This is a new series for the blog (though we will be doing other content in between posts from this series), where I will give some thoughts on how to rethink classic tropes that can be stock or staple in a campaign, showing ways to make them more intricate and interesting.
In today's post, we're going to visit the idea of cannibals: people who eat people. We will begin with a discussion of the trope, and then continue to our thoughts on how to dress this up more in your writing or storytelling.
I. What Is a Cannibal?
For us on earth, a "cannibal" is pretty straightforward: it's a person who eats people. A person who eats another species (carnivores, herbivores, etc.) doesn't count: you are a cannibal if you eat your own kind.
Now you can begin to see where the questions arise the moment that we introduce a fantasy element: is an elf a cannibal if he eats a pixi? Is a minotaur a cannibal if she eats a faun ("it tastes like lamb")? In Greek mythology we have the case of the Minotaur of Knossos, but in his case he was originally human and was cursed by the gods, so we're not sure if he's "eating his own kind" or not for the purposes of this question. We also have Polyphemus in The Odyssey, but we'll come back to him later.
Second, cannibals tend to be presented as primitive: we almost never see them with high-end technology, and when we do (reavers in the Firefly tv show) they cobble their tech together, intentionally damage their containment fields to release dangerous amounts of radiation, etc.
Third, they are a threat to sentient life generally: in Peter Pan, for example, it doesn't matter whether you are a pirate, Lost Boy, mermaid, or Indian: you don't go near Cannibal Cove (though, in the "ecosystem" of Neverland, the pirates are the answer to the cannibals - we'll do a post on this "ecosystem," as it's actually really cool and may be of use to you as you design your world).
So with this in mind, let's think through how we can re-envision and rethink the use of cannibals in our stories.
II. Rethinking Cannibals
Perhaps the best place to begin is with the understanding that cannibals can change the "rating" on your roleplay campaign. If you are not careful, you could end up with some pretty graphic descriptions from yourself or the players. So gauge whether it is a good fit for your party before you introduce cannibals.
Second, determine whether cannibals only eat their own race. This adds complexity to the crises you can present to the party. Perhaps the party is working for a clan of woodsmen who chop wood and send it down river to a clan of elves. When the party escorts the logs downstream, they arrive and discover that the elves are cannibals, and they go back and mention that the woodsmen (who we'll say are dwarves) must be careful because the elves are cannibals...to which the dwarves say, "...so?"
The typical "moral high ground" against cannibalism suddenly falls flat: the dwarves don't have a problem with it because that's "an elvish ritual," and they don't eat dwarves, so why do they care? The party has to now convince the dwarves to help them, instead of just taking it for granted.
This goes up in impact if one of the player characters is an elf (or whatever your race of cannibals are): if one or a few party members feel uncomfortable but the other local powers won't do anything because it's not a threat to them, suddenly the party has a unique challenge that only they want to solve. It also means it's not an issue for others in the region, so you don't need complex reasons for why people would live near the cannibal tribe.
Now, you don't have to do cannibals as being "we only eat our kind": you could define a cannibal as "a person who eats sentient beings" (thereby distinguishing the hunter who eats deer from the cyclops who hunts humans, as we see in The Odyssey), and that's fine, we just need more explanations as to why people would live near this person or tribe. Think through what that means for other people in the region: can we hide from them? Do we have a natural border (like a ravine, river, etc.) that they cannot cross/have difficulty crossing to keep us safe from them? Can we overpower them? And why do we allow them to continue to exist so close to us?
Cannibals should also engage in trade with others, and give some thought to what that trade may look like. Naturally it may include people for them to eat, but it may also include weapons, armor, building materials - normal things. The difference: they only trade with cultures they don't eat, or that have an agreement already established that both parties have reason to believe will be upheld (perhaps a town supplies the cannibals with swords in exchange for not being eaten).
This could also lead to high-tech cannibals: you tend to see primitive cannibal clans in literature (even the Nihil from Star Wars's Project Luminous appear to be on the primitive side for Star Wars), but you can have high-tech cannibals. Whether this is due to them receiving tribute from those that don't want to be eaten, or perhaps they are naturally technologically advanced and also just happen to eat people.
We mentioned the Minotaur of Knossos earlier, and in his case he was given the labyrinth where he lived. Were your cannibals given something advanced or special as a means of containment? As a matter of appeasement? Consider this as you design the cultures and history of the region.
There should also be a cultural reason for being cannibals. Generally speaking there are more efficient ways to get protein than eating a sentient creature (pigs and cows come to mind, as their meat ratio is higher), so have a reason for why the culture is in favor of eating people beyond "they are hungry."
In Native Hawaiian culture for example (I'm a former Hawaii resident), eating someone or carrying their bones with you was seen by some clans (not my ancestors - more on that below) as a means of adding their strengths to you. This is useful, as it gives a cultural reason for cannibalism ("You are an honorable warrior, and thus I honor you by eating you"), but also presents a natural limitation on cannibalism. The strongest people don't just go around eating the rest of the clan because what would they gain from that?
This allows your clan to have a reason for continued survival: the clan won't implode due to their own cannibalistic tendencies. And this is something that most cannibal clans in literature don't think about: why does the clan exist as a clan as opposed to one person or a single family engaging in the act? Think this through before you introduce your cannibals to your players.
There is also ground culturally for some clans not to be cannibalistic if you structure it this way. My ancestors, for example, worshipped the god of war, and thus all who died were considered his. So to eat a dead person was to steal from Ku, and thus the act of cannibalism is an act of sacrilege, as you're stealing from the god. This also meant that clans were willing to surrender to Kamehameha and his forces, as they would not be eaten.
So do you see how cultural aspects can both justify and explain against cannibalism in the clan? This level of depth makes the cannibal culture more real to your players and moves it from the realm of overdone to the realm of well done.
III. Things to Avoid
One thing to avoid when presenting cannibals is to not present them like animals. If you are trying to break out of the mold, don't build a "yahoo" cannibal as Jonathan Swift does in Gulliver's Travels. If a cannibal clan is bestial in its portrayal, the likelihood that it will lack complex (or even realistic) motivations is low, so if you want to both avoid the overdone and make your culture more interesting, don't present them like animals. Present them as a culture, and then explain why they eat people.
And, again, if you don't care and just want a stereotypical clan of cannibals, then you can portray them like beasts. But if you want to add a bit of flare and uniqueness to them, this is one of the first things you'll want to avoid.
So when building cannibals, think through the cultural, economic, religious, social, and geopolitical ramifications for having cannibals in the region. I know it sounds like a lot, but it does help to provide more complex, real motivations for what could be a bland culture, and that makes it more memorable and exciting for your players.
Until next time,