Tuesday 2 May 2023

Another take on demihumans as social constructs.

I had an idea knocking around inside my head, and then I saw that Dan had already done it over on Throne Of Salt, which rather undercut my brilliant originality.
More time has passed, so I figured I'd have a crack at the idea myself.

So. Demihumans (elf, half-elf, hobbit, dwarf, orc, half-orc, goblin, hob-goblin, dragon). Rather than positing each as a seperate species - and then getting our skull-callipers out to compare them - we'll just look at the position each occupies in our setting socially, and extrapolite backwards from that.
EG, let's suppose you're an elf because you do elf things and people treat you like an elf. But you're still recognisably an elf. What would that look like? How do you get that in society?

Suffice to say, this is all a thought experiment. I have no idea how this would play out in a proper setting or actual game.


"This person has autism, but their knowledge or power means we have to treat them respectfully."

An elf is quite possibly smarter than you, but (if you aren't also an elf) the ways they think don't make sense. They follow patterns and customs that most people don't, they prioritise things regular people don't, they just fucking know things sometimes. Sometimes unusually innocent, sometimes deeply worldly and old before their time.

Elves typically go into professions where knowledge is important, and people can't just reject you out of hand for being unearthly and weird. Mages, priests, artists, nuns, midwives. That air of oddness can be a perk; it lets people know they're dealing with an elf, and should be prepared to act accordingly.

You treat elves with respect. After all, they know things and they have sufficient power or clout that if you offend them, they can make you regret it. 

Most have at least a smattering of magic, some handy utility powers and maybe something like a magic missile to smack people who don't show respect. They take to it naturally, and often don't get that others can't just learn magic with the same fluency and focus that they do. Isn't it easy?

It doesn't have to be autism, but that's the most common one, and also the one the author has and is familiar with.

Different types of elves correspond to areas of focus. Wood elves like the natural earthy things like birds and trees, high elves like some 'respectable' topic like history or heraldry, dark elves know about something vaguelly taboo like poisons or spiders.

The term 'half-elf' is basically the same as 'high functioning'. Not really used by elves among themselves, but regular people use it to describe elves that seem more normal and approachable.

Generally, elf-ness is broadly hereditable, about as hereditable as autistic traits in the real world. A changeling is just somebody who turns out to be an elf despite nobody expecting it based on their family.

Elf communities exist. Cloisters and hideaways. They get weird fast.


"From a commoner family that knows marvelous trade secrets."

Being a dwarf means you've inherited the family name (or been adopted or married into it). You're one of a particular clan, and your clan knows how to do something that they guard jealously.

Metalworking is a common one. Mining and underground construction techniques are another. Warfare with specific secret techniques is another. Maybe a mix. Whatever it is, your clan has a secret way of doing things that gives you an advantage. Dwarf-made armour is just better than everybody else's. Dwarves who go to war fight in ways that seem impossible to replicate without their lengthy training, and are shockingly effective.

Dwarves often have magic of their own. More secrets handed down the clan. They have their own little sects of the mainstream religions, and their own priests.

The techniques of the dwarves give them an edge over other people. They're just commoners, but they can negotiate with nobles and even royalty, because if the dwarves aren't paid to their satisfaction nobody else can do it as well. And, really, a noble who's jewellery isn't made by dwarves is an embarassment. 

These secrets need to be kept, or the dwarves lose their wealth and power. Dwarves prefer to live away from outsiders, in innaccessable places like mountain villages or underground fortresses. They don't trust non-dwarves, who might try to steal their secrets. The exception is other dwarves, who have a vested interest in preserving dwarvish independence. 

They know how to hold a grudge. When you're jumped-up commoners bargaining with nobility, you have to.


"These people have fucked off to live independently, and its too much effort to get them to come back."

Hobbits have opted out of mainstream society to go and do something else. Maybe they dig holes in hillsides and make a commune that lives in a rural idyl. Maybe they have a caravan and travel the world with like-minded hobbits, trading goods and stories. Maybe they flee from persecution and live in floating villages hidden in the marshes.

