It’s rare that all members of an adventuring party are the same race. The existence of exotic races is one of the defining signatures of fantasy role-playing games. But is it necessary? How much would the game change if there were only a few races or even just one race?
For most gamers, the decision about which race to make your next PC usually comes down to number crunching and power gaming. Race is chosen based on which attributes receive the +2 bonuses or, to a lesser extent, the racial power. This is why we tend to see the same race/class combos over and over again (a practice we explored and discouraged in the article Playing Against Type).
In the games I’ve played, I can’t recall any examples of players striving for cultural or racial individuality. Everyone plays their character the same way regardless of race. They all speak the same language (common), they all share the same morals and beliefs, they all eat the same food and they usually share the same motives. In truth, PC race usually has minimal or no impact on role-playing aspects of the game. If everyone role-plays their PC the same way then there really isn’t much need for different races.
Sure there are those one-off examples like when the party needs to talk with a clan of Dwarves so they send the Dwarven PC in as their cultural liaison, or the town that shuns Shifters so the Shifter PC needs to disguise his racial heritage, but for the most part race has no impact on the game.
Think about how people of different races and cultural backgrounds in real life interact. I have many friends, colleagues and acquaintances representing a wide variety of different racial and cultural backgrounds. When people of different races come together there is an opportunity to learn from one another.
Based on my experiences growing up and living in a multi-cultural city, here’s what I’ve seen when people of different races come together. They don’t stop speaking their native language when they learn English, in fact they still speak their native tongue when they’re with other people from their homeland. They eat North American foods, but their traditional dishes still make up a significant portion of their diet. They still wear clothing, jewelry or religiously significant garb from their homeland while adopting the styles of their new home. They learned to blend this new culture with their own, never forgetting who they are or where they came from.
In a world where the human race is the only one we still find cultural diversity. Yet when we play fantasy role-playing games where there are dozens of races, all the PCs end up acting and behaving the same. If this is going to be the (unfortunate) default then perhaps there is no need for all of these races. Maybe campaign worlds should have only one race, and build in a mechanic to make each PC part of an established culture. It could still work like the race system today (providing +2 to key abilities and a “racial” power) but rather than say we’re all different races we are instead the same race, but from different cultures.
Perhaps this is a bit extreme. After all, I said up front that Elves, Dwarves and Gnomes are an important part of defining fantasy role-playing games. So if we’re going to keep all of these races around then perhaps it’s time we started thinking about what it means to be the only Tiefling, Dragonborn or Halfling in the party. It’s up to you to give your PC a cultural background and a sense of where he came from.
How has racial diversity impacted your game? Has it made a difference at all? Think back to your last adventure, do you even know what race the other PCs were? Was their race ever evident in their role-playing? Do you think that even we need all of the different fantasy races?