A Giant Paradigm

I’ve talked about the Goblin and Kobold cultures in the context of Cobrin’Seil, and done some fairly deep delves into what I think of as the framing context of the other player character options, but the thing is, when you start looking at these cultures as like, cultures, you kind of run into a problem.

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See, like if Goblins and Kobolds and Orcs merit that deeper context, then that kind of brings up the question of what about gnolls? What about grimlocks? What about derros, and tareks and hobgoblins and bugbears and shifters and duergars and bladelings and —

Glossary Note: Conventionally, the term used in D&D for this mechanical package is race. This is the typical term, and in most conversations about this game system, the term you’re going to wind up using is race. For backwards compatibility and searchability, I am including this passage here. The term I use for this player option is heritage.


I’ve talked in the past about how in Cobrin’Seil, I just don’t have that many monstrous humanoid cultures, and that’s true but it’s also something of a lie. I learned to play D&D in 3rd edition, where the monster manuals were absolutely stuffed with humanoid cultures that showed up as the specific palette swap of ‘dudes with weapons you can kill and not feel bad about it.’ And look, most of these creatures are orcs – in a literary sense, they’re orcs from the Lord of the Rings universe; a subhuman collection of meat-targets created from nothing, with no culture or souls, to give you the exhiliration of fighting An Other but without any of the moral compunction of recognising that killing people can be complicated and painful.

In the content churn selling products that is the history of D&D, every given writer could come up with a new social group of Orcs and throw whatever varied weird lore they wanted to in that group to explain or justify them. There may be greater mythological threads they draw from, but when you get down to it D&D is almost like a sort of cultural time stamp from when a lot of synonymous poetic language for things like gnomes and faeries and goblins all got unpicked from their original generic meaning into a sprawling, cladistic model of definite, specific, actualised cultures.

This is a top down assumption, by the way, but it’s a history that makes obvious sense to me. Given how many of these cultures are the kinds of things you see airdropped into a setting, then years later someone made a Dragon article about what they were or why they were, it’s kinda noticeable that there’s a collection of creatures that are ostensibly present in a D&D setting that are somehow Types Of Guy that have been made up entirely to get mad at. And with my deliberate intention of looking at these types of critters in terms of them being people and why you can still have the structures that allow for them to show up in adventures in the same general way, this can be a great big problem in terms of just… like…

volume.

If there are fifteen hundred types of guy and they’re all meant to be somewhat interesting, I’m going to spend forever developing them and then nobody will care because be honest you don’t remember what a Grimlock is, probably.

In most cases, I just ignore them.

Some of them are easy to hold on to. What’s a Bullywug? Well it’s a frog guy. The bullywugs probably came about from frogs. Maybe magically caused, maybe they’re naturally evolved, but either way, that’s easy. Similarly, you can point to a bunch of these cultures that are very tangibly different to just a ‘humanoid, and a bit ugly.’ But there’s definitely only a few of them and they communicate with people – do they communicate in common? How do I keep that gap there?

But still, they do come up because they add colour and texture to the world and also because they crucially give you a ‘cut’ with encounters. When the goons you beat up run off, if they’re like you, you could go follow them and talk to them and get a note from their mums making sure they’ll be good boys now. But if that person is a hyena and doesn’t speak any languages in common with you, when they run off, you don’t have a good communication axis with them and you’re left with ‘hunt them down and hit them more’ or ‘let them go and give up on that narrative thread.’

These barriers serve a really valuable service for getting players to stop caring about things so you can focus their attention elsewhere. Which is pretty interesting when you think about it that way and also, diegetically, super fucked up. Like low key, ‘speak every language’ powers and spells and rituals are actually super annoying for DMs because they often ask you to present answers to questions you don’t want to give or never intended to give.

But the thing is I also don’t think ‘a room full of dudes with weapons’ is that interesting, nor do I think ‘you’re beating up enemies because they’re here’ is that interesting, so what I needed, I felt, is a paradigm.

In D&D this line tends to get split in ‘the monstrous humanoids,’ which is coincidentally all the ones that can’t look like a type of British person (unless you get really creative with the interpretation of a Gnoll). In Cobrin’Seil, I haven’t thought about the linguistic terminology used for it – often, when directing people to these other cultures, they’ll just be named specifically – ‘some gnolls are over there.’

What I’ve decided is that in Cobrin’Seil, there was at a point in the Deep Time where a culture had an Empire going, and this cultural grouping wound up leaving behind a common cultural marker that now is used as a marker indicating that group. The cultural marker is a lingua franca of Giant, which is a widespread language used by a huge variety of different cultures across Cobrin’Seil.

Now, this is one of those things where if I explain it it creates the impression that it’s meant to be known and it’s not really; it’s not a rumour, it’s a framing element. Players can know about it, and it lets them make choices and have opinions in character, but it’s not a puzzle to be solved or some great mystery to be revealed in-game like it’s going to explain something. And in this case, it’s that at one point in Cobrin’Seil’s history, the first Giants appeared, and for a time, had an empire of city states. These giants were into self-augmentation and that drive was why there are a bunch of giants still hanging around left over – with the most ‘like’ to this empire being the Ogre-Magi.

The urge here is: Can I make up a culture that’s like if you could punch the British empire in the face? and also, can I make a progenitor empire that explicitly sucks without making it look like I’m making references to Jewish culture?

Now, with this, we have the category of Erd, which is both the term used for the empire, the nonspecific giant culture that held it, and now, the people who share the languages derived from Erd at base. And this serves as the root term used in Cobrin’Seil for the groupings that they mean when they describe people as ‘non-default’; a term used for the groupings of people who, rather than use ‘common’ (a political default) use ‘giant’ (a different political default). But also, crucially, Erd is the Erd word for Erd: It’s not ‘humanoids’ and ‘monstrous humanoids’, which explicitly centers humans. At some point, ethnographically, someone in culture, wandered over to the Erd cultures and asked them questions about their language and that useful term became useful and people use it, which indicates that even if the information is wrong about it, the worldview is fundamentally ‘use these people’s word for themselves.’

And this then gets to be used in a lot of ways I find personally interesting, because the groups that are included in this get to be people ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the Erd category, and that’s a political grouping. That can mean that in one part of (say) Dal Raeda, it’s commonly accepted and understood that Orcs are an Erd culture, and that Elves are not. Then there’s another place where of course they’d assume that Elves are Erd and Orcs aren’t. And the people who have goblins living in their town probably dont’ think of Goblins as Erd even if the Bugbears that originally brought the Goblins near the town absolutely do.

The term the Erd use for the non-Erd groupings is a term that gets translated as Highway People – because the single biggest and most prominent thing in Erd culture that you can see linking (literally) the non-Erd cultures is that they all use the King’s Highway. So, Highway people call Erd Erd, and Erd call non-Erd Highway people, and they have a term in Erd for that.

My favourite example in all of this though is that there are gnolls, who are an anthropomorphic humanoid creature based on an a sorta-feline thingy, who have heavily integrated family units and like financial transactions because they’re consistent and predictable, and abilen, who are an anthropomorphic humanoid creature based on a feline thingy who have heavily integrated family units and like financial transactions because they’re consistent and predictable, and the fact that abilen are cute catpeople and gnolls are burly hyena people is the only reason why one side of that grouping are Erd and the other side are Highway People.

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