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.

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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?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

BookTenTiger

He / Him
I'll be honest, I love world building, I love roleplaying... AND I really don't care if elves, dwarves, or whoever are humans with bumpy foreheads.

In the game I run the characters are currently a gnome, a tiefling, an aasimar, a goliath, and a kenku. If you replaced them all with humans very little would change. And you know what? We are still having fun!

The giant guy enjoys being giant. The little guy enjoys being little. The bird enjoys being a bird.

It's my suspicion that if there were no mechanical differences between these races and humans, my players would still have chosen them just because it's fun to imagine yourself as someone different.
 

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Faolyn

(she/her)
I don't know where this trope comes from. Humans in Tolkien were also less that then they before at the time of the war of the Ring. Maybe it was a pure product of American collective psyche, opposing humans (=American readers) to the established powers of the world in decline (Europe).
Most mythologies contain the idea of a golden age and the inevitable decline from it.
 

Faolyn

(she/her)
It's my suspicion that if there were no mechanical differences between these races and humans, my players would still have chosen them just because it's fun to imagine yourself as someone different.
Several games out there (both Cypher System and Fate, that I know of) say that you can just decide to make your character non-human without actually changing any of your mechanics (while also supplying some mechanics if you wanted to play a non-human whose stats reflect that). I'd guess that that means there are lots of people out there who don't care if there are mechanical differences between humans and non-humans or not.
 

Scribe

Hero
we are talking about the definition, your standards are not relevant in this task of definitions save it for when we try to make examples.
we are not talking about any setting just what an elf is so we can work out how to have races that are more than human in funny ears without them being utterly offensive.
Then I stand by my definition of what is ultimately a fictional entity which nobody can claim ownership of.
 

Galandris

Foggy Bottom Campaign Setting Fan
Most mythologies contain the idea of a golden age and the inevitable decline from it.
Mind of Tempest said:
no, it is a very old trope given the master kong had it towards the zhou and Confucius is super dead even when Tolkien walked the dirtball.

This is the exact contrary of the one about humans, who are here to do better, they are presented as the newcomers going to be movers and shakers of the world, not the one sorrowfully lamenting the great days of yore and their unsurpassable, forever lost splendor. This last one would be the elf trope, actually.
 
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Faolyn

(she/her)
This is the exact contrary of the one about humans, who are here to do better, they are presented as the newcomers going to be movers and shakers of the world, not the one sorrowfully lamenting the great days of yore and their unsurpassable, forever lost splendor.
Yes, but we're talking mythology here, not what current humans are like. Elves are often depicted as being stuck in the past and unable or unwilling to look towards the future.
 

You dont have to, but those things say elf to me as well. Probably because Tokien was my first exposure to fantasy. I dont want elves to vary much from this, unless they are intentionally playing against type (which means the classic elf had to be the default).
your want all thought is perfectly understandable is irrelevant given that you can simply move into the simarilian and the elves are raising up there.
Then I stand by my definition of what is ultimately a fictional entity which nobody can claim ownership of.
look welsh dragon is a fictional entity and it has a definition so it meets two criteria there, my point is to get to core elf traits so we know what it is people most likely care about as most people have an opinion on elves.
This is the exact contrary of the one about humans, who are here to do better, they are presented as the newcomers going to be movers and shakers of the world, not the one sorrowfully lamenting the great days of yore and their unsurpassable, forever lost splendor. This one would be the elf trope, actually.
which is utterly unlike real-life humans I want to scrap it, plus a lot of them have dead past human nations held up as better in some way.
 


Micah Sweet

Legend
Several games out there (both Cypher System and Fate, that I know of) say that you can just decide to make your character non-human without actually changing any of your mechanics (while also supplying some mechanics if you wanted to play a non-human whose stats reflect that). I'd guess that that means there are lots of people out there who don't care if there are mechanical differences between humans and non-humans or not.
I'd at least say that fans of FATE and Cypher are ok with no mechanical difference. Cant say that necessarily means "lots" of people compared to D&D.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
your want all thought is perfectly understandable is irrelevant given that you can simply move into the simarilian and the elves are raising up there.

look welsh dragon is a fictional entity and it has a definition so it meets two criteria there, my point is to get to core elf traits so we know what it is people most likely care about as most people have an opinion on elves.

which is utterly unlike real-life humans I want to scrap it, plus a lot of them have dead past human nations held up as better in some way.
The Silmarillion is the story of the Elves' creation and past glories. You have to have somewhere to fall from, you know.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
cut the superficial explanations of each take on elves and find me the basic set of properties that are needed for something to be with in the category known as elf?

