Saturday, November 5, 2011

Alternative Fantasy Race Relations

In 1948 America was at the pinnacle of its prosperity. It was nation of wealth and status in the world community. Russia was the United States' great rival, an opposing superpower which seemed to us completely indomitable. The nation of Japan had lost a bitter war with us only a few years prior, and most Americans still held tight to their anger towards the Japanese people for the atrocities of that war. While China was a backwards, technologically inept nation of farmers, who were strong allies of the United States during World War II.

That was 63 years ago. Today, in 2011, the world looks a much different place. Russia's economic collapse and subsequent failure to recover has knocked it off the radar of most American citizens. Japan, once the bitter rival of the U.S., is now one of its closest allies. China--no longer a close friend of the U.S.--has risen to become one of the most economically and technologically successful nations in the world. And America, while still wealthy and powerful, has been steadily on the decline in the decades since that pinnacle of prosperity mentioned above. It would seem that the old adage rings true: things change.

So why in nine hells do fantasy races always hold the same position, and have the same relationship, in every single universe?

This has bothered me for a long time. Dwarves always hate elves just a little bit, and elves always reciprocate. This hatred is never enough to put them at each others throats, though, and it pretty much peaks at rude comments. Orcs, goblins, gnolls, kobolds, and generally anything which has a skin color no real-life human can have, are always evil monsters. It generally seems that these creatures are granted intelligence by game designers for the sole purpose of making them more challenging foes. Halflings and Gnomes are probably the most diverse, but as a rule neither race is anything but amicable. There's never a city with sings which read "you must be this tall to enter."

And humans. Humans are the worst offenders of all. Nearly without exception, humans are "more diverse than other races." They are almost always a young race, with lifespans equivalent to modern real-life humans. Most settings take special note of how prolific humans are, and that despite their youth compared to other species, their diversity has allowed them to flourish and become nearly omnipresent compared to the other species.

I understand why things are done this way. A dwarf isn't a dwarf if he doesn't like hammers, beards, and ale. If somebody made all the dwarves in their world sober, clean shaven accountants, that would be a crime on par with that of the Twilight books. It also helps for players to enter a game already knowing who the "good guys" and the "bad guys" are. Since they're supposed to be characters in this world, they should know those things. And if the player already knows what their character should know, it helps speed things along. Besides, things can become difficult if two player races are so opposed to one another that they would refuse to work together.

And in all fairness, it has become somewhat popular for these concepts to be toyed with in recent years. Orcs, in particular, now seem to appear as a goodly race more often than they appear as a monster. But that having been said, there's a certain appeal to a gritty and unpleasant setting where people don't get along very well. I enjoy mixing the traditional concepts up, and letting my players run wild in a world more unusual than a typical fantasy setting.

Below is some information on a number of fantasy races. This information is for use in a future campaign world of mine which I may or may not ever finish. Any race which isn't mentioned is one I haven't figured out what to do with yet.


Average Lifespan: 45 years

The great human empires have come and gone in the roughly ten thousand years since the race was born. All that remains of them are ruined castles scattered across the land. What humans remain are a lost race. They have fallen so far from the heights of their glory that few humans even know their peoples had any glory to begin with. The few stories which still speak of their ancient empires are fractured and mythological in nature.

Now, most humans live in small tribal villages, or in roaming bands of nomadic barbarians. Humans will occasionally settle in the ruins of some crumbling castle, never realizing their ancestors built it. As a species, they are of little importance. Most human tribes are too concerned with finding food or waging territorial wars with other humans to become involved in more lofty pursuits.

The one thing which sets humans apart is that nearly all of them are born with the innate talent for sorcery. Though not all choose to pursue this path, fully half of humans do. And even those who do not are normally able to cast one or two simple spells.

Somewhat ironically, it is this sorcery which caused the downfall of humanity in the first place. Some four hundred years past, when human power was at its height, and human wars raged across the land, an evil king hatched a plan to put an end to his rivals. Using a ritual of unspeakable evil, this king slaughtered half of his subjects, granting the rest of his people sorcerer abilities, with the unintended side effect of reducing their intelligence.

