Designing around Spike-Traps

When making things, once in a while you spot a pit-trap laden with spikes, and screech to a halt to think about the route ahead carefully. When making chairs, I guess people test by sitting in the chair. Writers and RPG designers can't get this kind of snappy feedback, so I guess we're all a bit fumbly when testing solutions. I certainly am.

The Goddess of Abortion

The most recent trap came in the form of old women - 'doulas'. I like the word 'witchcraft', and want to see more 'witchery' in the fantasy space. It all seems a little unexplored. My partner suggested leaning into the notion of people who make medicine, assist births, and weave things, and then suggested the word 'doula'.

The word once has connotations of 'midwife', and once sounded a little like 'slave', but the word is mostly gone, so it no longer has much flavour at all. The word could definitely squeeze a little witchcraft into the mix.

Every major institute in Fenestra (the world of BIND) has a guild, and every guild has a divine monopoly on protecting people from a god of death. So the doulas needed a death, and the clear answer was the death of children. Doulas help births, and stop children dying.

This phrasing leaves the RPG-element of the RPG book with two options:

  1. The books describe a guild which stops bad births, but doesn't interact with them further, because nobody has adventures which involve lots of rolling dice for difficult births.
  2. The books keep the doula relevant by creating lots of adventures where people roll dice to represent the details of possibly-fatal births.

This sentence is redundant, but here it is anyway: these options are bad options.

I tried to fix the problem by making the doula more abstract. They exist to ward of Misgenesis - the death which comes before creation. They stop things going bad before the thing exists. They give blessings for parties (to make sure that everyone doesn't cancel before anything actually starts), long-voyages (to make sure the boat doesn't sink before anyone can get on it), and difficult quests into the forest (so now we can roll dice to give the PCs +1 bonuses to something-or-other). And of course, they can help with births, stop miscarriages, and...

The narrative threatens another problem. If the doula stop the deaths-before-creation, then apparently the goddess of death would cover abortion, which means that doulas stop abortions. So at this point, BIND very-nearly, accidentally, contained an anti-abortion message.1

Careful wording helped nail down the flavour of the 'Guild of Misgenesis'. Doulas would ward off every type of misgenesis, including 'children who died because their parents never met'. Instead of rejecting abortions entirely, the widened scope meant that this death covered abortions, parents not conceiving, and parents not meeting because the party they would have met at had already been cancelled.

The Rejected Faces of Goblins

BIND has a oneshot module - Escape from the Goblin Horde - to provide a light intro, with some fun magical items, difficult decisions, and a dragon. After starting it, I suddenly remembered I'd released a book some years ago, and a kindly internet artist gifted me with three excellent portraits of goblins.

They looked detailed, fierce, and set the tone perfectly. I already had permission to use them, so off I went to pull the files from my archives, and stick them in this new book. Then I suddenly saw the images with new eyes.

  • Image 1 had a goblin shaman with dreadlocks and badass bones through his nose.
  • Image 2 had a big-nosed brutish goblin, with massive lips and large ear-plugs.

Looking at them separately, each image looks cool. But once you start to notice very African elements listed in number 2, you have to notice the African elements in number 1.

I wouldn't have minded so much if the stereotypes had a little more grounding in an actual culture, but these aren't stereotypes that Ethiopians have about Nigerians - these are the vague stereotypes of a vague Europe towards 'the dark continent', where people wander out of their cave in the morning to eat babies while wearing bones in their noses.2 And to make matters worse, I'd already decided goblins should be white, because it fits living underground.

I couldn't find a good solution here. The images couldn't go in the book.

Spike Traps are Subjective

When people notice spike-trap pits, it's natural to point them out to others, and shout 'watch out, DO NOT WALK THERE!'. It's natural, but can come across badly, because these are metaphorical spike-trap pits, so we don't have any any way to reach a definite agreement about what exactly counts.

But RPG designers are quintessentially middle-class,3 so when they see a potential problem, they have to label it as 'problematic', and then instruct the less-educated pions how they ought to behave. So on top of the various traps that writing a book brings, I have the current trap of taking on the petulant accent of American colleges.

Luckily the solution is easy - you just take all the enlightened thoughts you have, wrap them up in markdown, and shove them up your blog-hole.

  1. Pedants' note: technically this should be 'anti-choice', rather than 'anti-abortion', since (I suspect) everyone is already 'anti-abortion' in the same way that everyone is 'anti-getting-your-teeth-drilled-into'. ↩︎

  2. I'm not posting the images, because I need to emphasise that the problem does not lie with the artist in any way. If people ask for 'a fantasy elf', then artists know what to do. The stereotypes in these ideas have their own weight, and it's enough trouble to draw something without analysing every connotation. Besides, if we leave the art-critiques to artists, what will everyone who studied the history of art do with their time? ↩︎

  3. If you're thinking 'I am not middle class' while reading a blog-post on TTRPG design, then you are the worst kind of middle class. ↩︎