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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.

Denizens of Finiens: Humans

Of the many races of Finiens, Humans may not be the most widespread - that honor, quite certainly, belongs to the hardy Kobolds - but they are among the most varied and, by far, the most divisive. Rare is it for Humanity's neighbors to see their presence as a simple fact of life; they are, more often than not, either loathed or loved, abhorred or adored, and rare is it for there to be anything in-between, save perhaps apathy. Where they go, their mark is left, impossible to miss and inevitably ever-present for eternity, a rippling effect through time that forever marks the location and the society with their presence.

Humans are among the oldest races on Finiens, created alongside the Halflings (who share many of their traits) and the Dwarves in the deep jungles and dark mountains of Paziou. In this ancient and long-forgotten land, the earliest civilizations of Humans rose, creating ancient sprawling jungle empires, towering mountain kingdoms, magic-fueled tyrannies, and coastal conquests spread across much of the Dark Continent. This was the Age of Ancient Magic, the heyday of Humanity, and for those few who know of this lost history in any detail, it is clearly the greatest height of centralized, singular power the Human race as a whole has ever held.

It was not to last. No records remain of the reason, but something - perhaps a war, perhaps some natural or magical cataclysm, perhaps some dread creature awoken or summoned - brought an end to the mighty old culture. Thus began the age of The Scattering, where Humans and their neighbors fled for the shores of Paziou and, thanks to Dwarven ingenuity, took their first steps off their tropical home and departed for distant shores beneath Dwarven sails.

The first and nearest traveled directly south across the Gulf of Paziou, where they found themselves in similar coastal climes to their old homeland, but soon discovered that away from the nurturing sea lay desert in every direction. Through labor, toil, magic, and war, they forged a new empire in this blasted land and drove the giants that once called it home before them, and founded the Eternal Empire of Anhur. Though successful, their efforts were to stain Humanity's reputation in this new continent of Wachara for ages to come - it was soon decreed that Humans had forged Anhur of their own might, and that no other race deserved to share in their glory; Dwarves and Halflings who later attempted to congregate in this new civilization were driven out, enslaved, or killed.

A small fraction of their society, disgusted by the actions of their fellows, divided off and traveled south, into the wilderness the giants called Vhuatou, "the dark and void". Chief among these wanderers were the nomadic clans of the Olori, a vagrant people who for many centuries wandered through the Vhuatoun plains, swamps, hills, and woods, never settling and always on the move. Even when the other Humans among them, as well as Halflings who had dared Anhur's sands to reach welcoming realms beyond, began to stake their claims in the wilds, the Olori continued on, ever westward, seeking something afar. They found it at last in Wachara's heart, where they seized the land that was to be their own; it was here their leaders, the Vanguard, divided the land among their clans and claimed a home for their people: The Vanguard Joint-Confederacy of Olorunium.

Meanwhile, others of Humanity sought different shores. Dwarven sailors departing from Paziou's eastern coasts also deposited their Human passengers on fertile shores bordering fierce and relentless desert when they reached Stormwind. They were greeted by cultures shattered by cataclysm: shortly before the Humans' own Scattering, a dreadful event had taken place in this land, reshaping the earth and sundering civilizations. Dwarves found their ships' cabins emptied of Humans and just as quickly refilled by Kobolds, fleeing some horror to the east and seeking any other land that would take them and give them mountains to burrow, mines to dig, and ores to smelt. The desert itself had seen and devoured two empires before them, which itself might have been just the encouragement Humanity needed to try its own luck. They were faced not only with the ferocity of nature's wrath but with the desert's current denizens, the disparate tribes of the Painted Elves, whose own desert empire had collapsed in whatever destruction had laid waste to the rest of the continent, leaving them scattered and subdued cultures, no match for the unified humans under the banner of the priest-king Denvus. By the time of his passing the desert was unquestionably Human territory, with the Elves occupying only distant corners and forgotten wastes; the most prosperous and most sheltered oasis at the desert's heart became Humanity's new home, the Sapphire City of Adaiele, prime city of the Sun and Earth-blessed Domain of Denvushain, posthumously named for its conqueror. In the years after, the initial hostilities with their neighbors, the scattered Painted Elves and the nomadic Leoni, would be quickly recompensed with offers of cooperation, security, and alliance, and Denvushain would quickly cease to be truly a Human kingdom as the other races began to join its numbers.

Others traveled further east, crossing the Titans Mountains to reach the fertile lands beyond. The coastal plains were unclaimed and uninhabited by intelligent life, with the Kobolds that remained after the exodus rarely traveling down from their mountain warrens and the Elves of the Sentara Wood likewise rare sights outside their borders. Human villages began to spring up along the coast and further-inland waterways and lakes, then scattered across the plains and back north and west toward the mountains. In a rare show of interracial cooperation and respect compared to their Denvushai and Anhuri counterparts, these Humans sought the alliance of the mountain Kobolds when, centuries later, they chose to have a queen tor reign over them and desired to build a capital that could look over the entirety of their lands. The Free Kingdom of Olympia was founded with the birth of the city that shared its name, its construction managed by a combination of Elven lumber and resources, Kobold ingenuity, and Human labor.

Last of all, a third branch of Humans departed from Paziou to the west, sailing toward the shattered isles of the Senkaku Archipelago. These distant lands were home to the regal Naga, whose partial resemblance to the strange visitors from the sea persuaded them to welcome them with cautious acceptance rather than rebuff their approaches; the fact that the Humans in turn were gracious guests, seeking not to seize or conquer Naga lands in turn, likewise aided with their acceptance and eventual cooperation. Though Humanity's numbers in Senkaku have never been vast compared to the Naga or the other native races to the land, the Nezumi (or Ratfolk) and the Tengu, they have nevertheless become a commonplace sight on nearly all of the isles.

And such it has been in all the ages since. Where Humans do not reign, they are typically present in at least noticeable numbers. Rare are the exceptions indeed: no known Human colonies or establishments exist on the distant isle continent of Teremvor, original home to the lizardfolk and goblinoid, nor do they make their homes in the lupine plains of Seredína or the draconic wilderness of The Northlands. But in all other realms, all parts of the world, Humans have visited, left their mark, and more often than not seized a place for their own and stubbornly refused to yield what they see as their own. For better or for worse, only time will tell.