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Tabletop Meditations #21: Heraldry

Brilliant war banners, strikingly colored flags waving in the wind, and fascinatingly designed symbols on theheraldry from the blog surcoats of warriors, which sometimes strangely define the character of the individual. Heraldry is more than just a splash of color or the addition of intriguing art; it can serve a deeper purpose within a roleplaying game.

Heraldic devices and symbols can be a short hand for the nature and/or attitudes of groups and organizations, which can help with NPC characterization if an individual does not fit this mold or vice versa. Player Characters may strive to either earn or adopt imagery under which they can gain prestige and earn an easily recognized reputation. I use the basics of heraldry in my games to add some color. In addition, I take care to add in certain conventions and symbols native to the game world or region for which I am creating.

There is no doubt whatever that symbolism forms an integral part of armory; in fact there is no doubt that armory itself as a whole is nothing more or less than a kind of symbolism. [Fox-Davies. 1978. A Complete Guide to Heraldry. Bonanza Books, New York. p.5]

I use Heraldry in my games because it seems to stick in the players’ heads without much effort on their part. It also provides some preliminary characterization on occasion and can communicate the symbols important to the culture of those using it adding to the world building. When Game-Mastering I use coats of arms to mark out organizations, locations such as towns and cities (seals), and individuals of note. I also use simplified versions on wax and clay seals and on signet rings, not just the colorful incarnations found on flags, shields, and surcoats.

On maps and handouts, seals and flags can help to divide a map into political regions and distinguish the factions with an easily identified visual symbol that is easily digestible and easily confirmed.

Language of Color and Symbols

In the most basic of terms heraldry is the use of color, symbols, and decoration as distinguishment of identity. It is also an art and with that it carries with it tis own language which may be different for different cultures as in Armory (concerning the art and study of armorial bearings including its legalistic side). This symbolic art language is heraldry and the primary result is the coat of arms.

When heraldry came into existence it came in as an adjunct of decoration, and it necessarily followed that the whole of the positions which the craftsmen found the eagle or the lion depicted were appropriated with the animals for heraldry. That this appropriation for the exclusive purpose of armory has been silently acquiesced in by the decorative artists of later days is simply proof of the intense power and authority which accrued later to armory, and which was in fact attached to anything relating to privilege and prerogative. [Fox-Davies. Pgs.3-4]

Arms are emblazoned on Banners, Standards, Flags, Shields (shield emblems date at least from late roman times), Surcoats, Tabards, Pennants/Pennons, Sashimono, Nobori, Uma-jirushi, Hata-jirushi. The idea of heraldry may have evolved from the preferred designs or decoration conflated with certain individuals or militaries becoming their recognized insignia.

Quick & Dirty Heraldry Primer

There are some terms that used in this discussion, which are Shield, Field, and the names of the Partitions, Charge, Helm, and Motto.

Shield – The central shape bearing the coat, which is the shape of a shield typically an escutcheon but can be round or oval especially in those cultures whose warriors’ shields are of a particular shape. It seems likely this evolved from the painting of shields or identifying marks and decorations put on the front of shields. The shield “constituted the warrior’s ‘weapon’ par excellence, the symbol of his status and function. It was handed to him when he was admitted to the ranks of warriors for the first time; to abandon it henceforth was a disgrace. If he died in combat, the warrior was carried away on his shield. During assemblies, decisions were approved by warriors striking  […] their shields.” [Contamine, Phillippe. 1984. War in the Middle Ages. Basil Blackwell Publisher Limited (English Translation).Oxford, England. p.178]

Field – The Field is the background element of the arms that is usually a solid color but can be partitioned.

Partitions – The field partitioned in half, into quarters and diagonally (per bend). The line of the partition is usually not visible but designated by the difference in color between them. An example is where the right (Dexter) partition as a yellow field and the left (Sinister) as crimson.

Charge – Typically, a central emblem set at the center of the shield on the field, which can be an abstract symbol or the portrayal of an animal, human, monster, plant, fruit, flower, etc.

Helm – The position of helm is at the top center of the shield and is typically a helm with stylized and complex plumes draping from it. Like the shield, the helm is shaped and representative of its culture although instead of a helmet it can be the head of animal or beast as well as such objects as flowers or skulls.

Motto – This takes the form of a ribbon, banner, or plaque at the bottom of the shield or beneath it. This object bears a saying taken to be a core value to those the coat of arms represents i.e. a family motto.

Coat of Arms – A coat of arms is the central heraldry on the shield including the field(s) and central charge. This collection of heraldic symbols is also easy to transfer to other display formats such as banners, flags, or surcoats. The most simplistic form of a heraldic coat of arms is a charge on a field although there are examples in history of a simple single color field only.

The purpose of this system of design and bearings is essentially for identification usually associated with important individuals and families.

I.D.

Heraldry is a form of visual identification and encoded certain information so that observers could identify those bearing it and read certain specific meanings in its symbols. The most common of these would be Unit Identifiers, Origin, and Loyalties.

Unit Identifiers are heraldic marks that identify a military unit and its divisions. These can correlate to signal flags calling for and relaying simple orders to a specific unit on the field or to certain signifiers such as honoraria or special awards.

The tradition of each century in a legion having its own standard (signum) appears to have continued throughout the Principate. […]Signa appear to have been topped either by an ornamental spearhead or an upraised hand. Theiur shafts were heavily decorated with cross-pieces, wreaths, and from two to six large discs. The actual significance of any of these items is unknown, though it does seem probable that together they provided a system for identifying the particular century. [Goldsworthy, Adrian. 2003. The Complete Roman Army. Thames & Hudson Inc. New York, NY. p.134]

The central charge or another secondary charge or even specific color of field can denote from where the bearers have come. It can denote a specific region of an area all the way down to a household within that specific region using additional symbols or certain well-known components. This type of sign can also be unintentional such as when a certain color of dye is limited to a specific region so those nearest that area will make use of the color thus all those using that color are within the limits of a certain, although probably wider, area. This last idea may also give away an imposter to those with the proper knowledge and a keen eye for detail.

At the time of the third crusade (1188- 90), ‘it was agreed that all those coming from the lands of the king of France should wear red crosses, those from the lands of the king of England white, and those from the county of Flanders green crosses.’ […] In their turn the Burgundians chose an emblem – the cross of St. Andrew, either in saltire (en sautoir) or forked (fourchue), in white or red. [Contamine. p.190]

Heraldry can also exhibit loyalty to a specific individual, their administration, and/or their family by way of pictures or symbols. “When Pontius Pilate first visited Jerusalem […], an uproar was created because his escort had brought its standards, including the imagines [a series of images of the emperor and his close family which were mounted on poles and kept with the standards], with them, thus bringing graven images into the Temple and offending Jewish law.” [Goldsworthy. p.143]

On the Battlefield

Heraldry is of practical use on the battlefield in that certain types of flags and their symbols including color can carry meaning for desperate soldiers. They can also serve as signals sending complex messages long distances cutting through the noise and chaos with brightness. “[C]ommanders would have individual flags hoisted high that gave the troops something to follow across the battlefield, while signal flags gave instructions such as advance, retreat or adopt defensive positions.” [Haskew, Michael. 2008. Fighting Techniques of the Oriental World AD 1200 – 1860. St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY. p.32]

As a Rallying Point, the standard of a king or commander can serve as markers on the battlefield for their location. Back at camp flags, banners, and standards serve to mark a location for troops to rally around or a place to regroup. It can also help lead soldiers to battle especially when all else is eclipsed by the fog and clatter of war, they have the flag to follow into the fray.

Banner systems provided the most ready mechanism for giving some form of battlefield coherence. In the Japanese forces, not only did samurai carry the Nobori flag attached to the back of their armour – giving the attendant ashigaru some prominent form of bearing – but the ashigaru themselves would often transport various insignia around the battlefield. Some would carry the hata-jirushi (flag streamer), the base of the flagpole sitting in a holder fixed to the waistband. This flag would denote the nearby presence of a particular samurai. Some soldiers were esteemed enough to carry the uma-jirushi flag attached to the back of their armour, thus indicating that a general or daimyo was present. While these positions obviously carried a certain honour, they could dramatically shorten the life of the flag carrier – enemy soldiers were attracted to such insignia as they were obvious targets. [Haskew. p.32]

Signal flags can signal certain units to carry out their part of a battle plan on the field of war. They can convey simple messages such as move to the front, retreat, fire, or charge as well as slightly more complex signals such as break off and carry out a specific maneuver. This is discounting any kind of semaphore that is. Heraldic marks and partitions can be added to increase the limited vocabulary of signal flags and remain distinguishable from each other.

Traditionally a distinctive vexillum or flag, usually in red, marked out the commander’s position in camp before a battle and on the battlefield. Vexilla also provided the main standard for detachments of troops serving away from their parent unit, so that in time such detachments became known as vexillations (vexillationes). [Goldsworthy. p.134]

As a war trophy an opponent’s heraldry is unmatched, in effect the victor has stolen their identity. The seized coat of arms serves as a symbol of victory and the enemy’s defeat and remains on display as their shame. Pennants and flags displayed like trophies hung upside down, inverted, or in a certain location such as on a post are common as is the burning of captured flags, which is more an act of annihilation.

When displayed in the camp or at home base in any of the previously discussed manners this can serve to diminish the enemy to and improve morale among the troops. Displays of such trophies can also serve to increase the prestige of the one who possesses it especially if the defeated carried a reputation. When a captured flag marched in front of a unit on the field serves much the same purposes and could serve to direct the enemy’s ire at that unit as well.

Naturally the sequel to a battle entailed various religious ceremonies: the obsequies and burial of the dead according to the means dictated by circumstances or by the social status of the victims; masses for favours shown and the Te Deum celebrated by the victor, who might also offer trophies from the victory – flags, spurs, pieces of armour – to a sanctuary, found a rich abbey or a modest oratory. [Contamine. p.300]

In Game

Heraldry and its devices can be used to great advantage within a fantasy campaign. Coats of arms are cheap characterization tool (a la cliché representations of character), serve as mnemonic devices for places, people, and organizations, as well as all the previously mentioned conventional uses.

As symbolic short hand, heraldry can communicate heaps of random game info to Players and their characters. As a cheap characterization tool is relates to the old cliché of skulls and black for bad, and white and feathered wings for good or vice versa using the wolf’s in sheep’s clothing cliché. The more complex and showy a character’s coat of arms then the more powerful they are or the more of a blow-hard, perhaps both. However, heraldry can use its own language of symbols and colors to imply certain characteristics such as lineages with arcane power, necromancy, bad histories, disagreeable personalities or historically very agreeable ones unique to your game world. Heraldic symbols carry reputations with them as well as symbolizing power, heritage, or other such things within the culture and from history from which it takes its images and symbols.

Images are easier to remember especially brightly colored designs than just names even of individuals. Therefore, heraldic devices help to memorize reputations, lineages, organizations and the ranks in that organization. This is especially true in a region or world with limited literacy. In such societies, a family crest is indispensable in proving who you are by proving your relations. Heralds may keep rolls of diagramed records of coats tracking the evolution of the heraldry from person to person thus creating a sort of genealogical history of symbols.

Complimentary World Building Device

Heraldry can help a GM to build their world and link its internal elements together through association. As previously mentioned it also carries additional, honestly sometimes extraneous, information to the PCs.

Symbolic representations of a culture or group used in related individuals’ arms deepen the game world by displaying their relationship and even occasionally the nature and mood of that relationship.

[A]n additional type [of flag] had been adopted by some [Roman] cavalry units for use in parades and perhaps at other times. This was the dragon or draco, a bronze animal head with an open mouth and neck to which was attached a multi-colored tube or material. When the standard bearer moved quickly, the tube or material acted like a wind-sock, streaming behind the head and making a whistling sound.  These standards seem to have been copied from some of Rome’s opponents on the Danubian frontier, most notably the nomadic Sarmatians, and are depicted on Trajan’s Column flying over the enemy armies. [Goldsworthy. p.134]

Heraldry adds in bright colors and may even allude to a deeper connection with those it represents such as the previously mentioned origin of the bearer through intention or the use of rare dyes/pigments or unusual symbols. It can act as set dressing especially useful in emphasizing the scenery of such events as tournaments, duels, negotiations, encampments etc. the bonus being this set dressing hints to the greater world outside to those who can read their symbology.

The core of the Manchu military system at the time of the conquest consisted of the pa-ch’i, or ‘Eight Banners’. When the system was set up in 1601, there were four Banners – the Yellow, White, Red and Blue –distinguished by flags of the respective colours. In 1616 four more Manchu Banners were created, using flags of the same four colours but with contrasting borders. In addition, an army carried a black silk flag, which was used as a rallying point and seems to have been regarded as sacred [.] Each Banner was divided into five jalans, or regiments, each of five nirus, or ‘arrows’. A niru had a nominal strength of 300 men. [Peers, CJ. 2006. Soldiers of the Dragon: Chinese Armies 1500 BC – AD 1840. Osprey Publishing, Midland House. Oxford, UK. pgs.230-231]

The development of symbols unique to your group incorporated into the heraldic language is a definite option that you should use. This creates unique heraldic devices that carry special meanings found only on that world. In addition, you can encode PC actions in coats of arms either as a record of lineage or permanent symbols of that PC’s legendary victories commemorated within their family crest.

The standard and pennon of Joan of Arc were not the only flags embroidered with pious images or texts; such flags can be found in almost every army of the day, Burgundian, English, Lotharingian, etc. Certain standards even had a sacred character, like the banner of St James at Compostella, that of St Lambert at Liege and the Oriflamme of St Denis. […] It is remarkable that, prolonging a usage which doubtless arose during the first crusade, crosses made out of material of different colours and shapes served from the fourteenth century as the distinctive emblems for English, French, Breton, Burgundian and Lotharingian combatants. Just as some sacred decoration was in part military, so military decoration was in part religious. [Contamine. p.298]

Conclusion

When used in a game heraldic devices and symbology can convey vast amounts of information to players at a glance and deepen the psychology of the fictional world.  This is true whether that information is genealogy, reputation, origin, history, military rank, unit demarcation, or as a cliché characterization tactic. This is especially true when the GM and Players have created their own index of symbols and put thought into why someone would use these symbols as an emblem or collection thereof that serves to identify them personally and sometimes spiritually.

Using heraldry of any sort in your game adds a language of color and symbols allowing for greater communication with players through the game itself and adds a touch of realism as well as some arresting visual flair.

 

Tabletop Meditations #20: Organized Flow Theory

There are several theories on how RPG’s function and what that may mean. The intention behind my RPG rpg theoryludology and having a personal critical theory is practicality. It is handy for writing and during play, and as a framework in the designing of games. This is how I understand roleplaying games as a whole and this helps me not only to run games but also in writing them. This theory seems correct based on personal practice, experience, and observation. In addition, the basis of this hypothesis is the cursory analysis of actual play at the table during contiguous collections of sessions.

At the core of all RPG sessions is a hierarchy, though more of a stack of information, starting with the most basic component called a Play Unit from which the other higher ordered components arise from accumulation. However, these elements are artificial cross-sectional slices cut from the whole as a means to simplify the study and illustration of it. The entirety of this hierarchy flows and melts together during play. This flow is evident especially when games stall or fizzle out. It is this flow of information that has been interrupted when that happens.

It is this flow of information and the processing and acting upon it thus contributing to it is what not only keeps players immersed in the game but also is the game itself. This two-way flux of information is what is required to deposit the details that create the in-game world in which the Players’ personal blobs of info exist as characters.

One of the easiest ways to explain RPGs is comparing its structures to similar structures in fiction. This aided by the fact that the borrowing of elements between RPGs and fiction is simply uncontroversial. Roleplaying games especially those modeled after genre fiction can be seen as the gamification of fiction. Collective story telling is present in the element of information exchange that lies at the core of all RPGs. Rules structure these elements and introduce gamification into the whole.

Rules set limits; essentially the game mechanics set the diegetic frame and thus may affect multiple aspects of the experience at a very basic level. It is within this perimeter of the rules that the game world both exists and reacts to Player Character (PC) actions. It is also within this framework that the Game-Master (GM) must function in both writing and refereeing.

This flow underlying all RPGs requires the use of more precise but still flexible and understandable terminology. These terms being Diegetic or In-Game and Metagaming or out-of-game which reveals a flow of information between reality and the imaginary world of the game. This flow is filtered and limited by the mechanics of the game where the story-telling elements operate on the structure of a game within the arena of the game-world.

Diegetic (in game) occurs within the context of the game world. Commonly used in terms of cinema, this refers to what exists within the context of the film apart from reality. Its common definition is a form of storytelling/fiction whose narrative presents from an interior point-of-view.

Metagaming/OOG (out-of-game) is comparative to the plot-hole in fiction or even the breaking of the fourth wall. This also comprises of the rule set used in play as well as any structure, elements, or decisions provided by the GM that exceed the limits of the rules. Essentially anything Meta in this context is an element that comes from outside of the diegetic elements of the game, influence from outside of the game universe.

My RPG Session Structure Theory

As tabletop RPG play is built upon the accumulation of information, the exchange and back-and-forth flow of said information is key to how RPGs function. The exchange of information is essential to all RPGs. This includes World Building, Character Actions, and Processing actions and choice through the chosen ruleset. All tabletop RPG game systems require a high level of information exchange. This exchange is dynamic where improvisation occurs naturally within the flow introducing and sometimes spontaneously producing new information or otherwise transforming existing info.

