Only One Race in Fantasy RPGs

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 9, 2010

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?

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Esspkay February 9, 2010 at 9:59 am

My characters who speak a common tongue (ie: draconic) are always chatting to each other in their native tongue, much to the chargrin of the other players :) Our dwarf is only interested in things dwarven – all the other races have a lot to learn, according to him. It’s true, our shifter doesn’t do much regarding his race, however.

I think this is something that, if you explore it in your campaign, it’s up to the DM to make interesting and apparent. NPC’s need to drive the appropriate behaviour. If it’s not something you’re going to look at specifically, it may get in the way of the themes you -actually- want to explore.

2 Mike(aka kaeosdad) February 9, 2010 at 10:11 am

I noticed that it’s difficult to impossible to enforce cultural traits upon a player character’s personality and have fun at the same time. I’ve also tried the one species but variant cultures/splinter races thing in the last 4 campaigns I ran and found that most players still role play however they feel like doing so. And that’s fine, they need to inject their personality into their character, not every gamer is their to to be a hardcore actor, most just want to be the hero.

Instead what I do is treat each “race” as if it were a group of people. Think of two groups of people, each of the same species, but isolated from one another geographically, culturally, whatever. They may live in different social situations, one group of dwarves living in a city of giants and forced to do labor for peanuts, while another group of dwarves lives near the top of a forested mountain and although they have built a city into the mountain they have taken up hunting and foraging in the woods as a means of survival. Both groups of people will guarantee have their own cultural identity while being of the same race. As the dm, if you can role play this and the players recognize this fact then they may begin to follow your lead and lines of thinking when deciding how to role play their character.
.-= Mike(aka kaeosdad)´s last blog ..Gamer Challenge: Month 1 =-.

3 MAK February 9, 2010 at 1:35 pm

I have never really seen a fantasy race being played to the full potential of an alien culture – actually even the cultural differences within one race are very hard to play without resorting to ridiculous stereotyping (funny accents, anyone?) In D&D, the issue of a limited number of functional race/class combos has also caused our gaming group to look for alternatives.

Thus, we have houseruled the whole race/culture issue into fluff only – the player characters are all human. The additional rules options the races are supposed to fill are replaced by “aptitudes”, which portray spiritual and physical qualities of the human race. This sort of houserule came in effect already while playing 3rd edition and when 4th ed came out we had to create the “human only” rule right away. The end result can be found at http://admc.pbworks.com/CharacterCreation – in short all aptitudes get the human-style +2 to ability of choice, but the othe racial abilities are taken from the 4ed races as such, with a bit of mixing and matching.

4 Sersa V February 9, 2010 at 1:37 pm

I’ve been extremely fortunate to game with players who play up their character races quite a bit, including personality, cultural quirks, story hooks, appearance and mannerisms, and so on. What’s more, the players in my games always strove to make their characters more than simply a racial archetype – in fact, one of the overriding themes of my first 4E campaign was how the different races in the party, over time, learned from each other and picked up on each other’s habits and outlooks.

They’ve run the gamut from the ‘classic’ races such as elves and dwarves to the ‘new wave’ options like dragonborn, tiefling, and warforged, and each time I’ve been blown away.

In fact, they’ve been so good at it that even the humans feel… well.. human in contrast to the others.

I think when it comes to race and roleplaying, each group’s mileage may vary. In my case, most of my players are (semi-)professional writers and artists, so that might explain the quality of their performance. Other groups might need a little extra prodding.

Of course, removing race from the game is certainly a valid option if a group finds it’s not adding much to their experience. Whatever works, I say. :)

5 Michael February 9, 2010 at 1:39 pm

This idea has precedence in fantasy movies. The Princess Bride is the first that comes to mind, but Ladyhawke, Stardust, Legend, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter feature primarily or exclusively human protagonists (and in some cases, antagonists, too!).

Not to mention all the fantasy literature that features mostly humans. The Game of Thrones, Black Company, and The Sword of Truth series, for example.
.-= Michael´s last blog ..digitaldraco: @matt_james_FR Pencil on paper still works fine for my group! #dnd =-.

6 Paul M February 9, 2010 at 1:53 pm

I feel that the racial descriptions define 90% of the general populace the adventurers are different. That being said people can run what they want how they want.

7 Sean Holland February 9, 2010 at 3:20 pm

I always try, as a player or GM, to give some idea of the difference in cultures (human or non-) that a character is from. That being said, it is not always easy to do successfully.
.-= Sean Holland´s last blog ..Curse – Anniversary of Ashes =-.

