The Turtlekin

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Starting back on a project that’s been sitting for a while is always difficult. It’s been a few weeks since I did much work on this setting – I’ve been busy with Breaker of Chains, amongst other things – and I wasn’t entirely sure where to jump back into this project. This post is late because, well, this isn’t what I intended to write about, and I scrapped what I’d done and started again late yesterday.

I had originally intended to start defining some of the flora and fauna of the island, but I wasn’t enjoying that work and it felt kind of pointless – like I was doing something for the sake of doing it, rather than because I was enjoying it or thought it would add something of value to the thing I’ve been building.

On Friday Wizards of the Coast released the Tortle Package on DMs Guild. I’ve had a chance to look at it today, and my heart sank a little when I finally got around to reading it. The geography of the Snout of Umgar isn’t hugely dissimilar from the geography of the island I’ve been building (although it’s not identical), and it’s also populated with turtle people. I realised that if I want this setting to be something unique that people are going to want to use in their games – and potentially spend money on – that I’m going to need to ensure that I distinguish it from Chult in obvious ways.

So I decided to revisit my own turtle people and look at what differentiates them from tortles. The turtlekin are one of the most important parts of my setting and the campaign – the story revolves around them, and they’re going to be the primary antagonists for a large portion of the campaign. If they can be easily replaced by tortles, then I’ve failed in making them unique enough to tell a story about them.

I’ll be honest – I’m writing this and I’m still not entirely sure how to present this post. I don’t want to do a straightforward comparison post (“Tortles do this; my turtles do this”) because that seems unnecessarily defensive, like I’m admitting that they’re basically the same and trying to find any difference whatsoever to cling to. I also haven’t developed much of the turtlekin yet, so writing that kind of post would require me to fill in a lot of the blanks that I have and present it as though that information was already developed. I don’t like that.

So, since I have a lot of blanks to fill in, I figure this post will be the place where I remove some of the fog and start defining my turtle people in more detail. Where it’s relevant, we’ll look at where my turtlefolk butt up against the tortle, and see if there’s anything I can tweak to further differentiate my people from the tortles.

Let’s remind ourselves of what we already know about the turtlefolk who live on my still-nameless island.

The Turtlekin

Most of what I know about the turtlekin – or turtle folk, or turtleborn, or whatever I’m calling them this week – comes from this post where I developed some of the history of the island. There’s little point in simply regurgitating that post here, so I’ll just touch on some of the more interesting parts of it here, the parts that I decide to flesh out a little more or that I feel need to be differentiated from tortles in some way. I will say that I’d forgotten a lot of what I wrote in that post, so it was definitely worth rereading (for me, at least). I’ll also give the caveat again that I’m writing this post simultaneously with any development work I do on the turtlekin, so the structure of the rest of this post may be somewhat lacking.

I still really like the idea that there are two distinct subraces of my turtlefolk – those who live on land and don’t swim much, and the sea turtles who are essentially the explorers of the turtlefolk – and that they are a very social, communal society. I liked that the moment that I wrote it, but I like it even more now that I’ve seen what WoTC have done with the tortle. The turtle people presented to go with Tomb of Annihilation are born explorers, filled with a wanderlust that drives them to travel and explore. They don’t really have settlements and permanent structures, and there’s only really one generation of them alive at a time (the tortles only breed when they are coming to the end of their lives, and spend their final moments dispensing wisdom and education to their offspring before they die).

That’s dramatically different to the society that I’m building. Once the eggs hatch and the hatchlings that survive make their way south, they join society and live among their family. And by family, I mean the community as a whole; it seems a little farfetched that the turtlekin would recognise which hatchlings are theirs when they weren’t there to see them hatch, and the hatchlings’ journey south probably takes a fair amount of time.  

I wonder now if the breeding season is marked by a festival of some kind that coincides with the first hatchlings finding their way home? There could be a particular status bestowed on those hatchlings that reach the safety of the commune first, or expectations placed on them by society to continue to outshine their peers.