The game begins when the Game-Master (GM) presents some information to the players and allows them to act upon that info from whence the flow of information springs. These exchanges can be the actions and responses of the PCs, Player questions, and/or the responses and text presented by the GM. Each bit of that flow of information, each Play-Unit, is essential in that an accumulation of exchanges is what builds the fantasy world and what institutes player engagement. The players must find some bit of information in these exchanges to latch onto, that is their attention or interest must be piqued by something either contained within or inferred by the Play-Unit thereby engaging them. This is what keeps them participating in the exchange and thus not only going with the flow but producing it.

Therefore, the flow of information is how roleplaying games work but to understand this fully requires us to analyze the exchanged information by looking at it in strictly defined pieces arranged into a hierarchy based on the self-contained complexity.

Play Unit

A Play Unit is the smallest component of RPGs, which is an exchange of information between the GM and a Player or group of Players. Note that Play Units may occur out of sequence as real-world table chatter and meta-gaming discussions counts as Play Units as well possibly obscuring a direct contiguous flow of information. The closest analogy in fiction to a Play Unit is a Story-Beat.

A Story-Beat (from Story by Robert McKee, p.37) is an emotive change in a character or exchange between characters (as in action/reaction) replaced in RPG Narratology with the social exchange between the participants these being the Game-Master (GM) and the Players. Characters that exist within the game are reliant on at least two sources or groups of authors. These are the Player Characters (PCs) controlled by the players and the Non-Player Characters (NPCs) run by the GM. It is between these entities where the story-beats lie. RPG story-beats are smeared across realities. That is, they are present inside of the game world (diegetic) and without among the participants (Meta) in the real world.

In addition, there is not always an emotive change marked in specific characters determined by a single author. These emotional changes in tabletop RPGs is dependent on the exchange of information on what the characters are feeling and doing and how the players themselves are reacting to what is going on within the game (both diegetic and metagaming). Since the emotional change so to speak is distributed over multiple people and existent partially in a shared fiction, it is the exchange of information between these participants and frames of experience (a la Frame Analysis) that is of importance here with each single exchange between participants being a Play Unit.

The way in which the participants understand and give meaning to their experiences is to frame this experience in a finite province of meaning akin to a theater stage contained within the imagination. [Fine, Gary Alan. 2002. Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. University of Chicago Press. p.181] Play Units not only comprises the flow of information between participants but also accrue to create the stage upon the existent framework of the rules. This stage is the diegetic part of the game and it is linked to the real world via the social interaction of the participants, which exists in the meta-game often blurring the distinction at some junctions but without affecting the participants’ perception of what is real and imaginary.

A Play Unit is produced when there is a single exchange of information between participants that effects or has consequences within the game world. Interaction with only the rules or raw mechanics of the game system does not. The rules are a filter for the raw information working on that information packaging it into a form communicated to the GM and then which the GM works on within the context of those same set of rules and then replies with a similarly packaged bit of information. Thus, the rules or mechanics of a game are a third necessary part of this vital exchange. The rules act as a filter and/or algorithm acting to alter info. This transformation of raw information gives rise to system specific lingo and in-game quirks as side effects unique to a specific rule system.

  • Three Vital Parts of a Play Unit are the GM, Players, and Rules/Mechanics

Not all exchanges in a game session are important and are of different levels of importance and immediacy however. Most important exchanges will contain a nugget of info that the GM can play on later, apply directly to the current action in-game, and those that may hint or directly spell-out character traits and especially player interest and reaction. Therefore, it takes multiple limited exchanges transformed by the game mechanics to conglomerate together to create a larger more cohesive unit. These key exchanges are what construct the game world in the minds of all the participants. These key exchanges involve multiple Play Units that build a single fictive scene known as an Episode.

Episode

An Episode is an incomplete part of an adventure where a group of things happen (a large accumulation of Play Units) which seem to be leading to the next episode or a conclusion. Essentially a single incident or short series of incidents occur in some relation to each other. In the world of fiction writing, these are roughly analogous to scenes.

In fiction, a Scene (from Three Genres by Stephen Minot, pg.376) is a unit of action within a story marked by a change of time or place (change of scene) which contains an event that moves the story forward. Note that the entrance of other characters can also demarcate scenes. The same is true of tabletop RPGs save that the demarcation of a scene is more reliant on the change of challenge to the Players such as the presentation of a question, puzzle, or problem by the GM without the scene changing in time or place. Characters may also die in between these exchanges as well as certain characters simply vanishing or becoming suddenly scarce altering the scene, meaning scenes are less structured in RPGs than fiction. Thusly, within the context of RPG Narratology it is probably more befitting to call these units Episodes instead of scenes.

An episode in the context of TRPG narratology is a related grouping of Play Units where the setting/background does not have to be fixed. An example of this is a conversation between two PCs while walking through a magic portal beginning before they walked through and continuing through and on the other side, the backdrop changes radically but the episode is composed of the exchanges between the PCs.

This somewhat transient notion in TRPGs can be difficult when trying to translate between traditional narrative and TRPG narrative especially in such instances as trying to blog a personal (or a character’s) tabletop experiences. Those that blog their experiences around the table may try to demarcate portions of the campaign by Session instead of by traditional narrative units or even those of TRPGs being discussed here. A Session being a limited time spent actually playing the game with others and often a series of Sessions will compose an adventure and/or campaign.

When writing or setting up for episodes a GM need only rely on the key exchanges that end on or lead to a desirable result for them. Basically, the GM will want the PCs to end up after this series of exchanges in a place or situation that either leads directly to another planned episode or that which they believe that they can work with, giving them fodder for more episodes further down the line.

Keeping Play Units and Episodes in mind a GM can structure their thoughts and ideas while running the game and writing for their campaign. A game-master can learn to keep tidbits of info in mind and group them together later when it comes time to act on them in-game helping to form the plot threads that run through campaigns which the GM’s writing and narration helps to bind together into adventures.

Multiple related Episodes will accumulate to build an Adventure, which may or may not be consecutive or broken up amongst episodes that take the Campaign in different directions or digressions that will matter later connecting to other non-contiguous episodes or future episodes. In fiction, this is Plot/plot lines. Plot (McKee, pg.43) is a sequence of events divided into Scenes with each single scene often presenting a single event all driving to a conclusion. For the purposes of this essay there is no distinction between Plots and Subplots.

A minimum of three scenes construct the traditional plot in fiction with a beginning, middle, and end type of striation within the text. Likewise, in a TRPG, plot consists of three vital exchanges or episodes, which are Presentation, Complication, and Twist. The building blocks of a TRPG plot are a series of Episodes, which are bundles of Play Units guided by the GM and a ruleset with a path blazed by the Players. TRPG plots are the result of the informational interaction of these three entities.

In addition, as episodic structure is spread across real-life and the imaginary stage of the game world, Plots in this context are very mercurial and apt to change direction and nature suddenly and unpredictably. For this reason, it is most useful to refer to TRPG Plot as an Adventure. An Adventure is a single plotline that can be followed through a campaign referring only to the game and meta-game elements necessary to communicate said plot.

Scenario

Another very similar but slightly different informational structure to Episodes within RPGs are Scenarios. A Scenario is virtually identical to an Episode but has a definite self-contained beginning, middle, and ending structure. An example being a short combat or random monster encounter, this does not mean the enemy is dead at the end but the battle definitively ends. Other scenarios or episodes can lead into these and a scenario can either terminate a story thread or lead to the next episode/scenario. In other words, a Scenario is a self-contained Episode but is not equivalent to a One-Shot Adventure.

Adventure

An Adventure is an extended section of a campaign, which has a beginning, middle, and an ending. Adventure would relate to a story arc or group of chapters in fiction writing. Standalone adventures or One-Shots would be similar to a short story in this context. An adventure module is essentially gamified fiction and so a completed adventure always has a recognizable beginning and a definitive ending. This ending may or may not lead into another adventure however.

The beginning and ending are somewhat inflexible giving the GM a definite starting point and a definite ending point but the body of the adventure is and should be very flexible. The middle may be adjusted as the PCs play through it allowing them freedom of movement and exploration while the GM invisibly guides them to the end. This structure of linked episodes and/or scenarios allows the GM to improvise more effectively in response to the indigence of the PCs and in response to the creativity of Player decisions.

The Beginning of an adventure starts with a vital episode called a Presentation. Presentation refers to an exchange initiated by the GM that presents something to be solved or acted upon by the Players in such a way as to lead them into another scene or episode. Although whether or not the players follow this to the next episodic component of the current adventure is unpredictable and may require the GM to put a hold on the current adventure to go on a player-fueled tangent. The beginning of an adventure can be composed of a single episode or scenario whereas the body can conceivably be made of a single episode it is more likely (and fun) to be a chain of episodes leading to a climax or certain ending conditions.

The middle or main body of the adventure will be a series of linked scenarios and/or episodes. These Episodes and/or Scenarios involving locations and incidents which are all connected in some way, preferably each leading into another rather than just a series of events happening one after the other. It is in this part of the adventure a vital episode called the Complication should occur. This plot component throws in an unexpected obstacle at the Players which they must overcome to proceed to the end.

The ending is a definitive endpoint where there is a requirement that when fulfilled the PCs have completed the adventure bringing it to its end. Of course, just as in fiction the GM may continue as an epilogue to the adventure in order to finish off any stray plot lines or character subplots otherwise eliminating loose ends that do not lead to another adventure. The end is also where an episode called the Twist can occur. This is an unexpected turn in events that complicates the situation for the Players and serves as the final obstacle or a final surprise. Adventures propel the characters and thus their players through this shared world, which they not only can alter through the actions of their characters but also help to construct episodically. These shared adventures can themselves link together into a campaign.

Campaign

The Campaign is the largest component of a tabletop RPG composed of a series of related Adventures. An RPG campaign is analogous to the novel in fiction with story at the heart of both forms.

This brings us to the overarching super-structure underlying both fiction and TRPGs. In fiction, this structure, composed from the bottom up of Story-Beats, Scenes, and Plot, is Story. A Story is the text resulting from the totality of the aforementioned structures with the addition of characters, details, and the background (that may or may not involve world building) in which the events of the story take place. The fictive element most analogous to a Campaign is Story.

Briefly, story in terms of this essay is a piece of fiction structured to elicit a certain reaction or reactions in the reader. Stories are structured by careful choice of material and the arrangement of constituent parts into a narrative. [Beacon Lights of Literature 1, pg.5 – Poe’s Theory of Short Story] The most basic elements of story that also correspond to RPGs are character, plot, and setting. Of course, these underlying structures that authors of fiction use to construct their stories vary so much from those of TRPGs at this point it is probably more efficient to call Story in terms of tabletop RPGs a Campaign.

A Campaign is the totality of all of the game and meta-game exchanges, participant characters (both PCs and NPCs), any material that the GM used regardless of original source or authorship, and the diegetic game world where the campaign has taken place. It is from this accumulation of detail and narration from which the participants can extract their personal narratives from the point of view as either their character(s), as a player, or a combination of the two. It is also in this higher tier structure where the world-building occurs as world-building is done through the accumulation of information gleaned from the gaming material and from the information drawn or resulting from certain exchanges and demonstrated in certain episodes. These details are often noted down by the GM so that the PCs may revel in or return to these certain facts about their imagined communal world.

A Campaign is a long-term ongoing RPG game that has at least one arc that takes it from the beginning to the end. Note that a campaign will often have several arcs and plot threads. Each game session builds on the next not just in terms of character experience but also in the accumulation and generation of story threads where at least some of which helps to lead to the conclusion of the campaign.

This long-form allows the GM to gradually build the in-game world as well as allowing the players to evolve their characters and make a mark on the game world possibly even influencing its course as well as the course of the campaign itself. Thus the game world is always seemingly in flux built around and accumulating certain facts about itself which serve to anchor believably (and replayability) in the diegetic frame. In RPG terms, Story is not the product of any single author but a group with a certain share of that group with their hands and feet within the fictional world of that story.

The Structure of an RPG in Ascending Order is:

Play Unit – A bidirectional exchange of information between participants analogous to the Story-Beats in fiction.

Episode/Scenario – A collection of play-units that paints a situation that leads somewhere analogous to a fictive Scene.

Adventure – A linked collection of episodes and/or scenarios with a definitive beginning, middle, ending structure analogous to Plot or a Short Story or Book Chapter.

Campaign – A collection of shared adventures analogous to a fictive Story or Novel.

World-building occurs in tabletop RPGs by the sedimentation of details and information born of the bidirectional flow of Play Units structured and augmented by the rule set. That building the more complex structures that constitute roleplaying games and their worlds as the game is played. This organized flow underlies everything about tabletop role-playing games.

Summation

This theory of the organized flow of information is meant to be not only a ludology device but also a practical tool for those involved in the writing, creation, and playing of roleplaying games. In my experience and in my research including the reading of various other RPG theories this one rings the most personally true and has been of practical use in my own writing for RPGs.

Related Blogs and Articles

All of these cited works are authored by me unless otherwise noted. Each holds bits and pieces of the Organized Flow Theory as well as some narrow applications. The last is a purely mechanical dissection but I think illustrates a general knowledge on how the mechanics side operates.

Handling Game Flow in RPGs (Hubpages)

Building Tabletop Myths (Hubpages)

Tabletop Meditations #7: RPG Narrative

Tabletop Meditations #9: Campaign Structure

The Finer Points of the Frankengame (Gnomestew)

 

 

Tabletop Meditations #19: Murder Hoboes Inc.

Your player group has just slaughtered an entire village for the hell of it, they kill every other NPC thatMurder D20 has any words with them, and they loot every corpse. In fact, loot is just one excuse they use to participate in the slaughter of unfortunate NPCs. What you have on your hands is every GM’s nightmare, a gaggle of Murder Hoboes.

The problem of murder hoboing is as old as fantasy roleplaying games themselves. A problem best dealt with directly in-game though out-of-game preparation can help to mitigate its appearance. The term itself comes from the commonality that most adventurers are essentially homeless wanderers looking for wealth and power through fighting enemies, participating in expeditions, and general adventuring.

Murder hoboing is a problem because it can derail an adventure by killing off of important NPCs thereby disposing of any important information they were to relay to the PCs, cause utter chaos in game rendering all the prep work a GM has done fruitless, and may squelch the fun of those actually trying to engage the game world. Ultimately it rests with the GM to work with the offender to get things back on pace. However, direct confrontation might not be the best or effective way to go about things instead attempts from within the game should be tried first to gently coerce the Player through their character. Every group has had a player that has done this and often groups do go through these types of phases early in their existence.

However, not all adventurers are Murder Hoboes though the majority seem to be itinerant by their very nature. A Murder Hobo is essentially an adventurer that simply goes around killing everything in their path in order to reap experience points (XP) or to loot the corpses of their victims. They often do not discriminate between villains, allies, monsters, animals, innocents, and criminals. If it exists within the game, worth is broken down into loot or XP.

On the other hand, Murder Hoboing is the behavior manifesting from the previously mentioned outlook by a Player using their Player Character (PC). A player may hold this simplistic view due to boredom, a long lull or inactivity in the game, or lack of immersion leading to said boredom. This can also come from playing a character that has been built solely for combat and nothing more in a game that consists of little or no combat or has long stretches between the actual fighting and the other RPG elements.

There are three major strategies or courses of action that can be used to mitigate murder hoboing that do not directly target the Player. The first called the Session Zero approach strives to construct a set of rules and understanding that will set up the boundaries for Players and the GM. This is a preemptive strategy.

The second strategy is to require a Backstory from each Player for their character in an effort to invest the Player in the fate of their character. Hopefully inspiring them to not misuse them to derail the game. The last approach is to Bait the offender and essentially use the potential fate of their character to send a warning to them that their attempt at having fun stomping all over everybody else’s’ will only end in frustration for them. This is still an indirect approach but is very close to being directed at the player him or herself and if misused that is exactly what it will feel like to them, so use this last approach with caution.

Session Zero is the pregame where the group gathers to generate characters and where the general rules and expectations of the group can be discussed establishing a general code of Player behavior. The GM can give their input in character builds so that players can create characters that can participate in as much of the play as possible thereby avoiding the boredom and over-specialization that can lead to the adoption of the murder hobo mindset. Typically, a Session Zero is a meet up to generate characters and discuss table manners before the next actual play-session. This preliminary session also gives the players a chance to come up with and write backstories for their characters.

Players that have worked on a backstory will have more invested in their characters. Thus, they are less apt to go on uncharacteristic killing sprees or randomly murder NPCs. Granted that their character is not actually a homicidal maniac. A backstory also allows a GM to integrate a character into the game world and even into the main thrust of a campaign by linking elements in their backgrounds with adventure and campaign elements. This also gives the GM ammo when a PC does go berserk and needs to be reined in allowing for in-game story options to do that if only as a distraction.

This brings us to baiting. This strategy involves using a situation or NPC that appeals to the worst nature of the Player(s) in order to lure them into a confrontation. The bait of course is much more than can be seen, they are characters designed to prey on the weaknesses of the offender(s) as well as defend against their strengths. Either this forces the offender’s compatriots to join them or back away during the fight. If they survive that encounter then bait them again to send a warning shot across their bow in order to let them know they may not be able to tell a bait-NPC from the average NPC.