8 Swordgleam February 9, 2010 at 3:55 pm

The PCs’ races are a big deal in the current campaign. The two dragonborn stick together, the elf despises everyone else, and everyone is a little uncomfortable around the doppelganger.

But I think it’s the sort of theme that only fits certain campaigns – in others, it’s just not that important. How often do you talk about what your character is eating? Exactly. So if your character is eating exotic/native dishes, how would anyone even know?

9 shyDM February 9, 2010 at 5:42 pm

I enjoy playing different races in D&D, and do my best to play it *as* a different race. One fun example is when myself and a fellow player were both playing genasi, so we had a lot of elemental pride, and schemed right in front of people in primordial. It was a blast, but I can see how that might not have much of a place in a different sort of campaign. It seems like the broader a story’s goals are, the less time everyone has to savor the little details.

10 LooneyDM February 9, 2010 at 7:20 pm

It’s interesting that you should bring this up, as the group I DM tends to play all humans with one odd man out. I would like to see them branch out a little but they’re all so casual that other races tend to be out side their realm of consideration. They’re weird, but it’s a good weird. Myself I try to play each character I play different, however I rarely take cultural consideration into account. So next time I’ll be thinking of it thanks to you.
.-= LooneyDM´s last blog ..Apocalypse Gaming =-.

11 Adam February 9, 2010 at 8:43 pm

I’ve seen both extremes in my various games. The Dragonlance campaign I play in (going on 7 years, off and on when the players can get together) is very aware of race; the Silvanesti are very aware that they are Silvanesti and not Qualinesti, the Kender is aware of her heritage, the Dwarf is quite Dwarfish, and even the different humans are aware of their different cultural backgrounds. That is, of course, a Dragonlance game, and the setting lends itself to playing up the racial/cultural differences across the world.

A Forgotten Realms campaign I played in some years ago might as well have been an all-human campaign. The whole group was a little shaken up when I joined as a Lizardfolk PC and made no bones about my racial attitudes toward softskins; suddenly the DM was thinking in terms of, “does this shopkeeper like this race?” Even with that, though, once the initial “join time” wore off, the PCs were treating my character like just another human. It worked out pretty well and we had a lot of fun with it, but we could easily have all been a single race.

Ultimately I think it boils down to–as do so many things–a groups particular gaming style. If political intrigue and social interactions are an important part of the game, racial backgrounds become an important factor in the story. If it’s a “kick in the door and fireball the room” sort of adventure, you can reduce it to two races: “kiss’em” or “kill’em.”

12 Ameron February 9, 2010 at 11:59 pm

@Esspkay
It really comes down to how much players want to explore this aspect of their character. That’s not to say that the entire game needs to be all about my PC and his exotic racial and cultural background, but putting a little effort into it would be nice. It sounds like your group already works this into the game which is great.

@Mike (aka kaeosdad)
I’m not suggesting that cultural traits should be “enforced,” but I think many players need to realize that in a world where humans make up the majority of “civilized society” a Dragonborn, Elf or Shifter will have his own cultural diversity. If players can’t find one example of how their PC is different and use it during each gaming session then it’s time to rethink why you chose that race in the first place.

I absolutely agree with your suggestion to just treat each race as a culturally different people.

@MAK
The ridiculous stereotypes are unfortunately more likely if a DM pushes his players too hard in this respect – especially if they’re not really interested in this aspect of the role-playing.

It sounds like your human only rule combined with aptitudes is very much like the model I’ve proposed. I knew that I couldn’t be the only one who’d thought about going down this road. Thanks for the link.

@Sersa V
The sharing and blending of cultural differences among a party is exactly the kind of behaviour I’m looking for. But the players have to want it. I’ve learned that if the DM forces a set of rules on players who aren’t interested it won’t be well received. It all comes down to your gaming group.

@Michael
Thank you for providing some solid examples to support my argument.

@Paul M
True. I’m the first one to advocate that you play YOUR character the way YOU want to. That being said if you’re making choices simply to get the most benefit from the number crunching, then perhaps you’re not really in it for the role-playing but simply for the combat. By eliminating racial options, a creative DM may open up more role-playing opportunities for the power gamers and open their eyes to the benefits of this kind of character development. Then again, there will always be players who just aren’t interested. To each their own.

@Sean Holland
It’s tough to make each race seem unique. But if the players realize what you’re trying to do they’re likely to help create the cultural diversity you’re striving for. Sometimes all it takes are a few well placed examples from the DM to start things off.

