Tuesday, November 28, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Races of the Wild

Oh, man, 21 days since my last post. I know it's irrational, but I'm embarrassed by that. Some days I look at my overall mission and think, "approximately 400 books at an average of 2 and a half days per book, I could get done in another 3 years," and then other days I'm like, "more than 400 books at more than three weeks per book, I could get done in another never." I want to finish, but it can be hard sometimes to have faith that it's even possible.

It doesn't help that November was a hard month for me, re: depression. None of the things I normally find enjoyable were even the slightest bit tempting (if I'm embarrassed by my lack of blog progress, I'm mortified by how little work I've done on Ukss d20 . . . or at least, I would be if anyone besides me was expecting it to happen).

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not disclosing all this because I feel like I owe anyone an explanation. I'm not sitting here imagining that there's someone out there getting steadily more frustrated by the thought that I'm laying around wasting time when I could be working on cranking out another half-assed blog post about a decades-old rpg supplement. I'm telling you all this because it turns out that suffering a depressive episode really fucks with my normal process, in ways that extend beyond the obvious.

Normally, when I start writing these things by staring at a blank page while thinking about my overall experience of reading the books, paying particular attention to any lingering questions or unresolved issues. That's why I can sometimes seem to be strangely hard on the books I like the most - because the thing that makes me love a book is its potential for firing up my brain and putting it into question mode. 

I can't really do that with Races of the Wild (Skip Williams) because my predominate experience for the last three weeks has mostly been being pretty sad and my most frequent question while reading it was, "why can I not bring myself to concentrate on this for more than five damned minutes at a stretch?" And neither of those things is fair to lay at the feet of the book. If I look back at my notes and try my best to approach them through a stance of objectivity, I actually kind of have to conclude that Races of the Wild is a near-ideal rpg supplement.

I might quibble with the notion that halflings are "of the wild," but if you put a pin in the appropriateness of the overall theme and just take it as a book about elves, halflings, and raptorans (you may recognize this last one as a birdfolk species that was invented especially for this book and then subsequently never mentioned by anyone ever again), it has everything I could possibly want. Every chapter starts with "a day in the life" of a member of that species, which is a type of worldbuilding that I absolutely love. They talk about childhood education, customs surrounding love and death and war, and they even describe the clothes!

(I always put an exclamation point on the clothes thing not because I'm super into fashion, but because in the real world clothes are so culturally specific, and so indicative of things like chains of production, environmentally available materials, and patterns of trade that describing them is an extremely efficient way of saying a lot about how your world works while also giving readers something concrete to imagine. The next best thing is cuisine.)

I do wonder a little about the book's overall utility. As delightful as the worldbuilding was, it's all very much "corebook implied setting." The elves are super elfy, in that particular D&D way where they're not really fey, but they are ren-faire cosplay fey - pretty and skilled and long-lived, but not fundamentally inhuman. In an rpg, the primary use of worldbuilding is to help a player come up with a more well-rounded depiction of a character, but I'm pretty sure players were already roleplaying their characters like that.

So it seems like the book's primary use (aside from the new prestige classes, feats, etc, which are nice to have but not actually as good as the pure setting stuff) is to give D&D lore nerds something to geek out over, and this is where my depression really fucks with me because my knee-jerk reaction to more "D&D implied setting" lore is "who the hell cares?" And I can recognize that as the depression talking, but if I'm being totally honest, it's not purely the depression talking.

Oh, how I wish I was young again. That's what my aversion to vanilla D&D is really about. I get bored with it because I've seen it a million times before, but that wasn't always the case. There was a time when it was all new to me and I fell into it in a big way. Nostalgia time:

I actually wrote my first rpg before I read my first rpg. Strange, but true. When I was about 10 years old, I was allowed to sit in on a session of D&D being run by one of my stepfather's friends. I played a half-elf wizard, despite not really understanding the rules or the setting, and I was immediately enchanted. We were pretty poor in those days, enough that spending the money on a corebook of my own was unthinkable, so I tried to reverse engineer the experience, based on what I remembered from that one session, the rules of the Hero Quest board game, and what I gathered from fantasy books like The Hobbit.

It was, obviously, awful, but it was a creative outlet and over time I had a dozen spiral notebooks filled with maps, character types, monsters, and statistically dubious random encounter tables. Sadly, those notebooks have been lost to time, and are probably rotting away in a landfill somewhere, but they were definitely the start of something. As time went on, our circumstances improved, I finally got my own Player's Handbook, and over the years I assembled a collection one birthday and Christmas at a time. 

The point of this digression is that, in the beginning, I was super into vanilla D&D. I absolutely devoured everything that even remotely resembled the implied setting lore. I read the Dragonlance Chronicles multiple times (there is nothing on this earth better than a library). If you had sent Races of the Wild through a time portal back to 12-year-old me, it would have blown my fucking mind. But I got older, my perspective broadened, I learned new things, and vanilla D&D started to feel like it was frozen in time. It didn't really grow alongside me. For awhile, I got into Dark Sun and Planescape and those each seemed like a breath of fresh air, but I didn't start with those until 1997 or 1998, and by that time TSR was already a moribund company.

So I ask myself again, in reference to Races of the Wild, "who the hell cares," and I have to realize that lots of people are going to care. Young me would have cared. People coming in to D&D fresh in 2005 would have cared. I may cast my jaded eye at this book and think, "oh, wow, those elves sure do seem like elves" or "I guess the halflings' transition from hobbit to kender is now mostly complete," but people don't start off knowing this sort of thing. The way you learn that a particular elf is notably elf-like is by reading about elves, by reading books like this. And if I think about Races of the Wild in terms of "books like this," then it is, in fact, a really good "book like this." Someone new to the world of vanilla D&D would be lucky to have it as a starting point.

Ukss Contribution: My favorite line in the book is at the start of the monster section. The introductory paragraph describes the upcoming creatures as "potential friends." It's a little bit undercut by the first such potential friend being described as a creature the halflings slaughter for meat (I guess it was potentially a friend or potentially a meal), but I kind of love that as a framing for an rpg bestiary. You hear me WotC? Do a whole book of "potential friends," you cowards!

But that's not really a setting element. I only bring it up because the primary purpose of this section is to single out specific things I admire about the book, and that's the thing I admire most. As far as setting elements are concerned, my favorite was probably the halflings' passive aggressive prayers to Yondalla. "A prayer for healing might begin 'I am in such fine health, yet . . ." and a prayer for intercession might begin 'a minor annoyance has been visited upon me. . . '"

It's super funny, it makes me want a whole book about Yondalla-ism, and I think it would be a really fun bit of texture for some as yet to be fleshed-out fantasy religion.

No comments:

Post a Comment