D&D General Worldbuilding Assumptions: On the Origin of Species

What is your preferred explanation for the origin of species in D&D/fantasy RPG settings?

  • Most species were directly created by divine and/or magical means.

    Votes: 17 28.8%
  • Most species arose through evolutionary processes.

    Votes: 9 15.3%
  • Most species setting arose in some other way.

    Votes: 3 5.1%
  • I prefer keeping species' origins ambiguous.

    Votes: 18 30.5%
  • I prefer not worrying about species' origins.

    Votes: 12 20.3%


On Earth, we know that species originate through evolutionary processes, including natural selection, mutation, and genetic drift. In D&D settings, one can make a wide range of assumptions about the degree to which this is true. So long as living things survive and reproduce at variable rates, based partly on inherited traits, some evolution will necessarily occur, but it could be of relatively minor importance compared to species change or creation through arcane and/or divine mechanisms. Such mechanisms are baked into the history of many settings and the default lore for a variety of monsters. Even the PHB makes reference to divine creation of humanoid species (though one can easily interpret these statements as in-universe belief rather than objective fact).

I'd argue, though, that evidence of evolutionary species origins in fantasy settings is often clearer than is commonly assumed. In any setting where most organisms are drawn from the real world, much of the evidence of those organisms' evolutionary organisms also exists within the setting. If, for instance, a setting features bats, dolphins and bears, the wings, fins, and arms of those organisms presumably have the same similarities in bone structure that they have in the real world, and a shared evolutionary history remains the most parsimonious explanation for those similarities. Of course, if the setting includes owlbears as well, biological evolution probably isn't the only game in town (and if it also includes platypus bears, skunk bears, armadillo bears and gopher bears, magic has likely changed the rules quite a bit). Still, I think that overlaying magical process on an evolutionary framework produces more satisfying explanations for fantasy biological diversity than trying to recreate real world evolutionary outcomes though novel magical processes.

How do you explain species' origins in your preferred settings? I've included a poll comparing general frameworks, but I also think that that the nuances of and exceptions to those frameworks are interesting discussion topics. Where do dragons and owlbears come from in evolution-based worlds? How have directly created species changed or diversified since their origins? How much is known in-universe about these topics?

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It is not something I usually worry about, but I do occasionally want to incorporate the origins of a particular species into the story of the campaign and so will detail as needed. I usually assume either the gods of the species in question made them, or (more often) they arose through evolutionary processes informed by magic. But sometimes it is fun to decide a species was created to be servants and revolted, or arrived through a gate from another world. I have in fact had humans be "aliens" from Earth on multiple occasions, sometimes literal colonists and sometimes through Brigadoon style shenanigans.


Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I answered that I prefer to keep things ambiguous, but I think “agnostic” would be a more fitting term - agnostic literally translates to “no knowledge” and I think that accurately describes it. The peoples of my D&D worlds don’t know the answer, so there’s really no benefit to having there be a right answer. There are many different theories and beliefs, and since all information comes from in-universe sources, no narrator is completely reliable.

This is something you rarely need to know, in a sense that it would be knowable to the people in the setting, but it might be useful for the GM for organising their thinking.

In my current setting Artra, there probably is something akin evolutionary process going on, but it might not work exactly like on Earth. For example there are things known as wild magic areas, which might mutate nearby animals, leading to sped up "magical evolution," and as gods and spirits are real they also might have hand in influencing the process, though there has been no ex nihilo creation. But I definitely think in terms of evolution in a sense that I consider which species are related and so forth, and try to take this in account when designing their biology. For example Artran dragons are reptiles, and thus have only four limbs (like GoT dragons) and not six like traditional D&D dragons. I also intentionally blurred the lines between normal animals and fantasy creatures. On Artra many "monstrosities" are just normal animals and there are also weird animals that do not exists on Earth. So owlbears, giant platypi and beaked rats are all just naturally occurring monotremes. Also most Terran animals that exist on Artra are somehow different than on our planet. It is kind of haphazard speculative evolution boosted with magic, aiming for some sort of grounded weirdness.

I voted for divine/magical means. In the Dark Sun setting, the powerful magic of the Pristine Tower turned a number of the remaining Halflings of Athas' Blue Age into the other races. In the Dragonlance, the accidental release of the Graygem created the Kender, the Dwarves, the Minotaurs and a number of other races. The invention of the Creation Forges on Eberron lead to the creation of the first sentient constructs, the Warforged. Creating a race through divine or magical means has been a mainstay of D&D and other fantasy setting for years.

I am not sure how evolution would work in a setting where magic is real. Would it hasten evolution? Would it prevent the evolution of certain species? There probably would something similar to what we saw in the Dark Sun setting where there was something of a psionic arms race between predator and prey. Magic is a wild card.


It is hard for me to imagine natural selection producing hundreds if not thousands of tiny populations of distinct, sentient creatures more or less simultaneously. Probably magic is the only way to go, but I prefer to not worry about it too much. I file it away with all the other things it's best not to think about, like why castles and other trappings of medieval Europe are so popular in a setting where they make no sense, or how much magic would transform the environment and economy.


Follower of the Way
If I could have voted for two, it would have been "divine or magical means" and "I prefer to keep it mysterious."

That is, I prefer things where it's generally agreed that divine or magical shenanigans were involved, but nobody agrees on what specific divine and/or magical means were employed.

So some groups claim tieflings were directly "corrupted" by fiends through the blood-pacts between Turathi noble houses and their devilish "servants." Others claim that WAS the blood-pact--that the nobles gave up their own children, who then went on to sire tiefling children. Still others claim it only happened near the end of Bael Turath, when their society was becoming desperate to find some advantage, any advantage to finally defeat Arkhosia. And a few claim Bael Turath was always part-devilish, having had a large population of worshipers of He Who Was, who were instantly struck with a lesser version of the same curse that transformed Asmodeus when they accepted his usurpation of his former master's divine mantle.

That's the kind of thing I like. Everyone agrees that devilish power flowing into them is responsible. Nobody quite agrees on when or how or why, and some of the possibilities are much juicier than others.

For comparison, this was in fact actually done with 4e Dragonborn. Everyone agrees they were, directly or indirectly, created by the dragon-gods in the wake of Io's death, but there are several competing theories. One (promulgated by dragons) is that they were created by dragons at Io's command, to be helpers (read: servants) to his draconic children. Another says that they were created by Bahamut and Tiamat, perhaps enacting some last plan of Io's, and have fought over their shared creation ever since. One, near and dear to some proud scions of Arkhosia, claims that when Io was sundered into Bahamut and Tiamat, the blood that fell from his cloven halves did not disappear, but instead formed the first Dragonborn--meaning, all of them carry a tiny spark of Io's lost divinity, and are (in a certain sense) actually closer to the gods than the dragons themselves.

Because this sort of thing, even if there IS one true story of it, is EXACTLY the kind of thing that accretes alternate takes and state-sponsored myths and stories that take on a life of their own, until nobody truly knows anymore, particularly given that it happened thousands and thousands of years ago.


I generally do not worry/care that much about it. I try to not place that many races in one place since I feel that some/most would have been killed off by the stronger ones.

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