I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Diluting the dichotomy

Another random thought about races/species (such as elves, dwarves, etc.). Continued from my last post (see also "additional reading"). 

(I might get a bit repetitive, sorry.)

I have a feeling that having innumerable races (elves + hobbits +tabaxi + tieflings) just dilutes the whole concept on "demi-humans".

All demi-humans are created in comparison (and opposition) to humans.

Human/faerie is a strong dichotomy (e.g., in The Broken Sword).

A trichotomy becomes weaker, and again with each new element.

Of course, in TBS there is also an elf/troll dichotomy, but both are contrasted to humans as "aliens". They are, in a way, equidistant to humans, but closer to one another.

Notice that TBS is about characters that are right in the middle of this human/faerie dichotomy.

Likewise, in A Princess of Mars, the dichotomy is between the red and green Martians. The red are unmistakably more human, but in the end, our (human) protagonist is caught between the two.

[In the subsequent books, we get humans of different colors: white, black, yellow, but each with a different culture (cannibalistic, pirates, domed cities, primitive, etc.). This is an interesting distinction, but cultural differences do not a different species make. We also get a few additional interesting humanoids, but I don’t find them as interesting as green Martians. You can check them here].

What about Tolkien? He was able to create great stories with humans, hobbits, elves, orcs, dwarves, ents... Still, there is an obvious dichotomy here too: good and evil. Humans can align with both, but most orcs align with Sauron, and Elves against him.

In Moorcock's Elric, the dichotomy is between Law and Chaos, and Elric gets caught up in the middle. The "races" are not as important here, except for the fact that Melniboneans are traditionally aligned to Chaos.

[This Law/Chaos dichotomy would separate the many species of original D&D in a strong dichotomy, but it is worth noticing that Moorcock contains some additional nuance, as mentioned in the link; Law/Chaos are not exactly Good/Evil].

In The Witcher books, there are humans and "Elder Races" (dwarves, elves, etc.). Geralt is a human turned mutant, and he often finds himself in the middle of this dichotomy.

In addition to this dichotomy idea, the fact that other species are interesting in comparison to humans makes them more interesting if they are rare

A Green Martian is a strange sight for John Carter, but wouldn't stand out walking in Ravnica between the elephant-people, minotaurs, blue elves and goblins with jetpacks.

In Ravnica, these "demihumans" aren't strange. Instead, the world is strange.

Another (counter) example is the D&D Honor Among Thieves movie. Simon is a half-elf. What difference does it make? None. Doric is a tiefling, and this explain some of her motivations (she was shunned by humans and accepted by elves). She was shunned because of her “demonic heritage”. But that heritage does nothing. She has no business with demons or demonic powers and traits, and the only difference in her appearance are small horns. She might as well have been rejected for being a red-head or left-handed.

How does Star Wars movies manage to get a few non-humans to work? First, they are individuals. The “wookie” race is an afterthought for Chewbacca. Second, they are non-human every time they appear. Chewbacca and R2-D2 do not utter one word the audience can understand. C-3PO’s reminds us every minute he is an android with his actions, tone, etc.

Too create "my own Barsoom", I still have to decide:

- Can different peoples create viable offspring? Or at least have diverse communities?
- If positive, how are they different?
- Does your species affect your stats? Or customs?
- Is it common for different peoples to adventure together?
- How does appearance affect reaction rolls?
- Can the PCs discover "secret communities", like Carter often does, if they are part of the same people?

Once again, I have no solutions for now, just random thoughts.

Additional reading:


  1. The Talislanta pic is a great one for this topic, as an example of a more or less "Star Wars" style setting vis-a-vis alien "races". One important note about Talislanta is that race/culture is strongly tied to class/profession, much like early-edition D&D with race-as-class. Talislanta typically offered 1-3 templates per culture, often with very idiosyncratic class options for a given culture. There are no Wookie Jedi. There are no Yoda-guy fighter pilots. This is clearly the correct way to run things from an RPG standpoint, and the AD&D idea of "race x class" is a recipe for bland, homogeneous settings that eventually converge on "chaotic neutral half-orc/half-halfling paladin" thematic incoherence.

    I'd note that Star Wars handles aliens in several ways, which works very well for colorful storytelling in a fantastical setting:

    1. Sui generis individuals that embody strong archetypes: Chewbacca the shaggy monster, Yoda the wrinkled ascetic hermit, R2D2 the cute-but-spunky child.

    2. Collective communities of primitives: Jawas, Tusken Raiders, Eewoks.

    3. Multi-cultural tableaus of outlandish different types: Mos Eisley, Jabba's retinue, Bespin and the Rebellion (especially in RotJ) to some degree.

    These three distinct uses of "aliens" in Star Wars provide a pretty good template for how to use "races" in fantasy settings.

    1. That's a great break down Star Wars alien types! I think you've nailed it.

      A Princess of Mars, on the other hand, menace to have individuals in addition to communities - but no multicultural havens.

      I was never a big fan of race as class, but considering it from this angle I have to admit that it does make race actually meaningful and not just cosplay.

      Maybe level limits for certain classes would provide a similar, if somewhat weaker, effect.

  2. I'm just starting a game where the dichotomy is humans vs nonhumans. It's 5e because my group is addicted to it, but with a setting somewhat inspired by books like Stardust or Abhorsen, with a border between a fairly modern normal world of humans and a fantasy land of miscellaneous D&D races. I've added some rules to emphasise this binary - all nonhumans find modern technology much harder to access and understand, humans are much less knowledgeable about fantasy matters, etc. Hopefully it should give a bit more of a feeling of "other" to even the most generic fantasy races, while still leaving them entertainingly diverse... we'll see how it works out in practice.

    1. Yes, this seems like a good idea: give them many possibilities but leave a clear distinction between humans and nonhumans.