Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Of elvish discrimination and contrarian role-players

A few years back I ran a Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 campaign for friends.  My main motivation in dungeonmastering was it was a chance to indulge in my passion for world building.  In this particular case I decided to turn some well worn tropes on their head.

For example, one realm was ruled by a red dragon but rather than being the typical Smaug-like, ravening monster this particular dragon realized that his life span would be greatly extended by not despoiling the countryside and eating virgins.  Instead he put a human council in charge of day-to-day affairs of the country and only asked for a reasonable monthly tribute of gold pieces for the hoard and cattle for his meals and in return he actually protected the peasants from outside depredations.  In return said peasants tended to take a rather dim view of wandering bands of adventurers coming to "save them from the tyranny of the monster".

There are other examples but the most important trope subversion was I decided to make elves a hated and feared minority.  A millennium before the major elvish kingdom was responsible for a magical disaster that almost destroyed the world.  Even then there was still massive, destruction and famine in its wake and those elves that survived the initial disaster soon became the victims of a widespread pogrom.  Flash forward a thousand years and while there are still small enclaves of Elves about whenever an elf leaves one they are shunned, feared and generally abused.  The only thing worse than being an elf in this world is being a half-elf, who are treated as despised half-castes by both elven and human communities.

All of this was written up in the world description I gave to the players and was emphasized by me during character generation.  I actively wanted to discourage the players from playing elves as I tend to think they are overused.  So of course, out of the nine players in my game two made elves and a third made a half-elf.  After much eye-rolling and asking if they were sure they wanted to do this I allowed the characters.  I don't really believe in needlessly restricting character design choices unless there is a good reason, like if I had said there were no elves in this world rather than a few hated ones.

On one level having some players play elves could have been really cool if there was desire to actually role-play the experience of being loathed minority.  Instead most of the players, not just the elves, were more interested in typical D&D hack and slash, kill the monsters and take their things.

As a digression, this is why I tend to find D&D and similar fantasy games to be rather tedious nowadays.  I find the actual character interaction with each other and the world far more interesting than the party just being a bunch of murder hobos wandering the countryside looking for monsters to kill and loot.

This of course led to a lot of tension whenever the party left the dungeon for civilization.  Those three characters could rarely get service at an inn or tavern and when they could they were charged totally unreasonable prices.  The players started to complain I was picking on them.  My response was usually along the lines of "Yes, I am.  You chose to play a hated and despised minority.  I told you ahead of time that elves were that minority and I gave you the chance to change you mind in character generation.  My NPCs are acting in a manner wholly normal and consistent for the world I created and that you knew the details of."  Not surprisingly the game eventually died in favor of something else.

On one hand I recognize that I bear a certain amount of responsibility here.  Clearly I misread what the players wanted in a D&D campaign in the first place and the things I liked did not mesh really well with the things they liked.  But on the other hand I still have a hard time understanding how anyone (and bear in mind I'm playing with experienced gamers in their 30s and 40s, not a bunch of teenagers) can whine about a characters treatment when they choose to play something that has a lot of negative strings attached.  This was probably three years ago but it still mystifies me.

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