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Monday, May 21, 2012

Plug 'n Play Races

There's been some talk about shaking up the standard races lately.  It ranges from a Sorcerer's Skull blog post on reskinning the standard race (elves as insectoid people, halflings as satyrs) to forum threads about how to replace or introduce new iconic races. It seems everyone feels the standards are too cliché, but players don't really latch onto new races. The problem is that a race that doesn't resonate deep in our cultural unconscious has only one way to appeal to players: promise them that they will "win" by piling up "cool powers".

Trey's reskinning suggestion often avoids the "munchkin race" problem, but it's best to pick one of the iconic four (in their stripped-down, original forms, without ability score fiddling) to use as a template. Each race has one main power (Elf: "can use magic swords and armor, and yet still cast spells".Dwarf: "four-level saving throw bonus".) They also have a handful of minor abilities that act more like flavor than strategic character-build choices. If you stick to swapping out one ability for another of a like power, you can avoid the more terrible errors of the crappier races.

But making a race that resonates? That's harder. Personally, I doubt you can make a completely new race with broad appeal. The closest any fantasy writer has come is possibly Tolkien and his hobbits -- except they are really just old house-spirits (hobs, brownies, etc.) respun to seem like a stand-alone culture. Similarly, Moorcock's Melnibonéans are cruel, decadent elves. Can anyone name any new fantasy race that has escaped the narrow appeal of an author's fanbase to gain broad appeal? A new race, that is, that isn't really a redesign of something already part of our cultural background?


  1. Not really, on two counts. The wookie, in a sense, is just a redesign of something that's part of our cultural background, the wildman or beast man (Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Yeti, Momo, skunk ape.) And if we were to disregard that connection, we still have to deal with the issue of "broad appeal".

    I specifically mentioned "escaping narrow appeal" because there's a tendency of fans of one stripe or another to think the object of their adoration is popular and well-known outside the fanbase. You might be able to give Star Wars and Star Trek a pass, because they have become fairly well-known to non-fans, though not as well-known as fans believe. Most of the details of either canon known only by fans and don't have wide currency. However, non-fans probably know what "wookies", "ewoks", "vulcans" and "klingons" are, although again all of these seem to draw on deep roots from outside their specific canons.

    1. I'm not sure if I agree that Wookies are just reskinned bigfoots. Maybe bigfoots plus cuteness? I'm actually neither a big Star Wars nor a big Star Trek fan. I think in many ways Star Wars (and a few other similar pop culture properties like some superheroes) have replaced traditional mythology in our culture though. Certainly, more people are familiar with Star Wars now than traditional epics like the Illiad and the Odyssey. Maybe not more than the Bible, but I bet it's coming close.

      I would have said Vulcans too, but I consider them basically just logical elves, so I think they are already covered by the big four. But otherwise, Vulcans definitely qualify:


  2. I remember reading somewhere about Tolkien's races being successful because they represented different aspects of humanity: elves are cultured/effeminate, dwarves rough & manly, hobbits simple & bucolic.

    So, if you wanted a race to.resonate it would need to take & emphasize an aspect of humanity. Maybe that's why wookies/beastman/Moks make sense because man's animal nature is exemplified. For some reason I'm finding it hard to think of other possibilities, the only one that pops into my head is man as the social animal, community minded, etc. But that does scream adventure.

  3. Kandra from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series?

    They're basically ameboid shapeshifters that can't reproduce hair/fingernails/etc. so they kill creatures and take their nails/hair/teeth to properly emulate them.

    Not sure if this is really well known though...

    1. It definitely hasn't escaped fandom (you won't hear Leno or Letterman making cracks about them in their monologue, and probably won't hear any references to them on the various network talent/reality shows.)

      However, the more generic concept of "mimic/imposter" is an old one and might be viable. The "amoeboid" and "needs miscellaneous body parts from their targets" features are setting-specific.