Fantasy worlds, especially those based on the World’s Most Popular Roleplaying Game (a.k.a Dungeons & Dragons), can suffer from a bit of “same-ness.” The World of Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, Shadow World, Mystara, the Palladium World, Harn, Yrth, Eberron, Krynn, and others all offer the usual suspects when it comes to fantasy races. Sure, there’s an occasional swap-out (the Kender) or exotic choice (Dragonborn), but these are the exception, not the rule. If you want to play an elven archer or a dwarven warrior then you can easily do so in any of these worlds.

Back when I was running a campaign in the Freeport setting a notion struck me. None of the players knew anything about Freeport, a wretched hive of scum and villainy (see where I’m going with this?) and I thought about what would happen if their PCs walked into a tavern and found races straight out of the Star Wars cantina: Wookiee barbarians, Rodian rogues, Duros Clerics, and Bith bards. It would’ve been relatively easy, given the roughly compatible d20 versions of the Star Wars RPG.

While I ultimately didn’t do it, I thought about how interesting and unique, yet familiar, a fantasy setting would be if I replaced the usual fantasy races with Star Wars aliens. Taking the idea a step further, how about a fantasy world based on Babylon 5, where PCs are Human, Minbari, Narn, Centauri, or Drazi? Maybe the Vorlons and the Shadows take the place of angels and demons (or even gods) in the world cosmology.

If we were to keep things a bit more familiar, Star Trek springs to mind, with its Humans, Vulcans (high elves), Romulans (wood elves, or Drow if we aren’t being kind), Klingons (orcs), and Ferengi (gnomes). There’s even room for hybrids. And hey, if you like a little steampunk in your fantasy, then you’ve got the assimilating Borg (steampunk zombies).

The trick is to keep the game world firmly rooted in fantasy trappings while massaging the alien cultures to fit. Maybe you don’t mind having Klingon rangers carrying bat’leths, but they certainly wouldn’t have disruptor pistols. In the Babylon 5 universe, the Narn had no telepaths. Maybe fantasy Narn can’t manipulate arcane magic?

Of course, if you really want to go out on a limb, you can go with Disney races…anthropomorphic Mouse knights, Duck rogues, Dog wizards and cat priests….

So what say you? Have any of you ever tried something similar to this? Would you like to? Have you had any bad experiences incorporating science-fiction races into fantasy settings?

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.



23 Responses to Mashing Genres: Rodian Rogues and Minbari Paladins

  1. Love it, really love it. In fact I love it so much that when I eventually get round to running Freeport then that’s exactly what I shall do, replace all of the fantasy races with SF ones, Babylon 5 and Star Wars and Star Trek and Farscape.

  2. I can’t help wondering whether the larger problem most of the time is that we don’t play non-human races as non-human, we play them as human with extra abilities but with the same base aims. Most of the time. Not all of the time. Probably because few of us have ever been anything else ;) It’s all the same cakes with different icings rather than different cakes, if you want a seasonal metaphor.

  3. That is a possible issue, but IMHO we never really play aliens, we play humans with different physical features. None of the SF shows above ever really had aliens either, although maybe the Vorlons and Shadows in B5 were weird.

    Wittgenstein said that if a lion could speak we couldn’t understand each other since we do not have the way of life of a lion, and maybe that’s true, maybe true alien-ness is in fact beyond our comprehension?

    However, I love the idea of Minbari paladins..

  4. This sort of thing was common when White Box D&D was becoming stale for everyone, before people had figured out you could just make a whole new game based on whatever character cast you were toying with.

    I’m not a fan of cross-genre casting myself. If it floats your boat, fine, but when I come across an example of it I always find myself asking why all that effort wasn’t spent creating something new, something that wasn’t simply a human with pointy ears or a mashup of various animals with an unlikely reason for it glued on (Owlbears didn’t become truly stupid until someone tried to explain them and *didn’t* say “it’s a bear-like thing with some features reminiscent of an owl if you squint, and the peasants thereabouts are an unimaginitive lot when it comes to making up names for the things that eat them”).

    Maybe it’s just that I’m a bit long in the tooth and a tad jaded, but “Klingon Rangers” and Babylon-5ers in a high fantasy setting leave me cold. If you find the idea (or one like it) has legs, run with it without hesitation. It’s your game, not mine.

