Design Journal #3: Blurring the Distinction Between Man and Beast, by Matthew Kaiser
Robert E. Howard wrote a lot about action, adventure, dark magic and danger. He also liked to slip more complex themes into the background of his writing that were not necessarily integral to the plot at hand, but helped build an overall tone for his fantasy world. One of the biggest background themes in his writing was that civilization is an imperfect and temporary mortal construct that will inevitably crumble and fall back into barbarism. This theme fits in well with the rise and fall of the many empires of the ancient Americas and has been woven into the fabric of Totems of the Dead. Another related theme that Howard touched on ever so slightly was blurring the division between human and animal, and the idea that there were sentient beings before humans and that something else will eventually replace us as the dominant race. These themes are most apparent in the Conan stories that include the Man-Apes, ape like creatures that, though larger and stronger, are so close to humans that they could one day evolve into a new breed of humanlike creature. The most obvious example of this being the way he describes the character of Thak in Rogues in the House.
Meanwhile, Native American lore also contains tales of shapeshifters, skinwalkers and other beings that blur the distinction between human and animal. Some legends even tell of a time when there was little distinction between spirit, human and animal, and a single entity could have the traits of all three over the course of a story. So lets take a look at some of the places where Totems of the Dead blurs the line between man and beast.
Ancient Beastmen: Drawn from various bits of Native American lore is the concept that animals, humans and spirits were once all part of the same group of primordial beings who possessed the traits of all three. As time wore on and the world evolved, these beings diverged into the humans, animals and spirit beings. Now the beastmen of the primordial age are all dead and gone… or at least they are all dead.
Sasquatches and Ape-Things: A fan of R.E Howards man-apes, I wanted to include some similar creatures in Totems of the Dead. While there is little scientific record of large apes in the ancient Americas there are plenty of legends of similar creatures. Bigfoots/sasquatches and arulataqs number among the many vaguely ape-like creatures Native American lore. Meanwhile, cryptozoology places ape-like beasts called skunk apes or swamp apes in the forests and swamplands of the southeast.
Neanderthals: Neanderthals are one of the closest things to humanity without being full human. Current science is even speculating that many modern humans have a percentage of Neanderthal genes. Now I’m not aware of any actual records of Neanderthals living in the Americas, but that is no reason to leave them out of a pulp style swords and sorcery setting. The inclusion of Neanderthals is inspired less by R.E. Howard directly and more by the Turok books and movie among other “Lost World” type inspirations. In Totems of the Dead, Neanderthals are a disappearing race that mostly lives in small tribes in the subarctic regions, vying with humans for hunting ground.
Skinwalkers: Though there are other shapeshifters drawn from Native American lore in the setting, Skinwalkers are the most common variety and are presented alongside humans as a playable race. In Totems of the Dead, skinwalkers are a bit of an anomaly. They are born into human families but they are not themselves wholly human, gifted with the ability to transform into a specific animal.
Feral Ones: Feral ones are another playable race, and one of my own creations. Instead of being a near human or ape-like thing that may one day become a more human-like race, feral ones are a new species that has diverged from humanity back towards more animalistic traits. They are descended from ancient humans who, like Mowgli of the Jungle Book, Rima the Jungle Girl, Tarzan or Marvel Comic’s Wolverine, became separated from their human community as children and were adopted and raised in the wild by animals. Now imagine that there are enough of these “feral children” from different human tribes/cultures that survive and locate each other that they avoid begin to build their own society together, one that resembles a wolf pack as much as a human tribe. Living in remote areas they avoid most contact with regular human communities. Thousands of years later they have evolved in isolated pockets around the continent into a new race entirely, becoming things of the wild that are both more and less than human.
Thanks for reading, and until next time, Happy Gaming!
- Matt Kaiser