Dragonmark 9/26: What Makes A Monster?

There’s lots of good questions in the queue, but this one demands a response, so let’s get to it!

How do you interpret the motivations/background of monsters or aberrations as predisposing them to evil, given that they’re free-willed, and therefore should be good as often as evil, civilized as often as barbarous, given an normal statistical spread?

Before I go farther, if you haven’t read this post on Alignment in Eberron, I suggest you start there. Because it’s good to get on the same page as to what I mean when I say “evil.”

Back? OK. The answer is easy: I don’t interpret the motivations or backgrounds of monsters as predisposing them to evil or savagery. One of the phrases I use to describe Eberron is that it’s a place where “the bad guys aren’t always monsters, and the monsters aren’t always bad guys.” I want my fantasy worlds to feel logical… and as such I believe that for the most part, any creature that possesses free will and human-par intelligence should have the same diversity you find in humans and should be affected by the same factors – culture, history, environment, and so on. I say “for the most part”, because in a magical world a non-human species could have any number of abilities that should have an effect on culture; a telepathic race in which each city has a gestalt personality might have diversity between its city-group-minds, while the individuals within a city are virtually identical.

But taking Eberron, let’s look at a few examples:

Humans. Just as a starting point, I’ll note that humans aren’t innately good or civilized. The majority of the barbarians of the Demon Wastes are human. The people of the Lhazaar Principalities come in a wide variety of flavors; many lack “modern amenities” people are used to in Sharn and Fairhaven; and thrive by preying on others. They are generally civilized because they share common cultural roots – so where you have tribal cultures among the orcs and halflings, all the humans of Khorvaire are descended from Sarlonan cultures advanced enough to seek to establish colonies in distant lands (the Demon Wastes being a special case).

Orcs. The orcs of Khorvaire began as a tribal/primal culture and had no interest in abandoning their traditions for a more industrial culture. The Daelkyr incursion and the arrival of Sarlonan refugees both changed things and created new cultural groups. Looking at the orcs today, you can see…

- The Gatekeepers: The first druids of Khorvaire. It was the orcs who awakened the greatpine we now know as Oalian, and orcs who trapped the daelkyr in the depths.

-The Ghaash’kala:The orcs of the Demon Wastes worshipped the Silver Flame long before Tira Miron was ever born. They hold the Labyrinth against the Carrion Tribes; they are unknown to the people of the Five Nations, but they have helped safeguard the lowlands for thousands of years.

- The Marcher Clans and House Tharashk: A blended culture formed from the bond between humans and orcs. House Tharashk is a thriving and ambitious house, with both humans and orcs among its leaders.

- The Marcher Tribes maintain a simpler way of life, because they see no need to change it. They are divided among those influenced by the Gatekeepers (more “good”) and the Daelkyr (more “evil”).

-The Jhorash’tar are descended from similar roots as the Marcher Tribes. I don’t consider their conflict with the dwarves as something that makes them “evil”; it’s the same sort of struggle over contested territory humans have had time and again in our world.

Goblins. I don’t have time to go into paragraph overviews, but the spectrum is clear enough. The Dhakaani are a sophisticated civilization that once dominated Khorvaire, and which is more advanced in certain areas than humanity (though weaker in others, in part due to the lack of dragonmarked houses). The Ghaal’dar are a developing nation, on par with many of the Lhazaar Principalities. There are isolated savage tribes – just as with humans. And then you have the city goblins you can find in Sharn, who aren’t that different from humans. Their behavior is partially dictated by poverty, partially dictated by prejudice (which in turn helps create the poverty). Their biology affects certain things: races with darkvision have an easier time living underground. Both the Ghaal’dar and Dhakaani are very militant cultures, which can create a more ruthless environment in which lawful evil individuals have an easier time than, say, chaotic good; but that’s a cultural thing, and a chaotic evil goblin is going to have just as difficult a time in a Dhakaani clan.

Medusas. Read this article. A key quote: “Despite their worship of the Shadow, medusas are no more inherently evil than humans or elves. Some are arrogant and proud, believing that their deadly gaze places them above mundane creatures. Others respond to the fear they encounter every day by despising those who fear them, a path that often leads to evil alignments. But many enjoy the same pleasures that humans do, and seek out song, good company, and the satisfaction of hard work.” Cazhaak Draal is a small kingdom, due to the low fertility of the medusa race, but it is as sophisticated as any nation in the Five Nations; Councilor Kilk of Sharn has petitioned the city council to employ medusa architects and stonemasons.

