Catching Up and Fantasy Roundtable: Races!

It’s a chaotic time for me at the moment, and it’s going to be at least a week before I can get a new Eberron Q&A together. I’m still dealing with all the complications involved in moving from Austin, Texas to Portland, Oregon (let me simply say that my life is a world of boxes right now), and in the middle of that I took a trip to San Diego Comic Con, which was fantastic. Meanwhile, I’ve got lots of work projects in the air – Eye on Eberron; an expansion to Cthulhu Gloom; my still secret RPG/Fiction project; and more. So: Crazy town banana pants. Not having time to do an Eberron Q&A is where I run the risk of sliding and not posting anything at all, and I wanted to make sure I broke that pattern.

So first of all, here’s some things I think you should check out.

This is a video explaining Cthulhu Fluxx, starring myself and Fluxx creator Andy Looney. Cthulhu Fluxx comes out in August, and if you want to see why I think it’s awesome, check out the video!

This is the website of The Doubleclicks, an awesome Portland-based nerd-folk band. I met them at SDCC and saw them perform at a recent Amanda Palmer concert, and they are awesome. Go and stream some music now. Better yet, buy it. Buy it all!

This is the website of Alameda, an awesome Portland-based folk-folk band. They were also playing at the Amanda Palmer concert, but I’ve known them for a while now and love their music (which has, incidentally, been featured on the famously folk-driven TV show Chuck). Likewise: Check them out! Stream some music! Buy it if you like it!

I’m backing a number of Kickstarters right now. Here’s a few you might be interested in. Sticking with the musical theme, Marian Call is doing an Adventure Quest Kickstarter to fund her live European tour album. As with the others, check out her website! Stream some music! Fund her Kickstarter (only one day left!)! I’m also looking forward to A Guide To The Village By The Sea. Check it out!

Fear The Boot – an RPG podcast who interviewed me at SDCC – and Monkey In The Cage, who I hope I’ll have a chance to chat with in the future!

I want to end this with another open question for discussion. In working on Eberron, it’s always been important to me to learn what you – the people actually using it – enjoy, and as I work on new fantasy projects I’m interested in raising that discussion to a broader level. I appreciate all of the ideas and feedback that people provided on the previous question on religion. So now, let’s talk about races.

When approaching a new fantasy world – whether in fiction or for games – there are roughly three broad approaches you can take to races. Someone once laid it out as Martin, Mieville, and Tolkien, and I’m going to run with those terms (though one could pull up any number of other authors equally deserving of such attribution).

Martin‘s world is based on humans (with a few odd things in the shadows). Culture and family are the defining factors. A Dothraki is very different from a noble of Highgarden, but both are human. The bearded warrior who loves to drink is Robert Baratheon, not a dwarf. This creates a more realistic fantasy – the basic elements are here in our world, just shaped by different history and geography.

Mieville uses nonhuman races, but they are NEW races. Part of the process of discovering the world is learning the role these beings play. This allows for a break from traditional fantasy tropes, but it also means that the reader/player doesn’t have those traditional touchstones to work with.

Tolkien drew on races from earthly folklore and gave them a spin that has since been inherited by D&D and many other games. Haughty, magically inclined elves don’t get along with the generally Scottish ale-drinking dwarves. Orcs are warlike brutes. Dark elves are elegant but evil. And so on. This isn’t simply about Tolkien, mind you, but Warhammer, Warcraft, D&D and all the games that have continued to use the basic ideas as foundations moving forward.

So first there’s the simple question: You’re picking up a new fantasy product, be it a RPG, MMORPG, or book. Which of these approaches appeals to you, and why? Do you want to be able to play a dwarf fighter? Would you prefer different cultures of humanity? Or would you like to play a creature of living stone or incarnate rage?

As a follow-up question – secret option D – when looking to the Tolkien approach, do you prefer the races to hold to their traditional roles or do you enjoy seeing them twisted? Dragon Age and Eberron both use the classic races but do unusual things with them… like the vicious Machiavellian culture of the Zil gnomes, the warrior culuture of the Valenar elves, or the Gatekeeper Orcs saving Eberron. Would you rather see entirely new approaches to familiar races… or simply take that next step and make entirely new races from scratch?

