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.

3 Replies to “Let the Dice Decide Who Your Parents Are”

  1. I’m torn about this. I like the fact that you can do this if you want to. If you wanted to play an all improv game where the fun is in coming up with stuff in a randomly assigned character on the fly then this is cool. This would be great for a one shot where you get what you get, and you don’t have a fit. Doing everything randomly doesn’t mean you’ll have a good balanced character, but it will be interesting.

    On the other hand, for anything lasting more than one night, I tend to think that my character is this guy and chooses to become an adventurer BECAUSE there is something special about him. So I usually favor high point buy or 4d6k3r1 type stat roles and allowing choice because hey, it’s fun to be above average. And the GM can throw bigger foes at you.

    In SotDL, though I’ve only played once, it seems like you’re more of a guy who was a normal guy and then got thrown into being an adventurer. And that can lend itself to an everything’s random approach. So yeah, if this didn’t exist before, i’m glad it does now, even if only as an option.

    1. I hear you, to be clear this isn’t something I’d force on my players if they wanted to make choices, but something I’d suggest as a fun idea. We’re all playing together after all.

      I think you’re right on the money too about this ideology making more sense with SotDL than other systems. The regular game starts at unclassed level zero and tells the story of how your character becomes heroic, rather than D&D where you already start out kind of a badass. Also low levels in Demon Lord can be fatal for characters, so it’s safer to have a character you’re not yet attached to than something you’ve poured 10 pages of loving backstory into.

      Thanks for the comment!

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