CW: Misogyny, racism, and sexual violence
Welp, that was a thing. I was expecting the section on the Vistani. I steeled my mind for it. Then, BAM! The section on hags came out of nowhere. I guess I've never really thought about them as a monster type - if I wanted an evil magic user who lived in a swamp, I would just do that. So I was unprepared for this book's astonishing new addition to hag lore:
"Hags who are early in their lives, before the Change, are indistinguishable from human females."
Um, excuse me? Are you absolutely sure that you want a monster type whose whole deal is that they're beautiful women who turn 40 and suddenly start to undergo "the Change" (always capitalized) and turn into hideous old crones who despise all life. And the distinguishing characteristics of the three types are that pre-annis are excessively butch, pre-greenhags are excessively slutty, and pre-sea hags are excessively naggy?
Is that what you want to do AD&D?! Is it?!
I went back to the Monstrous Manual to see if this was simply a bit of obscure canon I hadn't noticed before, but it appears new. The hags from the MM reproduced by disguising themselves as beautiful women, getting pregnant, and then magically implanting those fetuses into unsuspecting human women. The baby hags would kill their human mothers and then presumably they'd be retrieved by the hags for training.
This book debunks the "magically altered pregnancy" angle and instead says that the hags give birth to their own children, but that those babies appear human and the hags insinuate them into human society, usually by kidnapping an infant girl and swapping her out for the hag's daughter. Those daughters later grow up to be misogynist stereotypes until menopause, but don't feel too bad about their horrifying transformation, because they were "born evil" (and that is seriously the advice that Van Richten gives us at the end of the book).
I have a feeling, though, that someone, an author, an editor, or a developer, must have known what thin ice they were on, because Van Richten also cautions us to be absolutely sure we're dealing with a real hag and not just an unpopular woman or one with an unconventional lifestyle. "The evil of hags is difficult enough to contain and recognize without those who would battle it being blinded by cultural prejudice."
And it's like - grr! These fools already have all the information necessary to understand why this is a bad idea. I know they do, because they printed it in their book. But, fuck, what were they supposed to do, just not write about a monster that already existed?
Of course, this is Dungeons and Dragons, and it follows a very strict law of conservation of canon. I checked the future Monster Manuals and the hag remains in editions 3, 4, and 5, though blessedly their life cycle does not. In 3rd, it doesn't get mentioned at all. In 4th and 5th, they're fairy creatures, which honestly seems for the best (this book says they're inspired by "wicked witches" and "fairly lore," which is in the same wheelhouse . . . but then they get weird with it).
The hags share a section with Witches, and the Witch information almost seems like an apology for the hag stuff. Witches are a force on the side of good, deadly enemies of the hags, and if you accidentally kill one, thanks to their superficial similarities (Witches have covens and hags have coveys and though the words sound similar and describe exactly the same thing, they are etymologically unrelated and I couldn't begin to tell you why that choice was made) then you are a monster as bad as those you would hunt.
My guess is that Witches are AD&D's way of saying that not all female magic users are going to fall into hag stereotypes. But then it does that weird AD&D thing where because they're describing something with a unique name, they have to make it work in a unique way. Witches and Warlocks (the male version of Witches) are not "magic users at all." Actually, they're fighters or thieves with a kit that allows them to cast spells that stem from their hereditary magical bloodline. The thing to remember about Witch and Warlock magic is that it straddles the very important distinction between wizard and priest magic. And it's gender essentialist too - Witches are priests who splash wizard and Warlocks are wizards who splash priest, and they cannot directly combine their magic because mixed covens are inevitably torn apart by "lust and desire," because apparently Van Richten has never heard of gay people.
Now, let's talk about the problematic part of the book.
I keep getting myself into these situations where I'm obliged to comment on these things that I barely understand. I've got only a passing familiarity with anti-Roma racism. I've got no cultural context for it. I haven't even seen much of that gothic horror where they're a stock character type. Honestly, the bulk of my experience is a report on the Czech Republic I did 20 years ago and old roleplaying books like this one.
However, even with that limited knowledge, I can see that it's Not Good. I mean, there's probably nuance to it. The clear mission of that section of the book is to cure Van Richten of his hatred of the Vistani, and to do that by showing the beauty and variety of the Vistani culture. From this book, we are supposed to learn that the Vistani are definitely not evil.
However, they are dangerous and untrustworthy, with strange powers of cursing and precognition. And the good parts of their culture still strongly resemble the Roma. We get a description of their clothes! But those clothes paint a very specific picture.
It's massively culturally insensitive, and I'm not sure what the aim of it all was supposed to be. The nearest I could see to a mission statement was when it reminded me that "the Vistani should remain forever enigmatic to the heroes."
That's why they implied that "Vistani" was more like a type of fantasy creature than a human culture - "aliens of a superior race." They're basically elves. There's a bit where some of them appear untouched by age. One of the tribes has an uncanny sympathy with animals, able to train them to do tricks that seem to require human-level understanding (at one point, a cat is sent to deliver a message - successfully!). Their crafters can forge items of cunning and subtle magic (though only if they fall under AD&D's nebulous definition of "cursed"). If you want to play a Vistani, you can't. The closest race is half-Vistani.
That's weird. It's weird that a group that is thinly based off a real-world ethnicity is basically portrayed as elves. Somewhat spooky and disreputable elves, but elves nonetheless. Turns out the reason they're "not in the business of kidnapping" is because "such practices would poison their blood heritage."
I mean, it's so transparent. One of the tasques (I guess they're like clans, but based on professions) is called Kaldresh, and they focus on blacksmithing, animal husbandry, and medicine. The Kalderash are a group of Romani renowned for their metalworking. At least try to disguise it a little.
I don't know. Is it good to be elves? Elves are cool. The Vistani, even when they "take advantage of the unexpected intimacy to rob the heroes" are cool. Or, at least, I get the sense that they were written with an avowed intent to make them cool.
I think the problem is that it's poisoned fruit from a poisoned tree. In D&D world, all rogues are sexy bad-boys (or girls) and mysterious fortune tellers are just a way for the DM to feed you clues. But when you are basing your bad-boy fortune teller off a real-world culture that gets called "rogues" by people who think they're naturally criminal and"mysterious" by people who are looking to see them as less than human, it stops being fun. Once you know that these are not genre tropes, but the product of real-world hate, you just have to . . . stop.
Also, there's a part of this book that's about demons. It's actually some of the best demon material, AD&D has done (for one thing, it's allowed to use the word "demon"), but I can't bring myself to talk about it now. I don't think this book was meant to be malicious, but it is so relentlessly inept that I'm not sure that it matters.
Ukss Contribution: Nope.