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General Worlds of Design: More Human Than Human

We take having many playable species in fantasy role-playing games for granted. For example, 30-some years ago I wrote an article "My Life as a Werebear" (in White Dwarf #17) that provided rules for player character monster species such as blink dog packs and giants.

fantasy-4634079_1280.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.​

“Race” vs. “Species”

D&D rules uses the term “race” the way I would use “species”—nomenclature that is particularly present in the dominance of the “human race” in AD&D, as M.T. Black quoted Gary Gygax in Dragon Reflections #29. This is beginning to change; Pathfinder 2E now uses ancestries” instead of race. For the purposes of this article I’m using the term “species.” There are several reasons for multiple species in fantasy role-playing games:
  • Variety
  • Role-Playing Opportunities
  • Increase Gameplay Depth
  • Tactical Advantages
Variety

When the game is not skill-based, playable species help provide variety. Variety is obviously desirable in games because players have more ways to enjoy the play. That variety can come from different character classes, different skills, or different species, among many other things.

Many game players nowadays favor variety over depth—depth requires more thinking, and not everyone wants to think for their entertainment. In other game fields, you may have seen board games that have "character cards" to achieve something like different kinds of playable creatures/people. Video games often have a few different playable characters.

Role-Playing Opportunities

Many players will play a dwarf quite differently from how they play a human, and as playable species become more exotic the differences can be more exaggerated. I think a designer wants to have more or less familiar species before they start adding their own creations, as many players will play the familiar species but not the unfamiliar ones.

Increased Gameplay Depth

Gameplay depth involves the number and importance of decisions in a game. As each species has different capabilities, you add to the possible depth of the game. A game can be relatively simple and still have lots of gameplay depth. It doesn't take a lot of thinking to cope with variety in a game, but to play a deep game well requires a lot of thought. While variety has been displacing gameplay depth in board games for quite some time, it still can exist in long board games if not in the short ones popular today. Same for RPGs.

Tactical Advantages

Species with different capabilities can alter tactics. For example, even in games where you can hit your own people with an arrow shot into melee, you can pretty safely fire over the head of a dwarf if you stand immediately behind (and you're not another very short character).

I recall playing with what we called the "elf army," that is, an adventuring party made up entirely of elves. We also had a "dwarf army" but that was less flexible because dwarves were not "magic users," though they had clerics. I remember playing in an all-human party that had no magic users, but without the extra benefits of being dwarves that was quite nerve-racking.

The Downside to So Many Species

Some rulesets try to use restrictions on species to balance their advantages. Unfortunately, players and GMs tend to drop the restrictions, leading to a form of power creep that in turn leads to newly developed species being more powerful than the traditional ones.

Species proliferation and a player's search to find one that's "good at everything" is a disadvantage of having lots of species. This variety also can lead to unbelievable variance in party composition that wouldn’t be found in most homogeneous fantasy cultures—although it strains credibility, this doesn’t usually bother players.

All these extra rules can make life harder for the GM and even the players. Wise GMs will limit the species available to the players rather than accept anything that's published.
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Coroc

Hero
I heavily recommend to restrict races and classes to a meaningful variety for a given scenario.

You can discuss with your players if they want to realize something exotic which you as a DM would not offer as default, but except for RP heavy players the variety just leads to power and meta gaming.
This is not badwrongfun, if you are ok with it but still:

To portray a dwarf, Halfling or gnome as a short version of a human, in the case of the dwarf with "Scottish accent" and grumpy attitude is a challenge which most roleplayers can handle quite well.
But already with an elf things get difficult. They have a total different world view, and due to their longevity a totally different time scale and scale on what is urgent and what not in the lore of many established settings .
A halfelf is the better choice for race in most cases.

With the more exotic stuff like dragonborn nobody can say how to do this right imho. How much lizard is in them? What preferences do they have? Baking in the sun and waiting for the next meal?

To make a meaningful contrast to stock humans, the other races should have other moral compasses, other desires and ideals. Only then the differentiation is complete.
 

