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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

Aldarc

Legend
30 seconds in. Notice Legolas? That's the kind of thing that says 'elf'. While the more mundane humans and hobbits (carried) and dwarf are trudging, he gracefully is able to walk on top of the snow.

Ah, yes. I remember that scene. Immediately thereafter, all the elves in my DM's campaign back in high school suddenly could walk on snow and see much farther away than prior rules enabled. Incidentally, after the second movie, all wargs in that campaign suddenly went from being wolves to hyenas.

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.
Also Dungeon World. It's just you checking a box that you're an elf or a halfling. Then you (and others who checked likewise) may have a bit of say about what it means in this world to be an elf, a halfling, etc.

Which is the absolute opposite of what they should do. They should follow Paizo on this one have a generic "D&D world" and let all thier fluff and rules reflect it. It would suck you lose the myriad of settings like Eberron and Ravenloft, but if the options are one setting richly detailed with complex cultures and races or an absolutely bland generic core, the setting wins every time.
...and they should call it "the Nentir Vale."
 

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Hussar

Legend
@Tonguez I'm not sure I agree with that though. There are easy ways to have the sort of hodge podge worlds that D&D favors. Scarred Lands, for one, had the Titans which created all life. But the Titans were largely uninterested in any particular race and the life that was created was largely ignored (or possibly eaten) by the titans. Sort of a weird evolutionary set up where you have a progenitor in the Titans that is largely uncaring if a given species lives or dies. They just bang out another species.

OTOH, I do agree though that once you have decided to include this or that game element into the setting, it should be grounded in more than just, "oh, they're the evil race."
 

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
that is the thing curated homebrew is far rarer than you would think as most settings have everything, the lack of a proper capture the imagination non-Kitchin sink setting and the lack of a book on how to do world building and different game types leads to it plus, most players have a favourite or go-to race that is not human hence that is not much of a thing in new guard circles, even when they would have been better to call for an all-human game because of how they built there setting.
 

Remathilis

Legend
So outside the most fringe, 'looks different'?

That's a clear pass here. :)
He asked for the "straw that breaks the camel's back" point. I gave it to them.

A Forgotten Realms elf is not an Eberron elf, is not a Dark Sun elf, is not a Ravnica elf. They are certainly difficult to a Warcraft elf, an Elder Scrolls elf, or a Warhammer elf. You can have a lot of nuanced differences between the cultural and physical abilities of an elf.

But you want your elf to have bunny ears? Sorry, pick another race. Your removing the key signal that says "this person is an elf".
 


Hussar

Legend
that is the thing curated homebrew is far rarer than you would think as most settings have everything, the lack of a proper capture the imagination non-Kitchin sink setting and the lack of a book on how to do world building and different game types leads to it plus, most players have a favourite or go-to race that is not human hence that is not much of a thing in new guard circles, even when they would have been better to call for an all-human game because of how they built there setting.
Just as a point here. Please stop with the "new guard" crap. This has been true since day 1 of D&D. Gygax's home game had a freaking BALROG for a PC. This is not new, at all. The whole "throw lots of races together" thing has been part and parcel of the game since day 1. There is exactly zero difference in how settings have been done.

Even the whole "Greyhawk is a human based setting" completely falls on its head as soon as you start actually looking at most of the places where people actually adventure. For some reason everyone seems to forget that Rakasta and Phanatons were a playable race. Diaboli were a playable race. Reynard were a playable race. All in the 80's. We had Minotaur PC's in the 80's. None of this is new.
 

Just as a point here. Please stop with the "new guard" crap. This has been true since day 1 of D&D. Gygax's home game had a freaking BALROG for a PC. This is not new, at all. The whole "throw lots of races together" thing has been part and parcel of the game since day 1. There is exactly zero difference in how settings have been done.

