Warning PG-13 content

It’s been suggested that I should advise readers that some of the discussion that follows touches on topics of a mature nature and may not be suitable for thos under the age of 13. Children should consult their parents before reading this article. Personally, I think most children these days are well aware of the issues, though they may not understand them, and I went to considerable effort to adopt a non-partisan and unbiased approach to the topics in question, clearly indicating when I was voicing a personal opinion. But make your own judgments to suit your own circumstances.

The Unconventional Dwarf from Spectacle Publishing

The Unconventional Dwarf from Spectacle Publishing

Custom Worlds and Populations

I’m a strong believer in the principle that each campaign should have its own unique game world, or should extend and expand on the established game world in the event of a sequel campaign set in the same adventuring environment.

The Fumanor Example

The first Fumanor Campaign established a vast human Kingdom in all but name, recovering from an apocalyptic turn of events roughly a century earlier. In truth, this had started as a Barony, and the political usage had not yet caught up with the reality as it had expanded. It had now grown too large for effective central administration under the baronial model; it needed to create a new upper level to the political hierarchy and subdivide itself. Along the way it introduced variants on a number of other races common to modern roleplaying, but these were all fringe elements to the primary human-dominated setting.

The second Fumanor Campaign added detail to the political, social, religious, and spiritual tapestry of that human not-yet Kingdom, and introduced more substance to the variant Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, etc, while introducing variants on Ogres, Minotaurs, Dragons, Spiders, and Trolls, amongst others.

The third Fumanor Campaign brought the internal and external pressures to a head, explained the hidden truth behind the apocalypse, and split the Barony into three Kingdoms. It expanded still further on the theology, and revealed the meaning behind a number of concurrent plot threads that had been present from day One. It added variants on Treants, a desert-dwelling human society completely distinct from that which had been established, a reinvented Fey, and a new self-aware variant of Golem, and a race of sentient illusions.

The fourth and fifth campaigns are currently running concurrently. The fourth has introduced an Empire of Undead, added considerable depth to the Elves, Ogres, Drow, and Orcs, and much more. The Orcs and Elves series extends and expands on the non-human history and culture as a prelude to the second half of the fourth campaign (and an essential ingredient in the conclusion of the first half).

The Fifth has explored in greater depth many of the elements introduced in the third, exploring the difference between the religion of the realms and the theology, and detailed the variants on Goblins and Dragons that were present back in the first campaign but which didn’t figure heavily in the plot at the time.

None of these societies were static; each new Campaign brought refinement and added depth.

The How-to made easy in a nutshell

Sometimes it can seem like a lot of work, but it can also be a lot of fun – and is usually a lot less work than it first appears, because I don’t try and do it all at once.

Make an interesting change in one race. Modify the world and its history to accommodate the difference, and the way it would impact on interactions with other races, by going through these items one at a time. Then go through each of those changes and look for consequences and ripple effects, and adjust to accommodate those. Once you have beaten everything into shape, make a change to another race, and repeat. Tailor each of the races to suit the overall campaign idea you have, or let a campaign idea emerge naturally and simply concentrate on making each race different, plausible, and interesting. Really, that’s all there is to it – at least in theory. Practice can be quite a different kettle of fish, and it can always be useful to have a source of different ideas to spark your own imagination.

A Dwarvish Example

You can get some idea of how this process works by reading Creating Alien Characters: Expanding the ‘Create A Character Clinic’ To Non-Humans, where I offer a unique variation on Dwarves of my own – one that starts with the abilities that they are reputed to have in D&D/Pathfinder, finds a way for those to make sense in terms of game physics, and then tracks the resulting changes back through other aspects of the race and to the logical impacts on their society and culture.

The Unconventional Dwarf at first glance

So you can see why I might be interested in a product like “The Unconventional Dwarf” that offers eight unique and detailed original variations on your bog-standard dwarf, plus an in-context look at the “Conventional” Dwarf.

The details of each variation are broken into sections; some vary from entry to entry, but the ones common to all deal with:

  • Physiology
  • Society
  • History
  • Faith and Magic
  • Warcraft, Arms, and Armor
  • Variants and Story Hooks (omitted from the chapter on Hive Dwarves).