BrokenTwin

Explorer
For my personal sanity and suspension of disbelief, I tend to limit the available ancestries to 5-10 for general fantasy campaigns. It's simple enough, since said campaigns are usually tailored to my group, so if someone has strong roleplaying reasons for wanting to play a specific ancestry, the game can be modified before liftoff. Available options after the game starts can change depending on what's happened in the fiction. For a quick & dirty example, if goblins weren't a choosable option, but the players became allies with a goblin village, then making a goblin PC becomes available, because there's an in-fiction reason that it would be possible.
 

When picking your species/class becomes solely a matter of finding the optimal combination, I find that you get less interesting characters. It becomes about mechanical advantage more than anything else, and the role-playing in turn generally (but not always) suffers. And then it becomes not someone playing, I don't know, a Shardmind, but a person playing a human wearing a Shardmind suit for the mechanical benefits.

One of the things I love about the old race-as-class system is that if you're going to play a dwarf or halfling, say, you're doing so because you think they're cool, not because dwarves make the most optimal fighters or halflings make the best rogues.

Species proliferation and a player's search to find one that's "good at everything" is a disadvantage of having lots of species. This variety also can lead to unbelievable variance in party composition that wouldn’t be found in most homogeneous fantasy cultures—although it strains credibility, this doesn’t usually bother players.
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
I like a lot of character creation options, its why EQ2 was my favorite mmo. I try and discourage my players from picking a race for the stats. Concept first!
 

Arilyn

Hero
Well to play devil's advocate, in a world with a lot of deities, I don't have too much trouble believing that all these deities are creating their own intelligent races. My very own worshippers!

Players seeking the best mechanical advantage will always do this, so limits won't cure it! And to be fair, D&D has always encouraged this. Bonus xp for putting your best stat in the "right place."

And I think it's a little unfair to say modern players seek variety over depth. Board games, video games and RPGs are deeper, on average, than in the "good old days."

Having said all this, it is a problem that different species often play like humans. See this in science fiction shows like Star Trek too. It's hard to imagine and relate to the true alien.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
It's pretty common for players and DM's to treat "demihumans" (elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes) as human stereotypes rather than truly alien species. And that's fine, it's reflected in the literary genre well enough. Stereotypes can be misused of course, but are not inherently bad. In fact, they can be tools, or shortcuts, to help develop character easily, if not always deeply. This happens in sci-fi too, the Star Trek "rubber forehead" aliens common throughout the various series and movies.

Even the more exotic races like dragonborn are often still pretty human in outlook . . . in the literature, and in our games. And that's still fine, it's about having fun, not about "realistic" simulation, if that's even applicable to a fantasy or science fantasy setting.

Players and DMs who try to take things that extra mile, by portraying different species as truly different and alien to humans, are to be commended. But I don't stress about NOT doing that in my games, either when I'm playing or DMing
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
What races exist in the setting (as NPCs) and what races are available for players depends on the genre, tone, and feel the group is going for. But I often find that some DM's arbitrarily and unnecessarily restrict player choice based on misguided reasoning.

Even in a standard D&D game, many DM's try to avoid the "menagerie" effect (or Mos Eisley cantina effect) of having an adventuring party where humans are rare and everybody seems to be playing some exotic race that is supposedly "rare" in the campaign setting. The standard D&D setting has many exotic species, but is still human-centric.

So what's the solution? To ban all those crazy races at your table (dragonborn, tengu, firbolgs, tabaxi, etc, etc)? To me, that decision is misguided and unnecessarily restricts player choice. So what then?

Rather than restrict any specific races, try a lottery or slot system for group character creation. Everybody gets to pull a "lottery ticket" out of a hat, and each coupon gives some sort of character creation bonus or option. If the default rule is "All characters are human", then you might have 3 coupons in the hat allowing demihuman characters, and only 1 coupon in the hat allowing more exotic species for characters. The player who gets the "exotic species" coupon can choose from just about any race available, player's who get the "demihuman species" coupons can choose from elves, dwarves, halflings, or gnomes. Everybody else is human. You could even allow players to trade coupons to foster harmony.

Coupons can be granted for other character creation bonuses as well. Extra feats, legacy items, enhanced backgrounds (prince of the realm) . . . .
 

