Saturday, 10 November 2012

The Other Side of the Humanocentric Fence

Here Be Humans
Having lost three long posts to Blogger's horrible HTML editor and had a stew about it for a week or two, I'm going to restrain myself to a simpler post format for now than I would like. I suspect in the long run I'm going to have to dust off my own website to post the sort of material I would like.

Anyway, part of the lost posts included this introduction to a scenario:

In the woods north and west of our kobold cave live many creatures who habitually avoid human contact. They know that where the humans go, farms and fields and towns and cities follow and space within these is found only for a select few of the wild's people, even when patronizingly granted the term "demi-humans".
So even those that are not violently opposed to the world of humans dislike what it represents. King of these are the centaurs, of all the intelligent races the one with the most claim to the title of "demi-human", but by nature probably the one least interested in making that claim. They run free in the forests and glades, strong enough to fight most threats and fast enough to avoid most of the rest. The human village to the south is of no interest to them.
Until now.

This was an attempt to summarise what I think things must look like from the non-humanocentric side of the default AD&D world. It's quite common to ignore the attitude of non-human non-evil races when building an AD&D world, I think. Generally worlds seem to get divided into "humans and allies" and "enemies of humans", and this applies to some degree to Greyhawk as well as later settings. It is true that several demi-human states and locations in Greyhawk are referred to as being to one degree or other xenophobic but the overall picture is that humans and non-evil intelligent races all sort of get along.

This isn't the picture one gets from just reading the DMG and the PHB. Let's have a show of hands, which demi-human races like humans?

Human Fan Club meeting
threatens  to become rowdy

Answer: no one.

Yes, that's right. Not a single PHB playable race actually likes humans. Not halflings, not dwarves, not elves.

All right, then; who is suspicious of humans?

Answer: dwarves, elves, gnomes, halflings, and half-orcs are all listed as thinking of humans "neutrally, although some suspicion will be evident".

It can be argued that in a D&D world, suspicion is the natural ground state of any meeting between strangers, but even so the picture is not one of friendly co-operation between allied races. In UA the picture remains the same except that the two new elven types are actively hostile to humans (moreso than drow!).

The DMG's inhabited area encounter tables bear out this image of a world where "inhabited" is synonymous with "inhabited by humans". Across the board in temperate areas, ogres are more frequently encountered than elves (even in forests) or and orcs than dwarves (even in mountains). Centaurs,  sylphs and their like do not appear at all. Where humans go, intelligent non-evil races leave.

The presence of the evil humanoids on the encounter tables probably represents a desire for a little bit of risk in overland travel during play but it also has an implication that the humanoids are actively resisting or attacking the humans in a way that the demi-humans are not.

"The woods are a resource?
Good luck with that one..."
By and large, Gygax's first edition humanocentric default world means that safe areas are images of an idealized mediƦval 11th or 12th century Europe, where magic works and clerics can heal the sick and cure the blind etc. But Europe did not have any dwarven populations living within its borders and its woods were a resource rather than an elven holt.

It's a bit like the red-squirrel/grey-squirrel situation in the UK today. The greys don't actually directly compete with the reds; they're just a bit better at surviving - they're stronger and they have sharper minds. Similarly, humans in AD&D have the ability to rise to levels beyond anything the demi-humans can, and in the long run that's enough to make the latter retreat instead of fight.

"Look at me! I'm 13th level!"
There's an old story about Sparta. An alliance of Greek city-states were facing some foe (probably Persia) and the Spartan general was laying out out the battle-plan. Some of the other cities' generals objected to the Spartan making these decisions without consultation them, because Sparta had only supplied some of the soldiers. The Spartan went outside and tells the assembled me to stand up. Then he says "All the potters, sit down", and all the potters sit down. Then "All the smiths, sit down" and they sit down too. He proceeds to name various skills and professions until only the Spartan troops are still standing at which point he says "All the soldiers, sit down" and, obedient to their laws, the Spartans sit down together. The General turns to the others and says "Sparta has not supplied 'some' of the soldiers; we have supplied all of the soldiers. That is why I am in charge."

Must remember...humans are our allies....
The evil humanoids, of course, simply want to conquer everything else and so there is scope for the humans and demi-humans to unite against an implacable foe. But in the end, Sparta provides the big guns and so Sparta is in charge. The humans supply all the arch-mages and all of the lords* and all of the high priests and in the end that is what makes the 1st edition AD&D world a world of humans and the wilderness a place where one meets not just dragons and trolls, but elves and gnomes and centaurs.

I think there's scope here for making the wilderness a bit more complex than it often seems and both high and low level adventures in it rather less clearly defined in terms of what a party of humans can assume in terms of who will help and who will hinder them.

*Yes, yes. STR 18 dwarves can be 9th level fighters. Don't fuss.


  1. I think the incident in question was during the preparations for Thermopylae. If not, then it was at least adapted for use in 300.

    1. Thanks for that. I've not seen or read 300 so I don't know to what degree they amalgamated stories about Sparta (or just made stuff up) generally. I got the story from a book about the battle of Marathon which I read recently, although it was simply cited as an illustration of what was special about Sparta's fighters rather than as an event at Marathon.