Friday, July 19, 2013

Orcs, Goblins, and Gnolls, Oh My

I've mostly been running some Call of Cthulhu games lately, so the itch to get back to running fantasy is growing.  Plus, it's summer, and the kiddos are out of school - it's high time for another family game!  The two littles are old enough to follow along with a game, and my daughter can read a character sheet now, so they'll be off to THE KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS* shortly - mom and the three kids.

Here's the thing - kids and Gygaxian Naturalism don't mix.  There will be no orc babies or crying goblin moms in the game, mewling that the adventurers just killed their husbands.  I could have the whole table reduced to tears in short order.  (In fact, there is no crying in Dungeons & Dragons).  Ergo, it's time to whip up some alternate origins for the humanoid races, ones that put them firmly in the realm of monsters, and not as misunderstood, hairy pseudo-people.

The jealous Lord of the Underworld (Hades, Nix, or a similar character) works hard to keep the ways and passages to his gloomy realm hidden from mortals, and the kobolds were created to lure and confuse miners (ie, tommyknockers).  They delight in creating devious traps and laying ambushes, watching from the shadows with their ghostly, dead eyes.  As a Lord of the Dead, Hades is unable to create natural life, and thus the kobolds aren't truly alive - they're golem-like constructs made from children's bones,  rat's blood, and other scavenged materials, stewed in Hade's giant cauldrons.

The souls of wicked humans become wriggling larva, squirming in the pit of Hell, but powerful witches (Satanic witches) are able to call them back to the mortal world through their dark pacts.  They grow them in breeding pits into disciplined servants, the orcs.  There is no hope for redemption for any orc; there's only the belief that if they serve well and inflict sufficient pain and suffering on their maker's victims, they'll climb a rung on the ladder when they're cast back down to the pit.

Beneath the moldering eaves of the Goblin King's vast forest, putrid gardens spew forth the goblins and their larger cousins, the hobgoblins.  The goblins claw their way up out of the ground, chalk-colored and earthy, with a tuft of leaves on top of their heads to attest to their gestation as a root vegetable.  They're drawn to the woods and forests near human settlements to carry out their favorite diversion, kidnapping human children and carrying them off to wander the Goblin King's gigantic labyrinth beyond the mortal world.

Hobgoblins are grown from massive gourds, like pumpkins, and frequently use serrated shields and edged weapons that allude to sharpened leaves, or bulbous armor that calls to mind the contours of a large gourd.  Unlike their smaller brethren, the hobgoblins delight in robbery and banditry, frequently forming armed bands that terrorize lonely sections of roads and trails.  They eventually carry their loot to the Goblin King's vast treasuries, making the crossing each Halloween and vying to be crowned the new hobgoblin king for the next year.

Bugbears are the boogeymen of faerie lore, gangly fairy creepers covered in short, bristlelike fur, peering out of the shadows with their multifaceted eyes and clacking mandibles.  They can climb walls like a spider and contort to fit into near impossible spaces, such as the nook beneath the stairs, the hall closet, or perhaps squeeze down a narrow chimney.  Their insides are filled with bugs and worms and all manner of crawling things that spill out if they're killed.  Their mistress is a cruel and mad faerie lady, covered in spider webs that suggest a veiled wedding dress; she's known to sages only as "the Bride".

When the demonic witch Baba Yaga needed footsoldiers capable of running tirelessly across the steppes, she transformed a mongrel pack of wild dogs into the first gnolls, and taught the first gnoll shamans the dark rituals necessary to consecrate future mongrel litters to Yeenoghu and warp more canines into two-legged gnolls.  Roaming bands of these marauders leave behind death, destruction, and a noticeable lack of dogs.

The oldest crime, the oldest prohibition, is against cannibalism, and there is a spirit that sometimes takes root when a man eats the flesh of another man, transforming the forbidden diet into an addiction while changing the transgressor - body, mind, and soul - into a hulking man-eater that lumbers off into the wilderness to indulge its dark passions far from torches, pitchforks, and angry villagers.  Possession by the ogre spirit leads to an immortality, of sorts.

