Fantastic Races

I seem to have stirred the pot a bit with my recent posts on 5th edition, and especially my opinion on the unusual races that now exist in the game. I figured it was worth dissecting my opinion, but let me clear — this post is all about opinion. You may disagree strongly, and that’s cool, and nobody is right here, it’s all just personal preference. So with that disclaimer aside, let’s get started with some history.

OD&D began with four races: human, dwarf, elf, and hobbit, the final one famously changed to halfling in response to objections from the Tolkein estate. Four is a nice number, it has parity with the four options for classes (assuming you add in the optional thief from S1), and results in a large feeling number of combinations (16 if you allow every variant). Delta has written a whole post about how well the number of options in OD&D works.

I would also point out that these options have strong precedence in literary and folklore traditions. From Tolkein to Grimm’s fairy tales they all feel very familiar to even those who have no experience in tabletop roleplay. Nothing here is coming from whole cloth, the setting of D&D is entirely a mish-mash of pre-existing fantasy content that almost everyone first heard during bedtime stories. I’ve heard it described as “you play Conan, I play Gandalf, we’ll go kill Dracula together” and most players I play with immediately recognize that comparison. That said, some readers may point out those are some pretty dated references — more on that later.

AD&D 1st edition adds three new races: half-elf, half-orc, and gnome. This is an interesting selection, only gnome really fits into the category of “one more of the same”. The demi-humans are already difficult to categorize when searching their roots — one fairy tale’s dwarf is another’s elf — but adding gnome to the list doesn’t feel terribly out there. Half-elf of course is also rather Tolkein-ish, though there were few actual instances it does feel like a natural response to the question of what comes of a human/elf romance.

Half-orc is a bit more weird, as it opens the door to the morality questions regarding evil races. Sure, Tolkein mentions Saruman cross-breeding orcs and men, but it was never really clear to me if this was magically induced as the recent movies portray, or simply a case of sexual assault. Either way it introduces a wide range of questions about orcish culture which every DM has had to wrestle with since.

And then there was 2nd Edition, which at first simply followed 1st edition’s lead, until the splat books started coming. Drizzt Do’Urden made dark elves cool, and the introduction of them as a playable race in Drow of the Underdark played havoc with my own D&D group at the time. Suddenly I had a party full of brooding loners, which just doesn’t make any sense. I tried to spin it as there being some rash of morally good dark-elves, a resistance movement within the society, but my players didn’t really seem to care. What can I say, we were teen-agers. Drow were cool like leather jackets were cool, and if the sign says jacket required surely a leather jacket counts? Being ostracized at every town and village was annoying to both them and me, and dealing with that broke the fiction of the game for us.

Should we talk about The Complete Book of Humanoids? Ugh. Yeah, you can play a centaur now, and good luck spelunking in dark caverns, trying to climb ropes and ladders and such. Fortunately my players quickly rejected this book as ridiculous.

3rd edition shed the madness and returned to the core seven races of 1st and 2nd: human, dwarf, elf, halfling, gnome, half-elf, and half-orc. Sure, d20 gave us lots of optional extra books but we were burned by that in 2nd and so ignored them. I never played 4th edition, but I know that edition is the origin of dragonborn and tieflings, which we now see in 5e as well. These are the races that I really struggle with, as they really feel ungrounded to me in any cultural tradition or world building. Arguments of “no literary precedence” are easy to shout down with “D&D is an amalgom of all fantasy settings”, and I feel like maybe the problem really is as stated earlier, my references are dated. Maybe I’m just not ready for players that identify more with “you play Groot, I’ll play Pikachu, and we’ll go kill Lord Zedd.”

Wikipedia has a pretty nice page on all the races and when and where they were introduced. DnDBeyond has made organizing our characters much easier, but has also made it a little less obvious where each option comes from, and the default they push you toward is buying everything in a bundle and giving you access to it all when you create a new character. It’s very easy for new players to dive in and create Tortles and Catfolk, without even noticing that the actual text in the player’s handbook specifically calls out how everything but the four original races should be quite rare.

The dragonborn and the rest of the races in this chapter are uncommon. They don’t exist in every world of D&D, and even where they are found, they are less widespread than dwarves, elves, halflings, and humans.
In the cosmopolitan cities of the D&D multiverse, most people hardly look twice at members of even the most exotic races. But the small towns and villages that dot the countryside are different. The common folk aren’t accustomed to seeing members of these races, and they react accordingly.

