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Does Your Fantasy Race Really Matter In Game? (The Gnome Problem)

MGibster

Explorer
I want you to step in the way back machine and think about all the Dungeons & Dragons games you've participate in. Did it really matter what fantasy race a player chose for his or her character? Obviously there were mechanical reasons to chose one race over another for attribute bonuses, special abilities, and access to kits or prestige classes but what difference did it make in the campaign? Would there be a noticeable difference in the campaign had your human Fighter been a goliath, an elf, or a dragonborn? At the risk of sounding presumptuous I'll bet the answer is probably no.

I recently came across what I call the Gnome Problem. I was creating my own campaign setting and since we have rules for all these races the only reasonable thing to do was to shoehorn them into my setting. "Why would you do this, MGibster? I can hear you ask. It's just kind of expected, isn't it? If I invited you over to play some D&D it would not be unreasonable of you to expect to play any one of the races from the Player's Handbook.

As I was figuring out the broad strokes behind my setting I had humans, various elfs, dwarfs, halfings, orcs, and even tieflings figured out but then I got to gnomes. I couldn't think of any reason to add them to the setting beyond that they should just be in a D&D setting. (I ended up making them near extinct having been the victims of the big bad evil empire of the setting.) It got me to thinking about whether or not I really needed drow, halfings, or orcs at all.

Not every fantasy race works for every campaign setting. Personally I think dragonborn and half-orcs don't belong anywhere near Ravenloft. If you've got a setting where demons don't mate with demi-humans then tieflings probably won't work. At least not as written and then why bother having tieflings in the first place?

I just don't think having a plethora of available races necessarily adds much of anything to the setting. Anyone with me or am I out on a limb here?
 

doctorbadwolf

Explorer
I’m always flummoxed by folks having a hard time seeing a place for Gnomes.

I’m curious. What is your general conception of the identity of the Gnome race?

im also curious about your conception of the races in
general. Do you simply view halflings as “the game’s main short race?” And half-orcs as “the big tough/‘savage’ race”? Ie, do you view them primarily as a what niche they fill narratively?
 

jgsugden

Explorer
A setting may have "primary" races around which most of your civilizations are built, but if you have a player that wants to play a race that isn't amongst your primary races, there is usually a lot of great ways to work them into your setting in a small role, such as you did with your gnomes. To that end, I would not call it a problem... just a configuration.
 

Charlaquin

Explorer
I’m with you all the way. It can feel a little wrong not to offer options that are in the PHB in your home brew setting, but at the same time, having to shoehorn a race into a setting just because they’re in the PHB is pretty limiting. I strongly believe that when creating a new setting, all elements - races, classes, subclasses, gods, monsters, whatever - should be opt-in, not opt-out.
 

Charlaquin

Explorer
I’m always flummoxed by folks having a hard time seeing a place for Gnomes.

I’m curious. What is your general conception of the identity of the Gnome race?
Which Gnome race? I have my own version of Gnomes that has a clear, consistent identity, which I’m quite fond of. But until I basically rewrote them myself, I was on the gnome hate train because I couldn’t tell what the heck they were supposed to be. Are they shorter dwarves that specialize in engineering? Halflings who live in the woods and do illusion magic? Both? Neither? D&D couldn’t seem to make up its mind about what the heck Gnomes were supposed to be, so I did it myself. Now I like them, but they’re not really any of the many disparate things D&D calls “gnomes.”
 

doctorbadwolf

Explorer
T answer your questions more directly, yes. The race of my characters is generally pretty impactful on the experience. My Gnomish Swashbuckler/Bladesinger alchemist cannot be the same person as a human. Full stop.

As for world building, I find that having all the races, and figuring out where they fit not only creates a more interesting game, but a more interesting world because I have had a good think about much more of the world, and done so from many very different perspectives. I’ve thought about how human lowland animists view the Goliath tradition of Dawn Calling, wherein they believe (and spirits seem to agree) that they literally call the dawn, and without them the sun literally wouldn’t rise. That makes a more satisfying and engaging world than if I hadn’t thought about those things.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
As a DM, create the world you want to run and find players who want to play in it. If you are not stuck running games for organized play, there is no right or wrong decision here as a long as everyone is having fun.

I've run games where races were limited, because of the history and worldbuilding for that campaign. In my home-brew campaign, you can only select from human, dwarf, halfling, or gnome. Half-orc or half-elf may be allowed, but only if it is not obvious that your character is either.