Blazestudios23

Explorer
Species: a category of biological classification ranking immediately below the genus or subgenus, comprising related organisms or populations potentially capable of interbreeding, and being designated by a binomial that consists of the name of a genus followed by a Latin or latinized uncapitalized noun or adjective agreeing grammatically with the genus name.

So fantasy races would be subspecies.
 
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atanakar

Hero
Interesting article. I recently started thinking about a fantasy world without humans. Only humanoid species. As usual, for me, not every D&D species would be available. Only those who fit the larger concept of the campaign we will establish at session 0.
 

Species is actually the scientifically correct term to be used:

Species: a category of biological classification ranking immediately below the genus or subgenus, comprising related organisms or populations potentially capable of interbreeding, and being designated by a binomial that consists of the name of a genus followed by a Latin or latinized uncapitalized noun or adjective agreeing grammatically with the genus name
Technically if you can get half-elves and half-orcs, they aren't all different species. :)
 


RSIxidor

Adventurer
I've actually always kind of disliked the concept of "race" in RPGs (or species for that matter).

To me, it seems like your cultural background should matter as much as your biological background.

Dwarves and Elves often have a racial weapon training as a core part of their race. In 5E, elves at least have this only in some of the subraces (which in some ways represent culture but also represent biology). Dwarves (probably) aren't born wielding hammers and axes, they learned this as part of the training. Alternative racial traits in PF1 and ancestry feats in PF2 help a bit with allowing for a sort of molding of the culture your dwarf or elf comes from, but it's still ultimately tied to biology.

I think we should divorce the biological and the cultural aspects of our character's backgrounds. It makes sense that all or most elves only need to trance for rest and aren't as affected by certain kinds of magic, but it doesn't make sense that most of them know how to use a sword. It makes sense that all or most dwarves have hearty stomachs that protect them from poison, but dwarves from different parts of the world might train more steadily in different types of weapons.

Humans who grew up alongside dwarves likely learned something about the weapons they wield or how they craft. Humans are actually where I have the biggest issue with biological versus cultural background. It's one of the reasons I like AIME as well. Humans are often presented as a tool for optimization, a swift army knife of options. The "versatile" choice. But I feel like that often ignores the cultural background of humans. I'd rather have options that imply story rather than a buffet of feats or similar.

If there's already D&D-like RPGs out there where you can pick your biological and culture aspects of your "race' separately, I'd like to hear about those. It likely means having a strong and interesting setting tied into these options, which I also enjoy seeing.

I realize the above isn't really the point of this thread, but I will say I prefer to have a decent number of options compared to only a few. It can get out of hand, sure, but I think variety makes for more interesting characters for the story.
 

Ed_Laprade

Adventurer
When picking your species/class becomes solely a matter of finding the optimal combination, I find that you get less interesting characters. It becomes about mechanical advantage more than anything else, and the role-playing in turn generally (but not always) suffers. And then it becomes not someone playing, I don't know, a Shardmind, but a person playing a human wearing a Shardmind suit for the mechanical benefits.

One of the things I love about the old race-as-class system is that if you're going to play a dwarf or halfling, say, you're doing so because you think they're cool, not because dwarves make the most optimal fighters or halflings make the best rogues.
But, but, my character concept is that my character IS good at everything! (Only half joking, as I've seen too many small adventuring parties go down in flames when one member goes down, because no one else can fill their roll. In larger parties that isn't usually an issue.)
 

Arilyn

Hero
Species: a category of biological classification ranking immediately below the genus or subgenus, comprising related organisms or populations potentially capable of interbreeding, and being designated by a binomial that consists of the name of a genus followed by a Latin or latinized uncapitalized noun or adjective agreeing grammatically with the genus name.

So fantasy races would be subspecies.
It's a magical world, however. You can mix bulls and humans and owls and bears. Not sure genetics plays a factor.🦉😊
 

SMHWorlds

Explorer
Humans are superior! `John Crichton

The use of different folk (species or subspecies or what have you) can signal genre. D&D in particular has dipped into an multiverse modal that is bordering on Science Fantasy; so many alien beings from across planes. Having all or mostly humans signals something more grounded.

