Conflicted among the fantasy cities.

So, people are making up fantasy cities based on the outline I provided and there’s some interesting stuff. However, here are the problems with metaphors, they say something.

I’m troubled with the whole thing. Are these cities saying that people who are in poverty or oppressed are monsters? Is that what I have asked people to say with their favorite toys in the Monster Manual?

Shit, that isn’t what I meant but when I look over the cities, mine very much included, that feels like how it came out, almost feels like that is exactly what I asked people to do, to aggressively -Other- poor folks and minorities.

I’m brewing and stewing and marinating over this.

Thoughts in the comments are welcome.

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56 thoughts on “Conflicted among the fantasy cities.

  1. Here’s what you said: “How do the powers that rule the city keep them down?” I think poverty and oppression were applied to those monsters, not the other way around.

  2. I was actually thinking about High Cromlech this morning and how it fits in oddly with your fantasy city schema. Here’s my thought:

    You (and others) are arriving at that othering effect because the schema doesn’t ask “Who’s on top and what terrible things do they do to stay there?”

    It indirectly answers the second question, since all the minorities say something about how they’re being kept down, but it doesn’t really focus our attention on the Man. I think it’s not hard to do so, though. You simply ask that focusing question and everything else fits together just great.

    Describing the powers that rule the city explicitly allows you to give them an identity other than “unmarked people.” That should help, because every person reads unmarked people as similar to himself.

  3. I admit I sort of ignored the bit about the man keeping them down. I know that’s a big chunk of CM’s stuff, but it was not key to me.

    That said, I think you need to be careful about seeing metaphor in high weirdness. By it’s nature it’s the kind of noise we’re inclined to see patterns in, but doing so can undercut an understanding of what was actually exciting an author and replace it with something less fantasic.

    • Monsters with politics to taste…

      I’m thinking of this quote:

      “And when I write my novels, I’m not writing them to make political points. I’m writing them because I passionately love monsters and the weird and horror stories and strange situations and surrealism, and what I want to do is communicate that. But, because I come at this with a political perspective, the world that I’m creating is embedded with many of the concerns that I have. But I never let them get in the way of the monsters.”

      So, I reckon people will add in political stuff to taste and that makes sense.

  4. Perhaps it says something about wanting to champion the plight of the oppressed, rather that denigrating them? After all, Mieville’s heroes were all from ghettos, were political insurrectionists, etc.

    Are you listening to the Forbidden Planet score?

    • Grell

      No, the music is a joke, not something I am actually listening to. In one of the cities, someone mentioned how the discordant music of the Grell was becoming popular in certain dockside bars. So, I put that down as my music.

      Yeah, I hear ya.

  5. I don’t know what to write that hasn’t already been written, except maybe that although I’m right on board with the point Shreyas made, there’s a little voice in my head telling me that focusing on the oppressor rather than the oppressed is still a form of othering.

    I’m often guilty of claiming that the real monsters are the monsters who so blithely categorize others as monsters, only then realizing that I just made myself one of those people in the act of making that claim.

    In any case, now you’ve inspired me to go pull my copy of Richard Kerarney’s *Strangers, Gods and Monsters* off the shelf and actually try to read it again.

  6. Yeah, I was thinking something similar this morning as I read the stuff that had gone up. So, as I started to think of a design, I thought the best thing to was to say that there are three humanoid and three monster species in each city, and to not privilege either as top or bottom, but push people to describe what hierarchies, conflicts, and resonances might arise as the species try to live together.

    My species were: grippli, janni, and satyrs (humanoid); kyton (chain devils), boguns, and ogre mages (“monsters”). I am still working out the dynamics, but so far the kytons are the defenders of order, the magi are subversives, the grippli are rabble-rousers constantly scrabbling for power, the janni are the hapless middle class, the satyrs are a disgruntled former elite, and the boguns are a manufactured underclass who have made a bargain with the kytons to create a new order.

  7. rycanada

    Dude,don’t worry about that stuff. 🙂

    The method is pretty at-a-glance and at-a-glance we see societies in terms of haves, have-nots, andthe schisms that
    make ’em that way. Monsters are naturally
    Seen as … Monsters.