Some races have other sections as well, further delineating the variation. As you would expect from something with this level of content, this is not a small supplement. Including License and Covers, we’re talking about 94 pages.

What’s within those covers? Well, let’s start by misquoting the back-page blurb (and making it more accurate in the process, I hope):

DWARVES! Those ale-quaffing, axe-wielding, armor-smithing, mine-digging, treasure-grubbing, tough old cantankerous skinflints. You know dwarves, right?

Think again.

Within these pages you will find dwarven scholars who study the language of creation itself, dwarven orators who live and die by the stories they tell, dwarven soldiers who have conquered – and united – most of the known world, and dwarven shape-shifters who come in peace from the cold reaches between the stars.

There are dwarves who fight desperate underwater battles against merfolk, who shave the beards off of their men to humble them, who revel in the power and perfection of their own bodies, and who curse the fickle nature of the common cabbage.

So trade in your battleaxe for a scythe, gladius, or sharpened space, swap out that horned helmet for a jaunty feathered hat or a skullcap, and leave that mineshaft behind. Tropical islands, barren scrub, and Zultur Milati (the living cosmos) await.

Are you interested yet? You should be!

PDF Icon

Click to open the Author & Artist Bios

The Authors

The Unconventional Dwarf is a collaboration between 9 people – writers, authors, and artists – under the editorial guidance of the first of the nine, Tof Eklund. Between them, they cover the entire spectrum of gaming experience from new fan to old hand. What they share is a passion for the hobby itself and a love of originality. The full credits are:

  • Series Editor – Tof Eklund
  • Concept – Tof Eklund and Kevin Archibald
  • Contributors – Amy Walraven, Jeremiah Smith, Rhiannon Reyes, Tof Eklund, Malcom Dale, Sean Boyce, and Kevin Archibald
  • Art – Jennifer Brown, Malcolm Dale, Jelani Parham
  • Cover – Rob Gee
  • Layout and Design – Josh M. Lenius
  • Editing – Judy Spring and Angi Gray

You may have heard some of these names before, or they might all be new to you. In most cases, this is their first foray into published game product. Suffice it to say that they all appear to have done a competent job! Tof was kind enough to excerpt the biographies; rather than quoting them in full, I’m including them as an attachment.

The Unconventional Dwarf – The opening Salvos

If it seems like I’m paying relatively little attention to the variants themselves, that’s no accident. There are two reasons for this: First, you can get the full details just by buying the supplement from RPG Now. The PDF costs US$9.99 and the Softcover US$14.99 (plus shipping) or you can get both for just US$19.99 – but these are discounted prices and may not last, so get in quickly!

The second reason is that I want to focus my attention on the opening sections of the book for a while.

The Introductory Note – a jaded gamer

The first thing you find when you start reading the e-book is the introduction by Tof. A lot of people skip these, just as a lot of people never watch the DVD extras that are practically ubiquitous these days, and both are missing out on valuable information and insights.

Tof starts with a lament for the sense of wonder that RPGs and The Lord Of The Rings conjured for him when he was in elementary school. He blames this on blatantly derivative works that feel like “Tolkien recycled and ‘pumped up’ with bigger swords, showier magic, and dark lords of darker darkness”, the worlds of Arneson and Gygax “fetishized, over-refined, represented as new”. Aside from loving the phrase, dark lords of darker darkness, I have to say that I disagree with his diagnosis, if not with the symptoms he identifies.

The attribution of blame ignores two factors; the first is that when first encountered, everything is (by definition) new and exciting; you can never fully recapture that compound of innocence and naivety, and everything you encounter thereafter will always seem that little less exciting in comparison. That’s why first loves are always special to us, no matter how badly the relationship ends.

What Tof describes is everything that was wrong with the D&D movie – and the biggest complaint from gamers that I remember hearing when it first came out was how limp and uninspired it was. It felt cobbled together from D&D clichés, a thousand games reduced to their lowest common denominator and assembled into a mélange that barely managed to be internally-consistent.

The second factor is the impact of gosh-wow special effects on imaginations and expectations, a subject I’ve discussed before – initially in Are Special Effects Killing Hollywood? and subsequently in an update to that article, The Gap In Reality: Immersion in an RPG Environment.

