Monday, September 16, 2019

The Complete Book of Humanoids

Oh, AD&D, why are you the way you are? What happened to you that inspired you to release a book like The Complete Book of Humanoids? It's a good idea in conception - a book that acts as a quick-and-easy guide to playing a grab-bag of interesting fantasy species - but then you had to go and make it weird.

And not the good kind of weird. The kind of weird where you keep tossing around the word "humanoid" as if it meant something, and wasn't just a way of saying "miscellaneous." The kind of weird where Ogre Mages can't actually advance that far in the mage class and have an affinity for "oriental weapons." The kind of weird where you recycle the gross racist stuff from The Complete Barbarian's Handbook, but since you're applying it to literal subhuman monsters, that makes it . . . okay?

This book is so close to being great. The only thing standing in its way is every terrible thing about AD&D 2nd edition. I really don't understand it. I know they were capable of inventive, compelling fantasy. This book landed right in the middle of a time when TSR was releasing one classic rpg setting after another. Yet, given the opportunity to dig deep into their back benches and release playable versions of some of their most iconic creatures, they wound up backing as far away from strange fantasy as is conceivably possible in a book that contains Wemics (they're like Centaurs, but half-lion instead of half-horse).

The Complete Book of Humanoids is very clear about the titular humanoids' role in the campaign - as one-off characters, conspicuous in their oddness, adventuring with a party of "normal" PCs. It gives four suggestions for how to integrate a humanoid character into your game (and is very clear that there should be only one at a time) - humans saved their life, they saved a human's, unlucky roll with the Reincarnation spell, and the party is paying them.

But the most obvious scenario never seemed to occur to them - that maybe you're in a fantasy world where they fill the niche of demihumans (and if you can come up with definitions of "demihuman" and "humanoid" that make a damned bit of sense, you are officially an AD&D genius). Maybe you're in a world that has swanmays instead of elves and minotaurs instead of dwarves. Maybe the lizard-folk are the remnants of an ancient civilization of necromancers (although where could I have gotten that idea).

Yet The Complete Book of Humanoids seems fixated on the idea that most humanoids live in "tribes." It then proceeds to paint a picture of tribal life that is uncomfortably colonialist. Humanoid cultures are a blank slate . . . except for their horrifying habits, which justify the widespread Intelligence and Charisma penalties and the evil alignments. They are mostly good for killing and driving out of the land . . . but not the PCs, of course, they're some of the the good ones.

Literally. There's a space on your character sheet where you can write "Good." And if you do, you're officially good. That means that your evil deeds don't count if you direct them towards people who have "Evil" written on their character sheets.

I only slightly exaggerate. There's a section near the end of the book called "Campaign Complications," that's all about the various mishaps a humanoid can suffer in human and/or demihuman society. Many of these are variations on "society fears and hates the character because of their race," and one of them even ends with "a good cleric decides to eradicate the monster."

Presumably, a truly good cleric will relent when they find out the character means no harm. And nobody explicitly said society itself was good. But it's of a theme.

The low point is in the Mongrelmen write-up. Mongrelmen are the result of magical experiments and are basically every type of creature stitched together in a vaguely humanoid form. Canonically, they're incredibly ugly (they have an effective Charisma of 1 for all non-mongrelmen), though half the art ever drawn of them come out looking cute in a "so-pathetic-I-want-to-nurture-it" sort of way (the illustration in this book falls in that category). Here's what the book says about them:
Mongrelmen find no welcome in lawful and good societies. Among evil and chaotic groups, they meet with enslavement and abuse. Most of these reactions are in response to mongrelmen appearances - they look like deformed monsters and are treated as such by society at large.
 Good - what does it even mean? I know I've said it before, but I'll say it again - alignment is a bad mechanic that obfuscates more than it reveals.

If you accept that "good" and "evil" are words with real meaning, though, then mostly what The Complete Book of Humanoids seems to be aiming for is a level of description that is sufficient to allow players to play as members of "primitive" societies, but not actually so empathetic that the more photogenic races have to stop stealing their land.