Thanks in advance for your opinions!

The first is what I’ll call the Tolkein model: using those races that have become staples of fantasy over the decades, cemented further by their roles in D&D. Elves, Dwarves,



17 Responses to “Catching Up and Fantasy Roundtable: Races!”

  1. Thomar says:

    You can actually come up with some creative races while still avoiding alienating your audience. One example is genasi. I currently am running a campaign setting where humans were at war with the Inner Planes and there are four elemental races descended from humans (genasi in D&D, but in Pathfinder they’re oreads, sylphs, undines, and ifrits). Everybody knows what to expect from a race that is based on one of the four classical elements. Oreads (earth genasi) are nearly dwarves, and sylphs (air genasi) are nearly elves.

    Races need to be simple and stereotypical, it makes it a lot easier for players to make characters when they don’t know much about the setting. You can still make empires and nations and backstory that’s interesting (like Eberron), but you have to be able to describe each race in a single sentence.

  2. The Miéville approach is my favourite by a long shot.

  3. Nicolas Carrillo (paladinnicolas) says:

    I prefer a combination. Concerning humans, my favorite approach is the one from the Brithright campaign setting: their cultures are quite distinct and even have different languages and advantages. While some consider this detracts from a practical gameplay, I think it offers many interesting roleplaying opportunities. Except for the language issue, I love this about Eberron: human nations arr quite different from each other culturally speaking. On the other hand, I like other races to be truly mysterious, not frequently met and not merely humans with different physical aspects. For instance, I love the way eladrin and elves were described in the fading dream

  4. Rifter says:

    I like the Meiville approach, because things are new and exciting. The problem, is people generally don’t like new and exciting. They prefer what they know. I like the Tolkien model too. I prefer those over the Martin version… (You can even say Wheadon did this with Firefly).

  5. John says:

    Personally, I dislike that there has become a ‘standard’ fantasy setting. Its fantasy, use some imagination and stop writing Tolkien fanfics! And while I like what you did in Eberron, with trying to give the classic races a new twist, Eberron is still hampered by the fact that the base design is shared across multiple worlds. As in, elves always get a dexterity modifier, so they’re always some sort of lightly armored force. It would have been interesting to see the Valenar as heavily armored tanks instead of an army of rangers. SO I vote Mielville, if players want Tolkien, they can read Tolkien, and D&D is there for tabletop. If you’re designing something new, design something new in every sense of the word.

  6. Christopher Adams says:

    I like the Martin and Mieville approaches equally.

    The only time I like the Tolkien approach is when it’s given that Eberron or Dark Sun twist.

  7. Kendreyek says:

    I like seeing Tolkien races with various deviations, much like in Eberron.

    To my mind, the races themselves have become something like characters in the typical D&D fantasy world, and I like seeing new takes on old characters.

    To me, Elves and Dwarves are like Batman and Superman. I’ve read stories with them thousands of times, and I love seeing new takes on the characters, while the core concept remains the same. Even in Eberron, Elves are dextrous pointy eared people who live longer than humans. But that’s fine, because its still a new take on that concept and it makes the character interesting again.

    Eberron is like a really good Elseworlds comic where all the characters are there but the world around them changed and they reacted accordingly. The same D&D Elves, the same Batman, but a different set of circumstances to shape the characters views and actions. You can still tell who the characters are, but its a fresh take and its very enjoyable.

    I don’t mind new races and new characters at all, I love all the races Eberron threw in. But I still want to see Batman, because I freakin love Batman. Same goes for Elves, to a lesser extent, I like Elves and seeing new takes on the same Elves. I’d prefer a new take, like Eberron, over Tolkien for the same reason I would prefer (usually) to read Grant Morrison’s Batman instead of Bob Kane’s, the character has evolved over time and I’m more interested in the new stories. No disrespect to the originals in either case, but I like seeing new material.

  8. Bill says:

    I like the Martin version for its realism but often find myself bored with it for it’s lack of magic. An alternative that comes up much more in Sci-fi is the Human+ approach. Fill the world with fantasy races but make them all human. Find some way to adapt or mutate humans so that they have bird-like qualities (Flash Gordon), are exceptionally strong (High Gravity world), or whatever.