Whereas the previous strategies do not directly target the offending player(s), remember the bait tactic means the player(s) has to take it, there are effective strategies that do. These techniques directly oppose the PCs in game and if over-used may cause players to resent the GM. They may come to believe the GM is laying tracks (as in railroading) or just deliberately beating up on their characters, so try not to over-use these techniques. I suggest that these strategies should be utilized when the characters start exhibiting or carrying out murder-hobo behaviors. These tactics are the Boss Strategy, making use of diegetic Power Structures, and deploying an Avenger.

A one time-tested strategy to handle murder hoboing has been to insert increasingly powerful NPC’s (paladins are common) to act as adjudicators and avengers essentially using the Video-Game Boss Strategy. A boss in this context is an NPC that functions as a roadblock to the endeavors of the players. Sometimes they can also function as a landmark, especially as an indicator of player power level. An example is an NPC showing up early in the PC’s career that beats the hell out of them and gets away.

Eventually the PC’s catch up to this NPC and are able to defeat them in a later confrontation allowing players to demonstrate not only their characters’ increased powers and abilities but also (hopefully) their better teamwork and maybe ability at planning and strategy. Bosses are ideally effective combatants up to the point of defeating the players, that is they are hard to defeat but are not overwhelmingly or impossible to knock down.

The Boss strategy can keep the murder-hobo(es) on their toes focusing their attention. It also has entertainment value so eliminating murder hoboing due to boredom. The Boss should inspire the PCs to track them down where NPCs with information become important to that goal. A murder hobo would lose the ability to get their claws into the Boss by not sparing the “throw-away” NPCs.

A better strategy, one that increases the depth of the setting, is to impose a socio-political hierarchy (feudalism etc.) that is defined and useable in game with the NPCs holding these positions not having to be super-charged or even particularly unique. The structure will ensure that even the players eliminate those in charge there is always a replacement and all the powers above them will see the players as threats to their persons as well. Thereby hiring and sending out the boss-types not only reinforced with the authority to deal with them but with back-up coming from all angles which includes ordinary citizens as informants or even poisoners or entrappers. These people who not only believe in the system which can by themselves be enough but those who also have stakes built into the system or at least those who believe they do are very dangerous.

Overarching structures are more effective being very big and complex such as the Feudalist Hierarchy, which is basic but can be complex very quick as can succession to any of its offices. Smaller self-governing structures such as Guilds are more common but are also attached in some way to the overarching political structure by agreements, contracts, laws, and money. Meaning certain parts of the system will awaken to protect the whole as well as those parts that will see the murder-hoboes as their answer to political expediency and try to use them as such. This method can turn murder-hoboes into true role-players very quickly especially if they care anything about their characters. If the PCs still randomly murder the NPCs then an avenger may be called for.

An Avenger or Nemesis type NPC has the power and resources to hunt down and be a definite threat against the offending PCs. This type of NPC will definitely try to get them alone in a duel-like situation and will have no mercy convinced that they are the good guy and may very well be in this situation. It should be obvious to the Players that this character is too powerful to confront directly and there should be clues dropped in the game to demonstrate this and clue the Players in. There should also be in-game moments when the PCs know a superior enemy is stalking them. This helps to focus the murder-hobo(es) on something other than murder hoboing.

Murder Hoboing can drag a game down into pure boredom with the GM paralyzed due to a vital tool being broken. The ability to put clues and raw information into the mouths of NPCS is extremely important to running a game. It also boils roleplaying games down to simple number crunching as murder hoboing often involves greed for XP but this is not always applicable. However, there a ways to mitigate and fight this lazy approach to RPGs that some players have or may fall into.

The more passive and preventative approaches are running a preliminary session (Session Zero), require character backstories from each player, and do not be afraid to bait troublesome player characters.  These should be attempted before the more direct methods are used. The more direct methods to combating murder-hoboes are employ increasingly powerful NPCs as adjudicators, make use of in-game power and political structures, and sending out avenger or nemesis type NPCs directly at the PCs. Note that the GM should never overuse these direct tactics as players may take it as direct attacks on them by the GM, so use sparingly.

Of course, if all else fails maybe it’s time to let go of the troublesome player or try to adjust to the group’s method of play if it is the entire group and a new one is not an option. Maybe such a group is better at being the villains.

 

Tabletop Meditations #18: Disease

The Player Characters (PCs) are traveling through a fetid, sweltering swamp. Halfway through their Potions and Medicines to combat diseaseadventure the expedition begins to fall sick with fever. At first, just a few torchbearers were sick and then a few porters. Eventually almost the entire adventuring party is sick even a few PCs are ill. The danger made apparent before the expedition. However, they assumed it couldn’t be that bad. After all, they had healing magic at their disposal. Now stranded at the center of a monster-infested morass they are bogged down with a sick and dying expedition. In addition, the longer they stay, the more likely more will fall ill. An invisible tiny enemy has brought them to their knees.

Disease has stalled even killed some of the toughest, persistent, and well-provisioned adventurers in history. Strange fevers, boils, sores, pox, food poisoning, parasitic worms, STD’s, and animal born infections have plagued adventurers and military campaigns throughout history. With disease being such an important factor concerning exploration and conquest, a clever Game-Master (GM) would be foolish not to make use of that side of nature.

Disease is an underutilized tool in the GM Toolshed and can add to the danger and feeling of a setting. Disease is a world-class force. It can thwart adventurers, jamb the wheels of imperialism, stop the machines of war dead, and even curtail history. However, with all things in the game world, diseases need to be broken down into a few basic ideas.

There are three aspects to diseases in respect to roleplaying games that are important. These are Contagion Rate, the Incubation Period, and the Disease Vector(s) through which the sickness perpetuates. The Contagion Rate refers to how contagious the disease is, percentiles can easily represent this. This represents how easily the disease can transfer to an individual. The percentile rate would mean that the exposed character is potentially infected. After this determination, the GM should refer to the game mechanics for what happens next. If the character succumbs to the infection then the symptoms of the disease are often not immediately noticeable.

Symptoms and the main effects of the disease will appear after the Incubation Period of the specific disease has passed. Incubation Period refers to how long the disease remains dormant in an infected host; it can still be contagious at this stage. After exposure a character can walk around apparently unaffected for however long the Incubation Period lasts which can ranged anywhere from a few hours to days even years! They can remain infectious during this period as well. Often the more infectious a disease is the shorter the incubation time. A highly infectious disease that has a short incubation time is a plague in the waiting although the quicker the incubation then the quicker the outbreak is likely to burn itself out.

Finally, the third idea is the Disease Vector. A vector is the agent that carries the disease to its living host, which can be a living organism or a medium like dust. The infection vectors that can spread a disease are many but the main ones to keep in mind are those that travel through wounds, insect bites, animals (feces & diseased individuals, corpses), and those that are airborne or hide in improperly prepared or stored food. Adventurers need to make sure their food has not spoiled or been contaminated. They should beware of corpses they have not killed themselves. Adventurers also need to care for their wounds even small scratches especially when traversing bodies of water or marsh areas. Of course, they also need to learn how to deal with biting insects especially mosquitoes and flies.

Infection can get into open wounds through direct contact with such vectors as dirty clothes, water, mud, and general filth. The improper cleaning of deep wounds is begging for infection. A good example of the result of an infection through wound contamination with serious consequences is gangrene. Gangrene results in fever and possibly the loss of limbs and death not to mention the stench of rotting flesh. Note that gangrene also results from a lack of circulation but the form we are concerned with is the result of bacterial infection.

Animal and insect bites are another major vector for diseases. The most obvious one is rabies, if the animal is foaming at the mouth its bite is something to avoid. However, certain animals that are carriers are not so easy to avoid. Vampire bats prey upon sleeping warm-blooded victims. Another infamous example is of the Tsetse fly and its transmission of sleeping sickness not to mention the mosquito born malaria and dengue and yellow fevers. Even such hard to avoid insects such as ticks that can carry lime disease.

To finish off the potential vectors of interest to GMs are airborne infections and of course food poisoning. Spoiled food is a major hazard and may transmit mild to severe effects. This usually depends on the type of food, where it came from, and how it was prepared. Also, food contaminated through contact with other vectors such as insects or contaminated water becomes a medium for disease. Another way food can shelter the enemy is by eating infected animals, which may be still within the incubation period.

Airborne vectors come about when inhaling germs in miasmatic environs such as gas spewing swamps or burbling cesspits. This includes sharing space with infected individuals with no contact other than breathing the same air. Here, the disease uses the medium of air launched in aerosol form by a cough or sneeze. Good examples of the types of diseases that can spread via these vectors are influenza and the Hanta virus via the dust from rodent droppings. In certain cases, even the wind can become a vector. Another medium that is worth visiting is that of water.

Waterborne infections can afflict individuals that drink spoiled or stagnant water. Contaminated water can also infect food that comes into contact with it especially during preparation. Examples of the diseases that travel via water are Dysentery, Typhoid fever, and Guinea Worm. Adventurers should always be suspicious of bodies of water they encounter and not just because of leeches and piranha either. However, in fantasy roleplaying games there are a few mitigating factors even in the more primitive of settings.

In RPGs, certain game aspects can mitigate the disease factor. These three disease negating factors are characters that have the ability to heal others aka Healers, potions or elixirs, and magic.

Healers are characters that have the ability to heal other characters of both damage and cure diseases or at least ease their symptoms. They can achieve this mystically or with some version of medicine. If disease is a major feature in a setting, these characters become very valuable party members. However, even when Healers are traveling with an expedition that party may want some backup in the form of potions.

Potions when consumed heal damage and some can even cure disease. These are usually of a magical nature but sometimes the fantasy separates chemistry, alchemy, and magic into separate areas. This separation does not concern us here, as the mere existence of potions is effective in combating disease. The only factors to consider are availability (who makes them and how long does it take) and cost in both time and money. Meaning the majority of people will not be able to afford these life-saving potions. Alternately, if they can it still might be a rare thing. This is especially true if the disease requires a specific cure or type of potion. As the nature of potions often falls into the realm of magic so magic itself must be taken into consideration.

Although healing abilities and potions fall under the purview of magic, they are different strategies due to availability and cost. Unless someone has access to a healer they do not have the luxury of the healer’s abilities and if they cannot find a supply of potions then the same. The same can be said of magic items that may offer protection or even healing abilities to their wielder. These are more accessible to the makers of such items and fall into adventurers’ possession more frequently than others’.

Magic items are more accessible than a Healer’s abilities. This is simply because all one has to do is wield the item instead of becoming a healer. They are also more durable than potion bottles thus granting a more portability. Also they are more than likely good for more than a single use. Frankly, the advantage of a disease fighting magical item is so great that it becomes a necessary piece of kit. This is not to diminish a mage or wizard that has disease curing spells but again access is the issue, there must be such a spell-caster present.

In a world of limited scientific knowledge and where magic is known to exist  how would disease be treated? Just as importantly, how is the welfare of those unfortunate enough to be suffering from infection handled? Historically, disease shaped communities and whole eras of civilization (syphilis, HIV/AIDS, Black Death, leprosy). This includes the formation of colonies and places meant to isolate and imprison diseased individuals. A bustling snake oil industry and quack businesses will spring up. A historical parallel would be the patent medicines of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Disease shapes affected communities especially if there is no cure. How society deals with and treats the so affected is important. The example of lepers is especially notorious. Lepers were made to ring bells warning the healthy members of society that they were coming whenever they were traveling in towns and cities if not barred from entry. Lepers were even forced (occasionally voluntarily) into colonies often on small faraway islands or isolated facilities.

With laws and forced isolation imposed on victims of disease also comes scapegoating. This being applied to not only the infected but also those that were believed to carry the infection. This includes those accused of deliberately planting the sickness by contaminating water wells or poisoning food by means of witchcraft.  These scapegoats may be particular creatures or locations, enemies, social minorities, or newly arrived adventurers or adventurers in general. This also may include a belief that a specific disease is particular to a certain community.

The efforts to prevent infection will range from reliance on certain organizations (religious, mages, alchemy, charlatans, etc.) to enforced cleanliness or misguided efforts thereof. Cities and towns could forbid certain types of individuals from entering due to the belief that they are carriers.

Disease is a world shaping force that stops invasions dead, halts the movement of goods, money, and troops, altering history. The outbreak of plagues can sweep over the entire planet wiping out whole swaths of civilization leaving an indelible mark on the surviving culture. There are Plagues (an extreme version of a specific disease) that can alter the world as it circulates the globe wiping out towns and cities.  International trade can even become a vector such as in the case of the Black Plague and medieval Europe. Small outbreaks can stall wars, halt invasions, wipe out small communities, and kill kings.

However, disease, especially plagues, can not only negatively affect the population but also have severe economic repercussions and even present new opportunities. Patent Medicines (real or snake oil) can come about to fill the need effective or not. Quacks may proliferate. The collapse of trade may occur with the isolation of cities or rural areas needed for trade. The reduction of the work force by extreme measure is not only a tragedy but also thereby giving them more power to demand better treatment and pay.

In June 1381, 35 years after the Black Death had swept England, the Peasant Rebellion occurred led by Wat Tyler from Kent. The peasant army from Kent and Essex marched on London and captured the Tower of London. One motivating factor of this peasant force was that during the plague they had been granted their freedom and paid to work the estates of the aristocracy. The aristocracy did this in order to keep them from leaving during the labor shortage created by the plague. The peasants were afraid that they would lose these newly won privileges. Plagues damage the laborer population, which leads to a downturn in production of materials and crops for at least a decade and increases the economic and political clout of labor and the lower classes. It actually turns the world upside down.

Diseases in RPGs are of value to the GM. Diseases can act as an obstacle to PCs, give certain specialized Healer characters an important role to play, and alter NPCs in dramatic ways. The knowledge of the potential diseases they may face may give the PCs pause and even alter their travel routes. A diseased member of a PC expedition may slow down or stop the group dead especially if more than one of their number is infected. This in and of itself presents its own challenge. That challenge being to find shelter and/or a place to recuperate and recover their bearings.

Introducing these illnesses into your world allows the Healer character to do something seemingly small. However, do not be afraid to demonstrate to the other PCs that disease can take quite a toll even if it only is stalling them for a while. Sickness can also alter infected NPCs in a way that can engage players and give the GM more tools to work with. Examples are lepers, sick and dying kids as a source of empathy/sympathy or an adventure hook, dying beggars, the dying and kind old person but for a cure scenario.

Making use of diseases can help a GM to enhance their game. They have a tool that can halt armies, delay or kill adventurers, alter the functions of an NPC, and put up a barrier to egress in a remote area. It can add to the flavor of a game as well as engendering some mild danger or at least another sum that the Players will have to calculate. Not to mention the fear factor built up via dialogue delivered by the NPCs to the Players.

Microorganisms can stall adventuring parties and armies alike as well as strike down the lowliest peasant as well as the mightiest king. Adding disease to your campaign world can enrich the background as well as alter the roles of NPCs, Healers, and mages. In this same scenario potions and magic items that house healing and disease fighting abilities become more useful and therefore valuable. Certain vectors especially certain insects may become a symbol of terror to PCs who become cognizant of the risk and the need to prepare for an excursion beforehand. Disease as a part of a living campaign world is an invaluable tool for the discerning GM and a valuable source of drama and immersion for Players.

 

Tabletop Meditations #17: The Lich

Whether it is at the head of an undead horde or a shadowy figure behind the scenes using monsters and people like chess pieces the undead wizard known as the lich is adept on and off the field. These undead wizards appear as mostly skeletal with only the scant, mummified remnants of flesh left hanging from their yellowed bones, and in the deep black pits of their perpetually grinning skulls, red pinpoints of hellish light. The lich is a very common archetype in modern fantasy and one of the most recognizable but how far do the roots of the monster actually go?

The lich is an undead spell-caster that has for the most part deliberately become undead as a bid for immortality able to gather more arcane-knowledge and thus power over time. When they first appeared seemingly out of whole cloth they were undead spell-casters with strange powers, became ideal and grim antagonists, and continue today as antagonists of boss-monster proportions.

[A] mage or cleric so thirsty for immortality as to try to cheat death, and already powerful at magic. [Greenwood, Ed. 1988. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Forgotten Realms, The Lords of Darkness. TSR, Inc. 2]

A lich is an undead creature therefore; our concerns lie first with the condition of undeath and the meaning of ‘undead creature’. First off, undead creatures were formerly living and thus have had a “first death” rising from the grave weirder and more powerful.

Undead creatures are dead bodies animated often by an outside force after the soul of the dead being has since flown from the bones. This force, often malicious, oft defined as demonic and occasionally elemental replaces the soul as the animating force and/or mind. This force typically alters the corpse in significant and grotesque ways to adapt the newly formed creature to its new (un)life as a creature of the night. In the case of Liches, this force is magic rather than a demonic spirit though perhaps still elemental.  However, their actual soul has been captured in a special object called a Phylactery. The transformation of the body to the being of a lich is the death of the mage and the rotting of the corpse leaving only that necessary to contain the animating force. The once living visage reduced to the bones with maybe some withered, leather-tough tatters of flesh to hold the joints together.

The urge for immortality is so strong in some powerful mages and magic-user/clerics that they aspire to lichdom, despite its horrible physical side effects and the usual loss of friends and living companionship. Lichdom must be prepared for in life; no true lich ever is known to have come about “naturally”. [Greenwood. pg.73]

The term and the creature fused together in the pulp fiction of the early 20th century. For the most part the term was used as an archaism. An archaism is a deliberate imitation of old-fashioned language in order to stress a certain time-frame or to enhance atmosphere. Similar archaisms were revived and sometimes redefined by the popular imagination in that fertile ground known as American Pulp Fiction, namely in the fantasy and horror genres of weird fiction. Masters and innovators of modern archaisms as literary device included such well-known names as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith.

