Monsters & Madness: City of the Great Race(s), Part 1

Cthulhu Cultists

Last time I talked through my design process for setting the stage for Monsters & Madness, my Lovecraftian 4e setting. That entry talked a lot about what was new, the iconic parts of H. P. Lovecraft’s stories and familiar elements from Lovecraftian RPGs like Call of Cthulhu, and how to fit them into the framework and adventure design of Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons. That’s all well and good, but what about the familiar parts of 4e itself? Like I said in my original post, I want to be able to bring anything from core D&D to Monsters & Madness with little effort as well as anything from the Cthulhu mythos.

One of the most central concerns is races. There are two main pillars of character creation in D&D (depending on whether or not you utilize the up-and-coming character themes), race and class. In the last post I tied power sources to different dark power factions which should help players establish where their profession lies in the tangled cosmology of a pseudo-Lovecraftian setting. Races can also be established within this cosmology as well, but it’s going to require a facelift for all the races to make them disturbing enough to fit in. I’ll start with all the Player’s Handbook raecs and those from campaign setting sourcebooks. Let’s see just how horrible we can make them…

Races of the Great Old Ones

The races of the Great Old Ones are going to be the dominant races in the setting as the Great Old Ones currently hold sway over the central mortal realms and who have won the various conflicts between dark power factions. Therefore it makes sense to include humans as some of their common servants, perhaps the most common rulers and priests of the Great Old Ones. In this role they can fulfill their common selfish-and-corrupt archetype, like Gríma in The Two Towers or the Thayan wizards in Forgotten Realms. I think it also makes sense to have halflings and elves in this group since they are some of the most familiar races to people. They are a little too cheery to be satisfied serving the Great Old Ones, however, so we’ll have to make some adjustments in attitude. Halflings can continue to be nomadic and family-oriented, but their family traditions will center around live sacrifice and rites by torchlight. In the hands of a conscientious DM this can be even more disturbing: no one is surprised to find the dour, dark-eyed human slicing the throat of a kneeling prisoner, but the giggling halfling bard doing the same will really put your hair on edge. Elves will similarly have a dark pall cast on their personalities. In the core rulebooks they roam the forests as expert woodsman spreading the justice and light of Corellon, but in M&M they will do so to hunt down heretics who speak against the dark gods. Thinking back to Star Trek episodes, I think the episodes where the emotionless Vulcans were driven to violence is a good example, as are the xenophobic elf tribes of Dark Sun. Stony faced killers who scour the woodlands in search of servants of the Primal Elders and other enemies of the city-state provide both baddass PC options and frightening NPC hooks. The half-elves will have this as a backdrop, although they will fulfill their role as consummate diplomats by serving as the silver-tongued liars who ferret out secrets and inform on infidels for the Great Old Ones.

I don’t want all the human-like races to be in one camp so let’s stop there and add the dragonborn to the Great Old Ones’ roster. They have the legacy of a failed empire (Arkhosia) which was maybe the first realm of the Great Old Ones. It collapsed, leaving scattered remains (enter elements of Nerath at the DM’s discretion), and left the dragonborn playing second fiddle to the humans, which they probably don’t like. We can add another marginalized race option in the form of the goblinoids who are crude and tribal enough to be the first worshippers of the Great Old Ones. When the Primal Elders ran the show it was mostly just the goblinoids holding down the fort. Then the Great Old Ones crafted a warrior race to lead their conquest (the dragonborn) and took over the world. The dragonborn’s empire failed and now the humans are trying to lead the way. While we’re at it, a recent creation of the Great Old Ones can be the warforged, who embody the steely and heartless determination of the dark gods. The racist elements of Eberron are preserved when we consider things from the humans’ point of view. Sure these metal men were created to serve the human priesthoods, but with the Great Old Ones’ track record are they headed for a replacement?

Lastly, I want some another surprising choice. The elves were a good curveball since you might expect them to be in the Primal Elders’ camp, so let’s throw another one and say that the minotaurs are also mostly allied with the Great Old Ones. They used to be Primal Elder servants but during the ancient war they turned traitor and now they serve the Great Old Ones. This let’s players have a good excuse for some primal classes allied with the Great Old Ones and provides some mechanic for the dark temptation of Baphomet that core setting minotaurs face. It’s not an Abyssal lord that is tugging on the bull-men’s hearts but their former masters calling them cowards and challenging them to rescind their desertion.

Races of the Primal Elders

One thing to establish with the Primal Elders is who their “baseline” race is. It’ll be easy to establish the primalistic races as servants of these primordial beings but let’s establish who the Primal Elder equivalent of the humans is. Looking back at the races from the first Player’s Handbook, the dwarves stick out as a race that would fit well. They are ancient, they build in stone and have long-lasting traditions, and there is a sense of rough-cut character to them that fits well with the powers that made the world. The dwarves were the dominant race during the Primal Elders’ rule at the beginning of the world and now their grand halls lie in ruin and they try to rebuild in remote locations. One need look no farther than Moria and Erebor in the Lord of the Rings for examples of ruined dwarven cities and rebuilt strongholds respectively. Once we have included the dwarves we can also include the duergar, who have responded to their masters’ downfall by making black promises to restore them, and muls, the half-dwarves who provide a useful link between the Primal Elders’ servants and the other factions.

As I said, we can easily find room for all of the “wild races” (many from the Player’s Handbook 2) in the ranks of the Primal Elders. The half-orcs are savage warriors who were the fighting force of the Primal Elders, perhaps fallen from a more noble standing as in Eberron, and the shifters are more recent fighters, twisted with rage to become animalistic and savage. The goliaths and thri-kreen can continue their wilderness tribal lives in the mountains and wastelands respectively but here they guard ancient ruins of the Primal Elders and the secrets they contain. The wilden are rage spirits born of the deep forests where the Primal Elders were forced to retreat to, visionaries and spellcasters who want to rebuild the magical power that their masters once possessed. The genasi can be up-and-coming as well, a fledgling race which is a sort of Hail Mary play by the Primal Elders. The genasi are born with the raw power of the Elemental Chaos, an uncontrollable force but maybe the only thing that can keep the Primal Elders from oblivion.

As a last curveball, I’m going to include the drow. Why, you ask? Because the drow are a more predatory form of the elves, more dangerous and skilled at stalking and killing. I might be showing my taste for Eberron again with the savage drow angle but I think there’s also room for the complex drow cities of the Forgotten Realms. A city like Menzobarranzen is what existed during the heyday of the Primal Elders, as cities for the drow nobles who guarded the prisons of the Great Old Ones in ages past.

So that’s the first two factions, the Great Old Ones and the Primal Elders. I’m going to split things up for more bite-sized chunks so look out for the Outer Gods and Dreamlords next week. Give feedback if you have it as well, since next week I’ll also feature my first game element pdf for your downloading pleasure.