There we have it - my quick set of alternate humanoid descriptions.  I suppose if I'm doing THE KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS, I should tackle Lizard Men, too.  Hmm, upon rereading, I notice they're not quite as "kid friendly" or whimsical as I would have hoped.  Perhaps I watch too many horror movies to run a kid's D&D game.  But kids are tough, and real fairy tales are pretty scary, right?  They'll be fine, right?

*Gygaxian syntax requires all of his published works to be capitalized.


  1. Great stuff! I am not fond of the traditional humanoids as savage tribespeople, either, whether playing with adults or hypothetically with children. I have done some similar things in my campaign setting as you, to give a stronger connection to the fairy tale and folklore origins of the creatures.

    My kobolds are not little lizard dogmen, but are the knockers of miners' superstition. They look like wizened, corrupted gnomes (and they are sort of dark mirrors to the gnomes, with whom they are bitter rivals in the mines).

    My goblins are a mix of the Unseelie Court, the Goblin Market, and Labyrinth (though I haven't quite worked up the nerve to cast David Bowie as the Goblin King yet). Goblins lure the naive and unwary to their feasts, where their food transforms humans into goblins. Children become goblins, adults become hobgoblins.

    Bugbears are huge but silent bogeymen who lurk in the dark and abduct the unfortunate. I envision them as looking like the "Sweetums" Muppet, except less lovable.

    Orcs used to be human, but have been driven insane by too much time in the dungeon. I think of them as angel dust crazed ragers, completely savage, like the Reavers from Firefly.

    Ogres are dimwitted cannibals, always looking to toss a baby in the stewpot.

    I haven't used gnolls or lizard men yet. I figure lizard men stem from a pulp fantasy background, so they might be closer to the traditional savage tribe (they are Neutral rather than Chaotic, after all). Gnolls strike me as too much of a D&D original to have much universal resonance.

    Hope your family game is a lot of fun for everybody!

    1. The Reavers from Firefly are a great model for a humanoid race... plus you can make them diseased mutants like in the movie, rather than a tribal species.

      I think you're right that I can leave Lizard Men as a biological race, hatched from eggs. The Neutral alignment doesn't bespeak a supernatural origin like the Chaotic one.

  2. Wait...children's bones and rat blood is more child friendly than a crying orphan? Seems...tit for tat to me. You must have some tough young-un's; my daughter would be all about "which children's bones? What happened to them?" etc.

    1. I dunno, I wouldn't be surprised to stumble on an origin like that in something Roald Dahl wrote.

  3. Holy cow! Those might be kid friendly for Charlie Manson's kids, but for any other kids it would be like sticking tin foil into an electrical outlet and then putting a Barney sticker on it. Wow. I love every one of them, and will, to be honest, steal pretty much all of it for my home game with adults. It's too awesome to not steal. But kid friendly? Sheesh. Well-done on the creep factor!

  4. I love them, and think they're awesome, and although I suspect you will be checking for bugbears underneath your stairs until the kids are 20, I say go for it!

  5. I'll know the descriptions are successful if the first time they smite a bugbear, the response goes from "Wicked! It's like a big Piñata," to "Gross, it was full of bugs quick get them off me quick I hate little spiders!"

    On the other hand, I can rest assured no one will have qualms destroying any of these things as monsters when encountered.

  6. I like them a lot, but I feel like the Ogre treads on ghoul territory a bit.

  7. Great stuff! My current players (all teenagers, including my 16 year old son) have been providing meat to a mated pair of goblins who failed a morale check after 10 of their group were wiped out by the PCs... the goblins now serve them as guides in the first level of the dungeon (caverns) they were never able to successfully map, and in return, the PCs feed them between games. It's not just pre-teens who might be too soft-hearted to kill!