Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Thoughts on Unconventional Races

Blog posts about using unconventional races have been circulating the OSR, so here's my two cents.

1) I've been kicking around an idea for a new setting in my head for a while, and considering using unconventional races for it. The way I've decided to try to get player buy-in to the unconventional classes is to restrict players to just playing humans at first, then, as they encounter new races, they have the option of creating PCs of the races they've encountered. (I should be clear that restricting beginning races to just humans is primarily for other reasons, but this is a nice supporting perk.) What do you think: if players first encounter new playable races in the course of play rather than during character generation will they be more likely to buy in to them?

2) Have there been any successful races that really caught on in other games? Phraints keep coming up over and over again in my Arduin books, but does anyone know whether they caught on in actual Arduin gaming, or, even more importantly, whether they ever were even moderately popular in non-Arduin games? I know next to nothing about Glorantha, but I've heard about anthropomorphic ducks; were these played a lot in Glorantha? Did they ever catch on outside Glorantha? Do any Tunnels & Trolls players know how popular leprechauns and fairies are among T&T players? I know that a lot of Science Fiction games have alien races; do those ever catch on that much?

If any of these games/settings created races that became even moderately popular, it's probably worth looking at them to see if we can figure out what they did right.

3) The argument's been made that the reason Dwarves, Elves and (perhaps to a lesser degree) Hobbits have such staying power is that they are part of our cultural awareness; that they're deep-seated and archetypal. Is that because they connect with something inherent within us or because they figure prominently in both folklore and the fiction that dominates gaming (Tolkien, Dragonlance, Sword of Shannara, etc.)?

If it's because Dwarves, Elves and Hobbits connect to something like Jungian archetypes for us, it seems that many unconventional races might not get player buy-in because they aren't similarly based around archetypes that resonate with us. New races should be based on other archetypes in order to get buy-in.

If it's because we're just so familiar with Dwarves, Elves and Hobbits from our reading habits, it seems to me that many unconventional races might not get player buy-in because they aren't similarly taken from the stories we're familiar with. Perhaps instead of crazy new races, we should try out races like giants or leprechauns.

I think that this last idea of players wanting to play races they're familiar with is probably at least part of the reality. I've had player requests to play a brownie, a Narnia-style dryad and a unicorn. It's probably worth mentioning that all those requests came from women or girls that were already, to one degree or another, well-versed in fantasy as a genre - probably more versed than me, actually. They liked what they read or were familiar with and wanted to bring that into their gaming. I actually did that – bring something I liked from my own reading into the way I gamed – in the first campaign I played in: I created a (probably under-powered) marshwiggle race for 3.5. It's also probably worth mentioning that one of the main theses of the OSR is that a lot of early gaming was, along with creating new worlds, about creating a way to bring in and play with (if not play out or recreate) things that early gamers liked in their reading.

It's this anecdotal evidence that players like to play what they are familiar with from outside gaming that makes me think that the better way to introduce new, invented races that players aren't familiar with is to have players encounter them first during play. Get players familiar enough with them that they begin to want to play them… and then let them.


  1. Hah, a marshwiggle! I was so thinking of D&D years ago when I read about them.

    I wonder if the dwarf/elf thing is not only about their personalities but where they live. It works well for a fantasy game to have different races to encounter in different places. Hmm, other examples? Maybe mermaids.

    I think there is plenty of room for "new" fantasy races that even brand new players would get. Talysman has a post up of a bunch of categories. I think centaur and fairy would be easiest to work into a rule system because they both have clear disadvantages and different sorts of stories.

    Also, People-sized talking animals have a ton of promise too because you have all the archetypal things folks think about those animals to tap into: cats can see well at night, land on their feet, are finicky and meticulous etc.

  2. I think it's probably a combination of those two factors, conscious familiarity and a deeper connection to archetypes. For me, personally, to want to play a new race, I have to get to know it and have some understanding of what it's all about, and also have some intuitive sympathy for it. A race with no connection whatsoever to real world folklore and mythology could, hypothetically, grab my interest if it embodies some readily identifiable concept or ideal, as hobbits embody the unpretentious everyman, dwarves embody hard work, tradition, and dedication to a craft, and elves personify the ethereal and otherwordly.

  3. I would totally let a player have a marshwiggle PC.