Thanks to Dungeons &Â Dragons and Tolkien, the fantasy baseline of “demihumans” (as we used to call them back in the day) were dwarves, elves and halflings. You create a fantasy setting, and there is either an expectation or casual acceptance that those three player races are in it.
But let’s wipe that board clean. Let’s imagine a new fantasy world. What races could — or should — we include?
Now this is one of those nice thought experiments you can do at home with your play group, and who knows, it might take you toward changing your setting and making your home game truly your own. Perhaps you’ll select something alien or maybe you’ll take an existing fantasy race and make it core, or maybe you’ll come up with something entirely new.
What follows is a sort of checklist to guide you as you consider a new race.
1. Size matters. From diminutive to giant, slender to rotund and all things in between. A sentient race evolved from elephants, whales, lemurs or okapi (to cite real-world examples) would occupy space in entirely different ways.
2. Environment matters. Sure, the evolved version of the race can go wherever adventure calls. But the land (or sea) of its origins will make them distinctive. Hot or cold, dry or wet, high above or deep below ground, all could be a factor.
3. Story matters. The race’s story — the things that matter culturally and socially — are important. But so is the race’s own history. Upon what part of the social rung did they occupy? Were they captives, serfs, rulers, nomads, settled? Did that situation change? With their place established, how will portraying them bring something fresh to the table as your players create even more stories?
4. Something alien? We’re presuming bipedal (or quadrupedal) humanoids as your new race, you know, folk with two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and one mouth. But if you need tentacles for arms, fins for legs or wings for flying, here’s a chance to add them to the creation. Do they have one eye, like a cyclops, or many, like a spider? Are they more like insects, fish or reptiles than mammals? See what clicks, or chitters, as you experiment.
5. Oh, those dreaded game stats. So, you’ve come up with the bird folk of the high mountain, how is that going to work in your game? Alas, this article can’t answer that. Too many game systems and too many monsters to say specifically. But I’d suggest finding a monster with an ability that’s similar to the race you’ve created, steal the game stats for that, then find a way to refine those numbers so they fall within the range of “normal” for the game system of your choice. A harpy’s game stats might help for the flying aspect of your bird folk, for example (or maybe not, if the bird folk are modeled after the ostrich), so long as you jettison the other special abilities that make a harpy a monster and don’t fit with your race concept. It might not be perfect, may require some tweaking, but it will get you close.
As the playing group’s brainstorm session refines the process, keep revisiting the “cool” factor of the playing race, as well as its place in the story of your world. It might be that you end up with a race gnomelike in stature but wildly different in abilities and place in the social fabric of the world. Maybe you’ll reconsider, thinking, that’s too gnomelike. Or maybe you’ll just run with it. It’s for your game, after all.
As long as it works for you, that’s what matters. But don’t be afraid to tweak it as you go along. That’s part of the process, and part of the fun.
The thing is to give it a go. You might be surprised at the result.
And if it fails, it fails. You’ve got your old friends dwarves, elves and halflings in the bullpen, all warmed up and ready to hit the field if you need them.
But I think groups that try this brainstorming process will be surprised by what they come up with.
If you try this out, let me know in the comments below.
When we played a Microscope game this weekend, we decided on a fantasy apocalypse as our big picture. But one of the palette choices was: no Tolkien races.
It actually meant that we wound up playing a mostly human setting, but demons played an outsized role. It was fun–but on the spur of the moment, we didn’t create anything excitingly new. Given more time or another session, it’d be interesting to see if we’d have introduced them.
The “Talislanta” setting was pretty much wholly based on this idea, but has never sold well. Most of us are just too tied into the Tolkien/D&D ideal. This even creeps into Sci-Fi(?) in the realm of the 40K universe (“Eldar” are obviously elves, and “squats” were dwarves).
The real questions that need to be asked is in your question 3: what story functions do the various races serve? For example, elves are usually the fading ancients who understand the bigger picture of events in the world, as their extended life spans give them a certain perspective. Dwarves tend to be a similarly old race, but representing the futility of vengeance and greed.
I think GMs and their players really need to think about those questions first, when they plan on tinkering with these things.
I loved the Talislanta setting and it was the first thing that came to my mind when I started reading this article. But yes, it never really took off in the gaming world. I always thought their setting was pretty cool, but their system definitely needed a little work put into it.
Sure, finding the right fit and role is a key component. Let’s take an example. Snakes represent old wisdom for a lot of cultures. Let’s use that. So snake folk replace elves, because in their faded glory, elves are, as you point out, represent the wisdom of the past age. Now, instead of strictly being a monster to be defeated, the snake folk can be herioc. That is your jumping off point for a whole series of adventures with a different flavor than elves. It makes your home game different. Snake folk have a different motif and feel. Now you can customize your adventures and world, and give the players a different experience.
While I use elves and dwarves in my current campaign, the halfling and gnome analogs are campaign specific. And I have happily worked with player to create species specifically tailored to what they want to play (Badgerkin and Elkentribe respectively). Tying the playable species to your setting is important, and often challenging, as you are usually seeking to balance familiarity (and thus ease of play) with a setting focus twist to the species.
Explain the process of tailoring the new races of badgerkin and elkentribe to player expectations. Were there any unusual requests? How were they met. Was there good give and take between you and the players?
I go by two simple rules.
A good player race is one you can imagine having sex with.
A believable race is one that you can imagine pooping.
Dinner and some pleasant conversation is usually a good sign, too.
I’m currently in the process of creating a campaign world that has humans as slaves and barbarians like orcs and where tiefling and dragonborn rule. Elves, halfings, gnomes, and humans are not playable races in my current campaign. It forces my players to get more into character when they have to play a non-human.
I also wanted to play in a world where tieflings are still a empire and haven’t crumpled to dust, plus i just got sick of human centered campaign settings.
You mention “forces”. Is there buy-in from the players for this approach?
My Kaidan setting of Japanese horror (PFRPG) is designed to include only the beings of traditional Japanese mythos – kappa, korobokuru, kitsune, hengeyokai, and tengu, in addition to human. There are no indigenous populations of other races. The setting isn’t a part of any specific world, being meant to drop into any existing setting to fit a Japan-analog niche. Thus races from outside Kaidan would be whatever a GM already uses. So while the typical fantasy races are not mentioned, they are not excluded.