    Of course, one of my favourite books is “The Dosadi Experiment” and the plot of that could be turned on the game lathe for a good fit for what you are talking about.

  5. It’s also worth noting that elves and dwarves and gnomes and orcs and so forth *used* to be a lot more alien than they currently are.

    In ancient mythology and folklore, elves were *dangerous* – and even tolkien’s elves, written less than a century ago, had an unnerving supernatural quality that is all but gone in today’s D&D elves.

    The original strangenesses of demihumans have been gradually overwritten with human characteristics, in order to make them more ‘playable’. A little research could bring back these qualities – but only if your players are willing to take the extra step.

    (first time posting here – hope I’m not treading on any toes!)

  6. I think that playability and game balance are the key words when pushing the boundaries on how to play non-humans. Tolkienesque elves, dwarves and even the super-human Dúnedain (super in the sense of ‘more than’ or superior) would not be balanced in terms of game play. It takes a mature group to take that and run with it. I’ve never been part of a group that mature.

  7. @Lord Karick – I think Burning Wheel does a pretty good job with unbalanced characters. The game is not about balance, so having an elvish swordsman completely outclass your human sellsword is not actually bad. It then becomes about how the two characters react to each other. Does the human strive to improve and learn from the elf? Resign himself to becoming the best he can while still human? Or does he become bitter because the elf will always be superior even if the human does nothing but devote himself to the sword.

    In most other games, it does take a mature group. But I think games like Burning Wheel can be a stepping stone for unbalanced parties.

  8. Well my Kaidan setting for Pathfinder, being published through Rite Publishing is a genre mash-up between fantasy feudal Japan, and Asian horror – almost an Oriental Adventures and Ravenloft cross, but with it’s own uniquely horrible aspects, like a cursed form reincarnation tied to the social caste system and it’s own defined cosmology of one level of the Abyss, a pocket ethereal plane, and the pocket material plane that is Kaidan itself. I have kappa, tengu, and hengeyokai as the non-human races. The prevalence of yurei ghosts and oni overwhelm the setting.

    The setting is heavily influenced by Japanese ghost tales and ancient folklore. It is definitely not Rokugan or Kara Tur, something far darker…

  9. I’ve always found it interesting when somebody does something new or innovative with the “standard” fantasy races, and always wondered why they didn’t just create something new that really fit the concept. Porting Klingons into a fantasy world with the serial numbers filed off (or not even bothering) just seems to be as akward and self-limiting a concept as elves always having a Dex bonus and a Con penalty. However, using Klingons as a loose model for a sentient race and/or culture that evolved in a harsher than “normal” environment from a more predatory ancestor than humans (or was created by the god of armidillo-bears), that would create something far more intriguing.

    Also, the idea of game balance strikes me as bit of a mis(g)nomer and an unuseful concept. Anytime you have a randomly generated characteristics of any kind (hit points, attributes, etc) there will be unbalanced characters, even in point assigning char-gen players who assign the same number of points “better” will have “better” characters. In actually play even if there is one character who is better at everything (unlikely in any system), said character can’t be everywhere all the time. All the characters should have a real chance to shine. If they don’t, it’s more of a case of bad GMing than game balance.

  10. Does anyone remember Stormbringer 1st edition? Character generation included a d% roll for nationality, which altered base characteristics. 00-01 was some barbarian people (name eludes me) who lost 1dX points from key characteristics, and 99 was a Melnibonean with +1d10 INT and +2d6 POW. (Or was it the other way around?)

    While that’s a bit extreme, “races” should mean human cultures not subspecies. Barbarians of Lemuria, Jaws of the Six Serpents, Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies, Iron Heroes, and other systems give different benefits and drawbacks to members of different city-states/regions/islands/terrain. At the opposite extreme are the 13 races of men in Carcosa, who are mechanically and culturally identical except for color (and possibly language) but hate and fear each other anyway. Coming up with 6-13 meaningful variations is harder than reproducing the Tolkien/D&D standards, but it might be more rewarding.

    BTW, I’ve tried generating alternate demi-humans based on Arabian/Persian spirits, Chinese/Japanese folklore, supposed UFO pilots (Nordic, Gray, Reptoid, Energy Being), and typical non-humanoid species (Insect, Octopus, Reptile, Plant), but nothing really clicked.