The Introductory Note – The Flawed Legacy

Tof then continues,

Then there’s what’s left out: the weak points in the works of the founders are still there. Oversimplified morality, racial hierarchies, the divine right of kings; these backwards notions are taken for granted. Female characters are more represented in fantasy today than in Tolkien, but that “representation” tends to be in a chain-mail bikini, and there are generally no gays, lesbians, or other queers. Settings and cultures are relentlessly Western European, with occasional tokens from the “exotic” and “barbaric” east.
    Oh, and every adventurer is an orphan.

There’s a lot to be said in reference to these specific criticisms. Some are correct and eminently justified; others are misapplied, some are unreasonable expectations in the context of gaming (at least in my opinion), and some are just plain wrong (again in my opinion). I’m going to address each of these complaints, but in a slightly different order.

Female representation:
Let’s start with something we both agree on. Absolutely right, but popular media always lag behind contemporary social thought. It wasn’t much more than 100 years ago that women first got the right to vote (kudos to the Kiwis for being the first to embrace female suffrage). Prior to WWII, women were still repressed socially, confined to the roles defined by a Victorian cultural ethos. Post-WWII, it was known that women could hold any job going – but doing so was socially taboo and frowned apon. Change in this attitude was gradual over the next 25-35 years – and even in the 80s, there were social stigma attached to female executives and CEOs. To some extent, these attitudes persist to this day, but they are fading. Nevertheless, issues like wage inequality and glass ceilings are still hot topics.

Tolkien was born before any of this progress had taken place, and he barely an adult when suffrage began to seep through the western world. The Lord Of The Rings was written & published in a time still emerging from that Victorian ethos. The roles it provides for women are a representation of the popular opinion of its era in most respects, slightly conservative in some respects and slightly progressive in others.

The other elements which fantasy gaming derive from are historical, western medieval in fact. Attitudes to women were even more restrictive. From the time of its first publication, D&D has struggled to dance on the tightrope between historical accuracy, Tolkien-derived fantasy elements, and contemporary social attitudes. With the coming of 3.x and Pathfinder, bias against females was taken out of the rules systems, a significant step forwards; but both still reflect the 1980s-1990s attitude that a female leader had to be “Butch” to succeed.

There is an inherent generation gap involved in all social progress. Generation #1 accepts something in principle. Generation #2, raised in the atmosphere engendered by Generation #1, acknowledges the gap between reality and principle, and strives to make what has been accepted “in principle” attainable “in theory”, removing the practical and legal impediments that create that gap. Generation #3, raised in an atmosphere where the principle is attainable in theory, notes the gap between reality and what should be attainable in theory, and strives to remove the social barriers that prevent theory from becoming reality. With Generation #4, a few pioneers actually take up that opportunity, but in order to compete with regressed counterparts, are forced to mimic them. Only with Generation #5, raised in a social environment in which the achievements of those pioneers are taken for granted, does it become possible for the original problem to start becoming a non-issue. Society is only just getting to that point now when it comes to gender equality, and there are still gaps to be addressed.

You don’t generally get to make a substantial literary contribution until you’re in your mid-to-late twenties if not your mid-to-late thirties. So the printed word in any mass-market context is always going to be thirty years behind the contemporary attitude unless the author makes a deliberate effort to be “hip” and “modern”. Media does, so it is usually a little ahead of the curve; RPGs are nerdy, so they tend to be a little behind the curve. So, here we are in 2013. Thirty years ago, it was 1983. Female characters in games can now do anything a male character can do, but to really compete with the men, they still have to adopt a particularly masculine attitude. Society might be entering Generation 5, but movies & TV shows with a female lead are just entering Generation 4. And RPGs are still only approaching that point.

The rules changes I mentioned clearly make 3.x analogous to Generation 2. Pathfinder carries the hobby to Generation 3. Tof is clearly advocating the need for someone to step up and lead the hobby into a new Generation, though he may not have thought of it in those terms.