The etymology of the term Lich, plural Liches, is straightforward. Its roots lie in the Old English word for ‘corpse’, not a monster or evil spirit, just a dead body:  “A corpse (Old English lic).” [Rockwood, Camilla ed. 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable 18th Edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. 781] Though archaic its original use lingers in certain usages such as ‘lich gate’ and a few others.

Lich gate or lych gate The covered entrance to churchyards intended to afford shelter to the coffin and mourners while awaiting the clergyman who is to conduct the cortége into church.”

Lich wake or lyke wake The funeral feast or the waking of a corpse, i.e. watching it all night.”

Lychway or lickway A trackway, especially in a remote upland area, along which corpses were borne for burial in a distant churchyard.” [Rockwood. 781]

The modern fantasy trope of the Lich may have indeed started with the term itself.

Pulp Fiction where most modern fantasy archetypes were, if not born, then mantled with their modern guises, the lich is no exception. However, in regards to the lich this lineage begins with the appearance of the term “lich” in weird stories beginning in the 19th century with Ambrose Bierce at the very beginning of the weird genre of fiction.

One of the earliest appearances in fiction of the word occurs in Ambrose Bierce’s story the Death of Halpin Frayser. In fact, the fictional quote that precedes the story is the earliest part to mention our undead subject.

For by death is wrought greater change than hath been shown. Whereas in general the spirit that removed cometh back upon occasion, and is sometimes seen of those in flesh (appearing in the form of the body it bore) yet it hath happened that the veritable body without the spirit hath walked. And it is attested of those encountering who have lived to speak thereon that a lich so raised up hath no natural affection, nor remembrance thereof, but only hate. Also, it is known that some spirits which in life were benign become by death evil altogether. [Hopkins, Ernest Jerome ed. 1970. The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce. University of Nebraska Press. The Death of Halpin Frayser]

Soon after the term was adopted by one of the three musketeers of weird fiction, Clark Ashton Smith.  His connection to Bierce being that: “At fifteen, [Clark Ashton Smith] became likewise infatuated with [the poetry] of George Sterling. Sterling (1869-1926) had moved from his native New York State to California in 1891 and had become a protégé of Ambrose Bierce – “bitter Bierce,” the misanthropic writer, poet, journalist, and satirist[.]” [De Camp, L.Sprague. 1976. Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy. Arkham House . Sauk City, Wisconsin. 199]

Bierce himself was quite aware of the young writer. “In 1912, Ambrose Bierce wrote to a western magazine, warning that, while Smith was a very promising young poet, this premature publicity and exaggerated praise might be bad for him and lead to an equally exaggerated reaction against him.” [De Camp. 201]

Eventually through his use of the word and his close connections via written correspondence, his contemporaries, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, began to use the word as well. However, Smith used the term more often to describe an animated corpse than an undead wizard. This is around 1926 and the lich is still a little strange.

But on its heels, ere the sunset faded, there came a second apparition, striding with incredible strides, and halting when it loomed almost upon me in the red twilight – the monstrous mummy of some ancient king, still crowned with untarnished gold, but turning to my gaze a visage that more than time or the worm had wasted. Broken swathings flapped about the skeleton legs, and above the crown that was set with sapphires and balas-rubies, a black something swayed and nodded horribly; but, for an instant, I did not dream what it was. Then, in its middle, two oblique and scarlet eyes opened and glowed like hellish coals, and two ophidian fangs glittered in an ape-like mouth. A squat, furless, shapeless head on a neck of disproportionate extent leaned unspeakably down and whispered in the mummy’s ear. Then, with one stride, the titanic lich took half the distance between us, and from out the folds of the tattered sere-cloth a gaunt arm arose, and fleshless, taloned fingers laden with glowering gems, reached out and fumbled for my throat… [Connors, Scott ed. 2006. The End of the Story: The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith Volume One. Night Shade Books. San Francisco. The Abominations of Yondo. 7-8]

In his 1932 story The Empire of the Necromancers, the lich has lost the weird belly-monster and taken the basic form of an animated corpse. “After a while, in the grey waste, they found the remnants of another horse and rider, which the jackals had spared and the sun had dried to the leanness of old mummies. They also raised up from death; and Mmatmuor bestrode the withered charger; and the two magicians rode on in state, like errant emperors, with a lich and a skeleton to attend them.” [Connors, Scott ed. 2007. A Vintage from Atlantis: The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith Volume Three. Night Shade Books. San Francisco. The Empire of the Necromancers . 194] And “All that night , and during the blood-dark day that followed, by wavering torches or the light of the failing sun, an endless army of plague-eaten liches, of tattered skeletons, poured in a ghastly torrent through the streets of Yethlyreom and along the palace-hall where Hestaiyon stood guard above the slain necromancers.” [Connors. A Vintage from Atlantis. 199]

Eventually Robert E. Howard resourced the lich for his mystical two-fisted adventure tale Skull-Face in 1929.

I shuddered. Kathulos laughed wildly again. His fingers began to drum his chair arms and his face gleamed with the unnatural light once more. The red visions had begun to seethe in his skull again.

“Under the green seas they lie, the ancient masters, in their lacquered cases, dead as men reckon death, but only sleeping. Sleeping through the long ages as hours, awaiting the day of awakening! The old masters, the wise men, who foresaw the day when the sea would gulp the land, and who made ready. Made ready that they might rise again in the barbaric days to come. As did I. Sleeping they lie, ancient kings and grim wizards, who died as men die, before Atlantis sank. Who, sleeping, sank with her but who shall arise again!” [Howard, Robert E. 1974. Skull-Face Omnibus. Neville Spearman, London.]

Of course, Lovecraft followed suit in his The Thing on the Doorstep originally published in 1937. “He must be crematedhe who was not Edward Derby when I shot him. I shall go mad if he is not, for I may be the next. But my will is not weak – and I shall not let it be undermined by the terrors I know are seething around it. One life – Ephraim, Asenath, and Edward – who now? I will not be driven out of my body … I will not change souls with that bullet-ridden lich in the madhouse!” [Derleth, August ed. 1963. The Dunwich Horror and Others. Arkham House Publishers, Inc. Sauk City, Wisconsin. The Thing on the Doorstep. 300]

Though Lovecraft used the term lich to mean the body of the possessed he is probably trying to get the idea through to the reader that the original inhabiting personality is gone essentially slain by the thing that now occupies the flesh. Although within the story, it does concern a sorceress who cheats death by taking possession of others’ bodies even able to drive her former corpse around very similar to the current incarnation of the lich.

These three tales forever merged in the minds of pulp readers the image of the skeletal corpse with the idea of a powerful undying sorcerer. From there the word seeped into the lexicon of fantasy writers but the archetype was not yet quite complete.

The basic idea of the lich naturally filtered to the latter day pulp writers, in particular one Gardner Fox and his Conan-Kull pastiche Kothar. In his 1969 novel Kothar: Barbarian Swordsman a lich appears that will serve as the basis for all future undead wizards in the popular mind.

He turned and stared back into the dark tomb and saw the dead thing standing in the darkness, rotted and ugly in its cerements. […] It was just a corpse, a corpse that walked and spoke and seemed to be alive.

“Who are you?” Kothar growled.

“My name is Afgorkon, long and long ago.”

Kothar scowled. Afgorkon? Surely he had heard Queen Elfa speak of Afgorkon who had been a mighty magician fifty thousand years ago. He tried to think, but could not, being held in thrall by the black, empty eyeholes of the dead thing standing before him, bent and brown and old.

[…]

The lich turned and moved with those strangely thumping footsteps across the tomb. Its rotted hands moved and its withered tongue clacked, and sounds issued from the throat that was little more than bones. The words it spoke reverberated throughout the cairn, they brought down tiny showers of dirt from the root-pierced ceiling, they made the death-slab shake.

Yet they also opened an invisible door and caused a pallid glimmer by which Kothar could see, past the burial garments which still encased Afgorkon, an opening door and a chamber where lay a sword in a scabbard chained to a great leather belt on top of two chests heavy with jewels and golden coins of a kind no man had looked upon for half a million years.” [Fox, Gardner, F. 2016. The First Kothar the Barbarian Megapack. Wildside Press LLC. Kothar: Barbarian Swordsman]

Fox was definitely inspired by Howard’s Conan the Barbarian as Kothar the Barbarian is near identical though apparently less intelligent and with the sexual content of the stories turned up. On a related note The Cat and the Skull, a story written for Weird Tales by Robert E. Howard around 1928 saw print in 1967 in the King Kull lancer paperback.

The face of the man was a bare white skull, in whose eye sockets flamed livid fire!

“Thulsa Doom!”

[…]

“Aye, Thulsa Doom, fools!” the voice echoed cavernously and hollowly.

“The greatest of all wizards and your eternal foe, Kull of Atlantis. […]”

[…]Brule charged with the silent ferocity of a tiger, his curved sword gleaming. And like a gleam of light it flashed into the ribs of Thulsa Doom, piercing him through and through so that the point stood out between his shoulders.

Brule regained his blade[.] Not a drop of blood oozed from the wound which in a living man had been mortal. The skull-faced one laughed.

“Ages ago I died as men die!” he taunted. “Nay, I shall pass to some other sphere when my time comes, not before. I bleed not for my veins are empty and I feel only a slight coldness which shall pass when the wound closes, as it is even now closing. Stand back, fool, your master goes but he shall come again to you and you shall scream and shrivel and die in that coming! Kull, I salute you!” [Louinet, Patrice ed. 2006. Kull Exile of Atlantis. Ballantine Books, New York. The Cat and the Skull]

Most importantly however, Gardner’s novel was read by Gary Gygax whom used the lich in that story as his template for the monster in his game Dungeons & Dragons.

“While a few of the critters in questions are purely products of my own imagination–carrion crawler, gelatinous cube, roper for instance–there were many sources of inspiration for the majority of the monsters, and I will name a few: […] Lich: Right on in regards to Gardner Fox. Gar and his wife Linda were friends of mine.” [Gygax, Gary. 2007. EnWorld.Org. Forum Post]

We have finally arrived at the Archetypical Lich. The Undead Magic-User or Priest that willingly underwent the lethal mystical transformation into an undead monster has taken its modern form. “Preparation for lichdom occurs while the figure is still alive and must be completed before his first “death”.” [Mohan, Kim ed. 1981. Lenard Lakofka auth. 1979. Best of Dragon Vol.II. Blueprint for a lIch.] After they have successfully undergone this process, the wizard’s soul has been captured within the Phylactery singly the most valuable item in any lich’s amassed treasury no matter how vast.

The word Phylactery is defined in the dictionary as an amulet but also refers to devices of orthodox Jewish prayer. In that respect, phylactery refers to two small leather boxes containing slips of vellum on which are written portions of Mosaic Law. One is worn on the head and the other on the left arm in token of the duty to obey religious law. Strangely, the lich’s phylactery reflects these ideas, as it is a magic amulet containing its living soul, which the lich must protect. If it is destroyed, so is the lich.

The phylactery may take any form – it may be a pendant, gauntlet, scepter, helm, crown, ring, or even a lump of stone. It must be of inorganic material, must be solid and of high-quality workmanship if man-made, and cannot be an item having other spells or magical properties on or in it. It may be decorated or carved in any way desired for distinction. [Greenwood. pg.74]

The idea of it being a mystical container for the soul of a sorcerer is similar to the character of Koschei the Deathless from Russian mythology. The basic idea found in mythology of a powerful wizard, evil king, troll, or other monster being able to hide its heart or soul somewhere else preventing them from being slain is an old one.

Unlike most undead Liches retain all of their knowledge from life and have an eternity to become masters at anything they choose.  Therefore, the archetypical lich is uber-powerful or in the very least has extremely refined skills often of the arcane variety, the perfect villain to set against a group of rowdy adventure seekers.

With the lich as a villain, there are a couple of things to ask about the fundamentals of their character stemming from a few problems posed by their immortality and especially the type of immortality that they have achieved. The Lich is an undead creature, an animate corpse with magic power, created by imprisoning its soul in a phylactery.  In some circles, the soul is believed to be the seat of intelligence (and indeed, in certain game systems it may very well be). Does this mean that in actuality, the wizard has imprisoned himself in a psychic prison (the Phylactery) and the creature that is the corpse is just a mockery with a black (or grey) soul of pure magical force?

As they are sentient, do they suffer the emotional consequences of being left behind by their world and the familiar? Is that why they occupy themselves sometimes for decades or even centuries perusing their labyrinthine libraries burying their ruined faces in rotting tomes as their world disintegrates around them? Would this render them insane, depressed, delusionally out-of-touch, or erratic in their behavior? Do they desire some connection any connection to other beings even if it is negative, perhaps violence is the only way they can relate to others. I suppose that individual Game-Masters and their Lich characters should answer these questions on a case-by-case basis those questions best left for them.

In summary, the modern archetypical lich as an undead magic-user that has trapped their own soul within a phylactery was born of an archaism utilized by pulp authors in their weird tales. They were then borrowed and honed into their final wretched form by Gary Gygax and continue to appear in very similar if not identical forms across media such as the lich in Adventure Time, World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, and in a slightly altered version in the guise of the Night King in Game of Thrones.

“I know what the dead know.” – Afgorkon [Fox. 22]

As an afterword, I am aware that Frank Belknap Long also used the term lich in his 1924 Weird Tales pulp story The Desert Lich. However, it has very little substance of the Lich in anything else besides its title. “The Desert Lich has an Arabic setting, but is a non-supernatural conte cruel in which a man who had sold an unfaithful wife is forced to lie in a sarcophagus with her corpse.” [Joshi, S.T. 2004. The Evolution of the Weird Tale. Hippocampus Press. New York, New York. 99]

 

Tabletop Meditations #16: Old Empires

In any given fantasy RPG, but by no means all of them, a remnant empire or a landscape littered withRuins of an empire the bones of an ancient empire sometimes mysterious oft times still vaguely powerful. Old empires appear throughout fantasy and thus many fantasy tabletop roleplaying games. Using this trope makes it a little easier to begin to build your own setting using this as the basis for a dark age or at least an age where the empire is in a state of decline this loss of power being vital to adventuring.

Ancient empires lend a sense of history, which can still be seen and sometimes experienced to a game world. They can provide explanations for some of gaming’s oldest tropes, especially for the ubiquitous dungeon, and present adventure hooks in the forms of artifacts, lost knowledge, and explorable ruins. The old empire (or empires) that may be present in a given fantasy world also carry their own tropes and various resemblances to those of real-world history. Old empires are useful to the GM in the context of RPG campaigns but also carry certain disadvantages.

When speaking of empires there are certain terms that are inseparable in most incarnations of this fantasy trope. These are Empire, Imperium, and Citizen.

The word empire carries with it some baggage in and of itself due to actual history and it conjures a very specific type of image. In the popular imagination, the word empire often conjures to mind the imperial wonders of the ancient world, marble statues massive multi-columned buildings and/or massive armies that could drink lakes and inland seas dry. Of course, in the modern context however it also brings to mind the subjugation of indigenous peoples, the snatching of land, and constant wars of conquest.

Today the word empire is used to describe an extensive state made up of several ethnic groups but ruled by only one of them.  It has, at least since the early 20th century, also carried the suggestion of tyranny and brutality, inherited from the practices of modern European colonial powers. [Grafton, Anthony, ed. 2010. The Classical Tradition. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass. Empire. pg.310]

The imperial entity also means the mass rule of law and an enforced order over a given territory. An empire allows for widespread civility allowing the gentler aspects of civilization to take hold as well as providing the structure for the crueler aspects of humankind to prevail (the argument for barbarism as told by R.E. Howard). Education and philosophy blossom as well as giving a chance for cults and even gangs (a criminal underworld) to appear.

Imperium refers, in common use, to the empire and its forces sometimes with exclusion to its people. Here it serves more as a reference to its machinery rather than its people or possessions. More often, it is synonymous to Empire and often it is used for both. However, it is actually a reference to the territorial reach and extent of the empire. “One thing all the various meanings of the word imperium have in common is the association between extended territorial dominion and military rule.” [Grafton. 310] This basic definition is as old as Rome and is less vague than the casual usages. “As early as the 1st century BCE, the Roman historian Sallust had used the phrase Imperium romanum to describe not merely the power but also the geographical extent of the authority of the Roman people.” [Grafton. 310]

When it comes to the term Citizen when speaking of empires this refers to those individuals that the Imperium sees as the core of its existence often making official capacity to accommodate that (or those) group(s) cultural traditions and to those that it has a legal and/or philosophical responsibility. Note also that there will be some legality involved with citizenship handled by an imperial bureaucracy. The reality of citizenship however is always an unpredictable affair and will vary throughout the history of the empire. In game terms, imperial citizens are often snobby and serve as exemplars of over-civilized fops that are incapable of not getting themselves killed not just in the wilds of the world but in the rural farmlands as well.

