Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Venom and Coil

"Venom and Coil," written by Robin Laws and illustrated by David McClellan
"Venom and Coil" is an article in Dragon #305 that adds additional depth to the yuan-ti, D&D's evil snake people. Although it is perhaps unintentional, the article gets philosophical about human nature. You see, the yuan-ti strive against each other for pride of place in their hierarchical society. This isn't noteworthy in itself, but it takes on new meaning when you realize that the murderous impulse for dominance is far more common among the yuan-ti who are more human than snake. The purebloods, who appear mostly human, are the yuan-ti most likely to kill one another as they fight their way to the top of the heap. In a sense, this is a bit of worldbuilding that is saying To be human is to be violently competitive.

(The only thing I don't like about this philosophical tangent is that it falls under a heading that reads "Hissy Fits.")

The yuan-ti commit evil deeds in hopes that their vile actions will awaken Merrshaulk, their slumbering Snake God. However, only gratuitous evil acts committed in Merrshaulk's name count toward rousing the god from his sleep; if the yuan-ti receive a tangible benefit from an act of destruction, it doesn't count. Merrshaulk seems to be the god of pointless dickish behavior, but it does give the DM a license to put any old dumb plot in the hands of the yuan-ti: their end goal doesn't have to make sense or have a graspable motive, they're just doing whatever awful thing they're up to in hopes of getting their deadbeat dad to notice them.

Check out this dope Serpentor hat tho.
As you might imagine, yuan-ti are hatched from eggs. Yuan-ti priests are allowed to eat unfertilized eggs, but it is taboo for other yuan-ti to eat them. Yuan-ti are also eugenicists: their priests control the egg fertilization process, matching "male and female with careful calculation" to breed ubersneks. They also practice selective breeding to keep the correct caste ratios in place. Yuan-ti society is predictably patriarchal; only male yuan-ti get to serve as priests and other important positions. The article tries to make the claim that female yuan-ti are respected too, but falls back on the trope "the girl ones are really good at scheming!" to get there, which isn't very convincing.

As is the case with most evil races in D&D, the yuan-ti practice slavery. But if you thought we were going to get out of this article without some Fu Manchu-style orientalism, think again. The yuan-ti keep their slaves docile and pliable by getting them addicted to "white resin" (read: opium). The take-away from the article is that the yuan-ti are a combination of Howardian snake cultists, "racial scientists," internet shitlords, and the inscrutable yellow peril.

After reading the article, I took a look at the yuan-ti chapter in Volo's Guide to Monsters to see where 5e deviates from the older take on the yuan-ti. There's no mention of white resin in Volo's, but the taboo against cannibalism is also gone. The eastern Asian influence has been largely replaced with a broad Inca/Aztec vibe, which is an interesting continent shift but not necessarily an improvement.