I also wonder if this could be an interesting part of their culture to mine for things like turtlekin folk stories/legends, as well as potential adventure hooks if I decide that the reveal about the nature of the colonial diet has to come a little later, once the players have spent some time with the turtlekin and developed a relationship with them. Maybe there’s a story about a hatchling who never made it home, who has grown in solitude in the jungle and who has watched his people from outside for years. Perhaps that story is one of those memetic tales, an urban legend of sorts that seems to be shared by all generations – but if we want an adventure out of it, we simply decide that this time the story is true, and introduce it to the players as something worth investigating.

I still don’t really know what their architecture looks like, and I think that’s going to be important. WoTC’s tortles don’t really construct buildings other than very utilitarian stone forts that they use to protect their young while they are educated, before the older generation die. Once that happens the young tortles abandon these structures.

That isn’t the case for my turtlekin. I decided early on that I want them to be a mostly settled society, and I want their settlement (or settlements – there may be more than one turtlekin settlement on the island) to be fairly alien in its construction. A turtle’s real home is his shell, so the architecture doesn’t necessarily have to provide shelter. And due to the communal nature of their society, there isn’t any need for lots of individual buildings to house distinct family units. I mentioned briefly when I first wrote about these people that I’d like their society to be fairly religious, and religion has always inspired impressive architecture, so there’s definitely scope for some structures of religious significance. Their young need to be educated, too, so I’ll need spaces for that to happen.

So, we’re talking lots of functional spaces, but I don’t want them to be visually boring. I like the idea that just as my turtlefolk decorate their shells to express themselves, they also build visually striking structures. There’s also the fact that they have some affinity with water – they’re amphibious, after all – so many of the structures could incorporate both water and land into their construction and design.

Let’s talk about multiple settlements for a minute, too. Up to this point I’ve always just assumed that there’s only one turtlekin settlement on the island, but there’s no reason for that to be the case. In fact now that I’ve thought about this for more than two minutes, I don’t know why that would be the case at all. If I include even one more settlement, I immediately have an added element of conflict that I can use in the campaign – politics. There must be some reason why the turtlefolk don’t all live in one place, after all, and there’s no reason to assume that the separate settlements don’t have contact with one another – either friendly or hostile.

One aspect of my larger plot that I’ve been struggling to resolve is how the characters are going to discover the means to stop the elder god from waking. Once the conflict with the turtlekin begins, it’s going to be difficult for the players to gain the information that they need. If i introduce a second community of turtlefolk, then there’s scope for the players to discover their existence later in the campaign and for them to form an alliance. Maybe this second society don’t believe the stories about the god beneath the volcano – they see the first group as religious fundamentalists and don’t give their stories and rituals much credence. If the players can convince them that the threat is real and that the first group aren’t going to be able to complete the ritual, they can maybe enlist the second group to help them complete it and save the island.

A Playable Race?.

Last time I was talking about the turtlekin, I floated the idea of writing two concurrent campaigns – one where you’re the colonists and accidentally ruin the Very Important Ritual, and one where you’re turtlefolk and humans arrive, eat your young, and endanger the world. I still really like that idea, but I think it’s a little too ambitious. It can maybe come later, but for now it’s a huge amount of extra work that will only make this project take longer than it’s already going to. At the most I might write a one-shot optional turtlekin adventure that sets up some of the lore of the island and ends with the turtle seeing the first colonial ships arriving, but that’s not definite.

What this means in a practical sense is that I’m not going to write up the turtlekin as a playable race. Instead, when we get to the time for mechanics and crunch, I’ll stat them up as monsters. In fact, that might well be what I aim to do for next week’s post.

This isn’t a huge amount of work to have done given how long I’ve let this project sit idle, but I’m not overly concerned. It’s good to get back into the project and to feel like I’ve made at least a little bit of progress, and if all goes well this week I’ll have some actual playable content ready to present next week. (I have to write my MA dissertation this week, so we’ll see whether I manage to get that post up on time or not.)

Thanks for reading, and welcome back!

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