log in or register to remove this ad

 

Worlds of Design: Same Humanoids, Different Forehead

Fantasy role-playing games, like the Star Trek television series, can sometimes suffer from a lack of differentiation between humanoid species with only slight tweaks to their appearance.

archer-3617532_960_720.png

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

From Go to Risk

Fantasy role-playing games can suffer from a plague of the notion that everyone must be the same. Humanoid species—dwarves, elves, halflings, etc.—are often just funny-looking humans. Alignment becomes a convenience, not a governor of behavior.

Consider games that have no differentiation. All pieces in the game Go are the same and can do the same thing. That’s true in Checkers as well until a piece is Crowned. And all the pieces in Risk are armies (excepting the cards). Yet Go and Checkers are completely abstract games; and Risk is about as abstract as you can find in something that is usually called a war game. One defining feature of abstract games is that they have no story (though they do have a narrative whenever they’re played). They are an opposite of role-playing games, which have a story whether it’s written by the GM or the players (or both).

Differences become more and more important as we move down the spectrum from grand strategic to tactical games and as we move to broader models. Role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons are not only very tactical games in combat (“skirmish games”), they’re usually meant to model a life we think could exist, though it does not, just as most novels model something we think could happen, in certain circumstances (the setting). As such RPGs encompass far more than an abstract or grand strategic game ever could.

The same applies to RPG species. The appeal of RPGs is that species are not the same, dragons are not like goblins, who are not like hellhounds or even hobgoblins, one species of aliens is not like another and not like humans, and so on. Having species that are different, even if they are humanoid, is a shorthand means of giving players an easy means of creating a character.

Same Actors, Different Makeup​

When it comes to humanoids, species differentiation doesn’t necessarily mean statistical bonuses. From a game design perspective, designers generally want sufficient differentiation to give players an opportunity to implement their strategies. (I’m not talking about parallel competitions, where players follow several “paths to victory” determined by the designer; players are then implementing the designer’s strategies, not their own: puzzles for practical purposes.) At the same time games should be as simple as possible, whereas puzzle-games may be more complex to make the puzzle harder to solve.

If statistics alone don’t differentiate species, then the onus shifts to the game master to make them culturally more nuanced. This goes beyond characters to include non-player characters. Monsters, for example, are more interesting when they’re not close copies of one another. Keep in mind, an objective for a game designer is to surprise the players. Greater differentiation helps do that, conformity does not.

On the other hand, one way to achieve simplicity is to limit differentiation. Every difference can be an exception to other rules, and exceptions are the antithesis of simplicity.

Differentiation Through Alignment​

Alignment-tendencies are another means of differentiating species. Alignment is a way to reflect religion without specifying real-world gods, but even more it's a way to steer people away from the default of "Chaotic Neutral jerk who can do whatever he/she/it wants.” (See "Chaotic Neutral is the Worst") Removing alignment tendencies removes a useful GM tool, and a way of quickly differentiating one character from another.

Keep in mind, any game is an artificial collection of constraints intended to provide challenges for player(s). Alignment is a useful constraint, and a simple one. On the other hand, as tabletop games move towards more a story-oriented and player focus, species constraints like attribute modifiers and alignment may feel restrictive.

Removing these built-in designs changes the game so that the shorthand of a particularly species is much more nuanced … but that means the game master will need to do more work to ensure elves aren’t just humans with pointy ears.

Your Turn: How do you differentiate fantasy species in your game?
 
Last edited by a moderator:

log in or register to remove this ad

Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
This can be difficult because we humans have limited capability of envisioning how someone different than us really thinks. It's difficult to do with other people, much less an entirely different species. Throw in that most races really just take some aspect of humanity and crank it up to 11.

So what I try to do is two-fold. First, I limit the major races to human, elf (high or wood), dwarf, gnome, halfling along with half-elves and orcs. The latter two don't really have their own society. By limiting the major population groups I can try to do something distinctive with each one.

