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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

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Legion from Mass Effect comes to mind.
I'd definitely count Legion as alien up until late ME3, when Plot Happens to him, though there definitely seems to be an ongoing tension between his very distinct way of viewing the world (a collectively-sentient group of programs) and his nascent development of certain rather human things like purely emotional decision-making (like when you ask him why he incorporated a piece of Shepard's armor, and he has no answer.)

I mentioned The Doctor from Doctor Who. Very much not human.
I'm not sure I agree with that all that much. They're very intelligent and often inscrutable, but that's true of many humans as well. I could actually see a better argument for the Time Lords--that is, those who stay on Gallifrey--being alien than The Doctor is. The Time Lords (in the old show) were aloof, disconnected, unwilling to interfere except when something disturbed their passive observation of the universe. Aberrations like President Borusa that stay within Time Lord society are rare; most go rogue, like the Master, the Rani, or the Monk. A society that willingly shuts itself up in an enclosed ivory tower, secure in its mastery of time itself, accepting that they theoretically COULD live forever but being okay with having a finite regeneration cycle, is...not very 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.
Only if you actually know what she is--a joined Trill. If you just saw her from the outside, without any explanation (as was the case for fans before her status as a joined Trill was revealed. Remember, the whole thing of joined Trills was more or less invented by DS9, especially if we ignore the super-weird TNG episode that doesn't work at all by the same rules.) Physically, she's nearly indistinguishable from a human. But once you know what being a joined Trill means, yes, she becomes very different--like the Tok'ra from SG1, the synthesis of distinct beings into a new personality.

Drax and Groot would both qualify pretty well. Most definitely aliens.
Drax...I dunno if I can give you that one. Unsubtle and not always grokking implicit concepts, but otherwise basically a boisterous human man. Groot, on the other hand, can only really do the things he does because he's emphatically not human, and his distinctive way of speaking reinforces his non-human-ness. Still expresses a similar spectrum and intensity of emotions to a human being, but the combo of physical differences and childlike mentality edge him away from the "fairly human" zone, as it were.

Optimus Prime makes a pretty good one. Pretty obviously not human.
As others said, physically I agree, but mentally he's downright bizarrely indistinguishable from a human being. He's both vastly older than any human ever, and from a society that lacks an enormous number of characteristics and processes that are fundamental to the human experience (e.g. birth as we understand it, cooking, organic materials, "sex" as we understand it in both the "what your physical body is" sense and the activity sense, etc.) To my eyes, he is if anything too human for what he is. Now, don't take that as a criticism, I adore Optimus Prime as a character, he's an excellently-written Paragon. But for me, he sits rather uncomfortably close to "person in a robot suit."

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.
This one's complicated too. Physically indistinguishable (barring the invulnerability and flight, which are easily concealed), mentally pretty much the same, but struggling because of having an alien culture. In Clark's case, I've always seen him as being a human who happens to have Kryptonian physiology; Kara is more like a naturalized Kryptonian in most tellings. Haven't watched the CW show so I can't comment directly on that. For Clark, while his Kryptonian physiology puts many trials in his way, he typically does truly see himself as the son of Martha and Jonathan Kent, even though he respects the legacy and importance of his birth parents, it's Martha and Jon that he calls "Ma" and "Pa."

Overall, I'd say there are relatively few characters that manage to tick all the boxes--physically, mentally, emotionally, and culturally distinct. Some hit some boxes, but particularly on the mental and cultural sides, those feel a lot less like binary "human/alien" switches and more like smooth gradients where humans mostly cluster in one area but can sometimes verge into other areas.

~~~~~

With the above having been said....I don't personally think it's all that valuable or productive to seek to make "truly alien" characters. It's enough to make characters that realistically diverge from what humans do in particular ways. They don't need to be totally beyond our understanding. They just need to be meaningfully different. And by that metric, I would agree that all of these examples are Alien Characters. They differ from humanity in various ways, physical or nonphysical. Those differences matter to their story, but rarely (if ever) strictly define exactly what they can be. The characters remain relatable in many ways, while still having a few differences that set them apart.

And that's all that really matters.
 

Hussar

Legend
Yes, I guess it depends on where you set the bar. If we're talking alien as in "totally not relatable or understandable by humans" we're well into Mythos territory. But, that's a bar that no one can really achieve, so, frankly, it's a bit of a dead end. Even Groot, which people seem to agree ticks most of the boxes, is still very understandable.