Droaam Overall. So if monsters aren’t all savages, why was Droaam a savage land before the hags came to power? First, it wasn’t entirely a savage land. Cazhaak Draal has been around for centuries. The gnolls of the Znir Pact have a history stretching back to Dhakaan; they’ve just held to their ancestral lands and traditions. The tielflings of the Venomous Demesne trace their roots to Ohr Kaluun. It’s simply the case that these cultures were small, isolated, and surrounded by savagery. That savagery comes in the form of creatures like ogres and trolls, who are a) carnivorous and b) not as intelligent as humans (or orcs, or goblins). They aren’t genetically disposed towards EVIL as such… but lower intelligence means they are less likely to develop tools of civilization, and when you have incredibly strength you might as well use it. An ogre’s gotta eat, and if he can intimidate a bunch of kobolds into making sure he gets his food, great. Meanwhile, it’s difficult for a carnivorous species to support the large population base of a city – which leads to small tribes and villages. The Daughters solved this problem by introducing grist. Otherwise, you simply couldn’t maintain the troll/worg/etc population you currently see in the Great Crag or Graywall.

So: if monsters aren’t monsters, why are they monsters? If you haven’t already read it, you might want to check out The Queen of Stone, which is set in Droaam and features a number of monstrous characters. Sheshka – the queen of stone herself – addresses this very point. Consider: Humans do a great job of fearing and hating humans for relatively minor things – differences in skin color, religion, language, political views, or simply because you’re on the land I want to have. And fundamentally, as two humans, we have a lot in common. Now, let’s expand those difference. You’re a mammal and I’m a reptile. I have living hair which serves both as a sensory organ, a natural weapon, and a form of body language – when I talk to you, it’s really disturbing and alien to me, because your hair just sits there; it’s not expressing emotion or anything. And where you say “Wouldn’t someone with a petrifying gaze be a great ally?” I’ll counter with “If you’re sitting in a room with this creature who has different religious views, a completely different form of body language, unknown customs, and who can kill you by looking at you, are you going to feel completely at ease?” Fear is a major wedge; the difficulty in common cultural ground is another. We have first contact sometime. We don’t speak the same language. You look like a scary thing, someone panics and gets petrified, we all panic and now you’re a monster of legend. Even looking just to humans and goblins: you look alien; you smell alien; you have sharp teeth; you can see in the dark and I can’t. All that is creepy on a gut level even we aren’t divided by class struggle, religion, or geopolitical differences.

So TODAY there are people trying to bridge that gap. The Queen of Stone is about exactly that. And in The Shadow Marches you’ve had humans and orcs living side by side for ages. But why do humans and monsters not get along? The same reasons humans and humans don’t get along, magnified by vast biological differences.

Of course, that’s “monsters.” You also mentioned aberrations. These are a specific and very different case. A good first step here is to look at this Eberron Expanded article. The short form is that with a medusa you can say “What would it be like if I could petrify people and had living hair?” With a troll, you can get the basics – tremendous strength, low intellect, regenerates, carnivorous – and try to put yourself in its big shoes. Aberrations, on the other hand, are entirely alien in both biology and outlook. Mind and body are twisted, either by Khyber or Xoriat. They aren’t incarnate ideas as immortals are, and they DO have free will; Xorchyllic is a mind flayer pursuing his own agenda, while the 3.5 ECS notes “A few (beholders) have abandoned the path of aggression for philosophy and reflection.” Nonetheless, whenever I deal with aberrations – from dolgaunts to gibbering mouthers – I try to emphasize that they don’t think like us. Their logic appears to be madness. It may be a structured, ordered madness that can produce amazing things; mind flayers and beholders are far more intelligent than most humans. But nothing about them is human, physically or mentally. Add to this the fact that a great many aberrations were specifically designed either to be living weapons or as bizarre works of art. Why is a dolgaunt innately aggressive? Because it was genetically engineered to be a soldier. A medusa’s gaze is an amazing thing, but it is ultimately a product of natural evolution in Eberron – a biological means of harnessing the ambient magical energy of the world. While the powers of a mind flayer were engineered by the daelkyr; it was designed to dominate and destroy minds.

That’s my rant. I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories. What have you done with monsters in Eberron (or anywhere else)?

ADDENDUM: New questions!
If sharp teeth and dark vision are enough to disturb humans, what about half-elves, elves, gnomes and dwarves? There is hardly any canon prejudice against them and they are treated as full citizens of the nations they are part of… Granted, they have Dragonmarked houses backing them, but still…

If you look through the setting, there are a number of places where humans do discriminate against “demihumans”. Riedrans consider most demihumans to be inferior creatures. The Valenar are widely distrusted and disliked since they betrayed Cyre, while changelings face ongoing prejudice in most nations. Shifters suffered during the Purge because of their race and still have issues with Aundairians and the Church of the Silver Flame. Warforged face many challenges. One of the points of the Shadow Marches is that it’s a place where orcs and half-orcs mingle with humans without prejudice. House Lyrandar is called out as providing the Khoravar with a bastion in world where they are often outsiders.

