Flowing naturally from the character generation post, here’s something regarding the races of man and their choice as avatars for play.
In a shocking leap of logic that’ll have any reader gasping in bewilderment, I’m for promoting difference through rules structure. Nobel prize incoming. What follows is expressly UN-creative fare: If you spelunk around the OSR for weird weirdness, you may well afford this post a wide berth, for inside you’ll find the familiar reeking scent of vanilla, as familiarity befits starting points.
There is an ongoing trend of dilution that began long ago, starting with the decision that any race should be eligible to belong to any class rather than representing a class all of its own. This has been spilling like crude oil ever since, puddling alongside pervasive notions of anachronistic cosmopolitism onto a warcraftist morass out to choke the very concept of fantasy and all the wonder it may once have held.
This problem is well summed up by Goblin Punch’s Arnold K. (who runs a minimalist system, but whose good posts know no boundaries), that the different races all play like they’re just humans in funny hats. The price to pay being that all of the racial paintjobs feel the same and play the same, with the question of “who’s human and who’s not” being met with a shrug of indifference: to the average player what matters is the class, because that is the dam behind which most of a character’s gameworld-affecting capabilities – and thus aesthetic signifiers – are contained.
Tackling this through system alone might seem awkward, thankless and unfruitful; but even if running a stable of trained character actors who could even agree on what a given interpretation were to sound like, the realization becomes that mechanics is all one has that’s non-debatable. If adequately encoded and stressed, what a player can or can’t do in the game world ought to loop back into some semblance of character inhabitation.
Past accepting that immersion requires incentive comes the realization that there’s only so much that can be practically systemized in order to differentiate a handful or more demihuman races, short of giving everyone a battery of psychological prescriptive behaviours, different dietary requirements, different temperature tolerances, different sleep cycles and turning it all into one bloated, unmanageable chore. I’m only half-joking with this list, if a difference between races is gameable (i.e. size) it should definitely be played up. If it is not significantly or reliably so (diet, psychology), it has to be tossed by the wayside.
“You Will Never Be One Of Us”
Such is the distillation of Essentialism.
Ponder, as applied to these constructs, on what grounds would a demihuman think or utter this to a man? Then, think that the reason ought to be preferably physical, sooner than mental or (gods forbid) psychological, as these are the facets that lean most heavily on the rules and are the least liable to be glossed over at a game table.
As a creator, one holds on to whatever images carry iconic power and actively avoids going against that flow. The demihumans’ essentialism is an important parcel of their otherness and the physical aspects that set them apart should be emphasized: you don’t count on ever encountering a fumbling Elf or a Dwarf with a glass jaw, much as the reverse is true, with dwarven long distance runners, elven weightlifters and half-orc weaklings being a mold that’s simply not up for the breaking block.
This unvarying constance, closer to archetypal than actually human, is precisely the purpose that demihumans exist to embrace: just as a dwarf’s reduced speed and height are hard-etched onto the statblock and not something a player can overcome by generating a high number, so too should its toughness. It’ part of what defines a dwarf, part of its inherent archetypal nature.
Weighing the issue further, one arrives at a junction: too few differences and it all becomes watered down, too many and the bloat becomes unmanageable. I settled for the time-proven philosophy of striking where it counts: the attributes. This implies an organically halfway solution, falling short of race-as-class, but with certain life paths being manifestly suboptimal.
Notes on Demihuman Psychology
No player I’ve ever seen has been capable of sustainedly sidestepping the reality of play as a human person to any significant or relatable degree. Even a polished roleplayer will struggle and have a challenging time at pretending to be a different gender, let alone a whole other creature. In fact, relying on the vagaries of competent roleplaying to evoke such differences would be like tossing a coin into the air and counting on it landing sideways on the floor everytime. It can happen, but no-one’s holding breath that it will.
The burden of expressing these differences should be laid squarely at the feet of the referee’s worldbuilding effort, to be sketched and highlighted through the figure of the non-player character. All player characters of the demihuman persuasion are simply expected, for whatever conceivable reason – as merchants, as outcasts, as slaves, as hostages linked to a peace treaty – to have become acclimated to life among men and being, at most, eccentrics rather than the proverbial stranger in a strange land.