IMPERIAL CITIZENS are so civilized that they have given up WAR in favour of POLITICS and POISON. The Management considers this effete and will direct you to feel contempt for most of these people, except the Emperor, until you come upon the elderly man who retains the old virtues of the Empire. A former General, he is totally trustworthy and warlike and scorns politics too. He will become a staunch supporter of the Tour and of great help either on the QUEST or in SAVING THE WORLD. [Jones, Diana Wynne. 2006. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Revised and Updated Edition. pg.95]

An empire from the POV of a player in an RPG setting on the other hand is one of a civilizing force that carries with it a corrupting force as well as the violent force of law. It seems a bit libertarian but when it comes to a group of often somewhat individually powerful freewheeling adventurers their world view is one of reaping the benefits by hook or by crook from the landscape, evil forces, monsters, and its people. A functioning empire of course impedes this ravenous impulse of the rapacious adventurer with its far reach, armed authorities, and system of laws not to mention a potentially oppressive and faceless bureaucracy.

Even in its different phases an empire always affects the Players. A dying empire is an impediment to be overcome and its authorities avoided if possible. A long dead one presents opportunity in its corpse where adventurers can pick its bones clean. Of course, this can also happen with a dying empire in its last throes with players aligned with the barbarians at the gate perhaps riding the barbaric tide as it were, or following in its wake, or caught between a desperate authority and a savage horde.

In fantasy worlds, old empires typically have a single seed from which they are grown, a trope that helps to characterize the nature of the empire and what role it is itself to play within the game. The most common tropes are the Ancient Empire, the Lost Empire, the Evil Empire, and the Vestigial Empire.

The Ancient Empire often long gone, if not it is often senile and rapidly disintegrating, is a very common trope. It concerns a long existent imperial power that either has passed or is passing. Most of the world shares a common origin from within this type of old empire and if not from its peoples then from among its knowledge and maybe customs. These types of old empires help to build a historical foundation for a setting laying in a base layer of information in the setting giving the players a sense of history as they experience its artifacts and their characters share in its heritage. Heritage being writing, architecture, and economics, which may live on long after the empire, has died.

As this Ancient Empire was wide reaching and of course would have been involved in large engineering projects, it has left an indelible mark on the landscape not just the people and their cultures.

ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS tend to litter the landscape in some parts of the continent. Most of them are quite mysterious, and all of them are made of some substance not known to the present inhabitants, often of a greenish colour, or a matte black, though white is not unknown. They will be gigantic. Most of them will be pillars that touch the clouds, but ROADS and broken BRIDGES are common too. It is unknown what challenge caused earlier peoples to make things that were so very large. Most of them are no use to anyone. [Jones. 4]

Lost Empires on the other hand are often not as far reaching and are widely believed to be extinct.  Within the game, they serve as a foundation for mythoi, as hidden enemies or saviors, or holders/discoverers of special knowledge.  A lost empire is an empire that has somehow disappeared from history and any information on it lay in vague historical accounts, clues in place names and legends. It seems only to exist within the odd bit or curiosity that can be found by the players within myth and folklore or that they simply happen upon in the course of an adventure.

An important aspect of a Lost Empire found in fantasy RPGs are Remnant (Lost) Cities. These lost cities are tracked down through a string of clues and can exist as still functioning locales though in complete isolation a la Shangri-La or as hidden and mostly intact i.e. not pillaged ruins. A Lost Empire can also serve as a mythic foundation for stories and the explanation for any strange anomalies such as dungeons as well as certain exotic places and anomalous peoples (not always human) of the world.

In addition, a Lost Empire can serve as a nebulous threat or even enemy striking from the shadows from beyond the mists of history. These enemies must be detected, discovered, and ferreted out by the PCs. These hidden people may also serve as secret saviors to be sought, or a secret repository of special knowledge that lays hidden for the PCs to quest for.

This brings us to the unavoidable Evil Empire, which always serves as an active villain sometimes doubling as an end of the world trope. This is most often the active type of empire though the Evil Empire can also be a disintegrating ancient empire though now evil if it has not always been so due to degradation and always a definite threat. This type of ancient empire is an active villain for the players to confront and maybe even try to topple. These sorts of powers often play into the end-of-the-world trope as well sometimes possessing the power of the apocalypse other times seeking it. Usually the McGuffin said world-ending power (often an object or artifact) could instantly put an end to the evil empire instead when the PCs get involved.

Finally, we arrive at the Vestigial Empire, an empire that serves as background and mood than anything else. It is just a contrast to the wilderness and its citizens the opposite of adventurers.

VESTIGIAL EMPIRE. […] This Empire occupies an area usually slightly larger than most other COUNTRIES and you will know you are in it because the ROADS will be well made and patrolled by Imperial GUARDS in HELMETS and SKIRTS. Rest-houses line the way, a day’s march apart. The LANDSCAPE will be full of prosperous farmlands, vineyards, and olive groves, and you may even see a little light INDUSTRY, such as pottery and carpet-making. White villas crown the hills – in fact, most BUILDINGS in the Empire are white. When you reach the imperial CITY, you will find TEMPLES and colonnades as well as streets of decent houses, drains, and public Baths. The aura of civilization extends to daily life too. The Vestigial Empire is the only Country on the Tour to have POLITICS. It has a parliament and a senate and many noble CLANS to jockey for power. This keeps all Imperialists very busy, very noisy, and very likely to POISON one another. They also […] understand MONEY in a truly civilized way. [Jones. 216]

This does not mean that the Vestigial Empire was always as it is it could be the remnant of a once great ancient empire and the relics of its greatness strewn across the land. Essentially a Vestigial Empire is exactly what its name implies it often serves little actual purpose to the setting and is not necessarily any kind of impediment to the PCs, an annoyance perhaps or a place to trade but that is all. Essentially, the Vestigial Empire serves as a rest stop for the PCs and marks the line separating civilization and barbarism (according to imperialist thought).

Now if I may digress a little, there is a seminal fantasy world where old empires as an explicit idea simply do not really exist though an argument can be made for the Elves. In J.R.R. Tolkien it does seems that world lacks an Old Empire.  I have always felt this lacuna when confronting the Legendarium. It seems to need at least one Old Empire in order to stitch together some of the cultures in that world.

An example being the Rohirrim, only a single regional kingdom codifies their culture. As a people, they simply descended and gathered from other people through time. Their consistency of culture seems hard to achieve in that manner alone. However, where this cultural glue seems to lack the most is with the Easterlings. Granted they follow Sauron though he seems to function more as a god or object of reverence and worship than an actual king or lord. It seems they would need unification by a powerful overlord. Joined into a single cultural force before being forged into a war machine by a powerful overlord that rules them rather than influences them from afar.

Tolkien’s world is filled with ruins but ruins of the fortresses of petty kings and lords, there is no Alexander, Rome, Ch’ing, or even Attila to serve as a basis for a united regional culture just individual heroes. His Legendarium is more concerned with lineage and personal family histories rather than politics or even major cultural diversity except where it comes to language and race. The Legendarium is more a collection of heroic stories, songs, and tales documenting the plight of certain families and individuals than a world history. So in that respect Old Empires are basically completely absent, the Elves are very similar to the Rohirrim though the ruins of their younger days tend to be more widespread.

Concerning RPGs, Old Empires are useful to Game-Masters especially with the values that can be drawn from the historical. The GM can draw from history to provide not just inspiration but also some basic facts about what an actual empire was capable of not just in temperament but technological innovation and in the development of the arts. Instead of making up value and legal systems from scratch, the GM can obtain them from history already fully laid out and time tested in both practice and enforcement.

Examples of this historical wealth are found with the Roman and Chinese empires. From the Roman the primary points being the military machine, its extreme emphasis on order, running water, a senate or discernible governing body later to be usurped by an emperor. With the Chinese its vast armies and their military organization/logistics, the capability of the mass production of goods especially arms, the development of writing, philosophy, and medicine. These are all various civilized developments, systems and discoveries that can only be advanced or even made within a stable civilization of a certain level of advancement.

The Prime Uses of an Old Empire within an RPG campaign are many. Building an Old Empire into the past of a setting can help to explain common gaming tropes like dungeons, make its heirs desperate to reclaim their “heritage” creating wider conflicts, and provide a foundational layer to the history of the world deepening its history.

Injecting History via an Old Empire provides an easy framework on which a GM can build a setting and giving their new world a sense of historical identity or lineage. This can drop clues for PCs to follow to long lost cities, leave behind valuable artifacts, and leave lost knowledge behind ripe for rediscovery. The places the adventuring PCs visit may have a visible lineage and unique identity linked to the old empire distinguished by architecture, place names, familial lineages, and political organizations.

Imperialism can serve as a motivator to both Players and the NPCs. Either can see the old empire as their heritage and want to reclaim some of that former glory. It can motivate NPC (sometimes Player) villainy through imperialism. “Just as the Roman empire had become the embodiment of the Stoic notion of the koinos nomos, the universal law for all mankind, so its heirs sought to impose their own legal and religious order on all the peoples they overran.” [Grafton. 310] An aging empire that is rapidly disintegrating may try to forge outward under new leadership or try to transform itself into a new power providing a dynamic changing backdrop where the PCs could stand to benefit from the ensuing chaos.

Old Empires can explain away Dungeons, Ruins, Artifacts, and other such RPG commonalities as its relics or ruins. As well as set the mood when traversing the ruins of its lost glory.

RUINS of former days, like ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS, litter Fantasyland. Only the large kind are important to the Tour, and even most of these will be just setting the mood. You are not expected to be happy on this Tour. The Ruins make you think of the sad losses of former days. But cheer up. Just occasionally you will find TREASURE in a Ruin. [Jones. 164]

Using old empires as a foundational component of your game world does have a few drawbacks. These disadvantages are Imperialist concepts inherent in an empire can overwhelm a game, the Players may become resentful of being restricted by existent imperial law and power, and old empires tend to be over-used in fantasy fiction.

This idea, old empires, is cliché territory when it comes to fantasy fiction but if the cliché is fun why not use it in an RPG campaign. As long as it doesn’t bore the Players or inhibit their characters to the point of strangling the fun out of the game it’s fine.

Imperialist concepts can begin to take hold of the game and cause certain in game tensions to become uncomfortable in real life. One of these concepts being slavery when based on certain superficial aspects of characters such as race and culture, which might get construed as stereotypes where characters may start expositing certain lines that smack of real world racism just with different names. Another example is the justifications for theft or domination, which may group certain characters together and the previous can happen the same way and may end up in slavery that then can proceed even further into the overlap.

Lastly, the PCs can become hateful of civilization within the game world and run amok if it becomes too oppressive of a force within the game. Players as well can simply become bored or frustrated with an empire that constantly boxes them in and thwarts their plans without fail. There has to be some holes to room to breathe even in a very powerful and extremely oppressive power’s demesne. Players will work hard against the odds if there is at least a glimmer of hope of success.

In conclusion, Old Empires are tropes of fantasy fiction but in terms of tabletop RPGs, they are still useful and hold some fascinating avenues to explore. Old Empires are useful to GM’s when building a history for their world and providing an explanation for the origins of some fantasy RPG tropes such as dungeons and monster haunted ruins. There are disadvantages of course when using old empires in your game. You run the risk of tramping on old clichés, letting imperialist thinking to overwhelm your fantasy, and alienating your players through the over-application of imperial will.

However, the advantages of a successful implementation of an old empire (or empires) in your game can outweigh the negatives. A successful implementation takes some lessons, inspiration, and facts from history, avoids the standard tropes though a twist on or subversion of the idea, and makes sure it enhances the fun at the table!

 

Tabletop Meditations #15: The Golem

The creature comes barreling down a narrow web-choked hallway in the enemy wizard’s fortress. The ground shakes as the large humanoid stomps towards our hapless adventurers. Its fists like cudgels and its door-shattering shoulders wide and powerful. Its feet and legs like dreadful stumps ready to stomp our heroes into pulp. Snickering behind the monster is the wizard who created it and ordered it to slay his enemies. This is a golem; an artificial creature shaped from clay, chiseled from stone, or hammered from iron by a powerful wizard. It unwaveringly obeys every order that its maker gives it.

The golem is another staple of the fantasy roleplaying game used mostly by mages in game as a minion to account for their own physical weakness or set as a powerful guardian against adventurers and the like. Similar to other entities and beings considered classic archetypes of the RPG genre, the golem has roots just as deep if not deeper. The adaptation of the golem into RPG’s was probably inspired by the pop-image of the creature, which first hit the popular imagination with the silent film Der Golem (1914), a partially lost classic of the horror genre. Of course, the filmmakers were themselves inspired by a medieval Jewish folktale. This folktale, known as the Golem of Prague, has its clay feet planted firmly in biblical and Jewish lore.

“In the Talmud, the word ‘golem’ has come to mean lifeless, shapeless matter, something unformed and imperfect, a body without a soul.” [Patterson, Jose. 1991. “Angels, Prophets, Rabbis, and Kings from the Stories of the Jewish People” New York. Peter Bedrick Books. p.98]

First, what exactly is a golem? Of all the differences in systems found across the RPG-scape the few points about golems that are commonly accepted are that  it takes a mage or wizard of sufficient power to create and that “Golems are magically created automatons of great power. Constructing one involves the employment of mighty magic and elemental forces”. [Cook, Monte. Jonathan Tweet, Skip Williams. 2000. “Dungeons & Dragons: Monster Manual”. Renton, WA. Wizards of the Coast, Inc. p.109]

All the sources that I’ve encountered also concede that a golem is not technically living although it may be semi-autonomous able to carry out simple commands it is still not technically living. Therefore, most things that affect living beings such as death effects, poison gas, as well as most non-magical attacks (this last one does vary although a semblance of it is retained in most instances), do not affect them. It is also a mindless object in the most basic sense and thus cannot feel fear or fall victim to psychic attack and psychological warfare. Therefore, a golem is a magical construct given animation by a powerful spell-caster through a ritual that binds a spiritual force to an artificial body making it strong, durable, and immune to certain attacks and special modes of combat typically effective against living intelligent beings.

A golem is a “construct”, a powerful, enchanted monster created and animated by a high level magic-user or cleric. Golems can be made of almost any material. [Allston, Aaron comp. 1991. “Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia”. TSR, Inc. p.180]

Essentially, a golem is the most basic example of a magical construct. The term magical construct can also apply to animated objects like statues and armor although this effect can be achieved in many games with simple spells with lesser power than for a golem. These would come about in a fashion more akin to standard magical items.  However, a measure of power is still required similar to a golem.

A living statue is an enchanted animated creature made by a powerful wizard. [Allston. P.208]

Now what is a construct since a golem is also defined as a magical construct?

Constructs […] are created much as magical treasures are. [Allston. P.253]

Essentially a magical construct is a magical device that mimics the most basic features of a living being barring reproduction. However, how does a magical item pull this trick off? A wizard cannot just conjure a soul out of nowhere and infuse it into the artificial body (the construct) so a readily available substitute is required. This substitute for the soul came in the ancient lore from the secret name of God and the creative power of the Hebrew Alphabet. In RPG’s which draw on a very rich and deep reservoir of world (though still mostly Western European but expanding) mythology and ancient lore another source is found in the form of errant elemental spirits.

“The animating force for a golem is a spirit from the Elemental Plane of Earth. The process of creating the golem binds the unwilling spirit to the artificial body and subjects it to the will of the golem’s creator.“ [Cook. p.109]

Therefore, a golem so far is a magical construct that lacking a soul to grant it authentic life mocks the semblance of life using a trapped elemental spirit instead. The materials of the constructed body can be just about anything but tend to have a relationship to the earth in most versions but is probably not a necessity. This maybe stemming from the creatures originally being sculpted from clay. The magical process to create such a constructed creature lies within not only Jewish lore but primarily seems related more to the old silent films.

The golem as a creature has beginnings in certain biblical and mystical passages and works. The idea of a powerful artificial person was a common one in ancient times and became more widespread with the middle age folktales that draw on these sources especially when the European Jews suffered brutal oppression at the hands of their fellow countrymen.

There are commentaries to the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation the most influential book of the Ma’asei-Bereshit mystical tradition written sometime between the 3rd and 6th centuries, which claims that biblical figures made golems.

The commentators believe Abraham used Sefer Yetzirah’s power, noting the wording, “the people they made in Haran” (Gen. 12:5); the prophet Jeremiah also made a golem. […] The idea was a theme in the Talmud (Sanh. 38a). Two anonymous Talmudic Sages were able to create a “one-third” size calf for Sabbath meals 9Ber. 55a; Mid. The. 3). More cryptic is the report that Rava “created a man”, who he then sent to Rabbi Zeira, who caused the creature to return to dust[.] [Dennis, Geoffrey W. 2016. “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, & Mysticism Second Edition”. Woodbury, Minnesota. Llewellyn Publications. p.181]

Up to the middle ages, there were multiple tales of Jewish figures attempting to or creating golems for various reasons. The Spanish philosopher and poet Solomon ibn Gabirol (ca. 11th century) is credited by Jewish occult tradition with creating either a female golem or a mechanical automaton. [Dennis. P.164] It seemed that creating a golem was a common ability in occult accounts and especially in certain medieval stories.

The famous Rabbi Elijah of Chelm is reputed to have created a golem by writing God’s Holy Name on a piece of parchment and sticking it on the forehead of a clay model of a man. Not for one moment did it occur to the rabbi that he might be creating a monster that would run amok destroying everything in its path. When the golem proved uncontrollable Rabbi Elijah had no choice but to remove the parchment from its forehead, whereupon it immediately turned to dust. [Patterson. P.98]

Jewish folklore gives many accounts of rabbis who not only created golems but returned them to dust when they were no longer required. Most of them were used as attendants or bodyguards, and whereas they were supposed to have been able to understand and follow commands, they lacked the power of speech – a gift which God alone could grant. [Patterson, p.98]

This brings us to the most common use for golems, guardianship and protection especially emphasized in the middle age folktales. The middle ages for European Jews were sometimes exceedingly bleak. This is the time that the most well-known and popularized myth of the golem originated when scattered throughout Europe Jews became victims of severe religious and economic oppression. Some brief examples of the ultimate results of this oppression being the Rhineland Massacres of 1096, the 1190 York Massacre, and the Black Death Persecutions from 1348 to 1350 to name just a few.

