Let the Dice Decide Who Your Parents Are

Think back to your last D&D campaign. If you’re like me and my friends, your party probably was made up of a Drow dark elf, a sentient robot, a fallen angel, a forest pixie, and a talking plant. And you started your campaign at a tavern in an all human village. Half of these races were probably chosen to get a stat boost on the character’s primary class attribute. And most of these races probably didn’t come up much in roleplay except when the party visited Drowtown.

Fantasy races are such a long-running trope in our gaming history that it’s easy to forget what’s special or interesting about them. The race choice can easily become not much more than a funny hat and a set of math points for an otherwise essentially human character.

This intelligent psychic rock-man is just another guy on the street in your typical D&D game.

Let’s see if we can use game mechanics and thoughtful roleplay to accentuate the specialness of inhuman races.

Shadow of the Demon Lord already comes with fantastic rules for random character creation, with fun tables for interesting character traits and backgrounds. I wanted to come up with a table for randomly rolling your character’s race that models the scarcity of the more unusual races. Randomly picking a race instead of choosing one may seem foreign to you modern gamers, but I bet you Gygaxian grognards will see the fun in it. What I really want is for landing the unusual races to feel like a special event instead of run-of-the-mill.

2d6 Result Ancestry Odds
2 Faun 2.7%
3 Changeling 5.5%
4 Orc 8.3%
5 Goblin 11.1%
6 Human 13.9%
7 Halfling 16.6%
8 Human 13.9%
9 Clockwork 11.1%
10 Dwarf 8.3%
11 Ferren 5.5%
12 Cambion 2.7%

Above is a chart I made for SotDL’s starter city of Crossings, from the campaign book Tales of the Demon Lord. I used 2d6 to give a bell curve distribution of odds of getting the different races, leaving some nice low probability oddballs at the tails. The chart isn’t intended to be an accurate census of Crossings, but it’s a gameification of the idea.

Humans are most common because humans. Halflings are the second most common race in Crossings. Goblins are pretty commonly found cleaning the sewers and hopping around the slums. Orcs are present, but I imagine them as more common in the south of Rûl. I imagine a lot of dwarfs, driven from their traditional underground mines, find a place to labor alongside clockworks in the industrial zone. Changelings are a base race in the SotDL core book, but I see them as an especially rare find (more on them in an upcoming post). The ferren (shapechangers who turn into cats!) secretly live as humans in Crossings, as do an occasional faun and devil-born cambion.

If you’re playing in a different area or imagine a different distribution of races then change the chart up! If you don’t own Demon Lord’s Companion 2 (or hate cats) then remove the ferren. But I think the idea is clear – players are likely to play a human or something that belongs in the starting environment. And if they end up with a strange roll and generating a weirdo, hey, that’s a fun surprise!

If you’re playing a non-human character, or DMing a group with them, I encourage you to think about what makes that character different than a human, and how that effects the way they interact with the world and others. Do dwarfs take pleasure in labor that humans would find exhausting? Why is the clockwork spending time in the tavern when she can’t eat or drink? Are you considering how uncomfortable it is to live in the city for the iron-vulnerable fey races? Cambions are born with evil in their hearts and souls destined for Hell – how can the typically good-aligned adventurer cope?

How many interesting stories would we have lost if Spock acted just like a human with funny ears? Would Spock’s alien logic be a fascinating foil on a ship where everyone was a bizarre alien?

Note the absence of elves! A fantasy staple since Legolas, elves are magical, mysterious, and missing in my idea of Urth. (Schwalb omits them from the core rulebook, but includes them as a playable race in the Terrible Beauty add-on PDF.) Many of the magical artifacts and ruins in Rûl are elvish in origin. Keeping elves out of PC hands enhances that mystery. If the PCs do meet living elves I want their power level to exceed that of a playable race.

What do you think of making the inhuman races rarer and randomly rolling for race? Feel free to post in the comments!

Post-script: Throughout writing this entry I kept thinking about how lousy it is to use the word “race” is in the fantasy RPG setting, given that “race” has such a different definition in the real world and carries all of that baggage. It’s not something I think about often, but I bet “choose your race” can be a strange seeming thing to hear for new players. I was then delighted when I realized all of the Shadow of the Demon Lord materials use the word “ancestry” instead. Man, I love this game.

Why blog?

It is the end of 2017. Celebrity interview shows beam from space into joggers’ wireless earbuds. Flying drones bring packages from the sky to your doorstep. Nuclear war is threatened over Twitter. In the fast changing post-Internet world, blogging is almost archaic. Starting a new blog is not unlike signing up for a new MySpace account – techinically possible, but why would you spend your time that way?

Over the past year I’ve become obsessed with Shadow of the Demon Lord, a D&D-like tabletop RPG created by veteran game designer Robert Schwalb. During that same time frame I’ve also become obsessed with brilliant blogs like Goblin Punch, Hack & Slash, and Papers & Pencils which help fuel the “Old School Renaissance” of D&D retroclones. I took to Google hoping to find a similarly brilliant blog about my new love the Demon Lord.

I found no such blog. Surprisingly, the top two results were posts on my real-life meatspace friend James Introcaso’s ENnie Award winning D&D blog about the Demon Lord’s initiative system. I tweeted at James to tell him about his site’s excellent SEO and the coincidence and he responded that it would be awesome if someone did make a Demon Lord blog.

Twitter is a communication platform for rash Presidential decrees, bullying strangers, and occasionally brainstorming ideas with pals.

I used to tour nerd conventions with my comedian pal Noah Houlihan, founder of geek stand-up group +2 Comedy. One thing that’s stuck with me is at a Q&A panel after a show an audience member asked how +2 Comedy got started, and Noah replied, “I wanted to create something in the world that I wanted to exist, that I would be a fan of.”

Most things exist already. It was an unusual experience to Google something that I would be a fan of and to not find that thing. There’s definitely some great SotDL conversation going on in the 2,200 member Google+ community, but I wanted to find a blog I could pore over on the train like the other great sites in my favorites tab.

I’m not the savant-like creative content machine or wizened DM sage that some of the above referenced bloggers are. I also don’t expect to generate a profit or career as a niche dark fantasy RPG writer. But I do hope to share some thoughts about an awesome game that deserves more attention within our weird, glorious hobby. If this project ends up being just me rambling to myself I’d be happy with that, but if I can bring some joy and share some thoughts with some other horror-fantasy loving gamers at the same time, even better.