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.