  9. Martin, by a long shot.

    Having “races” that are just thinly-disguised variants on humans (looking at you, halflings) or three-traits-define-a-people (looking at you, dwarves and Klingons) is the worst of all possible worlds. Better to just have humans in all their cultural, social, emotional variety. If the best you can do is regurgitate what Tolkien did 60 years ago (or Gygax/Arneson did 40 years ago), you’re not getting my hard-earned dollar. Even if you have Exciting Alternative Twisted Elvesdwarvesorcswhatever, they’re still ideas that we’ve been looking at for generations. Not gonna buy them again.

    The Mieville approach sounds good, but it often falls into the Shadowrun/Talislanta trap. In the former, a bunch of dull traditional races were shoehorned into a setting that just didn’t fit. In the latter, the breadth of the exotic racial panoply made it nearly impossible to actually work with the setting.

    So I like the Martin approach. You can relate to the characters that stem from it. You aren’t being asked to swallow the same warmed-over “archetypes” that have been around forever. You don’t have to wrap your head around a gigantic pile of new concepts. You hopefully don’t end up with a slew of ridiculous subraces, each trying to let you combine the best features of X with cool features of not-X.

    Even better? I like the Jack Vance approach — all our characters are human, but deodands and leucomorphs and Chun The Unavoidable provide thinking antagonists.

  10. balard says:

    Like when you mix all three. A culture focus greater than the race focus(five nations). Seeing old faces with new twists(Aerenal elves and Zil gnomes) and some new faces(changeling, warforged).

  11. Alex says:

    I prefer Martin (since most fantasy races can be described as, “human but extreme in the following ways…”. If the setting is aiming to be even more fantastic, I like the inclusion of lots of human+ characters, which in D&D would include races like Planetouched, Changelings, and Shifters. They are still exotic, but fundamentally human. Whitewolf settings, especially Exalted are a good example.

    Tolkien works so long as it combines some aspects of Martin: other races have a multitude of beliefs and cultures just like Humans do. Eberron does a good job at this IMO. The only problem is that it forces the game to be much larger in scope since every race now needs 3 or more distinct cultures to display that variety.

    I like the Mievelle approach so long as the races fit the tone of the setting and don’t seem to be taking the place of a classic race for the sake of being new and strange. Again, I like a bit of Martin in there too for variety within the races.

  12. Keith Baker says:

    Even better? I like the Jack Vance approach — all our characters are human, but deodands and leucomorphs and Chun The Unavoidable provide thinking antagonists.
    I was actually thinking of Vance specifically when I said “There’s other approaches out there.” Of course, in Martin, you have the Others and giants and the Children of the Forest (at least in legend)… inhuman, but alien and not part of the civilization/society in which the protagonists move. Vance makes these things a more concrete part of reality, though the protagonists are still human.

    Lovecraft’s Dreamland is a different sort of Mieville, where there are humans but the world is filled with all manner of things – ghouls, ghasts, gugs, zoogs, cats, moon-beasts, Tcho-Tchos, and others. Of course, Lovecraft rarely describes these things in much detail… which is sort of fitting, in a world of dreams.

  13. John says:

    I like seeing traditional creatures, but I also don’t want new readers to make associations with them about how members of those classic races are “always” a certain way. (I actually get a bit miffed at some of the things that D&D claims about fantasy races that I don’t always agree with, and it’s hard to use these other races in a non-D&D way.)

    Having said that, new races is usually the safer bet. Or, alternatively, going the “human of a different tribe” route.

  14. Newb says:

    I vote for the tolkien revamped approach.

    I’m utterly nauseated with the tired old fantasy tropes – the short shaggy fellow with an endless supply of ‘my bag of winds’ jokes told in a bad anachronistic accent, the sexually ambivalent chronically constipated hippie with WTF!!! mutant ears, the inexhaustible reruns of orcish frat-boys whose closest approximation of barbarism is mental retardation and a two word vocabulary.