The problem is when we limit game to humans, we either get all Anglo-Saxons / Vikings / Samurai or if we get other cultures they are stereotypical and poorly realized. Alien beings, elves and dragonborn etc... offer commentary on the human condition. They are able to step outside of humanity and let us bounce our ideas of culture and even bigotry around in a way that is somehow easier to handle. There are parts that are problematic of course, i.e. the origin of Half Orcs in the game fiction, but we are working our ways past that.

Variety is the spice of life, of course. Whether all humans or a variety of subspecies of mammal and reptile.
 

Blazestudios23

Explorer
It's a magical world, however. You can mix bulls and humans and owls and bears. Not sure genetics plays a factor.🦉😊
In magic worlds magic takes the place of science. Owlbears are still not made by mating Owls with Bears, it take magic much as it would take science for a geneticist to create a real world Owlbear. The same is true of a Minotaur or a Centaur. Also though it is all based on your own imagination, so you can make whatever you want happen in your stories. But most of us like to use magic in the place of science.
 

Arilyn

Hero
In magic worlds magic takes the place of science. Owlbears are still not made by mating Owls with Bears, it take magic much as it would take science for a geneticist to create a real world Owlbear. The same is true of a Minotaur or a Centaur. Also though it is all based on your own imagination, so you can make whatever you want happen in your stories. But most of us like to use magic in the place of science.
Life finds a way! Those pesky owlbears are laying eggs now.
 

Tonguez

Legend
Race is a biologically correct term referring to distinct populations within a single species for instance Scotch Collies are a Race within the Dog Subspecies (Species Lupus), in as much as it is a naturally adapted Breed whereas a true Breed (like Border Collie) is selective bred by humans.

The determination of whether Elfs, Humans and Orcs are the same species or not though is a fun mind exercise but possibly too complicated for the standard game, especially when issues of magic and divine intervention came in to play (are Elfs just fey-touched Hominids?)


Personally I blame Tolkien and his successors who decided that it would be cool to change Elfs from mysterious Fae to a forest archer and allowed half-orcs to become the ‘defacto’ - monster/savage. It turns the fantasy of those creatures into mundane caricatures within a literal ‘melting pot‘ of humanoids-cum-cultural facade.

Instead races should be limited to a distinct setting palette and given strong archetypes and cultural mores that make sense for what they represent and how they fit in the story. The fantasy of truely eldritch Seelie Elfs and elemental Gnomes needs to be revived.

It's a magical world, however. You can mix bulls and humans and owls and bears. Not sure genetics plays a factor.🦉😊

Well the mythic Minotaur was ‘genetic’ in as much as Olympians appear to be able to bred with humans and result in a humanoid with bulllike features, and in a bit of fun I decided that Owlbears were naturally occuring animal in the same genus as Gryphons.

yrmv
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
Species: a category of biological classification ranking immediately below the genus or subgenus, comprising related organisms or populations potentially capable of interbreeding, and being designated by a binomial that consists of the name of a genus followed by a Latin or latinized uncapitalized noun or adjective agreeing grammatically with the genus name.

So fantasy races would be subspecies.

Technically if you can get half-elves and half-orcs, they aren't all different species. :)

Not really.

Putting aside the fact we're talking about fantasy and mythology rather than science, the line between one species and the next in the real world isn't so cut and dried. Scientists are reorganizing which creatures are separate species (or not) all the time as we learn more about them. Some species can and do (if rarely) interbreed. We usually get infertile offspring from such unions, but not always.

So, if elves and humans can smash, and sometimes have half-elf children, they could still be considered separate species . . . . or not, it's essentially up to the DM or world-builder behind the setting.

In a campaign I ran back in the day, I decided that while half-elves were possible, they were rare and almost always infertile, adding to the half-elven angst I was pulling from Tanis Half-Elven of Dragonlance fame. However, I was kinda waiting for a half-elven player to get involved romantically . . . and father a child! Impossible! But that campaign event failed to materialize before the campaign ended, sadly.
 

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