Even the whole "Greyhawk is a human based setting" completely falls on its head as soon as you start actually looking at most of the places where people actually adventure. For some reason everyone seems to forget that Rakasta and Phanatons were a playable race. Diaboli were a playable race. Reynard were a playable race. All in the 80's. We had Minotaur PC's in the 80's. None of this is new.
you assume all of those were made by gary himself and were made to be pc's regularly, it is more that everything is assumed to be true inherently as opposed to a likely option, like psionics would be just accepted and made standard by most new guard tables, some are different, I like setting with some limits as long as I do not hate the limits.

it is known gary did some what look down on people playing elves.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
that is the thing curated homebrew is far rarer than you would think as most settings have everything, the lack of a proper capture the imagination non-Kitchin sink setting and the lack of a book on how to do world building and different game types leads to it plus, most players have a favourite or go-to race that is not human hence that is not much of a thing in new guard circles, even when they would have been better to call for an all-human game because of how they built there setting.

So, you are just an elitist trying to prove your point. Which first of all, I agree with @Hussar, DnD has long had a tradition of so many races in the game. Heck, I know of at least two geographically distinct gaming circles where over the course of the game a badger companion named Steve ascended to godhood. To reiterate, two separate games that had never heard of each other, with a badger god named Steve who used to be a companion to the party.


But, beyond that, when you ask a question like "what is the essence of an elf, that makes them an elf" I don't look at DnD exclusively. I don't even look at Fantasy exclusively, as I've seen some sci-fi products that have "space elves". Elf has been defined, and redefined and strangely, I've almost never come across a version of "elf" that triggered me to think "this isn't an elf". A tribe of nature worshippers using stone-tipped spears in the jungle or a highly advanced race of hedonists conquering planets with space ships.... both are elves. Neither is the DnD elf.
 


my point is to find the points that speak say elf so we can know what it is that people logically care about who play elves as otherwise, the task of having other sapients that are not human rapidly dissolves into nothing as everything is just human with a suit on and I want something better than that but that does not have the problems noted.
 

Arilyn

Hero
The typical magical medieval world in our games have humans behaving an awful lot like 21st century Earth humans, so I don't get too fussed about non-humans. We're not really getting any of them right are we?

Play what you want and have fun with it, whether you've given a lot of thought over what it means to be a long lived race or just throwing a Scottish accent on your dwarf.
 

Hussar

Legend
my point is to find the points that speak say elf so we can know what it is that people logically care about who play elves as otherwise, the task of having other sapients that are not human rapidly dissolves into nothing as everything is just human with a suit on and I want something better than that but that does not have the problems noted.
Yup. They turn in to just a human when you completely ignore the boatload of reasons about why they aren't human.

So, let's turn it around. What do you actually want?
 

you assume all of those were made by gary himself and were made to be pc's regularly, it is more that everything is assumed to be true inherently as opposed to a likely option, like psionics would be just accepted and made standard by most new guard tables, some are different, I like setting with some limits as long as I do not hate the limits.

it is known gary did some what look down on people playing elves.
Gary had a complicated relationship with this.

I'm sure most of us have at some point read the official rules text that rather condescendingly instructs DMs to heap unfair extra burdens onto non-human characters (especially "the stronger types of undead" or some phrase similar to that), and that the smart players will figure it out and start playing the correct race (humans), while the "less-intelligent" (IIRC that's the phrase actually used) will keep flinging themselves at the bad things until they eventually leave in disgust. I don't think anyone actually wants to uphold such passive-aggressive dickishness as the way the game should be run.

On the flipside, I know for a fact that I have read other things in Gygax's own hand that talk about permitting players to play balrogs, or dragons, or any number of other fantastical creatures...as long as they accept that their power must be earned. So if you're a dragon, you're a juvenile dragon, still coming into your powers, perhaps hoping that adventure will quicken the powers within you. If you're a balrog (as an actual player legitimately, honestly was at one of Gary's tables--I knew someone on a different forum who played in that very game), you're a weakened balrog who must reclaim their powers or throw off the curse preventing you from using your full might. Or consider Sir Fang, from the Blackmoor game, who had been a warrior in life and then became a terrifying villain in (un)death.