They were forced to live in walled ghettoes which were built in the poorest sections of towns. […}[L]ife in the ghetto was governed by religious devotion and a strict code of morality. The poor overcrowded conditions were compensated, to a certain extent, by a growth of folk tales and stories many of which attempted to portray a happier life than the one the Jews were actually experiencing. […] The stories told in those days were peopled with a rich variety of figures who defended Jewish life – God, the rabbis, and the Golem[.] [Patterson. P.86-87]

With its great physical strength, its supernatural power to unearth the evil plots of their enemies, the golem became a kind of imagined redeemer to the Jews, helping them to cope with the daily problem of survival. By far the most popular of all golem stories are those told about the Golem of Prague. [Patterson. P.99]

The story of the Golem of Prague concerned the famed rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague (1512-1609) who was a renowned scholar of the Torah and the Talmud, a gifted storyteller, an eminent scholar, and could speak several languages fluently. One night he had a vivid dream.

In this dream, he found himself in the Christian quarter of the city and there to his horror he witnessed the murder of a child. Then the shadowy form of the killer took the little corpse, placed it in a sack, and left it in a cellar in the Jewish ghetto. As the shadowy murderer passed by him, the rabbi recognized it as the priest Thaddeus, an evil clergyman determined to destroy the Jews of Prague. With the festival of Passover fast approaching, it would be the Jews that would be blamed. Understanding the hideous implications of this horrible action, the rabbi prayed for help.

The answer was immediate. In his dream, he saw the sacred name of God and a formula of mystic words that would help him create a golem out of clay who would destroy the enemies of Israel. He awoke suddenly covered in sweat.

Taking the message of his dream as prophecy, the rabbi went to the banks of the River Moldau. There he shaped a man of immense size and when all was completed to his satisfaction, Rabbi Loew took from his pocket a piece of parchment. On this parchment, he had written the secret name of God and placed it in the mouth of the cold gray figure. He began chanting a mystical incantation while walking around it seven times one way and then seven times the opposite.

Immediately the figure began to glow like fire and then as soon as the glow had dimmed, its eyes opened. The rabbi gave it some clothes that he had brought and named the creature Joseph. As an artificial creature, the golem had no understanding of good and evil, could not speak, and could not reproduce. “He could not speak, having no soul, but he could obey.” [Constable, George ed. 1985. “The Enchanted World: Spells and Bindings”. Alexandria, VA. Time-Life Books. p.56] This creature, Joseph, was also very powerful knew the rabbi “because the longer Joseph lived the larger and more powerful he grew, he was an effective deterrent to violence”. [Constable. p.56]

With Joseph at his side, Rabbi Loew found the murdered child hidden in an abandoned basement in the house of a pious Jew. He had Joseph transfer the body to the basement of Thaddeus’ house. When the authorities came to the old man’s house, the rabbi directed them to the priest’s home where they discovered the body to the priest’s surprise thereby sparing the Jews of Prague.

Later, Joseph would also protect the rabbi’s people against a pogrom imposed by Rudolf II the Hapsburg Emperor (1552-1612). His work done the rabbi allowed the golem to rest on the bench in front of his house where the rabbi’s wife, Perele set him to hauling water. The rabbi had warned her previously that Joseph should not do household chores. Like a holy vessel, he was meant only for God’s work.

Regardless, she set him to his task, hauling water buckets from the well to fill the barrels in the pantry while she went to the market. A few hours later she returned with her shopping and was surprised by a crowd of her neighbors gathered about her home shouting, “it’s a flood!”. The pantry barrels were filled to overflowing yet Joseph did not stop. He kept running to the well and filling his buckets and then ran back to the pantry to continue to fill the overflowing barrels. It was at that moment, by good fortune, that Rabbi Loew returned from synagogue and ordered Joseph to stop. Then the rabbi turned and told the crowd that the floods had been sent to punish mankind but this had only been a reprimand to his wife.

However, as Joseph’s size and strength increased “like many other golem tales, over time the Prague golem grew in power and in unpredictable behavior”. [Dennis. p.182]

Like other creatures of magic, however, golems had a willful streak, and their ever-increasing size made them a threat to the very folk they were summoned to serve. So it was with Joseph, who ran amuck on a Sabbath eve for reasons no one could determine, leveling the ghetto walls with his massive shoulders and leaving buildings ablaze in his wake. [Constable. P.56]

Of course, his creator caught him and “pulled the parchment from his lips, and recited backward the scripture that had started him into motion. All that was left when the man had finished was a lifeless mound of clay.” [Constable. p.56]

Hence, “the creator was forced to destroy his creation, thus curbing his own hubris and teaching him humility.”  [Dennis. P.182]

This story however, is more modern than one would think though its roots lay deep in the myths of the past. “Though golem tales were published through the 13th century, the story of the Golem of Prague as known today is the [sic] largely creation of an early 20th-century rabbi and writer, Yudel Rosenberg, and his book, Miflaot Maharal, “The Wonders of Rabbi Judah Loew”. [Dennis. P.181]

It is probably this story that inspired the filmmakers to make the movie Der Golem, which no doubt played a critical role in popularizing the myth.

While filming A Bargain with Satan (1913) on location in Prague its lauded star Herr Paul Wegener was taken by the ancient ghetto. One legend told by the Jews there so intrigued him that he used it as a basis for his next picture. This picture Der Golem (1914) was more a sequel to the actual 16th century legend. In the film, an elderly antique dealer purchases an excavated statue after recognizing it as the legendary clay-man. A magic charm brings the creature to life and later goes on a rampage through the streets of Prague in a love-crazed pursuit of the antique dealer’s daughter. It reverts to stone when the girl snatches the charm from its chest and falling from a tower smashes to pieces on the cobblestones below. [Gifford, Dennis. 1973. “A Pictorial History of Horror Movies”. Middlesex, England. The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited. The Clay Man Cometh – And Cometh Back]

With any successful film, of course there was a sequel, which was in effect was a prequel that followed the actual myth closer than its predecessor had. Most importantly however, this sequel reveals the process of the golem’s creation. In the prequel to Der Golem, subtitled How He Came into the World (1920):

High Rabbi Loew sees in the stars that danger impends for the Jews of Prague. Instantly a flower-sniffing Junker arrives with a decree from Emperor Ludwig: leave before the end of the month. Loew consults his ancient archives.

‘This figure called Golem was made long ago by a magician of Thessaly. If you place the magic word in the amulet on his breast he will live and breathe as long as he wears it. Astaroth guards the magic word which can endow even clay with life.’

Loew moulds a mighty giant of clay, then creates a magic circle of fire and summons forth the spirit. Astaroth, a floating head, speaks in smoke the word ‘Aemaer’. Loew writes it down and puts it in the amulet: instantly the Golem’s eyes light into life. [Gifford. The Clay Man Cometh – And Cometh Back]

This is important not just from the establishment of a process of creation that can be adapted for RPG play, there are many different ways in Jewish occult lore to create a golem however all revolve around God, but it also establishes the power of the magic-user.

As the sequel/prequel to Der Golem demonstrates the ritual activation of the golem, it also demonstrates the golem master’s power. In the second story strand of the 1920 film, Lowe travels to the court of the Emperor, gives a powerful demonstration of MAGIC […], and saves the lives of the Emperor and his throng – for which service the Emperor cancels his edict against the Jews. [Clute, John. John Grant. 1997. “The Encyclopedia of Fantasy”. New York, NY. St Martin’s Press. p.422]

Seemingly related to the methods found in the surviving Der Golem film most roleplaying games have similar procedures and rituals to animate and control golems. A good example taken from Palladium Games’ Rifts is this spell called, appropriately, Create Golem:

The sorcerer first draws a pentagram of animal blood. Second, he sculpts a Golem (humanoid shape) from clay. Third, he places two onyx gems […] for eyes. Fourth, he places a heart, molded out of iron, into the clay body. Lastly, the mage recites the ritual ceremony. At the end of the ritual, the mystic places a single drop of his blood on the behemoth’s forehead to bring it to life. [Coffin, Bill comp. 2001. “Rifts Book of Magic”. Taylor, MI. Palladium Books, Inc. p.147-148]

This spell is a Level 13 spell in the Palladium system, which as legend would indicate a powerful spell requiring a skilled and powerful mage to create a single golem.

From the moment it entered the popular imagination through film, the concept begged infusion into the fantasy RPG realm. This concept being of an unquestioning minion with a physical might that more than compensates for its master’s physical weakness as well as a simple guardian type monster. This idea retains a little of the golem’s purpose of protection and the idea that a powerful magic-user can create an artificial life. In a sense, the mage through the creation of a golem is trying to attain the elevation of a god.

An RPG golem is an animate, semi-autonomous magical construct created for the purpose of guardianship or protection through its shear might. These creatures are created by powerful wizards or those privy to powerful magical knowledge. The ritual and method that is used to create them is varied almost as much as those found throughout their history in story and myth. They often lack the ability to speak and to think for themselves though they can understand, follow, and execute their master’s orders.

However, it seems that most RPG’s don’t take advantage of the dangers posed by a golem found in lore where they can grow dangerously independent of their masters and increase in power and size the longer they live. They may still be very physically powerful and difficult to procure but they seem to lack the unpredictability of legend.

RPG Golems began as a demonstration of faith and power in Jewish occult tradition, became figures in folktales in the middle ages which spawned the seminal tale the Golem of Prague, which was adapted into a silent film in the early 20th-century. This film helped to popularize the idea of the golem as a magical servant/protector that then in turn was adapted into the world of RPGs.

On a final note since RPG golems can be made of many different materials not just clay, stone, or iron but also flesh. These flesh golems should they retain the rebelliousness of the legendary golems have more than a passing resemblance to the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

 

Tabletop Meditations #14: Postscript on Elves, Dwarves, & Trolls

I’d noticed the odd relationship between the Elves, Trolls, and Dwarves concerning their evolution through mythology and into fantasy roleplaying as it stands today and decided to explore these commonalities and divergences. This is what led me to write Tabletop Meditations #11 through #13. However, there are few things that I’ve not said about elves, dwarves, and trolls such as bringing up the issue of half-races and sub-races including Orcs though I may have (or not as the case may be) touched on them.

The common points between each of the aforementioned races being their beginnings in mythology, their adoption into the realm of fairytale, adaptation into fantasy fiction, and further adaptation from fiction into the world of roleplaying seemed to me to be not only connected but related. Especially since they all originated in Northern European mythology and all at one time or another were also considered different types of fairy-folk.

They had all three begun as separate or mostly separate types of creatures where the lines of distinction in the original myths were still blurry. This is especially true of the elves and dwarves and then after their division between the trolls and dwarves though one was a diminutive race and the other essentially deformed giants. Note that I had avoided a discussion on giants in and of themselves as they are not as entwined with the dwarves and elves, though the birth of the dwarven race seems to owe directly to the lore of giants.

The subject of giants is also very broad and they really don’t change much throughout their existence whereas the trolls though they are essentially giants themselves noticeably change with time though their base nature does not. Trolls also possess several unique and readily identifiable features both physical and personality wise. There is also an abundance of material which brings these features to the forefront and serves as documentation of their evolution as a fantasy race. Essentially the giants’ path from myth to roleplaying is almost identical to if not a bit more plain than the trolls and so I chose follow trolls especially since they are more distinctly prevalent in myth and fairytale as archetypical villains and characters than giants. Not to mention the trolls’ evolution is more demonstrably entangled with that of the dwarves and elves.

Just as well, I also avoided any in-depth discussion of the sub-races derived from the 3 fantasy races only really mentioning the Orcs and Drow, both descendants of the elves. This was mainly so I could keep focus on the pieces and as the sub-races are simply variations on the core race getting directly to that core without explicitly excluding them was the best strategy. In roleplaying games these 3 races are used as a foundation to create variations off of, the elves in particular as demonstrated by the 2 most prevalent and popular of these which happen to be the Orcs and the Drow.

Orcs originally started as a sub-race of elves but embodying all of the opposite negative characteristics of the elves’ positive but the Drow have usurped that role in the minds of roleplayers. I’m not going to write an article solely dedicated to Orcs as it would be very short though there is an overabundance of information on them starting from Tolkien onward but most of it is supernumerary. As the Orcs are not only associated with the elves but derive, especially in Tolkien’s Legendarium, from them the story of their evolution is somewhat redundant with that of the true elves though the etymology of the name is interesting it’s also somewhat problematic.

Orcs are portrayed as a savage, clannish species that is barbarically tribal even though some authors and game designers try to inject some nobility into them, either through the design of their culture or the portrayal of individual characters as racial/cultural representatives of the more noble/human aspects of the Orcish. They have and are undergoing their own evolution in the world of roleplaying fantasy seen specifically in certain attempts at humanizing them. A perfect example is demonstrated in the Palladium Fantasy RPG.

In the right group, orcs, can be as fiercely loyal, heroic and courageous as a palladin [sic]. Orcs of good or aberrant alignment will never betray a friend or ally, or desert him at a moment of need. [Siembieda, Kevin. 1998. Palladium Fantasy RPG: Second Edition. Palladium Books Inc. MI. 302]

Of course, this new humanization is built on top of the old and familiar. “They have a reputation for being dull-witted, muscle-bound brutes with a wicked disposition.” [Siembieda. 302] The Drow on the other hand are a more recent invention of Gary Gygax for Dungeons & Dragons and are essentially the literal visual and spiritual inversion of classic elves rather than an inferior and corrupted reflection that are the Orcs.

Half-races are another related subject which I also failed to touch upon although they play a prominent part in Tolkien’s Legendarium especially where half-elves are concerned.

The sons of Eärendil were Elros and Elrond, the Peredhil or Half-Elven. … At the end of the First Age the Valar gave to the Half-elven an irrevocable choice to which kindred they would belong. Elrond chose to be of Elven-kind[.] … To him therefore was granted the same grace as to those of the High Elves that still lingered in Middle-earth[.] … Elros chose to be of Man-kind and remain with the Edain; but a great life-span was granted to him many times that of lesser men. [J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings (1991 ed.). HarperCollins Publishers. Appendix A. 1010]

Basically, men and elves can interbreed but the resulting offspring can choose between an elvish immortality or a slightly enhanced mortal span of life, at least according to Tolkien. Of course, he also mentions another half-race in his work which really doesn’t serve much of an explicit role overall, these are the half-orcs.

Among the Dunlendings who, in the Third Age of Sun, came to Saruman’s banner of the White Hand in Isengard, there were some whose blood, by the sorcery of Saruman, became mixed with that of the Orcs and Uruk-hai. These were large Men, lynx-eyed and evil, who were called Half-orcs. [Day, David. 1979. A Tolkien Bestiary. Mitchell Beazley Publishers Limited. 128]

Both of these human-hybrid races are much beloved and perhaps a little overused in tabletop roleplaying. Although I guess there could be an argument here to logically classify both half-races as half-elves. This means that somehow the genetics between humans and elves and an elven sub-race, the Orcs, are somehow compatible. A taxonomy between these races, or is it species, might prove a bit problematic but this can be dismissed since the godhead of Tolkien’s Middle Earth created them all in the first place, so magic. Guess that helps to explain half-dragons too.

The attempt to fit fantasy races into modern-day taxonomy is beside the point failing the concept that, for one reason or another (often essentially irrational) they need to exist within that fictional world. Essentially, a half-race is a plot element or story device rather than a rational element to be quantified or scientifically explained.

Fantasy races as a whole being more than a collection of character traits and in terms of tabletop gaming, bonuses and abilities in the context of story and/or setting. This is especially useful to keep in mind when abandoning Tolkien altogether. Basically, when explaining half-races, species, and taxonomy in a fantasy setting it comes down to just utilizing the minimal amount of rationalization necessary for suspension of disbelief and patch the holes with myth and magic or good-sounding pseudoscience to explain it away.

My aim in writing these 3 articles was to explore the roots of these 3 archetypical fantasy races which are still an integral part of popular fantasy today, their entanglements, and how that shaped the current concepts about these mythic creatures while touching upon the more interesting questions that swirl about them and the concept of fantasy races. The common roots of elves, dwarves, and trolls continue to twist through myth, fairytale, fantasy-fiction, and even each other continually budding off and sprouting new ideas and concepts from the old.

Tabletop Meditations #13: Dwarves

They are prominent in Germanic and Scandinavian legend and generally dwelt in rocks and caves and recesses of the earth. They were guardians of mineral wealth and precious stones and very skillful at their work. They were not unfriendly to man, but could on occasions, be vindictive and mischievous. [Rockwood, Camilla, ed. 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 18th Edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Dwarf]

In the popular mind, the term ‘Dwarves’ tends to bring to mind a short, bearded man with a Scottish accent wielding a battle-axe, namely actor John Rhys-Davies’ portrayal of the dwarf Gimli in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy not malignant, black-skinned creatures to which sunlight is deadly.

