Wednesday, June 15, 2022

(Dragonstar) Galactic Races

I had trouble sleeping today, which gave me a prime opportunity to get some extra reading done, but at the expense of making my memories seem like a wobbly dream. Which is a shame, because I suspect that even were I 100% awake, reading Galactic Races would have seemed like a wobbly dream.

It's the damned "relations" section that happens near the start of every new creature entry. "Orcs, half-orcs, and their kin are considered unclean filth and the pershala avoid contact with their kind whenever possible." Or, in the lizard-folk entry "Non-drow elves find them uncultured and crude, and gnomes find their near-total lack of a sense of humor to be a near-fatal racial flaw."

Okay, Mr. Gnome, ranking all the races on a tier-list, let's hear your opinions about kobolds next. (Actually, there's nothing specific there, which is surprising given their traditional enmity in base D&D lore).

There's just this huge bioessentialism happening in every. single. entry. and it gets weird. Like, okay, you graciously concede that some Derro might not be evil, but why would the majority be "filled with hate towards a universe that shunned them and drove them underground." That may be the standard D&D backstory for these guys, but this game is set in space. How can they be underground and in spaceships at the same time? Why do they have the same backstory on, apparently, hundreds of worlds? What the fuck are you even trying to do, Dragonstar?

There's a sinister space empire that's run by the Mind Flayers. They have advanced biotechnology (creating an entire playable race of psionic warriors, the Ith-Kon) and are the main external threat to the Dragon Empire. And also, there are the regular subterranean populations of fantasy Mind Flayers who are unconnected to the Dark Zone (as revealed in the Ith-Kon entry).

Everything has a place. Centaurs always love nature and are friendly with elves. Kobolds are cowardly and when they tinker with high technology, they don't really understand it (the book uses a term which I believe has come to be seen as an ableist slur). Doppels (short for Doppleganger-kin) are compulsive liars.

I'm not necessarily a hardliner against this sort of thing. One of my favorite areas of philosophical speculation is the convergent evolution of intelligence. What would it even mean to encounter a truly non-human consciousness, one not inherited from a common ancestor? I'm fascinated by elephants and dolphins and corvids. 

So I really like it when fantasy species have a . . . thing. Not necessarily a whole alien outlook, but a physiological or psychological quirk that has ripple effects out through their cultures and lifestyles and philosophies. I actually like that Doppels have this fraught relationship with the concept of identity. They're shapeshifters, they are most comfortable relating to the world through the personas they create, and they will often lie when they don't need (or want) to because the unvarnished truth makes them feel nervous and exposed.This appeals to my philosophical curiosity. I want to create a character that comes with themes.

Where it starts to break down for me is when the book gives me a whole "personality" section. "Doppels tend to be reserved individuals" or "someone who exposes a doppel without permission will certainly be marked for retribution." Why are you telling me this? How am I supposed to use it? There should be enough room for a whole party of Doppels, for whole societies' worth, with all the strange and magnificent variety of a similarly large number of humans.

The way it should work is you give the species their thing and then you encourage the PCs to riff. "For a Doppel, identity is inherently volatile. Whatever their temperament or beliefs, they will always see it as a tool to be used." An outgoing Doppel might adopt personas to rapidly bond with new acquaintances, always trying to be the perfect member of their peer group. A reserved Doppel might craft an inconspicuous persona to discourage other peoples' interest. A Doppel bard may explore new artistic frontiers by truly inhabiting the characters they play on stage, taking a variety of their most prominent roles onto wild adventures. A Doppel paladin may have chosen their path when they realized that the ability to become anyone they wanted to be implied a responsibility to try and become the best thing imaginable.

They're not humans. They will be faced with choices that we'd never have to contemplate. So what happens when two of them choose differently? When their unique circumstances and upbringings and personalities take them down different paths? What are their big questions? What are their fashions, their entertainments, and their political conflicts? How do they complement each other to form a functional society? How do they fail to do so?

It's a line you have to walk, to be sure. You can make them basically humans, which is okay, if a bit of a waste. Or you can go too far, define too much in advance, and make an entire species into a single stereotype. At best, it's boring, at worst it's potentially offensive.

I don't think Galactic Races successfully walks the line. It has some inspired ideas, but most of the entries feel like they're describing the One Character You Can Play of This Species (except for the Elem - knock-off Genasi - who feel like the The Four Characters You Can Play of This Species). I went in to this book thinking it might be a good opportunity to do some deep incidental world-building, but unfortunately the world it built didn't make a damned bit of sense.

Ukss Contribution: There were high points though. I liked the Eleti, intelligent free-willed undead who require so little in way of life support that their spaceships have open windows. That's a really neat dovetailing of fantasy and sci-fi that I hadn't considered before - space is an environment that is incredibly hostile to living things, but necromancy lets you put human-level intelligence into a non-living package. They're like the creepy fantasy version of Star Wars' droids.

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