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D&D General Demihumans of Color and the Thermian Argument

FWIW, I think the "humans with bumpy foreheads and odd hobbies" aesthetic gets a bad rap. Sure, it's a cliche in TV sci-fi more rooted in budgets than in science, but in fantasy its a trope with a proud tradition and lots of resonance, and in tabletop rpg fantasy in particular its incredibly useful shorthand that also props the window open for very interesting RP on both sides of the screen.

IMO, it's actually an incredibly well suited tool to the needs of fantasy ttrpg play.

I don't really disagree, but I'll note that always gets a lot of pushback here.
 

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Vaalingrade

Legend
FWIW, I think the "humans with bumpy foreheads and odd hobbies" aesthetic gets a bad rap.
It also serves a narrative point as they represent aspects of human experience.

That and it takes a lot of talent to write xenofiction. You can't just say 'these people are weird and don't make sense to humans and leave it at that. Most people who try to make 'alien' species end up making 'humans with on trait that's weird', which is actually worse than the alternative.
 

FWIW, I think the "humans with bumpy foreheads and odd hobbies" aesthetic gets a bad rap. Sure, it's a cliche in TV sci-fi more rooted in budgets than in science, but in fantasy its a trope with a proud tradition and lots of resonance, and in tabletop rpg fantasy in particular its incredibly useful shorthand that also props the window open for very interesting RP on both sides of the screen.

IMO, it's actually an incredibly well suited tool to the needs of fantasy ttrpg play.
I'm not sure I would laud it that heavily, but it is pretty plain IMHO that you're saying the same as a number of other posters. People don't really relate well to, and it may well be impossible to really RP, some 'truly alien' mindset, let alone a race with a quite different physiology and/or anatomy than a human. I mean, 4e introduced Warforged, and similar stuff has existed in D&D before, but I think it is pretty clear that demi-humans (funny bump on forehead guys, basically) are there to let people pretend to be someone they aren't. You can emphasize some character trait and it gives you a bit a differentiation. I've known players who really had a hard time playing HUMANS because they just played themselves, basically. OTOH the same player could play a dwarf or an elf and I guess the imagined cultural and minor physical differences helped to remind them to play in character maybe?

Anyway, I am not so sure that typical fantasy races are a great, or even maybe mandatory, way for fantasy to portray non-humans, it is just easy and convenient, and since it works, nobody is super motivated to do much else. A few fantasy games HAVE tried, and succeeded to a certain extent. I more wonder about fantasy outside of games and why it is not more varied. Probably some of the same considerations, plus just inertia. Despite the notion that fantasy is imaginative I don't honestly find that much published today really reaches very far. Even Tolkien's work didn't really present anything very revolutionary in the way of imagining races or cultures that were really much different from us.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
It also serves a narrative point as they represent aspects of human experience.

That and it takes a lot of talent to write xenofiction. You can't just say 'these people are weird and don't make sense to humans and leave it at that. Most people who try to make 'alien' species end up making 'humans with on trait that's weird', which is actually worse than the alternative.
I admittedly don't love 'shallow' nonhuman traits, like many of those from the recurring species on Star Trek. Ferrengi are greedy, Klingons are warlike, Romulans are passionate, and Vulcans (in rejecting their passions) are logical. They're really nothing you couldn't explore with a human culture. (By contrast, I find the Dominion races from DS9 somewhat more interesting.)

Take the earlier example of dwarves having an innate emotional connection to certain metals. I can come up with some interesting extrapolations based on that trait. It could be inappropriate to offer a dwarf certain metals based on their circumstances. For example, given that gold and mithral evoke joy, it would likely be extremely gauche to give a grieving dwarf such a gift (equivalent to telling a grieving widow, "get over it and just be happy").

Giving a dwarf some gold might mean they instantly like you better, because you just literally made them happy.

Depending on the intensity of the experience, you might even have dwarven "addicts" living in the streets, bedecked in a wealth of gold, because they simply can't bear to part with any of it.

