Sunday, January 10, 2021

No Elves


This is not a Talislanta post.

While D&D has added a number of new "races" to the game over the decades, it has remained strongly humanoid-centric. Nothing wrong with that, but I have wondered on occasion if fantasy of a more or less standard variety would feel any different if you placed the D&D races with say, the species in Star Frontiers (just one example, but these have the advantage of already having appeared in D&D via adaptations to Spelljammer)? Not as an addition, but as a replacement for the usual elves, dwarves, and halflings.

Sure all sorts of gonzo PC types appear in various Old School sources, but these tend to move the game away from classic fantasy toward science fantasy or post-apocalytpicness. I think it would be interesting to see how it works if they were inserted into something more basic. 

What's to be gained? Well, for one thing, science fiction has different cliches than fantasy. There are warrior races and superior beings in both, but they don't get packaged quite in the same way. Special relationships to nature or magic are out, for instance. No one assumes Dralasites have Scottish accents, at least.


Dick McGee said...

Pathfinder and its cousin Starfinder both show what can happen when you add a bajillion new races to your game, each a bit more of a freakshow than the last. I can see the merits of swapping some stereotypes in and out of a campaign, but it's awfully easy to go too far. I'd be far more comfortable with an all-human-PC game, personally. And that's despite being a fan of Talislanta, elves or no. :)

Trey said...

They definitely do, which is why I suggested not adding new ones but replacing the old.

JB said...

I absolutely figured this for a Talislanta post when I saw the title.
; )

I totally dig on the idea of moving one's fantasy world "to the stars" as opposed to running off the standard Middle Earth/northern Europe myth tropes. So many much inspiring art to draw from. It's why concepts like Tekumel and Urutsk remain so tantalizing.

But inserting "alien races" like Vrusk and Yazirians (insect people, furry people) into an otherwise Vanilla fantasy game in place of the dwarves and elves? I think all you really get *IS* Talislanta. Part of the thing I like about crossing my sci-fi with swords & spells is the interesting juxtaposition of anachronism and technology..."black ray" guns and jump packs and star travel is just as much fantasy as anything in D&D, but their interaction produces an interesting melange.

For me, it's the oldest of "old school" fantasy. I love shit like Krull...I'm much less down with Spelljammer.

Trey said...

Well, I'm not suggesting Spelljammer, and I think you may be misjudging Talislanta because it's much more pulp fantasy, and much less "Vanilla" whatever that means. What I'm suggesting is essentially is "would Tolkien (or Tolkien-lite) feel like Tolkien-Lite if Elves were instead insect creatures and in place of dwarves blob men. Not just a reskinning, but different cultures. Would vanilla still taste like vanilla then?

I don't know that anyone has ever tried.

Picador said...

"No one assumes Dralasites have Scottish accents, at least."

Of course not, that would be ridiculous. Everyone knows that Dralasites sound like Eeyore. And Vrusks all talk like Beavis doing his Cornholio routine. (Yazirians just hoot and holler like monkeys, duh.)

Alistair said...

I’ve used non trad races in some of my games. They’ve been more modernish, so like a fantasy 17th-19th century. I think I was originally inspired by the Moorcock’s stuff, and a few similar books - I can’t remember who though: the impressions lasted but remembering the books I read in the 90s is a bit beyond me now. Just the tropes and some situations remain (a lot were obviously “forgettable”).

It is easier to do in non D&D systems, I find. My last effort was when we tried Mazerats. Into the Odd/Electric Bastionland are I think sorta on the border of this. Not SF, though you can take them that way. Not trad fantasy in terms of setting, though there are several hacks that take them that way. My ItO world doesn’t have elves etc: but it has Mockeries, Mechanicals, Undead, and Serpentmen.

JB said...

Mmm. Okay, I haven’t actually played Talislanta, so I may be confusing it with something else (Jorune maybe?).

By “vanilla” I mean “Tolkien-like” (or exhibiting the tropes found in Tolkien pastiche)...but it IS pastiche, not Tolkien (which is a lovely and original setting of its own). But, yes, “Tolkien-ish;” very distinct from Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms or Howard’s Hyboria (for examples), neither of which have dwarves or elves.

Tolkien’s dwarves, hobbits, and (especially) elves are INTEGRAL to his world. Substituting bug men or blobs or furry people (whether cat or monkey-based, both tropes common to SciFi) into the setting would be strange, and not in a good way (IMO)...more ridiculous and nonsensical than mysterious and weird. Sure you could use “Ant-Folk” in place of Hobbits, living in idyllic burrow-houses and working their gardens...but at that point, why keep the Middle Earth pastiche? It just looks like the laziest attempt at “creativity.”

