With monsters in the air (and the release of the Monster Manual 3 on the shelves), we take a look at playing monstrous races…
It's hard to talk about evil or monstrous races without some reference to Salvatore (the Elder). As such, I might spoiling a subplot in one of the more recent books since it's just too apt to pass by. You were warned, Drizzt fan!
Let's get something straight: Evil is cool. The bad guys, with the exception of maybe James Bond villains, usually have better outfits, cooler abilities, and even lairs.
Just looking at what's available to a player these days, we have zombies (revenants), werewolves (shifters), minotaurs, vampires (the Vampiric Heritage feat that lets you play a “daywalker” vampire who does indeed suck blood), demons (tieflings), beastmen (gnolls) and golems (warforged) all readily available to the standard D&D player without any rule-bending or special DM permission. (I'm not saying all these creatures are all "evil" or monstrous races -- I'm oversimplifying to make a point.)
The problem with playing a "morally questionable" race is kind of a complicated one. How do you convince folks that you're the "good" member of your species? Is it assumed your party got the memo saying not to kill all gnolls and minotaurs on sight? That's what we're going to address today (and methinks I'll be pissing off some opinionated D&D folks along the way). Still, it's an adventure, and those are what Dungeons & Dragons is all about. Let's pull a certain bandage off quickly, and get it out of the way:
Monstrous races cause a certain amount of gamer rage in some folks. How tolerant you might be of these races really comes down to when you got into fantasy RPGs. A certain online game that I can't talk about currently has around 5 million players playing monster races -- in part because people these days simply like that kind of thing. Evil is cool. Really this is all about when you started playing Dungeons & Dragons and how you defined it; that said, I think it's best if I move on -- we're not talking about "why" we have these reformed baddies in the party these days, but rather how to avoid being killed if you accessorize your hero with claws, tails, or fangs.
Whenever the topic of playing evil races in D&D rears its (often horned) head, invariably someone throws the "Drizzt card" onto the table (which oddly appeared in last year's April Fool's Day article).
What's not to like about the paragon of virtue who rises above his surroundings to become a hero to all the land? Sure, he splits the party like a madman to have his own little adventures, but most think Drizzt is The Man.
R.A. Salvatore has always been a little ahead of the game, or at the very least on the popular edge of it. (I pimp Salvatore not just because he helped pay my rent last year, I swear.) The problem is the question of how often you can play the Drizzt card. Are you limited to 2 per deck? If everyone decides to play an exception to the rule, is it really an exception? Looking at The Orc King (which is, surprisingly enough, about a king who is an orc), we encounter Drizzt meeting Tos'un Armgo; if you've read the book then you know who I mean; if you haven't, I'll summarize: Another drow shows up, makes some mistakes, learns to love and laugh again, and turns out to be good in the end. Readers remain suspicious of this fellow (I distrust anyone who's name is an anagram for "Guano Storm," personally) most likely because they feel they know the real drow-turned-good—they're waiting for Tos'un to prove the rule, not the exception.
If your adventuring party has a huge story arc involving how one of your party is of a race that's always evil, people get suspicious when another one of that race shows up. Practically speaking, though, the popularity of drow and the sheer volume of material that has been released giving advice on how to play the reformed variety means, chances are, your group doesn't have a problem with the dark-skinned elves. It's the other races that might prove difficult…but one thing to remember is how modern fiction (and fantasy) has changed over the past decade or so. Villains aren't often as black and white as they used to be, and even evil races are painted with a little more than two dimensions. This doesn't always work for your campaign, but even Cattie Brie went through a puckish, "Why don't we try to be nice and talk to the death giants covered in Girl Scout chunks during the surprise round" phase. We move with the times, and good drow, despite what traditionalists say, have become mainstream. It is important to note that the Drizzt card doesn't always refer to a player trying to sneak a drow hero into your game. It's just the Cadillac of such moves.
Our Friend, the Minotaur
The most recent addition to the pantheon of character races is the minotaur, also known locally (and affectionately) as Mister Moo Cow. Released in Dragon Magazine awhile ago, the minotaur as a character has been spread vigorously all over D&D products since. Few books lack a picture of a minotaur hero somewhere, just like we see art featuring tieflings and dragonborn, so people could better wrap their heads around them as a standard race.
We have a problem, though. Let's get into character and think for a moment. What does your adventurer know about minotaurs? When a giant hulking cowman armed with an axe bigger than you walks into the tavern, what's your first instinct? What I'm getting at is that, as big a fan as I am of freaky races, it might be completely justified to stab that beefy fellow. Why?
Let's compare the first sentence in each entry for minotaurs in Dungeons & Dragons and you'll see my point.
