking for something without them (hello Talislanta!) you're going to find Elves as part of any fantasy or fantasy-based setting that exists. They may be called something else - in Warhammer, for example, I believe they're called Eldar. They may look slightly different. The basics will be there though: pointy ears, unfathomable beauty, long-lived, usually closely tied to nature, somewhat reclusive, and always advanced in magic (or in some rare cases, technology) beyond Humanity. They're Better Than You, in every way. (DANGER WILL ROBINSON, DANGER! TVTROPES LINK! DANGER, DANGER!)

And if you're not sure if that was supposed to be the good hand or the bad hand, welcome to my boat.

Despite my highly Elf-hostile attitude 90% of the time, I really do want to like Elves. Nearly every setting gives them interesting, complex, and involved histories. Reading about Elves, you can usually get a pretty good impression of them as old, ancient in some cases, and with all the old shames, mistakes, and failures that would be necessary for a civilization that has existed for all that immense amount of time. Their eons of past are checkered with intrigue, warfare, betrayals, and more. Things that should, on the whole, make them an immensely interesting race and, under normal circumstances, increase their allure from a player's standpoint.

The problem is also wrapped up in their age. They're old - and their mistakes are either long-forgotten to all except their inner circles, or so old that they're unknown to the other, younger races. And they're good at hiding their flaws, in some (or dare I say, most) cases too good. Nobody else knows about their screw-ups, their ineptitudes, their dramatic failures; they're all too well-covered up or just happened too long ago. Thus the rest of the world sees them as just shy of perfection. Flawless, beautiful, nigh-immortal. Everything every other race can do, they can do better, between longer experience, superior skill, or greater magic. And when there's something they can't beat another race at - like in most fantastical settings, advanced technology - they still manage to make other races look and feel inadequate by somehow turning their cultural delay into a blessing. "Look at us," they say, "we might not be better than you at that stuff, but that's just because we don't want to be. We don't need that stuff. We're better without it. You just need it because you can't keep up with us without it."

And perhaps if it was just that, I could live with it. I'd love a world where the Elves (or another race) acted like that, and the rest of the world responded as one would expect that level of arrogance to receive - disregard, dislike, and/or laughing it off as a pathetic excuse for not being able to keep up with modern invention. But that's never what happens. With usually a very small handful of exceptions (almost universally Dwarves, given the all-too-common Elf/Dwarf rivalries in most settings), everyone else on the large scale buys into the Elf propaganda, believing they're absolutely right about them being better. In nearly every setting, Elves are portrayed as what almost every other race (again, with the near-universal exception of Dwarves and Orcs) wants to be. The epitome of the ideal, perfection or as close as a mortal or semi-mortal creature can get.

Combine all that with players and GMs who also buy into the propaganda, stir in a bit of OOC troubles with said players/GMs, and really it's not all that surprising that nine times out of ten, I hate Elves.

Honestly, I didn't use to hate Elves. When I first started playing Neverwinter Nights, my introduction to D&D and through it Pathfinder, Elves were "just another option" for character creation. I've played all of the core races at least once in NWN, and the only one I can think of never playing twice was Gnome. (Thankfully, Pathfinder's Gnomes have thoroughly changed that; if only the character model for NWN Gnomes could be redone in Pathfinder style, that would be pretty awesome. But we'll get to them in time.) But the canonicity of the first NWN server I played on was always a bit loose, and intentionally so. It was set in Forgotten Realms, as were all the NWN servers I played on over the ... good grief, ten or eleven years now, depending on when you consider me to have stopped playing the game ... since I was introduced to it; however, the RDR was only loosely so, and the players and staff there were happy to play a bit fast and loose with some of the setting rules, and more importantly the community there were a bit more mature than those of other servers I encountered later on.

My problems with Elves really started on Myth Drannor, the fourth or fifth server I played on. Compared to the servers I'd played on previously, MD was incredibly strict and hard about trying to enforce canon adherence. It was the first server I played on that policed clerics at all; on the RDR, Sojourney, and other servers I'd played on previously, it was fairly common for cleric players to invent their own mystery cults, alternate sects of canon religions, and such like, and no one really payed heavy attention to whether or not a cleric's domains matched up to those the books assigned to the deity in question; on MD, however, all of that was very heavily documented, policed, and watched. Myself and my closest gaming friend EbonFyre/Belladonna had created a Chaos cult in our days on the RDR - the eventual predecessor to the idea of Xaos specifically and the other Aspects in general - and we had to severely rewrite that mythology and the idea of the cult before MD's staff would even consider allowing it. It worked out positively, in the end, and eventually spawned the idea of a single deific entity providing power to a set of lesser representatives that each stood for a small, more focused segment of its domain; however, it was at the time immensely frustrating.

"What does that have to do with Elves?!" I can already hear you saying. Pardon my ramble, but I am getting to it.

MD was the first place I really encountered Smug Elves. I didn't really see a whole lot of Elves around, as I never played an Elf character there and thus wasn't in on the joke, but when my characters (a Human and a Tiefling, plus a handful of others that were unimportant) did encounter an Elf (that wasn't a Drow), the interactions were always dismissive, condescending, and/or insulting. The Elves were special, they were better than everyone else, and it seemed to be their purpose and place in the world to be secretive and snub everyone they encountered who wasn't an Elf.

I'm sure there are Elf-fans who are already itching to scream out, "But not all Elves are like that!" or "That doesn't mean that's the canon way Elves are to be played!" Which I'm sure, on at least some level, is true. But it was a very strong impression to give someone like me who was getting their first real heavy-canon experience there. It colored my perception of FR Elves very strongly. I played Elves from time to time still - not on MD but on its sister/child server Cormyr/Dalelands - but they were always outcasts or dissidents of some sort. Most were what Paizo now calls "Forlorn Elves" - Elves raised among Humans or other shorter-lived species, severed from Elven culture and society. And most of them, not at all surprisingly, were usually not fond of their "normal" kindred.

When CD broke off from MD, the Snob Elves were not among the majority of those players and GMs who left with us. And, for a time, there really weren't any on CD. There was a stereotypical Elven Village In The Woods, and most of the Elf PCs on the server were usually either from there or headed there, rather than Arabel where the server was centered. That, unfortunately, eventually changed. There were two groups of Elf players who were mostly behind this.

The first was a group I've ranted about before, but then it was about their GMing. Nearly this entire group became GMs very shortly after arriving on the server and making themselves fairly well-known; I think I was not playing or otherwise distracted at the time, as I remember them being GMs but I don't remember them being appointed or going through their GM apprenticeships. Might have been when I was on one of my WoW stints. Anyway, this is the group I ranted about back in the Humans post: the ones who could kill most racial applications through sheer numbers (there were about seven or eight of them, on a GM/Admin staff of 12-15 at most times) on the excuses of "I don't think _____ should be allowed as a playable race" and "I think we have enough/too many ______ on the server already, so further applications should be ignored/refused on principle". Combine that with not being fond of their actual GMing, it's not hard to see why these people got under my skin; their playing style, however, was equally irksome to me. And wouldn't you know it - while they all had multiple characters, their primary/main characters, who they played the most and who most players associated them most strongly with, were a group of Smug Elves. Very superior, very self-aggrandizing, very condescending to non-Elves, and all in all a rather irritating, unpleasant group to be around unless you happened to be their friend... which usually seemed to require having a Smug Elf character of your own to buddy around with them.