If you think that's a hot take, I dare you to read this book and The Complete Barbarian's Handbook back-to-back and then say that there's no connection between D&D's central plot of "wilderness monsters attacking the frontiers of civilization" and imperialist attitudes towards aboriginal people. I mean, there's a kit in this book called The Witch Doctor. Do I need to spell it out? So much of D&D's presentation of "monstrous humanoids" is directly traceable to "African natives" in old racist adventure fiction. The only real question is how much of that inspiration is it appropriate to overlook.

The thing that bugs me most (so much so that this is my third time pointing it out in one of these reviews) is the way humanoids are treated as "superstitious." How does that even work? Did the book forget that many of these creatures are what real people are superstitious about?  Outside of the D&D bubble, "bugbear" is literally an English word that describes an irrational fear. The most ridiculous is the way Firbolg (giant-kin) "have an innate fear of human and demihuman mobs."

"Gee, Carl, I'm starting to think running into that mob of pitchfork-wielding villagers was bad luck."

Of course, what's really going on is a noxious trope. "Primitive" people are only barely allowed to have a religion, and not at all expected to possess true knowledge. So their very human fears and anxieties are exoticized into "silly superstitions." Explorers may laugh at the shaman for believing a statue contains a link to his ancestors, but the party missionary is sure in no hurry to use the pages of the Bible as kindling.

I guess with all that, you may be under the impression that I disliked this book. In truth, I'm more ambivalent. Yes, the worldbuilding advice is severely misguided, but I can't tell you how hungry I was for something like this book as a young man. So much of what's flawed about AD&D is its failure of imagination. This probably applies more to 2nd edition than 1st. It just feels to me that early D&D was recklessly inventive, basically inventing the modern fantasy genre with every new book, magazine article, and year-long letters-page debate.

By the time AD&D 2nd edition came around, maybe the mission shifts, and the new goal is to curate and refine what came before. People come in with expectations of what "standard" fantasy is, and it's the duty of core books like the Player's Handbook Supplement series to establish the baseline in print. Bold experiments in pushing the boundaries of fantasy are for campaign box sets.

It's no coincidence that all of my AD&D 2e campaign settings are the "weird" ones - Planescape, Spelljammer, Dark Sun, and Council of Wyrms. Since almost the beginning of my time roleplaying, I've wanted to go somehow beyond the books, into worlds that looked nothing like anything I've ever seen or read before. The Complete Book of Humanoids, however flawed it might be, gave me a glimpse of what that could be like.

UKSS Contribution: If you mentally set aside the "evil societies of primitive tribes" element, this book has a lot of neat stuff in it. I'm really spoiled for choice. So of course, I'm going to go with something completely ridiculous.

Towards the end of the book, there is a list of proficiencies with special relevance to humanoid characters. Most of these are what you'd expect, like Intimidation and Wild Fighting, but two in particular stood out to me - Winemaking and Cheesemaking.

I don't know why they'd wait until this book in particular to introduce those skills, but it made me think of goblins stomping grapes or minotaurs making cheese. That made me smile.

So in Ukss, the very best wine and cheese are going to come from Goblins. Not sure how I'm going to work that in, but it's a fact.


  1. Goblin artisanal cuisine strikes me as not even such a surprising fact, if "goblins" in your setting also hold the societal niche of Dwarves, Gnomes, and Halflings.

    As a quick aside, whatever mention there was of an ancient lizard-necromancer kingdom in Karameikos (or Ylaraum, or Irendi) does not appear to have made it into your blog post, making that link a bit of an enigma, to me at least.

    1. That was a bit of an oversight on my part. I got so caught up in talking about other things that I forgot to mention that there was an ancient lizard-folk civilization that sometimes shows up in unexpected places. I'm only assuming they were necromancers because one of their liches was the main villain in Ylaraum's sample adventure.