Basically, they're hippies. They rejected the rat race and went to live some more authentic, satisfying or reasonable life off in the middle of nowhere. Their communities are tight-knit, idealistic and egaletarian, mostly. When a hobbit community goes wrong, it goes really wrong really quickly, and then falls apart entirely. 

Some people are first-generation hobbits, who - alongside a group of like-minded individuals - chose to live like this. Some were born into a hobbit community and decided to stay. Some found a hobbit community and got adopted into it.

They love their pipeweed, and they're good at hiding. Hobbits get on with dwarves a lot of the time, even if their relationships tend to be distant.

The author has dated a number of hobbits in her time.

When some horrible dark lord rises up, fueled by the fire and smoke of industry and averice, and starts building dreadful armies and dark satanic mills, hobbits tend to be among the first victims they go after. Them and other minorities. Hobbits don't tend to fight back in an organised way, they go to ground, move on, or form guerilla resistance movements.

They are probably living happier lives than you are. Why aren't you a hobbit, actually?


"Soldiers without homes."

Being an orc means fighting as a way of living. No farms, towns, shrines, capitals. Just a military camp that moves as the campaign moves. War is all you know. Home isn't a real concept, or isn't anymore, you just live wherever the fighting is, or wherever you go the fighting follows.

Some orcs are mercenaries. Poverty or desperation or persecution pushes them to sign up with a mercenary band. A tent in a military camp is still a roof over your head, sort of. Sometimes the orc is fleeing something, or ambitious. 

Maybe they don't intend to be an orc for long. Really, though, cashing out isn't likely to happen. You die young, or if you don't your so scarred - emotionally and physically - that regular society doesn't want you back.

Other orcs didn't have a home to begin with. An invasion took it from you, and now your home is occupied by somebody else. Or your home has been on the front-lines of a trench war for decades and completely fucking uninhabitable, and the conflict is all you know.

Orcs stick together. Their real loyalty is to their comrades. An employer has their loyalty only as much as they pay them, unless that employer is also an orc. 

There's a code. They treat orcs on the other side of the conflict better than the rest of the enemy. If you capture an enemy orc, he's one of yours now. He switches sides. Maybe his whole band surrenders and joins you, and they're with you now. Their loyalty is to the orcs, not to whichever kings and emperors started this war to begin with.

Sometimes orcs end up in the armies of dark lords. This lasts as long as the dark lord keeps paying them and doesn't expect them to break the code. They don't care what fucked up stuff the dark lord is doing, spend long enough as a mercenary and you get numb to attrocities, so long as the money keeps coming.

Other orcs take a more direct approach, and support themselves through banditry and conquest. 

There's a lot of overlap between orcs and goblins. There's surprising overlap between orcs and dwarves.


"Sentient vermin."

Even worse than being an orc. Somebody in power wants you gone, and now you don't have rights anymore. Basically outlaws. 

A goblin might be a heretic, a criminal, somebody whose land got stolen, a fugitive, or something like that. Or just born to goblin parents. You're not part of regular society, and regular society wants you fucking gone. There's overlap between goblins and orcs. People don't like to admit it, but there's overlap between goblins and hobbits.

There's absolutely no social safety net when you're a goblin. Individual people might be nice to you, but others won't be, and maybe there's a bounty on your head again. Best to hide from them, then.

Goblins get really, really good at hiding. They find places they can escape from the world, and they band together with other goblins. When society is your enemy, fuck 'em. Feed yourself through subtle theft, banditry, whatever it takes. Trust your fellow goblins to keep you safe. If regular folks look at you funny, kick their teeth in so they won't want to chase after you in a hurry, and go to ground. Fill your home with cunning traps. Fuck 'em, look out for your own.

The world wants you dead, but you're clawing and spitting and snarling and still alive.

Hobgoblins are when these outlaws arm themselves and actively fight back. Guerillas, terrorists, militias, what have you. They cobble together uniforms, and stick the heads of those who'd oppress or exterminate them on spikes before fading back into the shadows. They're probably also orcs.
Kobolds are when these outlaws are also dwarves, and have secret knowledge that mean you have to take them seriously, even while trying hard to get rid of them. Kobolds tend to be very good at building impregnable fortresses full of traps.



"Personally strong enough to do whatever the fuck they want with no consequences." 