5th Edition Player’s Handbook, page 33

Unfortunately, the rules don’t enforce this rarity at all. For comparison, look at Warhammer 4e which tries to bribe you with XP to roll on a random chart where a human result is 90% likely. Race choice instead becomes a simple gateway to specific abilities, or for those who bother to read the above text, a chance to play a cool loner/rebel. But then everyone does that and at the macro level you’re left with a party of circus freaks, and either you have to accept that your world has an ultra-modern global cultural feel to it, or you have to roleplay time again as the isolated yokel reacting to a gang of weirdos showing up a their door. It gets old pretty quick.

So there you have it, that’s my take on all the fantasy races that came post OD&D. While the 3 introduced in AD&D have enough nostalgia for me to overlook their use, I honestly don’t miss them at all in my OED games. I prefer humano-centric games where the party has maybe one elf or one dwarf and the surrounding society considers that quite exotic. Sure, some times we end up with a weird group of all elves or all dwarves, but then it’s easy to spin that into a game about a group of outsiders visiting the human lands. At least I feel like there’s an obvious origin culture the party came from and can fall back on. But when the options outnumber the players 2-3 times, you end up with a crazy hodgepodge and I struggle with finding a way to make that make sense in the context of my game’s setting.

As stated at the start, your mileage may vary, and what works for me might not work for you and vice versa. It’s cool, I don’t mean to pass judgement on your fun, I’m just trying to explain my own, to myself as well as to you.

20 thoughts on “Fantastic Races

  1. I think you and Delta hit on it in follow-up comments and other posts.
    It is a paralyzing number of options.
    Many of these races have no history (in game or out)
    It puts the onus on a DM to figure out how to hit these “core” elements into the world.
    Its like a buffet plate with too much piled on. Each bit may be tasty on its own, but together it becomes mush.

    Part of it goes to game styles and how special PC’s are.
    If the PC’s are all special, then yeah, I guess it make (a little) more sense that the nation’s only Dragonborn, the cities only Tiefling, a Kenku from the eastern lands, and bob the human are saving the world. But if we are all folks who grew up around the same haunted forest, that’s harder to track.

    In theory, Half Elves and Orcs should also have been rare too, but I sure saw a lot of them in play. And lets face it, Gnomes were just “Magic Dwarves”. 🙂

  2. Please allow me to apologize for my last couple ranty comments…usually I’m only spewing bile on my own blog. For whatever reason the subject of 5E really touches a nerve in me these days.

    As far as character options go, I’m certain every DM has his or her own limits of tolerance. I suppose mine is a little lower than most.

  3. I have successfully eliminated dragonborn, etc from my 5E game, without outright banning them, by frowning, furrowing my brows, and giving dirty looks.

    Tieflings don’t originate in 4E. They’re from 2E Planescape, and are rather different in that game – I quite like them, in their proper place in the original setting as heterogenous t”planar mutts”. One of the Planescape books had a random table for determining what your unknown inhuman ancestry gave you in the way of abilities, drawbacks, appearance and so forth, which was fun. More importantly, they fit the setting. 5E tieflings are, frankly, lame. They bear a suspiciously close resemblance to Warcraft characters.

    1. I was going to note this, too. I always liked Tieflings from Planescape, and to this day I allow them, but with more subtle abnormalities, rather than being anime-style over the top demon-people.

      I do a similar thing with Dragonborn as well, where they’re generally human-looking, with relatively subtle draconic features, like reptilian-looking yellow eyes, and/or vestigial scales growing at the napes of their neck and elsewhere.

      Although I also like the approach Matt Colville takes in his main campaign world, where they’re a created race made by the archwizard who served the (now-deposed) old king, and have a specific place and background in the setting.

      I agree overall that having too many options and not rooting them in the setting undercuts my sense of verisimilitude.

      1. Yeah, I’m not sure I really have that big a beef with any specific race. More it’s the sheer volume that I think is not a great idea.

  4. In response to your response to my comment on your last post, I think you’ve twigged to my philosophy with weirdo alt races in that they’re excellent tools for the DM to set the tone for their setting, and you’re well within your rights as the person running the game to say “this, but not that”, no matter how much your players beg, plead, and wave around the splatbooks clenched in their sweaty little fists. Not everything has to be a buffet, sometimes you should let the chef pick what they’re gonna cook and enjoy the flavor.

