Thanks to Dungeons & Dragons and Tolkien, the fantasy baseline of “demihumans” (as we used to call them back in the day) were dwarves, elves and halflings. You create a fantasy setting, and there is either an expectation or casual acceptance that those three player races are in it.
But let’s wipe that board clean. Let’s imagine a new fantasy world. What races could — or should — we include?
Now this is one of those nice thought experiments you can do at home with your play group, and who knows, it might take you toward changing your setting and making your home game truly your own. Perhaps you’ll select something alien or maybe you’ll take an existing fantasy race and make it core, or maybe you’ll come up with something entirely new.
What follows is a sort of checklist to guide you as you consider a new race.
1. Size matters. From diminutive to giant, slender to rotund and all things in between. A sentient race evolved from elephants, whales, lemurs or okapi (to cite real-world examples) would occupy space in entirely different ways.
2. Environment matters. Sure, the evolved version of the race can go wherever adventure calls. But the land (or sea) of its origins will make them distinctive. Hot or cold, dry or wet, high above or deep below ground, all could be a factor.
3. Story matters. The race’s story — the things that matter culturally and socially — are important. But so is the race’s own history. Upon what part of the social rung did they occupy? Were they captives, serfs, rulers, nomads, settled? Did that situation change? With their place established, how will portraying them bring something fresh to the table as your players create even more stories?
4. Something alien? We’re presuming bipedal (or quadrupedal) humanoids as your new race, you know, folk with two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and one mouth. But if you need tentacles for arms, fins for legs or wings for flying, here’s a chance to add them to the creation. Do they have one eye, like a cyclops, or many, like a spider? Are they more like insects, fish or reptiles than mammals? See what clicks, or chitters, as you experiment.
5. Oh, those dreaded game stats. So, you’ve come up with the bird folk of the high mountain, how is that going to work in your game? Alas, this article can’t answer that. Too many game systems and too many monsters to say specifically. But I’d suggest finding a monster with an ability that’s similar to the race you’ve created, steal the game stats for that, then find a way to refine those numbers so they fall within the range of “normal” for the game system of your choice. A harpy’s game stats might help for the flying aspect of your bird folk, for example (or maybe not, if the bird folk are modeled after the ostrich), so long as you jettison the other special abilities that make a harpy a monster and don’t fit with your race concept. It might not be perfect, may require some tweaking, but it will get you close.
As the playing group’s brainstorm session refines the process, keep revisiting the “cool” factor of the playing race, as well as its place in the story of your world. It might be that you end up with a race gnomelike in stature but wildly different in abilities and place in the social fabric of the world. Maybe you’ll reconsider, thinking, that’s too gnomelike. Or maybe you’ll just run with it. It’s for your game, after all.
As long as it works for you, that’s what matters. But don’t be afraid to tweak it as you go along. That’s part of the process, and part of the fun.
The thing is to give it a go. You might be surprised at the result.
And if it fails, it fails. You’ve got your old friends dwarves, elves and halflings in the bullpen, all warmed up and ready to hit the field if you need them.
But I think groups that try this brainstorming process will be surprised by what they come up with.
If you try this out, let me know in the comments below.