Sunday, 18 September 2016

Make The Devils Work

not like this
The Lucky Folk, they are called, but euphemistically, for to speak of them is to invite ill luck. What is it, then, to be one of them? It is said the lucky folk are born of demons or of evil spirits, that they have one foot in hell: that, it is said, is why they cannot stand still. They travel, trading, herding, singing, thieving, fleeing: they shun gold and seek silver, and they court infamy by revering the moon. They are warm, and cruel, and secretive. They have sharp teeth and milky skin, hair dark or flaming red.
I instinctively dislike tieflings as PCs: in my current campaign I banned them. I have this in common with a lot of those who have traditionalist instincts, I think, though in my case it’s less traditionalism (I’m too new here for that) and more that they offend a sense of rarity. Ostensibly, they have the same issue as the dragonborn: there shouldn’t be demon babies running around cheapening the rich, deep resonance of demonhood. But I was thinking about my ongoing fiddling with a medieval Russian setting and about wanting to use a different diversity of races in it. So here is a go at rewriting and redeeming the spawn of the devil and getting to what it is doesn’t ring true about them. (I will not be rewriting or redeeming dragonborn ever, fuck dragonborn.)

Far over the sea, the sailors say, there is a land of sweltering heat, where massive, stone-built palaces rise on hills above the lethal forests below. It is a land of men, but the men there are slaves, vassals of the not-quite-men who raised the palaces and who still worship in the smoke-filled, echoing halls their own dark god, bull-headed and scorpion-tailed. They slaughter their slaves in their hundreds to the god, but among their own kind, with eyes a solid onyx black and bodies free entirely of hair, violence is a taboo punished by exile.

The thing, I think, is this: tieflings are sold to us as individuals, outliers who filter up through human society every once in a while at random, all sharp teeth and widow’s peaks, like Muggleborn wizards. They just show up among humans (and only among humans, apparently) at a certain rate within the population, like a genetic defect. This is backed up by the fact that the material is careful to say tieflings don’t (necessarily) have immediate infernal parentage but rather have some somewhere back in the bloodline: but it’s notable how many people do come away with the idea that they’re literal half-demons, especially since they’re right in there with half-elves and half-orcs. All of this makes them feel Special and Awesome – since after all being half-supernatural-embodiment-of-evil is more exciting than being half-grunting-thug-person - which is what makes them so aggravating to so many people who don't think a basic choice like PC race should confer that kind of exceptionalness. Which is to say, the tiefling as presented by most D&D material isn't really a race the way other D&D races are. It's a trait, it's a thing that sets you apart from the people around you, whereas being a dwarf or a halfling is all about why you are part of a bigger group, not apart from it.

'Son of a charcoal burner' – the worst insult the village children know. Few of them have ever even had the courage to approach the mobile camps, circling the nearby villages, stopping for a few weeks where the growth is good, raising their richly painted tents, building and packing the kiln, tending it with their sleepless eyes as the days and nights pass, their hands – though they reach in among the flames and embers often – pristine, long-fingered, sooty but free of scars and blemishes. Sometimes one of them walks away from the camp.

Once this is clear, it becomes very fixable: just put a race of tieflings in your setting. Boom. End of. They can and probably still should be a relatively unusual race, but as soon as you add a recognisable tiefling society to your game then your tiefling PC stops being annoying and starts relating to the world in the same interesting ways your other PCs do: it generates allegiances and quests and cultural knowledges and blindspots. You can stick with having them – as a race – be widely distrusted, if that floats your boat, but that also becomes more fertile and more generative of character and action when it's a wider prejudice. The bits in italics might give you some ideas.

The villages in the hills are little visited, but anyone who has been to a temple in the city has seen a villager, standing guard outside the great buildings, miles and days from their home, armour and weapons heavy and functional but the webbing of tattoos across the face and hands distinctive, elegant, almost legible. The children of the villages, everyone knows, worship no gods and have no souls: and thus it is that they may bear arms and spill blood in the houses of the gods.