    That’s why I posted the time / how to host a city idea. What you want to do is run through SimonC’s culture generator process in between steps; that makes haves/havenots that eat each other into people and perspectives

      • Re: Sometimes a pickle is a dick.

        Okay, literally, I laughed so out loud just now that my kids are trying to see what I’m laughing about and I’m pushing them away from the screen and still laughing.

  8. I think there are other angles, though I think the concern is very valid (and agree with much of what Shreyas said).

    1. D&D Monsters Are Awesome. In this case, “othering” might not be a matter of denigrating or distancing, really. I put Gnomes in my city, since I totally want to play a 4E gnome.

    2. D&D humanoid monsters may not be “others.” I didn’t read everything in detail, but there were some PC races represented – at least gnomes and tieflings, IIRC. In context, I think choosing a PC race might represent choosing someone “like me.”

    3. I’m not sure that having the rulers would be monsters or the oppressed “like me” would be all that much better an exercise for someone like me, who is an affluent educated Western white man. If I make the rulers monsters, I get to say, “yeah, but this has nothing to do with MY oppression of others… those are MONSTERS.” If I make the oppressed human or more humanlike, I’m claiming the mantle of the oppressed in a potentially problematic way (imagine the reaction if someone came up with humans who believed in private property and a monotheistic religion as the underclass oppressed by an illithid group-mind). Were I to run a campaign set in a city like one of these, with people like the people I know, and I was concerned about the political message, I think I’d *on purpose* go for “you initially identified with the oppressors because they seemed more like you than the monstrous and downtrodden, but that sympathy was morally misplaced” as a take-home lesson.

  9. I think you did the opposite. Take out settings like Sharn that explicitly pose that all kinds of creatures may be citizens of the city, and I think you’ll find most cities are extremely PC race-centric. You’ve got elves and dwarves and humans and they are all oppressing each other without needing anyone else around to oppress. Anything outside of that would be considered “monsters” and either kept out of the city, killed, or kept in some bizarre zoo for people to observe.

    Not having read CM (something I plan to correct), I saw your post as an invitation to play against the typical D&D convention of “if it’s in the MM, kill it” and find a space for monsters to exist amongst the major races. As Rob said, I didn’t pay much attention to the “keeping them down” part and just worked on finding reasons the dominant and the minor races would want or need to live together.

    I think this was a great project and it resulted in a host of killer cities where “monsters” could exist alongside the normal races. I understand your concern about “othering” but if you look at the default mode of “kill it and take its stuff” your project has given life and the opportunity for interesting interaction with a ton of monsters that would in other settings simply by containers of XP and treasure.

  10. Monsters, sometimes, are a way we can more comfortably discuss and experience racial and cultural issues. It’s also a safe way to practice the hate, admiration, fascination, etc. of “the other” with comfort.

    We used to play Cowboys and Indians; now it’s Humans and Orcs.

    Of course, sometimes it’s just monsters. A singular monster (dragon, beholder) plays the classical monster role, while the racial monster (orc, drow, githzerai) holds “the other” role.

  11. Re: Sometimes a pickle is a dick.

    Okay, literally, I laughed so out loud just now that my kids are trying to see what I’m laughing about and I’m pushing them away from the screen and still laughing.

  12. Re: Sometimes a pickle is a dick.

    Okay, literally, I laughed so out loud just now that my kids are trying to see what I’m laughing about and I’m pushing them away from the screen and still laughing.

  13. Maybe presenting the New Crobuzon model as an example predisposed people towards a “humans-in-charge” style?

    You could just as easily put monsters in the upper classes, and you wouldn’t even have to use illithids or aboleth or any of the other slave-holding races.

    Imagine a city run by gold dragons. Smotheringly righteous lawful-good gold dragons, who live for thousands of years and always take the long view on policy and who always *always* know best. It’d be like Singapore, except the Prime Minister has been in charge for the last century, and he breathes fire.

