So I can play a Half-Tiste then right? Fifth Edition D&D Design for the Malazan world
The Half-Elf was definitely a problem when I first started coming up with the idea of using the Player Handbook races in the Malazan setting. Half-Elf is a very popular race. Their bonus to charisma, which is the most common casting statistic, in a addition to having two plus ones to other statistics, which they can place anywhere as opposed to the normal plus one to a fixed statistic, makes them highly versatile and statistically powerful. So where would they fit into the Malazan world if at all? There is very little interbreeding between Tistie and Humans in the books, though clearly there are hints that this will happen in the future with some characters (so long as everyone stopped dieing). You don’t have any random Half-Tiste wondering around. What you do have is whole races of humans that have Tisti blood somewhere back in their ancestry. The problem? People like the Shake are so distantly related to the Tiste that they are functionally human and don’t even look Tiste at all.
So could I just ignore this and have players play as Half-Tiste? The first problem is that it would be so hard to explain how they got there without changing the books a lot. The Liosan aren’t on this world, and though I will increase their presence in my games, that isn’t still enough to explain having them show up. Andii might have left a few children around Genabackis but it still seems out of place. The love between Korlat and Wiskyjack feels like it is a rare thing to have found. And the Edur have so recently been freed from their own lands that they would not have had time to leave any sprogs lying around. It is difficult enough for me to fit any regular Edur into Genabackis.
Could I re-skin a whole other people to use the Half-Elf stats and have them have nothing to do with the Tiste? Again the problem is player expectation and one simple ability. Fey Ancestry. How would you have a good reason that both the Tistie and X unnamed race both have this? Whatever reasons I would come up with would not be satisfying to myself or the player.
Could I just get rid of them? Unfortunately the place they hold for players due to their spell casting versatility makes it difficult to remove them. So what to do?
Something I learnt from studying my BA in Illustration, helps me not give up in these situations, indeed I instead revel in them, is summed up by a quote from Wizards of the Coasts, Magic the Gathering designer Mark Rosewater, “Restrictions Breed Creativity.” These sorts of design challenges are a large part of what appealed to me in adapting the Malazan world, rather than creating one of my own. Trying to figure out how everything can work, without just saying “nope, too hard, not doing it,” really gets my brain ticking over and is the thing that eventually led me to study for a Masters if Games Design at Brunel University.
So how does this restriction result in a creative answer? Well I hope you have read Bonehunters because spoilers lye ahead.
The Mudskins. Don’t know who I mean? They were those Tiste Edur descendants that were rescued by the Edure exploratory fleets. Those fleets then killed the ruling humans of Sepik, who had enslaved the Mudskins, so incensed were the Edur at the treatment of their “distant kin.” In the end the Edur emperor didn’t treat them well either but the point is made, these people were the cause of much of the last few books.
We have descendants of Edur, that are close enough to them that they are recognised as kin. They are from the Island of Sepik which lies just off the coast of Seven cities, meaning that they are not so very distant. With their own name and people, Half-Elf players rather than being the ‘trapped between two worlds’ trope that Half-Orcs also have, now have their own identity. Unless the player is an especially good role player Half-Elves just tend to feel like a watered down elf or a human that wanted a higher charisma bonus. Now you are your own race and people, with a shared culture and past, and in this case a present history of slavery. You also get to look unique as a Mudskin.
This derogatory name refures to the patches of grey coloured skin that cover their body, like a kind of vitiligo, that will have you stand out amoungts the other races. This Mudskin pattern, I describe as being more like the patches on a cat, the speckling on a fishes back and other animal references. It is not the odd patch like is often the case in humans, but looks more to be a true part of their race. A lot of the inspiration for this description of mine comes from the ‘Specs,’ a race from Robin Hobbs Soldier Son trilogy. Like the mud skins they are speckled and dappled across their whole bodies, they they are always standing under the shade of a tree, small patches of light showing through. I want them to feel they are so much their own race that they won’t even ask, “So this uses Half-Elf stats right. Does that mean they are related to the Edure?” That hasn’t happened yet in my games so I’m hoping it continues to work.
