Nice week for me. Less so for Afghanistan, where the long-expected victory of the Taliban seems to have finally concluded. One hopes the war would finally end here; better a reactionary regime than endless war.
Gypsies in Greyhawk
As you might have gathered from past discussions, I consider the Greyhawk setting, as well as early D&D in general, to be fairly racist in its themes. It just… is, and the big themes are pretty central to the game of D&D, such that at least I can’t really play the game without acknowledging the situation. The continent of Flanaess is full of acceptable genocide targets, nobody’s going to cry after the goblins and orcs you murder; the big central plot axis of the entire setting is the upcoming cataclysmic conflict between the Good (human-supremacist, enlightened) and the Evil (culturally pluralist, barbarian).
That may sound like a somewhat harsh description of what’s going on in a rpg setting that used to be fairly popular, but it’s good to realize that the Greyhawk text’s not particularly nasty about it; it’s casual racism, apparently fairly invisible and often present as the implicit orienting attitude. It’s adventure fiction, so of course there are bad guys, and (this is where we move to the specifically Gygaxian world) of course they’re racially evil bad guys. Most of the observations would apply just as much to Forgotten Realms or other popular D&D settings.
I won’t go into a close read of everything that goes into the traditional D&D brew right now, because I wanted to highlight something that’s been on my mind ever since I read the Greyhawk folio last year. Namely, the Rhennee, Gygax’s fantasy gypsies.
Romani (and other itinerant minorities) have been a popular pop culture trope for the last hundred years, and D&D as well has undertaken a variety of depictions. I’ll stick to the term “gypsy” here specifically to emphasize that although it’s entirely obvious that Gygax is drawing from adventure fiction inspirations, which in turn are mostly based on historical Romani, Gygax’s gypsies are Romani more in reference than in fact; it’s very much a casual outsider perspective, and very much more concerned with “gypsiness” (traveling lifestyle, foreigness to local culture, exoticism, demonization) as an interaction opportunity for the members of the dominant culture.
All right! So what are Rhennee like? Let’s quote from the book; the following is from the extensive random encounter tables which, despite the expectation, tend to include much of the nitty-gritty detail about the setting.
Men, Rhennee: These Gypsy barge folk are nearly always found within a few hundred feet of one of the three major lakes or navigable rivers which feed or drain them. About 10% of the time they will be encountered in their secret camping and meeting grounds which are up to five miles from water.Greyhawk boxed set Glossography p. 5
So that’s boring and ordinary. Let’s skip to the juicy bits:
Rhennee are neutral and have a strict code of their own. They will always seem open and friendly but are actually very cautious, suspicious, and scheming. They gladly lie to, cheat, and steal from any and all non-Rhennee. If necessary, they have no compunctions about killing.
The Rhennee do some small amount of mercantile shipping, passenger hauling, trading, craft work, fishing, and hunting. They know such work as tinkering and the like. They will never work when they can steal, nor will they deal squarely when they can cheat. Amongst themselves, however (and those who are taken into the folk by adoption), they are usually honest.
When needed, Rhennee steal young children to fill their ranks. Stolen children are raised as and become “natural” Rhennee. Similarly, outsiders who do some great service for the Rhennee are taken into the folk and sometimes accorded great status (equal to a noble, possibly).Glossography p. 6
I’m actually, in the process of this writing, wondering if I’m reading too much into the description: does Gary really mean to say that Rhennee really “never work when they can steal”, and so on? Pretty harsh words there! He’s ostensibly describing a Neutral (as in, Neutral Alignment) community culture here, but the practices he describes are entirely predatory, not different from what evil humanoids engage in.
I’m specifically wondering, because I just read the other big bit about the Rhennee, in the Guide to Greyhawk booklet (the other book in the boxed set), and that (player-facing?) description is much more of adventurously fantastic, focusing on the great barges of the Rhennee and how very gypsy they are. It lacks the utter hostility of this description, although it does emphasize the Rhennee being inwards-turning and mysterious to outsiders.
