A thread on the RPGnet forums started me thinking about categorizing fantasy races and alien species. At the top are two broad categories: monsters and people, the chief difference being that the latter are social and political, the former are merely dangerous or valuable. Fantasy races and alien species that fit into the people category can in turn be sorted into three subcategories:
- better than humans in at least one respect: mentally superior, morally superior, harmonious, psychic... whatever appeals to the author, game designer, or GM who made them.
- worse than humans in at least one respect... surprisingly, almost always one or more of these three adjectives: nasty, brutish, and short.
- disguised humans, with cosmetic differences only (forehead aliens.) They are usually a historical human culture with weird skin color or other alien features.
Elves are the quintessential "better than human" race; other almost-human, but better, races often feel like "yet another kind of elf".
Orcs are "nasty and brutish", while lion-men, centaurs, and the like are usually just brutish, often noble savages. Dwarves and halflings, of course, are "short".
My point is that this isn't really a bad thing. You don't want races or species to be superficial, but fantasy and science fiction literature, film, and gaming is, after all, made by humans for humans, so social races should be relevant to the human experience.