They eventually left, though some came back from time to time. The second group was smaller and more recent, and included a special type of Smarm Elf that I had encountered before but never had to deal with much personally before now: the Kill-All-Humans Elf. This is the Snob Elf that takes Elven Snobbery to the logical conclusion: if Elves are better than everything else, then Everything Else is by necessity making things worse for Elves; it's better if we just kill them off. It's for the Greater Good. That player/character's companions weren't as bad, and when they were encountered on their own they were usually a lot more tolerable, but when That One Elf was around it made the entire group incredibly unpleasant to be around. It didn't help that I didn't much like the player themselves for various reasons.

So yeah. While it's likely that bad players (or just players who I personally didn't get along with) are mostly to blame, I've had a lot of bad experience with Elves, and it's strongly tainted my perception of the race. Which led to a lot of headaches and personal frustrations with trying to develop a niche for them in Finiens. I didn't want to throw them out completely - like I said at the very beginning, before I started ranting, I like the basic concept of Elves, I like the history most settings give them, and I don't want to alienate players who do want to play an Elf. At the same time, I wanted to avoid having the Smug Elf become a common character archetype in the world. I wanted to kill it dead, if I could, and it seemed the best way to do that would be to preemptively kill the Elven supremacy mindset in the process of worldbuilding.

So I made them a broken people. I gave them more than a tragic past - I made their tragic past still collapsing around them. The Elves are not only not immortal (despite living longer than all but one of the rest of the races on the planet) but they're watching as their once-immortal society decays around them, wondering "Where did we go wrong?" And the thing is, they probably know what: while the average Elf on the street/tree/sand dune/frozen plain/whatever doesn't, the remaining tuatha likely know the secret and guard it jealously, dreading the day the rest of the world finds out what forced them out of FaeReie - what made them mortal. In the meantime they as a people stumble along, searching (thus far in vain) for a way to seize back their immortality, or staving off the loss of yet one more of their dwindling numbers of immortal elders. The Elves have no reason to be superior or condescending to other races. They're a race in their twilight years, and even the lowliest Elf knows their people are in decline, while every race around them - from the industrious Kobolds to the nomadic Leoni to the boisterous Orcs to the myriad Humans to even the sinister Yuan-Ti - is only beginning their ascent.

So they're doing the next best thing: playing their part as an elder, mentor, and observer, doing what they can to guide the other races along and point them in the right way, sharing some of their long-held wisdom in hopes that their successors will do better than they. Sometimes this comes in the form of simple advice, guidance, suggestions, and directions. Sometimes it's more hostile, with direct commands - which often get refused or resented - or even warfare. And with the separation of their cultures and their ensuing adaptations, even the Elves as a whole no longer have a unified view of the best way to go about this. Some of them have even abandoned the idea of serving as mentors, either to fight in one way or another to regain their exalted status, or simply struggling to survive, to last as long as possible before dwindling to nothing.

I think this presentation of Elves manages to keep both sides of the pro/anti-Elf argument happy. The race is clearly no longer a font of Smug, Smarmy Better-Than-Thous, though I've no doubt that there's character concepts who could make use of that archetype. (I imagine some of the remaining tuatha could justifiably pull of a Smug Elf characterization and feel perfectly legitimate in their arrogance, but most PCs won't be playing tuatha, due to their superior statistics requiring a level adjustment or some other compensation.) The race clearly has visible, apparent flaws that are not lost to the abyss of history - the other races are well aware of the Elves' crumbling society, and while the specifics of their secrets may be unknown there's no surprise in their seclusion and faltering numbers, even with the bolstering of their strange hybrid offspring, which might do them better if they weren't rejected as often as they are accepted. At the same time, though, the Elves are clearly here, they match up with most expectations of Elven culture and society, and they are not so broken a race as to make them without hope or the potential for a revival in the future.

Who knows? Maybe the restoration of the Elves and tuatha to something resembling their prime might be on the schedule some time in the future.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Denizens of Finiens: Elves

At Finiens's dawn, after the Lost War, there were no Elves.

The Aspects forged the first races from the dust of the earth after the Schism, but long, long predating them, eons so in fact, the Elves came to be. There is no recording where they began, save to assume they were born at the beginning of creation. For at that time, the Elves were among the greatest of the Fey, and once ruled as a Court of their own in the realm of FaeReie, dwelling in the Infinite Forest of Sentara, which has existed since time began.

Most Elves do not call themselves "Elves", even amongst other races. Rather, they call themselves tuatha dé Danann, "the children of the Grand Queen Danu". In their height, the tuatha were among the greatest of the Fey Courts, and their queen Danu as mighty as her counterparts - Ophelia, queen of Winter; Miranda, queen of Summer; and Cernunnos, lord of the Wyld. The name "Elves" was concocted by the first mortal creatures to encounter the tuatha, the Kobolds; the name was initially rejected, but when the weaker, devolved, mortal members of their race began to appear in greater and greater numbers, the dwindling number of remaining true tuatha assigned this title to them.

Little is known of what exactly occurred with the tuatha in the end, or why they were cast from FaeReie. There is no written record of it - at least available to outsiders - and the Elves refuse to speak of it. Several theories have been presented though. Some say Danu managed to anger Miranda and Ophelia enough that Summer and Winter united against her. Some say that when the time came for the Queens of FaeReie to abdicate to their successors, as Miranda did to her daughter Titania and Ophelia to her daughter Mab, Danu refused to yield her throne to her own heir, Amaerallae, who later perished then was elevated to a position among the Avatars. Some say she and her people were defeated in a grand battle by their ancient enemies, the Fomor, who now stalk the dark pathways, deep seas, and endless voids between worlds in FaeReie. And some say the tuatha – or perhaps just a small faction within their number – had attempted to make contact with their predecessors in exile, the banished Lost Court of The World's Shadow, for either power and alliance or in a misguided attempt at redemption.

Whatever the cause, the tuatha were driven, all but a very few who were swiftly integrated into the other courts, onto Finiens from their homeland. Across the border of the Between, their grand forest of Sentara was shunted into the woodlands of eastern Stormwind. Cut off from the life of their homeland, the ravages of time took their toll on the tuatha, stripping their timeless nature down to a dreadfully-short (for them, though immensely long to most of Finiens's other denizens) mortality. In time, all that remained – save a dwindling few exceptions – were the Elves known today. They are now a race in decline, looking back on the eons of their once-ascended status, an ancient, wizened, and learned people watching over a world filled with young, growing, rising cultures.

