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RACIAL ROLES

by Sergio Mascarenhas
May 27,2005

 

RACIAL ROLES

Last time I digressed about functional roles and how these will shape Rough Quests. This month I'll look at another basic staple of fantasy rpgs, racial roles. For a start we should address a question I didn't ask last month: Why breaking up functional and racial roles into two categories? After all, BD&D did mingle them into classes, didn't it? There are three reasons to separate both, at least from my point of view:

Non-human races can be complex and encompass different fuctional roles.

The different traits associated with race have to do with congenial factors while functional roles relate to social and individual choices.

It's good from a purely gaming point of view, since it multiplies the alternatives available for players. If a game has ten roles, six of which are functionally based and the other four are racially based, the alternatives are ten. If the game has instead six functional roles and four racial roles, the alternatives are twenty four.

Given that Rough Quests will follow the standard practice of treating in separate racial and functional roles, how should I choose the racial roles? The first remark worth mentionning is that for comparative purposes it is useful to keep the convention that humans are the benchmark for the rest of the creatures. Furthermore, I'll focus on races that have been or can be used for Players' Characters, so I'll not consider races that usually are reserved for the GM. Given this, I will basically look at a race's:

(a) Presence in popular culture. This refers to how easy it is to find the race in fantasy fiction, movies, folklore and legends, computer games, rpgs, etc. The highest the presence of a particular race in popular culture, the easier it is for the players to grasp its concept.

(b) Presence in fantasy rpgs. This criterium identifies how commonly the race is used in fantasy rpgs. Here we are appealing to the rpg culture of the players.

The objective is to combine both classifications so that we can identify races that are well known, thus easier to grasp by prospective players, something that facilitates the learning of the game (meaning we will discard races that are rare in popular culture); and we will retain races that are not so conspicuous in common fantasy roleplaying games that their presence in Rough Quests would make the game undistinguishable from other rpgs on the racial account, this way avoiding a feeling of deja vu (we will discard races that are conspicuous in fantasy rpgs, with the exception of humans):

As you can see I apply both classifications to 17 fantasy races. By submiting the same to the selection criteria I can retain ten of them (the ones that fit in the area in rose): Centaur, Giant, Gnome, Lizardman, Minotaur, Ogre, Orc, Ratman, Satyre and Troll; to which we add Humans, of course.

Yet, the choice process is still not closed. I can further perfect the selection by excluding races that for some reason may be hard to play. I can configure two types of constrains on playability:

(c) Personal constrains. Sometimes the race has characteristics, either physical or mental, that just make it very hard to play.

(d) Social constrains. These relate to the race's social mores and ethics. We may assume that playable races have to fit a minimal common social and ethical outlook, otherwise the group would not be sustainable.

Considering the different races, it seems to me that:

Centaurs suffer heavily from their particular body shape. Their horse-like lower body places a heavy toll in their ability to access narrow spaces or even to be in the dwellings of two-legged races.

Giants are subject to, well, gigantism. Once more, the access to narrow places becomes a major hurdle to their usage as PCs.

Gnomes' small size may limit their access to some activities like fighting but other than that it does not preclude plenty of scope to roleplay the little buggers.

Lizardmen may be somewhat limited in their abilities to communicate (if we work on a literal assumption that their vocal system is similar to the one of your usual fly-eating lizard). Furthermore, depending on the way their society is designed, they may be too alien to be playable.

Minotaurs are somewhat limited by their size, but not enough to become too hard to play. They may also suffer from some social limitations. Yet, neither of these constrains should be so extreme as to throw them to the NPC lot.

Ogres, Orcs and Ratmen have nasty habits, too nasty to make them playable in the long run at least in combination with the other races.

Satyres may be limited by their social mores, yet this does not make them unplayable.

Finally Trolls suffer from both behaviour patterns that make them poorly fit to work in a diverse society, even if that society is made of rogue adventurers, and from personal liabilities - like their sensibility to light and big size that heavily affect their ability to function effectively in many adventures.

If we exclude the races that suffer from either extreme social constrains or extreme personal constrains we get:

By now we narrowed our list of playable races to Humans, Gnomes, Minotaurs and Satyres. We may still consider Orcs, Ratmen or Lizardmen, though.

At this stage there's another issue we should consider: It is interesting to pick races that are constrasting in order to offer the players different gaming experiences according to the race they choose. But contrasting in which terms? The best way to handle this question is by remembering last column's discussion of functional roles. Briefly put, let's say that functional roles are dependent on natural ability and learning. Natural ability is based on personal factors and racial factors. What we need to define at this point is how racial factors determine the congenial abilitity of the average member of each race to fulfill the different functional roles we identified or, more exactly, we need to know how the members of a race tend to handle complex situations from among the alternatives offered to them: Force, nimbleness, communication, magic or know-how. We can map the differences by considering that humans are average in all accounts:

As you can see, my understanding of Minotaurs leans heavily towards force, Satyres towards nimbleness (followed by communication), and Gnomes towards both know-how and communication. This covers most situations with the blind spot that there's no race with a dominant penchant for magic usage. Can we fill this hole with one of the three races that I kept on old? Let's see:

Nope. At first sight these races more or less overlap the ones I picked up first, so I'll keep them on hold. (With the caveat that, if on average they may have similar patterns to my core four, in concrete the way they fill similar functions may be vastly different.)

I still have scope to a fifth core race, one that ressorts to magic as the primary way to handle the situations facing the character. This opens an interesting possibility: So far I have worked with widely known racial concepts. Why not introduce at this stage the odd race of my creation? Why not, indeed. My last player character race will be the...

Hoofed Lady. Hoofed Ladies are the feminine consorts of Satyres which in Rough Quests are retrofited to be all-males. The slender, white-skinned and with long, black hair Hoofed Ladies are almost similar to human females except for the next features: Hoofed Ladies have goat-like feet covered with white fur and dark hoofs (unlike satyres that are goat-like from the waist down). Their eyes only show the pupil and the dark-brown iris. Their nails are also dark brown and very thick, almost fang-like. Hoofed Ladies are secretive and usually dress long clothes that cover their whole body. It's not uncommon for them to cover their heads with something like a burka or at least a head-scarf. And they are highly magical - just don't ask me how... yet. (For the record let me just state that the Hoofed Lady is somewhat inspired by the Portuguese tale of the Dama Pe de Cabra - 'Lady with She-goat Feet'.)

That's it, Rough Quests will have a set of five core races: Gnomes, Hoofed Ladies, Humanoids, Minotaurs and Satyres.

A final point: In fact, I don't like that much to call these different groups by the word 'races'. From now on I'll refer to them as the five 'human peoples'. Next column I'll provide a briefing for each one of them.

Sergio

PS. For another take on how to work out a non-standard set of races check Matt Snyder's RPGnet column right here.

PPS. Even if it was not a direct inspiration for my choice of peoples, it is worth calling the attention to a game that also covers some of the terrain I presented above. I'm referring to Agone, of course. In that game the players can choose Minotaurs and Satyres. They can also choose Lutins and Farfadets, two peoples not that different from Gnomes. Furthermore, Agone allows for Giants and Ogres, two peoples that I excluded from my lot. Of course, my take on Gnomes, Minotaurs and Satyres may be very different from what you can find in that game.

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