Despite Northern dwarves being taciturn, and Southern dwarves being extremely boisterous, they would most likely share those aforementioned qualities, or something quite similar, in common. They go beyond culture and are intrinsic to what makes these dwarves what they are. It also distinguishes them from humans, who might or might not love gold, but don't have the same innate connection to the metal as dwarves do.

That's spending a minute to come up with something. Imagine if I actually took the time to properly world build that trait and work out the implications.
 

I admittedly don't love 'shallow' nonhuman traits, like many of those from the recurring species on Star Trek. Ferrengi are greedy, Klingons are warlike, Romulans are passionate, and Vulcans (in rejecting their passions) are logical. They're really nothing you couldn't explore with a human culture. (By contrast, I find the Dominion races from DS9 somewhat more interesting.)

Take the earlier example of dwarves having an innate emotional connection to certain metals. I can come up with some interesting extrapolations based on that trait. It could be inappropriate to offer a dwarf certain metals based on their circumstances. For example, given that gold and mithral evoke joy, it would likely be extremely gauche to give a grieving dwarf such a gift (equivalent to telling a grieving widow, "get over it and just be happy").

Giving a dwarf some gold might mean they instantly like you better, because you just literally made them happy.

Depending on the intensity of the experience, you might even have dwarven "addicts" living in the streets, bedecked in a wealth of gold, because they simply can't bear to part with any of it.

Despite Northern dwarves being taciturn, and Southern dwarves being extremely boisterous, they would most likely share those aforementioned qualities, or something quite similar, in common. They go beyond culture and are intrinsic to what makes these dwarves what they are. It also distinguishes them from humans, who might or might not love gold, but don't have the same innate connection to the metal as dwarves do.

That's spending a minute to come up with something. Imagine if I actually took the time to properly world build that trait and work out the implications.
My thought is that it would be pretty difficult to effectively portray that emotional response to different metals as something biologically innate as opposed to merely a cultural tendency, given the limits of describing it using only words in real time at the game table. The gift giving part especially; that just reminds me my parents not liking being given scissors or objects in groups of four. If dwarves literally eat metal, or absorb it through their hands, then describing that would be more effective, but that seems to be more of a physiological quirk than a psychological one.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
My thought is that it would be pretty difficult to effectively portray that emotional response to different metals as something biologically innate as opposed to merely a cultural tendency, given the limits of describing it using only words in real time at the game table. The gift giving part especially; that just reminds me my parents not liking being given scissors or objects in groups of four. If dwarves literally eat metal, or absorb it through their hands, then describing that would be more effective, but that seems to be more of a physiological quirk than a psychological one.
Unless this is literally what you build the world around (which I'm not really sure how you would do), it can easily be a neat background detail. There's nothing wrong with a player who doesn't paying attention to the lore just thinking that dwarves really love their gold. That's probably a common misconception among non-dwarves, because they can't really relate.

Just portray it, and don't worry about portraying it as biological. The players who care will know and appreciate it. The players who don't, won't, and that doesn't matter because that's not important to them.

As for it being like your parents not liking being given scissors, it might be, if literally all parents didn't like being gifted scissors. Remember, this is something intrinsic to their being. While an individual dwarf might be atypical, dwarves will generally have this same reaction to metals regardless of where in the world they are from and whether they've had contact with other dwarven cultures. A dwarf raised by humans (or wolves) will still have this response, although they might not understand why they do. To me, that's an important distinction.
 

MGibster

Legend
I admittedly don't love 'shallow' nonhuman traits, like many of those from the recurring species on Star Trek. Ferrengi are greedy, Klingons are warlike, Romulans are passionate, and Vulcans (in rejecting their passions) are logical. They're really nothing you couldn't explore with a human culture. (By contrast, I find the Dominion races from DS9 somewhat more interesting.)
There are sometimes issues you can't explore directly because they're largely taboo and editors or viewers will say no. In the 1992 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Outcast," Riker falls in love with a J'naii person. The J'naii considered any gender expression to be aberrant and sexual congress between male and females to be both yucky and unnatural. Soren identifies as a female, falls in love with Riker, but when they try to escape together she is captured and forced to undergo conversion therapy to return to their genderless standards as nature intended. Even at the time, it was pretty obvious this was a ham-fisted story about gay people. So why not just use gay humans? Because at the time, the networks that carried the syndicated TNG would have balked and they would have faced backlash. Making the J'naii androgynous provided the producers with a plausible deniability if someone complained they made a pro-gay episode.