The evil king's genocidal rampage was successful none the less. But within a generation, the reduced intelligence of humanity had caused his government to collapse. For several generations, humans became progressively stupider, and more bestial. Since then, however, the race has recuperated somewhat. Humans are still one of the less intelligent races, but they are intellectually capable for the most part.

Babyls are an offshoot of humanity which did not cease their generational decline. Babyls appear to be human, but their intelligence has reduced them to animals without the ability to understand language. Some elven societies keep Babyls as pets.


Average Lifespan: 2,000 years.

Dwarves are an extremely prolific race, living not only in mountains, but also in underground complexes beneath plains, and even some forests. As a people, they are wary of magic, but technologically advanced, having developed both gunpowder and steam propulsion. While most dwarves still prefer a heavy axe or hammer in combat, rifles are common as a first-strike weapon. And many dwarven communities are now linked together by an advanced network of underground trains.

Socially, Dwarves are strictly hierarchical. Children obey their parents, wives obey their husbands, men obey the clan elders, and clan elders obey the king, and even kings obey The Emperor. Despite the many lands which dwarves inhabit, spread across many continents, there is only one single dwarven nation. Each dwarf is part of the regimented machine of dwarven society, and proud to play whatever role they play.

Dwarves also have a long standing and bitter blood feud with elves. The two races are constantly at war with one another. While land is often lost or gained, neither side has yet emerged as dominant in hundreds of millennia of conflict. Dwarves have access to much greater levels of organization and support, whilst elven magical abilities mean every elven life is normally paid for with dozens of dwarven lives.


Average Lifespan: 10,000 years.

Elves are numerous. Not quite as prolific as dwarves, but nearly so. They make their homes primarily in woodland areas, but sometimes construct their cities on plains, in swamps, or anywhere else, so long as it isn't a mountain. Elves are too individualistic for centralized governments. Each elven city is a state unto itself. The laws and customs vary from city-state to city-state, sometimes wildly. Almost universally, though, these city states are governed by a mageocracy.

The elven predilection for magic permeates their entire society. Nearly without exception, every elf is a wizard. Some of these wizards govern, others are architects or military tacticians, but each is, above all, a wizard. The rare elf who is not a wizard will, at best, be treated as little better than a slave. At worst he or she could be cast out into a world which can be harsh towards the haughty and unpleasant elven race. These cast outs normally try to make their lives within orc society, but a few attempt to integrate with humans.


Average Lifespan: 50 years

Halflings are a slave race. They have no real culture or identity left to them save that of countless generations of servitude. Halfling slaves are what make elven society work, with each elf owning perhaps 2 or 3 halflings. Orcs keep halflings as slaves as well, though not in such great numbers. There is likely to be one halfling slave for every ten orcs in a community. The orcs consider them very useful for sea travel, since halflings don't take up much room, or eat many rations.


Average Lifespan: 80 years

If you need to travel on water, talk to an orc. This coast-dwelling species is master of the open sea. On a whole, they've managed to remain neutral in the conflicts between other races. Some individual orcish towns have thrown in their lot with either elves or dwarves simply as a matter of necessity.


  1. The reason is, of course, that every item that changes is another obstacle to a player reaching the play of the game. The tropes stay consistant to facilltate play.

    Also, assuming they aren't people in funny hats, it's quite a task to make a non-human world seem appropriately alien, without it obstructing play.

  2. @-C: I do understand that. That's what I meant by "if the player already knows what their character should know, it helps speed things along." None the less it's a strong criticism.

    That said, I don't think we should be too quick to limit ourselves from exploring different interpretations of fantasy tropes. While it can slow gameplay somewhat, it can also make things more interesting if handled properly. (such as telling your characters what they should know in-game, rather than trying to explain everything to them before play begins.)


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