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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
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.
At least by my standards both Spock and Data from Star Trek definitely qualify. Sure they're not incomprehensibly alien, but I think it is pretty defining for both characters that they're not actually humans. Granted, Spock is a half human and Data is built by a human and sort of wants to become human. But this sort of exploration of human qualities only works when contrasted with their non human qualities.

I don't know, maybe they're not alien enough for some, but I think this is basically the sort of level of alieness I see realistic to aim for in a RPG.
 

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Aldarc

Legend
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).
I like how this is explored in Eberron. Elves may live longer than humans, but that's precisely why they fear death. Each elf represents a tremendous amount of culminated knowledge and experience that is lost upon death, which is why the prevailing elven cultures of Eberron are so dedicated to preserving the lives of their dead however they can: e.g., undeath, undying, ancestral reembodiment, etc.

Likewise, from what I vaguely recall, the Aereni elves of Eberron kinda creep humans out, not only because of the whole death thing, but also because incest, with a number of marriages within families. But from the perspective of elves, it's not a big deal because they don't share the same biological problems and issues resulting from incest that humans do. I think that's a pretty interesting way to accentuate the "not human" aspect of non-humans.
 

Remathilis

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.
Does R2-D2 or BB-8 count?
 

Mallus

Legend
Does R2-D2 or BB-8 count?
Interesting. Maybe. They're both capable of gestures that are human enough so they can serve as comic relief. That's kinda their point. Especially R2, who feels like an homage to the fat partner in a classic fat & skinny comedy duo like Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello.

They're also a bit like anthropomorphized objects (trash can, metal beach ball). Animation is full of objects-as-people, everything from cars to brave little toasters.
 

Arilyn

Hero
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.)
This is what makes fictional characters interesting. I love your examples.
 

Mallus

Legend
At least by my standards both Spock and Data from Star Trek definitely qualify.
See, I'd use both of them as examples of alien characters who are undeniably human. Sure, Spock is stoic and logical (which aren't exactly alien traits, just presented at an exaggerated level). But he's also best friends with Jim Kirk, has no trouble using wry humor on his co-workers, in fact has no real trouble navigating human society at all.

Spock's at his most alien in ST:TMP. But that's after spending years trying to purge himself of his emotions. He felt he'd become too human. Yet for all that effort, he 'dies' in TWoK proclaiming he "always was, and always will be" Jim Kirk's friend.

As for Data, he's even more of an exaggeration than Spock, though the same pattern hold true. He has friends, relationships, hobbies, etc. He has feelings, even negative emotions like anger, as seen in "The Most Toys", where he totally tries to murder Kivas Fajo in cold blood. As was argued in "Measure of the Man", Mr. Data is obviously alive (which in the context of the episode reads as 'human', a person). The irony of Data is that he doesn't see it, he's perpetually on this quest to become what the audience knows he already is. Much like Spock, who is very much a human being, despite his frequent protestations.

I don't know, maybe they're not alien enough for some, but I think this is basically the sort of level of alieness I see realistic to aim for in a RPG.
I agree complete. Spock and Data are exactly the kind of alien our PCs should be.
 
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King Babar

God Learner
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.
Legion from Mass Effect comes to mind.

Not necessarily popular, but the Skroderiders and Tines from Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep (also the Spiders from a Deepness in the Sky) are all very alien in appearance but sympathetic in their feelings and motivations.
 

See, I'd use both of them as examples of alien characters who are undeniably human. Sure, Spock is stoic and logical (which aren't exactly alien traits, just presented at an exaggerated level). But he's also best friends with Jim Kirk, has no trouble using wry humor on his co-workers, in fact has no real trouble navigating human society at all.

Spock's at his most alien in ST:TMP. But that's after spending years trying to purge himself of his emotions. He felt he'd become too human. Yet for all that effort, he 'dies' in TWoK proclaiming he "always was, and always will be" Jim Kirk's friend.