Point being: in actual, live-action play, Gary seemed to be not only permissive, but actively working with players to achieve a feel or goal or purpose that that player thought was cool. Likewise with the addition of the Barrier Peaks, which injected lasers and LGMs and a bunch of other things--a module written by Gary himself, specifically for his world, Greyhawk (it was originally set in the Grand Duchy of Geoff.) He very much used the Rule of Cool when it suited him, and he also used tight themes when it suited him--it would be factually inaccurate to say that he belonged to any particular camp exclusively.

And that's sort of the problem with quoting Gygax about anything. He had very different attitudes in different contexts, and spoke authoritatively in very different ways over the course of his life and works. But if your goal is to assert that Gygax consistently depended on the purity of a single vision or upon rigorous curation of every concept, well, I'm afraid his actual behavior and work fail to conform to that assertion. In practice, he was much more like...what most people are going to argue for: a blend of pursuing a creative vision and the Rule of Cool, each in its appropriate place--and that figuring out what "the appropriate place" means is an ever-evolving task, always dependent on the specific context each GM finds herself in.
 

The typical magical medieval world in our games have humans behaving an awful lot like 21st century Earth humans, so I don't get too fussed about non-humans. We're not really getting any of them right are we?

Play what you want and have fun with it, whether you've given a lot of thought over what it means to be a long lived race or just throwing a Scottish accent on your dwarf.
Whereas for me, I prefer to take the tack of doing what I can to support players in finding (or developing) the uniqueness of each thing, if it's warranted, or demonstrating that it isn't that unique.

For example, I have among other characters a Tiefling Bard and a Half-Orc Ranger as players in my Dungeon World game. (Well, the Ranger is currently on a personal-leave hiatus, but I'll use the character as an example anyway.) For the former, we've come to realize that...for the most part, being a tiefling isn't really much different from being a normal human in this world. Sure, they exist, and occasionally they get some flak, but the vast majority of people understand that this is literally just the body a person was born with (most of the time) and that it's what they do that matters, not whether they have skin that isn't a shade of brown or whether they happen to have a tail. But we've also learned that this character in specific, separate from pretty much all other tieflings (except his two brothers), has some Real Weird genealogy stuff going on on his dad's side, and that his succubus great-grandma (direct maternal-line ancestor) is genuinely good and has reformed and that this is another Big Deal in-universe.

By comparison, the Ranger is very specifically dealing with his people being a little bit different. Most orcs and half-orcs live in the Nomad Tribes (who are not barbarians--that's people who don't share the common fundamental culture of the Tarrakhuna), and thus don't tend to reside in cities. But his clan matriarch--his paternal grandmother--has chosen to bring her people into the city, spending the great wealth she had earned earlier in her life to advance her people's welfare and cement them a better life within the city. This has not been entirely popular with their tribe, and the Ranger is pulled between two worlds, with the ambition and cunning to try for the even-greater third option: make his own city. (He also has some special bloodline stuff going on, but that's not directly related in this case.)
 

Aldarc

Legend
The typical magical medieval world in our games have humans behaving an awful lot like 21st century Earth humans, so I don't get too fussed about non-humans. We're not really getting any of them right are we?

Play what you want and have fun with it, whether you've given a lot of thought over what it means to be a long lived race or just throwing a Scottish accent on your dwarf.
There is also philosopher Thomas Nagel's famous essay "What is it like to be a bat?" which, in general, makes the point that a person trying to imagine what it's like to be a bat will be inherently subjective, i.e., rooted in the human experience. This would be especially true for fictional races species and creatures in a world of magic as well. Imagining what it is like to be an elf, dwarf, orc, or dragon will be rooted in our subjective human experiences.