  14. Maybe presenting the New Crobuzon model as an example predisposed people towards a “humans-in-charge” style?

    You could just as easily put monsters in the upper classes, and you wouldn’t even have to use illithids or aboleth or any of the other slave-holding races.

    Imagine a city run by gold dragons. Smotheringly righteous lawful-good gold dragons, who live for thousands of years and always take the long view on policy and who always *always* know best. It’d be like Singapore, except the Prime Minister has been in charge for the last century, and he breathes fire.

  15. Maybe presenting the New Crobuzon model as an example predisposed people towards a “humans-in-charge” style?

    You could just as easily put monsters in the upper classes, and you wouldn’t even have to use illithids or aboleth or any of the other slave-holding races.

    Imagine a city run by gold dragons. Smotheringly righteous lawful-good gold dragons, who live for thousands of years and always take the long view on policy and who always *always* know best. It’d be like Singapore, except the Prime Minister has been in charge for the last century, and he breathes fire.

  16. Maybe presenting the New Crobuzon model as an example predisposed people towards a “humans-in-charge” style?

    You could just as easily put monsters in the upper classes, and you wouldn’t even have to use illithids or aboleth or any of the other slave-holding races.

    Imagine a city run by gold dragons. Smotheringly righteous lawful-good gold dragons, who live for thousands of years and always take the long view on policy and who always *always* know best. It’d be like Singapore, except the Prime Minister has been in charge for the last century, and he breathes fire.

  17. I’m sorry I didn’t get around to writing one earlier. I was waiting until I could dig out my copy of Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” which, while it has a lot of exoticism, does something a bit different than a lot of the city outlines that were posted, a sort of dream-like, interrogative description that sound more like the kinds of roleplaying setups you really dig. I’m not sure I can fake it without the book, but something like…

    An ancient gnoll with fur of tarnished silver beckons to you with two clawed fingers, stepping gingerly down into the back-alleys of Lasorda, a city built among the ruins of an antediluvian predecessor whose name vanished with its original inhabitants. A cannibalized city of cannibals, Lasorda’s patchwork buildings, underneath their flourishes of entrails and bloody petroglyphs, hint at the secrets of past civilizations. Here a marble hand protrudes, as if grasping for freedom from its tomb. There a choir of angels gaze disapprovingly from their fresco at a crude wooded rack bedecked with skulls. Leaning on his staff tipped with a peacock feathers, keeping everything under its single watchful eye, your guide shuffles closer and whispers that he will take you to the lost chamber wherein the revelers drink blood-wine and speak proudly of the captives they’ve taken and in what sauces they plan to consume their prizes. Will you go with him, hoping beyond hope that your nephew is still alive? Or will you linger to read the inscription below the angel fresco, which seems to address you directly?

  18. I’m sorry I didn’t get around to writing one earlier. I was waiting until I could dig out my copy of Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” which, while it has a lot of exoticism, does something a bit different than a lot of the city outlines that were posted, a sort of dream-like, interrogative description that sound more like the kinds of roleplaying setups you really dig. I’m not sure I can fake it without the book, but something like…

    An ancient gnoll with fur of tarnished silver beckons to you with two clawed fingers, stepping gingerly down into the back-alleys of Lasorda, a city built among the ruins of an antediluvian predecessor whose name vanished with its original inhabitants. A cannibalized city of cannibals, Lasorda’s patchwork buildings, underneath their flourishes of entrails and bloody petroglyphs, hint at the secrets of past civilizations. Here a marble hand protrudes, as if grasping for freedom from its tomb. There a choir of angels gaze disapprovingly from their fresco at a crude wooded rack bedecked with skulls. Leaning on his staff tipped with a peacock feathers, keeping everything under its single watchful eye, your guide shuffles closer and whispers that he will take you to the lost chamber wherein the revelers drink blood-wine and speak proudly of the captives they’ve taken and in what sauces they plan to consume their prizes. Will you go with him, hoping beyond hope that your nephew is still alive? Or will you linger to read the inscription below the angel fresco, which seems to address you directly?