Between the Mythic and the Tolkienesque
I’m neither out to reiterate the whole descriptive shorthands of the fantasy household names nor to warp them out of all recognizability and thus practical use. I do interfere with them in minor, mostly unsubstantial fashion (for instance: condensating the subraces, as they brought little to the table, other than dilution), the better to suit my fantasy, oftentimes preferring to read closer to the mythic sources (on which I am no authority, let it be known) than the pastiche-laden ersatz that DnD constitutes.
This and other posts of this kind are not meant to replace the whole of the handbooks, at least not in one swoop, as they contain notions and definitional shortcuts still very much of use to me and the shared vision at the table.
Allow me to name a personal sore thumb: Halflings.
Hobbits were genially devised as personable everymen for a children’s book, with a competent reprise in the much darker followup. As playable characters they’re just… lacking. The concept of goodly disposed, bucolic, cottage-owning, orchard-growing landed gentry doesn’t really hold water, especially for darker or more primitive settings. They also lack mythic substract and blur way too easily into gnomes if you stop staring at them for a second.
Unkempt, botulitic, warren-dwelling, cannibalistic primitive savages are much more my speed. Pygmies, of greek telling, if looking for the mythic analog.
Each race has a size hit-die, an alignment, an age spectrum for adventuring (with each level beyond the first adding an appropriate die to age if generating a levelled character), some special abilities and, most definingly, a dyad of prime/nadir attributes.
I’ve tentatively opted in for the classic alignment scheme – Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic – reflecting the races’ essence and to act strictly as a mechanical keyword, with no gameplay-related prescriptive effects whatsoever.
Prime and Nadir attributes are, respectively, the highest and the lowest rolled scores, who must forcibly be attributed in the corresponding entries, ensuring an invariably strong score on the prime and an unfailingly dismal score on the nadir, serving as a soft take on race-as-class, shaping these characters’ set of viable life paths and perspectives.
The bonuses, more than just a simple mitigation device, are a way to push already high values past the realm of the humanly possible; whereas a man will tipically be limited to the 18th numerical gradient of any facet of being, a demihuman will not only frequently exhibit extremes that only a vanishing proportion of humans ever touch, but also flirt with the superhuman reaches of the 19th and 20th degrees.
The Races of Man
Our own selves. Versatile, adaptable, capable of occupying both the loftiest perches of idealism and the lowest rungs of debasement, oftentimes within the confines of the same individual, weighed down by the leaden whole of the human condition. Fated to supplant sooner than coexist, man will not stop until every monster has been slain, every mountain has been conquered and every dark corner of the world has had a light shone upon it.
Age: 10 + 2d6 years
Height: 4’8” + 2d10” *
Weight: 110 lb. + (* x 2d4) lb.
Size: Medium (d8 hitpoints)
- Receive one additional mulligan token at character generation.
The most abundant of the demihumans. Half-men (also called pygmies or halflings) shoulder, if anything, as weighty a burden as mankind. Short of stature, violent by nature, they proliferate quickly and live short lives, reaching physical maturity at six years old and living only to be forty. Their preferred habitat are the hills, whose soft earth they hollow out with their communal burrows. Ferocious and carnivorous yet civilized after a fashion, their shortness in years shackling them to a legacy mired in barbarism, compensated by the fact that they never want for unproven youth brimming with hot blood to take up the mantle of tribal hero.
Age : 5 + d4 years
Height: 2’7” + 2d4” *
Weight: 35 lb. + (*) lb.
Size: Small (d6 hitpoints)
Ability score adjusments: +1 to Dexterity, +1 to Constitution, +1 to Charisma.
Prime attribute: Dexterity
Nadir attribute: Wisdom
- Can move through the space of any larger creature.
- May attempt to hide from sight whenever obscured, even if only by a larger creature.
