Races have always intrigued me. Many RPGs and MMOs provide you with the option to create a character with a specific race. Each of these races have advantages and disadvantages associated with it and characteristics which actually define the race. Although I realise that the latter is just provided as a guideline for the ‘norm’ of that race, I become intrigued when you consider the possible deviation from this ‘norm’ and whether, in doing so, the race loses its feel and place in the game. In order to clarify my thoughts about this I thought I would compose this waffle…
Before I go any further I would like to make something very clear. In order to illustrate some of my points, it might appear that I am referencing people’s characters and how they are played. I would like to say up front that I am not at all passing judgement about how people play or create their characters so please do not think that I am having ‘a go’ or anything – I am just using examples. That said, let’s get on.
Races are fun
I totally accept this and they are such an essential part of any character. With any race there comes a range of bonuses and abilities which can often lead people to create ‘cookie cutter’ stereotypes. If you want to have a powerful fighter there are certain races which give you appropriate bonuses. These encourage certain choices, whether the class is based on physical attributes e.g. in Starfinder – soldiers often are Vesk and in Shadowrun, trolls make excellent tanks, or mental attributes such as intelligence or charisma. Initially, and I have spoken about this in my post about character creation, people choose these options since they focus is on a powerful rule base character. However, as people develop their role playing, they often ignore these bonuses and focus on the personality of their character. At this stage some people do tend to go with extremes and create complete opposites which can be fun to play and interact with. That gnome with low strength or that less than dexterous half orc rogue. Everyone accepts that not all trolls are tanks, just like not all elves are mages, but what happens when the role play element of the race starts to be altered?
Races and their Characteristics
Every race has characteristics which are not associated with ability scores and skill bonuses. These characteristics are based on their heritage and history. They are the aspects of the race which defines what they have been through in order to get to where they are now. These rarely have a direct impact on rolls within the game, but do contribute significantly to the role playing element of the character. Races have philosophies and ethics which, while accepted as a ‘norm’ for that race, do go a long way to define them. One of the signs of a great role-player (and I must write a post about this in the future) is that I think you should get a feeling about their race and philosophies on life throughout the game. When streaming, people often get a snap shot about a game/campaign and this is when, in a campaign world where races are important, I feel that the viewers should get a ‘feel’ about the general characteristic of that race and their outlook on life. I know what some of you are thinking, but bear with me! Races should, at this point, actually be stereotyped in order to reflect the race. Many of you are disagreeing with my at this point and saying – ‘but not all gnomes talk with a high pitch voice’ and this leads nicely onto my next point.
Do races need to be different?
As people play games more and more, there seems to be almost a contest to make different character combinations, moving away from the stereotypes in order to make the characters different as well as providing the challenge of role playing them. This is when people stray from the initial philosophies of character races in order to make them ‘different’ and to break out of what some player might think of as restrictions. An example for this – and I have made this one up – imagine a race which naturally aggressive and notoriously have short tempers. Some players, might create a character with this race but say that they are actually a pacifist and abhors aggression. They get the bonuses and everything else of that class, but not the philosophies which defines the race. At this point, players might respond that they character is not ‘stereotypical’ of that race and I see this point completely. But, taking the same example – how did that race get that plus two strength bonus? was this not due to it being aggressive? If the character is not aggressive by nature, does it lose this strength bonus? Also, and I guess being a streamer and having those two people watching the games, I want people to recognise the races as their stereotypes since viewers are seeing on the stream often for the first time and the way races are played are an essential part of the campaign.
Races and Roles
One of the essential characteristics of an excellent/outstanding role player is being able to take the disadvantages of any race/class. One aspect of DMing which I really enjoy is when players are more interested in playing their characters rather than measuring how good they are in the game by dice rolls and skills. It takes a good role player to recognise that there are disadvantages to their character and actually embrace them rather than trying to rationalising them away with talk of ‘not stereotypical’ or that’s not how I play my ‘xxx’. I understand that you always want the character to fulfil their role, I’m not talking about the tank character that refuses to fight, I’m referring to negatives of races which means that role playing becomes a challenge and actually adds to the game. That previous mentioned aggressive race has to be played like that and might actually get into some sticky situations. But that is its race and therefore totally acceptable. Gone are the days, I hope, that people do things on purpose to spoil the game or cause issues with the DM.
Developing that race
When I was discussing this post and races in general, I suddenly had one of those light bulb moments. As a character is created, including its race, it is essentially at the start of its development. Yes, it might be from a brave, hard-hitting race, but as it starts out on its adventures, it will meet new people and incidences which will have an impact on itself and how it views the world. I made up a half-orc bard live on twitch some weeks ago, and I wanted to make it that he didn’t fight well and was actually brought up by his mother/aunty and taught to play the drums etc. He still had to do weapon practice with his brothers, but his love was his music. He actually left his family home to adventure in order to prevent conscription to the militia, the regular route for many of the half-orcs in the tribe. As the character adventures and develops, his standard race attributes will change, violent races might become more pacific, races who hate elves might become more tolerant to them as they adventure alongside them. This is how I would hope that races are developed and slowly move away from the stereotypes presented in the rule books.
Summarising about Races
I think a summary is needed, since I know I tend to waffle on in these posts. So, in summary – I think that races should stay true to their initial philosophies and outlook on life. Yes, don’t let these define the sort of class you play, but do let it define how to play that class. If taken to the extreme, if every dragonborn is scaleless, of very small stature, with pointed ears and no tail – then isn’t that really just a gnome?