  19. I’m sorry I didn’t get around to writing one earlier. I was waiting until I could dig out my copy of Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” which, while it has a lot of exoticism, does something a bit different than a lot of the city outlines that were posted, a sort of dream-like, interrogative description that sound more like the kinds of roleplaying setups you really dig. I’m not sure I can fake it without the book, but something like…

    An ancient gnoll with fur of tarnished silver beckons to you with two clawed fingers, stepping gingerly down into the back-alleys of Lasorda, a city built among the ruins of an antediluvian predecessor whose name vanished with its original inhabitants. A cannibalized city of cannibals, Lasorda’s patchwork buildings, underneath their flourishes of entrails and bloody petroglyphs, hint at the secrets of past civilizations. Here a marble hand protrudes, as if grasping for freedom from its tomb. There a choir of angels gaze disapprovingly from their fresco at a crude wooded rack bedecked with skulls. Leaning on his staff tipped with a peacock feathers, keeping everything under its single watchful eye, your guide shuffles closer and whispers that he will take you to the lost chamber wherein the revelers drink blood-wine and speak proudly of the captives they’ve taken and in what sauces they plan to consume their prizes. Will you go with him, hoping beyond hope that your nephew is still alive? Or will you linger to read the inscription below the angel fresco, which seems to address you directly?

  20. I’m sorry I didn’t get around to writing one earlier. I was waiting until I could dig out my copy of Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” which, while it has a lot of exoticism, does something a bit different than a lot of the city outlines that were posted, a sort of dream-like, interrogative description that sound more like the kinds of roleplaying setups you really dig. I’m not sure I can fake it without the book, but something like…

    An ancient gnoll with fur of tarnished silver beckons to you with two clawed fingers, stepping gingerly down into the back-alleys of Lasorda, a city built among the ruins of an antediluvian predecessor whose name vanished with its original inhabitants. A cannibalized city of cannibals, Lasorda’s patchwork buildings, underneath their flourishes of entrails and bloody petroglyphs, hint at the secrets of past civilizations. Here a marble hand protrudes, as if grasping for freedom from its tomb. There a choir of angels gaze disapprovingly from their fresco at a crude wooded rack bedecked with skulls. Leaning on his staff tipped with a peacock feathers, keeping everything under its single watchful eye, your guide shuffles closer and whispers that he will take you to the lost chamber wherein the revelers drink blood-wine and speak proudly of the captives they’ve taken and in what sauces they plan to consume their prizes. Will you go with him, hoping beyond hope that your nephew is still alive? Or will you linger to read the inscription below the angel fresco, which seems to address you directly?

  21. I think haves and have nots are completely fitting with most if not all human(oid) societies, and just because some fantasy cities make it out that Orcs are second class citizens isn’t a political statement per se. I mean, by race is a common method of dividing, whether race means a different skin color or having tusks and claws.

    Some of us also designed cities with elaborate power sharing instead of oppression.

    I think a modern American (who isn’t already a racist) is going to abhor a society that uses slaves regardless of if those slaves are other humans or are gnomes. So I wouldn’t worry to much about the social implications. But that’s me, I guess.

  22. I think haves and have nots are completely fitting with most if not all human(oid) societies, and just because some fantasy cities make it out that Orcs are second class citizens isn’t a political statement per se. I mean, by race is a common method of dividing, whether race means a different skin color or having tusks and claws.

    Some of us also designed cities with elaborate power sharing instead of oppression.

    I think a modern American (who isn’t already a racist) is going to abhor a society that uses slaves regardless of if those slaves are other humans or are gnomes. So I wouldn’t worry to much about the social implications. But that’s me, I guess.

  23. I think haves and have nots are completely fitting with most if not all human(oid) societies, and just because some fantasy cities make it out that Orcs are second class citizens isn’t a political statement per se. I mean, by race is a common method of dividing, whether race means a different skin color or having tusks and claws.

    Some of us also designed cities with elaborate power sharing instead of oppression.

    I think a modern American (who isn’t already a racist) is going to abhor a society that uses slaves regardless of if those slaves are other humans or are gnomes. So I wouldn’t worry to much about the social implications. But that’s me, I guess.

