Thursday, July 30, 2015

Monster Archaeology - Small Humanoids

Let's give this 'lil fellow a rest

Monsters and Treasure, volume 2 of three booklets, the 1970's box set version of Dungeon & Dragon's "Monster Manual" moves on from men directly into humanoids.  There are five normal sized humanoids, and most get only a line or two of text. They are also statistically uninteresting, lacking even the armor and weapon variety of human enemies and having no real flavor beyond a progression through four classes of enemy with incrementally improving AC, HP and Attack.  As much as battling orcs and goblins is a mainstay of tabletop gaming, and the mainstream of the heroic fantasy, these creatures are totally uninteresting as presented in Monsters and Treasure.  Perhaps they are a blank template to project one's own monstrous expectations upon, but here the difference between a kobold and a goblin is a single point of AC and a hit point or two.  

Orcs, which have a very long entry and which I've discussed previously, are an exception, but otherwise these humanoid descriptions are quite devoid of interesting information.  Kobolds have only a name and some mechanical details, while the entire goblin entry is:

GOBLINS: These small monsters are described in CHAINMAIL. They see well in darkness or dim light, but when they are subjected to full daylight they subtract -1 from their attack and morale dice.  They attack dwarves on sight. Their Hit Dice must always equal at least one pip.

Composition of Force: When in their lair the "goblin king" will be found. He will fight as a Hobgoblin in all respects. He will be surrounded by a body of from 5-30 (roll five six-sided dice) guards as Hobgoblins also.

They're small monsters that don't like the light, that's about it.

HOBGOBLINS: These monsters are large and fearless goblins, having a +1 morale.  The Hobgoblin King will fight as an Ogre, as will his bodyguard of from 2-4 in number.

Really the only distinction between humanoid types is a few hit points, a point of armor class and maybe a point or two of attack bonus.  Gnolls are the only exception to this, having a mistyped literary reference, but being almost (+1 morale) mechanically identical to hobgoblins.

Definitely set this one aside
GNOLLS: A cross between Gnomes and Trolls ( ...perhaps Lord Sunsany did not really make it all that clear) with a +2 morale. Otherwise they are similar to Hobgoblins, although the Gnoll king and his bodyguard of from 1-4 will fight as trolls but lack regenerative power.

This badly mauled reference is to Lord Dunsany, and his "How Nuth would have practiced his art upon the Gnoles".  The Gnoles in the story being some sort of nasty, clever, grove dwelling fairy that hide in the trees around their dilapidated house and hunt for rare poachers and thieves.  Really there is no description.  Also apparently it's ancient slang for a drunken idiot, perhaps this drunkeness explains the morale bonus? 

None of these humanoids are more then a word, and all we learn about them from their statistics is that they come large numbers (40 - 400 for goblins), and have kings of better then average strength.

Humanoids thus appear to be some kind of tribal menace, but any real details are lacking.  In the standard tabletop fantasy world they range from a comical nuisance to a looming threat to the lands of order, usually because they make up huge barbarian hordes or the endless armies of evil wizards.  I don't find this place for humanoids especially compelling. 

It seems to me that mid-period TSR started removing human enemies in favor of humanoids, to sidestep the criticism that D&D was a game focused on killing, because telling the story of a massacre of goblins is less disconcerting then the story of a massacre of humans, even bandits.  Perhaps there's a place for unalloyed evil in a game, creatures that are so opposed to the characters and civilization that they need to be exterminated.  I don't think this role is best suited by ill defined, fairly weak intelligent monsters, it's too much like genocide and to hard to lose that moral component even if the game can say that these enemies are 'evil' in some cosmic way.

It's not that I shy away from grimdark violence, I just find the inclusion of monstrous races that must be fought dull.  Far better that goblins (if one uses them in the traditional sense) fit into the game universe as more than something that appears in the spot on every low level random encounter table after the author has run out of more locale appropriate ideas. If humanoids exist in the game world it's useful to think why they exist (or still exist) and more importantly why they haven't been co-opted or otherwise become part of the dominant society.  For example, if one were running a game centered around that traditional high-fantasy human kingdom it seems very unlikely that even small bands of goblins would be anywhere within the reach of the King's lands and troops.  Kingdom's just don't allow armed bands of anything to roam about, especially warty man-eating little monster people.

Furthermore, let's look at the traditional fantasy goblin - he's a dumb, venal thing that likes living underground and can be bullied into toiling.  Why isn't every sewer and mine in the high fantasy kingdom filled with goblin drudges - they like it down there, they work cheap and can live off trash. 
This is more apparent with orcs and hobgoblins.  These creatures like to fight, they are amenable to military discipline and will work for pay.  The King's Orcish Legion is surely either guarding the palace or camped on the border. Hobgoblin armorers and bureaucrats thrive on the spit and polish of the Royal army, prideful of and efficient in the petty despotism they wield, while gnoll rangers protect the Kings forests from poachers for rations of pork, the right to eat anyone they catch and a silver badge. It goes further really, Since Half-orcs are a thing, they are surely also having children, even marrying into the local population when they muster out.  Pretty soon orcish features are fairly common in the High Fantasy Kingdom, especially in military families.

