Sunday, June 5, 2016

Races and Roleplaying

We started a number of good conversations about roleplaying with our post regarding religion. I decided that we hadn't covered enough controversial subjects therefore we have today's post about races in the roleplaying world.

When we say 'race' we usually mean species. By any biological standards, most elves, dwarves, men, orcs, etc are obviously different species sometimes they are even created by different gods or on different worlds! Now hobbits did start out as a branch of the 'mannish' family according to Tolkien's writing so whether or not they are non-human, human, a subspecies of human or merely another race as fully 'human' as a Spaniard or a Native of Papua New Guinea is not settled. However, I will use the common term 'race' to refer to all different groups.

Different human races, cultures, and ethnic groups can be found in a number of games. Sometimes those groups are pure fantasy, in other games and settings they correspond to real groups. Usually all human groups are treated the same like the old song says, "every Hottentot and every Eskimo" are in the same boat. Same bonuses, same saving throws, for every member of mankind. Other times a group will get a bonus or penalty based on their environment or something special about their physical make up. This usually occurs in games without other fantasy player races.

'Barbarian' groups may receive a bonus for this weapon or that, civilized folk may receive literacy for free for example. A polar dwelling group might receive some cold resistance, desert dwellers heat tolerance and so on.

Mechanically and thematically most non-human races match one of the categories established by D&D. Dwarves dwell under the mountains and are experts with stonework. Elves are pointy-eared goodnatured hippie types with a bow. More recent elves following the fiction of a particular book series may have warpaint, tattoos, body piercings and the like. Hobbits started as 'Hobbits' simply lifted whole cloth from Tolkien's pages. Halflings began to diverge somewhat and after a book series popularized a more chaotic and hyperactive version of the race the Kender have begun to edge into Tolkien's niche.

Elves in D&D and most fantasy games have far more resemblance to the creatures in 'The Broken Sword' than anything Tolkien wrote. Scholars still argue whether or not Tolkien's elves had pointed ears at all. The strongest arguments are for the 'no' category (that is a whole nother blog post).

By the time AD&D rolled around half-orcs had become a player option. D&D had always talked about player character centaurs, samurai, and even dragons. Here though was an official new race that while it fit with the 'Tolkienesque' group of races (it fit Tolkien's conception of a half-orc much more closely than Tolkien's conception of the elf did) it was an antithetical race to most of the other races. Its favored occupations involved death and mayhem. Even its drawing in the D&D player's manual looked chaotic and sinister. 

This occurred at the time that TSR was working to present a single vision of what D&D was. A response to fan produced settings and products, litigation, and hobby growth. They saw what they regarded as their genre going a dozen different directions. TSR became more and more professionally oriented versus the earlier encouragement for fans to produce their own version of fun.

Rules lawyers had been around for as long as there was a hobby but the concept of 'one true game' and 'one true way to play' created the Rules lawyer's natural habitat. They expanded like Cane Toads in Australia. Rules Lawyers were about as toxic and popular as Cane Toads (again another blog post). These tighter rules and their adherents began to shut down some groups' sense of what they could do. It was rules as written time. The various gaming companies expanded official player races. While at the same time solidifying and limiting options.

The limitations were like most, purely in the minds of the players. Of course, they could have ignored the words of Gygax who was as of issue 16 of The Dragon magazine clearly staking his and TSR's claim to the hobby. However, most did not. Rules as written became an actual thing. Amateurs making changes to 'his' hobby were called out if you're not playing by the rules you're not playing D&D.

This began to limit what the races were and meant in the official universe. While those that expanded their Holmes edition might have a satyr or a centaur the official AD&D types were basically sticking with what was offered.

Some games like Dungeon World protect the class niche keeping skills and abilities unique to each class. Some games also protect the race niche. Humans remain the only race for a paladin or monk for example.

For the most part however, the hobby has matured and has split into several camps. These are mostly based on the difficulty and flexibility of the games in question or on a particular approach to the hobby and are not mutually exclusive. Races are no exception. For the most part races have expanded. Even in the deliberately retro OSR community you can find people who play an angelic race or one based on a sentient dinosaur or dragon type.

Which is all to the good. More options in games, play styles, and settings bring more people into the hobby and allow old timers to branch off into a new direction if they like.

So if you've stuck with me this far, how do you or your gaming group treat the different races in your games?

Are you strict rules as written? Are you open to different possibilities? Do you treat them as all equal in the fiction or are some races socially advantaged or disadvantaged in play?

Let me hear what you and your group does in the comments.

And if you think race is a racy topic just wait until I discuss 'Sex in D&D'.
*Note I will ruthlessly spam any comments that are racist towards actual living people or people of the past even if you think you are clever using coded language. There's no place for that here or in our hobby.


  1. Races are an interesting thing. Going back to their original sources, the lines are blurred. An elf can be the same thing as a dwarf. A fairy can be a stunted and twisted gnome and so on. When the tales were originally made the origins of such creatures were often shrouded in mystery, myth, and magic. Enter the likes of Tolkien,and C.S Lewis and more modern authors of Salvatore, and Weiss/ Hickman who created intertwined, massive backstories, complex, often branching storylines, and divine portfolios/ systems of powers. These authors like to make the understanding of the origin stories understandable, and in the process have removed some of the majesty, mystery, and magic that should surround the race's differences and creation.

    1. Several D&D monsters and races are probably the same critters. Dokkalfar are probably the Drow, Svart (via The Weirdstone of Brisingamon), and maybe huldrafolk and such.

      The folklore and mythic versions of the elf are nothing like Tolkien certainly and little like the game versions. Most believed they were soulless. Some said they were the third of angels cast out that did not rebel.

      You're right, there is a lot of mystery behind those races and if I had the ability I would create a setting with elves, dwarves, huldra, etc from folklore and myth just to see how it played out.

  2. My players have always been blissfully happy with the classic D&D racial tropes; and if DW has taught me anything it is listen to your players. The only exception:I avoid the whole "half-orc" bastard rape-child thing. Icky.

    1. Oh yes, I have younger players sometimes and since my grandad always said if you didn't want to be embarrassed by something you did don't do anything embarrassing I've tried to keep my table G rated.

      Always listen to your players. I'm going to do a post on some different races that should fit with a any fantasy setting.