So that makes me think that maybe EGG intended for the Rhennee to be a relatively realistic depiction of itinerant people and their social dynamics… Basically, here are my reading choices for this stuff:
River Devils: Rhennee are an exaggerated fantasy fear image of what gypsies are like, Gygax is being literal about their choosing stealing over working and so on. Everybody hates them, and they hate everybody. They steal babies. They are in fact not Neutral, that was some kind of mistake, with reasons lost to time. If the Scarlet Brotherhood is Evil, then so are the Rhennee; both are human communities ruled by an explicit supremacist ideology (the Rhennee code in this case).
Gypsy Sociology: The description is trying to get across the social dynamic between sedentary and itinerant communities; it is true in the real world as well that the risks of dishonest dealing are increased between strangers. Travelers are always strangers, and being ethnically, culturally distinct from the sedentary population of the region doesn’t help, but most of the time they get along, as they have to to survive. The Rhennee are actually a romanticized gloss of real-world gypsies: some good, some bad, overall Neutral.
So that’s something to keep in mind. I think I’ll ultimately have to lean towards the “River Devil” being what Gygax means here; that’s what he says, and he doesn’t mostly engage in literary framing devices where his description says something, but it’s then supposed to be read with a grain of salt because it’s presenting a biased account from inside the fiction.
Also, surprisingly non-human
We also learn from Gygax that Rhennee childhood is fantastically tough. He doesn’t go into the specifics, but the way the game’s math works, this is some outright Spartan shit, because apparently the Rhennee child-raising practices are so lethal that only the very strongest survive. No wonder they need to steal babies. “Those Rhennee who survive past childhood are superior individuals in many ways.”
Specifically, here’s how you’re supposed to roll the stat lines for Rhennee (born or adopted). This is against a standard of 3d6 down the line, I think? (Doesn’t make much sense if it’s AD&D rolling methods.)
|Strength||3 of 4d6||3 of 5d6|
|Intelligence||3 of 4d6||3 of 4d6|
|Wisdom||3 of 4d6||3 of 4d6|
|Dexterity||2 of 3d6+6||2 of 3d6+6|
|Constitution||3 of 5d6||3 of 5d6|
|Charisma||3 of 6d6||3 of 5d6|
(I’ll just ignore the small difference between male and female Rhennee for now, that’s a bit of a different kettle of fish.)
For the math-enthusiasts: if Rhennee were really just filtering (killing) baseline humans with 3d6 stats, and ending up with that stat line average, they’d be pruning roughly one quarter of the insufficiently talented kids per characteristic, so roughly 88% of each age cohort. Except Constitution gets extra savage requirements, and female Charisma is even worse (they’re killing nine in ten girls for insufficient Charisma?), and their Dex average seems to be like 16, so… it’s pretty clear that because the Rhennee probably aren’t killing 10,000 kids for each survivor, their child-raising methods are achieving these results with something more than just eager pruning.
Still monstrously evil, of course.
So what do we do with it?
For those wondering about the timing, I got inspired to feature this topic because I’ve been doing CWP writing, and the Rhennee are an interesting example of a special case for character creation due to their enhanced stat line. I’m streamlining the dicing details for our Coup de Main campaign so it’s just a simple “roll four pick three” down the line, but that’s already rather impressive in the less AD&D-like Coup stat environment.
I don’t like to shy away from Greyhawk‘s cruelty and darkness, so I’m not particularly opposed to the River Devil reading of the source material, but I am a bit bothered by the easy fantasy gypsy stereotyping; I wouldn’t present the Rhennee in play as a Romani simile, not without reworking this entire “monster splat” thorough-line where the entire culture is defined as horse-thieves and kidnappers. I admit the dark enchantment of the literary idea, but this is some blackface shit to be throwing around without any consciousness about what you’re doing.
Thus, the “River Devil” conception… I’m less bothered by the Rhennee being really evil if I also say that they have an unnatural mien (perhaps they’re from the City of Brass, originally?), and their literary conceit is to be a sort of anti-Melnibonean near-human people, low class instead of high class, thieves instead of rulers. Thieflings? Basically, riverine Ogres instead of a glaringly obvious Romani reference.