They are not, however, a people who have given up. Even in their new, lowly status, the Elves have sworn to retain or regain prominence, if not in their original home then in this new realm in which they now must reside in exile. Sentara, cut off from FaeReie and exiled with its masters, now exists in seclusion deep within the woodlands of northern Stormwind, preserving Elven culture and, if rumor and legend be true, housing Danu herself - still alive, still possessed of some or all of her once-Queenly power and majesty, or so the few remaining tuatha claim - at its deepest heart, the hidden city of Abartach. Other clans, separated by the ravages of time, nature, and the Children of Perdition, roam strange new lands. A tribal sect of their kind, the Painted Elves, live a nomadic life in the sands of Denvushain, having once raised a sand kingdom of their own in times past, only for it to fade into dust like the Leoni before it, and many of their people are prominent and influential in the mingled-race regency that followed. To the north, in the evergreen Frozen Forest of the eastern Ice Claw, live the Frost Elves in their magnificent cities of ice and crystal glass.

Elves are, despite their troubles, an adaptive species. Though they strongly prefer the woodlands of their ancient home, Elves are capable of surviving in nearly any climate, and their fey nature allows them to adapt in more ways than one to the region they make their home in as short a time as a few decades, manifesting most noticeably in a change of their overall physical coloration. An Elf who dwells in woodlands or temperate plains will usually have skin the hue of pale wood and hair of earthy brown, gold, or green; however, should she relocate to a warm, dry region, her skin will darken, taking on the browns or reds of the Painted Elves, while her hair darkens to red, black, or rocky brown-grey. An Elf in tundra's skin turns pale, almost snow-white, and their hair becomes white-blonde, silver, grey, or one of many shades of blue. An island-dwelling Elf gains bronze skin and metallic brass or golden or pale green hair. Though exceptionally rare, Elves who choose to dwell in subterranean environs – within caverns, tunnels, mines, or other such underground demesnes – take on gemstone hues, obsidian-dark skin and pale hair in diamond white, topaz blonde, or ruby red. This metamorphosis is more than just changes of shade, however; their physique and physiology changes just as swiftly, adjusting their biology, their muscle mass, and their internal processes to best survive in whatever climate they find themselves in. The change is slow enough that sudden extremes can still drive an Elf to danger from exposure, so this ability is hardly protection against the fury of the elements, and more a simple biological imperative for comfort wherever an Elf chooses (or is forced) to reside.

Not all Elves have been willing to accept their exile and look to the future of their people, however. History reports at least one large segment of Sentara's population attempted to return to FaeReie, whether to reclaim their place as the tuatha or to carve out new lives for themselves in the land of wonders, or for reasons at which scholars – Elven and otherwise – can only guess. FaeReie, however, remembered their crimes in times past and executed swift judgement upon the infiltrators. These Elves were twisted, changed and malformed, many taking on alien or monstrous traits and scattering to the wilds, driven mad or horrified into seclusion by their new shapes. A large number of these wanderers, however, escaped with only minor and surprisingly consistent transformations: their forearms and lower legs transmuted into avian talons, birdlike wings grown from their backs, and their eyes enhanced to the precise vision of a raptor. These avianized Elves were then cast out of FaeReie en-masse, far from their homeland in Sentara, across the sea in Wachara in the mountains and forests of its southwestern lands. This new cousin-race of Elf-kind named themselves the Ael-Vari, and settled in the lands that would one day become the empire of Divus, where they crafted a new life and culture for themselves.

As for the Elves, other than occasional conflicts with neighboring Humans, Orcs, and Yuan-Ti, they have continued on their reclusive way and little more of their culture – what is left of it – has changed in the centuries since. And interacting with these species has led to encounters both hostile and friendly... and in some cases, more than friendly. Elves are capable of interbreeding with almost any other species whose physique is relatively similar to their own. This includes all three of the previously-mentioned species, Ael, the other races of the nagastrani – the original Naga and the cousin-races of the Yuan-Ti, the Rilkans and the Skarn – and even certain Goblinoid races, as well as fellow Material-dwelling feykin, such as the Glaistigs and Leanaí-Dubh. With the fey races and their Ael cousins, the offspring are usually full-blooded members of the mother's species, though sometimes bearing a few unusual traits of the father's; the exception to this rule is Ael, where the child of an Elven mother and Ael father will simply miscarry, while the inverse will produce a normal Ael egg. With the mortal races, however, the result is a blend of the races, a Half-Elf with traits of the other species. By and far, the most common Half-Elves are Half-Human; however Half-Orc and Half-Nagastrani (of at least three of the four subspecies) Half-Elves have been recorded. The Elves' fey nature is considered universally to blame, as many of these other species are not otherwise genetically compatible with one another without the aid of powerful magic.

Perhaps interestingly, Elves do not seem to be able to produce Half-Elves with Leoni, Fenrin, Gnolls, Ti'Larinn or other races of Lizardfolk, Tengu, or Children of Arachne, despite their basic humanoid shapes (or, in the case of Arachnes, their ability to transform into Human shape). And, like all other races, they are incapable of intimately interacting with Entomorphs due to their incompatible insectoid physiology. Half-Elves of all sorts will be elaborated on further in the future.

There is one further blight that has plagued their people in the time since their exile. Ever since their arrival on Finiens, a strange plague has tormented the Elven people. Its cause is unknown, its symptoms difficult to discern, and its cure nonexistent, at least for now. It has many names, the most common among them including "Cruel Madness", "The Lurking Traitor", and "Soul Plague"; however, by and far the most well-known epithet is "The Shadow Curse".

The most sinister effect of the Shadow Curse is its lack of visible symptoms. An infected or even simply carrying Elf displays no physical alterations, no visible deformities or mutations, and for all intents and purposes functions perfectly normally, save except the immense blessing that once the disease has taken root, its host is rendered completely infertile. There is no traditional illness, weakness, bodily malfunctions, or other traditional symptoms. The malady is, rather, nearly entirely mental. Over a course of time, from as quick as a few weeks to as long as several decades, the Elf undergoes a steady decay of their mental state, invariably beginning with their morality. Even the most goodhearted specimen will, within a short time after the infection takes root, turn into a psychopathic monster. Sadly, it is much, much later in the progress of the disease before logic, reasoning, planning, and other forms of mental aptitude are harmed, meaning that the Cursed Elf will have quite a long time to make use of their defunct moral compass while having full capacity of almost all their mental and physical capabilities. Cursed Elves, often operating incognito and keeping themselves well-hidden, as if aware that letting their Cursed state be discovered will put an end to their crime spree, proceed to do two things with their newfound state: cause as much chaos, harm, and sadness to Elven society (or, if incapable of that due to location or other situations, whichever civilization they find themselves in), and infect at least one other Elf or Elf-kin with the disease before they are noticed and neutralized.

Cursed Elves have no culture, no society, no hierarchy of their own. They are a feral, insane, chaotic subspecies, exemplifying the worst of disorder and disharmony, and are devoted to nothing but their own individual amoral id – there is no cult, no organization, no religion, and no unifying goal behind their actions. When they deign to work together, it is only under the mutual, innate understanding that at some point when it is convenient there will be backstabbing, and the self-confidence that each individual has the skill, intelligence, and remaining mental faculties to be the one to make the first move or to fend off the attack when it comes. The only positive note is that the disease strips fertility from the Elf at approximately the same time it destroys their morality, preventing Cursed Elves from creating progeny born with the infestation in their veins. In addition, Elven clerics have confirmed that something inherent in the Curse severs a portion of the soul from the body, allowing the immortal remnant of a Cursed Elf to pass on to an afterlife due its prior behavior and not damned by the immoral activity caused by the ravages of the Curse. It is, perhaps, this severing that causes the Curse to be incurable: all that remains of the person that Elf once was is its body, leaving nothing of its prior self to be truly restored. Resurrection and similar spells have variable chances of restoring the original personality after death, but many Elves are loathe to risk exposure to the Curse, even to restore a loved one lost to the plague of insanity.