Absence of sexual alternatives:
I described the social phenomenon in deliberately generic terms because it applies to more than gender equality, it is true of virtually every form of social progress, from racial equality to the acceptance of “alternative” lifestyles – and I’m not talking about hippies. While gay leading men may now be accepted, how many leading roles are openly gay? What was the general social attitude toward these groups back in 1983-84? Here’s a clue: In January 1984, Queen released the single Radio Gaga. They were still months away from the cross-dressing filmclip, “I Want To Break Free”. While speculation was rife, Freddie Mercury had not publicly admitted his sexual orientation. He still had more than seven years to live.

It follows that hoping for anything even approaching a modern attitude to this subject is almost certainly going to be hoping in vain.

But there is a secondary factor: once again, we face that same tightrope walk between historical foundations and a contemporary audience. Even disregarding the Western European question for the moment, what was the attitude toward alternative orientations in medieval China? In Africa? In Egypt? In Hawaii? Amongst the Norse? The Celts? The Visigoths? The French? I’m not singling anyone out – it doesn’t matter where you point to on the globe or the history books, it won’t even be mentioned unless it’s being condemned in a Holy Book. That’s why the modern attitude is considered “modern”. So hoping for anything different in any setting which is not explicitly modern is once again almost certainly doomed to be a let-down.

And a tertiary one. It must be remembered that the target market for most RPGs have been the 13+ age group, not the 18+ age group. That carries an implication counter to adult topics such as sexuality. Almost everything is either going to be G- or PG-Rated, and those ratings are fundamentally incompatible with topics like sexual orientation, at least in terms of dealing with the subject seriously. Society is only just learning how to talk about this stuff at an adult level, never mind how it should be represented at a younger level.

Will RPGs ever get to a place where sexual orientation can be dealt with in an age-appropriate but mature and respectful way? Certainly. But I don’t think it’s less than a decade away. I therefore don’t consider it appropriate to criticize products of the last 20 years for not being in advance of where we, as a society, are now.

Oversimplified morality:
I both agree and disagree with this complaint. That’s not being equivocal; it’s acknowledging that there are two different standards at play. A simplified, even over-simplified, morality makes the game accessible to a younger audience – remember who the general target market is? At the same time, as players and GMs mature, this is almost certainly the first thing that they look to change and explore. That’s why Campaign Mastery has a five-part series dedicated to the subject of that “oversimplified morality”: Focusing On Alignment, in which the subject is explored in detail, starting with an impassioned arguement for doing away with that ‘oversimplified morality’ altogether.

Racial hierarchies:
It’s not entirely clear what Tof was referring to with this complaint. At first I thought one thing, and then I thought another. I finally came to the conclusion that he’s talking about the assumption that humans will dominate the fantasy world. Again, I’m slightly ambivalent on the subject. I consider there to be nothing wrong with a human-dominated reality within a fantasy novel or RPG; what I complain about (and what I suspect Tof is also complaining about) is that this is the default assumption in too many cases; and because that is not questioned by people, the assumption perpetuates itself. In my games, every race is dominant within their own environment. Dwarves in their tunnels, Elves in their forests, or whatever. What gets interesting is one a representative is taken out of that comfort zone, or when representatives of a race equally at home in that environment move in. Why should Elven politics, or Dwarven politics, be any less convoluted than historical human politics? Then layer on top the potential for inter-species and inter-racial complexities, stir vigorously, and hand it to an unsuspecting player…

Western European -derived Settings & Cultures and Tokens from the “exotic” and “barbaric” east and The divine right of kings:
Three complaints for the price of one! There are lots of good reasons for Western Europe to be the common foundation of most fantasy/RPGs. Accessibility to the reader. Level of knowledge available. Contextually familiar, connecting with millennia of folklore, myth and legend. Finally, the majority of Fantasy/RPG authors and players are North American, and the background of that nation is a Western European history (for the most part) – so a Western European foundation draws on what they have already been taught. But even beyond those arguements against this particular criticism, there are a number of examples that simply don’t fit this mould. Bushido, the RPG. The Daughter/Servant/Mistress of Empire trilogy. The “RPG” background story of the first three Dream Park novels. If you can’t find Fantasy novels and RPGs that aren’t derived from Western European society, you aren’t looking hard enough.

Naturally, the Western European attitude to ‘Barbarians from the East’ is also part and parcel of this foundation.

