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Author Topic: The function of Races in Fantasy RPGS  (Read 6357 times)
Jack Aidley
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« on: July 14, 2005, 05:42:09 AM »

I'm in the process of developing a Fantasy roleplaying game. One of my aims is to be able justify every aspect of the game in terms of acheiving my goals; as part of this process I've been looking at each of the traditional elements of a fantasy game and trying to figure out what it acheives and whether it's needed. Lately I've been thinking about races, this has of course been discussed before on the Forge, particularly in The Role of Fantasy Races in FRPGs and the threads Ron lists in the sixth post of that thread. However most of that thread is taken up discussing whether or not Orcs are thinly vieled africans and the use of race as a 'you can kill these' indicator. I'm more interested in the more neutral races - elves, dwarves, Verik, Litorians and the like - who don't have any free kill value associated. I'm also not particularly interested in races as real world culture analogues.

As I see it races fulfil three functional roles:

1. They provide extra player choice in character creation. Although this element is often broken by having certain race/class combinations that are simply better - sure you could play a Halfling Barbarian but you sure won't be as effective as your Half-Orc buddie.

2. An additional personality mechanic. There's nothing like being a Dwarf to use as an excuse for being hard-drinking and overly offended by comments about your height.

3. And this I think is the most interesting one: to increase the feeling of fantasy and differentness about the world. This it does, I think, in two ways: races are inherently overworld so their mere presence acheives this effect but they also allow players themselves to step out even further from their real life.

Thoughts?
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- Jack Aidley, Great Ork Gods, Iron Game Chef (Fantasy): Chanter
Keith Senkowski
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« Reply #1 on: July 14, 2005, 06:51:20 AM »

Jack,

I think they provide one other thing to the designer, the ability to describe a people in broad generalizations.  It is a lot easier to say elfs do X, dwarfs do Y and Orcs do Z than is to say Germans do X, Polacks do Y and Russians do Z.  Lots of creative freedom in doing that.

Keith
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Conspiracy of Shadows: Revised Edition
Everything about the game, from the mechanics, to the artwork, to the layout just screams creepy, creepy, creepy at me. I love it.
~ Paul Tevis, Have Games, Will Travel
Clinton R. Nixon
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« Reply #2 on: July 14, 2005, 07:48:02 AM »

I can't generalize on this answer: I don't think anyone really can, as fantasy races play a different role in each FRPG.

I can, however, tell you about fantasy races in The Shadow of Yesterday.

The start
Originally, I had more races than I do now. They were:
    [*] Human
    [*] Elf - envisioned as the essence of the Tolkien elf. Otherworldly, not human, cold-hearted, and glowing. I removed all physical manifestations except the glow.
    [*] Dwarf - all male race focused on being of the earth. All were products of a lesbian conception between all-female elementals. Earth and water elementals, for example, made mud dwarves. This was stolen blatantly from Peter Seckler's work on The Nutcracker Prince, the first game I published, which I did jointly with him.
    [*] Goblin - I always have goblins. I love the concept of them, for some reason. They were always envisioned as amorphous.
    [*] Ratkin - Also, I like big rats. Rat-people, plain and simple.
    [*] Vulfen - One of the first FRPG characters I ever played was a Vulfen from Rolemaster. Wolf-people, martial, and very rank-driven.
    [/list:u]

    Of course, I didn't stay with all these. At this point in development, they were there because the ideas amused me. I had no further purpose behind them.

    The final roster
    I ended up narrowing this down, as I couldn't see the point in just having them there because I liked them. My final roster looks like this:

      [*] Humans - Again, a default.
      [*] Elves and goblins - Elves and goblins in TSOY are human, but changed. As I realize often that fantasy races are people in funny masks, basically, I decided to use that heavily. Elves are people who have given up all concern for anyone but themselves. I describe them as "evil Buddhists," which they are in a way: they believe no one but themself is actually real. An odd concept, to be sure, but you can see the hyperbole. Goblins also care for no one else, really, but for different reasons. They are basically hyperbolic human addicts: people so obsessed with one thing that they can't see anything else. Elfs = focused on self, goblins = focused outside. You can become human from either one of these races in the game, and the intention is that you will try to do so.
      [*] Ratkin - Ratkin are the ones that stand out in TSOY, because they specifically aren't human. The game is focused on an apocalypse that happened 300 years ago, and ratkin are there to highlight that. They did not exist before the apocalypse. On the one hand, they're still there just because I like them. They're also there, though, because they survive through close-knit communities. In a way, they point toward an answer for the scattered humans: act like these guys, and you'll make it through.
      [/list:u]