The origin (and purpose, assuming there is one) of the Shadow Curse is unknown, though there are a few theories, mostly tying into the mysterious reason behind the exile of the tuatha in the first place. It could have been a plague used as a weapon in the war with the Fomor, a punishment crafted by the other Queens of FaeReie, or a side-effect of the illicit dealings with the Lost Court. Others theorize that due to the fey nature of the Elves, this is simply a reaction of being forced to adapt to living on Finiens, a biological immune-reaction of the Elves to their new environment, or of Finiens itself to the large-scale "invasion" of a fey species. However, this theory begs the question of why other fey and feykin creatures who have immigrated to Finiens, such as Gnomes, Glaistigs, and Leanaí-Dubh, do not suffer the effects of the Shadow Curse while Elves, Half-Elves (of all kinds), and Ael-Vari do. Interestingly, it is a closely-guarded secret whether a full tuatha can contract the Shadow Curse, or what would become of them if they did.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

So Yeah, I've Been Gone

From March to May without an update, not exactly the best track record here. So here's a quick update on what's been keeping me busy and preventing more updates.

Late March and April I mainly blame work. Things got very busy and, despite our mandatory overtime normally ending sometime in February at the latest, we got thrown into a very busy end-of-first quarter and had to spend a lot of extra hours working. Since I was also back to running my group's Kingmaker game and playing in our Monday night Council of Thieves (then later, Rise of the Runelords, as CoT went on hiatus, and soon to be taking a break from that and jumping into Age of Worms) game, the sudden time crunch was not exactly generous. Given the option between working on worldbuilding or working on prep for the game that week, the latter obviously took precedence.

That's not a full accounting, admittedly, but it's the majority of reason for the initial slowdown. My PbP games on Paizo and my general web presence declined as well, overall, for a variety of reasons. Worldbuilding isn't the only thing that's suffered - I have a handful of other writing projects, not connected to Finiens or other works, that I've had the desire but lacked the time or motivation to work on.

Overtime slacked up again and we went back to normal schedule in mid-April, but it was about that time that my health took a turn for the worse. Thankfully said turn was only relatively minor, all things considered, but it was an interference in my writing. A bad sinus infection hit me in the middle of the month, followed by a second just as that one was starting to clear out. Thankfully the treatment for the second held better, and I haven't gotten that particular illness again yet, though a new long-term allergy medication may be more responsible for that level of persistent health as well. Then however was my latest visit, about two weeks ago now, for a bad spell of vertigo. In addition to possible inner-ear damage from the two infections, my blood pressure was apparently way up, which forced me onto a diet change and yet more medication, which put me out of commission for anything involving intensive physical or mental work for a while, until I adjusted.

Then my grandfather passed away last Tuesday, and my family rushed down to Texas for the funeral and to help settle his estate. So while my health has improved greatly, the past week I've been an emotional wreck instead. Combined with the travel time itself, I've been in no shape to do any writing until today.

Thankfully, the chaos seems to be about over. I've got the next week off work, before I'll be headed back to Tennessee at the end of the week and resuming work next Monday. Since my head and my health seem to be settled now, that's a fair bit of time I'm hoping to fill with getting some writing done, and among that more worldbuilding. With the completion of the articles on Dwarves, the races of Paziou are finished; we'll be moving to the continent of Stormwind next, home of the fey Elves, the bold Orcs, the inventive Kobolds, the resolute Glaistigs, and the vagrant Leoni.

So yeah, that's what's been going on here. Hopefully further delays, if there are any, will be relatively short. Glad to be back.

Orthos's Observations: Dwarves

So yeah, Dwarves.

Dwarves always seem to be one of the greatest challenges of worldbuilding. The image of the stereotypical dwarf - short, stocky, bearded, Scottish, underground-dwelling, miners and craftsmen, armed with an axe if he’s fighting or a pick if he’s not (or sometimes if he is, depending on setting), fond of drinking, fond of fighting, fond of working, strenuously lawful, somewhat xenophobic, and staunch enemy of elves, orcs, goblins, and giants - is immensely, incredibly pervasive. To a one, I cannot think of more than a single exception to this characterization in every single campaign setting I’ve read about or played in. Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Golarion… all the Dwarves are the same. You could quite literally pull one out of one setting and drop them in another, and they’d fit in near-perfectly, or at least to the point where nobody would notice the difference. The one exception I’ve seen is Eberron - having never played it, I’m just going by hearsay here, but from what I’ve heard and read Eberron Dwarves are basically the racial stereotype of the Greedy Jewish Businessman. They’re running all the major businesses, running society a little behind the scenes, and profiting grandiosely off everyone else because there’s no way you can do any respectable amount of business without dealing with them. And since that’s apparently a racist depiction, let’s not delve too deeply into that. Like I said, I don’t know much about Eberron anyway.

So. You basically come down to three core concepts that Dwarfdom is tied up into in nearly every setting: they mine, they drink, and they fight. And nearly every single depiction of them uses these. Drift away from them, and their fans will complain you’ve changed them too much; change them enough to satisfy the people who don’t like Dwarves in the first place, and you have something that’s so different from the “standard” Dwarf that it might as well not be a Dwarf at all, both fans and detractors will say.

Normally, I wouldn’t give two beans what the Dwarf dislikers have to say about them in this particular context. Most people who don’t like Dwarves tend to be Elf fans, and I personally do not much care for Elves, so maybe that’s why I’m a Dwarf fan, more than anything intrinsic to the race itself. I do find them interesting, even at their most stereotypical, and I find them just plain fun. So why change them at all? I already enjoy them as-is, most people who would play one already enjoy them as-is, and despite the complaint that they’re very samey from setting to setting, there’s clearly success in keeping them the way everyone expects them to be. Why change it if it works?

I’ll admit, the reason’s a little flimsy, and very personally biased. It’s because there’s another race in Finiens that fits into the underground-dwelling, mining-and-craftsmanship niche - the Kobolds. And I really like Kobolds. They’re one of my favorite “monster races”, they’re the eternal underdog, I love their racial connection to Dragons, and I just plain think they’re cool. But put them as a major, “core” race in the same setting where you have underground-dwelling, mining-and-craftsmanship Dwarves, and you end up with two races whose racial niche is to do the same thing.

