Let’s Talk About the Brute Problem

To add a little clarity, we’ll be talking about brutes the race not the class in this article. That name-overlap is up there on my list of FAB pet peeves, alongside the instance on pun names, (which would be fine if you were making a product where I’m not supposed to take the narrative seriously, but is jarring when, as I believe is the case for FAB, you want me to regard the narrative as a legitimate story). Anyway, minor gripes aside, the primary brute problems are that they play into problematic fantasy tropes coupled with the fact that their representation in the game itself feels inconsistent, especially post-Everfest. However, that inconsistency might actually be a sign that better things are on the horizon for our green-skinned giants. So what’s the problem?

They’re Just Orcs
When I picked up FAB, Arcane Rising was the most recent set, boxes of WTR Alpha were $65, and my impression of brutes, was that they’re functionally Tolkien orcs with the serial numbers filed off. Maybe that’s not fair. They seem to have taken some extra roids and are possessed of less intelligence than Tolkien orcs; so, I guess they’re really more of stupid Uruk-hai. The lore to date has not done a lot to challenge this perception. The lore book itself talks about Rhinar in a mix of what sounds like a mix nature documentary and British colonial accounts of indigenous people in Africa or Australia –so, not a great look. This isn’t a unique problem to FAB. It’s an issue that fantasy media across the board is in the middle of reckoning with. It funnels into other recent conversations in in tabletop gaming like WotC’s recent reassessment of how they use “evil races” in their games.

“But they’re all made up,” you might say. The problem is that they aren’t made up from nothing. For a lot of these problem fantasy races, real world racist characteristics are ascribed to them, and then those races are labeled as inherently evil or insatiably destructive, which can help reinforce real world racist thinking. Historically, Dungeons and Dragons has treated these sorts of races as obvious enemies to the players (who are generally assuming the role of heroes or anti-heroes). The drow are fundamentally evil. The rare “good drow” (Drizzt Do’Urden is the archetype) don’t exist to challenge the setting’s perception of the race so much as to be an exception that proves the rule. What these evil races have in common is that they are rarely ascribed characteristics of the dominant culture that produced them, instead they are frequently posed as stupid and savage (orcs) or are conspicuously dark-skinned and untrustworthy (in a world with so many kinds of elves, it’s pretty suspicious that the well-known evil version happen to have black skin).

From a theory standpoint, I am on board with the argument that this sort of representation is a problem, and from a lived experience standpoint, if you’ve ever had to sit down with an obvious bigot to play an RPG at a gaming convention, you can see how they latch onto these sorts of representations to project their gross worldview into the session. Part of the problem with the “inherently evil races” angle is that they encourage people to enact guilt-free violence against these creatures. In many a D&D campaign, full-blood orcs and drow are “kill-on-sight” enemies, and the source materials have traditionally encouraged and rewarded this approach. Players do not often sit down and question whether they group of orcs they spot in the clearing ahead need to die in the way they might if they were some random dwarves. Evil races like orcs, and drow create ethical problems because they cannot be integrated into society. An orc is inherently evil, it is fundamental to their nature, and, as such, their existence is a constant threat to “good” races, which suggests that the only real way to functionally address them is via genocide. If you see an orc, you kill it.

Before we tie this back to brutes, I want to emphasize that what I’m calling the “kill-on-sight” races differ from races that are presented as being outsiders but who are allowed in society and discriminated against and mistrusted. The latter is often something that players who are themselves outsiders can relate to (this is why the LGBTQ community loves ourselves a Tiefling).

Note: this topic is very much alive and actively being fought over across nerd-spaces, and if you want to read more about it divorced from FAB, I would suggest a couple piece to get you started.

-Multiple Hugo award-winning author, N. K. Jemsin has a mailbag response where she talks about her issue with orcs from her perspective as a black woman.
-A detailed article from Wired that talks about the history these races in D&D can be found here.

