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Thursday, May 7, 2020

Half-Races: What Are They Good For?

I posted the orc and half-orc races because of some thread necromancy on a forum. I had added them as a comment to the thread ages ago, but more recent additions to the thread raised a side issue: Which races have “half-race” versions, and what does that even mean? What is a half-race even good for?

I think the first interpretation most people jump to is that a half-race is the offspring of one human parent and one non-human parent. Tolkien introduced half-elf and half-orc concepts that were based on crossbreeding, which makes sense in his world where fantastic beings are given more naturalistic explanations. Elves, orcs, and presumably dwarves mate and have children, just like humans, although there are very few female members and no children for any of those races described in the books. There are hobbit children, however, and more hobbit women than human women mentioned.

Roll back a bit to Arthurian romance. It’s not entirely clear whether the fay are a biological race or more like a blessing or curse that happens within some human bloodlines, but Arthur’s half-sister Morgan La Fay is in theory at least partly non-human, and her nephew (and Arthur’s nephew) Gawain seems to have some supernatural gifts as well. Whatever the explanation of what a “fay” really is, it would be represented as a race in OD&D, and some characters like Gawain might be considered half-fay, which would mean “less fay” and not necessarily “a fay half-breed”.

Similarly, changelings in fairy lore are not the offspring of human and a fairy, but are fairy replacements for human children. In at least one fairy story I’ve read, a human child who doesn’t quite fit in with his community turns out to be a changeling, which raises the possibility of using half-elves to represent elves who pass as human and are possibly raised by human parents.

Farther back in myth and legend, we have a number of half-human, half-animal races, like centaurs, satyrs, and the Minotaur, which are not necessarily human/animal hybrids (although they could be, like the Minotaur,) but may be descendants of a cursed ancestor, or spontaneously generated in some way. There are some old legends of pregnant women being startled or attacked by an animal and later giving birth to a child bearing some features of that animal. This could be considered an alternative fantastic origin of half-beast characters, if you would rather not have cross-breeding between humans and animals.

Another example would be a monster that is transformed into a human or near-human, retaining some of their monstrous characteristics. For example, Norse sagas mention a hero, Starkad, who is technically a Jotun who passes as a human. He lives three times as long as a human, either because of his Jotun nature or because of a gift from Odin, depending on the version of the story. The ants transformed into human warriors (Myrmidons) would be another example.

What these all share is the feature of being halfway between a human and a beast, monster, or nonhuman race. Any of these examples could be incorporated into D&D as half-races.

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  1. A while back I decided I didn't like how 'rational' my fantasy setting has become.
    So now the 'elves' in my setting are actually 'half elves' along the lines you mention for Arthurian characters. The fae element in them expresses itself in various ways and degrees... but the true fae are more like nature spirits.
    The same goes for most of the 'goblinoid' creatures... orcs, trolls, ogres, bugbears (and halflings).

    Under the right (wrong?) circumstances a purely human woman might give birth to something with some sort 'goblin' (or 'elf')features. Living close to the haunts of the fae is one element that makes it more likely.

    1. The way I'm thinking for my own setting is similar. Half-elves are basically what other settings might call elves, but are fae-touched humans, even if some would deny it. True elves are more obviously inhuman.

  2. Besides humans, the "half" PC races are the only ones I play on a regular basis; however, I only do so in context of 1e stating that half-orcs can pass as human. This concept opens up all kinds of possibilities for both world and character building. I specifically am interested in the spy/agent role Tolkien suggests for half-orcs. The dynamic of a PC secretly working for the benefit of a power that may or may not be allied with the entities the other PCs identify with is something at the table (when done right) that I really enjoy.

  3. I have a biological approach on this, if I can use that word here: half-races are sterile -- like a hinny (horse-donkey crossbreed). It's the default on my campaigns for ages. The mother defines the looks of the offspring, but the father defines the traits.

    1. Yes, this is a common interpretation, what I referred to as "naturalistic". But what a half-race is, really, is just a mid-point between two other races. There's no need to use a naturalistic definition for all half-races, or even any at all, especially if that creates other problems.