In the world were also DWARFS – ugly creatures, but masterly craftsmen, who lived under the earth[.][Hamilton, Edith. 1942. Mythology. Little, Brown and Company, Boston. 460-461]

As elves and fairies at one time were nearly indistinguishable so too were the dwarves even when compared to trolls. Dwarves just as elves and even trolls were born with the mythic world, wandered into folktales, were adapted into fairytales, and then reinvented by the authors of fantasy fiction.

The two most popular beings to be included in HEROIC FANTASY as either COMPANIONS to or enemies of humans are dwarfs and ELVES, yet the origins of these two groups of beings are confusing. In Nordic mythology the Alfar (elves) comprise one of the four main groups of dwarfs, but in Celtic mythology the elves are a part of the land of FAERIE, distinct from the dwarfs, who are creatures of the Earth. [Clute, John & Grant, John. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. St Martin’s Press, New York. Dwarfs. Dwarfs]

The confusion between the elves and the dwarves also includes mention of another fantasy race or at least the seed which would lead to the inception of one of the more infamous of the fantasy races, the dark elves.

[I]n the North of Midgard, there were dwarfs; they lived in Nidavellir (Dark Home) in caves and potholes, while somewhere below was Svartalfheim(Land of the Dark Elves). No valid distinction though can be drawn between the dwarfs and dark elves; they appear to have been interchangeable. [Crossley-Holland, Kevin. 2015. The Norse Myths. The Folio Society Ltd., London. xxv]

The current guise of dwarves are that of short, under or at 4 ft. tall, men with long bushy beards, barrel chests possessed of metalworking skills and knowledge of the underground as well as a penchant for swinging axes, hammers, and picks. “They are small, but solidly built and strong, almost always bearing beards and wielding axes.” [Clute & Grant. Dwarfs]

Inevitably one question tends to crop up repeatedly when discussing dwarves concerning the etymology of the word itself or more specifically about the plural noun form of ‘dwarves’ as opposed to ‘dwarfs’. The word ‘Dwarf’ and its unusual plural ‘Dwarves’ are well known but so is its proper plural ‘Dwarfs’, so where did these two different plural forms come from? Well, the second ‘Dwarfs’ is the proper plural form before the early 20th century but the plural noun form of ‘Dwarves’ began to be used more frequently as time wound on.

The work with the most influence in this regard is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) where the unusual noun form was corrected in certain editions by the editor to the then more common ‘Dwarfs’ but by the time it was to exert its influence over the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax, the unusual noun form was left in place. In Appendix N of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Game Master’s Guide (1979) Tolkien’s work is listed as “Inspirational Reading”. Thusly Tolkien and Gary Gygax helped to propagate the newer plural form of ‘Dwarves’ which is now considered by most to be the proper form when discussing the fantasy race.

However, long before that question of English noun form, or even before English came to be, the concept of diminutive but supernaturally powerful creatures associated with the elemental earth was already an old idea.

Dwarves as did the elves began existence conjoined to other ideas taking a somewhat alien proto-form deep in the past as far back as the ancient Greeks. In the colorful myths of ancient Greece creatures called the Dactyls or Daktyloi served as their precursors.

[T]he Daktyloi, or “little fingers,” [are] the ten sons of the Great Mother Rhea. They emerged when, in Rhea’s birth pangs delivering Zeus, she dug her fingers into the earth. The Daktyloi are dwarf craftsmen, gifted and generative, evoking the wisdom and creativity of unconscious impulses that consciousness tends to overlook. [Ronnberg, Amy ed., 2010. The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images. Cologne, Germany. TASCHEN. 384]

The Dactyls/Daktyloi resemble at least in part the core points of the modern dwarf: supernatural birth of the race, short stature, and great skill at working metals and stone. “DACTYLS, the discoverers of iron and the art of working it. Their home was usually said to be Mount Ida in Crete. They were considered to have magical powers.” [Hamilton. 481] But aside from the possible (and quite probable) influence of the Greek Dactyls, modern dwarves began as a part of the Norse creation myth. They were one of the most ancient races in existence aside from the giants and the gods themselves.

In whatever form that dwarves seem to take they are always perceived as beings created directly by the actions of the gods. They are always an ancient race closely associated with said divinities and are always in some way associated with the alchemical element of earth. It is primarily from the Norse myths that the current concept of dwarves is drawn and it is in these myths that we can see these elements at work.

[A]ccording to the Eddas, the dwarfs sprang into being close on the heels of the gods and they took shape from the same primordial stuff as the planet’s rocks, mountains, and seas. The tale of the origin of dwarfs is one and the same as the dawning of the earth.  [Constable, George ed. 1985. The Enchanted World: Dwarfs. Time-Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia. 9-10]

The story of the Norse dwarves is much grimmer than miraculous unlike the Dactyloi from whom they inherit a few of their defining traits. After the slaying of Ymir by the gods: “Within the soil, life quickened and began to squirm: the dwarfs. As maggots spring from decaying flesh, say the Eddas, so the dwarfs took form within the vast landscape of Ymir’s corpse. Children of the earth, they were at first as featureless as earthworms.” [Constable. 11]

The appearance of said featureless worms, the proto-dwarves, from dead flesh was a widely held belief in antiquity that maggots spontaneously erupted from rotten meat in a process known as ‘Spontaneous Generation’, an idea supported by Aristotle. It was these worms that were observed by the gods and for whatever reason the gods decided to remake them.

They [the Norse creator gods Odin, Vili, and Ve] transformed the dwarves […] who had been small maggotlike creatures born from the flesh of the first giant, Ymir, into intelligent humanoids. [Wilkinson, Philip & Philip, Neil. 2007. Eyewitness Companions: Mythology. DK Publishing. NY, NY. 115]

Of course, the Norse gods didn’t stop there. “From Ymir’s skull they made the dome of the sky, placing a dwarf to support it at each of the four corners and to hold it high above the earth.” [Davidson, H.R. Ellis. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin Books. England. 27] Dwarves were definitely portrayed as having great physical strength as well as being initially gifted with great and magical skills.

[T]he dwarfs, creatures with strange names, who bred in the earth like maggots, and dwelt in hills and rocks. These were skilled craftsmen, and it was they who wrought the great treasures of the gods. [Davidson. 28]

Contrary to the popular depictions of dwarves nowadays, in myth the shade of their skin was a reflection of their earthy nature. “To the dwarfs they gave human shape, but their hue was the blackness of earth in which they had being.” [Mackenzie, Donald A. 1912. Teutonic Myth and Legend. Kessinger Publishing (Reprint). 13]

Their slight stature was apparently proportional to their original worm-forms though they were still somewhat associated with the concept of elves. “In the Northern “Story of Creation” these elves, or black dwarfs, are, it is evident, intentionally belittled.” [Mackenzie. xxxvi] They also, like the worms they were, continued to live beneath the earth and were also associated in certain terms with trolls even as the gods set a king to rule over them.

Over them the gods set Modsognir, who is Mimer, to be king. In the mounds of the earth dwell one tribe of these earth-black elves, within rocks another, and a third have their habitation inside high and precipitous mountains. Besides these are the Trolls[.] [Mackenzie. 13]

Basically at this point, what separated the dwarves and elves from one another was that the ‘light elves’ lived in Alfheim and the ‘dark elves’ what would later become the dwarves, lived deep in the earth. At first there was no real distinction between them as two separate races. Often dwarves were also included in the same breath as trolls and indeed they shared the same lethal allergy to the sun. “Because they lived in caves, or underground, the dwarfs and giants also had in common a mortal terror of sunlight; it turned them into stone.” [Crossley-Holland. 243]

Perhaps it was the dwarves’ connection to the earth that precipitated their divine transmutation into their humanoid form by the gods and the gods’ need for their skills which were inherent due to this supernatural association marked most prominently by the color of their skin. Here is where they become the murderous craftsmen of the gods who live deep in the black earth that are so common to the northern myths.  These squat subterranean creatures wielded enough supernatural power and a deep enough wisdom of the earth to necessitate their consultation and employment by the gods.

They were as old as the rocks they inhabited, and from that ancient bond with the earth had come mundane wisdom and an intimacy with earthly mysteries. [Constable. 9]

Dwarves were the masters of the earthly as the gods were masters of the heavens.

Living in the realm of dark rock and flickering volcanic flame, moving through underground passageways as easily as fish course the water and birds ride the wind, they were guardians and master manipulators of the earth’s mineral riches. [Constable. 14]

Granted the Norse gods were suited perfectly as clients of such oddly-talented creatures. “The Scandinavian pantheon was devoted to war and luxury, and naturally looked to the dwarfs for arms and adornment.” [Constable. 14] Of course, it is often implied that the gods looked down upon their craftsmen as lowly creatures not much different from the worms that they were shaped from save for the occasional requirement of their earthly abilities. So the dwarves began to use cunning and deception as much as mortals when confronted with the supernatural in such tales. In addition to this, they also mastered the magical-arts which were to become one of their many crafts.

As a number of myths make clear, dwarfs and giants were repositories of knowledge and magic songs and on occasion revealed their wisdom to the gods. [Crossley-Holland. 242]

There are multiple stories of the dwarves proving their skills often forging masterpieces for the gods in particular Mjöllnir, Thor’s hammer. “With his dwarf-wrought hammer, Thor kept the frost giants at bay, although they were ceaselessly restive.” [Constable. 22] Dwarves were now the craftsmen of legend; they were wizards and the makers of great weapons and miraculous items.

It is no surprise that dwarfs, capable of breathing life into cold metal, were masters of incantations and the runic alphabet, used in the ancient Norse world for mystic inscriptions. [Constable. 25]

The hammer of Thor was perhaps their most famous work but by no means their only work for the gods in fact it was the third.

The third treasure was the great hammer Mjollnir, which would hit anything at which it was thrown and return to the thrower’s hand. Because of the interference of the fly, however, which was Loki in disguise, it was a little short in the handle. [Davidson. 43]

The skills of dwarves and the resultant products of said skills played greater and greater parts in the Norse myths. They were so skilled as to be able to nearly undo the mischief sowed by the god Loki himself, of course hired by Loki to save his own skin.

One day in a fit of mischief Loki cut off Sif’s golden hair, and Thor would have killed him if he had not found two cunning dwarfs to make new tresses of real gold for Sif, which would grow like natural hair. They also made Freyr’s wonderful ship and Odin’s great spear Gungnir. […][T]hey succeeded in forging a marvelous boar with bristles of gold, which could run faster than any steed and light up the darkest night. They also forged the great gold ring, Draupnir, from which eight other rings dropped every ninth night. [Davidson. 42]

Another key myth which concerns the dwarves is The Mead of Inspiration which not only reveals a specific aspect of their magical prowess but also a central element of their emerging inherit racial personality. The titular mead was a powerful concoction that gave wisdom and poetic inspiration to any who imbibed of it. A pair of villainous dwarves had brewed it from the blood of a god.

When two companies of gods [the Aesir and the Vanir] met to make peace, they took a vessel and spat into it, and from the contents they created the wise Kvasir, who was able to answer all questions. Kvasir however was killed by two dwarfs, who let his blood run into three huge vessels, and mixed it with honey to make a rich mead. Whoever drank of this received the gift of inspiration, and could compose poetry and utter words of wisdom. The malicious dwarfs, however, went too far when they killed a giant called Gilling, and his wife as well. The giant’s son, Suttung, took vengeance on them by putting them on a rock and leaving them there to drown. To save their lives they were forced to give him the mead, and it is for this reason that poetry is called ‘Kvasir’s blood’ or ‘ship of the dwarfs’. [Davidson. 40]

Dwarves drawn from the Nordic myths began to spread across Europe the diminutive race branching off into many different types. “Their names varied from land to land and region to region. The British Isles had their goblins, knackers and leprechauns, Germany its Erdleute and Stillevolk, and Scandinavia its trolls and bergfolk and huldrefolk. But their kinship to the earth, their matchless skills and their stunted stature were universal.” [Constable. 8]

It is here that dwarves figure more as adversaries and dangerous fairies to be treated with caution and apprehension than the hard-fighting miner-warriors of popular fantasy as they seeped into the folktales of Europe. The entire race bore the guilt of the crime of the pair who had brewed the blood-mead and were now famous as having a penchant for hording and guarding the treasures of the deep earth.

The ugly, misshapen dwarfs […] represent greed; they do nothing that is not in their own interests. Mastersmiths and magicians, quick to show malice, they lust after fair women, after power and, above all, after gold. [Crossley-Holland. Xxxviii]

Eventually dwarves found themselves thrust into the fairytales of northern Europe and Great Britain often as the antagonists or later on, providing magical assistance to the hero. “As the sagas devolved into FOLKTALES dwarfs were regularly depicted as scheming and cunning, and in this form they found their way into FAIRYTALES[.]” [Clute & Grant. Dwarfs] Dwarves were the villains or monsters in such well-traveled fairytales as Rumpelstiltskin and The Yellow Dwarf or benevolent in such tales as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Dwarves became a force of nature, of the earth but as fleeting as the wind and nearly invisible but always lurking at the edges of normal reality. “Within the earth itself, a tapping sound that came from a region untunneled by mortal miners might betray the activity of a mining party of dwarfs.” [Constable.9] They were everywhere especially their traditional haunts where their voices could be heard floating upon the air. “[I]n Scandinavia, echoes cast back from stony mountainsides were known in the Norse language as dvergamal – “voice of the dwarf.” Dwarfs, perhaps amusing themselves, were said to cause the echo by mimicking any sound heard in their domain. But they melted into the rocks long before a human intruder could draw near enough to spot them.” [Constable. 9] At this point they had almost merged completely with fairies as just another kind of fairy-folk.

In fact many types of creatures that had spawned directly from the dwarves that are still considered a part of fairy-kind.

Sometimes they are described as drawing their power from the Earth. In this sense they may be synonymous with gnomes, and to a lesser extent with kobolds (→GOBLINS) and leprechauns. All these strands emphasize the diminutive and mischievous aspects, but dwarfs are also warlike. [Clute & Grant. Dwarfs]

In fairy tales dwarves had twisted into villains though they weren’t much better in myth. But they had gotten closer to the modern idea of the little race.

In Teutonic myths, the dwarfs are small man-like beings, versed in the lore of mineral and skillful as forgers of weapons and treasures for the gods. In Wagner’s Nibelungen Ring they are crafty and cunning and dwell in the bowels of the earth. [Martin. Dwarf.]

It is the image of a demented villain with a tiny twisted body and a fiendish mind and an ancient soul filled with arcane power that Richard Wagner drew upon when he delved into Teutonic myth for his master-symphony, known as Wagner’s Ring Cycle or the Ring of the Nibelung.

The dwarfs, or nibelungs, are black uncouth pigmies, hating the good, hating the gods; they are crafty and cunning, and dwell in the bowels of the earth. [Martin. 307]

In that story it is the Nibelung Alberich that forges the ring of power from “Rhinegold” stolen from the Rhine Maidens (3 water-nymphs invented by Wagner for his story) that causes the whole fiasco which propels the entire epic to its ultimate conclusion. Wagner drew from the traditional figure of the dwarf. “The traditional dwarf-figure is drawn from NORDIC FANTASY, particularly the Volsunga Saga and Nibelungenlied[.]” [Clute & Grant. Dwarfs]

As dwarves survived in Wagner’s compositions from the 19th-century and into the twentieth they were to be reworked by J.R.R Tolkien yet again into something resembling almost wholly, the modern concept of the dwarven fantasy race.

Modern treatments of dwarfs can be traced to J.R.R. TOLKIEN, who drew upon both Nordic myth and some of the mischievous aspects in the works of E.A. WYKE-SMITH to depict his dwarves (as he spelled it) in The Hobbit (1937); these have all the aspects of traditional dwarfs, including squabbling belligerence, but are essentially good. [Clute & Grant. Dwarfs]

Tolkien however, took away their evil dispositions and tempered their mystical powers. As with his versions of the elves and trolls, a patron god creates the dwarves.

In a great hall under the mountains of Middle-earth Aulë, the Smith of the Valar, fashioned the Seven Fathers of Dwarves during the Ages of Darkness[.] [Day, David. 1979. A Tolkien Bestiary. Mitchell Beazley Publishers Limited. 69]

Tolkien also solidified the physical attributes that now describe the race while discarding the grotesqueness that had been a part of them of old.

[.]Aulë made Dwarves stout and strong, unaffected by cold and fire, and sturdier than the races that followed. Aulë knew of the great evil of Melkor, so he made the Dwarves stubborn, indomitable, and persistent in labour and hardship.  They were brave in battle and their pride and will could not be broken. [Day. 69]

He also handily described their now familiar skills at the same time diminishing their magical abilities reducing their skillset to hard labor and earth-craft.

The Dwarves were deep-delving miners, masons, metal-workers and the most wondrous stone-carvers. [T]hey were made strong, long-bearded and tough, but not tall, being four to five feet in height. As their toil was long, they were each granted a life of about two and half centuries, for they were mortal[.] [Day. 69]

It is from Tolkien that Gary Gygax took his inspiration and with only some slight modifications chiseled the image that dwarves now take in fantasy RPGs the world over.

Dwarves are typically deep tan to light brown of skin, with ruddy cheeks and bright eyes (almost never blue). Their hair is brown, black or gray. They favor earth tones with small bits of bright color in their clothing. Although only 4 or so feet tall, they weigh no less than 150 pounds due to their stocky muscular build. They live for no less than 350 years on the average. [Gygax, Gary. 1978. Advanced D&D Monster Manual. TSR Games. Dwarves.]