In standard D&D/Pathfinder/etc., it works out because Kobolds are not a core race. They’re a monstrous species, usually Evil-aligned, not usually a PC race, and if there IS a PC Kobold they’re somehow, one way or another, an exception to the rule. (They’re also typically low-level cannon fodder, but as any of us can probably tell you, they can be more than that. Huzzah for Tucker’s Kobolds and for the “advances by character level” tagline.) So Kobolds and Dwarves can hold the same niche because it’s implied they’re competitors, with the Dwarves on the good/PC side and the Kobolds on the evil/NPC side.

That’s not the case in Finiens. Kobolds are not a “usually Evil” race (Finiens Kobolds are typically Lawful Neutral, as I’ll explain when I get to the detailed elaboration on Kobolds) and they’re one of the core races of the setting, extremely widespread - even more so than Humans - and highly respected by nearly all countries and cultures for their craftsmanship. That’s the niche I wanted for them, and it was fairly imperative that I find a way to not have to share that with the Dwarves.

But that’s only one out of three. Dwarves are miners/crafters, drinkers, and fighters. Remove just the one and you still have the majority of what a stereotypical Dwarf is. So what other culture or archetype regularly gets drunk and starts fights?

Well, how about pirates?

Once that clicked, everything else came naturally. The Dwarves as a (possible) slave race in the Age of Ancient Magic was just logical - Finiens Halflings share the Human subtype, and are in many ways a subrace of Humanity, but Dwarves are strongly different from both; since they share a homeland, it seems that it would be inevitable that the other two races would gang up on the lone Dwarves, and their physiques and statistics make them excellent laborers. And when everything came crashing down, it was the Dwarves who had spent the last who-knows-how-many years working, serving, creating, building, and otherwise learning the skills they’d need to become the leaders of the resulting exodus. Combined with their longevity, it seemed inevitable - without the system to hold them in slavery, they were free to lead the charge into the unexplored world, and once they’d tasted that freedom, there was no turning back.

As a result, another Dwarven stereotype - their strong ties to Lawful alignments, rarely moving, and obsessive care for family and home - were either removed or put slightly off-kilter. Dwarves in Finiens are usually Chaotic, befitting of a freedom-loving anti-authoritarian society just on a eons-long high of escape from slavery, but they hold to a lot of Lawful traits. Family is still held in great esteem, but it’s taken less literally. Now Family is practically synonymous with Crew, regardless of actual connections of blood - and in some cases, even Race. Loyalty is less tied to personal or clan honor, and more to the hierarchy of a ship and the respect due a Captain. Dwarves travel all over the place, but at the same time they are strongly tied to their homes - it’s just that now that their home is a ship, they can take it with them wherever they go, rather than being bound to a single physical location.

And besides, pirates are cool! Can you think of any other setting that has a race whose culture and history are built around being ocean-bound? The only things that come to mind are actual underwater settings like Alluria Publishing’s Cerulean Seas. So many adventures take place almost exclusively on land, generally deep in the land’s interior, with only rare campaigns whose entire plot revolves around oceans - things like Paizo’s Savage Tide and Skulls and Shackles, or Nick Logue’s Razor Coast - ever break that mold. So I suppose I can see why it’s rare - in a lot of ways it’s impractical. It’d be tough to have a race like Finiens’s Dwarves and justify why they’d ever spend enough time on land to participate in a full-length campaign.

In this case however, I think cool factor and the opportunity to take Dwarves, one of my favorite core races, in a completely new direction without changing them to the point of being unrecognizable outweighs that restriction. You might not see a huge amount of PC Dwarves in Finiens campaigns, but the ones where they’re fitting, I’m fairly certain they’ll stand out. I’ll be able to get back to you in more detail on that when I actually run Savage Tide (again) in a couple of years.

And also:
And if you get that reference, consider yourself about 100% more awesome.

Denizens of Finiens: Dwarves

Like the Humans and Halflings, the Dwarves had their origins in the dark and ancient continent of Paziou, amidst the jungles and mountains and long-lost civilizations of prehistory. And even from those earliest eons, they were strange, stuck out from the norm, and somehow did not quite fit with their cousins in land. Dwarves were decidedly different in so very many ways from their neighbors. Taller than Halflings but shorter than Humans, yet they were clearly not of the same blood, the same kin. Magic treated them differently than it did the other two species - in fact, dwarves were greatly notable for the reduced effects many types of magic had upon them. They lived long, much longer than either other race, but reproduced very slowly, keeping their numbers limited. Powerfully built, their stocky frames and low height made them slow movers but capable of bearing great burdens… a fact that, or so it is theorized, did not go unnoticed by the powers that were in those ancient lands. It is suggested that in the Age of Ancient Magic, when Humans were clearly the ruling power and Halflings likely a broad citizenry, the Dwarves may have once been a servant caste or slave race. It would certainly explain many things, among them the great care and value placed upon freedom and liberty by the Dwarven culture of the modern day.

Despite - or perhaps because of - the likelihood of their subjugated status in ancient Pazioun civilization, the Dwarves are responsible for the vast majority of The Scattering that followed. When the Age of Ancient Magic came to an end, the Dwarves led the withdrawal, moving in droves out from Paziou’s heart toward its coasts, with the Humans and Halflings following behind. They made their way to the extreme ends of the continent, and when the oceans prevented them from moving further, they set to work. Clearly their prior occupation or culture had produced a great number of capable craftsmen, as Dwarven ingenuity and invention was responsible for the entirety of sea travel for many, many years. Dwarven ships were crafted, crews assembled, and - armed with nothing more than their own bravery - sent into the uncharted blue.

Dwarven culture took to the sea as swiftly as the fish that swam below them. Here, out in the endless ocean, something took hold of their people that had been missing for generations upon generations of life on land. When the first ships made their returns to Paziou, speaking of far-off lands, bizarre creatures, strange weather, and all the ocean’s wonders, more ships were built, more crew welcomed aboard, and passengers - Humans and Halflings seeking lives in far-off regions - taken on; yet when their destinations were reached, the passengers would disembark but the vast majority of Dwarves were content to remain, seeing no gain nor pleasure to be had setting foot on dry land again. Here, the only land they needed was the wood beneath their feet, the rocking ocean their horizon and the salty air their lifeblood. Aegir, Father Sea, had been found by his long-lost children, or so the Dwarves claimed, and now that they were home they would never leave.

And why should they? While the other races squabble and battle and die over chunks of land, Dwarven territory was unlimited. Wherever the ocean rolled, Dwarven land would be. Who could seize the sea? Who could strike claim on the ocean? Who could tame the tide? So long as water flowed free, so too would the Dwarves, until the depths ran dry.

Ever since, Dwarven life, culture, pleasure, and labor have been inextricably tied to the ocean. Many Dwarves are born, live their long lives, and die without ever setting foot on dry land (perhaps discounting the occasional island, which most Dwarves consider “not DRY land” and thus merely a rocky portion of the sea), the waves rocking their cradle as a child and welcoming them into Father’s embrace when they die. Those few who do spend time on land usually only do so as part of taking stock, resources, supplies, or cargo for their next journey into the boundless blue. Dwarves are sailors of all stripes, from merchants to nautical soldiers to pirates. Their loyalty is to captain alone, and the crew is as much clan as comrades - often a captain is an elder of the family, a powerful matriarch or patriarch whose kin and offspring serve as the majority of their crew, and it is not unusual for newlywed dwarves to select a handful of choice siblings and cousins to establish a new crew on a new ship shortly after vows are shared.