@Swordgleam
You’re right about the little details. In these cases it’s up to the players to make a point of bringing these to the game. They don’t have to steal the spotlight, just come into play when appropriate. Any effort is better than no effort.

@shyDM
It sounds like you found a good angle in which to explore your cultural heritage and had fun with it. This is exactly what I’m pushing for. But you’re right that in some circumstances the opportunities for this kind of development don’t happen that often.

@LooneyDM
If this post gets you thinking in a slightly different way, and that in turn improves your gaming experience then I’ve done my job. The party in my last campaign was Human, Human, Human, Half-elf (raised by Humans) and a Dwarf. The Dwarf did all the things you’d expect (in the most stereotypical ways) and the Humans were pretty plain. As we stat a new game, I’m really encouraging them to get creative with the non-humans. We’ll see how that works out.

@Adam
I’ve never played in Dragonlance, but I’ve heard a lot of similar accounts of racial diversity.

The general “acceptance” of strange races has always been a quietly accepted practice in my games. But as I look to get more out of my D&D experience I find it’s these kinds of things that have previously been taken for granted that can make a game so much more interesting. If, as you said, the group is up for the challenge.

13 MAK February 10, 2010 at 1:02 am

“How much would the game change if there were only a few races or even just one race?”

I’d like to still return to this question and the implicit requirement of a multitude of races in a fantasy game. What makes the game D&D? Is it the types of characters? The published campaign worlds? The style of play?

Is it only me, or does someone else think that having to explain away all the possible races (and classes) actually limits the stories you can tell? If your own campaign world does not have lizard guys who breath acid, are you actually limiting options for players who’d like to make a paladin? Or why do all the most powerful warlocks have horns and tails?

I mean, it’s OK to have all these races if you play on a published setting, because that’s the way the place is designed. But what if you’d like to have a campaign loosely based on … say crusades-era Middle East, with real world geography and some ties to real history (like our group) or in Conan’s Hyborian Age, or something based on the Game of Thrones. You could just say that everyone plays a human, but then you would be taking away a big chunk of player choice in the rules space.

14 Amelia February 10, 2010 at 6:51 am

In my game, cultural diversity in PCs is kinda noticeable. We try and roleplay our backgrounds somewhat. I play an elf that was raised in a large and multicultural city, and so she’s out of touch with her race’s traditions. However, apart from races she’s familiar with from the city, she’s rather xenophobic due to her upbringing. Our tiefling warlock acts without morals because she was never raised to have any, as tieflings in general are shunned. Our dragonborn takes honour seriously, and will try and intimidate before being diplomatic, because that is what is respected in his society. The eladrin are a bit bland (we have three), and do feel the same as our human, roleplay wise.
So yeah, racial differences are notable in our game. I think it comes down to how the players want to do it though, and how the DM encourages it.

15 J. Shepherd February 10, 2010 at 4:50 pm

When creating a character, I typically want to work from a base of good mechanics—racial features that match the class I want to play, for instance—but I always try and make sure the flavor and mechanics compliment each other. If a good choice for my spiked-chain fighter is to play as a longtooth shifter, I consider that the character will be a bit wilder and more gruff than a human fighter. I’ll consider what racial feats and backgrounds are available that will support the character’s class, skills, and personality as well as use those features to fuel the idea of what sort of personality this character has, which further feeds into the build. If there’s a good looking feature, I have to consider whether it fits both the personality and the mechanics, and if not, which of these should be modified, if either; I may not take the feature at all, or I may change the personality and the mechanics now that I’ve realized there’s this new and interesting thing I’d like to incorporate.

I’m personally all for the idea of separating species and culture to be rid of the concept of “race.” When they refer to “race” in a game like D&D, they’re actually referring to species in most cases. I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that, say, goliaths and githzerai are members of the same species. “Race” is an extremely arbitrary term in reality, to some people meaning any taxonomic group beneath the level of species, but to most people meaning nothing more than differences in the shape of a nose or the color of a skin. All H. S. sapiens are the same species and subspecies, and the differences between them are nothing more than minor genetic-population differences and all sorts of cultural differences.

I’d like this to be properly reflected in a game, where humans and elves are separate species, even if they can interbreed to create half-elves (which would most likely be unable to reproduce in a literal setting, but there’s magic in the world). I’d briefly considered devising a mechanic to separate “race” into species and culture, but there was no easy answer on how to do that. The first thing that comes to mind is that the physical stats (Str, Con, Dex) would be governed by species and the mental stats (Int, Wis, Cha) would be governed by culture, but that’s too much of a simplification. Clearly species can effect intelligence, and culture can certainly influence strength or dexterity. It’s something I’d like to revisit sometime, but there are always so many things to do.

