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

Thursday, February 08, 2024

How many races/species?

I've been obsessing over Barsoom and thinking of "my own Carcosa" setting again...

I dislike there are so many colors of men with so little detail about each one - they are "suspicious" of each other for no apparent reason. Well, maybe that is the point - similarly to John Carter, the PCs are destined to unify different people under a single banner.

I recently wrote a post about some "clans", which I might use as inspiration to distinguish different communities.

But how many races should I have in my own setting? I'm certainly tired of elves, dwarves, orcs and hobbits, but maybe we can replace them...

Let's try to get at least seven different concepts.

First, we have:

- Humans.
- Superior/magical/advanced humans (e.g., Atlantes, X-men, Witchers, John Carter in Barsoom, some Elves, etc.)
- Strong/big humans (e.g., dwarves or goliaths)
- Small/weak humans (e.g., hobbits).

So, humans, elves, dwarves, basically. We could add "evil" axis: orcs are strong and evil, goblins are short and evil, etc. But I don't think inherently evil creatures to be suited for PCs. And, if they aren't inherently evil, the difference is usually only cultural/aesthetic.

"Superior humans" are a problem for games where the PCs should be balanced. OD&D solves this by requiring elves more XP to level up, etc. Likewise, "inferior humans" (e.g., gully dwarves, kobolds) can be a problem for the same reason.

These four basic groups represent most common PC races. But there are also:

- Hybrids (including human-beast hybrids).
- Aliens.
- Artificial humans.

I wrote about hybrids here. One problem is that they are either so common as to feel human, or so uncommon to make role-playing harder. Usually, they behave like humans, or as "divided" people looking for their place.

Of course, for this "divided" angle to work, there must be a clear distinction between the two "halves".

Human-beast hybrids (e.g., Tabaxi) make me a bit uneasy in world that have actual beasts. Is a tiger-man a cross between a tiger and a human, or something else entirely? What are their relation to tigers? The more feline characteristics you add, the stranger it becomes. Which is why I might prefer blue tiger-people and wingless bird-people (e.g., kenku).

Alien PCs are doable. We often fall on the hybrid problem, but at least their physiology can be different enough to provide some role-playing challenges. For example, being unable to speak or use human weapons/armor.

Likewise for artificial humans (including robots, golems, clones, etc.). Like hybrids, they might have an interesting "find myself" quest, to prove they have souls and maybe can find a way to reproduce. Or just display some challenging non-human characteristics (e.g., no sense of self-preservation).

Finally, there are near humans: red martians, zabrak, etc. Except for the visuals, it is hard to make them interesting. Some cultural differences might help, but even non-"medieval european" customs feel unmistakably  human (e.g., Spartan or Aztec cultures).

I wonder if there are ever only three races: human-like, half-human, and mostly alien. In Barsoom, most humanoids races are indistinguishable from humans, and John Carter repeatedly disguises as one of them. The exception are the four-armed Green Martians. The only "inhuman" beings are apes, plant people, and similar creatures of lesser intelligence.

In "The Witcher", there are humans, elves (dwarves are of the same origin IIRC), Witchers and monsters. 

In Fallout, humans, mutants and androids. 

The Broken Sword has humans on one side, and elves/trolls in "fairyland". Howard and Lieber barely mention non-human humanoids (even Cimmerians are rare in Howard's stories).

In Star Wars, again, characters are mostly human, while different species are portrayed by single individuals (e.g., Chewbacca, Yoda, Darth Maul). There are no distinct "races".

Tolkien might be the only one who was able to create actual distinct "peoples" that are not human, and I am not sure this works in other settings (but it might - I am enticed by Ravnica, for example, although - again - most important characters are human).

Anyway, just a few random thoughts for now, will continue working on it.


  1. It's serendipitous that you posted this, because I was just the other day kicking around similar ideas for the inhabitants of my own version of a Mars/Barsoom/Carcosa-like "other world." The notion I arrived at to really hit home how distinct this world is from the more standard fantasy one my players are familiar with is to invert the human and demihuman classes—the basic "human" classes would be analogous to elves, dwarves, and halflings (something along the lines of mystics, cyborgs, and vagabonds respectively), with four alien/demihuman race-classes that would more or less map to fighters, thieves, clerics, and MUs. The question though, as you point out, is just how human or inhuman the alien species should be. I have no real conclusion for now, but I think it's a compelling topic! Interested to see how you'll develop this idea.

    1. Neat! I like the idea of having humans as secondary or absent.

      I cannot help the feeling that having too many unique races dilutes the whole thing - as much as I like them.

      The Barsoom/Carcosa formula of similar but different humanoids could work well. I think they need some cultural difference (e.g., red men in Barsoom can't swim), but then again cultural differences can happen WITHIN a species...

      Not sure where to go with this, but will keep trying!

    2. Dang, I love the idea of inverting the basic classes like that. I'm REALLY curious about what kind of races you'll build out of the human classes.

  2. I've been messing around with a sci-fantasy setting lately, and I went back and forth over the whole how-many-playable-races issue for a while. For a while, I planned to limit the PCs to humans only (for a very broad Gamma World / Dark Sun / Carcosa definition of "human") in order to emphasize the weirdness of everything else in the setting. But then I remembered how sad it was that D&D had dragon people back in the early '80s, but didn't let you play 'em until the '00s.

    So right now I'm looking at a maximalist PC origin plan, where I've got "baseline" humans (that are actually the wildly diverse brightly colored folks), various abhuman types (big, little, wilderness, subterranean, and winged), straight-up humanoid animal folks (I won't bother building individual species for this option), and robots!

    Anyway, I've gone and made a lot of work for myself. I'm gradually filling the setting out as part of a post-a-day thing that some folks are doing over on Mastodon, and throwing it all in a Google doc: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1mOjMkx2z3NEr6UsyOS6880fyhivHe4qbULs7GAZlE1w/edit?usp=sharing

    1. Lots of cool stuff in this doc! Gibbleins, morlocks and mega-beasts, oh yeah!

      I like letting my players choose what species they wanna be, so here is one solution:


      So, if you wanna limit the number of "races", just let your players pick first and build the world with their choices in mind.

    2. Oh yeah, I remember that post! I love that idea! It's a great solution to both the kitchen sink amorphousness of D&D 5e and the lack of detail in the Carcosa races. And generally speaking, I think designing a whole setting around the PC choices—races and classes too!—is a cool idea.