From the Monster Manual:
"Minotaurs are fierce, bull-headed monsters that worship demons and enslave and plunder weaker creatures."
From Player's Handbook 3:
"Minotaurs embody the tension between civilization and savagery, discipline and madness, for they stand in two worlds."
Dear…god. If any race needed to hire a PR manager to send fliers all over Faerûn, it probably should be the minotaurs. They're either demon-worshiping slave masters or conflicted heroes with an inherent dichotomy. How do you deal with a group that hasn't read Player's Handbook 3? Do we trust the minotaur player to "moo innocently" for the first few encounters to garner sympathy/seem harmless? Sounds like we need the DM to step in with a new wondrous item (and no, it's not "more cowbell").
Within this colorfully illustrated tome you'll find just about everything you really ought to know about monsters. (Maybe.)
Wondrous Item 680 gp
Property: You have a Monster Manual.
What's that? You know that all minotaurs are demon-worshiping slavers? Really? Do you have the Monster Manual in your inventory? Well then, you don't know that. Here's a Player's Handbook 3. Have fun.
A Possible Bias for Gnolls
This brings us to gnolls, and we're going to do our best to not make a hairy gnoll joke at any point. No promises. Gnolls kind of slipped in under the radar for a lot of folks, but as a player race they're just as legal as revenants, drow, warforged, minotaurs…as anything that Dragon Magazine has released. Why does this seem odd to people? Because gnolls don't have a PR agent at all. And the Wizards Art team hates them. I'm getting ahead of myself, but I'm sure that if we looked into it, we'd find that Art Director Jon Schindehette had his lunch money taken by gnolls as a child and is having his petty revenge by hiring artists to show them being disemboweled in increasingly creative ways.
I've been playing a gnoll diplomat (because if you introduce yourself as a monstrous barbarian, things go downhill quickly) in the RPGA for over a year. So of course I'm not biased about PC gnolls -- why would you think that? Not to talk about my own character too much (I'll save this for the next time I meet Bruce Cordell and want to make him uncomfortable), but I think it summarizes how sometimes the Drizzt card just isn't enough. No drow players had to go through what a gnoll adventurer has, and you'll see why. It all started last year when I showed up in the store for an RPGA adventure called "Blades of Daggerdale." Seemed innocent enough…city in trouble, ravaged by enemies, how can we help? Oh look, a couple of my fellow gnolls standing next to the road.
"I say, good brothers, how fare thee on this glorious OH GOD THE HYENAS ARE EATING MY LEGS AND I HAVE AN ARROW IN MY FACE OH BROTHERS WHY?"
Okay. So you can find some bad seeds in every bunch. It's not like this adventure's going to be all about…. Oh. The skill challenge asks, "How many severed gnoll heads can you collect?" Really? I'm still waiting for the "How many halfling skulls can you juggle?" or "Kill ALL HUMANS!" adventures to show up, but I'm skeptical if we'll see the day…despite the fact that in my D&D adventures, I think I've fought more human and halfling sneaks than anything else.
Oh look, Primal Power has come out, which gives my gnoll character more options.
Oh my. What is that elf doing to those poor…. Oh. I get it. Fine.
Well, at least I can look forward to this Class Acts article about thaneborn barbarians. That's precisely what my noble gnoll is, so what could go wrong?
Wait, why is that rather disheveled woman holding my severed head? Is there a Sleepy Hollow-themed paragon path I don't know about? Oh, I see. (This picture also created something called "Barbarian Basketball" among my crew, but the less said about that the better.)
While I do poke fun at the sheer number of horrible deaths illustrated of a player character race, just being a member of that race isn't enough for it to be "good." That's why I proposed the Monster Manual item. Minotaurs are totally kosher if you take in their new fluff, while gnolls…well, even the article that debuted them as a PC race included feats so that you can eat corpses and included a terrible story about killing people by pretending to be their dead loved one. The point is, I think Wizards went the right way with this; just because a race is a player character option doesn't mean that it stops being a monster. That doesn't make my character any less sad when they murder gnolls in every article and book that applies to him, but I need to move on.
A 5-Step Program
If you're really going to go the monstrous race route, here are a few things to try out:
A. Look as unlike your racial stereotype as possible.
Example: Have your kobold dress in the fanciest garb he or she can find. Maybe dungeon delving is a black tie event for you. Or wear stilts and say you're a dragonborn on a diet. If you must play a shadar-kai, maybe you shouldn't wear 15 pounds of facial piercings when you meet the party for the first time. A smile couldn't hurt either.