The rule of thumb is this: if you can walk into an average town by yourself and demand they give you tribute, and get it without any noteworthy resistance, you're a dragon.

You probably weren't a building-sized fire-breathing carnivorous flying lizard to begin with. But once you hit a certain level of power, you realise nothing's stopping you from turning into one if you want to, and there never was. 

Dragons shapeshift. They look like people, until they don't. Every one is a legend. Every one is unique.

Kings aren't dragons. Their power comes from systems of laws and heirarchy and custom meaning people choose to follow them. Wizards might be, as might particularly mighty warriors. Subtlety and subterfuge aren't particularly inclined towards making you a dragon, normally, but often somebody who excels in those areas will - when their back is to the wall - reveal that they were a dragon all along.

If you can personally reduce anybody who speaks back to you to two whisps of smoke coming from a pair of shoes (or a red smear), you're a dragon.

Some dragons do their best not to act like dragons. They try to be benevolent, to blend in with society, to only flex their power in emergencies. The rest - the majority, even - are problems.

A typical dragon ensures those who follow them are loyal by making dramatic examples. They tend to enjoy skull fortresses, big piles of treasure, and appending titles like 'the terrible' onto their name. 

People who set out to slay dragons generally fail. Those who succeed normally become dragons themselves. 

Elves become dragons disproportionately often. It's the focus that does it. They're often the most reasonable dragons.

Orcs do too. We call them black dragons, and they burn bright and furious, leading a horde of orcs behind them until they inevitably perish doing something exciting.

Goblins also produce a lot of dragons, particularly kobolds. A goblin who becomes a dragon is really good news (for the goblins and hobgoblins and kobolds and orcs of the world) and really bad news (for the sort of people who decided you were a goblin in the first place). These get called red dragons, because of all the blood that they leave behind.

Red dragons tend not to be inclined to be merciful to their enemies. Their followers, on the other hand, often do pretty well for themselves. When you have a red dragon on your side, you might not have to be a goblin for long.

Very successful kingdoms have been founded by a red dragon with a big dream.


  1. Nice work! Gave me a good think.

  2. Interesting - especially the overlaps; I like the fuzziness of 'these things are a range, it gets unclear at the edges' - feels more real.

  3. Love to see your mad writing, been missing that. Interesting notion about how behavioral turns you into something else. A bit like Lamarckian magic! Really interesting and thought provoking (as your ideas usually are!)

  4. I love most of this, especially the autistic elves, but I think it's irresponsible to ignore the antisemitic origins of the goblin as a fantasy trope-- effectively, goblins already ARE a social construct, y'know? no need to reinvent the wheel from scratch here, they're an ethno-religious minority that serves as the default societal scapegoat.

    it feels almost like you're working backwards here with the goblins-- you take every subhuman stereotype of warrens and pillaging and whatever and then justify it as "this is what people (have to) do when they're brutally systematically ostracized" but no, these stereotypes are themselves the basis for real-world ostracizing.

    idk, it's too early in the morning and I'm not forming entirely coherent thoughts yet but I'm not sure you can actually rehabilitate "goblin as subhuman living in a nest and shit on sight in the civilized world" as a social construct without serious inquiry into the irl social constructs that created the tropes you're referencing.

    also hobbits aren't hippies, hobbits are bourgeois fucks who can afford to ignore the outside world for the most part. although I guess a lot of irl hippies are kinda the same? hobbits aren't close to goblins, hobbits are closer to vampires than anything.

    1. also, wait... if elves are the neurodivergent ones that society respects because they're useful or talented or whatever, what happens to the neurodivergent ones society DOESN'T respect? the ones whose differences confer no direct advantage to surviving or whatever? do they get accepted by elf communities or whatever? If elfhood is just this distinct, unique fantasy condition that's always accompanied by "positive" traits (hyperfocus, special talents, whatever) then aren't we just back in skull-caliper territory, but without pointy ears/long lifespans and with "sometimes they're born to humans" ?