I've run other games where not only all the PHB races were allowed, but also all of the Volo's monstrous races.

But I've always had gnomes. They've always been an important part in every campaign I've run, whether home-brew, WotC, or third-party publisher.

The races matter very much in the campaigns I run. Choosing which race is not a matter of just the mechanical effects, but it will greatly affect how you are treated in the world, where your centers of support are, and your freedom of movement--both physical and social. I discuss all this with players before the campaign begins and I'll often make changes to the setting to help fit in character choices I hadn't originally given much thought to.
 

cbwjm

I can add a custom title.
Which Gnome race? I have my own version of Gnomes that has a clear, consistent identity, which I’m quite fond of. But until I basically rewrote them myself, I was on the gnome hate train because I couldn’t tell what the heck they were supposed to be. Are they shorter dwarves that specialize in engineering? Halflings who live in the woods and do illusion magic? Both? Neither? D&D couldn’t seem to make up its mind about what the heck Gnomes were supposed to be, so I did it myself. Now I like them, but they’re not really any of the many disparate things D&D calls “gnomes.”
Could you have a quick run down on the identity you've given gnomes? I like to play up the Feywild angle (can't remember if they are from the Feywild in 5e or if I'm thinking of pathfinder) but I like to have them from there. In the game I will be running a secretive gnome village is nearby built around a fairy ring allowing movement between Feywild and the prime. These gnomes are secretive and skilled with illusions generally keeping the big races out. Sometimes the thought that they're Smurfs creeps into my mind and I have to keep pushing that thought away.
 

Charlaquin

Explorer
Could you have a quick run down on the identity you've given gnomes? I like to play up the Feywild angle (can't remember if they are from the Feywild in 5e or if I'm thinking of pathfinder)
They are in 4e and Pathfinder. 5e is a bit more cagey about their origin. Forest gnomes seem to exist to cover the Fae gnome concept, and rock gnomes to cover the smaller, zanier dwarves concept.

but I like to have them from there. In the game I will be running a secretive gnome village is nearby built around a fairy ring allowing movement between Feywild and the prime. These gnomes are secretive and skilled with illusions generally keeping the big races out. Sometimes the thought that they're Smurfs creeps into my mind and I have to keep pushing that thought away.
I like Fae gnomes, but it’s not what I went with for my home brew setting. My feywild was getting a bit crowded with goblins (and by extension orcs, though more distantly) having their origins there, and with a lot of in-universe ambiguity between the faewild and the shadowfell. So I tied my gnomes In with dwarves, trolls, and goliathsJotun. They are informed by Scandinavian folklore, as opposed to the Irish and English folklore that informs most fae creatures in D&D.
 

Tony Vargas

Adventurer
Did it really matter what fantasy race a player chose for his or her character?
Sure. Anything other than human and race tended to loom large.

Iwas creating my own campaign setting and since we have rules for all these races the only reasonable thing to do was to shoehorn them into my setting. ... I got to gnomes. I couldn't think of any reason to add them to the setting beyond that they should just be in a D&D setting.
You could always shunt elves & gnomes and the like into some fey Otherworld....
I like to play up the Feywild angle (can't remember if they are from the Feywild in 5e or if I'm thinking of pathfinder)
Yes, like 4e which made gnomes fey (and, briefly, monsters) and introduced the Feywild (IMHO, it replaced the classic Ethereal, or you could say the Shadowfell merged it with the plane of shadow).
Not every fantasy race works for every campaign setting. ..
I just don't think having a plethora of available races necessarily adds much of anything to the setting. Anyone with me or am I out on a limb here?
The game presents tons of races, but unless you were writing Eberron, you're under no obligation to use all of em - nor all the classes, spells, or anything else, even if it is in the PH and not explicitly optional.

Precisely because race can matter, it can make a lot of sense to exclude (or add) certain races, to help paint your vision of the setting.
 