With that said, let’s compare some elves from the dragonmarked houses to a city goblin and a hobgoblin from Darguun.

• The elves are, for all intents and purposes, humans with pointed ears. Their eyes are slightly larger than ours, their features slightly more angular. But their teeth are the same as ours. Their skin comes in the same tones as ours. They have noses. Overall, they generally behave in a manner similar to humans when it comes to dress and hairstyles.
• By contrast, the goblinoids have skin tones that are never found on humans. They have sharp, protruding teeth, virtually no noses, and entirely different body posture and proportions. Put that goblin next to a halfling or gnome; which of the three could you possibly mistake for a human child? And note that the snouty noses and protruding teeth are also going to mean that their facial expressions will be very different from those of humans. Elves, gnomes, dwarves, and halflings should all have similar expressions and thus be easy for you to subliminally pick up on moods; goblins will be innately alien. And the same will be true in reverse for the goblin.
• Working off 3.5, elves have low-light vision while goblins have darkvision. My point isn’t that you look at a goblin and you’re afraid because he can see in the dark; he’s not wearing a sign that says “I have darkvision.” But his darkvision is going to affect the way in which he interacts with his environment – notably where he lives. A goblin can live in a pitch-black cave; even an elf needs light down there. So the environment of the goblin feels alien. Though over the course of time, it also plays to the bogeyman element and a child’s fears: goblins could come in the night and you’d never see them. Which ties to…
• With the exception of the Valenar’s recent and swift annexing of Cyre, humans have never fought a war with elves. On the other hand, Khorvaire was the land of the goblins until humans drove them into the dark places and enslaved them. It’s been quite some time since goblins were slaves, thanks to Galifar; but their original relationship with humanity was an antagonistic one. Combine this with the fact that most city goblins still live in poverty, and you have fuel for people to fear that goblins hate them or want their things. Now again, layer on top of this their fundamentally inhuman appearance (big teeth!) and their ability to creep around in the dark. In recent years, add in the whole Darguun-seized-from-Cyre thing and you’re sure to get fallout there, even on city goblins whose families have been part of Galifar for centuries.

These same principles hold true for most of the demihuman races; they are closer to humanity than the “monstrous humanoids.” With that said, my point is that humans manage to fear and hate humans for things far more trivial than the differences between human and goblin… and I think this holds true both for demihumans and humans themselves in Eberron. A ritually scarred barbarian from the Demon Wastes, an artificially decomposed Aereni, a masked halfling dinosaur rider, a Valenar warrior… all of these will get a different reception from most citizens of the Five Nations than a member of their race who is dressed in national clothing and whose accents and mannerisms conform to cultural norms. Inhuman physicality simply magnifies these things. A wealthy goblin dressed in Davandi fashions who speaks with an impeccable Brelish accent will have an easier time in Sharn than that D-Waste barbarian.

ONE MORE THOUGHT… one of the comments raises the point that existing monsters are good villains in part because they are “mysterious.” For me, there is certainly a place in the a game for evil that is truly alien and unknowable, and for me this is the point of the daelkyr and their closest allies. Their very presence leads to madness and twists us into strange reflections of ourselves. They aren’t trying to kill us because they hate us. They don’t seem to want or need anything that we have. They are simply here to destroy us because, apparently, it’s their nature – or because there is something we don’t understand.

Likewise, there is a place for creatures that are simply and irredeemably malevolent by nature. Take evil lycanthropes as an example. Their aggression is not something they choose. They are driven by a curse that forces them to prey on the weak and innocent, to become the embodiment of all that we fear about wolves lingering in the woods. It’s not a choice. They don’t have the option of showing mercy. The curse drives them to kill, and there is little room for any sort of quarter in such a conflict… hence the attempted purge of lycanthropy.

But while there is a place in stories for both these forces, in general I prefer villains whose motives AREN’T mysterious. I think it’s more interesting when you can understand what’s driving the villain, especially if it’s a reasonable thing. Down below I talk about the Dhakaani warlord who is infuriated by humans robbing the tombs of his ancestors and by the fact that humanity has driven the goblins from their ancestral homelands. YOU may not have done these things (well, unless you robbed a tomb), but can you blame him for being angry about them? He simply wants justice for his people. That places him in opposition to you, and there may not be any way to find a peaceful resolution to the problem. But he’s not fighting you because he’s “evil”; he’s fighting you because of politics, history, and the needs of both your cultures. For me, that makes a more interesting story than fighting the unreasoning creature-made-for-war.