My favorite of these old illustrations
So if your setting is ordered and organized, there needs to be some explanation of why humanoids exist as these small tribal bands, antithetical to order.  In a less ordered game world humanoids as written make some sense, but then one must ask does one really need inhuman barbarians to punish?  Isn't just having the goblin peoples beyond the horizon benighted, half-demon and half-child a bit played out since about 1950? Isn't it just better to use human barbarians at that point?  It's also traditional to have humanoids as the servants of sinister wizards, warlords and other powerful dark forces.  This is somewhat unnecessary as well - if goblins et. al are statistically just weaker or stronger varieties of humans, then it feels much more interesting to simply use humans - and it also asks the question, why would organized armies of evil be scattered about rooting through old ruins in tribal groups? 

Humanoids need a reason to exist to be interesting - what are they, where do they come from?  In games I've played they've been mutants, alien invaders, alchemical creations and spirits of the land.  Something should exist that makes these smaller humanoids unique beyond the need to have new enemies separate them from 'evil' men. Another consideration that I like to make is that I don't really need a unique monster entry to have unique monsters.  A basic template (say 1st level fighter or 0 level human ) will work, with variations in appearance or special ability as needed.  This has the advantage of making each group of humanoids special or memorable and prevents them from being known more by their statistical abilities then by whatever world fiction one creates for them.

There are no goblins or kobalds in the fallen empire, perhaps some sort of primitive tribal humanoids still dwells in the deepest forests or darkest crags of some of the most distant lands, but within the Empire or even the Kingdoms that have sprung from its former provinces non-human natives have long been extinct.  Pograms, massacres, diasporas, and assimilation have pulled any kobalds from the mines, slaughtered the orcs in the hills and cut down the goblins along with their forests - the Empire dominated and controlled all it still claims once, and for long enough to make the extinction of its enemies more than a boast.

That isn’t to say that abhumans, sports and manlike monstrosities don’t fill every corner of the Empire, but they aren’t the product of speciation, they are the willful creations of Imperial hubris. The mutated voiceless tumormen that crawl from the ruins of villages subsumed by magical sinks are a constant, beastial, menace as are the lone creations of the Empire’s current crop of sorcerers, predatory amalgamations of dead flesh and overflowing fecundity, usually cobbled together from the corpses of servants. 

Beyond these relatively rare or localized examples of humanoid monsters, the Successor Empire’s Factors once held entire races of almost men, magically and alchemically altered human that have bread true for hundreds of generations.  Decay, collapse and war have claimed most of the Factors, and the thralls have spilled outward from their former homes.  While most of these factorial thralls are either so close to human that they have been able to set up villages in the shadows of the ruined factors and pass for slightly off rural folk, some were bred by especially insane sorcerers or for especially strange purposes.   Hairless, eyeless miner-folk that live only from the milk of their hive mothers still tunnel ever expanding catacombs, hulking brutes once created for heavy labor now roam the Empire’s verge in placid, but dangerous, herds. While many of these magically altered abhumans are dangerous, they are not actively evil or devoted to ruinous powers, but rather acting with feral caution or learned distrust of other peoples.

Even the cities are not free from abhumans, the sorcerers of the Successor Empire were as fond of making servants and curiosities, and many of these human subspecies continue to prosper.  Generally this sort of abhuman is smaller, quicker, stealthier and more tireless than normal humanity, and many have amusingly grotesque faces or animal traits.  This sort of modification is purely cosmetic, and once served to amuse the creators of these peoples, but now marks them out as less than human to most of the Empire’s population. While many urban abhuman families or bands will make their homes in the unused portions of crumbling (or abandoned) noble mansions, and eek out a precarious existence as scavengers, some have turned sour and now hunt humanity through the streets for pleasure or simply for food, dwelling in hidden rookeries and the deep sewers.

Most dangerous are the few communities of abhuman soldiers that still exist in the wilds of the Empire.  In the wars that created the Successor Empire many breeds of warrior men were forged, and while most died out, a few strains have survived and fled into dark hidden places.  These warrior tribes are cautious and fanatically violent, as their cosmologies all speak of the first of their kind being born in pain among the stone rookeries beneath the Imperial palace and their heroic forefathers having survived endless battlefields , fighting underfoot, beneath the towering destruction of titan, demon and celestial.  For the warrior thralls, humanity fills the cosmological role that demons usually take – they know that there are men abroad in the world that seek to slay them and take their children to breed into expendable shock troops.  This isn’t to say that there is pure animosity between warrior thrall tribes and the Empire’s abandoned peasantry.  A few rural villages have secret pacts with the “Hill Men”, “Varangians” or “Beast Soldiers” to defend or shelter them in times of need in exchange for food and the occasional marriageable youth. Some of the earliest strains of warrior thrall are even rather human in appearance, taller, stronger, and more handsome perhaps, but still essentially human, while the ones cobbled together with apprentices’ spellbooks and badly adapted demonic rituals can be truly hideous.  All are highly effective in combat, maturing rapidly (even if they breed slowly without magical encouragement), healing quickly, and possessing a natural sense of weapon use and warcraft.