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R_Chance

Explorer
In my setting the races matter very much. My races differ from the standard D&D races in the role they play in the setting and the relations between the different races (and nationalities for that matter). They have developed over the course of many editions of D&D with my own twists as well. My Gnomes are rustic relatives of Dwarfin kind. Originally Dwarves, they lost their fortress holding, scattered and dwindled. They learned to fit in with other races and act as stone workers and smiths from either hill steadings or caravans. They often live near / with Halflings or Humans. Not the current versions of Gnomes. This would have been fairly typical in the 1970s, not so much now. Other races and monsters differ more than Gnomes from the norms of today (or back in the day). My Wood Elfs for example are nomadic, xenophobic and afraid to gather in large numbers. They are a race locked in a culture that developed from centuries as refugees in an ancient war with all the quirks that brings. They refuse to enter cities or towns are amazed that people settle down in villages and are paranoid about strangers. Even High Elfs are viewed with suspicion. Gnomes are not uncommon and are viewed relatively positively by many people. Wood Elfs are considered exotic, wild, and dangerous (by most anyone except other Wood Elfs). Every race fits in differently and many nations exist with their own relational dynamics. I have player races not in other settings and some common races from current D&D don't, for the most part, exist. It's part of the history and development of the setting.
 

doctorbadwolf

Explorer
Which Gnome race? I have my own version of Gnomes that has a clear, consistent identity, which I’m quite fond of. But until I basically rewrote them myself, I was on the gnome hate train because I couldn’t tell what the heck they were supposed to be. Are they shorter dwarves that specialize in engineering? Halflings who live in the woods and do illusion magic? Both? Neither? D&D couldn’t seem to make up its mind about what the heck Gnomes were supposed to be, so I did it myself. Now I like them, but they’re not really any of the many disparate things D&D calls “gnomes.”
So, I think part of why some folks tend to have trouble fitting a race in their world in a natural way is simply viewing the races as constructs with which to fill narrative niches, and also the habit of conceptualizing them via semi-reductive comparison to other races.

Ie “small humans”, and thus “why should there be another small humans race”

and

“are they zany dwarves or small elves?”

None of this actually helps understand the races. Gnomes aren’t any of those things. They’re hyper intelligent/creative small folk who like to live in burrow-houses with towns that are easy to not even notice if you don’t know what to look for, who love to create new things, and tend toward a fairly positive and socially well adjusted outlook as individuals, and value their privacy as communities.

They (meaning any race) don’t need to be “needed” in a setting to benefit it, nor do they need to fill a niche that no other race is filling. Not all niches need filled, and there is no out limit on how many races can fill a given niche.
 

Charlaquin

Explorer
So, I think part of why some folks tend to have trouble fitting a race in their world in a natural way is simply viewing the races as constructs with which to fill narrative niches, and also the habit of conceptualizing them via semi-reductive comparison to other races.
I’m sure that’s the case for some people, but I don’t think it’s the only reason people struggle to fit them into their worlds. It’s certainly not for me.

Ie “small humans”, and thus “why should there be another small humans race”

and

“are they zany dwarves or small elves?”

None of this actually helps understand the races”
When I, and I’m sure a lot of others, describe gnomes in those ways, the goal is not to help understand the races. It is to illustrate my (our) dissatisfaction with gnomes’ distinguishing characteristics, or lack thereof.

Gnomes aren’t any of those things. They’re hyper intelligent/creative small folk who like to live in burrow-houses with towns that are easy to not even notice if you don’t know what to look for, who love to create new things, and tend toward a fairly positive and socially well adjusted outlook as individuals, and value their privacy as communities.
You have literally just described hobbits, with the vanishingly minor addition of a love of creating new things. Why is this not just a sub race of halfling?

They (meaning any race) don’t need to be “needed” in a setting to benefit it, nor do they need to fill a niche that no other race is filling. Not all niches need filled, and there is no out limit on how many races can fill a given niche.
They don’t need to be needed, but they certainly ought to be interesting, which is difficult to achieve when they don’t have a clear, consistent identity. It’s fine if that identity is similar to other races’ identities, but if it is not distinguished in some way, it will be much harder to get anyone to care about it. The issue isn’t that they don’t fill a unique niche, it’s that they don’t offer enough to catch anyone’s interest.
 

ccs

39th lv DM
I want you to step in the way back machine and think about all the Dungeons & Dragons games you've participate in. Did it really matter what fantasy race a player chose for his or her character? Obviously there were mechanical reasons to chose one race over another for attribute bonuses, special abilities, and access to kits or prestige classes but what difference did it make in the campaign?
Depends upon the campaign, the DM, & the player behind any given character.
Sometimes it'll be a resounding YES. Other times? Completely irrelevant.
For ex; Right now I'm in 2 games that're 100% pure dungeon crawl.
In the 1st, a PF game, there's zero story beyond trying to overcome each lvs theme/tricks/traps etc & finding the next stairway down. What races/classes are played matters only in as far as what abilities they bring to the group. We have an Elven Samurai, a Ratfolk Druid, and I don't even know what race our Oracle is.
The 2nd is a 5e Dungeon of the Mad Mage game that, while having a vague whiff of story & background, is playing very similar.


