How Following or Breaking Conventions Can Benefit Your Campaign
“The exception gives Authority to the Rule”
(Giovanni Torriano, Piazza universale di proverbi italiani)
Since the very birth of the fantasy genre, it displayed before us characters that defied their racial-cultural stereotypes, from Hobbits leaving their cozy home and setting forth to destroy The One Ring, through gentle and caring vampires, dozens of women who challenged the patriarchal standards of the society they lived in, youngest children growing up to be the great heroes everyone thought their older brothers would be and even Orcs with M.A.’s in transgalactic economics.
And as if that isn’t enough, dozens of authors, screen-writers and game-designers earn their wages by portraying entire races and cultures that deviate from the known stereotypes of the genre – evil Elves who dwell underground, man-eating Halflings, werewolves dedicated to the protection of Mother Nature and even Dwarves wondering around with cybernetic implants carefully concealed under leather trench coats.
Naturally, every GM wants his campaign to be as different as possible from the mainstream deducted by the fantasy genre and every players wants his character to be as different as possible from the mainstream deducted by the GM’s campaign. And so we get campaign settings where Dwarves have webbed fingers, Elves live in solar-powered merry-go-rounds, Halflings are the disciples of Balroch, the Death Flame Demon and all the dragons are addicted to progressive rock. Moreover, the player’s troupe is made up of a hydrophobic Dwarf, an albino Elf, a Halfling that just wants to be nice to everyone and a dragon that’s convinced that even Avril Levigne fans have their place under god’s purple sun.
So what’s the problem? No problem at all, if you don’t mind your troupe looking more like one of P. T. Barnum’s freak shows than like The Fellowship of the Ring. Not that there’s anything wrong with a troupe that’s no more than a freak show, but all too often players and GMs are tempted to use such characters instead of actually developing deep roleplaying. In this article I’ll try to show how to create and use not only diversions from the conventions but also the conventions themselves in your campaign world. Like most of my articles, it is meant primarily for GMs, but players might also benefit from reading it.
First of all, in order to deviate or not to deviate from the conventions of the campaign setting, we must first define what they are. In a good campaign setting, it is not enough to state that “Elves believe that all life is holy” or that “Dwarves are good chess players”. A good campaign setting must also explain the origins of these conventions and explain how they all forge together a coherent and logical world. A skilled writer would not suffice with statements like those that appeared in the previous sentence, but would also go to the trouble of explaining that the Elven creation myth tells that tale of how Alorian, The Sky Father, created all the living creatures from the clouds that make up his body and so they are all equally holy or how the first chess game was created by the legendary Dwarven general Grimer Rock-Crusher in order to teach his soldiers strategy.
Note that the GM can already insert the first deviation from the convention into his game by giving certain cultures or races characteristics that are notably different form what the players have learnt to expect from the appearances of those races in classical fantasy. However, it is important not to over-do things. A deviation will only be a deviation as long as the original from which we are deviating can still be recognized. Elves who are cold and ruthless but still the epitome of mental and physical perfection could be an interesting twist on the Elven concept. Elves who are short, hairy, dumb, lame, cross-eyed and round-eared won’t be a twist on the Elven concept, they would be an entirely different race which just happens to be called “Elves”.
Another way the GM can create a deviation in the campaign creation phase is to define a sub-race of which would have distinctly different characteristics from the main race. For instance, in Quintara, my campaign setting for my Fantasy HERO campaign, the Elves are a race as ancient as The Great Icebergs, and also as cold and calculated. Or at least most Elves are. A few centuries ago, a small group of Elves chose to return to The Old Ways. They left their cities of steal and magic and returned to Liliorion’s evergreen forest to renew The Tree Rites and to find anew the Elven happiness their ancestors had forsaken millennia ago. Its important to note that these wild Elves are a small and relatively unknown group. Thus, a character that encounters a Wild Elf for the first time would probably be surprised to find out that the Elf she faces is not a humanoid icicle, but a warm and emotional person.
Now that we defined the campaign setting’s races and the deviations hidden within them, we can proceed to handling the players’ characters. As I said in the beginning of the article, players are tempted all too often to create such deviations as a cheap excuse for in depth roleplaying. You, as GMs, should be aware to this fact and to simply disqualify characters that have no substance beyond their deviation. A dirty trick to recognize such situations is to simply remove this deviation and see what happens with the character. For instance, one of my players created the character of Sir Grok McFlorance for my Quintara campaign. Grok was adopted by an elderly knight after all the inhabitants of his village were slaughtered by the knights of The Phoenix Order. Both Grok and his adoptive father know that Grok would never have been accepted as a squire if it weren’t for his father’s position and influence. As a result, Grok is completely consumed with become the best knight he could ever be. In fact, the few friends he has claim he’s over-doing it. In a sense, he has become a caricature of knight by trying to live up to a self-imposed code which is so strict that no human being could ever live by.
Grok is somewhat predictable, but definitely a legitimate character. The entire character doesn’t depend on the fact the Grok is actually and Orc.
Furthermore, the GM has the responsibility to make sure that the troupe actually looks like an adventuring troupe and not like a freak show. On or two gimmick-characters like that are more than enough for a troupe.
Moreover, your should remember that everything that has been said in this article about PCs is even more appropriate for NPCs. The PCs won’t deviate from the convention is the NPCs (who are actually the majority of the characters in the campaign setting) played by the GM won’t define the convention. An NPC who strongly deviates from the conventions of his cultural and/or racial characteristics should be an important character, which a special place in the scenario. After all, if every Dwarven blacksmith the troupe encounters would be a former figure-skating gold medallist, how would we know that the Dwarven national sport is actually snowboarding?
This article first appeared in issue #6 of The Orc.