Likewise let's take a look at "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" from the original series in 1969. It's all about a species of black & white aliens who dislike one another because of their phenotype. The two men in the photo below hate one another so much that they continue their fight even after learning that their species fought itself to extinction. Any idea what message the writers were trying to send to their audience in 1969? It rhymes with glacial harmony. CBS would not have aired the episode if it was overtly about racial harmony between blacks and whites in the United States.

Let That Be.JPG


On the other hand, neither one of those episodes is particularly good. But writers can still use lineages, species, race, or whatever we're calling them now for plausible deniability. They can include write about strongly authoritative elves conquering territory and forcing all non-elfs out to tell a story about fascism without having to implicate any real life group. And if someone complains that the writers should keep politics out of the game they can just say, "Hey, it's fantasy and we're just talking about elves. We didn't say anything about fascism."
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
There are sometimes issues you can't explore directly because they're largely taboo and editors or viewers will say no. In the 1992 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Outcast," Riker falls in love with a J'naii person. The J'naii considered any gender expression to be aberrant and sexual congress between male and females to be both yucky and unnatural. Soren identifies as a female, falls in love with Riker, but when they try to escape together she is captured and forced to undergo conversion therapy to return to their genderless standards as nature intended. Even at the time, it was pretty obvious this was a ham-fisted story about gay people. So why not just use gay humans? Because at the time, the networks that carried the syndicated TNG would have balked and they would have faced backlash. Making the J'naii androgynous provided the producers with a plausible deniability if someone complained they made a pro-gay episode.

Likewise let's take a look at "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" from the original series in 1969. It's all about a species of black & white aliens who dislike one another because of their phenotype. The two men in the photo below hate one another so much that they continue their fight even after learning that their species fought itself to extinction. Any idea what message the writers were trying to send to their audience in 1969? It rhymes with glacial harmony. CBS would not have aired the episode if it was overtly about racial harmony between blacks and whites in the United States.

View attachment 141279

On the other hand, neither one of those episodes is particularly good. But writers can still use lineages, species, race, or whatever we're calling them now for plausible deniability. They can include write about strongly authoritative elves conquering territory and forcing all non-elfs out to tell a story about fascism without having to implicate any real life group. And if someone complains that the writers should keep politics out of the game they can just say, "Hey, it's fantasy and we're just talking about elves. We didn't say anything about fascism."
True. I wasn't talking about those though.

Like I said, I was referring to the recurring species I mentioned. Admittedly, there's a fair amount of that in the recurring species as well, such as examining unrestricted capitalism through the lens of the Ferrengi. And they do serve that purpose reasonably well. I just find them a bit shallow, is all. A lot of later episodes have attempted to create depth (like Quark's brother later in DS9, or the Klingon scientist who is looked down upon because he isn't a warrior), and to extent they succeeded, but it's a difficult thing to do when the base of the design is shallow. IMO, anyway.

That said, I should hope that no one needs to utilize such story techniques for their own campaign. If someone wants to, that's fine, but if they need to because the topic can't be broached directly, they probably have a real world problem.
 

MGibster

Legend
That said, I should hope that no one needs to utilize such story techniques for their own campaign. If someone wants to, that's fine, but if they need to because the topic can't be broached directly, they probably have a real world problem.
There are other reasons why someone might not want to tackle the issue directly. If I wanted to tell a story about racism, a fantasy framework where gnomes are forced out of their homes is less emotionally draining than a similar story set in Grant County, Arkansas during the 1950s.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
There are other reasons why someone might not want to tackle the issue directly. If I wanted to tell a story about racism, a fantasy framework where gnomes are forced out of their homes is less emotionally draining than a similar story set in Grant County, Arkansas during the 1950s.
Right, I wasn't saying there's no reason someone would want to. There certainly are, as you stated.