Me, I set the bar for alien as in, this being is obviously not human and is motivated by things that we generally wouldn't consider. The fact that the Doctor is immortal is a HUGE thing. Every time a new Companion shows up or leaves, it hammers home the fact that the Doctor is not human. The Doctor even comments so often about how difficult it is to relate to humans. "How do you get about with those tiny little brains?" The whole point of the Companions is to ground the Doctor so that the Doctor doesn't forget about the smaller picture. When the Doctor forgets things like compassion and whatnot, the Doctor becomes absolutely terrifying. Really, that's the point of the Master - a mirror for what the Doctor would be without companions.

The comment from River Song comes to mind - "When you run with the Doctor, it feels like it will never end. But however hard you try, you can’t run forever. Everybody knows that everybody dies. And nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever, for one moment accepts it." To me, this is quintessentially what an Elf should be like. That elf KNOWS that every one of people that are in the adventure will be dead and dust in an eyeblink. No wonder they describe Elves as aloof.

It's very similar with Jadsia Dax. Sure, you might not immediately realize that she's an alien, but, so what? Imagine having a conversation with someone that can literally remember your great, great grandfather. The perspective shift of someone like that would be unbelievable. Even if DS9 didn't really play it up that hard, they do play it up a lot - so many characters show up that remember an older host - they know Dax, but, not Jadsia Dax. It's a huge opportunity and something that is very easy to lean into.

But, yeah, I think we need to lay some ground rules here. Just how alien does something have to be to qualify for "not a human in a funny mask"? Can something look human and still be alien? I'd point to Cylons as a pretty darn good example of that. Imagine playing a character that literally cannot die. You just come back every time. It's a huge change.
 

But, yeah, I think we need to lay some ground rules here. Just how alien does something have to be to qualify for "not a human in a funny mask"? Can something look human and still be alien? I'd point to Cylons as a pretty darn good example of that. Imagine playing a character that literally cannot die. You just come back every time. It's a huge change.
I think this is the fundamental problem.

For some folks, in order for the character to be "not human," they need to be either almost entirely divergent from the human norm (physically, mentally, emotionally, all of it needs to be mostly outside human experience), or actually completely outside whatever things humans might even potentially think or do. E.g., with your example of the Doctor, you could replace him with (say) a vampire, because his emotional responses are (more or less) what a human being's would be if a human being became immortal and hyperintelligent--thus he's "not really" alien, he's "just" Human++.

This then leads to the pretty obvious answer that that definition is the problem. If you define "alien" characters to be those that must be so unlike humans we can't really relate or find similarities, then...yeah we're gonna have a pretty hard time finding characters like that. Because almost all of fiction is about eliciting emotional responses or considering unreal-but-conceivable situations. It's hard to have emotional responses if you can't relate to the story in some way, and that includes the characters.
 

Are you talking real life?

Because no, I don't believe a dog is 'horrible' outside of illness or abuse.

Dogs do not have the same potential for malicious behavior as a human, and very few creatures on this planet do.

Cats are the best example of non humans with potential for malicious behavior!
 

Hussar

Legend
@EzekielRaiden - Yes, I totally agree. The whole point of SF is to explore what it means to be human. It's a pretty big, central theme of SF as a genre. So, totally unrelatable aliens are typically more along the line of Xenomorph stuff, or the Buggers in Starship Troopers. Which, while tons of fun, doesn't make for very playable characters.

My thought was that you have to encourage the players to lean into the fictional element. If you're playing an elf, you should get rewarded by the game for portraying "elfiness" during play. Replace elf with whatever race you want. Same way that we reward leaning into your character's backgrounds, traits, and whatnot - the Inspiration mechanic can do a lot of the heavy lifting here.
 

Augreth

Explorer
Druids not wearing metal armor/shields. It's explicitly a setting-element. It's also not a rule. Druids have proficiency to do so; the rules are very clear about that. It simply says, "(druids will not wear armor or use shields made of metal)."

As explicitly stated by Sage Advice, this text is not a rule. It isn't saying that druids in any way lack the capacity, and in fact, they specifically can do so and suffer zero detriments for doing so. It simply says that they will not do so: it is literally saying what your character will (or won't) do. Rules Answers: March 2016 | Dungeons & Dragons

That's explicitly a setting element that is not, in any way, represented in the rules, by intent.

Ha, didn’t know that. Something to think about …
 

Ha, didn’t know that. Something to think about …
Ezekiel misrepresented the situation. Like some others, they for some reason think that a designer explaining why a rule exists makes it not a rule.

But there was a giant thread about this recently that got locked at 112 pages, so it is possible that everything that can be said on that topic has already been said...
 

Aldarc

Legend
Ezekiel misrepresented the situation. Like some others, they for some reason think that a designer explaining why a rule exists makes it not a rule.

But there was a giant thread about this recently that got locked at 112 pages, so it is possible that everything that can be said on that topic has already been said...