And, of course, until the American Revolutionary War, the Divine Right of Kings was inextricably part of Western Societies, and had been since the Roman Empire – or perhaps it stretches back to the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt? If your game is derived from virtually any Western European civilization, the Divine Right of a ruler to rule is going to be inherent. If your game is not, it may not be. It’s all part of the one simple package.

I think the real problem is that the most popular RPGs don’t draw on singular societies, but on some fictitious homogenized bastard child of many. Put your history books in a blender and press “High”.

Bottom line: if you want to play a game in which a modern attitude to this, and many of the other topics discussed above, then play d20 Modern, or X-files, or something Sci-Fi. Everything else is going to have to compromise in order to balance on that tightrope.

Every adventurer is an orphan:
Which brings me to Tof’s final complaint. As I started, so I end – there is absolutely no good reason for such limited creativity, so in this I would be in complete agreement with Tof – except that I don’t see this phenomenon at all. On the contrary, most of the players I know desperately want the resources and heirlooms that having a family in back of them brings to the table. My problem is usually that they all want their parents to be nobles, or court advisors, or something. Everyone wants to be the son of the King (third-born, preferably), no-one wants to be the son of the turnip farmer.

A Hidden assumption
Of course, there is a hidden assumption that undermines all of the counter-arguements I’ve offered, and Tof’s complaints as well. Humans have certain social issues – who says that Dwarves (or any other species) will have the same social problems? The authors have actually hinted at this with a reference to Dwarven Women and to the unconventional solution to gender issues on Diskworld by Terry Pratchett – but unless you happen to have read Guards Guards recently, this reference will probably go over the head of the average reader.

I don’t want to give the impression that I am unsympathetic to, or unsupportive of, the personal beliefs that Tof brings to the table, because that is very definitely not the case. I just don’t think that he has correctly identified the cause of the malaise that he feels toward modern fantasy and RPGs, and the consequence is that his solution is misapplied. Tof is deliberately placing himself at the cutting edge of social progress in RPGs, a pioneer for the personal philosophy and cause espoused in the introduction and in his biographic notes – so while his solution may fall short of achieving the social awakening desired, it will be another step on the road. But people won’t buy a product simply because it advances a philosophic cause they are barely coming to grips with; to be successful, the product needs to be useful in and of itself, with the ideals behind it a secondary element. The question therefore needs to be asked: does The Unconventional Dwarf stand up to scrutiny when divorced from that progressive social cause?

The ‘Unconventional’ Solution

The short answer is a resounding ‘yes’. While I might not agree with Tof on the reasons for creating a product like The Unconventional Dwarf, I absolutely agree with the approach taken. Boiled down to it’s simplest elements, the writers start by stripping out anything that’s even vaguely Tolkienesque and retreating back to the original myths and legends apon which Tolkien himself drew, creating a variant on the result based on other cultural concepts and contexts, and then putting back only those “conventional” elements that fit the resulting picture. There’s no little irony (given some of the complaints discussed above) that the foundation of the “Conventional Dwarf” is Western European in nature!

In other words, they have employed exactly the same technique as the one I advocated earlier, and have presented the results as standalone societies with which to replace the traditional view of RPG Dwarves in your campaign.

The biggest flaw in the resulting product (and its not a very big one) is that by restricting themselves to historical societies as their foundations, they are confining the scope of what they can achieve, and ignoring possibilities such as the one given in the article cited earlier under the heading of “A Dwarvish Example”. The outcomes that are presented in The Unconventional Dwarf fit perfectly the prescription that I gave earlier in this review: they are all different, plausible, and interesting. But does it really matter why it was done if the results are so useful for the purpose intended and so well-executed?

What more do you want?

Even more unconventional?

It doesn’t say so outright anywhere in the supplement that I could spot, but Tof’s title suggests that other “unconventionals” will follow. To get confirmation of this, one need only visit The Unconventional’s Page at Tof’s website or check out the series’ Facebook page. But, also presumably, that will only happen if The Unconventional Dwarf is a success. I hope that this review helps make that happen; I’m looking forward to reading what they come up with next. For my money, the most clichéd race in FRP are Elves – that’s why I worked so hard on them in the Fumanor campaign…

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