      That's why I used fantasy races, at least.
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      Clinton R. Nixon
      CRN Games
      Ron Edwards
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      « Reply #3 on: July 14, 2005, 07:50:13 AM »

      Hiya

      Here's a very important thread from way back: The class issue. Don't let the title fool you; it concerns "race" as the term is constructed in RPGs as well, in full.

      More specific to race in a literary or thematic sense, see
      Race in heroic fantasy
      Mike's standard rant #2: species/race/culture
      Species/race/culture (split)
      [Arrowflight] Pixies, poison, and duty (comments about orcs)
      Shadow World keywords: races?
      Gender/racial/other bias in RPG texts
      Are non-humans necessary in FRPGs?
      The role of fantasy races in FRPGs
      Hobgoblin and lizardfolk PCs
      Fantasy settings and cultural pluralism

      There are some others, too, most of which are internally linked in these. I strongly recommend a real review of these threads, even if their beginnings don't always seem on topic, because literally hundreds of good observations, ideas, and play-experiences can be found in them. I don't think a body of thought of this caliber exists for this topic anywhere else.

      Best,
      Ron
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      NN
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      « Reply #4 on: July 14, 2005, 03:53:30 PM »

      I think theres a conflict between aims 1 and 3.
      If players can be Elves, doesnt that diminish Elven Otherness?
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      Jack Aidley
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      « Reply #5 on: July 15, 2005, 12:34:50 AM »

      Bob, I can see your point but I'm not sure it holds - Eddings shows that horribly sterotyped groups can be produced without any non-humans at all. Since we're talking about a fantasy world, there aren't going to be Germans and Poles anyway.

      Clinton, that's very interesting, thank you. I'm not sure the races fulfil that different a role at the structual level, although clearly individual races do so.

      Ron, thanks for the links.

      NN, yes and no, I think. While allowing players to play an elf (for example) will reduce the otherness of the elf race I think it actually increases the otherness of the game experience by allowing the player to step further out from their norms and experiences while maintaining an accessible mileu.
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      - Jack Aidley, Great Ork Gods, Iron Game Chef (Fantasy): Chanter
      Emily Care
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      « Reply #6 on: July 15, 2005, 01:16:25 AM »

      A value I can see is the same as what is gained by having diverse cultures, religions, politics etc.  The species will have different goals & drives that can be used to create plot and inform interactions.  Kind of a setting level version of the personality mechanics.

      yrs,
      Emily
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      Keith Senkowski
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      « Reply #7 on: July 15, 2005, 06:43:29 AM »

      Jack,

      Just wanted to say that using fantasy humans is no different than labeling them elfs and giving them pointy ears. They are simply tools that allow a writer/designer to paint in broad strokes with ease. Fantasy races are just another tool to get a point across (like humanity has to do it itself cause the elfs are fleeing), to give the work/game a sense of otherworldlyness (which only really works I think when players can't be them), to set up conflicts (good call Emily) or as they are most commonly missused, to allow for players to play Legolas.

      Keith
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      Everything about the game, from the mechanics, to the artwork, to the layout just screams creepy, creepy, creepy at me. I love it.
      ~ Paul Tevis, Have Games, Will Travel
      Jack Aidley
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      « Reply #8 on: July 15, 2005, 06:51:02 AM »

      Keith,

      Quote from: Bob Goat
      Just wanted to say that using fantasy humans is no different than labeling them elfs and giving them pointy ears.

      I'm not sure about that, but I can't quite put my finger on why.

      Quote
      Fantasy races are just another tool to get a point across (like humanity has to do it itself cause the elfs are fleeing), to give the work/game a sense of otherworldlyness (which only really works I think when players can't be them), to set up conflicts or as they are most commonly missused, to allow for players to play Legolas.