As a mechanical matter, all of these abhumans fill the same game niches (from 1/2 HD kobold to 3HD gnoll) with distinctions even among the same tribe or band.  As an aesthetic matter I don’t want my humanoids to be pure monsters – more creatures that are simply trying to survive in the ugly world of the Fallen Empire, but whose reasonable fears and species history makes them entirely antithetical to adventuring parties.  A couple of examples:

A band of kobold/goblin equivalent thrall men with soft fur and vulpine faces may be stealing children back to the ruins of a collapsed mansion, where they live in the walls and worship the mummified corpse of the last noble mistress in her perfectly dust free parapet bedchamber/temple.  The scurrying foxmen, clad in rotten lace and bare velvet (sometimes layered into armor) and armed with carving knives, need kidnap and devour infants to survive – it’s the only thing that allows them reproduce, and they see no wrong in it as they are still under the impression that their ancestors were given that the townsmen around them are disposable plebeians.  They sacrifice the children with great solemnity and sadness, because they are not cruel or without empathy. Tracking these creatures the party will need to deal with a band of 30+ goblins in their lair, where they scurry through the walls and ceiling and deem anyone entering the rooms of the mansion to be an ‘uninvited guest’ worthy of trapping, stabbing and eating (unless PC noble leaves a calling card or makes properly noble demands).  Individually of course the fox-men are rational, courteous and subservient – but they are still baby eating monsters, even if they would be happy to reach a deal with the townsfolk to exchange babies for the mansion’s silver.

A town on the border is led by dour robed elders.  The elders have long pacted with a band of warrior thralls in the fortified secret valley nearby.  The thralls may look half-lizard and half hairy human, but are peaceable enough (call them hobgoblins stat-wise) maintaining their ancient warrior code. The villagers however are greedy, and abuse the pact to have the thralls waylay travelers and loot them – claiming anyone who comes near is an invader with malicious intent and subject to murder under the pact.  The thralls aren’t blameless, they extract a tribute of spouses from the village with each successfully raided caravan, but really they’d rather go back to hiding in their valley drilling and writing terrible epic poetry (and the younger townsfolk would rather go back to marrying each other rather than being passed off to the hideous warrior thrall tribe in exchange for loot). 

In the souks of the Capital a band of mercenary treasure hunters begins to compete with the party, its core is a group of warriors, all six or seven feet tall an, with serene golden faces.  These are a band of warrior thrall (once created as palace guards) who have left their mountaintop tribe and its failing spring to scout for a new homeland.  They’ve lost their way a bit, but realize that by selling their skills they can perhaps get enough money together to buy a title to some moribund estate somewhere.  This plan is terrible of course – an estate of perfect warrior people, unprotected by serious war machines and held under dubious title will be the target of every noble within 500 miles.  The problem is that while generally sympathetic the thralls are secretive about their goals (and that they are abhumans), in competition with the party and fairly rude in their assumed superiority. If they are killed or fail in their plan however, a small, nihilistically self-destructive army of similar creatures (as gnolls) will descend on the towns in an orgy of burning and slaughter as their water source has become magically polluted and they have nowhere else to go.


  1. This is very good. I especially like the flavors of warrior-thralls you describe.

    I once had the idea of going through the MM and reskinning everything as a human-sized humanoid. Trolls are just buff dudes with regeneration, dragons are swordsmen with fire breath, even giant boa constrictors are wrestlers that crush your ribcage.

    Like pokemon, except everything is *people*.

    1. That sounds even more humancentric then I intend - there are certainly monster in the Fallen Empire (Owlbears, always horrible parliaments of owlbears, huffing and cawing, snapping the bones of hedge wizards to get at the little bit of magic in the marrow) though it's humanoid ones (ghouls are another, even more anti social version of Factorial Thralls) will tend to be magically warped men.

      The other major monster groups are magical creation monsters (like owlbears), undead, demons and celestials, I think Giant will likely get reskinned as Demon or Celestial half-bloods.

  2. Goblins are super-polinators. Its why we have Goblin+wild dog (barghest), Goblin +wild pony (pooka), Goblin+kobold(knocker), Goblin+hob(hobgoblin), Goblin+cave bear(bugbear), Goblin+human(halfling)...LOL. Just joking about the last one but you get the point about goblins.

    1. It is very easy to reskin goblins and small humanoids. ASE does something similar to you suggestion, with the classic demi-human races all being goblin (or grey alien if you prefer) and human hybrids, though it uses science rather then the fungal spore analogy, which I believe was an early Warhammer explanation for the persistence of goblinoids, though later dropped. I believe Warhammer 40K's 'Kroot' auxiliaries also operate similarly, with an elastic genome that allow them to steal and incorporate material from anything they devour and produce odd hybrids.

  3. So why are Goblins not part of the human civilization? Because humans are bigots. The reason we have goblins in legend is because they were a branch of the human race that got pushed aside by those who considered themselves 'real humans'.