JB said...

And as far as people never, this is pretty much what I consider D&D from 2nd edition on: designers adding weird races to their vanilla fantasy in an attempt to “spice it up.” The only thing they don’t do is remove the “standard” demihumans. But I could certainly see people importing, say, the racial options of Dark Sun (thri-kreen, muls, etc.) into their Forgotten Realms setting.

Trey said...

Elves are integral to Tolkien's world, but in your Not Middle Earth, i.e. bog standard D&D they are just default.

I still don't think you're getting me merely having Hobbits be ant men with all the Hobbit characteristics would be reskinning, and I said expressedly that's NOT what I'm proposing. Having the alien mindset of eusocial ant-folk instead of the D&D halfling with its associated traits is what I'm proposing.

It's fine for you not to like an idea, but denigrating it as lazy I think is unfair. On the other hand, I'm not sure any idea need be justified by how hard it is to implement. That strikes me as a silly standard.

JB said...

Hmm (again).

Saying it’s the “laziest form of creativity” isn’t the same as saying it’s lazy, but...well, unfair or not I see I was being offensive and apologize.

I actually find many (most?) re-skins to be quite clever, and often (with regard to RPGs) an elegant solution to changing things up, injecting originality without mucking up game design.

What chafes for me, though, is what some refer to as “the rule of cool:” just adding random shit for the sake of being different. “I’m tired of elves and dwarves in D&D; why can’t we have tieflings and war-forged, etc.” People who want to run a game with vampires or bug people simply because “that would be AWESOME!” And designers who design that way rub me worse.

What would it mean to have vrusks and dralasites in Greyhawk (or the Realms) in place of half-elves and gnomes? I don’t know...but I think a little thoughtfulness with regard to design would yield something altogether strange and altogether UN-like the usual Tolkien-style fantasy featured in D&D. Differences in ecology and physiology (and how that translates to psychology) would DEMAND it. But I’m inclined to think most folks would ignore a thoughtful approach and simply treat them as a different type of “rubber masked” human (with or without cultural Earth accent)...just to be “new” and/or “different.” It’s how 5E players treat dragon-born, etc. It’s how my own players treated Drow and other Unearthed Arcana races back in 1985.

And, to me, that’s a bit annoying...and, yes, a little lazy. And not because it’s easy to is very easy to
Implement, and (to my mind) not lazy at all. But it requires thoughtfulness...and real thoughtfulness, coupled with non-humanoid races will, by necessity, transform your “normal” D&D fantasy world. Because how else are they going to navigate those medieval towns?
; )

Trey said...

I agree. Though I would say if elves and dwarves don't make your Medieval towns different from from the ones in our world they only don't because (a) they been their so long they're fully integrated, or more likely (b) people are being lazy.

JB said...

That's fair. Rereading TLotR recently (currently on the 2nd book), I can see that Tolkien's world is far from "integrated" and the town of Bree, with its mixed population of humans and hobbits, is considered unusual. People tend to live with "their own kind" and its exceedingly strange for a person to CHOOSE to live within a community not their own, whether you're talking Aragorn in Rivendell or Tuor in Gondolin.

Integrated communities in D&D are a matter of expedience, but they probably shouldn't exist. Demihumans would be able to dominate any businesses due to their inherent advantages (longevity), and humans should be relegated to second-class (or third!) citizens. The average first level elf in AD&D is old enough to have seen GENERATIONS of humans live and die before she even starts adventuring...why shouldn't she have built up an epic nest egg, if not a mini-empire in a particular textile industry?

But, no, "it's D&D." Which I guess is code for "crap worldbuilding." Ignore what's going on and find the next batch of evil cultists to stomp, right?

The Malum said...

I agree it could add complexity, but you could maybe use a very stripped-down system like Old School Essentials. I would not mind seeing a Star Frontiers adaptation for OSE, but Gavin has a full schedule already, so we're not seeing an "official" one for some time.

Nathan Irving said...

John Stater's Pars Fortuna was an exercise to make an OSR-style rpg game (basically Swords & Wizardry) but the races are wholly different (and everything is race-as-class). I'm really fond of it.

I played around with something similar in a fanzine I did, writing up a number of non-typical character races and backdoor establishing a setting around them (The Feathered Realm/the Eggshell Throne, which had fairly recently succeeded the Aten Empire). I'd still like to go back to it someday.