Dwarven control of the world’s waters is not uncontested, however. The Tengu and the Rilkans of Senkaku both host a capable seafaring culture of their own. The Tengu are, by and large, noble privateers and merchant-knights under the authority of the Naga, protecting the waters around the Senkaku Archipelago and the trade routes by which their neighbors make way to distant “outsider” regions to ply their wares; they are often distrustful or even outright hostile toward Dwarves, seeing the entire race as profiteering pirates who would gut any ship they could, seize its treasures, and send its crew to the black depths below, if not claim the ship for their own and overrun it with a new crew of their barbaric bearded kind. The Rilkans, on the other hand, are more akin to the Dwarven sensibilities, fond of drink and song and the occasional boisterous barfight, and it is not unusual to see Rilkan crewmembers on Dwarven ships, and while the reverse is far less common it is usually not frowned upon.

And if any word can sum up Dwarves singularly, “boisterous” would be it. Dwarven ships are never quiet, always active, the crew constantly in motion and in conversation or song. Dwarves are greatly fond of alcohol, and count brewing to be among the highest skills of their people; large stocks of drink are a staple of Dwarven journeys, and they have a well-earned reputation for being able to make a fermented version of almost anything.

Dwarven culture and history is stored primarily in song, and bards are a frequent sight on any ship, used equally as lorekeepers, researchers, information gatherers, and keeping the crew entertained and happy. Dwarven songs are often bawdy, inciteful, and excessive, much like the rest of their culture, which thrives primarily on its lack of restraint and restriction beyond the simple rule of “what the Captain says, goes”.

And if there’s one thing a Dwarf likes more than a good song, it’s a good fight. Brawls are common on Dwarven vessels, incited over what other races and cultures might consider little things hardly worth the effort of offense; however, just as much so they are often over swiftly, with minimal harm done. Dwarves are a tough breed and heal quickly, almost universally, and these little skirmishes rarely result in long-term injury or lasting deformities or disabilities. Unfortunately they also do not tend to recognize that other races are not quite as durable as they are, and brawls and fights inevitably draw all available participants from an area into the melee without much care for intent or personal well-being.

Even children are not immune to these turns of culture, though Dwarves are generally somewhat responsible about keeping them out of direct harm at the hands of reckless and haphazard adults. Children are kept below-decks for the first several years of their lives, and while they are encouraged to roughhouse and scuffle amongst themselves, they and their mothers or caretakers are generally kept out of the path of destruction created by the rougher-housing adults on the upper decks. Hardy Dwarven constitution kicks in as soon as a year after birth; after being weaned, young Dwarves are already capable of handling alcohol, and it becomes a staple of their diet almost immediately. Predictably, the majority of the rest of their sustenance comes from fish, though fruits are also commonplace, and are among the primary goods that Dwarves trade for - the dangers of scurvy and other malnutrition ailments are a well-known danger in Dwarven society, and they have as a near-whole learned that while they can thrive at sea, there are benefits to working with the “landlubbers” from time to time.

Politically speaking, Dwarves have little sway. They have no countries of their own, alliances are rarely larger than extended families’ agreements, and conflicts are more often between individual ships and crews (or even just individual captains) than anything large-scale. Yet, at the same time, their enemies are also very few. Very few countries wish to risk the dangers of alienating all Dwarves, as such makes them an easy target and severely limits their ability to make any use of sea travel. Dwarves are a raucous lot, but they are long-lived, tightly-knit in their crews and families, and prone to holding grudges. Nowhere is this more evident than Anhur, where Dwarven blockades against travel through the Gulf of Paziou are frequent and sea travel highly dangerous, due to numerous incidents of aggression and insult from the Humanistic denizens of the desert country. The only other notable foe the Dwarves face as a unified whole are the Tengu, who have served as rivals for the sea for eons, ever since their own race’s crimes struck the Tengu from the skies and sent them to the seas instead.

Most Dwarves, however, are happily ignorant or dismissive of both these opposed forces, especially if their particular routes of choice never near the shores in question. And the ocean is vast, more than large enough for many, many crews to find their own waves to crest.


Notable Edits: Mechanics
Dwarves in Finiens use the “Saltbeard” alternate racial package as their default racial stats. In addition, their list of racial weapons is expanded.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Orthos's Observations: Halflings

Halflings are one of the trickiest races to make unique. They really seem to come in two varieties: the rural, simplistic, large-familied, Tolkien-style Hobbits, and the sneaky, urban, vagabond, every-single-one-is-probably-a-thief D&D style Halfling. Attempt to blend the two... and well, you end up with Kender, I guess - big-familied simplistic rural thieves. Try to play against both types and you either get something unrecognizable or you stray into D&D-era Gnome territory - "We don't know what to do with these things other than make them some other race's poorer cousin".

I actually kind of like the "vagrant race" bit of Halflings that 3.5 and PF tend to suggest, minus Golarion's bit about them being stuck mostly as a slave race, so I went with that. Tying them to Humans - changing their racial subtype - was kind of a knee-jerk decision, but it helps to tie their shared origins together, I think; I may make something more of it as Paziou and its history gets more and more developed. I'll get into the individual geographical and political locales in greater detail later, but for a quick glimpse, Paziou was designed to be Finiens' place for "ancient lost civilizations", along with the crown of Stormwind where Unknown Kadath sits locked away behind the Mountains of Madness. So adventures that take place in any sort of high-magic or lost-art fallen/forgotten/overthrown/etc. culture are free to get dumped into Paziou, where they can be "discovered" by modern explorers and adventurers as plot permits. FR's Netheril? Paziou. Greyhawk's Suel Imperium? Paziou. Golarion's Thassilon and Azlant? Paziou.

So, that out of the way, back to Halflings. So we have an entire race that is, barring some exceptions, immensely nomadic and prone to wandering, highly individualistic but with strong familial bonds that extend beyond direct relations, and have a mechanical racial bonus to getting into and out of places they shouldn't be, getting their hands on things they shouldn't have, and hearing and seeing things they shouldn't observe. What on earth could an entire race have an either inborn or trained-from-youth skill in subterfuge, stealth, and observational skills for, that would go hand-in-hand with their penchant for never staying in one place very long? What are they looking for, trying to find, or wanting to see?

Well, why not Everything?

So that became it - the great purpose behind all Halflings being wanderers and being just naturally good at sneaking around. Their culture, as a race, is bound around the idea of seeing everything there is to see and bringing it back somewhere to be gathered, checked for accuracy, and recorded in one big collective lump sum of information. (More accurately, there's actually probably multiple copies in different parts of the world, the caretakers of which likely meet up in gatherings of two or three teams at pre-arranged times to compare info and check against one another, picking up missed bits and making corrections.) Participation isn't forced, hence how some Halflings are content to settle and raise families and become stable parts of a community, but there's some great honor and respect to be earned from participating in The Story.

