(a broadside)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Origin of Species

In my mind, the idea of dozens of sentient species all sprouting up around each other on the same planet doesn't necessarily make a whole lot of sense. Look oat our own. Several precursors, several pretenders to our throne of dominance that we either ate or mated with, and we're the latter day result. Numerous racial divisions exist, but we are all homo sapiens. Bipedal, omnivorous mammals that have proven to be highly adaptable to whatever surroundings we happen to wander into. That's why humans are all over the damned map, even in otherwise uninhabitable areas. We're tough suckers with a stubborn streak a mile long. No other being on Earth comes close. Arts, crafts, language, thought, and society separate us from the beasts of the wild. We are alone on this blue marble.

Since we pretty much killed or humped our opposition into oblivion, it seems unlikely that other higher life forms would rise to the same level at the same time.  This also points to the idea that everyone "close" to doing so was of the same genus ( Homo erectus, Neanderthals, etc). Are "demi" humans just other homo species? That could make sense. Add magic to the mutation mix and I could see hominids splitting off into wild directions to match their environment. And that would explain why most look vaguely similar and why crossbreeding is possible. Using this idea, perhaps these could all come from the same planet and from the same common ancestor. 

But what of other sapients? Mind Flayers and aboleths and beholders and so on? Well, we can always make those bizarre aliens from deep space, no problem. Prehistorical monstrosities from beyond time and space make me happy, anyway.

Perhaps animal-human hybrids (like raven men (kenku), lizardfolk, frogfolk, etc) are the result of mad science. That would work. Again, it would explain why so many beast-men types are at least somewhat cosmetically similar to men. How many monsters are just 1/2 man and 1/2 other thing, anyway? Lots and lots and lots.

Still, in line with the likes of Conan, I like the idea that certain races are bizarre precursors, strange leftovers from a previous time. Ancient people who's civilizations are long fallen, who dwell in weird lands that eschew humanity. Yuan-ti and kuo-toa for a D&D example.

But, if the races are not so closely related, it would make sense if each races started on its own native world, where it evolved in just such a way to meet its own needs. Elfkin could hale from a light, airy world, low on gravity, clean, splendid, and bursting with magic. Dwarves could originate from a hostile high gravity world whose toxic surface forced them underground. The home world of the goliaths could be a vast, rocky land of thin air and unbelievably vast mountain peaks. Halflings could have originated on a small moon, fertile and forested, with enough bad things to encourage roaming and higher gravity to encourage short growth...or they're short to discourage giant beasties from eating them.

Halflings are the ewoks of D&D. Think about that.

I like both origin ideas. I like when things make some manner of logical sense, instead of "poof, a god did it." (Sure, I'm planning on creating such a setting with some people, but that's beside the point...) Sadly, both origins don't particularly work at the same time. Both explanations would, however, point a related campaign in a different direction, making for some interesting background material.

The first option (interrelatedness of humanoid sapients) leads me to think of an ancient, cosmopolitan world of super science. Ethics issues ("we've created all these beast folk and they're kinda pissed that we treat 'em badly...who knew?" "The warforged want rights again? Can't those jerks just be happy we give them jobs?"), religious issues ("If you made us, what is "god?") could arise. Truly ancient racial rivalries could arise, not unlike our own world.

Maybe civilization has risen only to fall again in a cycle so that the origins of each is shrouded in the annals a a lost Golden Age?

The second idea (otherworldly origins for all) points me towards a Star Wars like Spelljammer setting . . . or, perhaps the remnants of one. What are all these species doing on this one lonely planet? What happened to their home worlds? Did a doom of epic proportions befall the solar system? Did sudden competition for resources arise?

Both settings could have a Great Age. Both could just as easily lie in ruins. I do have a special fondness for ruining a perfectly good world . . . .

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

[RPG Blog Carnival] "What Inspires Your Games?"

From the very nice Campaign Mastery comes the titular topic of discussion.

Specifically, "what non-game media has inspired your game and how?"

