Humans, Teblor, Barghast and Trell oh my! Fith Edition D&D Design for the Malazan world.
Updated: Jul 11, 2018
The problem of Race and Species Following my story of how I cam to create a game of Dungeons and Dragons set in the Malazan world of Steve Erikson, we must now turn to that which is probably one of the most important things for the players and their role play, the races. Arguably the word race could and should be replaced with species in most fantasy settings. It started with Tolkien and his use of races in Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. Unlike the way most modern fantasy setting work though is that Tolkien did in fact view the various Dwarf, Human, Elf and Orc races as members of the same species, or at least an analogy of them. The orcs ofter all were degenerate crossbreed between human and elf tortured and bred to their current state. For anyone who has played World of Warcraft or most other RPG games you will be familiar with choosing which race you are a part of, but you won’t mistake the blue skinned trolls and the pink haired gnomes as the same species. It is however such an important part of the fantasy lexicon that we can’t help but use the terms. The Malazan world written about by both Erkison and Cameron Esslemot, who both created this setting while playing AD&D at university, use a mix of both the traditional Tolkien esk ideas and modern concept of evolution. Something that I love about the Malazan books is the idea of age, truly millions of years have transpired for this world unlike the one hundred thousand that seems to be the limit of most settings. With this comes the idea of Elder races and the concept that many of the races alive today are the descendants of those species. See how I am already switching between the two? Erikson himself uses “races” in his books and it gets especially more confusing due to the fact that beings which we would clearly describe as separate species are seemingly capable of interbreeding, their descendants becoming species in their own right. We also have whole species evolving as the descendant of one particular race whom it is possible to draw an ancestry back to. This introduction is for those Dungeons and Dragons players who have little knowledge of the books and are simply interested in what I am doing here in terms of creating my own game world based on fictional worlds and to excuse my mixing of race and spicies interchangeably.
What is a Treblor and how to I make it ‘D&D’ Right from the beginning I wanted to make as few mechanical changes to the races that exist in D&D as possible. They already exist with a good balance of powered variety of skills. Importantly I want them to play the way players would expect mechanically. This means compiling a list of what races already exist in the Malazan setting and which D&D races it was possible to convert them into. In edition to that, how to make them more in keeping with the new setting. My setting was to be the continent of Genabackis which is populated by humans, split into their various cultural groups, the Barghast, a very large and strong race of tribal warriors, the Moranth, a Cast System race of humanoids who wear chitinous armour resembling insects and speaking in a language involving many insect like clicks. Finally we have the giant Teblor who refer to the humans as “children” due to their nine feet of hight.
Beyond these lands we have several other races which exist within the Malazan setting which are crying out to be included. The tusked Trell who we largely know in the books from a single character and his recollections of his people, and the three races of Tiste which are Eriksons direct homage your standard D&D elves, though with a few twists. These however I will have to save for another post as this looks like it is going to be a fair bit longer than I first thought.
Please not that from now on there will be spoilers interlaced within this narrative which is unavoidable when discussing this topic. I will do my best to keep them as minor as possible however. Human
The humans of the Malazan world are as culturaly varied and distinct as those in our own. There is a huge amount of opportunity for players to play tribal warriors from the Setti tribes, dark skinned jungle fighters of theDal Honse or any number of differs peoples covering the full spectrum of earth cultures and more. As my setting is on the continent of Genbackis there is a smaller starting pool. The Daru and the Gadrobi are the most commonly mentioned in the books are for simplicity I have simplified the whole continent into these two groups, though players can still be from particular tribes such as the Nathan of Korhivi. There is no mechanical difference between the two as then you get into a lot of difficult issues with regard to real world racism not to mention that that the differences are so minor anyway that they would not warrant a mechanical difference to D&D.
The Daru of the Malazan world are generally a more urban people who are latter colonisers to the continent. Due to the hot climate of Genabackis, the tendency towards flat roofed houses and a predilection to dulling with rapiers within the ‘noble’ class (who are all daru of course) I tend to picture them as physically and cultural quite Spanish.
The Gadrobi are the indigiounus population of the continent. Much darker skinned and desended from nomadic tribal people who only started to settle after the Daru arrived. They burry their dead standing up in clay cylinders so that the spirits of the dead can continue to walk free, and those cities in which they hold the most sway are built in such a way that they are clearly inspired by their tent based lifestyle from the past.
When creating a humans I simply give my players an easy choice. Do you want to be a Daru or a Gadrobi. I give them a basic description and not that it will make a difference as to how people treat you. This makes the humans within the party feel a bit more varied and lets them feel more involved in the world. Those who have read the books will not that I have not mentioned the Rhivi. They are destined for something far more unusual. Teblor
Standing at eight to nine feet tall, fierce warriors that live in the mountains who’s favoured farewell is "May you slay a thousand children,” it might seem an obvious decision as to what should transpire here. Goliaths. They are Goliaths right? With +2 Strength, +1 Con, the powerful build ability and a racial ability that give them a lot of staying power they seem to fit the bill. The problem is the feeling of power that this race evokes in the books. A group of three young warriors are able to butcher their way though vast numbers of “children,” not to mention their additional abilities; moving so fast over short distances that they could keep pace with a horse, quickened healing, four lungs, able to see in the dark and some degree of immunity to magic. I’m not sure a +2 to strength (which remember is only 1 more than a base human) quite covers it. In the books they have such a feeling of power that in order to force them into a tight space and make them playable I would be forced to remove much of that which makes them cool.
