Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Just this past Monday the fam and I had dinner over at the house of some friends. They have two daughters, ages 4 and 1, and it was highly amusing watching our little guy interacting with the older of the two girls. I was very much put in mind of half-giants.

Perhaps I should back up.

So there is this game called Dungeons and Dragons with which I believe I have copped to a certain acquaintanceship. The original D&D is rooted in a fantasy setting which is pretty much indistinguishable (read: ripped off) from Tolkien’s Middle Earth, in every aspect: ecology, sociology, technology, etc. I’m assuming that much is, if not common knowledge, at least reasonably close to what most non-hardcore-geeks would come up with if asked to describe D&D on the spot. What the uninitiated might not know, I’m guessing, is that the company that originally produced D&D created numerous other world-settings in which the game could be played, each with its own flavor. These variations on the theme covered everything from gothic horror to medieval sci-fi. Possibly the strangest – and in my mind the best – was called Dark Sun.

I don’t want to get bogged down too much in the wonkiness of it so I’ll attempt to be brief (and preemptively apologize if this gets confusing as I gloss over stuff) but the basic idea is post-apocalyptic D&D. Still early medieval technology, though, so the apocalypse wasn’t nuclear war or anything like that but rather the abuse of magic. In most standard fantasy settings magic is just kind of lying around for anyone’s use if they know the secret words. In Dark Sun, magic draws its fuel from life energy, which most sentient creatures are understandably reluctant to let go of, and thus most wizards powered their spells by stealing life energy from defenseless plants. This led to a slow-motion disaster where the vast majority of plant life on the planet died, disrupting food chains and turning the whole world into a desert full of monstrosities that adapted to a harsher depleted biosphere. The survivors who inherited this world were by necessity strong and cruel, leading to everything from iron-fisted despots controlling city-state oases and widely practiced slavery to vicious outlaw gangs and cannibal tribes and so forth. Fun for the whole family!

Another Tolkien riff that has permeated a ton of other fantasy is the idea of love between the flawed but vigorous humans and the delicately beautiful elves, which can yield half-elf children who represent the best aspects of both races. Dark Sun has its own warped take on that notion and expands it to include other potential hybrids, partly because slavery allows for (admittedly icky) forced breeding and partly because in a desolate desert world, one takes what mate one can get. Thus there are half-dwarves, as tall as humans but as strong and hearty as dwarves, and also half-giants, midway in height and mass between humans and giants (which is pretty tall!) and also midway between both parents in intelligence (which is pretty dumb!).

The human skulls are for scale.
The whole point of having multiple races in fantasy games, in particular, is that the whole game is a combination of planning and luck. Challenges encountered by the game characters are resolved by rolling dice, but whether or not and how much the odds are for or against the character is determined by numerical stats associated with the character. So choosing a character pretty much comes down to how you would like to play the game of chance. If you want good odds of succeeding in physically oriented struggles, and are willing to take worse odds on intellect or personality centered ones, or vice versa, then that can steer your character choice. In the games’ purest forms the character stats end up being determined by chance as well, but the races can influence that as well. Elves are more graceful, so whatever the dice say your character’s agility is, if you chose to play an elf that stat will be automatically bumped up. And so on.

Of course the whole fantasy genre has a long tradition of primarily occupying itself with dragonslaying and other feats of strength, so why doesn’t everyone just play the strongest race of whatever milieu they are in? (In Dark Sun, for example, that would be the half-giants.) Basically, to avoid that very predicament, the game designers tried to balance every advantage with some kind of drawback, such as elves being extra susceptible to poison. Sometimes it seems like a zero-sum situation, where a character who is so fast they are going to get hit by attacks 10% less of the time is also going to take 10% more damage when they do get hit, and thus it becomes not so much a matter of finding the race that is best at winning the game but rather personal aesthetic preference. Other times it’s a little bit weirder.
I’ve been talking about games here but avoiding the role-playing modifier, for no good reason other than to really slam down hard on it now. D&D and the like can be played like pencil-and-paper video games, with characters that are just invisible ciphers moving through a math-based world of hacking and slashing at beasties and bad guys. But they can also be played as evolving stories with nuanced characters who have emotional arcs and respond to things a little more, dare I say, cerebrally. In the latter case, playing the game not only becomes an outlet for the destructive impulse to run around decapitating orcs, but also for assuming another identity, as close or far from the face you normally show the world as you like. And if you play the games that way, for a long enough time, then after a while you’ll look for interesting wrinkles in that specific side of it, the bringing-a-character-to-larger-than-life aspect.

So here’s the thing about half-giants. You want to play the huge brute in the game who smites at will, who’s tough as stone and dumb as dirt? Have at it, but there’s one more catch. You have to play by the rules of the Dark Sun world, which state that half-giants are more than simply unintelligent. They’re childlike. They’re impressionable. And they’re halfway-decent mimics. So if you’re playing the game correctly, in the course of inhabiting your half-giant character, you’ll look to another character in the game and behave exactly like them. Repeat what they say, do what they do, and in any case where you’re forced to act independently try to live out the answer to “What would Gorvort do?” The game itself even has rules for determining which character the half-giant is going to mimic each day. (It comes down, as always, to a roll of the dice but is modified by what happens in the game; if the half-giant has been imitating Gorvort the Barbarian for a while, but then Deelulu the Thief manages to save the party by killing an impressively dangerous critter, there’s a much higher chance the half-giant will start imitating Deelulu the following day.)

Assuming a high level of commitment to the roleplaying (which I’ve always counted myself very fortunate to be able to depend on from the people I tend to game with) this makes half-giants awesomely hilarious to have in a campaign. There are novels set in the world of Dark Sun, too (of course there are) and I’ve enjoyed immensely the half-giants described therein (because of COURSE I’ve read those novels).

And clearly, the best guide you could possibly be given to the personality of the mythical half-giant would be to watch an almost-three-year-old in the presence of a four-and-a-half-year-old, which is precisely what I was doing Monday night. Everything that girl did, my little guy had to do as well. Sometimes that meant she was shouting something which the little guy semi-echoed, in equally loud shouts, as phonetic gibberish (to be fair, they were also both spinning around at the time, and that can make critical listening difficult). Sometimes that meant enthusiastically heading off to some new activity as if it were his favorite thing to do in the world ever, even though he had never heard of it before the young lady in question brought it up. Sometimes it simply meant running over to me to be picked up because she had just run over to her dad for same. Which was great and all, except of course as soon as she got down to run somewhere else, my little guy was howling to be set down as well. Still, all in all, he’s my little half-giant, and without fail he is awesomely hilarious.

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