16 MAK February 11, 2010 at 1:25 am

I’ve played with the same idea, albeit only the cultural part (as my world has no separate species). The problem with differentiating cultures was that there are too many to individually model all – so some kind of grouping was needed. What I ended up with was a sort of sophistication level grading for a culture: there were cultures like “nomadic” or “metropolitan”. A real culture would be classified to one of these groups which then gave the rules benefits, everything else was just fluff.

This worked well for a couple of campaigns where the character backgrounds were quite diverse. In the latest campaign, however, all the characters were from a very small geographical area, so making them come from very different cultures was going to be difficult to explain. This resulted in the current modeling, which is not based on culture but individual characteristics like “tough” or “quick”. The idea actually came from D20 Modern classes, but I changed it to portray races instead…
.-= MAK´s last blog ..Ville Makkonen uploaded =-.

17 J. Shepherd February 11, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Right. It wouldn’t necessarily make much sense in an open-ended game like standard D&D to have a specific list of cultures. I could see this being tied into an expanded “background” option/mechanic, though.

18 Dan February 12, 2010 at 3:54 am

Personally, i feel there is a fine line between some races in 4e that border more on cultural differences than true racial divisions. Take for example the Elf/Eladrin/Drow group. All 3 of these “races” share a common ancestry and were only concidered different in later additions of DnD, especially after the addition of the elven “Crown Wars” story backdrop. Essentially, this article seems to mildly hint at a desire to regress back to the original version of DnD, wherein only the Elf and Dwarf races existed. These two races were viewed primarily as class options in terms of game mechanics, while humans made up the clear majority of the PCs, differing only by their profession/role.

As a DM, i too found the multitude of races available in the current edition DnD to be somewhat daunting in terms of socio-cultural intergration, but i think problems of this nature can be solved in fairly simplistic and cosmetic ways. Instead of highlighting each 4e race as its own autonomous group or faction, try intergrating or grouping like races together to give a more culturally unified feel to your DnD world. For example, the current campagin i DM takes place in a geographic region where mostly humans reside and i decided i really wanted to introduce a Longtooth Shifter into the PCs’ party (which by the way was already very diverse, having only one human PC in the group). So, instead of showcasing the Shifter as a different race i decided to introduce him to the PCs as a human who’s family was cursed with lycanthropy many generations ago. This essentially solved the problem of too much racial diversity and was also a wonderful roll-playing tool to surprise the PCs with (when the NPC finally “wolfed out” on them after being bloodied in combat). The “fix” was purly cosmetic: the NPC retained all of its original racial abilities, but was completely human in manner and appearance (most of the time).

This same tactic can be applied to any race if you are creative enough to bend the visual aspects of the races. I mean, after all, a character’s looks aren’t set in stone by the developers are they? If you want to play a Dragonborn but the world you’re playing in is Humans Only, then whats wrong with making the Dragonborn look and act mostly human, except maybe with skin that has a slight reddish tinge or (hidden) patches of scales – and poof!!! – a human with dragon-like hints who can suddenly breath firey death on his foes.

19 Ameron February 18, 2010 at 9:04 am

@MAK
You hit my point exactly. Your game shouldn’t (and probably won’t) be changed that radically if you eliminate some or all the fantasy races. Some of the best games I’ve played were set in the “real world” which meant Humans only. It was refreshing not to have all the other races thrown in for once.

@Amelia
You’re absolutely right that it comes down to the group and the players themselves. If the players are keen enough to take the time and role-play their character, including working in a back-story, then that’s great. I find that this is the exception and not the norm (unfortunately).

@J. Shepherd
It sounds like you’ve giving this a lot more thought than I have. Eventually we have to draw a line to keep things simple. The mechanics for race as they stand now are relatively simplified. Whether or not we choose to use them in our campaign or not is up to each DM. I think the kind of specific tailoring you’ve described is an interesting topic to discus, but would be too complicate to implement. Thanks for the comment.

@MAK
The PC background options are quite diverse and provide PCs with a good basis to make their PC unique. The problem is that too few players bother to use this part of their character sheet when role-playing. They see it as another way to gain a mechanical bonus (+2) to a skill.

@Dan
I really like this approach. Explaining the “racial” difference as just offshoots of the parent race (Human in most cases) is a easy way to handle it that makes sense.

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