Tuesday, December 12, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Races of Stone

I'm in the awkward position where my opinion of Races of Stone (David Noonan, Jesse Decker, Michelle Lyons) is more or less the exact same as my opinion of Races of the Wild - it's a supplement with an ideal format, covering a subject I care little about. There are nuances I could go on about. Contra to halflings being in the book of the wild, it actually makes perfect sense to classify gnomes as a "race of stone." Goliaths have a better-drawn culture than the raptorans, so it makes sense that they're the only one of these new "Races of . . . " 3rd-stringers to return in subsequent editions. I didn't like that the extra monsters were "potential mounts" instead of "potential friends." (I probably wouldn't have noticed if I didn't read Races of the Wild first, but I did and now the omission is glaring, especially since this book includes rules for riding a Delver - a creature "more intelligent than the average human, and therefor riding and training one is a matter of Diplomacy checks rather than the use of Handle Animal" - sounds like a potential friend to me.)

But as much fun as they are to make, all my little "observations" add up to the same thing - this is a great book to have if you need more vanilla fantasy, and something that can be safely overlooked if you want literally anything else. It's also a good example of why I don't do numerical scores. I'd constantly be saying things like "10 out of 10, but you must burn it with fire." (Actually, that's my rating for Mage: the Ascension, for this book it's more like "8 out of 10 - only read it as part of a dare.")

I kid, though. I mostly enjoyed myself with this one. The only thing I'd directly count as a flaw is the NPC stat blocks. They are too long and contain too little a density of novel information. Each of the book's prestige classes comes with a sample NPC, and in roughly half of those, the NPC stats are longer than the class's description (this is especially funny when the NPC is high level and their stats contain brief summaries of all the prestige class's abilities). That didn't really bother me, though. For my particular use case, a D&D 3.5 stat-block is basically like the free square on a bingo card. If you ever have a secret you're afraid I'll discover, just put it in a 3.5 NPC and I'll be guaranteed never to find it.

Which brings me unceremoniously to the arbitrary thing I've decided I'm going to use this book as an excuse to talk about: gnomes.

They're a difficult creature type for me to talk about, because I kind of dig their whole vibe, but I also kind of hate that they're a separate thing from dwarves. And having both dwarves and gnomes in the same book really emphasizes the redundancies. They're both crafty, earth-themed short folks with beards and hardy constitution. There's distinctions between them, but none of those distinctions rise to a level that would necessitate an entirely new species. Using illusion magic? Talking to badgers? Enjoying practical jokes? Like, maybe there could just be an additional way for dwarves to be.

And I think WotC must have agreed with me, at least a little, because this book gives gnomes some new stuff to do. Unfortunately, much of that stuff is fucking ridiculous. "Really into the arts" isn't a cultural trait (let alone something that requires gnomes to be their own species). It's barely even a piece of information. You gotta have something to say about the specific arts they produce. Then there's the thing with gnomish technology, which the book is kind of diffident about ("Inventors are considered artisans, not scientists"). And I'm like, it's exactly that sort of genre-preserving cautiousness that has made me so skeptical of this whole "gnome" thing in the first place. Do you even want gnomes? Because no one's forcing you to have them (actually, who am I kidding, people complained up a storm when 4e delayed them to the second players' handbook).

But I think the weirdest thing this book does with gnomes is trying to sex them up. I can just about get on board with the idea that the goddess Sheyanna Flaxenhand "is said to be the ideal of gnome beauty" because, I can infer, logically, that such a thing must exist, but then the book goes on to say, "Gnomes joke that clerics of Sheyanna are trained extensively in the amorous arts," and my brain goes into stand-by mode. The book goes on to clarify that it's just a bit of ribald frippery, but it's too late. It's already planted the idea in my head. I am officially pondering the existence of a gnome sex academy, where "the most attractive gnomes in a given community" (canonically, Sheyanna's clerics) go to learn how to fuck good.

I swear, I'm not being weird. One of the adventure pitches is about a high-priced gnome assassin! How can there be high-priced gnome assassins if they aren't trying to imply that gnomes fuck now? It is objectively the sexiest possible profession!

Oh, you think this is funny? Keep laughing and I'll have no choice but to share with you the cursed knowledge. I'm not kidding. It's real, and you can't unknow it!

I see. Fine, but don't come to me later and say you weren't warned. Here it is:

You know what, WotC, I'm calling your bluff. I actually think this character is really cool, and plan on using her in a game. Maybe you could describe her for me, so I know how to explain her appearance to my friends? 

(Fun fact: while I was brainstorming this post, I considered a different version of the previous bit, where I just went full-on "men writing women" parody, and I decided against it because I didn't want the phrase "proportionately massive gnome gazongas, barely restrained by her dungeon-punk overalls" on my permanent record).

I was, of course, cherry-picking in service of a whimsical thesis. Despite "the bard race" becoming their thing, "the gnomes who fuck" are actually a pretty small part of the book. It's just that if you take that away from them, they don't have much left. Look at that Whisper Gnome art again. Now look at this art of Lidda, the signature halfing:

They are clearly the same person. Which is a problem, because it feels a lot like they're moving away from "gnomes are dwarves without the stick up the ass" into "gnomes are halflings . . . oh, were you expecting more?" There's still a mechanical reason to play as one, because they get some cool abilities that other races don't, even if I can't understand why their "speak with animals (burrowing only)" ability is only available for 1 minute per day (obviously, to prevent them from breaking the game with their badger alliances, but aside from that). However, there isn't really a compelling setting or lore explanation for why they need to exist, and Races of Stone noticeably flounders in trying to find one.

But like I said near the beginning - if you can accept that dwarves, gnomes, and goliaths should exist (and I can agree with at least 66% of this statement), then Races of Stone is pretty much the ideal way to learn about them.

Ukss Contribution: I don't normally subscribe to the notion of intelligent weapons. It's an idea that's kind of neat as a one-off, but the DMG gives it such a disproportionate amount of real-estate, with detailed mechanics that seem to imply that it happens all the time, and that really soured me on the concept. However, one of the Ancestor Weapons (intelligent weapons animated by the spirit of a dead dwarf) was so boldly designed that I'm compelled to stand up and applaud. I'll just quote its personality description in its entirety:

"In life Gharriakha was a dwarven defender and the weapon that contains her ashes shares her selfless, protective spirit. It is content to remain quiet and stay out of the spotlight, while offering all the help it can to its wielder. Generally, its only communications are the feelings of encouragement and support it sends its wielder."

I'm going to make a sweeping statement here, but I'll stand by it - this is absolutely the funniest personality a +4 dwarven defending waraxe could ever hope to have.

"You just critted that ogre and saved the caster! I'm so proud of you!"

"Don't worry about that miss. Everybody has off days. Just square up and try again. I believe in you"

Thanks, battleaxe. I haven't known you long, but I am already prepared to die for you. Putting you in Ukss is the least I can do.

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