NOTE: Also something else worth considering in terms of how this discussion is generally framed. Often this discussion is framed in terms of PC options and races: i.e., "why have playable races if they are just going to act human?" This question, in many ways, is implicitly framed as a failure of the PC players to "properly" roleplay these races as anything but different types of human, but what about the Game Master? Are they also not subject to the same limitations? Does the elf stop being a human with a different forehead just because it is hypothetically limited to the NPC player (i.e., the GM) and not the PC players? Is a dragon anything but a human in rubber suit when played by a GM? This is a point that the OP of the article points out, but it doesn't really get picked up.
 

There is also philosopher Thomas Nagel's famous essay "What is it like to be a bat?" which, in general, makes the point that a person trying to imagine what it's like to be a bat will be inherently subjective, i.e., rooted in the human experience. This would be especially true for fictional races species and creatures in a world of magic as well. Imagining what it is like to be an elf, dwarf, orc, or dragon will be rooted in our subjective human experiences.

NOTE: Also something else worth considering in terms of how this discussion is generally framed. Often this discussion is framed in terms of PC options and races: i.e., "why have playable races if they are just going to act human?" This question, in many ways, is implicitly framed as a failure of the PC players to "properly" roleplay these races as anything but different types of human, but what about the Game Master? Are they also not subject to the same limitations? Does the elf stop being a human with a different forehead just because it is hypothetically limited to the NPC player (i.e., the GM) and not the PC players? Is a dragon anything but a human in rubber suit when played by a GM? This is a point that the OP of the article points out, but it doesn't really get picked up.
perhaps but that argument depends on being a bat is radically different to being a human in all aspects.
 


Remathilis

Legend
There is also philosopher Thomas Nagel's famous essay "What is it like to be a bat?" which, in general, makes the point that a person trying to imagine what it's like to be a bat will be inherently subjective, i.e., rooted in the human experience. This would be especially true for fictional races species and creatures in a world of magic as well. Imagining what it is like to be an elf, dwarf, orc, or dragon will be rooted in our subjective human experiences.

NOTE: Also something else worth considering in terms of how this discussion is generally framed. Often this discussion is framed in terms of PC options and races: i.e., "why have playable races if they are just going to act human?" This question, in many ways, is implicitly framed as a failure of the PC players to "properly" roleplay these races as anything but different types of human, but what about the Game Master? Are they also not subject to the same limitations? Does the elf stop being a human with a different forehead just because it is hypothetically limited to the NPC player (i.e., the GM) and not the PC players? Is a dragon anything but a human in rubber suit when played by a GM? This is a point that the OP of the article points out, but it doesn't really get picked up.
It's been explained to me that nonhumans are best taken when one aspect of the human condition is exaggerated, but other aspects remain mostly neutral. So an elf is what life would be like if you measured your life in centuries. Contrast with a vampire, who also lives for centuries but in a world not built for that (the elf has a society and family that will likewise endure, the vampire lives with the notion that it will outlive all it loves). In both cases, that long lifespan colors views of the person, creating some common traits (an unwillingness to intervene, gracious but haughty attitude, fixation on arts and other things that will last, reverence for that natural world, mastery in a certain skill, etc).
 

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?
Culture.

It is an age of no internet. News travels slowly. Regionality exists. Exportations of goods is limited via transport methods. Isolated pockets exist. Geography plays a role. Wealth. Traditions. religion. All these things create separation.

Now if you have the: a dwarf, elf, hobgoblin, goliath and tiefling walk into a bar and no one bats an eye. Then all those things above probably can't occur, at least not logically.
 

Mallus

Legend
Out of curiosity, can anyone name a popular character -- ie, a character that really resonated with people -- from science fiction and fantasy film/TV/literature/gaming who wasn't a human wearing a suit (or funny hat)?

I'm currently near the end of a Babylon 5 re-watch. A show with a lot of fantastic alien characters (Londo, G'Kar, Delenn). But the fantastic because they're so human, esp. Londo.
 

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