While I can easily trot out any number of novels, fantasy and otherwise, or point to a  selection of films that I've filed free of their serial numbers, these don't have quite the depth of material to plumb as our world's own written history.

As a history major, I'm sure that I'm biased. However, the fact that our history is so chock full of madness, murder, and monstrosity, of political maneuvering, quid pro quo and backstabbing, that there is more than enough material to contribute to any number of campaigns from here to eternity.

Let no one tell you that history is boring. History is nuts. It's full of epic tales and heroes and villains, each one more brilliant or mad or zealous than the last.

Need a passionate leader to stir up the common man against rapacious nobility? Look no further than Father Hidalgo of old Mexico. I could probably put together an entire campaign from his history, changing only names and locations.

Need a setting? I like to mix various places from the past into a blender with another culture or a novel/film/lone idea and see what happens. For example, I had an idea that involved mixing Pre-Tzarist Russia and The Pirates of Dark Water. Instead of one vast rocky wilderness, break up the continent into a massive archipelago ruled by a horde of petty princes, where life is only worth a blood price, and replace the horsemen Mongol invaders with a massive fleet of pirates. Bam. Skeleton of an idea. Could be fun.

The plots and personalities of history can be skewed and reinvented in a practically infinite number of ways. I can and do appropriate history for settings, the people who live in those settings, their cultures, and the plots that drive them.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Formative Canon

My parents, bless 'em, were a lax sort in some ways. They didn't police my interests, religious views, or television/film viewing. They trusted me to see after myself in such things. Also, when I was a young fella, they were under the impression that, if something was animated, it was meant for kids. An idea which we of the Internet know is not remotely true.

Therefore, I was permitted to see and delve into a variety of strange things in my formative years that helped mold me into the goofily sardonic headcase that I am today.

Ralph Bakshi's Wizards is a far flung future Earth, millions of years after a nuclear holocaust. What remains of mankind are twisted abominations wracked with radiation. With mankind gone, the magical folk that ditched the scene after Technology won the world started waking up and engaging in lots of magical hippy activity. Two wizardly twin brothers are born, one a kind, handsome fellow, the other a hateful cadaver-lookin' sucker. Oddly enough, they end up wanting to kill each other. Happy bro turns to peace, love, and Magic, while Scary Spice turns to demons, Nazis, and Technology. That's right. Undead Nazis. I was watching undead Nazis kill elves and fairies and stuff at the age of three.

Hell yeah.

Sure, the underlying message is kinda head slapping, but the world is bizarre and captivating. It was an early example of walking dead folks, truly vile villains, and a rare fantasy world without humans mucking about.

The film version of The Last Unicorn was on a pretty constant rotation for me when I was a kid. I found the music catchy (because I dig 70s band America, apparently), and the animation was beautiful for the time. The company Lord Grade produced the film - they're mostly known for a bunch of holiday specials back in the day. They did their work in English, but they hired out Japanese animators. So this is some sort of quasi anime. Anyway, the all-star cast portray a fairy tale of the last remaining unicorn trying to find her sisters. She meets an incompetent wizard, Misses Lovette the witch, a sad ex-virgin, a handsome prince, and Christopher Lee being Christopher Lee. This one also features a sentient skeleton guarding a secret, demanding a bottle of wine before he'll give up his knowledge.

"But you're dead! You can't taste wine, can't smell it!"

"But I can remember . . . "

Ah, dead people.

It's a wistful, bittersweet film, and the novel is even more so. It is beautiful and sad - a world of crumbling magic and legends where "there are no happy endings, because nothing ever ends."

Ghostbusters. Film and cartoon. Dead people everywhere. The cartoon featured an Apocalypse episode and a Cthulhu episode (my first encounter with the big guy and one of my favorite episodes as a kid).

Add the Rankin and Bass animated version of the Hobbit and I think that about covers my formatives.

One of the greatest fantasy tales ever told, a bittersweet story about unicorns, a risque post apocalyptic fantasy, ghosts and snarky protagonists. Shows and films that I would watch over and over and over again.