    2. I had a big long thing written up but firefox crashed and I lost it, so I'll TLDR:

      "Goblins are antisemitic" is one of those things which is technically true but also fucking useless in practice. Most european folklore and occultism has antisemitic origins if you trace it back far enough. Wizards, elves, dwarves, vampires, magic rings and most forms of magic can all be traced back to antisemitic ideas. If you discard everything in fantasy touched by it, there's basically nothing left. However, 'the history of this thing is antisemitic' and 'this thing as encountered now are antisemitic' are different things. For example, despite a history of antisemitism in western occultism, it's actually quite easy to depict wizards that aren't fucking racist.
      In practice, the most common historical treatment of Jewish people (stigmatised second-class citizens) hasn't matched the dynamic given here (those outside the law entirely), and drawing that specific paralel is ignoring a complex and varied history of the jewish diaspora.
      I didn't include a specific construct intended to parallel Jewish communities here, because that is - frankly - boring and lazy. If you want to explore Jewish identity, you can just make your characters actually Jewish, which works much better because you're not abstracting away a varied and complex culture to wedge it into a gygaxian box.
      Like, if I had just said 'Goblins Are Jewish', I'd just be doing fucking racism.

      In reality, this depiction of goblins was initially based on my experiences being long-term homeless and the way society treats you in that situation. When you can't go to the cops because they're the ones who pour bleach in your sleeping bag to begin with, you learn to hide and carry a knife. When there's no legal way for you to get money, you feed yourself by scavanging and stealing.
      Historically, pirates, outlaws, etc have been a pretty common thing. People existing entirely outside of the laws protection need to support themselves, and crime isn't an uncommon way of doing that.
      There are a lot of stereotypes about homeless people, but housed people are fucking idiots and who cares. They weren't gonna give you a fair shake to begin with, so look after yourself and stop bothering with them.
      So, your specific line:
      [I'm not sure you can actually rehabilitate "goblin as subhuman living in a nest and shit on sight in the civilized world" as a social construct without serious inquiry into the irl social constructs that created the tropes you're referencing]
      is missing the point since I have, in fact, directly personally been somebody who lived in a hidden nest and was shat on automatically by the civilised world, and who was prepared to resort to criminal behavior to keep myself alive when civilised society was trying to get rid of me. I have, in fact, lived like that for about four years, and it sucks.
      Once you're homeless, nobody will give you a fair chance. Many of the harmful stereotypes about homeless people (petty theft, poor personal hygiene, drinking) have an observable basis in reality. There are rational reasons why these behaviours emerge, but housed people don't actually understand life in those circumstances, and so stigmatise behaviour that people resort to out of necessity.
      That's what goblins are. Except in my nice escapist fantasy, sometimes goblins can kill cops successfully, because I like imagining a better world.


    3. Moving on to hobbits, 'Bourgoisie' refers to the class of people who own property and make a profit by exploiting the labour of others. A landlord or a factory owner is bourgoisie.
      A subsistance farmer who has a small plot of land and grows their own food on it is not bourgoisie. My buddy Luke, who lived in the back of his van and made a living as a delivery driver was not bourgoisie. Indeed, because he was an unhoused traveller, he faced significant persecution at times.
      If you're bourgoisie, you are - by definition - part of the system and benefiting from it. A hobbit has opted out of this system entirely. The two can't really overlap.
      Hobbits are an analogue for those who live outside of mainstream society more-or-less by choice. This would cover things like nuns, queer anarchist squats, and rural homesteaders. Some of these groups face significant prejudice, such as traveller communities. The overlap between 'opting out of society' and 'violently oppressed' is pretty strong. I'm gonna point in the direction of new age travellers, and move on.

      Elves denote a form of privilege. Not every neurodivergent person in this imaginary fantasy world has that privilege. Isaac Newton did, I don't. An autistic person without that privilege is just a regular person.
      It's not skull-calliper-ey to recognise that society treats autistic people differently to neurotypical people. Historically, there have been roles that autistic people have often adopted, such as monks and nuns. 'Elf' is another such role, but not ever autistic person is an elf, just like not every medieval autistic person was a nun.

      Honestly, it feels to me like you're reading this in bad faith and trying to find reasons why it's problematic.

  5. Dan's ideas were interesting but I felt yours came much closer to identifying the role and appeal of each "race" and providing a foundation for creating equivalent player options. Thanks for taking the time to share. I hope knowing you've inspired at least one reader outweighs Captain Crowbar's baseless complaints.