    But the alternative of creating new races is usually even more dissappointing. Too often they devolve into even more stale and nauseating tropes such as photoshop races – orcs with dwarf beards, ‘elves as heavily armored tanks’ or elves with even pointier ears, pastiche races – elves who look like dwarves, half-orc three and a quarter unicorn, or gnomes from outer space, or else the opposites game – elves who don’t live in trees, who aren’t old and wise, who don’t like art and music, etc. New races can work, but it is usually a hit and miss affair, typically with hits few and far between.

    My favourites are the races of Dark sun or Eberron. After these I also favour a humans only Greyhawk (Oerdian, Baklunish, Suloise, Flannae).

    If I had to say why, I’d say its because its more effective to improve what’s already there than to start from scratch. After all, Tolkien’s races weren’t his invention. They were already ancient archetypes which he merely pointed out in an epic demo.

    And I think that when new races hit the mark, it’s also because they literally hit the mark – they connect with mythological archetypes just as Tolkien did with elves and dwarves. If I think of the new races introduced with Eberron, the ones that seem to me to have achieved the greatest success are those which link the best with archetypes. Kalashtar link with the rich mythic themes of spirit possession and divine incarnation. Shifters relate to animalistic myths, symbols like totemism and commonplace human as animal conceptual metaphors. Warforged link with the many myths of artificial life and human creation, even with myths of living magic. On the other hand, changelings never really struck a cord with me, and similarly I struggle to recall many myths and legends involving shapeshifers other than the human to animal kind. There are the numerous mistaken identity myths (like most of Shakespeare for instance), but then I don’t think that really fits either.

    As for the Martin approach, is there actually a difference? Martin parades an array of freaks as exotic as most fantasy races. Think of the Hound, a man with a face of molten wax, Clegane, an ogre if ever there was one, Tyrion, more puckish and fey than Puck himself. Just because they’re individuals rather than species doesn’t make them any less fantastic.

    In conclusion then, I’d say do whatever you want, so long as it resonates with myth.

  15. Magicstar says:

    I favour both the Tolkien and the Martin styles. Albeit the Tolkien one with a twist like in Eberron. I don’t have much Mievelle experience only reading my first of his books now. However one approach does not rule out the other ones to a certain extend.

    Mainly my argument is based around identification. To properly get into the mindset of a race one needs to atleast be able to identify with them on some basic level. For the Martin approach this works because all are human and we know most of the constraints and difficulties humans can have. For the Tolkien approach it is based on a certain itimacy with the basic premises of those races, when twisting them you can still identify with the changes from the basic mold. I think this is mostly true for RPG races not for fiction. In fiction the strange race can be a very good hook but less so in playing one yourself.

  16. Alex says:

    When it comes to totally new races, I think the trick to introducing them is to do it in some work of fiction. Then, after the fiction becomes popular enough that people are familiar with the race and their concept, you can port it over to an RPG.

    Thanks to Tolkien and his impact on fantasy stories, most people getting into D&D have had a good idea of what to expect from Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs before ever playing a game.

    Thanks to popular tropes in sci-fi like the Honorbound alien warrior, the gray alien, the hive mind insectoid, the android, etc, a lot of people can jump into sci-fi games as well.

    Thanks to comic books and the shows/movies they spawn, most people have a good idea of what to expect when playing any particular archetype- like a guy who can fly and shoot laser beams from his eyes- in a game of Mutants and Masterminds.

    They’ve had time to sit down and read stories about these kinds of characters and better understand them.

    When an RPG itself introduces an entirely new and alien race, virtually everything that that a new player knows about them is based on a couple of paragraphs in their racial description section. They have no preexisting characters: no Legolas, no Gimli, no Spock, Chewbacca, no Spiderman, no Superman to help give these descriptions much context or meaning in the world.

    Players, knowing relatively little about these new strange races, are likely to fall back on being a more familiar archetype. From there, they want to play through the game and interact with the new races until they can understand them better.

    In many ways, this is like watching a movie or reading a book in which the hero (usually a human with an easily relatable occupation) goes through many of the same experiences and learns more about the world as the game/story progresses.

  17. Keith Baker says:

    Good point, Alex. Thanks.

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