Sunday, 19 April 2015

Building a Sandbox Campaign Part Five: Playable Non-Human Races

I've been making regular posts about creating a fantasy world for a sandbox campaign, and so far have been following the example set by Rich Burlew in his series of articles on world building. I've adhered to the initial stages of his process quite closely, because these steps provided the broad strokes necessary to establish the basic framework of the setting. Subsequent posts will look to other guidelines, concentrating on setting up the sandbox itself, but prior to that it will be necessary to examine the demi-humans and humanoids that inhabit the realm.

Before proceeding, it is important to understand the core philosophy behind this setting: creating a genuine sense of magic and mystery in a sandbox-style campaign. From the outset I've stated that I want monsters, demi-humans and humanoids to have a special sense of "otherness", and so will be making several modifications.

Let's start with the playable races.


Ängsälvor (Meadow Elves), Nils Blommér, 1805
There's a fantastic Wikipedia entry on elves in folklore and popular culture, from Norse mythology through to Tolkien, which I recommend reading. The article notes how the role and nature played by the figure of the elf has changed according to society's requirements and beliefs, and how the popular conception in fantasy role-playing owes a huge debt to Tolkien and the earlier romantic revival. Given the diverse range of definitions for elf, I want the word to represent a kind of catch-all term for any kind of fey creature.  These creatures had a significant role in the shaping of the world of the Fells and the Valley Kingdoms, and the site of the sandbox can be considered to be a kind of crossover between the physical world and that of the fey. Given the Celtic-inspired background for the setting, this term could be used interchangeably with sithe, my own bastardisation of the Gaelic sidhe.

As stated, within the campaign, few mortals tread beyond the boundaries of the civilised world and experience such creatures first hand. However, one creature that they might come across, perhaps unknowingly, would be the Keiwosithe. I want a stand-in for the conventional elf class as listed in Dark Dungeons to provide an additional playable race. I like the idea that in ancient times, when fey creatures and men were united against their evil masters, their was inter-marriage between the species, creating the keiwosithe (a bastardisation of proto-Celtic- effectively "man-elf"). These people have accepted the role of guardians of the border between the Valleys and the Fells, and intermittently keep an eye on their human cousins.

Physically, I envisage them to be slightly shorter than humans and slighter of stature, with the classic pointed ears to boot. No earth-shattering trope-usurpation going on here, but it's good to include some familiar elements, especially as this is supposed to be a revitalisation of conventional fantasy tropes, though I'd like to add some additional cultural flavour. Because of their origins, the keiwosithe possess a culture more akin to iron age Celts than their medieval human allies. There's also no formal ties between the realms of the keiwosithe and men, the latter being secretive and isolated up in the fells.

Elves in Dark Dungeons are a class unto themselves, possessing both fighting and spellcasting abilities. I'd like to provide them their own spell list and remove the necessity of spellbooks, but these are details that can be ironed out later.


Two Völuspá Dwarves by Frølich
Like Elves, conceptions concerning dwarves in contemporary fantasy RPGs (including the pluralisation dwarves instead of dwarfs) are inspired by the works of Tolkien, As a result, dwarves are often descried as avaricious and crafty (deriving from their Germanic mythological manifestations), with additional nordic-warrior attributes taken from The Hobbit and LOTR. In a nutshell, they're greedy Vikings that live underground, with no magical attributes.

I like dwarves, but I'm unsure as to how well they will mesh with the setting I envisage. For starters, I'm edging towards the idea that most- if not all- humanoid or demi-human creatures are somehow connected to they fey, and dwarves aren't really in that category. However, I like the idea of the crafty, greedy and mischievous dwarves of Germanic folklore, which is perhaps a little closer to my concept of fey humanoids. Perhaps this role could be filled by a gnome type race. I'll leave dwarves for now and come back to gnomes later. There's a sentence I wouldn't have thought I'd ever write...


Bilbo in his hobbit-hole, original LOTR illustration by J.R.R. Tolkien
Before I go into my third polemic against the tolkienisation of fantasy role-playing, I should make a statement. I loved Tolkien. I still have the copy of The Hobbit my parents bought me for my eighth birthday, and the epic scope of LOTR was a hugely inspirational, for all sorts of reasons that are too multifarious to properly dissect here. I genuinely believe that without Tolkien, Dungeons and Dragons would never have been created, and there would be no such hobby as fantasy role-playing. That's a vaguely contorversial stand and not one I wish to analayse here... perhaps it would be suitable for a future post.