It sounds like you are itching to get this one locked too.
 


My point merely was that what Ezekiel said about druid armours is, to put it charitably, contentious, and people should be aware of that and discuss how to handle the matter with the people they're actually playing. "I read on the internet that it is not a rule so I didn't follow it" is a thing that can easily lead to bad feels if other people at the table think it is a rule that should be followed.

And if people are interested in the arguments related to the issue, they can read the previous thread. If they after doing that feel they have something new to add, then they probably could start a new thread about it. (But please don't.)

In any case, it is not a topic for this thread, this thread will be locked for completely other reasons!
 

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.
For the record, I absolutely love Babylon 5!

However human they act, however, it should be noted that the vast majority of nonhuman characters in film, TV, and literature are more defined by their status as an alien than by their job. Hundreds of stories go into biological and/or cultural differences these characters have with the humans. Londo being a Centauri defines everything he does, and Worf being a Klingon is nearly as important. PCs who leaned into this more would feel different from humanity.
 

Hussar

Legend
For the record, I absolutely love Babylon 5!

However human they act, however, it should be noted that the vast majority of nonhuman characters in film, TV, and literature are more defined by their status as an alien than by their job. Hundreds of stories go into biological and/or cultural differences these characters have with the humans. Londo being a Centauri defines everything he does, and Worf being a Klingon is nearly as important. PCs who leaned into this more would feel different from humanity.
This I agree with.

As I said, trying to define alien as "completely different and unrelatable to humans" is not really playable. I mean, sure, Groot is great in the movies. Lots of fun. But, does anyone really want to play a character for the next couple of hundred hours where the only thing you can say is "I am Groot"? Not exactly conducive to play.

And, let's not forget, at the heart of the issue is playability. The notion that different races have racial languages, for example, is utterly ludicrous. All elves speak "Elven"? Seriously? Never minding the notion of "Common" as a language as well. Again, it's 100% unrealistic, but, it's done in the name of play. While trying to cope with language issues might be fun for a session or two, an entire campaign where every character speaks a different language not be a good time, and, from a practical standpoint, nearly impossible to do. So, we accept the notion of "Common" and "Dwarven" and "Elven".

My point being, one of the easiest means of differentiating people - language - is taken off the table right off the bat. There's a reason that SF shows like Star Trek or Doctor Who have universal translators. It helps move things along. But, it does contribute to the notion that everyone is just a bumpy headed human when your primary example of that alien is a trained thespian stage actor. :D "Why do you sound like you're from the North?" "Lot's of places have a North." :D
 


Hussar

Legend
Been noodling around in my brain for a while with thoughts about this and the notion of alien as "unfathomable" vs "anthropomorphic". Had a few thoughts:

1. In a D&D world, we know that the mortals were created by gods. And that the gods are not inscrutable to each other. Gruumsh and Corellon might hate each other, but, they can totally understand each other's motivations and carry on a conversation. So, with that in mind, the notion of totally alien mortals is pretty easy to bypass. The mortals can talk to each other and understand each other because the folks that created them built it into them. If elves were totally inscrutable to orcs and vice versa, it would be pretty hard to stoke those fires of hate after all.

2. If your idea of an alien is an intelligent shade of blue, then, sure, it's going to be inscrutable. But, presuming for a moment that our two beings are roughly analogous, then they will have a lot of points in common. I might not be able to converse with a cat, but, it's not too hard to figure out what's motivating it to knock my favorite plant off the windowsill - cats are assholes. :D But, joking aside, assuming that our two species are mortal (more or less), procreate in some fairly understandable way, need to eat, rest, poop, that sort of thing, then those two species have a number of points in common that make it fairly reasonable that they would be able to understand each other. I don't need to be a genius to figure out why that dwarf is pounding that metal into a shape. It's a mug. And, over time, we're going to be able to come up with language that allows us to communicate.

With those two points in mind, the whole "humans with bumpy heads" criticism is kind of missing the point. It's not all that unreasonable that two species, with similar physiology, say a human and a dragonborn, similar needs and whatnot, are going to behave in, if not similar ways, at least understandable ways. A dragonborn farmer isn't going to be radically different from a human farmer or a halfling farmer. It's still wheat at the end of the day, and there's just only so many ways you can make wheat grow. All three groups will probably have farms and houses and tools and whatnot that would be pretty understandable by the other groups. Sure, maybe dragonborn use a base 9 counting system instead of base 10, but, that's pretty easy to work around.

I mean, heck, the French don't have a word for 80, yet, they can do the same math that English speakers do. Conversely, English speakers don't have a word for ten thousand, yet, we can get along well enough talking to the Japanese. So one and so forth.