It is at this point that dwarves have solidified into short, human-like creatures that dwell deep in the earth or in mountain caves that wield the knowledge of the earth from whence they reap its treasures (namely gold and gems) and possess the skills of miners and craftsmen. They also tend to be a bit war-like and are a stout and stubborn folk. A few of their number may still wield the powers of old and forge a magic weapon here and there. Dwarven magic where it does exist often is associated with or draws its inspirations from the Nordic runes. Of course, this brings us to what is in some ways a somewhat pedantic and in others kind of important question about the dwarven race as a whole, what of the dwarven women?

Universally it seems that dwarves had been a race solely of males, a race that is comprised of a very limited and fixed number of individuals as with the Dactyls, or a race that may rely on its members creating new members as they themselves were created, by carving them from the living rock of the underground. It was not until Tolkien that the question was tackled in a world that operated on the laws of nature (mostly), as in such a world the question of how the dwarves would reproduce would naturally be raised. According to Tolkien dwarves had “very few women-folk.” [J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings (1991 ed.). HarperCollins Publishers. Appendix A. 1050 – footnote]

In fact, the only dwarf-woman named in Tolkien’s work was Dís the daughter of Thráin II. “It was said by Gimli that there are few dwarf-women, probably no more than a third of the whole people. They seldom walk abroad except at great need. They are in voice and appearance, and in garb if they must go on a journey, so like to the dwarf-men that the eyes and ears of other peoples cannot tell them apart. This has given rise to the foolish opinion among Men that there are no dwarf-women, and that the Dwarves ‘grow out of stone’.” [Tolkien. 1053] This has also led to the beard or no beard argument which frankly is dependent on the setting/world and the whims of its creator(s).

The scarcity and temperament of the dwarf-women (at least in Tolkien) seems to direct the fate of the dwarves in the same direction as that of those two races that they share so many generative similarities with, the elves and trolls.  In the cycles of myth they are destined to fade from the mortal world as the dying vestiges of a long-disappeared elder age. “It is known that they dwindled further, but whether they still live within secret caverns of the World or have now gone […] cannot be learned.” [Day.75] Though in the many varied worlds of roleplaying they battle on with pick, hammer, and ax.

Tabletop Meditations #12: Trolls

They have been and are, from their very inception, the consummate villain whether they be fierce beasts bent on random destruction and death, or mystical monsters that snatch away the hero’s loved ones for some nefarious purpose, or a supernatural arbiter of an unbelievably harsh but ironic justice.

The malformed embodiment of pure malevolence, the flesh-eating troll populates the many worlds of fantasy roleplaying serving almost solely as an adversary ready to slay and be slain. Trolls bring to mind the image of a ravaging giant obviously more beast than humanoid seemingly mindless in all its endeavors save the intent to inflict harm, at least in the minds of today’s fantasy roleplayers.

A troll is a predatory giant demi-humanoid with claws and fangs found in Nordic & Scandinavian myth and in the roots of Norwegian fairytales where they stand as vicious vestiges of an elder and chaotic world. In the Encyclopedia of Fantasy they are defined as: “MONSTERS of Scandinavian MYTH and NORDIC FANTASY; related Shetland myths call them trows. They have affinities with GIANTS (size, general malevolence, fondness for eating human flesh) and earth ELEMENTALS: they are associated with mountains and cold, and often turn to stone on exposure to daylight[.]” [Clute, John & Grant, John. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. St Martin’s Press, New York. Trolls.]

They have taken many forms from their inception in Nordic lore through to their adaptation into their fairytale roles as monsters with a penchant for abduction and cannibalism; at one time they were even able to fly.

Besides these [Elves/Dwarves] are the Trolls, who fly hither and thither carrying bundles of sticks, and have power to change their shape. [Mackenzie, Donald A. 1912. Teutonic Myth and Legend. Kessinger Publishing (Reprint). 13]

The evolution of the concept of trolls has parallels to that of Elves. Like elves they matriculated through lore into fairytales and then into fantasy and Sword & Sorcery fiction then ultimately from there into tabletop RPGs. Also like elves they seem to have had a less than active role in the myths that birthed them serving mainly as an “off-camera” enemy to a certain hammer-wielding god.

[…] Thor was away Fighting trolls and troll women and their wolfchildren in Iron Wood[.] [Crossley-Holland, Kevin. 2015. The Norse Myths. The Folio Society Ltd., London. 121]

At their beginnings they were closely associated with the gods, as adversarial legions, and there was little distinction between them and dwarves aside from a not yet strictly defined size difference.

In Icelandic myth malignant one-eyed giants, and in Scandinavian folklore mischievous DWARFS, some cunning and treacherous, some fair and good to men […]. They lived in hills and were wonderfully skilled in working metals, and they had a propensity for stealing, even carrying off women and children. […] Their name is Old Norse for ‘demon’. [Rockwood, Camilla, ed. 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 18th Edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Trolls]

The mythic roots of the troll, both as a fantasy race and monster, penetrate deeply into the mythology of Northern Europe (Norse mythology, the folktales of Lapland and Norwegian fairytales). At their beginnings in Norse myth they were giants born of evil taking their place as the enemies of the gods, this probably the apex of their imaginary existence. “Now by divination did Odin come to know that in Ironwood the Hag, Angerboda (Gulveig-Hoder) was rearing the dread progeny of Loke with purpose to bring disaster to the gods. Three monster children there were – Fenrer, the wolf; Jormungand, the Midgard serpent; and Hel. From these the Trolls are sprung.” [Mackenzie. 90] It is interesting that in the Norse mythology the trolls were the malformed offspring of godling monsters born of the trickster god Loki thereby distancing the trolls from the gods a step further than even the beasts of Ragnarök those who are destined to slay the gods and the world.

The classical root of the troll twists from myth into folktales and eventually fairy tales particularly those of Scandinavia. They were adopted by folktales in Lapland in the far north of Finland as supernatural antagonists then collected into fairytales in Norway at various times especially in the 19th century with Asbjørnsen & Moe being the most notable today of those collector-editors of folk & fairytale aside from the German Brothers Grimm. In the Norwegian tales trolls were synonymous with mortal fear of the dark and wild places of the world.

Every Norse child had heard […] that giant trolls laired under country bridges, preying on livestock, shepherds, and farmers. […] The Lapps gave a wide berth to the northern mountains, assuming that trolls chose places large enough in scale to suit their size. The same wariness of mountains applied to other countries, and trackless forests were also regarded as unsafe. [Constable, George ed. 1985. The Enchanted World: Giants and Ogres. Time-Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia. 86]

Trolls invaded vast tracts of wasteland and began to take up residence in the familiar haunts of fairy-folk, wild woods, dark forests, shadowy canyons, windswept mountains, and occupied ruined castles and old shanties in the middle of nowhere.

In the old days, the Lapps rarely ventured north towards the Arctic coast: They were hardy people, but all knew of the land in the north called Trollebotn, or Troll Bottom, a wind-swept waste haunted by huge, murderous beings. No Laplander cared to face those trolls, some of them three-headed, some with more hideous deformities, all malevolent and filled with hatred for humankind. [Constable. 79]

In these tales the concept of trolls is similar to elves in that their, the trolls’, identity merged with that of fairies becoming a part of the realm of fairy for a time even exhibiting the level of mystical power associated with such beings. However, trolls were always nasty. They ran the gamut from being vicious supernatural predators with awesome magical powers to simply giant slavering beasts that happened to be very formidable against even the strongest warrior.

The fairy tales of note concerning trolls are, at least in my opinion – Three Billy Goats Gruff (the troll lives under a bridge and threatens the titular Billy goats), The Ash Lad who had an Eating Match with the Troll (where a farm boy tricks a troll into committing hari-kari), Soria Moria Castle (where trolls  with 3 and even 9 heads make an appearance), The Golden Bird (where trolls are caretakers of wondrous treasures & enchanters of a prince to whom they’ve cursed into the form of a fox), The Companion (troll-hags are slain and there’s a potential troll-wife in a princess who was described to “wear a troll-hide” but was restored by the hero who beat the hide off of her).

In these tales trolls also seem to exhibit a trait which definitely distinguishes them from their true-fairy brethren, they are viciously, even sadistically, vindictive.  For example in the tale titled Troll’s Stone – After her and her husband’s failure to lure any herdsmen or the village priest to their cave so that they could eat them, the she-troll sends her husband to the frozen lake to catch fish where he promptly lays on the ice, he’s lazy, and freezes to death while fishing and as he was late with dinner his wife decides to go out to find him. Finding instead his frozen corpse on the ice and unable to drag his body back home she promptly snatches up his catch and: “Before she went, she said, “A curse on thee, thou wicked lake! Never shall a living fish be caught in thee again.” Which words have indeed proved fatal to the fishery, for the lake since then has never yielded a single fish.” [Booss, Claire ed. 1984. Scandinavian Folk & Fairy Tales. Crown Publishers, Inc. 630]

Trolls always seemed to direct this particularly vicious side towards humans especially those who refused to hold fast to ancient traditions and arcane treaties with the elder world of the trolls even as the trolls themselves faded and sank into the shadowed places of the earth.

The Trolls in Resslared best exemplify the balance of the trollish sense of justice. In the tale the local trolls “were wont to borrow food and drink, which they always returned two-fold.” [Booss. 282] The people of the village had a certain understanding with them and lived with the trolls peaceably. Eventually of course, the old residents died off and new people began to replace them who were not as “charitable” as their predecessors while the trolls lived on. Eventually, as fairy tales go, “[o]ne day the “mother” of the Trolls went, as was her custom of old, to a cottage, and asked the housewife if she could lend her a measure of meal.” [Booss. 282] Needless to say the housewife refused this and every additional request of the old troll lying that all her cans were empty, her cows farrow, and the like. So as justice is served in such stories: “The housewife laughed in her sleeve, and thought that she had escaped the Trolls cheaply; but when she inspected her larder it was found that she had really told the truth to the Troll woman. […] Ever after that the plenty that had heretofore been was wanting, until finally the people were compelled to sell out and move away.” [Booss. 283]

A perfect example of pure viciousness on the part of a troll is in the tale The Trolls in Skurugata – Once a hunter named Pelle Kant trespassed on troll territory. “It is generally understood that Trolls, when their territory is encroached upon by mankind, withdraw to some more secluded place. So when Eksjö was built, those that dwelt in the vicinity moved to Skurugata, a defile between two high mountains whose perpendicular sides rise so near to each other as to leave the bottom in continual semi-darkness and gloom.” [Booss. 251]  It is in this place that the hunter, Pelle, decided to go shooting and then as the hunt was unsuccessful cursed and raved aloud that the trolls had cursed his gun. So a troll woman makes an appearance and offers a poodle for him to shoot instead. He ties the unfortunate animal to a tree and shoots it through the head only to discover afterward that it was actually his own child wrapped in a dog’s hide. The troll woman then rewards him with a dollar piece which always reappears in his pocket when spent which he proceeded to use to drink himself to death.

Starting at about 1841 Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe collected together folktales from around Norway many of which concerned trolls. In these tales Christianity has a significant part to play representing an opposing force to elder and very hostile pagan forces (embodied primarily in the trolls). It is the wave of the new world overwhelming the old fully represented in the struggle between the hero and the troll(s). Once again it seemed that the trolls were nearing new heights as potential opposition to the divine though now even the sound of church bells could hurt and even kill them. “Should they be within the hearing of church bells, or otherwise fall under religious influence, their power is destroyed.” [Booss. xiv] The new power of Christianity was overpowering the older world of faerie.

Of course in these tales trolls were also granted the ability to sniff out “Christian blood” as well as having a peculiar thirst for it. In the story The Boys Who Met the Trolls in the Hedal Woods – “The boys were all ears, and listened well to hear whether it might be an animal or a Forest Troll which they heard. But then it started snorting even harder and said, “I smell the smell of Christian blood here!”” [Asbjørnsen, Peter Christen & Moe, Jørgen. 1960. Norwegian Folktales. Pantheon Books, NY. 10] Trolls were the enemy from the elder chaos opposing the emerging god of light and its new order.

All at once the Troll came, and he was so huge and burly that he had to go sideways to get in through the door. When he had got his first head in, he shouted, “Ugh! Ugh! I smell the smell of Christian blood!” [Asbjørnsen & Moe. 70] – from the tale Soria Moria Castle.

It is at this point that J.R.R. Tolkien makes his appearance once again in the ephemeral world of faerie and that of the elves, dwarves, and trolls. He redefined their birth as a race of pure unadulterated evil.

It is thought that in the First Age of Starlight, in the deep Pits of Angband, Melkor the Enemy bred a race of giant cannibals who were fierce and strong but without intelligence. These black-blooded giants were called Trolls, and for five Ages of Starlight and four Ages of Sun they committed deeds as evil as their dull wits allowed. [Day, David. 1979. A Tolkien Bestiary. Mitchell Beazley Publishers Limited. Trolls]

He refined the behavior of trolls including their level of stupidity (to be fair they were not very bright in the fairytales either; see The Ash Lad who had an Eating Match with the Troll), their strength, and their raw savagery. “They desired most a diet of raw flesh. They killed for pleasure, and without reason – save an undirected avarice – hoarded what treasures they took from their victims.” [Day. Trolls] The appearance he ascribed to his trolls though was not carried over into the popular figure of the troll but which did link the creatures more closely to the earth than they had been since their inception though he did leave their vulnerability to sunlight untouched. “Trolls were rock hard and powerful. Yet in the sorcery of their making there was a fatal flaw: they feared light. The spell of their creation had been cast in darkness and if light did fall on them it was as if that spell were broken and the armour of their skin grew inwards. Their evil soulless beings were crushed as they became lifeless stone.” [Day. Trolls] A curse which is prominent in gory detail in certain tales.

Just then, the sun appeared at the rim of an eastern ridge. […] With a hoarse cry […] Her great bulk swelled, until her eyes were black and her skin taut and shiny. Then she burst in a blinding spray of blood. Slowly, the loose skin collapsed and crumpled toward the rock edge, shriveling into a boulder that still bore the troll wife’s face, its mouth wide in a silent scream. Trolls could not survive the sun. It turned them to stone. [Constable, George. 1985. The Enchanted World: Night Creatures. Time-Life Books Inc., Chicago, Illinois. 28]

Tolkien did cement their size and strength in the popular imagination however which was then further refined in a later work of sword & sorcery and this is where current tabletop roleplayers will start to recognize the monster that stalks the underworlds of their imaginations. The tough specimen of troll found in the novel Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961) by Poul Anderson is the model used by Gary Gygax for his troll “which regenerates even as it is hacked apart and must be burnt piecemeal.” [Clute. Trolls] That very work is listed under “inspirational and educational reading” in Appendix N of the Advanced D&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) evidence of its direct adaptation by Gygax.

“Trolls are horrid carnivores found in nearly every clime. They are feared by most creatures, as a troll knows no fear and attacks unceasingly. Their sense of smell is very acute, their infravision is superior, and their strength is very great.” [Gygax, Gary. 1978. Advanced D&D Monster Manual. TSR Games. 97] This is the very image of what is now considered a troll reimagined as a nightmare predator and fodder-monster of RPGs.

The scaly stone-hide ascribed by Tolkien now fully shed and their subhuman appearance now exaggerated to its fullest. “Troll hide is a nauseating moss green, mottled green and gray, or putrid gray. The writhing hair-like growth upon a troll’s head is greenish black or iron gray. The eyes of a troll are dull black.” [Gygax. 97] They are also mostly bestial and are more brutish and dangerous than ever.

A troll attacks with its clawed forelimbs and its great teeth. […][A]fter being damaged, a troll will begin to regenerate. […][T]his regeneration includes the rebonding of severed members. The loathsome members of a troll have the ability to fight on even if severed from the body; a hand can claw or strangle, the head bite, etc. Total dismemberment will not slay a troll, for its parts will slither and scuttle together, rejoin, and the troll will arise whole and ready to continue combat. To kill a troll, the monster must be burned or immersed in acid, any separate pieces being treated in the same fashion or they create a whole again […]. [Gygax. 97]

In the popular imagination Trolls lurk in ill-lit (often slime-plagued) subterranean lairs and are ugly, smelly, often giant, and always viciously evil. They are not as codified as the Elves though, aside from the ideas of the sun turning them into stone and their eating flesh. Most trolls found in roleplaying games have retained the ability to regenerate found in Gygax’s AD&D, however this ability is not always carried over. Strangely enough, the popular concept of trolls has splintered the magic-slinging elder-world denizen of fairytales from the monster-enemy concept of sword & sorcery and RPGs to the point that trolls have bifurcated into two separate species: the RPG Troll and the troll of fairy-stories.

Born in the cold forge of Nordic myth trolls trickled down through history in folktales and then fairytales where they served as the hideous man-eating monster lurking about the wastes at the edge of civilization just waiting to snatch away women and eat livestock and children. Sword & Sorcery fiction trans-mutated them into veritable juggernauts, more than a match for any warrior who would dare confront them face to ugly face. They are the embodiment of every repugnant aspect of mankind sitting in their lairs among the hoard of treasure looted from the corpses of their victims, striking out blindly at the sunlit world in which they have no place.

Trolls like elves were transformed and added to by storytellers and writers until they reached their core forms in fantasy games today but unlike elves they seemed to spring forth fully formed very close to what can still be recognized as (if not already named) a troll thought up from the ether as antagonistic monsters from the very beginning.