I mean, I’m not bothered by Melniboneans being evil despite their being sort of a simile for the British Empire; the fantastic distance is sufficient for me to take Moorcock’s dark fantasy as an allegorical commentary on the idea of empire in general rather than as hate speech against Englishmen. Admittedly Melniboneans are an easier case in that insofar as they’re seen as offensive towards British nobility, it’s still very much a case of Moorcock punching up, of speaking truth to power. The Rhennee, even if re-envisioned as a clearly inhuman population of gypsy monsters, are still about the fears of the settled population, historically often overblown… so that’s something to keep in mind when playing with this stuff, what kind of cultural DNA the idea is carrying.
I imagine that what I’ll end up doing in practical play, if we get to feature Rhennee at some point, is as even-handed an attempt at sociology as we manage to muster; the game is about doing our best anyway, so might as well try to do our best in modeling transient-local relations in a comprehensive and varied way. So considerably less one-sided than the Gygax presentation of “12 top pick reasons to hate gypsies” from earlier. Rhennee are just people, clever with boats, and they sometimes get into conflict with other tribes because that’s how humans tend to interact. They’re strangers and have an in-built capability to lift stakes and escape, which intuitively makes them untrustworthy for the locals. Not because they “steal rather than work”, but like in our world, due to perceptions and cultural friction.
However, perhaps the water-ways are also being fared by River Devils… after all, part of this entire racist stereotyping problem that human society has is the way bad people ruin the reputations of everybody. We all fear each other, thanks to the few people worthy of fear. There’s a truth about human fear (rather than about Romani, to be perfectly clear) that the River Devil calls upon, which I think makes it pretty compelling as an idea. What if the rivers of Flanaess really are worked by seemingly harmless itinerant travelers who, behind their smiling faces, are actually an evil cult planning to kidnap your child?
So maybe it’s “10% of Rhennee barges encountered are actually River Devil barges. Evil rather than Neutral, these hag-ridden gypsies take the Rhennee code of tribal loyalty to the extreme, taking pride in injury dealt to the sedentary peoples of the world. Children are rarely carried to term on River Devil barges; they replenish their population by kidnapping children as part of their thievery.”
(The 10% is an in-joke: we’ve learned during the campaign that some things just occur in “once in ten” increments within a wider base population. Learned that one from the Monster Manual, check out what it says about lizard men. Pretty neat.)
I could see that kind of “not all Rhennee are River Devils” approach absolving the fantasy gypsies of being literal monsters, while also admitting to the notion that their culture has a darker side. With River Devils relatively rare, Rhennee are actually capable of treating with other peoples of the world in something resembling a peaceful way (as opposed to being treated like the Flanaessians treat orcs, say). And of course this way we can have something to punch in the face as the literary representation of the fears of the sedentary people.
Monday: Coup de Main #58
I’m still on hiatus (which is starting to work for me, thank you very much), and my steadfast scribe Teemu had to miss last session, so we’re going to hear from Tuomas the GM here instead. I’ve been told that it was one of those calmer grab-bag sessions, less eventful than the dragon rodeo over the last three sessions.
Slow paced session for change, gathering info, poking around and preparing for future adventures.
Heroes of Brandonsford visited the local witch in attempt to gather information about various things they had heard. They approached carefully, fearing that the witch might curse them if they angered her. The actual witch turned out to be a just old woman living alone in the forest. The main reason for it turned out to be that she didn’t worship the common deities but much older deities. She did have knowledge of all kinds of folklore and fairies and offered the stories and tea for the heroes since they minded their manners and offered her pears.
After visiting the witch, a cart and pair of donkeys were bought and the party decided to head out to check Castle Xyntillan. They traveled for couple of days through the forested hills and reached the castle. Scouting around for a while they spotted some movement around the main gatehouse. They tried to approach with stealth but that failed miserably. They made it to the abandoned outer gatehouse without trouble but when closing on the main gatehouse the bandits opened fire. Quick retreat and no one was seriously hurt. There was some attempt to negotiate by yelling with the bandits but only thing that was learned was that Gilbert Malevol, the bandit they had heard about in Brandonsford, was at the gatehouse and he was not going to let the heroes in. They thought about alternative routes in like scaling to second floor balconies on the other side of the castle and such but they decided to head to Dyvers to hire enough men to assault the gatehouse.