  24. I think haves and have nots are completely fitting with most if not all human(oid) societies, and just because some fantasy cities make it out that Orcs are second class citizens isn’t a political statement per se. I mean, by race is a common method of dividing, whether race means a different skin color or having tusks and claws.

    Some of us also designed cities with elaborate power sharing instead of oppression.

    I think a modern American (who isn’t already a racist) is going to abhor a society that uses slaves regardless of if those slaves are other humans or are gnomes. So I wouldn’t worry to much about the social implications. But that’s me, I guess.

  25. I wonder if some of this has to do with the kinds of cities we set adventures in, which are not necessarily the kinds of cities we actually want to live in. Of all the fictional cities I can think of off the top of my head, after a week of at home data entry, there are only two that I’d even consider living in. One is Liavek, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the shared universe anthology featuring it had a) a set end plan in mind — it was a finite series that ended on the perfect note (I miss John M. Ford), and b) each volume moved forward in time — the city changed. The other is Ellen Kushner’s Riverside, and it is surely no coincidence that it was inspired by the Upper West Side of our own city, back before it became the expensive place to live.

  26. As an American, I say with certainty that we root for the underdog. The oppressed. So in some cases, the monsters are targets of sympathy for their position, not the analogy that they are there <>because<> they are monsters.

    If, as someone else said, the <>oppressor was the monster, then we would just say, “Oh, those monsters, we must fight The Man,” and no thought would go into the oppressor at all. They are just the bad guy because they’re monsters and subjugating the oppressed.

    Also, I think that in some cases it’s an upgrade for most monsters in D&D. The general consensus of monsters is “Kill it and take its stuff”. So when the monster becomes a member of a city instead of a predator, it’s given a human face (so to speak). They’re forced to behave. And being a member of the city, they become less monstrous and more like people in rubber suits. Not to mention that these are things we’d likely not see beyond the point of a sword otherwise.

    And many of those monsters would possibly <>need to be oppressed to be in an urban environment and part of the social structure. If they’re eating the locals, that’s going to cause civil unrest.

  27. Here’s the other problem with metaphors: they can say many different things. None of them fact.

    Metaphors aren’t reality, they’re the ways we bend reality around to look at it, which means they are valid and invalid from multiple angles (all valid angles are also invalid angles) because metaphors are ways of thinking, not facts (ex: “all the world’s a stage” How many ways, positive and negative, can you interpret that metaphor?).

    As such, they’re only “monsters” if you decide that they are also actually monsters. You said “Go pick from this list I have arbitrarily labeled ‘monsters’ for ease of reference but could have confusingly called ‘variable person-shapes’.”

    Did you intend for and describe the oppressed as “monsters” (ie: horrible things doing horrible things to the undeserving ‘Us’)? Not that I see.

    In your intended context, the term is a value-neutral list indicator that states nothing about the actual or implied nature of the poor or oppressed, nor the oppressors.

    Partly, I think your mistake is taking words you used in proximity and building an idea from the subtext of those words out-of-context rather than from the context of the actual usage.

    Also, it seems to me you’re confusing two separate uses of the term: “monster” as a non-human-species creature listed in the foes & friends book for an RPG, and “monster” in the psychological man-eating-thing meaning. A word with multiple meanings does not carry all meanings in a single usage: context is important.

    Finally, I don’t begin to know how you would go about creating an NC as you’ve described without showcasing how society Others the poor and minorities and steps all over them. It’s inherent to the idea of exploring social agendas, and political and nationalist thought, as well as interpersonal relationships between individuals and groups.

    That’s not “Othering” — because I’m not sure I see anyone here demonizing or dehumanizing their underdogs and also pretending that’s the right/good/honest view of those individuals/groups — so I’m not certain how you convinced yourself you, or anyone, has aggressively Othered poor people and minorities.

    Unless you’re saying China has Othered everyone in his books by doing the same thing with his societies you’ve set up here?

  28. Well, you did say “make them minorities in the city,” not “give them interesting subcultures,” or even “choose four species to play various roles in the city.”

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