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.
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.
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?
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.