Hein (fub) wrote,
Hein
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Decolonising my D&D scenario

One time, when I ran a scenario to introduce a family to RPGs, I designed a scenario that was chock-full of colonialism and casual racism: the ‘wood people’ were natives who were capable fighters but were superstitious and needed the party to ‘rescue’ them from the monster living in their woods, the (hob)goblins lived in squalor and were irredeemable evil — and it was all set in some kind of ‘frontier’.
I’ll be running a scenario to introduce some people to RPGs again, and my thoughts turned to the scenario I could run. This intro one worked quite well, so why not re-use it? Well, my thinking on these kinds of topics has progressed over the years, that’s why. So it was time to once again read through this post about decolonising D&D, and think of a way to change things for the better.

The scenario is basically a group of adventurers being hired by a herb merchant to find out what happened to a foraging expeditions he sent to blaze new trails through a forest a day away. Herbologists would pass through the winding paths and pick herbs they identified. The plan was to return ever so often, letting the forest recover and the herbs re-grow for a new harvest. The ‘base camp’ would be about a day’s walk from a ‘frontier’ town.
But in a mountain in the forest lives a Nothic, who craves human flesh. He has a tribe of (hob)goblins enslaved, and when he makes an eerie sound (by dousing a fire elemental in running water from a spring on the mountain) the tribe of ‘wood people’, who live at the other side of the forest, would bring a human sacrifice to a clearing in the middle of the forest, where the hapless victim would be collected by the goblins and fed to the Nothic. The wood people had captured the members of the expedition and used them as sacrifices instead of selecting one of their own.

One of the easiest solutions to deal with the indigenous ‘wood people’ would to simply take them out of the scenario. I know, it’s a cop-out, but as a white dude I do not currently feel like I could do a good job of portraying an indigenous tribe in a respectful manner. But clearly someone must have overpowered the adventurers, and if not the wood people, then who?
Perhaps the Nothic was once the scion of a family that settled in that frontier town, and their family captures passers-by to feed to their unlucky relative? I can see how that would develop: a family settles on the frontier in search of a better life, and then an especially bright child turns out to be magically gifted. All resources are poured into that one child, who is set to ‘make it’ and lift the family out of poverty. And then that backfires, the magical prodigy turns into a Nothic and has to be hidden away. A ruined tower stands in the middle of the village, the erstwhile residence of the wizard… What if all the villagers look vaguely alike (because family), and some have slightly groteske features like a misshapen hand (because inbreeding)? Could make for some fun social interactions on their way out!
The villagers and the Nothic would not interact directly, but they’d leave their prisoners tied to a large pole somewhere in the forest. Maybe they overpowered a traveling family, but their little son got away and he is hiding in the woods — as a replacement to the ‘wood people’-child I had in my original scenario. When discovered and captured, the boy could give some info to the characters as to what happened to his family and to the trailblazers (one of which will still be at the pole).

That leaves the (hob)goblins. I like the idea of a group serving the Nothic, but as PoCGamer points out, goblinoids are coded as irredeemable evil, which has racist undertones, and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t like the idea of humans serving the Nothic — so perhaps undead, created by the Nothic from the scraps of his meals? The advantage is that that could be really horrifying (imagine seeing the gnawed remains of one of the trailblazers shambling towards you), but zombies and skeletons are dumb and ‘passive’. I want an active group, who keep watch and who are organised and ready to put up a coordinated fight. Goblins could offer that, without providing a power-escalation (the characters are, after all, level 1).
So what if there is a cult worshiping the Nothic as an undying deity? The magical insight and telepathic powers of the Nothic will make it easy to manipulate the gullible into becoming fanatics. (A bit like how there are undead worshiping the undying Dragons in the Dark Souls games.) So instead of Goblins, a group of Cultists and Acolytes are staying with the Nothic, taking care of daily tasks and guarding their master.

And which that, I should have a scenario that is just as intense as the initial version (or even more intense, because there is more involved behind the scenes than just ‘lol, goblins are evil’), with fewer racist undertones and less ‘white saviour syndrome’. Perhaps there is more fine-tuning to be done, even outside of the immediate context of this scenario. For instance, I need to find a mode to be able to use goblins and orcs as adversaries without painting them as irredeemable evil that only exists to be exterminated, but I will need to invest more thought into that before I’m comfortable with presenting that concept.

Crossposted from my blog. Comment here or at the original post.
Tags: racism, rpg
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