Elves try to live with nature, taking the long term view of the habitat around them. While some are farmers, their farms are not something most humans would recognize. Instead they use magic to encourage plant growth either for food or to support the wildlife that they rely upon. Being so long lived gives them a different perspective on the impact they have on the land around them, but also their interactions with the other races. This long view can lead to conflict as they are viewed as standing in the way of progress while also being hesitant to form close bonds with the shorter lived races.

While it may seem to humans that elves are quite orderly with set kings, queens and royal courts, positions of power are rarely permanent or even binding. They are simply the words in the common tongue for roles that elves consider temporary, something to have fun with for a century or so before moving on. A king will often decide one day that they tire of the responsibility and shift to being a cobbler or open a bakery. Such is the way of elves, no role in society is more important than another. What matters is that the individual embrace whatever role they have chosen and experience it to it's fullest. Only by embracing the joys of daily life can they live a fulfilling life.

High elves are more likely to become adventurers in their early lives or to live in cities (human dominated or otherwise) for a period of time. While they may appear to be stand-offish because of their reluctance to befriend those who live such short lives, young elves tend to more rapidly form associations and join adventuring groups. Most elves that people encounter outside of elven dominated lands are high elves.

There are some high elf cities where some of the finest architecture can be seen and weapons of legend are occasionally forged. When they live in cities of mixed races, they still tend to create their own sections of town dominated by gardens and soaring architecture.

Wood Elves generally reject large cities and trappings of civilization. They are scattered around various parts of the world living as either hunter gatherers or nomadic tribes. When they do have permanent settlements they are typically limited to a few hundred individuals at most, frequently embedded in their natural surroundings to such a degree that people passing through may not even realize there are people living in the trees above them.

Phew ... maybe I'll write up some of my other races later.
 

sevenbastard

Adventurer
As Oofta said above I limit my non human races as well. Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, and Half Orc.

I also remove kobold, hobgoblins, bugbears, gnolls, and other humanoids sticking to orcs, goblins, and ogres. Now one orc tribe might use orc stats and culture and another might use hobgoblin or gnoll stats and culture but they all look like orcs. The ogre you are fighting might be a tough bastard who charges you with his spiked shield and be using minatour stats. Keeps my races less one dimensional.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
. . . The appeal of RPGs is that species are not the same, dragons are not like goblins, who are not like hellhounds or even hobgoblins, one species of aliens is not like another and not like humans, and so on. Having species that are different, even if they are humanoid, is a shorthand means of giving players an easy means of creating a character. . .

Alignment-tendencies are another means of differentiating species. Alignment is a way to reflect religion without specifying real-world gods, but even more it's a way to steer people away from the default of "Chaotic Neutral jerk who can do whatever he/she/it wants. . ."

Removing these built-in designs changes the game so that the shorthand of a particularly species is much more nuanced … but that means the game master will need to do more work to ensure elves aren’t just humans with pointy ears.
Lew P., you forgot to hashtag this post - #notWotCStaff (#former?)

I wouldn't tie alignment to religion because I wouldn't tie most things on a (D&D) character sheet to something directly in the story (hi Steve, my Strength is 16. What's yours?) But sure, as a character aspect (statistic?), it's one way to differentiate species.

Physiological differences (dragons breathe fire, goblins don't) are an easy means of creating a game piece, but cultural differences are a less-easy means of creating a character. For actual role-playing, it seems better to leave out the shorthand means, because then a player can focus on behaviors (personality, cultural influence). For game-playing, it's probably easier for a player to say, "I'm obviously playing a dragon, because I can breathe fire."

In my game, player-characters choose their own statistics, features, and races. If you want your dwarf to see in the dark, pick that trait. Most of the "work" is on the GM to distinguish between the humanoid race that has squares one their foreheads and the humanoid race that has two sets of eyebrows.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I don't generally differentiate the races. I let the players do it.

In forming a world, I start with the races the players want to play. If you want to play a dragonborne, then there's dragonborne in the world, and much of what dragonborne are like is in your own hands. My game is largely about the PCs themselves, their trials and tributlations, not about exploring the nuances of goblins when nobody's playing a goblin.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Honestly... You don't need Rubber Foreheads to make people INCREDIBLY DIFFERENT.