16 thoughts on “Dragonmark 9/26: What Makes A Monster?

  1. One of my favorite things about non human characters is to think up how different their world view is. We have all looked over the demi-human races, likely in multiple editions, and multiple worlds, to see how they differ from us.

    The Arbitrations have been an interest of mine since encountering them as civilizations in Spell Jammer, well before Eberron took the opportunity to spell them out. I once took the Sanctified race template in the book of exalted deeds and used it to convert a Beholder into a Paladin, with every eyestalk reconfigured, and the magic channeling organs redesigned to have different effects. While it clearly was not a typical beholder, it was still a beholder that had access to an alternate form of a human in much the same way some dragons take the same humanoid form.

    That was how we had to make monsters make sense the hard way, but with Eberron’s perspective on monster alignments everything became easier, even playing games where all the PCs were greenskins of one sort or another is no longer an evil campaign simply by definition.

    The thing that keeps leaping out at me in the explanation of “Why are monsters, monsters?” is that they aren’t. The humans are the Monsters, both against themselves and against the other intelligent creatures that are encountered, over and over again the humans do human things, and the results are monstrous.

    • The thing that keeps leaping out at me in the explanation of “Why are monsters, monsters?” is that they aren’t. The humans are the Monsters…
      I’d counter that any sentient species has the potential to be a “monster.” The goblins have a lot of reason to consider humans to be monsters… after all, humanity drove the goblins from their ancestral homelands when they came to Khorvaire, and Malleon the Reaver certainly fits the bill of “monster”. But, of course, the goblins drove the orcs into the wilderness back in the day; the current wars between the Dhakaani clans are essentially a small-scale version of the Last War, as the clans fight to determine who will be the next emperor; and the Marguul are simply cruel bandits. Medusas aren’t inherently evil, but they aren’t inherently good, either… and there are surely medusas who earn the title of monster.

      Of course, to look at things another way: elf, dwarf, halfling, gnome… they’ve all got entries in the Monster Manual!

  2. But if sharp teeth and dark vision are enough to disturb humans, what about half-elves, elves, gnomes and dwarves? There is hardly any canon prejudice against them and they are treated as full citizens of the nations they are part of… Granted, they have Dragonmarked houses backing them, but still…

  3. Thanks for the lengthy reply!

    I think that most of these difficulties arise from the naive attitude to monsters adopted by early DnD editions, where PCs were generally the good guys and monsters generally the baddies, no questions asked. However, with more recent editions and settings there seems to be a trend toward more multi-faceted PCs and monsters, which has made refitting traditional templates to modern playing environments problematic.

    Eberron does a great job in reconciling the old and the new. I love your reinterpretation of goblins/orcs/elves/etc. However, it is impossible for one setting to cover all the bases – which is the reason for my general solution of classifying anything which doesn’t mesh so well as an aberration.

    Aberrations are inherently evil. Before you object, think about it in these terms. Good is typically defined as adhering to moral norms. But alien/aberrant consciousnesses typically adhere to alien/aberrant moralities and have no innate adherence to typical human/demi-human moralities. They may not be evil in the sense of being inherently malevolent, but they have no inherent predilection toward ‘good’ either. You might then classify this as neutral, but I see neutrality as still partially adhering to ‘good’ norms. And by virtue of being different, an aberrant morality is quite likely to compete/clash with normal moralities.

    More specifically, I was thinking of the problem of monster alignment in terms of these kind of situations:

    Situation 1: PCs meet a group of goody-two shoes medusas. After immediate hostilities are resolved, the PCs become quite chummy with the medusas. Then one of them comes up with an idea: why not act as their ambassadors to the rest of the world. PCs can supply them with potential alliances in the rest of the world and medusas make for powerful allies.

    Situation 2: PCs subdue some displacer beasts during a battle, and decide to keep them as pets. Once they’ve tamed them they soon start breeding, and next thing you know you have knights riding into battle on displacer beasts rather than horses.

    Several immediate problems appear. Firstly, these are potentially massively game-changing situations. Before you know it, you might have a league of monsters supplanting the dragon-marked houses, or displacer beasts replacing horses as cavalry mounts. Before you know it just isn’t Eberron any more.
    Secondly, if the PCs can do it, why hasn’t anyone done it before? This is a catch 22, since any reason you come up with should potentially prohibit the PCs from doing it as well. Thirdly, perhaps I am just old-fashioned, but an adventure which involves saving the damsel in distress from the evil medusas seems far more interesting than saving the good medusas from the evil damsel in distress. Most monsters were designed with everything that makes for cool villians – mysterious, scary, challenging, etc. Using them as allies just seems like a waste of potential.
    And lastly, inventing a reason why the above situations can’t happen feels like I’m cheating my players – punishing them for showing the kind of creativity and resourcefulness I want to encourage.

