Thinking about the next tabletop RPG campaign I could run when my current Dragon Age game has run to a conclusion, and I find I am ruminating a lot of the standard fantasy races. There are some definite clichés out there, and I know my own background of early and sustained reading of Tolkien means that for me Dwarves, Elves and Orcs will always look in my mind like how Tolkien described them. Part of my ruminations are thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of hewing close to genre convention, and whether or not a wide array of fantasy races helps or hinders the campaign.
Interestingly, in my current campaign, only one player chose to be non-human. He chose to be a Telchari – a hairless Dwarf with a reputation for poison and treachery. No one was interested in Elf (three exciting flavours), Half-Elf (created in a way similar to Alexander the Great’s marriage of Persians and Macedonians), Goblin (a quirky underdog), or Vargr (Viking culture bipedal wolves imported from Traveller). Everyone else is human, although two of the characters emphasise the two of the different human cultures I designed (and the other two don’t make much of their background).
Uses of Race for a GM
Fantasy races come pre-packaged with useful sterotypes in way that pet cultures do not. An elf is an elf, in any world, although I might have to say, these are elves with the following twist that makes them not like everybody else’s elves. But if I told you the main human cultures in my current campaign were Talian, Ostian, Musorian, Kamarian, and Mandanese … well there is no short cut to knowledge there, you would have to go do some background reading or pay attention to what I have the NPCs say in-game.
So in a sense, the cliché is a useful short cut for rapid world building, in much the same way as the corrupt republic, fanatic caliphate and the remnant empire are (those are terms I think from the Rough Guide to Fantasyland).
Uses of Race for Players
Lets pretend … races often have appealing attributes for lets pretend games, such as Charisma for Elves and Toughness for Dwarves. People might also want to indulge in flavour of the month make believe – I mean, who wasn’t tempted by the wood elf ranger template after seeing Orlando Bloom as Legolas in the Lord of the Rings movies?
Niche: when you’re the only pointy eared, scaly, whatsit in the party, its easier for the other players to remember who you are, or to at least make reference to you. This suggests that there are diminishing returns from designing more races than players in your campaign, unless one or more of the races are intended as significant enemies.
Languages: different races often have access to a wider array of languages, which can be useful for investigation, research, diplomacy, bargaining and other communication related endeavours.
Friends: being the right race can mean access to exclusive areas (such as the Elf-Queen’s bath house), and might mean that accompanying heroes are not executed on sight.
Enemies: and the Elder races usually come with roleplaying hook baggage of a long list of other elder races they have pissed off over the millenia. A little animosity can be a good hook for roleplaying interactions between characters (although too much can break the party).
Themepark Dungeons: Elven ruins are different from Dwarven Ruins.
Is Race Just a Stat Sticker?
Most tabletop RPGs happily modify characteristics based on race, a +1 bonus here, a -1 penalty there. Definite emphasis on nature, not nature, in how characters start games. Your parents are more likely to influence skills and initial wealth, and their ability to buy oranges during a famine has no effect on whether or not you reach your full height. Gender differences also tend to be underplayed, and its rare for a lot of sexual dimorphism (the Drow come close, with the favouring of women over men, like their Spider Goddess Lolth) so you don’t get 7 feet tall male Ogres and 5 feet tall female Ogres with different CON and DEX modifiers.
Both Dragonquest and Empire of the Petal Throne were two early RPGs that established their worlds were sexist, but had a cultural out for women to behave like men. Some RPGs also have lifepath systems for background, and these could take into account influences other than racial background to make characters more varied. Partly I just think the natural bell curve of differentiation within a race is more important than the difference between races.
The mechanics of racial modifiers, bonuses and penalties are important to me, because in order to be able to GM a gaming system, I have to be able to translate ideas and concepts into game mechanics. A major reason I could not run 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons was my inability to understand the mechanics they gave player characters in that ruleset. I just could not fit all the options into my head. Dragon Age on the other hand, was simple and old school, easy for me to develop campaign material for.