Rest of the session was rather uneventful travel to Dyvers. Heroes met some goblins minding their own business, faeries throwing pinecones at them and peasants. Of course they got completely soaked in summer rain one day like is becoming a tradition in Coup-de-Gnarley, but they made it to Dyvers.
The pre-session strategy debates for this session were the first sandbox junction for Coup-de-Gnarley, by the way; so far the party has basically been following the “a huge reward has been offered for slaying the dragon!” adventure hook, but here they had to orient themselves for seeking new adventures. Good stuff.
I know nothing about Castle Xyntillan except that it’s an adventure module and apparently some kind of megadungeon-like thing, probably influenced (both in-campaign and in reality) by the original megadungeon castle, Castle Greyhawk.
OK, so I actually googled it just now. (It’s by Gabor Lux!) Bad habit for a player (a degree of extra-diegetic intelligence is easy to gain from just marketing information), but while I’d like to join the game, not worrying about it more than reading these after action reports requires is actually working for me now, so who knows.
So anyway, at quick blush Xyntillan seems quite interesting! Tuomas runs such fancy products. He’s really spoiling the players with the premium adventure modules.
Session #59 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 16.8., starting around 15:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.
Tuesday: Coup in Sunndi #35
As I mentioned last week, our face-to-face Coup campaign went back into the bowels of the Temple of Doom after last week’s quick break: the adventurous escape of Slave Paladin John Hawkwood, and the rescue of Pelorian champion Arush “Iron Arush” Arush from the clutches of the Church of Wastri needed to be concluded! The festival period in the Temple would only last for two more days, after which the denizens would presumably converge on strangers like hungry piranhas.
The players were faced with a weird meta issue at the beginning of the session: Sipi was with us, and he was interested to play Balboa, his gymnast and Temple-cultist-in-good-standing in the adventure where the premise was that the party consisted of Good-aligned visitors present in the Evil temple under the excuse of the sports festival of the Tournament of Fear. So why would the “conspiracy of good men” want to bring in a local on their plans… Well, the planning and general intelligence on the lay of the land would benefit tremendously from a local perspective. Basic things about the Temple, like the movement pass protocols and the basics of faction diplomacy, were completely opaque to the Good visitors in a way that wasn’t the case for Balboa, a man who’d lived at the Temple for two years by now.
A bit of a metagaming mess, that, as taken at face value the entire premise of bringing Balboa into the crew rests on the notion that surely a player character won’t betray the party, even when they have all diegetic motivation to do so. Worst thing here is that Balboa really didn’t have any particularly compelling reason to betray the Temple in an entirely life-threatening way. The best we could scrape up in that regard was that Balboa’s a big fan of the famous Iron Arush, and thus desirous to help the man out. So betray what amounts to your country to help out a foreign celebrity, sure.
I handled the affair by leaving the players to talk it out amongst themselves while making it clear that even if somebody might imagine such, there are no rules of engagement at this table preventing players from betraying the party to advantage their own characters; this has in fact happened several times before. So if the conspirators want to bring in a local contact with possibly useful resources, at the risk of them turning around and betraying the cause at opportune time, you do you. It can be a strategic question for op planning if the players want to treat it that way.
I think that the siren song of improved local perspective on the confusing operational parameters, combined with a general tendency of letting players play whatever characters they want, tipped the scales on this, so Balboa was trusted enough for the crew to meet up and go over their plans with him. While Balboa did manage to confirm many individual points of information, and provide some details on the Jungle Gate (the 1st floor of the megadungeon, basically; the primary exit from the dungeon), we didn’t really come up with any crucial new ideas; the operation was still a difficult combination of reaching Iron Arush, extracting him from the clutches of the Wastrians, and then smuggling himself and the party out of the Temple alive.
Skipping the planning details, we actually got into execution this session! The party ultimately decided to leave extraction more or less to be dealt with on the flight, which meant that there was no good reason to not start the carefully planned assault on the Wastrian shrine where Arush was being held. Good thing, too; it was like 3am at the Temple by the time the show got on the road, soon into early morning hours.
