Sunday, June 04, 2017

The Mystery of Kobolds

On a recent post by David Guyll he mentions

"During the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons development and playtest I discovered that the mythological source was almost always more interesting than the D&D take, so I figured why not go with the original (when it was more interesting of course)? The hard part is that while doing research we've found vague or even contradictory information, so sometimes we have to make shit up and/or choose a version that we prefer."

This sparked some thoughts regarding my own game, and how I have always endeavored to bring the original myths, fairy tales, folk lore, and legends into my world. The question for me has always been ... How to bring the old world mystery and awe into a modern RPG? What I wrote in response became too long to publish on David's thread as a comment, and I also felt like I was impinging, somewhat impolitely, on David's intended point. So I decided to write up my response here instead because the points are of interest to those who are curious about this question. So, here we go:



How to bring the old world mystery and awe into a modern RPG? However, that may not be David's intention at all in referring to the original sources for mythic creatures in 5th Edition. I suspect in fact that it has very little, if anything, to do with his objectives.

The difference between us, if I'm guessing right, is that his objectives have to do with the sales of rules and supplemental settings books*, whereas my objectives have to with bringing old world mystery and awe into my personal homebrew game for my players. That distinction makes, in my opinion, a huge difference. David and I, while doing essentially the same thing (drawing from original sources as inspiration for our World's creatures), are attempting to solve very different problems.

In the case of creating rules and supplement books you need to include Stats as that's what your GMing customers expect and need in order to run your monsters in their games. The old perennial problem for GMing such things is that the players have access to that information because they can buy the rules books just like anyone else, and often do.  My impression is that the solution for most GMs has been to ignore it and just roll with it.  In other words simply accept that the Players are privy to the Stats of the creatures in the World and take that as just a part of the nature of the game.  Which causes the game, intentionally or otherwise, to lean towards the Gamist style of play.

In my case, though, while I certainly have Stats for everything in my World, and properties, and everything else that might appear in a D&D monster manual ... I don't share that information with my players. Since mine is a homebrew system, my players actually have no way of accessing those details unless I reveal them. In fact, however, I studiously avoid doing so. So they're not privy to them, and yes, they're pretty much flying blind through the World of Elthos. I've been playing this way since 1978 and it's worked well for me and my players thus far.

And so to answer David's question ("So your players have no idea what an elf or kobold can do, or how to defeat them?"), I'm sure that if I ask my players (and I will next Friday if I remember) "How do you kill a kobold in Elthos?" I believe they will hem and haw for a little bit, and then conclude by saying, "It depends". Which would be the correct answer, actually.

What this answer reveals is that while they may have some ideas, they are not really sure.  Nor should they be. Because I have never revealed exactly what kobolds are, nor how they operate, nor what magic they use, nor what stats they have. All they know about kobolds is what they've been able to glean from the encounters they've had with them. And this knowledge is split among various players, some of whom know some aspects but not others. In other words all their knowledge of kobolds my World is purely anecdotal.  And while their experiences have provided a certain amount of knowledge, it's hazy at the edges, vague of detail, and excludes quite a bit that they have yet to learn.

And so when my players run into kobolds, they have a tendency to stop, and worry, and make an effort to carefully plan what approach they should take in dealing with them depending on their circumstances at the time. All they really know is that kobolds can be exceedingly crafty, sometimes helpful, sometimes lethal, and are indeed Other World creatures.

And that limited knowledge is as it should be, in my opinion. They are, traditionally speaking, Other World creatures and they are therefore inherently mysterious and ought to instill a sense of wonder and awe, and even fear, in those who encounter them.  I try my best to GM them that way.

So I'm not saying that other world creatures shouldn't have well defined Stats. Far from it.  But once the players know their Stats ... the mystery of such creatures necessarily evaporates, and that sense of wonder and awe that might have been becomes nigh on impossible.  So my point is that it is the fact of the publication of the Stats that is the problem I'm contending with, rather than the existence of the Stats themselves.  If the GM can hold those Stats close to the chest, then all is well and good so far as the potential for Immersion is concerned.

Which isn't to say that players can't have fun, in the "Gamist" sense, dealing with creatures of which they know all the Stat details. Yes, there will still be danger to that player character who is down to 1 Hit Point and facing off against a well known Kobold of D&D. And yes, that can definitely be fun and exciting and the sense of danger quite real for the player since a bad die roll in that situation can kill off the character. I'm not denying that.

What I am denying is that under those circumstances the player will have much chance of having any sense of the original mystery and awe that embodies the essence of Kobolds as known by our ancestors (ie - what it actually is that makes those original creatures more interesting than their D&D versions), and as a result they are likely deprived of the essential element that makes for an immersive game so far as I'm concerned. To get immersion requires that the players not know / focus on the Stats and such, and instead are allowed to focus on what is actually happening in the game world. Which is to say the words and deeds of the creatures, rather than their Stats, spell lists, weapons damage, etc.

I have solved that problem for game by not using the standard D&D books for my world. Instead, I grown my own, and I don't provide those details to my players. And that goes a very long way towards maintaining the necessary atmosphere of mystery that allows for Immersion.

I understand that publishers of Monster Manuals and such will probably find my point on this topic antithetical to their purposes and probably a bit irksome. After all, on behalf of Immersive Play I'm kind of bashing their industry. Sorry, sorry. I don't mean to rain on anyone's parade.

But still, I think my point is nevertheless valid, and I'll even go further and add to it that from my point of view a lot of what was published in the past 30 years of RPGing has been to the detriment of Immersive Play in most cases, and has lead to a predominance of focus on the Gamist side of the thing. To me, that's been an endless nuisance because as a result most players now expect that they should be privy to the Stats of every creature in their GM's World. A number of players who have come to my game in recent years have had to ween themselves off of such expectations, and it's been a bit jarring at times along the way.  Those that managed it, however, are now happily immersed in Elthos... most currently in the dreadful glooms of the township of Whitewode.


* Note: this is a big assumption on my part, and based on David's OP, and not confirmed by further research on my part. I could be entirely wrong in David's case, however that doesn't actually matter to the points I'm making because these points apply generally to all published rules and settings books in the world of RPGs. I'm pointing to a general problem, and giving some information as to what my long standing solution for it has been.
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