    In my settings, I usually ditch the Tolkein triad, since outside of Tolkien I find them cliche, but mainly ‘cos I don’t think they fit in every context. (You wanna talk about context. Most folks even casually into LotR know ol’ J.R.R. made up their entire languages, and even sub dialects thereof, before he wrote a single line of prose fiction. THAT is context.)

    That being said, I still usually run with a basic framework of magical/sturdy/agile when I’m coming up with replacements. Hence the jann/largoman/kedai in Thousand Year Sandglass or dampyr/humanculous/grimling in Creepy Crawl. Once again, giving yourself some parameters can really give you some good targets to bounce ideas off of. Brainstorming without choosing some boundaries is like trying to play racquetball in a big open field.

  5. BigFella (BJ) makes a not terrible point.

    I’ve considered the following in my games; having the PC party be able to “unlock” access to a new race in the campaign by making contact with some exotic, hidden, lost community of such (one at a time, specified by DM, of course). I haven’t actually done that to date; if done, the first option that might show up might be as crazy as a gnome. This starts to orbit with my in-progress philosophy of, “anything you want might be possible, but you need to pay for it with an adventure”.

    Also I’d certainly keep in mind Miller’s Law, a.k.a, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two”, as a psychological upper-bound for how many choice a normal human can juggle at once (esp., thinking of the new player experience). I absolutely like the 4 races in OD&D; possibly combined with the 4 or so classes, that’s 8 options, pretty good. AD&D would be the upper bound with its 7 races (not counting subraces or supplements). Anything past that seems definitely unacceptable as a game design at intro level.

    The other thing is that brand-new players given an open menu tend to be attracted to the biggest/baddest/strangest option. E.g.: New D&D players often want a wizard even though that’s the toughest to play. In Book of War new players tend to jump down to the War Elephants and want that. I think this argues for helpfully restricting those option at 1st level.

    1. I kinda like that idea: If a player simply MUST play some kind of weirdo race, then they have to start with a regular character and mount an expedition to discover and make contact somewhere where that race would be. Same goes for weirdo classes. You wanna play a samurai in this pseudo medieval European setting? Persuade the rest of the party to make like Marco Polo and get on a boat for the long trip to the far east. It gives the GM some adventure hooks to exploit, or ways to delay them until their attention is diverted by something else.

      In many ways, it’s kinda tantamount to telling a kid if they *really* want a pet then they’re the one responsible for taking care of it. 😉

      1. Well now you’re getting into really pro stuff I think. Not only attaching the unusual races to world building, but shifting that world building from before-play to during-play.

  6. I’d like to offer a slightly different perspective on this issue, if I may, based in part on my having played AD&D back before there was a 3rd edition and on my currently playing in a group in which most of the players are sophomores in college.

    I would contend that the crucial difference between the older gamers whose first taste of the game involves AD&D and the newer gamers whose first taste involves 4e or 5e is that the older gamers took their fantasy cues from reading fantasy & SF novels, reading fantasy & space opera comic books, watching the humanocentric SF & sci fi television series, and reading or hearing the classic faerie stories and myths,

    whereas in contrast the newer gamers take their fantasy cues from playing fantasy & SF video games and MMORPGs, watching superhero films and superhero TV series, watching SF & sci fi television series that have been clearly influenced by the superhero and science fantasy subgenres, and learning only the Disney (and pseudo-Disney) versions of faeries stories and myths and no other, such as the time I shocked my younger friends by revealing how little the Disney Hercules resembles the Greek Heracles and Roman Hercules.

    For most of the 20th century, popular culture fantasy & SF and even superhero films and television series were predominantly human in their casts for the simple fact that reliable SPFX were non-existent or inordinately expensive, and that human focus was brought to the gaming table. That said, I still remember AD&D games that included homebrewed wookiees, andorians, thundercats, Ray Bradbury style Martians (“Dark they were and golden-eyed”), and Caitians from the old Star Trek animated series as well as the occasional homebrewed Bene Gesserit ‘witch’ and, in one case, a shapeshifter modeled on a short-lived TV series called *Manimal*.

    On the other hand, late 20th century and 21st century popular culture is replete with classic “zoo crews” thanks to improved yet cheaper SPFX and the plot-centric advantages of niche protection, particularly in the video games and MMORPGs that are the primary inspiration for newer gamers but also in such film franchises as The Guardians of the Galaxy, not to mention the one-of-each sort of characterization shorthand found even in the allegedly more real world television series.