Would there be a noticeable difference in the campaign had your human Fighter been a goliath, an elf, or a dragonborn? At the risk of sounding presumptuous I'll bet the answer is probably no.
YES.
In a game with no "story" (like the PF & Mad Mage games I'm in) the difference would be measured in the abilities/resources tied to the choice.

In games with more story? Well.... Depends upon the campaign, the DM, & the player behind any given character, but....
For my characters that'd be a yes. Because I make their race/class/other details important. I play my 1/2ling warlock different from my 1/2Elf Ranger, who's different from my Warforged Fighter, who's different than my Human Bard/Wizard.

And when I DM? Yes, what you pick will matter. I'll personally see to it. :)
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
I’ve played in and run kitchen sink games. I’ve played in and run games with very strict species limitations- at least one that was human only.

IME:

1) sometimes race matters a great deal, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s very campaign AND player dependent.

2) one thing that always seems to matter is the availability of playing humans. Unless there’s a major setting-specific reason why you can’t play humans, certain players will always want that option to be available, even if they don’t actually wind up playing a human PC.
 

Doug McCrae

Adventurer
Non-humans in D&D, and fantasy in general, are humans with funny-shaped ears. I have trouble understanding what the point in them is, they all merely represent subsets of humanity. It stems from the source - Tolkien. Tolkien's dwarves are dour, hard-working, hard-drinking Scots Presbyterians. His elves are his view of an idealised human - in harmony with nature, artistically-inclined. Hobbits are the rural English. You could do all that with humans.
 

ad_hoc

Explorer
Yes, very much so.

Race is both provides quick and easy characterization and also provides engagement in the world.

This could be how other characters react to someone of a certain race.

Certain locations and monsters could react differently depending on race too. Maybe the dwarf cleric gets advantage to turning while in the ruins of a dwarf stronghold. Maybe there are magical traps which don't trigger for members of the race who set them there.

Etc.
 

JustinCase

the magical equivalent to the number zero
Did it really matter what fantasy race a player chose for his or her character? Obviously there were mechanical reasons to chose one race over another for attribute bonuses, special abilities, and access to kits or prestige classes but what difference did it make in the campaign? Would there be a noticeable difference in the campaign had your human Fighter been a goliath, an elf, or a dragonborn? At the risk of sounding presumptuous I'll bet the answer is probably no.
I really want to say yes, but mostly you're right. Of course it depends on both players and DM, but apart from very minor things ("your dwarf manages to convince the dwarven counsel but only because he's a respectable dwarven citizen") it tends to be "I'm a dwarf so I do what a human would do, but with gruffness".

To be fair, it's about balancing between a realistic setting (insofar as a fantasy setting can be "realistic") and an enjoyable game. The first makes for better immersion, but the second is every bit as important because if nobody wants to play in your well-thought-out setting, there's no point.
 

Shiroiken

Explorer
The importance of a character's race is dependent upon the player. Some players don't care about anything beyond the mechanics of their character. Others like myself consider the character to have a life of it's own beyond what is on the character sheet. Each character for us is unique, and the race of a character is an integral part of it.

As for setting design, you as the DM should not limit your vision based on what you feel a game should have because of the rules. I've played in a game where orcs replaced humanity as the dominant race, and drow won the kinslayer war (no humans or non-drow elves allowed). I've played in all-human campaigns, and ran one in 2E (there was 1 half-elf NPC in the entire campaign). One of the current games I play in has no orcs in it because they didn't fit the needs of the setting. If you don't want a class/race/background/whatever in your setting, simply remove it; it will help enhance the setting's flavor, not dilute it.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
We did a skit about that in last week's podcast, with a player suggesting more and more outlandish races, starting with deep gnomes and tieflings, through aaracokra and minotaurs, to mind flayers and dragons, to daleks and Borg Queens, to, eventually, V'ger.

The idea of somebody playing V'ger as a PC still cracks me up.
 

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