DM Corner: Beastial Civilizations
Last night I was discussing with a friend the various ‘enemy’ races. These are the guys that everyone ‘knows’ is a bad guy. Orcs, Goblins, Hobgoblins, Kobolds, Gnolls and the like. Now of course, each of these are different but if the players are thinking they’re so similar then obviously something needs to be done to differentiate them. The answer to “why bother” falls somewhere between “because we can” to “it’ll make a more interesting encounter”. The image above shows the Charr race of Guild Wars. Initially ‘bad guys’ they’ve since joined the rest of the world as another civilization.
So firstly, we need to answer the five basic questions of who, what, why, where and how. Who are they, on a philosophical level? What is it that makes them unique (a good time for creation myths)? Where do they dwell and where do they stand in the world? How do they interact with the world? How do their daily lives work? Why would someone interact with them? Why do they matter? I’ll give an example of Orcs that I like to use myself, but these aren’t hard nor fast rules.
- Who are the Orcs? A race bent on the ‘Might Makes Right’ mentality. The strongest lead, although they also have a superstitious side.
- What makes the Orcs unique? Because they respect power, they will accept anyone as ‘family’. They believe all power stems from Grumish.
- Where do the Orcs live: Orcs live in the inhospitable places where few dwell. Mountain ranges, steppe plains and other places where it’s hard to survive.
- Why do Orcs matter: While some find them vile, by existing on the edges of areas hard to live in, they are a barrier between real monsters and other civilizations.
- How do Orcs interact with the world: forming small raiding parties for supplies they cannot find in their own territories, semi-annual nomads.
By answering these questions we start to get an image of why Orcs aren’t like the other races. And those aren’t the only questions you can ask. By now we have this very by the books definition, so we should punch them up with a twist. So in my world, Orcs believe that they’re the blood of Grumish that hit the dirt in his battle with the Elven Gods (a battle the Orcs claim that he won), as evidenced by their continued existence. So for them, blood plays an important role in their lives. Their shamans are blood mages, performing strange rituals and rites. Their war parties coat themselves in the blood of their fallen brothers, to combine their powers. To join them, one must combine blood with each other member of the tribe (this blood letting is actually a social construct but has an additional benefit: only the strong survive the ‘initiation’ into their tribe, so over generations they’re stronger as a whole).
The first time a player came at my Orcs, he wanted to know how to deal with them and tried Etiquette. The idea was so foreign to the Orcs, they thought he was trying to cast a spell on them. Another player hastily jumped in and she bashed their leader in his forehead which crushed her own nose in. He hugged her, called her a returned daughter of Grumsh and they had a feast that night. Never-mind she’s a halfling, she’s family and that’s how they discovered that Orcs aren’t the bad guys everyone makes them out to be.
Now, the biggest takeaway from this should be that virtually no race sees itself as evil. Orcs do not believe they are an evil, malignant race. Goblins in my world are naturally curious, and because of that have become resilient to most things. Cartridge instead of bone (like Pathfinder goblins), with a low wisdom and high intelligence they love tinkering and taking things apart to see how they work (being able to put them back together is usually beyond their patience). It’s not that they think they’re evil, it’s that they are a nuisance to most. Hobgoblins are the Roman-ish empire that believes that they can unite the world in their perfect order which will make all the races happier. Kobolds are trapsters that see dragons as Kobolds that live long enough and have acquired enough gold. Gnolls are the only race I usually have that believe they are evil, because they think that each and every one of them is a small bit of their God (literally) and that the point of their existence is to see who the most powerful and impressive Gnoll is, as they are a vessel for his return. Their belief is based on the idea that eventually, there can be only one Gnoll left, and so they want to exemplify Yeenoghu. The reason being, I think it makes them interesting and stand out against the other ‘savage’ races by being truly depraved.