As is often the case in this game, a precarious, difficult planning period is followed by smooth sailing in execution. The party had scouted the locations of the Shrine’s external guards in advance, and managed to silence them before they could sound the alarm. Things were almost foiled by the party’s attempt to enter the Shrine through what was basically the guardhouse, with the rest of the more or less alert guards, but they managed to stumble on a quick take-down. (The guards mistook the party’s fumbling for their fellow guard, causing them to not call a general alert before the party got their act together and quickly attacked them.)
The party entered the Shrine through the main barracks of the acolytes, which meant sneaking through a room of sleeping cultists. The novel solution of casting a Sleep spell on already speeling people was used (questionable use of resources for me, but they were clearly concerned about somebody noticing their passing here), and lo and behold, a PC party on a stealth mission had made their way well inside the enemy installation without alerting anybody!
The string of success continued, as prior intelligence had given the party a fairly good understanding of where Arush was held: the party surprised Arush’s personal protection detail and finally got into talks with the man himself. As soon as they convinced him to not throttle Eccentrix the dragon for surprising him when sleeping.
Meeting with Arush like this, undistracted by his Wastrian handlers, was basically the climax of the adventure in that we’d by this point spent three sessions operating on incomplete information. The players had formulated their own theories about why Arush was working for a hostile religious institution, and participating in a blood sports tournament of all things. So pretty interesting to hear from the man himself what was going on:
Arush’s Tragic Tale
Everything began when Arush’s wife and children (two kids and a dog, I assume) were kidnapped savagely and covertly by a mysterious assailant. Said party had left Arush a distinctive scroll, sealed with a green glyph (something like:❓) and including a warning missive: Arush should tell no-one and come alone, or his family would be slain. Nefarious, but the author of the missive had forgotten to tell him where he was to go! The scroll mainly rambled about rambling in the brambles of the Sunhedge, a local landmark.
Arush worked out that he was to meet the kidnappers in an isolated place not far from his home temple; it was as if the scroll was a… riddle, one Arush solved successfully! However, instead of solving the situation Arush only found a second scroll, given to him by a non-descript man who died of a foul poison immediately afterwards. This scroll had a time limit, but at least it proved Arush that his family was still alive!
And so it went, Arush the hero hunting across near half of Sunndi, finding a half dozen clues that ultimately allowed him to discover the Temple of Doom. It was as if this… Riddler, whoever was behind the scrolls, was geased to reveal himself and allow Arush to hunt him.
At the Temple’s Jungle Gate Arush found one more clue scroll: “At the shrine of Wastri, the Guardian of Secrets, under his teeth and over his tongue, holds the secret to your prize. Yet can you pay the price?” This was then, the reason Arush had submitted to Apostle Nigma, the high priest of the Wastrian shrine; Nigma is known far and wide as a wicked genius who could surely help Arush decipher his collected clues and figure out where his family was being held. It’s just that the Apostle wants Arush to fight for him in the tournament in exchange for his help!
(To clarify, Arush does suspect that Nigma is the author of this evil clue-hunt. That does not really change the situation, and what Arush does not know is the subtle influence that the riddling pattern has on his own cognition, driving him to play the game of the Riddler…)
What we gonna do about it?
So that was Arush’s tale in all its sordidness. The adventurers were left with solving the situation: they had sneaked into the cult shrine, had Arush relatively amiable to possible allies, but at the same time rescuing Arush had become considerably more complex: Arush was not willing to leave without rescuing his family.
Balboa, amusingly, all but forced party in-fighting by insisting that the party should leave now that they’d heard Arush’s sad tale. They couldn’t help him, right, and being here was really dangerous. Everybody else could still save themselves before say the Apostle himself (a 7th level Cleric, he) discovered the intrusion. The Slave Paladin John Hawkwood outright pinned Balboa to the wall (a feat and a half with a man as large as Balboa) to prevent him from leaving on his own. Apparently this is how far a fan’s willingness to help his idol reached.
The party in general seemed surprisingly willing to simply drop the situation. I think it’s due to their inherent respect for self-determination, which the scenario apparently didn’t flout for them: if Arush wants to fight in the Tournament and thinks that he’s gotta do it to save his family, then I guess we’re leaving him to his business. Adventurers are good at fighting, not so good at hostage politics.