That said I'd like to avoid using some of the elements of the archetypal fantasy setting that cleave to keenly to the work of the great man. Halflings (and to a lesser extent, orcs) are almost trademarks of Tolkien (indeed, in the original D&D halflings were called hobbits, and experienced a name-change as a result of trademark regulations). In my Celtic inspired campaign, there's no room for bare-faced plagiarism (though plenty of room for "affectionate homages", this is just for fun, after all), so I'll drop halflings from the roster.

That said, I've only sketched out the outline for one playable demi-human. Furthermore, with the keiwosithe being a single class species, I only have five playable classes. I feel I should expand the available options.

In addition to all the million-and-one creative projects I have on the go at the moment, I'm building a CRPG (it's called Birchwood, since you asked) using RPG Maker 2003. The protagonist in this little game is an elfin fighter-sorcerer called Ursula. As I began to fill in the details for the world in which her adventure takes place (a world quite different and separate from The Fells, I hasten to add), I decided to make her a member of a race unique to that imaginary setting, and am considering importing them to The Fells, with some modifications.

An Additonal Playable Race..

The appeal of the keiwosithe was the fact that they could walk between the world's of fey and humans, and retained some magical powers from their fey heritage. Their powers, culture and appearance are rationalised by a the vague, in-game history in which their ancestry is both human and fey. I would like to create a new race along similar lines.

In  Birchwood Ursula looks a little like an elf: she has point ears, fair complexion, and fine features. However, I made her character a little stockier and hardier (she wields dual hand axes) and kitted her out in outfit similar to a siberian nomad. The concept sketches I drew were inspired by the various (unrelated) nomadic peoples of the arctic circle: Sami, Inuit, and the many historical Siberian nomads.

I quickly started to imagine a culture of albino, Arctic elf-dwarf hybrids, though in a setting in which neither dwarves or elves operated. I imagined them living in the inhospitable territories beyond the very limits of human civilisation, herding reindeer in the tundra, ice fishing, hunting seals and occasionally trading their immaculate craft items with human communities.

"Three Sámi Lapp women, c1890s" by not listed - j.cosmas. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Before I go on I just want to qualify that I'm well aware of the unique cultural identities possessed by the communities I have described. Furthermore, I am aware of the prejudice minority peoples of the Arctic circle encounter (and have encountered), including patronisation as a "magical" race. I'm designing the campaign setting for a game, and am drawing inspiration from the aesthetic of this diverse range of peoples as I create an entirely fictional race that inhabit a fantasy world. I write these words in the hope that I won't cause any offence to members of these communities.

The elf analogue inhabiting the plains, the keowosithe, were born of a marriage betwixt humans and fey during their struggle with an oppressive precursor race. I would like a similar background for my ice-elf-dwarves... actually, now's a good point to come up with a name. I usually turn to Google translate, so attempt to find out what elves (or their cultural equivalent) in Sami. Unfortunately, Google translate does not have an option to translate into the Sami language but I'm going to go with Finnish. I know the cultures are very different, but Finnish (Suomi) is a language of unique origin and will provide a good contrast to the largely proto-Celtic/Gaelic/Brythonic naming conventions I've utilised so far. This gives me keijukainen, which I shall shorten to keijuk, which I think has no meaning in Finnish but is not too difficult to pronounce whilst maintaining an air of exoticism.

So. like the keowosithe, the keijuk are a hybrid of human and fey, but one of less joyous origin. Whilst the keowosith were born of voluntary union between man and fey (or woman and fey), the keijuk were created by the precursors as a slave race. In the vague, imagined history of the Fells, this would have occurred before man and fey were united. The precursors sought the magical power of the fey, and in their efforts to subjugate them they first fashioned man, a being without magical power. Having achieved some success, they were able to create the keijuk: tougher and haardier than normal men, they also possessed some of the sithe's magical abilities.

The saves, stats and abilities will need to be refined, but the Keijuk have an established aesthetic. Resembling short (around 4'11" to 5'4"), stocky humans, they possess some "dwarven" characteristic, including a penchant for axes. Unlike dwarves, the Keijuk never grow facial hair. They have incredibly pale, almost pure white skin. Their eyes are red, pink or occasionally mauve. Their ears are pointed like elves, and they dress in animal skins.

I'm considering making two classes of Keijuk available: a spell-casting seer and a fighter-based warrior. As I say, more refinements will be made, but I'm happy with the broad defintions of the playable races.

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