    Defining displacer beasts as aberrant creatures, and therefore inherently untameable, or medusas as creatures aberrant sentience, and therefore pursuing objectives conflicting with those of the dominant civilizations, seems to me like the best solution. Though it does make it difficult to explain Droaam.

    This perhaps isn’t all that different a solution than yours. After all, in a certain sense the orcish, goblin and elven cultures of Eberron are aberrant/alien cultures, compared to the culture of the five nations.

    This is merely my own answer to these problems, though I would like to hear others.

    Finally, the humans-are-biased answer seems to go against the Eberron position on alignment. If not all monsters are evil, then it makes sense that not all humans are biased, and humans with a lot of powerful monsters for friends would make for quite a convincing argument against maintaining biases.

    Thanks for your time again. I wouldn’t ask you to respond to all these questions since I’ve already taken up so much of your time. I just thought to throw some ideas out there.

    • My comment post below was intended as a reply to this topic at this point in the thread. Sorry for any confusion.

    • Finally, the humans-are-biased answer seems to go against the Eberron position on alignment. If not all monsters are evil, then it makes sense that not all humans are biased…
      Who said all humans are biased? In the Shadow Marches humans live side by side, and House Tharashk is a rising power in the world – one endorsed by Sivis and embraced by the Twelve. One of the reasons for Tharashk’s success is that it is exporting the services of monsters of Droaam; there are people in Breland employing ogres as laborers and gargoyles as couriers. In The Queen of Stone, Thorn ends up working closely with a number of Droaam’s citizens. There are humans who are entirely comfortable with monsters and monsters who are entirely comfortable with humans… and vice versa on both sides of the equation. And as I said, a goblin in high fashion with a good Brelish accent will have an easier time in many parts of Sharn than a Talenta halfling who smells of raptor musk… and in Callestan either one will be better received than some stuck-up Tain lad.

      My point was that barring supernatural or biological factors that would clearly dictate behavior, a creature with the same intelligence and free will as a human should have the same spectrum of behavior we see in humans in our world… and that applies to goblins, elves, and humans.

      Most monsters were designed with everything that makes for cool villians – mysterious, scary, challenging, etc. Using them as allies just seems like a waste of potential.
      Who says they have to be allies just because they aren’t innately evil? Droaam is a perfect example of this. The medusas of Cazhaak Draal aren’t all evil. But they’re no friends of Breland. For me, there is a place for the creature who is unswervingly malevolent by its nature – from physical embodiments of evil like demons to creatures whose behavior is affected by supernatural factors like lycanthropy. However, I personally prefer villains whose behavior is understandable in purely human terms: the Dhakaani goblin who is entirely justified (in his mind) in seeking to destroy civilization, as your kind stole the world from his ancestors. You have pillaged their tombs and stolen their treasures. That magical sword you carry was forged for a goblin prince, and you dare to use it in your petty brawls? Meanwhile, you have the Marguul bugbear who revels in tormenting weaker creatures as a way of asserting his strength. He and most warriors of his culture are evil, but bugbears themselves aren’t innately evil. The Dhakaani goblin might actually be good; but that doesn’t stop him from planning to destroy your society, because it’s the right course of action for him and his people, and you have it coming. The fact that he’s good simply means that he’ll do his best to keep you from suffering, treat you fairly should you end up as a prisoner of war, and so on.

      Essentially, I think a monster is MORE mysterious and interesting if its motives are deeper than simply “It’s a monster: it’s irredeemably evil.” In that Dhakaani example, there’s no simple way for you to turn that goblin into an ally. He wants to see his ancient empire rise again. Unless you are going to convince humanity to relocate to Sarlona, you will never have common ground. It’s POSSIBLE you could become allies in a particular scenario – joining forces to fight the daelkyr, the one force this goblin hates more than humans – but once that battle is done, he’ll go back to plotting your downfall.

      So I have no opposition to their being irredeemably evil creatures in the world. Eberron has some, and you can certainly add more. It’s simply that overall, I like enemies to have deeper motivations.

