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Off to the races

Matt Snyder April 28, 2000
 
Thanks to the tag-team of Tolkien and D&D, the fantasy role-playing scene has been filled with the same protagonists. For years, we've all role-played in fantasy worlds filled with humans, elves, half-elves, dwarves, halflings and maybe the occasional gnome or two. It's so common now that everyone who role-plays knows that elves are graceful, dwarves are sturdy and halflings are, well, hungry.

There is the occasional variation on these themes. TSR's Darksun setting recast these races into different roles, complete with nomadic elves and feral halflings. They even added some unusual races, like the insectoid Thri-Kreen, but all in all it was pretty recognizable -- after all, the dwarves were indeed sturdy!

There have been other notable exceptions -- Shadowrun, for example, catapulted the races into a cyberpunk future filled with fantasy elements -- but those original races are pretty recognizable, too.

There's nothing wrong with this tradition. I'll be the first to admit how much I love playing elven or half-elven rangers, for example, and don't even get me started on my stubborn love for playing dwarven fighters. But after a time, we should begin to wonder if there aren't other possibilities we're missing. Isn't there a fresh way to look at these old stereotypes?

Re-inventing the race

Take elves, one of the most common fantasy races and a long-time favorite of many. Here's an attempt at re-casting the elven race into something new and interesting. (Actual results may vary.)

First, we need a basic premise. Elves are very often "beautiful, magical beings who live in the woods" or something to that effect. Let's throw our new version of elves right out of the forests and into the big city. As in many fantasy settings, these elves predate most other mortals. They are usually more advanced magically. In this case, we'll say they're also more advanced technologically. They have truly mastered that most significant of technological trends -- urbanization.

Ok, so with this basic premise (keep in mind, it's still a fantasy setting), we can now fill the rest with all kinds of interesting ideas and details.

Culture

The urbanized elves are sophisticated. They view themselves as the height of civilization among the races as evidenced by their glorious cities, which clearly exemplify elven mastery of art and craft. They revere art, take part in complex social customs and etiquette, and mastermind clever trade negotiations with other cities and races. Fashion is important to both men and women, particularly those of upper classes.

Government

Elves have abandoned rule by one royal family. Instead, they rule by means of council or senate on which the city's royal line has a powerful seat and vote. Politics are complicated and shrewd among the elven senators, sometimes even culminating in duels between champions the senators sponsor.

The cool stuff

The cool stuff is where the fun fantasy elements come in, like magic. Elves are still powerful manipulators of magic. Now, they have formalized colleges for magical study. Rogue wizards are not recognized by the community, and a few are considered reckless criminals. There are also guilds devoted to the creation of magical artifacts.

Character possibilities

This re-invention of elves really takes away from my old favorite, the elven ranger. But there are new opportunities for other archetypes. Thieves come to mind immediately. Imagine how skilled elven thieves must be to "earn a living" in these cities. Senate champions, those master duelists, might be interesting. And of course, elven mages are always fun. Here, they are particularly learned fellows ... or they're on the run from elven witch hunters, which is yet another cool possibility.

There, now we have a whole new angle for elves. These guys are a little more sophisticated and advanced than then the usual elf stereotype. They're also a little more devious, greedy, and haughty, but that's part of the fun, isn't it?

Creating a new race

Recently, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about and creating new fantasy races. While it's a lot of fun, the process hasn't been very easy. It's hard to come up with new concepts that don't sound like this: "Well, they're sorta like elves, but not. Think samurai elves!" At the other end of the spectrum are not-so-original ideas like this: "Ok, they're large and warlike, but honorable. They have a harsh language and have fierce looking horns on their foreheads. Think Klingons with swords. Oh, wait, that's orcs ... um ... "

Try it. I dare you. I bet the first couple ideas you come up with will be pretty close to some other race you've read about in fantasy novels or seen on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. (How many possible forehead variations are there, anyway?!?) The more you work at it, the more independent identity your new race will develop. I've been working on a few for a while now, and my new race ideas have come a long way from my original concepts.

Here are some things to think about when creating a new race:

Appearance

This is probably the first thing that will spring into your mind when creating a new races. What do they look like? Are they humanoid? Does the race have unusual features like horns, extra limbs, wings, or unique coloration? How do they dress and what tools and weapons do they use?

Keep in mind that your new creation should fit well into the setting you'll be using. If your setting is gritty and low-magic, you probably don't want four-armed lizard folk with chameleon skin, phasing abilities, and crystalline energy weapons.

Culture

One of the most important things to remember when crafting a race is to avoid "one-trick pony" syndrome. Avoid concepts like "they're stealthy woodland dwellers." That kind of hook might be an good place to start, but you'll need more to really make it interesting. Make your race rich and diverse.

That's where culture comes in. Giving a race its own unique culture is easier than it sounds. Create a few specific social customs and build from there. Perhaps the "stealthy woodland dwellers" have a strange system of currency. Rather than metal, they barter with pieces of amber or polished wood. They might also have a fear of iron or other metals.

Work up more than one culture, then use those concepts for different ethnic groups in your race. Perhaps in addition to the woodland dwellers, there is also a groups of desert nomads who are racially identical but have many different customs. There more ethnic groups you create within your race, the more interesting (and believable) the race will become as a whole. Think how many ethnic groups there are within our own race. Why should fantasy races be any different?

Another great place to start building a richer concept is religion. Create a basic mythic story for how the race came to be and what role the gods played in that story. Remember that each race need not have its own gods, though that's certainly an option, but each race should have its own way of worship. Perhaps our woodland dwellers worship the oldest trees in the forest as ancient gods, and they believe their race sprouted from the trees' acorns or seeds, which hold magical powers.

Government

Defining government is handy because it helps figure out how the race interacts with other races and groups, conducts war, creates social classes. All of this then helps players get a better idea of what kind of characters to make and how they might act, especially with other characters with whom they might adventure.

One good place to start for ideas is our own history. Everybody has a favorite historical group. I happen to like the ancient Greeks a whole lot, so I'm looking at creating a system of city-states who might compete with one another. Maybe you think Native Americans are interesting. Run with that interest and build a tribal system for your new race. If feudal Japan is more your thing, create an honor-bound system of feudal lords and vassals.

The "cool stuff"

Invariably, you've got to add something to the race that makes them interesting. Extraordinary basket weaving skills won't cut it. Give them something intriguing or even some element of magic that really makes the race stand out.

For example, our woodland dwellers could have the non-magical skills of stealth and hiding, or even the more magical abilities to speak with the elder trees of their homelands. Perhaps they drink sap from the trees, then enter a dream state ...

The most important thing to remember here is not to let the "cool stuff" take over. If supernatural sword mastery or innate magical resistance is the only reason you and fellow players like a new race you've created, then you're missing out on more interesting character possibilities.

Your turn

Ok, your turn. Hopefully, this will help you think about some originals concepts for fantasy races and propel you to add diversity to the common, monolithic stereotypes in fantasy. Give it some thought; spice up your fantasy settings with some new races or give some old favorites a new spin. Then share your ideas with us on the forum! See you there.

Until next month,
Matt Snyder
matt@rpg.net

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