Consider weaponry, clothing material and styles, armor materials and styles, hair fashions, skin tones, hair and eye colors.

Individually most of these things don't make a big difference in how people look. Two people with the same skin tone, weapons, clothing and armor, eye color, and hair color with a different hairstyle won't look -that- different.

But when you change -all- of those things even a little bit. POW. Completely different visual character. Add in Race, like Tall skinny elves and Thicc dwarves and Broad as a Barn Orcs... and -then- apply all those little changes to the above mentioned things and you get even more difference.

But.

If what you're actually looking for is a -mechanical- difference, then you need to reduce the functional mechanics of Character Classes and move them into Character Races.

Reduce the number of spells known for all wizards, then left Elf wizards know more spells than anyone else.

Make melee weapons do less damage in everyone's hands and more in the orc's.

Make Paladins not provide their Aura unless it's a Dwarven Paladin.

As far as alignment... Yeah that won't fly. It carries a lot of racist connotations to it. Eluded to the fact that you seem to think different Religions have different Alignments. Pretty much every real world religion's alignment based on it's texts would be NG. Based on it's adherents it would be either True Neutral or Unaligned.
 

Blue Orange

Adventurer
From what I've seen they usually make humans the 'average' race, or play up the shorter lifespan to make us more adventurous or versatile.

I always thought the 1e level cap of 11 for elf wizards (later raised to 15 and eventually done away with altogether) made no sense at all. Elf wizards have hundreds of years to study magic--they should be 20th or 30th level.

Orcs and weapons...I guess. I just figured orcs were stronger on average, but if a lot of them are warriors more damage with weapons (Orcish fury etc.) makes sense.

Elves and dwarves kind of struck me as opposites...elves live out in the woods and really like magic and are tall and thin, dwarves live underground, are often magic resistant, and short and squat. Wonder if those oppositions could make interesting ancestries/races...maybe there's an anti-halfling 'wayfarer' ancestry that is really tall, always wears brightly colored shoes even if otherwise nude, and has strong respect for property rights?
 


MGibster

Legend
In order to avoid another orc thread, maybe the question should be asked the other way round? How do you differentiate HUMANS in your game? What defines humans, what trait makes them separate from any humanoid fantasy species so they are not interchangeable?
Historically speaking, humans in D&D have been the most diverse of all humanoids is appearance, temperament, class, alignment, and culture. You can find those little bastards almost anywhere doing anything. They're very often the race that's in ascendance being the most numerous and dominant on the surface world and are the standard by which all others are judged against.

I tend to favor the Star Trek method of humans with funny bumps on their heads and interesting skin colors in regards to humanoids like dwarves, elves, and halflings. We're telling human stories and I think that becomes difficult when you try to get into an alien mindset. Most stories I've read involving alien aliens tends to focus on the humans and how they're dealing with aliens they really don't understand. Though you also have stories where something very inhuman is trying to learn how to be human. (Data from Star Trek for example.)

When building a world, I think it's important to ask what purpose a particular humanoid serves in the setting. Why am I adding orcs to the setting? What role do I expect them to fill? In the past, orcs most typically existed as antagonist but these days we've got all sorts of fiction depicting orcs with a bit more nuance. Maybe in this setting orcs used to be like your old school fantasy evil folk but these days they've sown their wild oats and are more interested in peacefully coexisting with their neighbors but still find it difficult as they have a reputation. That might make for an interesting source of conflict in the setting.
 

Puddles

Explorer
A little thought experiment I have been having recently is what-if rather than race defining alignment, having alignment define race. For example, if you commit enough horrific acts you descend into Orcdom - or do enough pious deeds and you might turn into Elf or even a Dragon of some sort. It seems quite fantastical and fairy-tale-esque with a little bit of eastern folktale flavour. It could make a neat setting.
 

Faolyn

Hero
Honestly... You don't need Rubber Foreheads to make people INCREDIBLY DIFFERENT.

Consider weaponry, clothing material and styles, armor materials and styles, hair fashions, skin tones, hair and eye colors.
Exactly. And it’s not that hard to include different cultural elements to round all that out.