      PCs subdue some displacer beasts during a battle, and decide to keep them as pets. Once they’ve tamed them they soon start breeding, and next thing you know you have knights riding into battle on displacer beasts rather than horses.
      The 4E Monster Manual doesn’t help on this account by specifically stating that displacer beasts CAN be trained. However, there’s lots of mundane reasons not to have displacer beasts replace horses. Even if they can be trained, they could be exceptionally difficult to control; the 4E MM notes that trained displacer beasts are “prone to turn on their handlers”. They could be difficult to breed in captivity… so sure, you can get yourself a displacer beast mount, but you can’t outfit your cavalry with them, because you can’t get that many and even if you could half the cavalry would be killed by rebellious beasts. In Eberron, you might well say that someone with the Mark of Handling can master a displacer beast, but it’s terribly risky for others. But just as I’m fine with some creatures being irredeemably evil, I’m fine with some creatures who simply cannot be trained, or who respond well to specific types of creatures. Medusas have a knack for working with basilisks and cockatrices that most mammals just can’t match. Dolgrims have a bond with runehounds other races can’t match. And so on.

  4. A few points you bring up in the structure of logical conclusions seem to be leaps of faith more than direct conclusions.

    Abnormal Sentience = Alien = bad = evil

    This statement is a very simplified version of what appears to be in the majority of the above post by Newb. I can see where you go from Abnormal Sentience to Alien as a form of defining alien. The jump from Alien to inherently bad due to not following ‘moral’ thought seems to be missing at least one point. The Alien thought could be said to, by definition, be not following Your (or Human) moral thought, but it can not be defined as being opposed to moral thought as a general principal.

    Even after accepting that Alien thought is by definition not using the type of Moral thought Humans use, and is thus ‘bad’ by human or near human understanding, I would like to know how you translate that into Evil.

    Completely aside from the issue of Alien being logically equivalent to Evil both Situation 1 and Situation 2 are highly subjective matters of opinion and thus rather off topic to a discussion of the function of alignment but I still feel compelled to ask. Why is changing a game world a bad thing?

    Your third point however is perfectly reasonable, your claim that your own personal (either old fashioned or not) opinions guide you to insist that female non combatants be part of the good team, and hungry non human creatures with large pointy teeth be part of the bad team, and as that is your opinion it is absolutely valid. Just as any preference is when clearly identified as an opinion.

    • As noted in the Good & Evil post, I prefer NOT to define “good” and “evil” as “good for humans”. So as noted above, you can have a good-aligned hobgoblin who is nonetheless your enemy and will destroy your city when the time is right.

      As for situation 1, I didn’t actually look at it carefully. Let me look at it directly.

      Situation 1: PCs meet a group of goody-two shoes medusas. After immediate hostilities are resolved, the PCs become quite chummy with the medusas. Then one of them comes up with an idea: why not act as their ambassadors to the rest of the world. PCs can supply them with potential alliances in the rest of the world and medusas make for powerful allies.

      First, why are the medusas “goody two shoes”? Just because they aren’t innately evil doesn’t mean they have to be extremely good. I expect them to have the same degree of variation and motivation as humans. So I would treat it just like running into a group of powerful human sorcerers. Why SHOULD they want to be your allies? What are you offering them? Why should they interact with your outer world and be your friends? You follow a different religion. You don’t understand their ways. Your people have a history of oppressing other races; emerging from their sanctum is exposing themselves to unnecessary risk. Again, short form, what do THEY get from being your friends? Furthermore, just because THESE medusas are “goody two shoes”, how does that qualify them to speak for all of their people? How do you know that once you forge this alliance, it won’t be taken advantage of by the secret cult of the Mockery that have been lurking in the shadows?

      And even if it DOES work out – the medusas are happy to ally with the outside world, they are a big monolithic family… once you introduce them into the world as a power block, what stops them from getting better terms from Karrnath?

      Looking to The Queen of Stone (minor spoiler) Sheshka and Thorn work together in the story, but at the end they are on politically opposite sides, because the situation is far larger than personal friendship. It’s entirely conceivable that in a year, Sheshka could be leading an army out of Droaam to invade Breland.

      Essentially, just as you can have heroic humans and evil humans, I like that you can have heroic medusas and evil medusas – because that does make them mysterious. Especially when differences in culture and physiology mean that it’s not always easy for you to understand or connect with that hero – and that even the hero won’t always be your ally.

      • I hadn’t read your post on alignment. I take a quite different view, primarily a historical-perspectival view. I don’t necessarily agree on your empathy view (though I think that it could work in game terms) – largely because I think that humans are ultimately heartless and selfish. But that is another matter entirely.

        How I interpret alignment in game terms is as a kind of scale of comparison of primary motives. Good a label for the beliefs of the majority of the dominant cultures of Eberron, evil for those of outsiders. The good vs. evil scale then is merely a kind of term to gauge how well a character or monster fits into the dominant society, a measure of social disfunction, rather than an a statement of the spiritual well-being.