      I wonder whether races work simply because they are part of the genre expectation. That simply having fantasy races makes the game feel 'fantasy' to the players. While I certainly agree that anything races acheive could be done with other means, what I'm after is working out what it is that races do better (or best).

      Essentially, I started thinking about how I wanted races to be and realised I didn't actually know what I wanted them for.

      Cheers,

      Jack.
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      - Jack Aidley, Great Ork Gods, Iron Game Chef (Fantasy): Chanter
      simon_hibbs
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      « Reply #9 on: July 15, 2005, 08:33:42 AM »

      Hi guys,

      A rare chance to browse The Forge after a long absence - having two babies in 2 years ceratiny sucks up a lot of my time. To the point:

      Race (usualy used in the sense of Species, or sub-species) fulfils a number of functions in fiction. I still maintain, as in my response to Mike's Standard Rant on this issue, that the important reasons for introducing a race are narative ones, but I'll elaborate further.

      1. Hardwired differences in psychology.

      The author wishes to explore alternative forms or tendencies in psychology or conciousness. If it were cuiltural it could be argues that these differences are flexible or a matter of choice. by making them racial, that flexibility is eliminated, or severely reduced. See my response on the "Species/race/culture (split)" thread Ron linked to above.

      2. To explore different environmental conditions

      Some races exist to introduce characters from environments, or even ecological niches not readily adpoted by humans. Fish-people, bird-men, aliens from the gas giant Xorg, etc. Perhaps the fantasy or SF story/game is set in such an environment and the author wishes to introduce native characters and it isn't plausible, or suitable to the plot, to use humans.

      3. As a shorthand for culture

      This has been mentioned before. It's lazy, but sometimes useful.

      4. Because you're duplicating/evoking a setting that has races

      Perhaps the laziest reason, and the one I'd pin on Basic D&D. As I think I said in a post on one of the threads Ron linked to, I don't at all think that E.G.G gave all Elves the same culture as a deliberate choice. They merely ended up beign the same becauase Basic D&D was only a thin softcover and he just didn't have the time or interest to develop anything more at that time. He merely wanted to evoke the atmosphere of Tolkien within the context of a game about exploring dungeons.


      Footnote:

      BTW, I'd pin Tolkien as using reason 1, but rather than psychology as such, we was more interested in exploring the notion of 'races' with differing mythological orrigins and roles. The Elves are inherently magical and 'unblemished' by mortality because they are Un-Fallen (in the Christian sense, he was a Catholic). Orcs are unremittingly evil because they are even more Fallen than humans. Dwarves are manufactured beings, and so exist in paralell to humans and Elves. I don't realy pretend to know exactly what JRRT had in mind concerning all of this, and I don't think he was working from a thoroughly worked out theological or mythological theory, but these are the kinds of themes he wanted to touch upon.
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      Simon Hibbs
      NN
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      « Reply #10 on: July 15, 2005, 10:16:24 AM »

      Quote from: Jack Aidley

      NN, yes and no, I think. While allowing players to play an elf (for example) will reduce the otherness of the elf race I think it actually increases the otherness of the game experience by allowing the player to step further out from their norms and experiences while maintaining an accessible mileu.


      On reflection, I think its that there are two different approaches
      "You are an elf, with weird different values"
      "You meet the supposedly weird elves, are they weird, and how and why/"
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      Jason Lee
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      « Reply #11 on: July 15, 2005, 03:11:51 PM »

      I have basically the same thing to say about fantasy races as I did about magic in the What is the function of Kewl Powerz thread.

      Quote
      Typical heroic fantasy (Conan/Star Wars) seems to be about man versus idea. For example, the hero battles evil directly as personified by a wizard. Thus, the wizard can transform into a snake not because the wizard is snake like, but because snakes are evil. The magic used by the wizard is simply an extension of what the wizard symbolizes in the story.

      That's just looking at it from one rather specific genre. The purpose of powers can be considered a genre convention, because their role would vary with genre. Metaphor, externalization of character motivation, and character identity I think are all nice ways of looking at it, but I don't think you'll get any deeper without first identifying the genre you're talking about.


      In the same sort of fantasy races seem to be symbolic of the ideas in the conflict just like magic.  Elves are pretty because they represent good (or purity), and orcs are ugly because they represent evil.  Man chooses to ally himself with good to fight evil.

