We released Green Lineages this last Saturday (which you can check out on our shop or on DriveThruRPG) and I thought it’d be interesting to talk about how I approached the design of some of the components. If you missed the announcement, Green Lineages is a supplement for 5E providing you with three new plant-themed lineages, and two backgrounds to accompany the cultures presented, those being aurx and verdants (treefolk).
So where better to start than perhaps the largest section of Green Lineages, aurx. Aurx presented an interesting challenge and territory that required careful traversal because unfortunately, orcs are racially coded. I don’t consider that up for debate, regardless of whether you personally consider orcs to be racially coded. Even though you and I can separate orcs from the real people they can often be a stereotype of or a stand-in for, their usual presentation can perpetuate harmful tropes and stereotypes that I didn’t want to contribute to. That’s all I’m going to say on this subject, please leave this debate out of the comments, I think it was covered in enough detail this summer. Was it this summer? I’m not sure. There was a lot of discussion around it recently at any rate from people more eloquent and qualified than I to speak on it.
So separating aurx from traditional orcs was my number one focus for a number of reasons, not least of all what I outlined above. I also just wanted them to be more unique and interesting than “Aha, these are basically regular orcs but this time they’re…blue!” or something. I’ve had aurx on the go for a while (as can be seen from Mayor Tanner in Corwyn), but until now they’ve been a kind of nebulous collection of biological characteristics (big ol’ rhino horn and plant skin) rather than an actual culture and civilization, which is what I feel lineages should focus on. Aurc culture (as it’s presented in the lineage and background entries, there’s way more to talk about than just that) was where most of the work went, so let’s talk about how I approached that!
The first step for me was determining the environment that the majority of aurx originate from, in this case being the jungle of the Greenwild. We’ve never visited the Greenwild in Chronicles and I’ve not put a huge amount of work into fleshing it out as a result (there’s always something more pressing to work on), so the Greenwild is kind of ‘generic big jungle’ right now. There’s definitely interesting stuff in there, I’ve just not worked out much of it.
I do know that the Greenwild is full of crazy weird animals, I think of it kind of like Pandora from Avatar – huge alien looking predators and dinosaurs and beautiful, toxic plants – so I knew that the Greenwild was a very dangerous environment to forge a life in. Not just forge a life, but actually flourish there as the aurx do. Everything in that jungle can kill you, either quickly with claws and nasty, big, pointy teeth, or slowly with toxins, so just basic survival would be the foremost concern of aurx in the Greenwild, to my mind.
And what better way to ensure survival than through prizing community above all else? That formed the backbone of my approach to aurc culture, a sort of anchor, if you will, that I kept coming back to when I was stuck. “Aurc culture revolves around the community in all things” – by looking out for the many rather than the one, aurx are able to thrive in an otherwise extremely hostile environment.
I also thought that a dangerous and savage environment like the Greenwild would require a certain amount of pragmatism and practicality from the aurx – resources are important and shouldn’t be squandered. This wasn’t as key an anchor as community for me, but a sort of…secondary anchor, if you will.
Next, I wanted to look at aurc physiology and how that might inform their culture. Aurx are big and green, and I’ve known for some time that aurx are green because their skin is photosynthetic, allowing them to draw food and energy from sunlight like a plant. They can’t live entirely off energy from the sun, they need to eat to maintain muscle mass and the like, but they can’t starve to death as long as they can access sunlight. That’s a pretty neat trick when almost everything you can eat has the potential to kill you so I knew this ability and the aurx relationship with the sun was going to be important in aurc culture, I just didn’t know in what way yet.
With that anchor from the environment: “aurc culture revolves around the community in all things”, I was able to flesh out more of aurx as a people, a lot of which came quite naturally.
- Aurx prize their tribe above them as an individual, which leads possessions to be considered the tribe’s first and the aurc’s second.
- Aurx prize the tribe over themselves, which leads decisions to be made as a tribe rather than by one person. That said, the environment they grow up in is very dangerous, so the opinions of older aurx (aurx that have survived longer) are given more weight.
- Aurx care about the many more than the one, which leads aurx outside the Greenwild to be selfless and put others first.
Aurc culture started to come together quite easily just from that one anchor, and I know that if I ever do a deeper dive on aurx and have to answer a question, I can come back to that it: “How might the answer to this question change when it is true that aurc culture revolves around the community?”
It’s often said that what separates humans (or a civilized people, in this instance) from animals is how we approach the matter of our dead, and in a dangerous environment like the Greenwild, you’re likely to wind up with a fair number of dead, so I wanted to consider that question too. This was where aurc physiology began to come into things, as I knew that because of the emphasis on community, the loss of a single aurc would be felt by the entire tribe. That meant funeral rites would likely be a big affair, but balanced with the pragmatism towards resources that aurx have. Funerals would probably be simple, honouring the fallen with words and stories rather than grand opulent displays. They’d probably be cremated or buried into the earth as is.
But I also knew that the fallen aurc’s last wishes would be given the highest regard (they care about community, which is made up of people), and a fallen aurc would probably want something that would benefit the tribe (aurx care about the tribe more than themselves). What if there was a way for the fallen aurc to still be a benefit to the tribe?
At some point around then, based on a confluence of fallen aurx wanting to benefit the tribe and probably being cremated or similar, as well as aurc skin’s unique property, I hit upon the idea of fallen aurx being rendered down into ink. This ink would be tattooed onto those they were closest to, and in turn would enhance that aurc’s photosynthetic skin. I kind of considered the ink to be like the flowers of a plant, a bright and different colour that absorbs more wavelengths of light. Or something, I don’t know if that’s how flowers work.
Be cool if it was though.
I also liked the visual of these tall, multicoloured people, where each tattoo told a story and represented a person that influenced that aurc’s life. The tattoos also had a big implication for aurc naming conventions – I had originally thought that aurx would have short, harsh names (they’ve got a mouth full of tusks, there’s probably a lot of sounds that they find difficult to make), but then I thought it’d be cool for aurc names to grow with their tattoos. So ultimately I arrived at an aurc beginning life with a one syllable name and upon being tattooed with the ink of another aurc, taking that aurc’s name and incorporating it into there own. So the aurc Matuk that features in Chronicles of Rinn would have started life as Ma, and at some point was likely tattooed with the ink of an aurc named Tuk – becoming Matuk.
That’s about as much of aurc culture as you see in Green Lineages, so let’s sum up the process for how I developed “people with a horn and photosynthetic skin” into something resembling an actual culture. I am of course not saying this is the only or best way to do it, or even the only way I do it, just how I did it this time.
- Think about the environment that people live in and its characteristics. Savage? Fertile? Barren? Peaceful? Capable of turning its inhabitants into cheese?
- Think about the physiology of the people, and what might be important to them as a result.
- Using those two trains of thought, find an anchor (or anchors) that affects those people’s worldview and beliefs.
- Use that/those anchor/s to inform the answers to further questions.
You can see how we went from “Aurx live in the Greenwild which is very dangerous” to “aurc culture revolves around community in all things” to communal possessions and decisions by group and funky tattoos.
Hopefully this proves an interesting window into the process, and I’m interested to hear how you approach worldbuilding cultures and peoples! Don’t forget Green Lineages is available in our store and on DriveThruRPG, and at the time of writing we have a giveaway running until Tuesday the 24th over on Twitter.
Next up, we’ll look at how I approach designing backgrounds!