For one, you've become an active, involved, and direct participant in History. By submitting something to The Story, you've put something into the project that, perhaps, might have never been there without your involvement. Think of how much has been lost - or, perhaps worse, only reported second-hand - because some Halflings weren't interested in participating in The Story, or because no Halflings were part of the party that went on this grand quest or defeated this great evil or uncovered this ancient treasure! Being a Story-Gatherer makes you indispensable in a way that only a real historian can appreciate.

And secondly, it makes you a recognized representative of your people wherever you go. And for Halflings, that's a big deal. They may wander constantly, traveling alone or in small units, or as a lone observer in groups otherwise composed of non-Halflings, and can observe firsthand how badly other races usually treat strangers, even those of their own species. This is never the case with Halflings. To a Halfling, you're family, even if you've never seen these people before and they never you. And that goes double if you're a Story-Gatherer; even those who don't participate in the Great Work will (usually) recognize one who does, respect them for the sacrifices they've made in the name of the race's great doing, and provide what aid they can afford to spare, even if it's merely encouragement and a warm bed for the night. Halflings have learned not to expect that from other races - heck, the other races can't even manage to regularly offer it to their own kind! - and if anything it's only strengthened their determination to do well by their own kind, especially those who are doing the race's Work.

And a Story-Gatherer who does wrong by their would-be hosts? That's probably the greatest crime a Halfling can commit, depending on the severity of the infraction. And word would get back. Other Story-Gatherers would eventually learn of it. The information would make it back to the collectors, be spread between collection groups, and from there between the Halflings themselves. It wouldn't remain a secret for long... even murdering the hosts to hide the secret wouldn't be a cover forever, because other Story-Gatherers would certainly investigate. And they'd be good at it. After all, their entire racial culture is based around this. They have the mechanical bonuses to reflect it being ingrained in them from as young an age as to make it seem inherent.

Such a betrayal would potentially make the perpetrator of the crime a pariah, one whose word could never be trusted, one whose Story was nothing but Lies. Should the crime be severe enough, or repeated through enough altercations, they might even be excised from the pages: their authorship revoked, their contributions torn from History (or simply uncredited, if collaborated by a more trustworthy source), and their name and their wretched deeds would be in the records for all to see, for all eternity, an unforgettable and unforgivable shame, and a lesson for any who would think to do likewise.

I'm not sure, even from a GM's and Worldbuilder's standpoint, what the ultimate purpose of The Story of Everything is. It's a project that by its very nature can never truly be completed; when it's finished, it'll be because there's nothing left to write, as Finiens reaches whatever end fate has in store for it. I imagine it's not all one book, of course, and completed volumes surely make excellent and highly-reliable historical record, though. Maybe I'll figure it out one day and decide something. Maybe one of my co-worldbuilders will. Maybe someone in the comments can come up with an interesting explanation.

Or maybe all the rampant speculation is the point. =)

Denizens of Finiens: Halflings

Halflings, like Humans and Dwarves, originated in the heart of Paziou, deep within the savannahs and jungles of that ancient, prehistoric continent. Whatever culture they had prior to their departure is a mystery lost to time, much like the details of the Age of Ancient Magic; oral history merely regards them as citizens of lost, legendary kingdoms, with little to no detail of what those cultures were like nor what brought them to an end, leaving only myths and archeology to puzzle out the secrets of those forgotten eons.

Like Humans, Halflings are vast, varied, and seemingly capable of surviving anywhere and everywhere. The limitations of Human settlement extend to their smaller kin as well; Halflings are utterly unrepresented in distant Teremvor, The Northlands, or the wilderness of Seredína, but can be found - in slightly lesser volumes than Humans and Kobolds - in nearly all other lands. In some, such as the Senkaku Isles, they are among the rarest of present races, existing on the fringes of civilization, while in others such as Olympia and Galadae they are near omnipresent, a constant reminder of the existence of their culture underneath the dominant face of the region's people.

In fact, it is quite notable that save for their size, Halflings resemble Humans in almost every other way. They live to approximately the same ages; they mature, reproduce, and develop at the same rates; and magic affects them similarly, even when specified to function only toward a highly-specific racial bracket. The two races are close enough in almost every way as to be considered cousins; the only remaining barrier to their classification as two branches of the same species is their inability to reproduce together, which may be more due to the size disparity and lack of opportunity (that we know of) than racial incompatibility.

The inquisitive, energetic Halflings followed their larger brethren out of the heart of Paziou at the time of the Scattering, and thus began a tradition of moving constantly in the wake of other species. Whereas the Dwarves claimed the sea and Humans quickly began to spread over the land conquering and settling where they went, the Halflings became a nomadic people, forever wandering without a single unified settlement. Though they would establish a few minor villages in their wake, most Halflings would be ill-content to stay where they were born, eventually giving into a natural wanderlust and setting off for parts unknown. Those that did settle were more likely to claim a place in an existing settlement, most often the cities of Humans, than to attempt striking out to claim a place of their own.

As scattered as the Halflings became, their wanderings became a sort of natural tradition for them. Halflings became the foremost bearers of tales, carrying news, stories, and legends far and wide in their meandering journeys. Few bards could spin a tale or stir the heart as a Halfling could, for few had seen so much in so little time. Relentless lovers of new tales and new information, their quests for knowledge often spurred them to join in dangerous excursions, fearsome quests, or journeys to frontier realms where other races may not have dared tread without great skill, magic, or warriors.

Halflings are somewhat of a contradiction in many ways. When gathered in large numbers, there is a strong inclusion of togetherness, a sort of sense that the entire race is a single extended family and that all halflings, at least on some level, know each other almost on sight, if not by name. However, almost as soon as these gatherings disperse, each halfling is just as quickly alone, rarely spending much time in the company of others of their own kind save for spouses and children. The reason behind this is unknown, but it may have something to do with the race’s collective history, and a portion of their lore referred to as “The Story of Everything”.

From what little has been shared with outsiders, The Story is a collective record of experiences by all Halflings, spanning all history and as much of the world as they, as a whole, can traverse. Almost every Halfling is a participant, once they reach a certain age, and records of travels, journeys, events, and other notable happenings are often sent to families and distant contacts in the form of letters, journals, or ledgers providing detailed information. Where these records go next is unknown, but it’s presumed that somewhere there is a collective of Halflings that receive these documents, check their accuracy, and compile them into whatever form The Story takes. As a result of all this collecting and observing and sharing, Halflings by nature make excellent storytellers and bards, and almost all have a deep repertoire of lore and stories they can call upon, collected by themselves and their predecessors. They also serve as reliable and easily-accessible records-keepers and loremasters, who can be called upon in nearly any situation to research and recover desired information from historical fact with near-perfect accuracy.

Whatever its purpose, the Story is incomplete, and the Halflings continue their research, traveling, experiencing, recording, and sharing the knowledge they have gathered since time immemorial. Somewhere, hidden away, tiny scribes work relentlessly on a project that may never be completed until it, at last, perishes in whatever apocalypse claims the world upon which it is written.


Notable Edits: Mechanics
Halflings in Finiens have their racial type changed to Humanoid (Human). Otherwise their statistics are unchanged. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Orthos's Observations: Humans

So I'm going to be kind of painfully blunt here.