Would it be worth it to remove it though? I’m already not sticking to the narrative strictly so why not? Is there perhaps a compromise? This is where my coments and race and species start to become important. The Teblor in the mountains of Genabackis are an example of one of the last remaining pure strains of a much older people. Spread throughout the world are isolated populations of this race who have managed to find a home elsewhere, but unlike the Teblor have not remained quite so ‘pure.’ Interbreeding with humans has produced some slightly reduced versions of the species. Enter Tarthenl and the Fenn. The Tarthenal were my original choice but for story reasons these reduced giants wold be hard to explain how they came to be on the same continent as the rest of the players. In which case we have the Fenn. From another continent still but more than able to have traveled across the sea, described as giants by others an only mentioned though one individual character in the books leaving plenty of room for myself, and importantly the player, to build his own culture and people. What makes them such an interesting race to use as opposed Goliath is that the Fenn have onyx black skin and live in a humid forrest. Unlike the pale white and bold Goliaths of standard D&D fare, players are able to try out something different. Also with the Teblor as an unknown there is the chance for player to discover more of the racial past as well as come face to face with a ‘pure blood.’
Mechanicallyy I only made one change from the standard Goliath. Goliath due to their life at high altitudes are given the ability “Mountain Born” which lets them suffer no detrimental effects from high altitude or normal cold environments. I wanted the idea that the Teblor and the other various descendants of the original race posses four lungs to be something the was represented mechanically. There is one famous scene involving a Tarhenl character who is able to hold his breath for a very long period of time and I felt that this would be a simple and situationally useful ability to replace the mountain born effect. Simply giving the character the ability to double the amount of time they would normally be able to hold their breath lets the player battle their way through a cloud skill spell or swim to a depth to retrieve an object that other players could not manage. A simple replacement but one which makes the Fenn into slightly more than a re-skinned Goliath.
Barghast The Barghast are a non-human nomadic warrior society that stand at six to seven feet tall. Lead by war chiefs, advised by shamans and split into various warrior tribes this might have again seemed the right choice as a possible Goliath. Espeially as the msot commonlly mentioned tribe is the "White Face" who paint their faces, well, white.
At first I had considered it but what with the Teblor and eventually the Fenn becoming Goliaths I could not very well use it again. The second most barbaric and bestial of the common races is the Half-Orc. Possessing again improved strength and a berserker fury I could easily see them as using a re-skinned half orc.
There were some problems with this in gelling them with the standard Barghast. Half-Orcs have a brutishness to them that the Barghast are not limited too. They posses a fighting finesse that seems above the burly brutal abilities of the Half-Orc. In addition beyond their hight and musculature Barghast look like humans. As one of the common player hand books races, if someone wants to play a Half-Orc part of the appeal if they physical differences. With this in mind and the possibility of a more fitting Half-Orc re-skin further down the line I expanded the possibilities. What other race would show off this tribal fighting race, that makes use of the clear learning words playing the Barbarian and Fighter Class and where even its shamans are fighters? A strang option, but might Bugbears not be the solution? With a bonus to both strength and dexterity there is less of a feeling of over reliance on brute strength. They also gain a proficiency with stealth and an ability to do extra damage to someone effected by the surprise condition. This seems to fit better my idea of warriors sneaking in during the night to ambush human settlements but also being brutal fighters on the battlefield. The only problem is the ‘Long-limbed” ability given to bugbears giving extra reach with their attacks. This required a slight change to the description of Barghast in my world but a simple one that heightens how much they stand out from humans. This also give player the opportunity to play something that they often can’t in normal D&D settings due to bugbears being a monstrous race that would be hard to fit into a standard campaign.
From the Malzan fan Wiki: “In appearance Trell are larger than humans and very broad, often twice as wide as a grown man. They differ the most from the common none human races due to their pronounced tusks, stooped posture and their hair forming a mane over their back and shoulders which is normally dark in colour. Tell bad mahogany brown skin and often wear their hair in braids.”
“The Trell are a non-human pastoral nomadic warrior society in transition to sedentarianism. They were a society in transition. Originally defined by wandering warring clans who lived in yurts, the Trell began establishing merchant settlements that traded in bhedrin, goats, and sheep, largely forced by the Malazan occupation. At least one settlement was home to fifteen thousand Trell. Not all were ready to accept the change, and many youths left their homes for adoptive clans that still followed the old ways. Tribal elders appeared to have a place of leadership within Trell society. Trell witches, known as shoulder-women, are ancient creatures with the power to conduct divinations from bone and imbue objects with sorcerous power. They also possessed a wealth of esoteric historical knowledge long forgotten by others.”
Like me you read “tusks” and the decision was made for you right? We know from reading the books that the Trell are brutal fighters, can see in the dark and well, tusks. Their more brutal appearance makes them feel more like the kind of creature that someone who wants to play a half-orc would want to play, and thanks to them being their own race and culture rather than a half breed product of a probably suspect union there is the opportunity to have a real cultural identity beyond the burly statistical benefits of being “Menacing” or have “Savage Attacks.”
The only problem is their size. The Trell are not only a bit taller that a Half-Orc they are as it describes rather wide shouldered and heavily built. I don’t think the “Powerful Build” ability is something that is mechanically too powerful or frankly comes up enough that it is unbalancing to gift it to the Trell. All this does is increase their carrying capacity and allow them to push drag and lift larger things. Most of the time it won’t come up but when it does it will help those wide shoulders feel like they are really doing something.
After writing about the Moranth I’ve realised that this post would be far too long for a normal person to read casually so I’m going to split it up here in the hopes that I can spare your attention span.