As for Data, he's even more of an exaggeration than Spock, though the same pattern hold true. He has friends, relationships, hobbies, etc. He has feelings, even negative emotions like anger, as seen in "The Most Toys", where he totally tries to murder Kivas Fajo in cold blood. As was argued in "Measure of the Man", Mr. Data is obviously alive (which in the context of the episode reads as 'human', a person). The irony of Data is that he doesn't see it, he's perpetually on this quest to become what the audience knows he already is. Much like Spock, who is very much a human being, despite his frequent protestations.


I agree complete. Spock and Data are exactly the kind of alien our PCs should be.
perhaps it is impossible for a thing to be a person without becoming human in our eyes?
 

Hussar

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.
I mentioned The Doctor from Doctor Who. Very much not human.

From Star Trek, Jadsia (sp) Dax from DS9 would certainly qualify. Very much someone you'd never, ever mistake for being just another human.

Drax and Groot would both qualify pretty well. Most definitely aliens.

Optimus Prime makes a pretty good one. Pretty obviously not human.

Superman - depending on the writer. Supergirl, the CW show, leans pretty hard on Supergirl's alien nature. It's always a point that she's trying to be human and never really fitting in.
 


Laurefindel

Legend
I mentioned The Doctor from Doctor Who. Very much not human.

From Star Trek, Jadsia (sp) Dax from DS9 would certainly qualify. Very much someone you'd never, ever mistake for being just another human.

Drax and Groot would both qualify pretty well. Most definitely aliens.

Optimus Prime makes a pretty good one. Pretty obviously not human.

Superman - depending on the writer. Supergirl, the CW show, leans pretty hard on Supergirl's alien nature. It's always a point that she's trying to be human and never really fitting in.
I'm not sure I would agree; most are capable of perfect human speech, show predictably human emotions, show decisively human-like anatomy and wear clothes interchangeable with humans; which makes them pretty human to me.

Optimus Prime is a robot that can transform into a tool that human use rather than are - that's pretty alien - but otherwise he's a noble human-like leader. Soundwave is a more alien character IMO.

Dr Who has two hearts and the ability to reincarnate - which is way beyond human abilities - but even then, (s)he not quite the same character. Yet all are impetuous but otherwise pretty human characters. It took my kids a few shows to realize they weren't human.

DS9's Dax is similar. Her symbiont makes her more than human (or whatever species she was) but retain very human-like in emotions and reactions. When my wife was watching DS9, I didn't get she wasn't just (whatever not-quite-human) star trek species for a while. Still, she is two characters. I guess that defines as alien.

Superman is, well, a super man, but a man nonetheless. He could have been a radioactive mutated human and it would make little difference. Martian Manhunter is at least visually different.

Groot is a good example of an alien character; he's got little than humans can relate to. His nature, malleable anatomy, non-understandable speech, and not quite perceivable motives makes him a good alien character. Chewbacca is there as well, but even Rocket is pretty relatable.

Most D&D races are little more than humans with funny hats IMO, and that's fine by me. The githzerai, lizardfolk, kenku, and yuan-ti are among the only truly alien PC races IMO, and so would things like troglodyte, mind flayers if they were allowed.
 

It simply seems that some people have different standards for 'alieness' than others. To me it doesn't require them to be utterly incomprehensible and unrelatable. Sure, such aliens can exist too, though probably not as playable characters. But you don't need to be that alien to be believably non-human. I can relate to my dogs, and feel I have pretty decent understanding of how they feel and think. Yet, I am relatively confident that they're not actually not humans; they're far better than most humans.
 
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It simply seems that people have different standards for 'alieness' than others. To me it doesn't require them to be utterly incomprehensible and unrelatable. Sure, such aliens can exist too, though probably not as playable characters. But you don't need to be that alien to be believably non-human. I can relate to my dogs, and feel I have pretty decent understanding of how they feel and think. Yet, I am relatively confident that they're not actually not humans; they're far better than most humans.
clearly, you have never seen a messed up or psychopathic dog.
 







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