  11. I’ve always found that the biggest problem with making custom races is that most players don’t really want to invest the time needed to learn what differences you’re trying to convey. It’s a problem with any custom setting/house rule, but with demihumans it’s particularly hard to break the habit.

    “Yeah, okay, an elf. I know what those are like. Let’s roll up the character and go.”

    Most players (and, to be fair, I have met some glosrous exceptions to this statement) don’t consider character creation/backstory/history to be part of the game. They consider it to be an odious, horrible chore you are *making them do* that is taking away valuable face time around the table – even if it’s stuff you’re asking them to look at between sessions.

    Getting players to read up on a custom campaign setting, in my experience, is like pulling teeth. They hate doing it, even though they complain terribly that everything’s boring without a custom setting.

    Moreover, not everything can be discovered during play – if you want to play an elf in a custom setting where elves also happen to be nocturnal cannibal werewolves that worship a demon goddess, are allergic to worked metal and are hated and feared by everyone who lives outside of their impenetrable tropical jungle*, well… these are things you should probably read up on BEFORE you decide to play an elf, even if they do get a +4 to Dex.

    *Obviously this is a hyperbolic example, but don’t think I haven’t been tempted.

  12. I have not found players unwilling to immerse themselves in weird and interesting settings, but I tend to play with people who like stuff like that: Glorantha, Tekumel, Fading Suns, Tribe8, Jorune, Earthdawn, Stormbringer, T&T and so on. In fact if you want to see my idea of a fun campaign then http://www.gwenthia.org will show you what we like.

    However I do also know that many people like the ready-to-go approach of a standard D&D fantasy game, and good luck to them.

    I think cross genre alien mashing (now that could be misinterpreted in so many ways) is probably best for those of us that like to ponder the Riddles of Nysalor and just how many ways there are to get horribly corrupted in Tribe8.

  13. @Nice Ogress – That is true of “undisadvantaged” game systems like D20, BRP and Traveller, where it is solely down to the player how the character might be flawed.

    With game systems like GURPS and Savage Worlds the downsides to a character grant bonuses to the character build whiole implying all sorts of effects that are largely described by game mechanics.

    This give the player of such a character hints as to how to play “to type” as it were.

    But one of the joys of RPGs is the moment when a person discovers that a character can be more than just a proxy for themselves in an imaginary situation, and that is a matter of opportunity, intellect, momentary preference (even strongly character-driven roleplayers have days when they just want to hit things until they give them their treasure) and engagement. In other words, it’s something you can’t force on people.

    Incidentally, if a GM would like to get people with potential to do more character-driven RPing, I recommend a couple of games of FIASCO!, which brings out the inner scenery chewer in almost everyone. The experience of this sort of game will carry over. Just be sure that you, as the GM, are prepared to handle it.

  14. @tzunder – You know people who *play* Tekumel?

    I’ve been trying to scare up games in that world for decades.

    You must live in the Twin Cities. BoD

  15. @Lord Karick – Again, this comes down to “everyone is human with a label” thinking.

    Part of the problem with D&D’s version of the Tolkien races (for let’s not forget where they got the ideas in the first place) is that they can be point-of-view characters, which they weren’t in the book. The reader was mostly one or another of the Hobbits throughout that story, and everyone else was alien.

    Part of the problem is that Fluff is not reinforced in any meaningful way in D&D and its clones. e.g. Tolkienesque Elves have certain racial preferences (prejudices?) and these can be represented in game systems but usually aren’t because it would call for effort counter to self interest. Rangers are solitary and don’t interact well with others (how much easier would it have been all round if Aragorn had been a tad less standoffish?). Both these examples suggest Savage Worlds “fixes” that could be applied to a PC template to pick an example.

    But for what it’s worth, I think that making players do what they have no interest in doing is putting yourself on a railroad to nowhere good. A much better idea for those who don’t like what their players “do” with non-human races is to disallow them or run a setting that doesn’t have them, or settings in which all of the players are of the same non-human race.

    Just my opinion. Your mileage and all that.

  16. @Roxysteve
    I’ve recently started using Savage Worlds as our gaming system and it can work quite nicely. From a purely behaviour-training point of view the Bennies are brilliant. Rather than preventing ‘poor’ role playing, it is easy to immediately and visibly reward ‘good’ role playing. And my players do get through the things like they were going out of fashion ;) Still need to work into it though.