  6. I loved it. The constructs are the kind of thing I have been playing with and growing for years so reading them was inspiring.
    Regarding half elves, I think they are more than high functioning. They are the elves whose fixation is people. All the same weirdness applies but the 'magic' is in understanding folks better than they do themselves. Bards, diplomats, witches, all good professions for half elves.

  7. Incredible follow-up aside, what popped into my head as I read was that this series of 'constructs' seemed familiarly similar to certain tropes and character archetypes in literature and media. Then I realised that each 'construct' is a set of correlating archetypes and tropes bundled in a form to fit this kitchen sink fantasy vernacular.

    In relation to the anime media I commonly consume, these archetypes correlate to many premises and developments. In particular, the isekai genre, is often riddled with idealistic renditions of all sorts of stories and 'wet-dream' power-fantasy premises.

    The protagonist usually has exaggerated ideas and character traits common to the genre (a combination of the anime aesthetic and the protagonist literally being an alien to the setting, therefore ignorant of the native's customs + a tendency to impose their modern ideals upon the natives as the definitive 'better'). Consequently, they act with 'Elven' eccentricity or 'Dwarven' stubbornness in certain ideals. The common lack of tangible responsibility tends to have the protagonists behave like a 'Hobbit', only concerned with their ideals. Or in very targeted, slice-of-life depictions, the protagonist is content with their role in a small community and pursuing some arts & crafts (which is often the premise). Either way, the protagonist holds some 'Cheat-package' (skill, ability or knowledge) that elevates their potential to become a 'Dragon' above the setting's natives. Which often manifests first as 'Elven' abilities or 'Dwarven' knowledge. The story could develop in many directions, including the protagonist's journey of a traditional 'Elf', 'Dwarf' or 'Hobbit' but in the isekai anime flavour.

    It is unsurprisingly common that the revenge fantasy will set the protagonist as the detested underdog 'Goblin'. This sub-genre thrives on the payoff of resolving the audience's hate and rage towards the protagonist's experiences from their surroundings. The protagonist's escape (or rise, or revenge/show-them-who's-right) from 'Goblinhood' is another trope that had long been honed in B grade medias.

    It is also not uncommon to see these 'Goblin' protagonists finding, accepting and recruiting 'Goblins' of the natives to their frequency. Building effectively, a band of merry 'Orcs' and eventually striving towards an kingdom of their own. This is a prevalent trope in Eastern media outside anime and cartoons, traced back to the novel "Water Margin", which embellishes the rise and fall of the 108 Outlaws of the Marsh who tried to challenge the status quo.

    Almost all characters in the modern isekai fantasy and many shonens are some degrees of 'Dragons'. This is most commonly seen when the writer is trying to 'put over' a new threat/foe. Most likely, within each system is also a degree of 'Dragoness' (power level, battle systems) constantly renovated with power creep. Overall, it is used to satisfy some power fantasy that pays off with comfort scenarios.

    These are my observations limited to the scope of anime, which was on the top of my head. Yet I am astounded by how many cases I can recollect where one or a combination of these 'construct' can be compared to many premises and developments of the isekai genre.

  8. Hi Emmy, I do not know how to reach you and I hope this comment will catch your eye. I'd just wanted to share with you that my 15 yo daughter and I have been translating your excellent adventure "Gardens of Ynn" to our mother tongue, which is Catalan.
    If you are interested in it, our working document is at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1E2FPeTDt6cQVYQ9kHFGp0R7yrRZPQmDwUddlKyfxyuc/edit?usp=sharing and our plan is to make it available through a local community at http://tirantlodau.cat/
    Thanks for such a great and evocative adventure, we enjoyed a lot with this project.

  9. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought of D&D elves being autistic. Though it's not surprising that it's another autistic person who did.

    I used to follow you back in the dying stylishly era. I'm happy the vanishing act was an account lockout instead of death. Looking forward to reading your new stuff!

  10. An incredibly thought-provoking and imaginative exploration of demihumans as social constructs. The parallels drawn with real-world societal dynamics add depth and intrigue to the worldbuilding. Bravo!

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