        • I hadn’t read your post on alignment. I take a quite different view, primarily a historical-perspectival view. I don’t necessarily agree on your empathy view (though I think that it could work in game terms) – largely because I think that humans are ultimately heartless and selfish.
          Which is why I’m saying that when a paladin scans a random room for “evil”, it doesn’t surprise him to find that 30% – 40% of the crowd are evil. Essentially, my point is that in a world where detect evil exists as a tool, I want the quality that shows up to be something that is human – something where the person who registers as evil may still be a productive member of society, where it tells you something about them but doesn’t automatically make them a villain; as I say in the article, there are roles in society where evil people will do a better job than good ones. If evil is an automatic sign of social disfunction and the evil person is unquestionably a villain, why hasn’t it been rooted out and erradicated like lycanthropy? After all, when there’s paladins around, it’s much easier to identify than lycanthropy.

          There’s also the issue of Aurala and Kaius: the person who has the noble goal with the ruthless methods, and the person with the bloody goal but soft heart. Where do the two of them stand on your scale?

          • Wait, Aurala has a soft heart? I always thought she was fairly ruthless like Kaius, just less directly violent about it. I know she’s doing what she thinks is best for Aundair, and Kaius is doing whatever for Karrnath, and they both probably believe that they’ll ultimately do what’s best for the Five Nations (possibly the rest of Khorvaire) but where does Aurala’s soft heart come into play?

            And, to not dither away from the actual topic too much, when my group plays Eberron, most of them keep in mind that monsters and monster races are absolutely terrifying. People might think Goblins are weird but the reason they don’t like Ogres and Medusa is because it arouses that predator/prey instinct in the back of everyone’s mind. If an average human makes an average Ogre mad, then that average human is dead and quite possibly dinner. Most of the early interactions between humans and sentient monsters must have been defined by the aspect that the monsters were simply superior to humans in all but number. Gnolls and Medusa and Trolls and Ogres, there is a very good reason the first humans and the old Hobgoblins grew to hate them, a combination of a fear of their own inferiority (not so much for Gnolls perhaps, but those guys aroses a very strong feeling of “Deadly Predator” )and a fear of loss backed up by very real and almost certainly common circumstances of friends and loved ones being killed by those that were more powerful than you.

            Humans hate monsters because Humans don’t want to die or live in fear under them. Humans haven’t treated them well, I certainly can’t blame the monsters for hating Humans in kind, but I can’t judge the people of the Five Nations or Dhakhaan too harshly. They were acting in their own defense in light of very real evidence that if they didn’t push back as hard as they could and then some, they’d be a Troll’s dinner and their kids the appetizer. In short: Monsters are feared because there was a time (possibly even know) when fear was the only reasonable emotion to feel about them.

            Now culture has changed and there’s a chance for true integration, but its still hard to judge. Would Ogres be willing to work as laborers (with a fair wage and good treatment we’ll assume) if they didn’t know that the Humans had powerful magic and skilled warriors to counteract the Ogre’s vast physical superiority? Most people don’t have that magic or that skill, how can we expect them to accept these extraordinarily powerful creatures in their neighborhoods? Sure if a Medusa went rogue and killed a bunch of people in the street, the Redcloaks would be along to dispatch her shortly, but those people are still dead, your loved ones possibly among them.

            Its easy to lose that understanding as a PC, because most monsters are just another obstacle. In general, I can say my PCs are always roughly as powerful as the creatures they fight. It feels like Superman or Batman fighting their villain of the week, even if its tense, you know you can probably handle it. But just like Batman and Superman, its easy to forget what its like to truly experience the fear of living in a world filled with these monsters. Superman certainly fears for the lives of others, but when Lois Lane is in danger he has the luxury of knowing he can actually do something about it. I absolutely love it when my players remember how a commoner views an Ogre walking through town. He’s not just some bigot when he says he wants that Ogre gone, he’s a man with a family who he doesn’t want exposed to that kind of danger. Even better when the PCs retain that understanding of how terrifying monsters are. Like when a Half-Daelkyr character fell in love with a Medusa (it was mutual), even though she had guided them through the Great Crag safely and was putting herself in danger to help the party, they still wanted to kill her. Because she was powerful, and they were afraid. (She lived, no worries :D)

            So, summary is people are scared of monsters, and that is frankly the correct response, because monsters are powerful. Far more powerful than most humans. Killing or otherwise keeping them out of your place of residence is, for the average human, a perfectly reasonable approach to living a long and healthy life. Its as much about safety as it is about prejudice.

