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.