B. Be useful. Say it with me: They won't kill you if you're useful.
Example: If the party is starting to wonder why they should spare your new goblin character, simply say your class is "butler" or "packmule." You'll live a lot longer, I assure you.
C. Make a friend. If you know you're going to play a bullywug cleric of Kermit or hobgoblin assassin, it's a good idea to find another player in your group and make an intersecting backstory. Folks love other folks who are interested in their character's mostly unspoken history, so ask a few questions, nod appropriately, pretend to pay attention, and just sneak in, "…and you had an orc roommate in college, right?" before they finish. Chances are the characters in your party have had adventures before this one and "blackboxing" one where Fighter Stephanie nursed a bugbear with a broken foot back to health and taught him the value of an honest day's work can't hurt. Think of it as getting a sponsor -- someone else to keep you honest (and to keep others from stabbing you for XP and loot).
D. Don't get on the wrong side of any Drizzts that might already be in the party. There's nothing more belittling of someone's character concept than a copy of it showing up. You can have this problem with any sort of character ("You want another wizard in the party? Am I not good enough for you?"), but it's nice to know if someone else's identity is already tied to the "evil race turned good" concept before showing up in your "Now I'm a Good Guy" pants. This is pretty much a judgment call. The rest of the party might be open-minded, but a little in- and out-of-character tension is never good for someone already in a dangerous position.
E. Turn the tables on them. While it feels like dirty pool to pull the equivalent of "White Man's Guilt" in the D&D universe, have a backstory that illustrates just how evil humankind/elvenkind/adventurers can be. Ultimately, it's subjective and hard to crush that wayward orc who "just wants to find out why all those dwarves killed his mother and father" because he just doesn't understand. Puppy-dog eyes and a tiny violin wouldn't hurt either.
Let's explore this last point some more. Why don't we consider dwarves to be an evil race? They're known for drinking heavily, being violent, and living under the ground with drow and other subterranean horrors. Just for the sake of argument, let me throw in one more Salvatore reference. It's an excerpt from The Legacy, the seventh Drizzt book. This is a cheery song that a bunch of dwarves sing as they pilot a giant death machine known as "The Juicer" against a goblin horde.
"Every bump's a goblin's head,
Pools of blood from the goblin dead.
Run, good dwarves, push that toy,
Squish the little goblin boys!"
Yes, it's a goblin genocide song. I don't know too many heroic ballads that include the crushing of enemy children…but it's a good thing to point out that racial perspectives are all relative. An RPGA adventure out there has a duergar show up, and you have to play chess with him. Murdering him simply because he's got the "devil" keyword isn't an option unless you want to fail the skill challenge.
D&D has (obviously) come a long way. We're at this weird post-modern point where simply murdering a whole race of people because they're the enemy is kind of…looked down on. On the topic of subjectivity, here's an excerpt from Bruce Cordell/John D. Rateliff's Reverse Dungeon, a great book that came out in 2000, where the player played evil goblins (among other things) who had to defend their home from the rampaging adventurers. Fun with role reversal aside, check out this quote:
"There's plenty of precedent for relativistic philosophy within the game -- after all, the good guys often commit acts that would be looked at askance in any court of law. Indeed, in a typical adventure, the "heroes" are more likely to kill helpless foes than the "villains" are; it's become one of the clichés of fantasy fiction that the villains are more likely to take prisoners than the heroes… The bad guys may staunch a hero's wounds and hold him or her for ransom…whereas the average adventurer group simply kills its foes, occasionally conveniently failing to hear offers of surrender."
As I bring my ramblings to a thankful end, let me just point out one big difference in this current edition of the game: Good and evil aren't keywords in Dungeons & Dragons -- not anymore. We no longer have to worry about the exact moral stance of our enemies before unleashing blasts of divine energy against them. Evil cultists don't have to save a drowning kitten once a week to keep them "just good enough" to not be vulnerable to smite evil. Your outlook on government (a solid chunk of the past alignment system) is no longer buried at the (almost) genetic level.
What I'm trying to say is that, like real life, we are products of our environment. We have to choose what we accept and decry, and who's to say we shouldn't give Opeem the kobold the opportunity to rise above the corruption around him? Why can't that same kobold raise his crude spear in rebellion against his twisted fellow kobolds and lead a life of high adventure?
Well, if he wasn't a minion his career might have lasted longer, but it's the principle of the thing here. Evil is cool and Drizzt card or no Drizzt card, evil/monstrous races are here to stay. Just put down that guide to intolerance commonly known as the Monster Manual. You're making my gnoll cry.
"Who apologizes to Jon Schindehette for bringing up his terrible gnoll-filled childhood traumas and who only hopes the murder-by-art therapy is working."