  17. Kurt "Telas" Schneider

    IMHO, a race should have a recognizable one-line description, in order to be playable. The problem is that it isn’t realistic (quick, define “Human” in one line). So we end up with different icing.

    This isn’t all bad. I’d play a Fantasy Klingon, even if you filed the serial numbers off and called me a Hobgoblin. I’d play a Space Gnome, too, just as long as you didn’t refer to me as Ferengi.

    The deeper question is “Can we really know what it means to be alien?” Could you describe what a bat ‘sees’ with its echolocation, or how a hawk sees a mouse from dozens of feet above the ground? And while we might imagine so, we really can’t (at least in an ‘everybody understands on the same level’ way).

    And, from a gaming point of view, is it desirable that we make truly alien races? Does that add to the game you’re trying to play? (I have no answer here.)

  18. @Kurt “Telas” Schneider – “The deeper question is “Can we really know what it means to be alien?””

    Well, you could do worse than reading the first in the “Foreigner” series by C.J.Cherryh. The difference between Man’chi and friendship is quite subtle and alien in the extreme. For a way-out, completely alien experience, read “40,000 in Gehenna” or “Cuckoo’s Egg”, both by the same author.

    You could try reading any of Frank Herbert’s “BuSab” stories involving Wreaves, Taprisiots, Gowachin et al (Whipping Star is as good a place to start as any) or “Helstrom’s Hive” for aliens among us.

    Brian Aldiss’ “Dark Light Years” is another good ‘un, but the story is really about how humans react to people who are very, very alien. Despite that you get a good look at the aliens in their natural habitat.

    Not all SF is star trek or steampunk, and some authors have been successfully treading the path you wonder about for decades. It just isn’t fashionable to talk about them in younger circles these days.

    As for is it worth trying – obviously not if you can’t see the point.

    But to borrow and paraphrase from the Dresden Files rulebook: Tension drives plot, and interpersonal differences create tension like nothing else. I’d say having an alien in the woodpile is worth the effort from my perspective, but then, I run Call of Cthulhu and have players who enjoy roleplaying characters who have become alien in all but shape over the game years.

  19. It isn’t just races that get generalized, but gods in fantasy games as well. The god of death is always there and waiting, and many times chalked up as evil, maybe with a neutral qualifier. Then then god of war, and nature, and weather. Oh, don’t forget the god the art that the elves like is never the god that the orcs ever heard of of because they have a big evil god. Guess my point is that it’s not just the races that need a reworking on occasion, but in fantasy, you have to pay attention to the cosmology as well. I ran a game where undead weren’t inherently evil. They just were there, they existed, no one thought anything of the state of being. A particular god who was a very militant god used her followers in life as militant priests capable of controlling large groups of undead for war. When her living followers died, they were given a second chance to help her cause by being brought back as an undead (and pretty mindless) warrior. Their families were taken care and portions of the spoils of war were given to them. As far as I know, this hadn’t been done in any games and my players really liked the change. With all the work put into that one god, I had to pour more effort into others as well. This made the overall world much richer.

  20. Not heard of Zorak Zoran of Glorantha then? A Death god, a Troll god and a major ally against Chaos..

    Glorantha: Cult of Zorak Zoran http://bit.ly/vesV08

  21. Kurt "Telas" Schneider

    @Roxysteve – I’m very familiar with (and appreciative of) sci-fi’s efforts to grok the truly alien, but that’s one author each.

    In a game, with five or six interpretations of something that by definition is unfamiliar, it’s a bit different and much more difficult thing to accomplish.

  22. Well I’ve just begun designing an adventure for my newest players in an RPG genre mashup – that already exists as fictional genre, but one I’ve never seen for roleplay.

    Gothic Horror Romance adventure. I don’t know how well this will work, but the storyline is implied romance, with opportunities and romantic partners made available in the story. It’s up to the players whether their characters get ‘romantic’ or not. Otherwise its an English countryside aristocratic adventure party enjoying the experiences in the moors.

    I call it The Mists on the Moors and can already see a schmoozy romance cover for it, if it were published.

    As I said, completely experimental and don’t know if it will work or not.

  1. Race and Cultural Background in RPGs: Different Icing, Same Cake? | Savage Legend

    [...] an interesting discussion going on over at the wonderfully named Gnome Stew on non-human races in RPGs, which led me to the above metaphor. When we play non-human (or demi-human to use the accepted [...]

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