            I still want to see monsters and humans living in harmony myself, because I think they (mostly) can. As they gradually stop dividing themselves by species and more by whatever political faction is relevant to them (hopefully not one focused on species) they’ll be dangerous in a way that no longer makes Humans fear Monsters, but rather their political adversaries, as is the current status quo. Then it will be much harder to target monsters specifically, as it is the scary faction in question that matters. Like those terrifying Brelish. Doesn’t matter if they’re Human or Medusa, they all need to be killed so the Humans and Medusa of Thrane can live in peace and safety. Down with racial prejudice, embrace integrated hatred instead. We’ll work on fixing that later or something.

          • Wait, Aurala has a soft heart? I always thought she was fairly ruthless like Kaius, just less directly violent about it. I know she’s doing what she thinks is best for Aundair, and Kaius is doing whatever for Karrnath, and they both probably believe that they’ll ultimately do what’s best for the Five Nations (possibly the rest of Khorvaire) but where does Aurala’s soft heart come into play?

            In this article, under the section “Alignment versus Motivation.” Aurala believes in the concept of just war. She won’t condone torture, assassination, or massacres; her commanders may well do such things, but she will be revolted by their actions should she hear about it. Essentially, she wants a war but refuses to acknowledge the horror that will likely accompany it. Kaius, on the other hand, embraces that war is horrible and will undertake any action – from torturing innocents to murdering his own family – and he will do these things without remorse. However, recognizing this, he’d prefer to have peace if it can be arranged on his terms.

            So on “by the books, why is Aurala good and Kaius evil when their goals suggest the reverse?” – the answer is because of how they will carry out those goals. Kaius will personally commit ruthless atrocities in the cause of peace; while Aurala simply will not. Aurala won’t order you assassinated. She won’t have you tortured. Again, ADAL might – but Aurala isn’t responsible for all of her generals and ministers.

          • I’d reckon it at closer to 99-100%.

            As for social disfunction, I think that it is impossible for society to root out all dissidents. It is in the nature of norms to generate exceptions, including social norms. Further, given that subversiveness is a scale rather than a strict positive or negative, where does one draw the line? Everyone has some degree of social disfunction. And as you point out, just as society often depends on evil members, so too does it depend on subversives. Generating norms or rules essentially opens a society to weakness, because sometimes evil is still necessary, even essential to survival. Having members in a society who dwell in that hazy region between belonging and not belonging provides a means to those necessities.

            Alignment is merely an indicator, a tool to point out possible suspects, not a final verdict.

            I reckon our views on alignment are closer than you think, except that we differ slightly on the qualifier.

            As to Aurala and Kaius. I think that Kaius would definitely show up as evil – remember, its the perception of disfunction, of being a freak, in philosophical terms of Othering, that counts, not the actual reality – unless he could organize a major PR campaign for vampires, most are going to see him as just another blood-sucking villain.
            For Aurala, I reckon it would depend on how she justifies her ruthless ambition. If she convincingly argues that she does so for the common good, she would be good. If she isn’t convincing, then she is evil. Sounds unfair for Kaius, but I think that morality is impossible without a degree of hypocrisy.

            With the detect evil spell, I use the person’s own moral beliefs as a gauge, not some neutral, universal moral scale. It tells you how you would judge another person if you knew their most intimate secrets.

  5. Thanks for the reply again.

    In response to the question: What have you done with monsters in Eberron (or anywhere else)?

    In homebrew campaigns I’ve been playing with the idea of an almost human exclusive world – not that it’s without traditional monsters, but the monsters are all human – sort of like in the TV series Supernatural.

    In this world, there are essentially only two races, mortal humans and supernatural spirits. The supernatural world and the mortal world are diametrically opposed, both aim at the total annihilation of one another – but as often happens in wars, the two opposing forces also ultimately depend on one another in subtler ways – sort of like humans and vampires. Spirits can only manifest and interact with the mortal world through possession – so that even though they are utterly alien, they are also intimately human. Humans again can only interact with spirits by harnessing supernatural powers, but at great risk to their humanity.

    We become the things we hate.

    PC races become precisely what the name suggests, namely human races, not different species as is actually the case. Physical differences are downplayed and cultural differences are emphasized. Traditional humans become humans from civilized cultures, with their barbarian counterparts orcs, who become essentially a race of horse nomads like the Huns or Mongols (or if you prefer Martin, Dothraki). Elves and halflings are primarily agrarian cultures, with their more savage counterparts, goblinoids, a race of hunter-gatherers. Dwarves are the outcasts, exiles driven to the most extreme highly supernatural environments, adapting by becoming smaller, tougher, harder to kill, with an inherent magic resistance to guard them from hostile arcane energies. Their counterparts, those whose ability to resist magic has failed them, become aberrant creatures.

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