Just that I should hope that no one needs to. If one's players are racist or something, that's probably not an issue they're going to be able to fix through game. Though, I certainly claim no depth of knowledge in this regard. Admittedly, roleplaying has been used successfully in therapy, but that's when it's applied by a trained therapist. I certainly wouldn't recommend that approach for a typical DM.
 

At no point did I mock anyone; in fact I respect people who try. What I do roll my eyes at is when people either expect or judge other people on doing or not doing the same in a way that suits them, especially when they're the GM.
You mean like this?
I don't consider most of that "inhuman". Its either minor add-ons, things not that far off from things humans have done, or things that will probably not come up often enough to be noticeable.
Perhaps "mock" isn't the correct word, but perhaps "deride" is better. Your very own quote is something you would supposedly roll your eyes at, since you judged me on what I did in a way that doesn't suit you. While my ideas were very simple things brought about in the spur of the moment, your attitude appeared dismissive and condescending. This is not a sign of respect for those who try.
 

About portraying non-humans:

I certainly feel that it is desirable if at least some attention is paid to the portrayal of non-humans, were it by the player, the GM or the setting writer. However, at the same time I don't think they need to be super incomprehensibly alien. Why would they? They're social, tool-using, bipedal creatures, almost always humanoids, mostly mammals and many appear to be some sort of hominids. They should have different adaptations and tendencies than humans, but they still are very similar to the humans.
 
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Picking particular classes or subclasses, could push a Human character into an alien mindset too. I'm thinking classes like Warlock or Sorcerer, and especially some of the more niche subclasses like Way of the Astral Self Monk or Swarmkeeper Ranger. Whether they started out that way, or became that way when picking a subclass, those kind of things can push a Human (or anyone) into an alien mindset.
 

You mean like this?

Perhaps "mock" isn't the correct word, but perhaps "deride" is better. Your very own quote is something you would supposedly roll your eyes at, since you judged me on what I did in a way that doesn't suit you. While my ideas were very simple things brought about in the spur of the moment, your attitude appeared dismissive and condescending. This is not a sign of respect for those who try.

It wasn't deriding. It was suggesting that "inhuman" suggested something far more severe than he was actually talking about. At least one of the traits was withing normal human range (and probably two, given supertasters are a thing), and the other two were things that were specialized cases you could go through a whole campaign without noticing.

There are absolutely nonhumans written to be downright inhuman, though most of them are in SF rather than fantasy, so what the term suggested and what he meant seemed to have some serious dissonance, and it leads to things like my reaction of "I don't think most people can do that" and then him noting he does it regularly, because what he's talking about is, honestly, minor color issues and leaning in on things a subset of humans do.

Basically, I'm going to react to what people say; if that's not what they mean then I honestly have to suggest they use a term a little less loaded and a little more specific than "inhuman".
 

Hussar

Legend
I don't think there's anything wrong with trying; I think where the trouble comes in is when its expected, especially since the particular lines people are drawing are fundamentally arbitrary. And I think both the expectation and the arbitrariness of where that expectation lays has been quite visible in this thread.

At no point did I mock anyone; in fact I respect people who try. What I do roll my eyes at is when people either expect or judge other people on doing or not doing the same in a way that suits them, especially when they're the GM.
I have to admit, I do have some fairly strong expectations when someone comes to the table with a non-human race. Err, strong is probably the wrong word. But, I do expect it to be part of the portrayal of the character. If someone watching the game for a couple of sessions would have no idea what race a character is, then I get a bit shirty. As long as the player is making an honest attempt at it, I'm pretty content, regardless of quality. But, I've seen far too many players who played this or that race simply for the bonuses and it annoys me. I do consider it pretty bad play. Or, at the very least, not the kind of play I want to play with, if that's a better way of saying it.

Like I said, a little goes a long way. You don't need funny voices or anything like that. But, if you're playing a halfling (to use a somewhat abused example :D) then maybe mentioning having difficulty getting into a chair or stairs once in a while wouldn't kill you. Part of role play, to me, is portraying a character. If the portrayal is so lacking that someone watching doesn't even know that you're not human? Yeah, I'm not really down with playing with that person. It just sucks all the joy out of the game for me.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
It wasn't deriding. It was suggesting that "inhuman" suggested something far more severe than he was actually talking about. At least one of the traits was withing normal human range (and probably two, given supertasters are a thing), and the other two were things that were specialized cases you could go through a whole campaign without noticing.