      Clinton's post really is a beautiful illustration.  If it's typical of the post-apocolyptic genre the races might illustrate extremes of human choice when confronted with the difficulty of surviving in an inhospitable climate, thus fueling a man versus man conflict over survival.  Given the real Taoist message in the human races, that's probably not the case.    I know nothing about Shadows of Yesterday, so I really have no idea exactly what role the races fill beyond what Clinton has already said (which is quite a bit).

      Anyway, my point is that the role that races fill is going to be defined by the genre.  Or perhaps more accurately, the role that races fill is going to help define the genre.
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      - Cruciel
      greyorm
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      « Reply #12 on: July 16, 2005, 07:15:14 AM »

      I have to agree with the opinion that "races" in most fantasy are simply an excuse to give humans funny names and a weird brow ridge (oh wait, that's Star Trek...but, hah, its the same thing!). I am aware of only one fantasy game (off the top of my head) that deals with non-humans as really, really non-humans. In all other cases I can think of, they are anthromorphized (ie: given human qualities).

      My solution to this is to keep them mythic. Make it "the real-world, but really with faeries/trolls/whatnot" -- go back to legends, myths, faerie tales, etc. for inspiration of how the other races are viewed, found, interacted with. They are mysterious, unknown, and rarely encountered. They are outsiders to the human community in myth and legend.

      Don't have the traditional fantasy stereotype of "Here's a city with a dwarven quarter." Where you can spit and hit a dwarf or an elf, and some dwarves are like this, and some elves are like that, etc. That's just making them into humans, despite their physical appearance, lifespans, or skills. The(se) usual "differences" do not make another race non-human.

      When another race is used sparingly, they really are otherworldly, not just funny-looking scenery. Ask yourself how many people have ever really encountered an elf or a dwarf? Consider that (according to census figures) something like 40% of the American population has never met/seen in person an actual African American. Now go further with it: go back to myth and legend for inspiration of how non-humans and humans interact, behave, and affect one another.

      Now, the trick is trying to play a non-human race and retaining this non-human quality in their behavior: avoiding them becoming one of the "good ol' boys" through too much exposure or similarity in socializing behavior to/with their human companions.

      Play them weird. Give them different goals and ideas about what they're attempting to achieve by "befriending" the humans. Strip friendship and companionship out of the equasion if they do stick around: but do not replace it with aggressive unfriendliness or disassociation. Make the social interaction not matter, one way or the other. One has to put them outside human social relationships in some way.

      Without this, I can see no particularly compelling reason to choose to use non-human races as characters, or even put them in a game, instead of simply using human cultures in their place (note, for me, "exoticism" is not a compelling reason, though I recognize that it may be a valid reason).

      (Also, I know this post was a little left of "what purpose do they serve", in that it went towards "how to achieve" a particular purpose.)
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      Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
      Wild Hunt Studio
      NN
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      « Reply #13 on: July 16, 2005, 04:15:59 PM »

      Greyorm: make the game's Reward System vary by character race?
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      M. J. Young
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      « Reply #14 on: July 21, 2005, 11:46:04 AM »

      I think that there is a use for race that hasn't really been examined here. I've used it and seen it used as a way of making characters who are inherently and unalterably different for reasons that are directly biological, and not merely hard-wired psychology.

      One example that comes to mind is the dralasite of Star Frontiers. Among other things, these creatures are color blind, amorphous, and lack any sex drives--they reproduce by male types releasing spores into the air which land on female type to cause the budding of a new dralasite, and over the course of his life any particular dralasite will be sometimes male and sometimes female. Thus there are no courtship rituals, and their entire culture is different from human culture because of this. (I believe the game later did the same thing with the mechanoid race, but I am not as familiar with that.)

      My own Bah (Bah Ke'gehn in Multiverser: The Second Book of Worlds) similarly are entirely different culturally because their biology eliminates gender distinctions and makes them dependent on each other for food, as they transform through various stages of development.

      Thus if you want to create a truly alien character, fundamentally altering significant biological traits and pursuing the effects of this to the logical conclusions can often produce genuinely different kinds of characters that still make sense.

      --M. J. Young
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