- As long as unengaged and not expressly drawing attention to himself, a half-man has a 50% chance of being targetted last by attack.
Focused, industrious and bellicose, dwarves are a relatively numerous race, held in check by the natural confines of their underground living environment and their specious reproductive capabilities. Renowned smiths, relentless bargainers and inured drinkers of spirits, they slowly and diligently carve out their mountain holdfasts one pickstroke at a time, feverishly driven by a hunger rarely sated, for gold, for gemstones, for precious metals. Their interests rarely conflicting with those of men, as they are loath to brave the open sky and even less the rollingly chaotic expanses of large bodies of water.
Typical adventuring age : 30 + 2d10 years
Height: 4’ + 2d4” *
Weight: 125 lb. + (* x 2d6) lb.
Size: Medium (d8 hitpoints)
Ability score adjusments: +2 to Constitution, +1 to Strength
Prime attribute: Constitution
Nadir attribute: Dexterity
- Darkvision 60’
- Worn armour does not impact a dwarf's encumbrance.
- Resistant to poison damage and at Advantage on saves against being poisoned.
- Dwarven combat training: proficiency with battleaxe, handaxe, throwing axe, warhammer, light and medium armour.
- Stonecunning: mastery on all Intelligence or Wisdom checks related to mines, tunnels or stonework.
Dwindling in number, slow to mature and fiercely isolationist. The fair folk dwell in the fae-touched places, within deep woods and upon tall mountain spires, completely unsoiled by man or civilization, avoiding contact with the outside world. Their hedonistic, unknowable ways coupled with the hauteur of the gifted shaping a civilization with a siege mentality, as elven presence is encroached upon on all fronts by the multitude of lesser spawn of the gods, which has these self-styled exemplars of creation marked for doom. An ancient rift has further split their number onto two distinct lineages, the grey elves, who took for theirs the rigid demeanour of the mountains they settled, and the wild elves, fierce and unpredictable as the shooting growths of the verdant primeval forests they inhabit.
Alignment: Lawful (grey) or Chaotic (wild)
Typical adventuring age: 40 + 2d20 years
Height: 4’6” + 2d10” *
Weight: 95 lb. + (* x 2d4) lb.
Size: Medium (d8 hitpoints)
Ability score adjusments: +2 to Dexterity, +1 to Intelligence.
Prime attribute: Dexterity
Nadir attribute: Constitution
- Low-light vision 60’ (dim light counts as bright)
- Keen senses: proficient in the Perception skill.
- Fey ancestry: Advantage against charm, sleep and paralysis magic.
- Elven weapon training: proficiency with the longsword, shortsword, shortbow, and longbow.
- May innately cast a level 0 spell once per day (randomly determined at chargen).
- Can attempt to hide when lightly obscured by foliage, heavy rain, falling snow, mist, and other natural phenomena.
Gnomes are the scarcest of demihumans. Possessed of a nature verging on the utterly magical, touched by but a few aspects of the human condition. They form communities in a loose sense of the word, with kiths of a handful of individuals living in symbiotic proximity with both mankind and other worldly animals. They are strongly associated with places of dwelling, abandoned or otherwise, often lairing unseen amid the beams and nooks of the homes of unwitting benefactors with whom they share living arrangements, struck in indirect and haltingly ritualized fashion, but otherwise having few dealings with its prosaic inhabitants, while being attracted to the innocent and impressionable, drawn by their sense of wonder.
Age: 30 + 2d12 years
Height: 2’11” + 2d4” *
Weight: 35 lb. + (*) lb.
Size: Small (d6 hitpoints)
Ability score adjusments: +2 to Intelligence, +1 to Dexterity.
Prime attribute: Intelligence
Nadir attribute: Strength
- Darkvision 30’
- Advantage on all mental saving throws against magic.
- May innately cast Minor Illusion once per day.
- Can become invisible for a few minutes once per day (Effect lasts until a "1" is rolled on the proficiency die, checked once per minute, concentration required).
- Through sounds and gestures, can communicate simple ideas with Small or smaller beasts.