I don't like Humans in roleplaying games. I really never have, now that I think about it.

On this subject, I'm That Guy. If you don't have one in your group, I'm sure you've had one in the past, or met them somewhere - either at a Con, or at a public gaming place like a FLGS, or at the very least on the Internet. The guy who's always asking the GM if s/he can play this or that different race. Testing to see where the GM's limits of "only these races are allowed" really extend to, or if a thorough-enough backstory will allow an exception to the rule. That guy who wants to try the most exotic, unusual, bizarre character idea out there, while the rest of the party is made up of walk-on extras from a Tolkien knock-off.

Now, before you get out the torches and pitchforks....

Normally, I'm happy to play within the expectations, if on the fringes. If it's "core stuff only", I'll play a Gnome or Dwarf or Half-Orc. Something not-Human, not-Elf, and rarer than the norm. If the "bestiary playables" are allowed, I'll usually go Tiefling, or one of the Elemental-based races. I really like Changelings, too, for some reason. (Think it has something to do with a combination of being a Female-only race, the innate heterochromia, and the innate flavor of being hag-spawn and connected to the Witch class, one of the few prepared casters that's cool enough to bypass my Vancian-casting dislike.) But if there's a chance of playing something odder, I'll usually be the first to pounce on it.

Just a quick summary of the characters I've played in the past (Neverwinter Nights not included, duplicates not repeated):
Half-Drow, Duergar, Air Genasi, Kobold, Dwarf, Killoren, Tiefling, Dragonborn (both 3.5 and 4E versions), Half-Fiend, Half-Dragon, Illumian, Half-Orc, Gnome, Halfling, Naga*, Entomorph*, and Arachne*.

*: custom race from Finiens. You'll hear more on them soon enough!

Yeah. Outside NWN I don't think I've ever played a Human for a game that lasted past the first session. Maybe once or twice. But, unless you count the Illumian as just a Human knockoff (not horribly inaccurate, I admit) they weren't at all memorable. All of those characters I listed above didn't last forever either - only the Naga and the Arachne are still actively played, in Council of Thieves and Rise of the Runelords respectively, and the Half-Fiend and the Dwarf are prominent NPCs in Finiens for different reasons - but I remember them more. Probably because I spent a lot more time working on them as characters than I did the Human ones.

Simply put, I don't much see the appeal of playing a Human in a Fantasy or Sci-Fi game. There's nothing fantastical or otherworldly about Humans. I know some people enjoy being the "normal guy experiencing an extranormal reality/circumstance", but I'm not one of them.

And that's just their flavor. Their mechanics bug me even more. Humans are, by far, the best race for anything in 3.5/Pathfinder. A bonus feat without restrictions and a free skill point each level? And a free-floating +2 to put in any stat? AND usually the best favored-class options in the entire book? Why WOULDN'T you play Human if you're going for raw mechanical power? I laugh every time I see someone deride exotic races for being "just for powergamers looking to min-max every option". Humans beat them every time. Mechanically you just don't get better than Humans. At All.

So yeah, that is a long-winded summary of my feelings on playing Humans. 

All that said... not everyone shares that opinion. Some players, as stated, like Humans. Whatever their reasons, they enjoy it, and that's fine by them. (Just don't invite me to a Humans-only game ;) ) And I really dislike the idea of banning or removing something from the game just because "I don't like it". I've met too many GMs who do that. If you don't mind another rant... the NWN server I spent most of my time on, The Cormyr/Dalelands Project, had a system where players could apply to play more exotic races than the usual. The available options were pretty standard. The entire gamut of Forgotten Realms planetouched (Aasimar, Tiefling, the four Elemental-touched), Drow, Duergar, Deep Gnome, Half-Celestial, Half-Fiend, Half-Dragon, and one or two others were pre-programmed into the server. Other races could be applied for, but if the NWN engine didn't have the required mechanisms in place for them, they'd have to be kludged from what was available or in some cases outright ignored. About halfway into the server's lifespan, a group of GMs was currently in power that had very ... specific ideas about what sort of thing they wanted to see on the server. Among this was a severe reduction in the amount of exotic races that were present, with a specific focus on Drow. "I don't think Drow should be an allowed playable race" and "I don't think we need any more Drow PCs" were very common reasons that these GMs would give for rejecting an application.

Not "I don't think your roleplaying ability that you've demonstrated to the staff is sufficient that we can trust you with this complex race."

Not "I think this person needs more experience."

Not "I don't think this is a very solid backstory."

Just outright "I personally don't want this race/more of this race on the server."

That ticked me off to no end. It was one of the main reasons, along with some personality conflicts and disagreements about how the server should be run, that I went on one of my sabbaticals from C/D. And it severely colored the way I handle things in my own games, online and off, when it comes to races, classes, and other world options I personally do not care for.

I don't like Humans as PCs myself. I find them boring. I don't like Wizards either. I don't like prepared casting, and their class abilities aren't interesting enough to get around that dislike. (Unlike say Witches and Magi.) But I don't ban Wizards from my games. I have one player who really likes them. And I don't ban Humans. Again, I have players who like them. And it'd be a douchebag move of me as a GM to say "No, I don't think I'm going to allow that race or that class in my world, I don't like it."

So there are Humans in Finiens. And if they're going to be here, they're going to need to be as interesting as anything else we put in the game. When we first started working on Finiens, it was a stereotypical fantasy world. Humans dominated nearly everything, and the only race outside the "standard seven" that we'd put any amount of work into was the Yuan-Ti, who I'll expand on later in great detail. Many of the other custom, exotic races came later. But while we were working on it, the disparity became noticeable to me, and it bugged me that I was dealing with yet another world - after Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, and Golarion - that was horribly humanocentric.

So we started trimming back. In Stormwind we removed the Humans from the Ice Claw (save for a couple cities in the southern areas) and handed the place over completely to the Orcs and the Glaistigs. We made Denvushain more cosmopolitan, mixing in the Leoni, Elves, and Kobolds and reducing the Human dominance. We made the Sentara Forest of the Elves and the Sombersong Wood of the Yuan-Ti separate and independent of Olympia's control. In Wachara we created Divus, Eirene, and Seredína, all with no Human leadership (and in the case of Seredína, no Human population), and removed the Human barbarian tribes from The Northlands and made its masters highly hostile to Human (and other "civilized races") intrusion. We left Humans in Anhur and turned their presence up as high as it would go, turning it into the only "highly pro-Human" area in the setting. And in Senkaku we handed over control of the isles to the Naga and made the Humans late-arrivers to the continent rather than natives.

This still leaves several countries - Anhur, Galadae, Olorunium and most of the Olori Lands, Olympia, and partially Denvushain - with sizeable Human leadership, and a notation that even where Humans aren't in charge there's very few areas they don't live at all. Which fits with what most people expect of Humans in a fantasy setting without giving them free reign over everything or having the entire setting revolve around them like most published worlds do.

I get a world that isn't humanocentric, my Human-liking players get a world where Humans are still common and still do great things.

I'd say in this case Everybody Wins.