Hawkwood and Balboa, both tactical leaders who’d been planning and plotting the party this far, were helpless to advance the adventure, which could quickly turn very nasty. This is where the party back bench really rose to shine. Check it out:
The right question: Teemu had been listening to the convoluted story and environment description and such. His character even spent a Turn going over Arush’s notes and conspiracy board to get a better sense for his “quest”. The party would need at least an hour for a more careful look; perhaps unlikely to happen here. Teemu short-circuited the entire thing by asking the simple yet intelligent question: “Arush, can you show us the last riddling scroll you found before coming here?”
(That might seem so, so trivial to those of you who don’t play challengeful D&D. I can promise you that I’ve seen players fail to ask the right question countless times. After all, you can’t ask the question if you didn’t listen to, or understand, the scenario description, or if you’re not interested in being part of the problem-solving team in the first place!)
So I quoted the last riddling scroll to the players, the one about the “Guardian of Secrets”. I hadn’t given the exact text to them in Arush’s tale yet, Arush had just told them about how the scroll told him that Apostle Nigma could help him, etc. Well, maybe you can do something with the vague and unhelpful text.
The right answer: Mauri in his turn displayed inhuman listening provess, it warms the goggles of my heart how these players do actually listen to my blathering: in the last session his character, a Cleric, had rolled an INT check in passing about a couple of great statues standing guard outside the Wastrian shrine. The character had recognized the crocodilian figures as Sunndian guardian devils, “Keepers of Secrets”. Sort of like temple dogs, except humanoid-crocodilian. They’re mythical creatures that guard the secrets of the gods, or some such.
So Mauri remembered that, and instantly asked about whether the dumb riddler scroll thing meant the statues, rather than Apostle Nigma like Arush thought (and established for the players from the start). He was of course entirely correct here, but I’m still impressed by how he both a) remembered that little tidbit of incidental color from the last session, and b) managed to ignore what the NPC told them to instead draw a conclusion for himself. Players often trust NPC information rather blindly (it does simplify intelligence work, after all), so good play there!
Teemu and Mauri solved the puzzle of what to do next, so the adventure could move forward. Unfortunately, although understandably, their first step was to convince Arush himself about this perhaps being the true meaning of that clue. Once Arush got what the helpful strangers were speculating about, he didn’t hesitate about rushing out of the guest quarters and to the front of the shrine to investigate the situation himself.
This is total hindsight, but everything would have gone so much better had the adventurers just left Arush to his own devices and left to solve this branch of the quest between themselves. Arush wasn’t in the most sensible state of mind right now, having fought for two days in this evil tournament and generally been brought to an extremely dark and stressful place.
While Arush moving around the shrine still didn’t manage to raise the alarm, him outright grasping one of the huge statues and toppling it with a Feat of Strength (that’s the name of the feat, he has a martial feat for this) sure did. There was another of these weird riddler scrolls in the statue’s mouth!
Things could have shaped out quite nicely still, had the party only been able to convince Arush to escape the slowly awakening shrine with them. But no, the dumb lummox wanted to go back to his quarters to read this new scroll and then maybe consult with Apostle Nigma! (To be clear, this is not the thinking pattern of a rational man.) We rolled a bunch of Charisma checks to try to get him to go with the party, but ultimately the brave heroes were forced to leave Arush with his Wastrian friends for now.
The adventurers were quite demoralized after all this; Slave Paladin John Hawkwood is a man of great mirth and terrible gloom, and the way we managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory was hard for his noble soul. The ball is still in play, technically speaking, as Arush lives and the party now knows about his family; we’ll see next Tuesday where the team wants to take this. They could decide to abandon Arush to tackle his situation the way he thinks best, they could try to rescue the family themselves before the tournament ends, or they could try again with Arush himself. Who knows, maybe Arush learned something new and significant from his riddler scroll. Probably not, the guy’s clearly not the best at riddles.
State of the Productive Facilities
Things are starting to move! I did spend some time wrapping up the Law𝕟et installation and other summer gardening business earlier in the week, but the rains and the ultimately petty nature of the work sent me to the office instead. I finished CWP #1, Character Creation, and worked on other issues as well, which is the first time in weeks that I’ve had measurable progress on real writing work.
Next week’s going to be even better, I can already feel it.