They are so varied I don't know if I could. Eternal is about the only thing I can think of. I think living near forever is about the only thing that makes an elf an elf despite any other changes you could make.

But again... I've seen a lot of changes that still seemed like "elf" to me.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
Because humanity is the younger race and the one, according to the PHB, that is starting empire-building. You can have this as expanding among ruins (PoL setting) or a defunct empire (Cormyr?) or taking by force -- Eberron has Khorvaire being colonized by Lhazaar's humans -- but expanding and trying to build institutions that outlast them is the schtick of humans by RAW. This is not only the shadow of Tolkien, it's the shadow of 5e. "Being on the rise" is one the very few things that make human specials in fantasy. That and lacking darkvision, of course. In Elvish, "a human lamplighter" is a pleonasm shunned by purists.

I don't know where this trope comes from. Humans in Tolkien were also less that then they before at the time of the war of the Ring. Maybe it was a pure product of American collective psyche, opposing humans (=American readers) to the established powers of the world in decline (Europe).

But, beyond DnD humans are still humans even if they are falling into decline. So, why do elves need to be a declining power. They certainly aren't in the Elder Scrolls, they are the dominant empire who mostly stopped killing people out of boredom from what I've heard.
 

Hussar

Legend
cut the superficial explanations of each take on elves and find me the basic set of properties that are needed for something to be with in the category known as elf?
Wait, what?

Virtually immortal, gender fluid magical beings that remember with perfect clarity their past lives is a "superficial explanation"? Huh?

What more do you need to make an alien race? Good grief, humans, with the possible exception of gender fluid, are none of these things. And, note, even the gender fluid part is a bit different too since it's entirely possible for elves to drift back and forth between genders multiple times over their unbelievably long lifetimes.

Now, what is actually needed in the game is some sort of mechanical heft to these things that would actually reward players somehow for showing up in play. I agree there that D&D generally hasn't done much to do that. But "superficial"? What would you consider to be non-superficial?
 

Remathilis

Legend
okay, which ones are fundamental to elfness that if you removed would mean it would stop being elfs?
Pointed ears.

Elf - pointed ears
Dwarf - short legs and beard (juries out on the latter)
Halfling - size of a child.
Gnome - size of a child plus pointed ears (must have both)
Tiefling - horns or other "devilish" features
Orc - tusks
Dragonborn - breath weapon
Aasimar - wings orv other "angelic" features
Genasi - elemental features
Goliath - talll and stoney looking
Tabaxi - cat features
Aarakroca - bird features
Kenku - also bird features but no wings
Triton - breathes underwater
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
Wait, what?

Virtually immortal, gender fluid magical beings that remember with perfect clarity their past lives is a "superficial explanation"? Huh?

What more do you need to make an alien race? Good grief, humans, with the possible exception of gender fluid, are none of these things. And, note, even the gender fluid part is a bit different too since it's entirely possible for elves to drift back and forth between genders multiple times over their unbelievably long lifetimes.

Now, what is actually needed in the game is some sort of mechanical heft to these things that would actually reward players somehow for showing up in play. I agree there that D&D generally hasn't done much to do that. But "superficial"? What would you consider to be non-superficial?

Where I will disagree with you is that some things don't really need mechanical heft. I don't want Gender to have a mechanical weight.

However, and elf getting something for being very old and having a lot of very old lives would be nice. Maybe give them a floating proficiency, like the Phantom Rogue has, where you can swap in or out a proficiency after a long rest. That... actually something I might try and work in. Too bad elves are so heavily overweighted with abilities already.
 

Scribe

Hero
Pointed ears.

Elf - pointed ears
Dwarf - short legs and beard (juries out on the latter)
Halfling - size of a child.
Gnome - size of a child plus pointed ears (must have both)
Tiefling - horns or other "devilish" features
Orc - tusks
Dragonborn - breath weapon
Aasimar - wings orv other "angelic" features
Genasi - elemental features
Goliath - talll and stoney looking
Tabaxi - cat features
Aarakroca - bird features
Kenku - also bird features but no wings
Triton - breathes underwater
So outside the most fringe, 'looks different'?