There is also no reason for the Mudskin player to even know they are related to the Edure, this is something the player can work out for themselves over probably a great deal of time. It will be up the the players themselves to work out any racial connections. With so little information about the Mudskins, I have had plenty of opportunity to be creative within the restrictions presented. Especially with the problem of them being salves from another continent, that were never seen any other time in the books. So how to get them to Genabackis? Bellow is an extract from my playable races document:
Age: Mudskins live up to 100 years of age and do so more regularly than humans.
Hight: Both men and women average at 6ft tall and some reach 7ft.
Common Class: Studying magic or martial skills is strictly forbidden to Mudskins, those who do learn must do so in secret. Because of this, Rogues and Monks are the only martial skills that are able to be picked up. Those with innate talent can become sorcerers. Due to the high number of Mud Skins who are trained as musicians Bards are more common amongst mud skins.
[Uses the Half-Elf stat-block]
There are two distinct populations making up the inhabitants of Sepik - one subject to the other. The indigenous people, the Mud Skins, have long been subjugated, enslaved and degraded by the human rulers of the island kingdom of Sepik (which also included the joining island of Monkan). The Mudskins, were so called due their their grey skin which varied in tone, with splashes and speckles of grey skin. This speckling lead to a more respectful name of Specks, by those who supported mud skin rights from amongst the human population, but most refer to their servants as Mudskins.
The Sepik Kingdom was an Imperial principality and a remote protectorate of the Malazan Empire. This relationship of Sepik and the Malazan Empire had come about because the then reigning King of Sepik had been wise enough to send representatives to Kellanved, the Malazan emperor, proposing conditions of surrender (rather than waiting to be conquered) - which the emperor had then simply accepted - making Sepik a vassal of his Empire. The Sepik kingdom is rich and affluent thanks to the enslavement of the Mud Skins. Both before and after joining the Malazan empire numerous smuggling groups have been helping large numbers of Mudskins escape the islands. Some suggest that this is an activity directly supported my the Malazan military, the empire only approving of slavery for criminals and prisoners of war.
Mudskins worship the Goddess Skulandu (a half remembered version of Sukul Ankhadurem). Worshipped in the dappled shade and who speaks to her worshipers through the shadows left by trees. They also secretly refer to themselves as the Rulhun'tal ven'or, a name they give to no outsider let that be taken from them too.
The Mudskins have escaped in some small numbers from their Slavery on Sepik. Some live on Seven cities but many more have traveled further away fearing that the people of Seven Cities would betray them and return them to bondage until the controls of Sepik. The city of Saltoan has outside its walls the shantytown named Waytown.
It is my idea that a small population of Mudskins have made their homes here. Having the player be a Mudskin the with the background of being a slave, their skin clearly showing their race, rather than any slight curving of the ears they are used to when using the Half-Elf statistics, makes for some unsuslal roleplaying opportunities. And the mystery of their heritage is my hope will take a long time to be revealed.
These figures show more of what I mean by the speckelled nature I envision for the Mudskins. That includes the aspect of freckles in in the last pair. Seven cities is more of a middle eastern continent, though there are some tribes such as the Pardu who are black skinned and are African in physical appearance.
I’m not sure what bone structure the Mudskins have therefore, though I have been envisioning the Sepik as having a Japanese style culture. So what kind of ethnicity to give the players for inspiration I frankly have no idea.
So now we have the horse riding Wickans and bhederin herding Rhivi. We have sea faring Meckros and ex-slave Mudskins. These are not the Dungeons and Dragons races you are looking for, but I hope they will be fun Malazan ones to play. I’ve kept the races far enough apart so that I don’t loose the feeling you get from the Malazan world and instead stray into the multi racial cities of the Forgotten Realms.
After cramming the Half-Elf into the Malazan world by the medium of the Mudskin, I found that I enjoyed the challenge of finding a way of making the less expected races fit. I had mentioned before that I had tried to do so with the Tiefling and Dragonborn, but had had some difficulties in bring it to fruition. I eventually found a home for the Dragonbron as Moratnth but the Tieflings were cut adrift from their past home on the borders of cloud forrest.
In my next blog I will cover the last remaining player handbook races and how I eventually found a way of including them with as little pain as possible.