When it comes to D&D and other RPGs, people think that you have to create entire cultures for each race/heritage, but since that’s both difficult and time-consuming, most GMs don’t do it. And who can blame them? In reality, all you really need are a 2-5 interesting cultural tidbits for each of your races.
 

BoxCrayonTales

Adventurer
Several ways.

I give each fantasy race their own planet. Elves come from Alfheim, dwarves from Nidavellir, humans from Midgard, etc.

I try to differentiate fantasy races as more than rubber foreheads. My elves are plant people a la Glorantha, my dwarves are maggot men a la Norse myth, my greenskins are algae-fungus people a la Warhammer, etc.

I try to give each fantasy race multiple cultures and ethnicities to give them similar depth to humans.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Exactly. And it’s not that hard to include different cultural elements to round all that out.

When it comes to D&D and other RPGs, people think that you have to create entire cultures for each race/heritage, but since that’s both difficult and time-consuming, most GMs don’t do it. And who can blame them? In reality, all you really need are a 2-5 interesting cultural tidbits for each of your races.
Or, and this might be a little wild: Make a variety of cultures and have elves, dwarves, and humans all share those cultures to differing degrees!

Oh, sure, some of those cultures could be "Elf Cultures" that humans sometimes partake in like a bunch of Elf-Centric Weebs. But you get the idea.
 

Blue Orange

Adventurer
Or, and this might be a little wild: Make a variety of cultures and have elves, dwarves, and humans all share those cultures to differing degrees!

Oh, sure, some of those cultures could be "Elf Cultures" that humans sometimes partake in like a bunch of Elf-Centric Weebs. But you get the idea.

This would probably be the default in port towns or large cities where elves, dwarves, humans, etc. mix.
 

Ace

Adventurer
In order to avoid another orc thread, maybe the question should be asked the other way round? How do you differentiate HUMANS in your game? What defines humans, what trait makes them separate from any humanoid fantasy species so they are not interchangeable?

Fantasy role-playing games, like the Star Trek television series, can sometimes suffer from a lack of differentiation between humanoid species with only slight tweaks to their appearance.

I don't think this is necessary frankly and I think its better making humanoids relatable . In fact I see it as is essential to actually making a game or media for that matter work. Otherwise the amount of investment and subsequently player interest levels decline precipitously.

People play all kinds of easily relatable Dwarves but the machine like Mostul from Runequest's Glorantha are rarely seen for the simple reason that getting into the mindset requires a lot of work . If you aren't going to bother with that than its just a human with different numbers.

IME when people play or GM they only have so much available time and effort and each amount of effort spent on weird stuff is time not spent on something else more fun.

Some people , groups and the like have more time (well used too before the Internet) or a strong interest in a gaming world which is why you might occasionally see say some of the weird critters from Tekumel in play or an Edorian in Star Trek or a Gammorian in Star Wars or something but otherwise people want to get the game rolling not spend endless hours researching customs of the weird races.

Thus generic humanoids or even very human like Dragonborn make for a better experience for most people.

 



Kannik

Adventurer
I second the notion that the greatest differentiator between different species/lineages/etc is through their culture (and, as noted above by Steampunkette and Blue Organe, the delight that can come from mixing them). We played in a game where you could choose any race for your mechanics, regardless of what you were RP-wise. You just had to be able to appropriately fluff the abilities. And it worked brilliantly.

So while I am fully in the camp of providing great and interesting abilities and specialties to each species (and removing ability score modifiers completely), there’s so much variety possible that in the end it mostly comes from the players expressing those abilities eloquently and creatively at the table to provide the distinctions and fun. :)
 

well, I started with how a sapients individuals species native group structure is from lone peoples (more or less born alone die alone not much interaction with other individuals over time) dragons would likely be there all the way to hives which assuming we are going to real-life based would have altruism and cooperation as second nature and would be somewhat put in an existential crisis if it was forced to live mostly alone.

I assume humans are the midpoint which explains why we suck at both but I am struggling to name the point between the hive and us and between us and the lone sapient.
 

Visit Our Sponsor

Level Up!

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top