That's a clear pass here. :)
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
This is actually a fairly easy question to answer.

Base physical stuff like "Dwarves can't use bows" is boring. It's lazy world building really. It's really easy to do that sort of thing. Much more difficult to actually present real, challenging differences that actually make a difference in play. Dwarves are different because they live underground. Think of what that would actually do to an intelligent species. Social structures that would be highly hierarchical because the last thing you want when you live half a mile underground and a mistake can kill everyone is a free thinker. Language that would be very direct and blunt - because again, misunderstandings aren't just embarrassing, they are actually deadly. The notion of family and clan, which is already in D&D dwarves being important.

But, the key thing here is that we need to have actual mechanical weight to these elements. The player should be rewarded for trying to portray these things in the game with more than just a hearty pat on the head for "good roleplaying". This is why so many of the suggestions are combat related. It's easy to have that cycle of reward in combat - you are good with axes, for example, so, you get a +1 with an axe for being a dwarf and that +1 applies to every attack you make.

Thing is, those kinds of bonuses are the lowest hanging fruit. Does anyone really feel like Elf is being portrayed because that elf gets a +1 with longswords? Not really. It never gets mentioned during play typically. No one cares.

So, we need to add a framework to the game where race actually matters. I'd suggest something in the Backgrounds which is tied to the race of your character that adds to the already existing backgrounds. So that Human Criminal gives you a somewhat different background than Dwarf Criminal or Halfling Criminal. ((I have no idea why Criminal background popped into my head, :D )) Tie that to the Inspiration rules and you've got a good system for making race actually matter in the game.
The problem here is you’ll inevitably run into the same issue we‘re currently seeing with ASIs - and that’s the players who won’t be satisfied by being constrained or defined by the race they pick, particularly if one of the abilities looks like it may be disadvantageous to the build they want. It’s just not going to be as obvious as it is with numerical benefits.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
The problem here is you’ll inevitably run into the same issue we‘re currently seeing with ASIs - and that’s the players who won’t be satisfied by being constrained or defined by the race they pick, particularly if one of the abilities looks like it may be disadvantageous to the build they want. It’s just not going to be as obvious as it is with numerical benefits.
I have to agree. At this point we are seeing a growing number of players who dont seem to want any character creation restrictions, at all. That sort of thing will erode the design of D&D, which has always relied on categories and archetypes.
 

Hussar

Legend
The problem here is you’ll inevitably run into the same issue we‘re currently seeing with ASIs - and that’s the players who won’t be satisfied by being constrained or defined by the race they pick, particularly if one of the abilities looks like it may be disadvantageous to the build they want. It’s just not going to be as obvious as it is with numerical benefits.
I don't think we're on the same page here.

My point was race should come with mechanical weight. If it doesn't, then you cannot complain that the races all wind up being humans with bumpy heads. Now, if we're good with that, then fine. But, I thought the point was we wanted non-humans to be different from humans. Well, currently, under the rules that exist right now, there is zero reason why my halfling, dwarf, elf or dragonborn should be the slightest bit different from my human character. Nothing in the game distinguishes them to any real degree.

So, if you want differences, then you have to make the differences actually matter. But, there's no reason any of this has to be a disadvantage. That sort of design isn't needed at all.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
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.

I agree that every race needs to be curated and GMs do need to have a narrative as to how they fit in the setting. For instance in one setting I dropped Orcs entirely allowed for Half-Orcs as an offshoot of Humans blessed by the Beasts gods. While they maintained their strength, fury and had bestial features (Tusk etc) they were still welcomed in Human settlements and many Lords sort them out as Elite Guards. I also dropped Elfs but allowed for Half-elfs reskinned as half-fey.

Of course is does mean that Human remains the standard against which other races are defined, I've tried to imagine a world with an 'Elf' standard or similar but it tends to be unsatisfying to me. My palette thus runs Human, Variant Human (Aquatic), Half-Human (Fey, Orc, Giant), Gnome, Goblin, Tabaxi
 

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