There are absolutely nonhumans written to be downright inhuman, though most of them are in SF rather than fantasy, so what the term suggested and what he meant seemed to have some serious dissonance, and it leads to things like my reaction of "I don't think most people can do that" and then him noting he does it regularly, because what he's talking about is, honestly, minor color issues and leaning in on things a subset of humans do.

Basically, I'm going to react to what people say; if that's not what they mean then I honestly have to suggest they use a term a little less loaded and a little more specific than "inhuman".
By inhuman, I mean what is typical for a member of a given species is atypical (or impossible) for a typical human.

I've also used the term nonhuman (and maybe others as well) so I think leaning on the idea that the terminology is "loaded" is a bit disingenuous. It's not like it's the only term I've used. I'm simply trying to convey the notion defined above without having to use an entire sentence. If you have a suggestion for a better term that encompasses the above, go ahead.
 

Argyle King

Legend
Also, most non-white fantasy isn't in english. That's probably a bigger factor in why you haven't seen it; you have to wait until someone translates it from Japanese or whatever

True... assuming it's from a culture which typically writes that sort of thing down at all.
 

While I don't care about the skin color of demi-humans (they could be bright orange for all I care), I do feel that too many people look upon the original demi-humans as just "funny looking humans." They should have a culture and mentality completely alien to our own (humans), which helps disassociate them from any real world baggage that they may have started with. My examples:
  • Dwarves are so in tune with the earth, they can feel the difference between each type of metal and stone. Certain metals, particularly gold and mithral, evoke a joyful sensation within them unknown to others.
  • Elves have no concern for normal material wealth, concerned only with beauty. They only use them when they have to deal with the other races.
  • Gnomes are part of the ecology of small burrowing creatures, once having innate claws that have faded away. Most creatures see them as a type of large burrowing animal, rather than a humanoid.
  • Halflings have several senses that allow them to differentiate each ingredient of food & drink. By examining tilled earth, they can tell how long it lay fallow and the best type of crop to grow.


  • I particularly like the dwarf suggestion here as that ties naturally into their stonecunning trait
 

Mirtek

Hero
Take the earlier example of dwarves having an innate emotional connection to certain metals.

That's spending a minute to come up with something. Imagine if I actually took the time to properly world build that trait and work out the implications.

Actually I fail to see how any of what you describe is better than "orcs are warmongering conquerors because Gruumsh made them this way".

"Dwarves are innate emotional connection to certain metals" is just the same in a different coat and if that were part of a setting assumption you can be sure there would be people complaining and linking it this or that prejudice about a certain group of people.

"Giving a dwarf some gold might mean they instantly like you better, because you just literally made them happy." Yeah, as if that would not immediately rub some people the wrong way and give rise to certain accusations. And "but that's an inherent trait of their being" doesn't help at all.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
Actually I fail to see how any of what you describe is better than "orcs are warmongering conquerors because Gruumsh made them this way".

"Dwarves are innate emotional connection to certain metals" is just the same in a different coat and if that were part of a setting assumption you can be sure there would be people complaining and linking it this or that prejudice about a certain group of people.

"Giving a dwarf some gold might mean they instantly like you better, because you just literally made them happy." Yeah, as if that would not immediately rub some people the wrong way and give rise to certain accusations. And "but that's an inherent trait of their being" doesn't help at all.
I think it can certainly be a bad thing if dwarves are meant to represent a real world group. Or even if one didn't intend it that way, but one of their players takes it to have that meaning.

This was just a quick example someone came up with however, to illustrate a trait that might establish dwarves as being different from humans. Also, the folks at my table know me well enough that in my game a dwarf is just a dwarf.

That said, if I offended you in any way, I apologize. To be clear, it was never intended that this example should be representative of anything in the real world.
 

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