    In our gaming, we play out our dreams, and newer gamers have grown up in a world in which the easiest way to differentiate characters is to make them “one-fer” characters.

    1. Bill, I think you’re dead on the money here. I’m sure that the pop culture we consumed at the time we got into gaming has a ton do with what options we explore and prefer in our games. As I said at the top of this post I think this is a highly subjective topic, and I by no means want to get into disagreements that boil down to whose opinion is “right”.

      If I could offer one criticism of the 5th edition books it is simply that they’ve included too many options, and perhaps not enough queues to encourage players to expect that their DM can and even should pair down the list to something more manageable for their game. The old books always had a lot of text regarding adapting the rules to fit “your milieu”. Perhaps the new DMG has that as I haven’t done more than skim it to date. If so though, I’d only comment that the message is perhaps lost a bit in the larger page count and/or too directed at the DM with not enough effort at managing the expectations of the players.

  7. I’ve been thinking about this a bit more lately, and I’m trying to craft something succinct (somewhat echoing Bill and others above). This is in addition to the problem of having too many options for new players (“decision paralysis”).

    There’s always a tendency for games to start of simulating some outside “thing”, and over time become inward-looking and self-referential (pretty sure I saw Richard Garfield writing about this years ago). The fact that the “newer” races are purely within-D&D inventions is a good example of this. I would prefer for the races to have wider cultural connections and commentary, things that any halfway educated person in the wider culture would recognize by the name. This could in theory include elves, dwarves, gnomes, goblins, trolls, faeries, vampires, ghosts, etc. Things like teiflings are self-referential D&D creations that don’t have any connection to wider or older culture, and are not inviting in the same way to new players or deeper thematic usage. On the other hand, there are obvious market forces that incentivize this (namely: IP that can be more purely owned by the publisher).

    Now, if you have some races tied to a particular campaign construction like BJ does, that’s definitely more robust and a higher-quality idea. Or if there was some more localized wider-culture construction — like Bigfoot, or Chupacabra, or the Headless Horseman (or even some very well-known pulp literature Disney invention, maybe) — that would also be a richer thing to play with. But the core inventions that are purely D&D-only constructions (while adding business value) make the game more inbred and unhinged from saying things about the wider culture over time, which is something for which I lose enthusiasm. (Another reason I prefer OD&D with almost purely mythological monster list, before even the first supplement that started to roll out more and more only-D&D-isms to fill out new books.)

    1. On the one hand, there’s a bit of a western bias in the traditional examples of elf, dwarf, gnome, troll, etc. Adding races that speak to the mythology of other cultures is probably not a bad idea. That said in the past some attempts to do that have really looked more like thinly veiled cultural appropriation (looking at you, Oriental Adventures), so that could be a slippery slope.

      But I do think you have a good point about races that don’t connect to any cultural reference. BJ’s Jann race in The Thousand Year Sandlgass makes me want to go read One Thousand and One Nights or watch some old Harryhausen flicks. Meahwhile at D&D Live the character I played was a Shadar-kai, and to this day I have no idea what that means. Kind of like an elf I guess?

    2. At the risk of taking this post down a completely different track (though I blame Delta for reopening the topic)…I would point out that the original three demihumans, based in Tolkien as they were, still expressed three different character archetypes:

      – a spelunker, trap-finder with knowledge of subterranean languages
      – a hybrid fighter-wizard sometimes found as a protagonist in S&S literature (Elric, Kane, etc.)
      – a woodsy, sharpshooter type (similar to Robin Hood)

      The former was eventually replaced by the thief class, and the latter by the ranger, but it would be easy enough to re-skin them all as humans and remove all Tolkien influence to make a true “human versus monster” campaign. The addition of half-elves in Greyhawk (Supplement I) seems MAINLY to have been an insertion of the option for a multi-class cleric option for players.

      Looking at demihumans from a purely mechanical point-of-view, I find the inclusion of non-human character options much more palatable; in such a way, I can see them being effective “core” parts of any campaign setting. While I recognize the “business reasons” of including creatures like tortles, tieflings, dragonborn, and whatever-the-heck you call cat-people, it feels far more like base pandering…at least when they’re inserted as part of the core system (as opposed to part of setting specific, optional sourcebooks…perhaps a better biz model?).

      But then, there’s a lot of things I find poorly done with 5E (recognizing I’m probably not their target demographic). To me these races as character options seem far more about style than substance.

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