Brute 1.0
Now that we have the context, let’s look at how brutes were presented to us when Flesh and Blood debuted. Rhinar’s character blurb is as follow:

“In the depths of the Savage Lands, a lone brute has carved out his territory in blood and bone. Abandoned to the mercy of the jungle as a cub, he fought to survive, fending off vicious beasts and scavengers. Yet this struggle has forged an alpha predator, relentless and unflinching, tearing through anything that gets in his way.

Reckless, savage and uncontrollable, Rhinar is driven by his bloodlust and base instincts. When he fights, he enters a bloody frenzy. Everything around him becomes a threat, the ground turning slick with blood as he blindly butchers everything in his path.”

Ok, not a lot of nuance to be had there. He’s a blood thirsty animalistic savage, and the accompanying lore isn’t really complicating that image (https://fabtcg.com/heroes/rhinar-reckless-rampage/?stories=True). A lot the description in that story talks about him the way you would talk about an animal, but he’s not. Even in their initial introduction, brutes have clothing, make tools and weapons, hell, they have names. And, if flavor text is anything to go by, they have language [swing fist, think later]. So brutes are people, but they are people who appear (in WTR and for quite a while afterwards) as the same sort of savage murder machines as Tolkien’s orcs –they are incapable of being integrated into the society of good and decent people (presumably because they’d eat them). This foundational view of the brute race aligns with pretty much all of the issues I laid out above.

So, out of the gate, my take on brutes is that they have all the problems of orcs with the extra layer of being created in a time period where people were already interrogating if orcs were a problem. But then something interesting happened…

Come One Come All!

Monarch and Tales of Aria were relatively brute-light sets, but they came back with a bunch of representation in Everfest, some of which made me pause and ask “wait, what’s going on with brutes now?” Let’s look at some the brute cards from Everfest.

Alright, why am I even bringing up Everfest? This is the same stuff we’ve been getting all along? What’s even the point of doing th-

Huh. Alright these last two shake things up. Wild Ride’s flavor text could almost be an overt response to this article thus far, and High Roller’s brute may be imposing but he’s playing the game not eating the or dismembering the other players. The lore is obviously pretty thin on this, so I don’t know if I can interpret these cards with full confidence. Maybe they’re just tongue-in-cheek joke cards and not canonical things that are happening. Maybe Rathe’s brutes will continue to be mindless savages, cannibals, and murders.

But maybe, just maybe, this represents a pivot on the part of LSS. Perhaps their creative team, as (I assume) a bunch of nerds, some who are reading the same sorts of articles I linked above, sat down and said, “hey, we’re just making orcs here, aren’t we?” And then some ambitious creative said, “can we do something more interesting?” In that scenario, Everfest could stand as a turning point for brutes. Perhaps the next time we see them, it will be some lore revealing a new brute hero, and we’ll get a POV that makes her an interesting character. As a quick aside, I went with “her” because orc-type races have this sort of history of being all male (as in Warhammer 40k), or at least the members that we’re shown as readers are male (a practice that also goes back to Tolkien),. But Swing Fist, Think Later establishes orc girls as canonical in Rathe, so why not? Maybe it’s like Yautja, and the females are even scarier than the males.

It may seem a bit late in the game to change things, but the one upshot to the relatively limited amount of lore that was published pre-FAB 2.0 is that we haven’t had a ton of material establishing brutes as characters. Moreover, this wouldn’t be the first time that a physically imposing fantasy race that was supposed to be primitive and violent ended up transforming into a more nuanced and engaging one as the story telling went on. You can kind of see it in how wookiees initially show up in Star Wars (Star Wars is fantasy, sorry to break it to you). Chewie was introduced to us as this guy would will rip your arms off, but then, as we saw more of him, he grew into a fully realized character with people he loved, an actual personality, and a wide host of impressive skills including advanced technical knowledge. What I’m saying here is that it’s not too late to change course. There’s a case to at least entertain the idea that Everfest’s approach to brutes suggests that LSS wants to make them a more interesting race worth reading about as opposed to a bunch of mindless violence machines. Give us Brute 2.0.

*Header Image – Bare Fangs by Yugin Maffioli

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