The Problem of Origins
In an evolutionary paradigm, how likely is the co-existence of multiple sentient species in close proximity to each other? We don’t have a lot of evidence on Earth, although there is an overlap between early humans and Neanderthals. An awful lot of fantasy backgrounds just handwave it by saying the Gods did it. Empire of the Petal Throne did well by saying its a terraformed world that was a luxury resort, so the inimical aliens are the natives and everything else settled there before the world fell into apocket universe.
Interbreeding … just what exactly is a half-Elf? Notice you hardly every see it referred to as half-Man? Miscgenation is okay for Elves, but something about being less than 50% human makes people twitchy. Somehow in RPGs, half-races only tend to appear when they have some kind of cool factor, like half-Dragons. You don’t see half-Dwarves/Gnomes or even half-Halflings very often. If such hybrids are a bit like mules, should they be sterile?
Some possible reasons for lots of different sentient species:
- outsiders from the otherworld/fey realms
- exiles from Heaven/Hell/the Moon
- alien invaders from elsewhere (via ley line gates perhaps)
- created in ye olde God wayes
- first people (only works for the first race you design)
- long-lost cousins, separated by vast distance and now reunited
- not dead, just sleeping
- occupied very different environments (water/land/poison vales/carnivorous forests/underground)
- dying out/last of its kind, being replaced by upwardly mobile species.
So, How About Those Fat Elves?
Webcomic The Noob is one of the few places I have seen overweight elves depicted – in part because the portrayal of the avatar characters in the online game is made to resemble what I presume is the real world person. Doing a quick google image I found exactly one non-Christmas elf image of a fat elf at: http://sleepless-katith.deviantart.com/art/Fat-Elven-Warrior-v-01-77252912. So fat elves is not a common idea out there.
So why would elves be fat?
- Perhaps its a comedy moment in an otherwise fairly straight fantasy (thin elf, thin elf, thin elf, fat elf, thin elf …. wait a moment…)
- In a world wracked by famine, being overweight would be a sign of wealth and power, and could also be seen as a sign of beauty (as was I think the case in some late medieval/renaissance paintings)
- It could be a sign of sin, such as gluttony, in which case the overweight elf is also a fallen elf
- Magic curse “Cannot Resist Cupcakes” (probably the weakest idea here)
- Lotuseaters, the elves eat food that makes them indolent
- Perhaps the Elves simply appear fat due to good nutrition, unlike those poor malnourished humans. This implies some degree of wealth for the Elves, so perhaps they are prosperous merchants
- Habitat: maybe they live in a nice food rich swamp, unlike those wasteland forests where their poor thin cousins dwell
- Supply and demand, not many Elves, and a whole lot of elf berries in the forest (“Yes, its tragic, last of our kind, fading out, but got to keep our strength up – would you like another crumpet?”)
- Body chemistry, if the elves are outsiders to the world, they may have trouble digesting its food properly (“If only we had an appendix like you cursed humans!”)
- Oppression of the Elven Tyrants: they eat cake, while the serfs eat … nothing.
I think I need to avoid woodland feral Elves, remnants of an ancient Empire, as I am seeing a bit too much of them lately in Witcher 2 or the Dragon Age computer games. When I build a race I do like a couple of varieties, perhaps an 80/20 split between dominant culture and subversive culture, or some kind of triumvirate (good/bad/ugly or rich/poor/MIA). So let’s have a few different types of Elves:
- Fat Merchants: with their mastery of languages and natural charisma, aided by the odd strategic marriage, these elves survived the fall through trade, and with prosperity comes a degree of girth and belt expansion usually associated with Dwarves.
- Feudal Fanatics: remnants of an age of chivalry fading in an age of gunpowder, devoted to their lost Queen, and at war with the Black Prince. Not as overweight as the other two types of elves presented here, but their prediliction to chivalric charges against overwhelming odds mitigates their toherwise healthy outdoor lifestyle.
- Yakuza Clans: urban elves surviving in the underworld of the human hegemony, their diet is ruined by awful human junk food. A fat urban elf is a very dangerous elf, because they will be the high elf in the local crime clan. Notched ear initiation symbols and freaky tattoos optional.