So long as our aliens are more or less humanoid - bilaterally symmetrical, bipedal, hands for manipulation and so on - our aliens are going to be fairly understandably "human".
 

Been noodling around in my brain for a while with thoughts about this and the notion of alien as "unfathomable" vs "anthropomorphic". Had a few thoughts:

1. In a D&D world, we know that the mortals were created by gods. And that the gods are not inscrutable to each other. Gruumsh and Corellon might hate each other, but, they can totally understand each other's motivations and carry on a conversation. So, with that in mind, the notion of totally alien mortals is pretty easy to bypass. The mortals can talk to each other and understand each other because the folks that created them built it into them. If elves were totally inscrutable to orcs and vice versa, it would be pretty hard to stoke those fires of hate after all.

2. If your idea of an alien is an intelligent shade of blue, then, sure, it's going to be inscrutable. But, presuming for a moment that our two beings are roughly analogous, then they will have a lot of points in common. I might not be able to converse with a cat, but, it's not too hard to figure out what's motivating it to knock my favorite plant off the windowsill - cats are assholes. :D But, joking aside, assuming that our two species are mortal (more or less), procreate in some fairly understandable way, need to eat, rest, poop, that sort of thing, then those two species have a number of points in common that make it fairly reasonable that they would be able to understand each other. I don't need to be a genius to figure out why that dwarf is pounding that metal into a shape. It's a mug. And, over time, we're going to be able to come up with language that allows us to communicate.

With those two points in mind, the whole "humans with bumpy heads" criticism is kind of missing the point. It's not all that unreasonable that two species, with similar physiology, say a human and a dragonborn, similar needs and whatnot, are going to behave in, if not similar ways, at least understandable ways. A dragonborn farmer isn't going to be radically different from a human farmer or a halfling farmer. It's still wheat at the end of the day, and there's just only so many ways you can make wheat grow. All three groups will probably have farms and houses and tools and whatnot that would be pretty understandable by the other groups. Sure, maybe dragonborn use a base 9 counting system instead of base 10, but, that's pretty easy to work around.

I mean, heck, the French don't have a word for 80, yet, they can do the same math that English speakers do. Conversely, English speakers don't have a word for ten thousand, yet, we can get along well enough talking to the Japanese. So one and so forth.

So long as our aliens are more or less humanoid - bilaterally symmetrical, bipedal, hands for manipulation and so on - our aliens are going to be fairly understandably "human".
time to remove bilateral symmetry then.
 

Aldarc

Legend
This I agree with.

As I said, trying to define alien as "completely different and unrelatable to humans" is not really playable. I mean, sure, Groot is great in the movies. Lots of fun. But, does anyone really want to play a character for the next couple of hundred hours where the only thing you can say is "I am Groot"? Not exactly conducive to play.

And, let's not forget, at the heart of the issue is playability. The notion that different races have racial languages, for example, is utterly ludicrous. All elves speak "Elven"? Seriously? Never minding the notion of "Common" as a language as well. Again, it's 100% unrealistic, but, it's done in the name of play. While trying to cope with language issues might be fun for a session or two, an entire campaign where every character speaks a different language not be a good time, and, from a practical standpoint, nearly impossible to do. So, we accept the notion of "Common" and "Dwarven" and "Elven".

My point being, one of the easiest means of differentiating people - language - is taken off the table right off the bat. There's a reason that SF shows like Star Trek or Doctor Who have universal translators. It helps move things along. But, it does contribute to the notion that everyone is just a bumpy headed human when your primary example of that alien is a trained thespian stage actor. :D "Why do you sound like you're from the North?" "Lot's of places have a North." :D
Keith Baker actually talked about this in regards to the Elvish language in Eberron in one of his blog posts, namely this idea that somehow - perhaps through their connection to their fey origins - all Elves and Half-Elves intrinsically know Elvish.
 


Hand of Evil

Adventurer
Sure. As I said, if your idea of alien is an intelligent shade of blue, then, well, all the gloves come off. That's basically what Mythos creatures are really - the inscrutable alien that is impossible to be understood by humans. Makes for interesting fiction, but, not very interesting games.
In a way this was explained in Stargate SG-1 when Thor told the Team why they were asking the humans for help with the replicators, to provide solutions outside the box, it was beyond the Asgard to think of things like guns being effective weapons. They had limited imagination. There was a book (don't remember the title) back in the 70's that sort of had a theory; That the greater the technology, the more it became defeated by primitive means. Now, I think it some how relates to the universe being a Hologram, races using AI to be creative and find solutions to problems they maybe facing.
 

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