On Losing Race

I fully support your half-dragon/half-gnome bard illusionist in my game.

I just think you're stupid for wanting to play that.

There are no literary pretensions to role-playing games - they are most importantly games focused around sitting in a room spending time with people you like.

So if playing a cat person or dragon person is what makes you happy, I should be ok with that.

I should point out that I do not run games of the modern mindset of the 'my precious encounter' theory of game design. The characters are pieces in the sense that they are avatars for your interaction in the world, but not pieces as literal pieces on a game board where the entire focus of the evening is on tactical play. Though that can be awesome fun, and the issue I'm talking about is pretty much a non-issue for miniatures games and 4e/3e tactical style play. 

For games that include some verisimilitude it does in fact become an issue. What is the fascination with non-humans as player characters?

They are, by definition of being non-human, universally less interesting as characters.

What is the fascination with playing a non-human race? Is it the desire to do something different? If so why do the same thing over and over again? (That thing being playing a weird-non human race)

Is it the power and the bonuses? I would gladly let any human just take whatever bizarre racial package bonuses you are talking about and try to explain it away (making for a much more interesting human).

I don't like having to say no to players and their fun. If what makes them happy is playing a weird animal person, then more power to them, (in fact I had to use 'weird animal person' there because any example I gave would apply to some current or past player who reads this blog). But what is being communicated to me is "I plan on playing a very uninteresting character".

Clearly the solution is to play a system that restricts such things such as Labyrinth Lord or Lamentations of the Flame Princess, though even in the Labyrinth Lord game, one of my players asked for a different kind of elf.

I have been giving this a lot of thought lately, because it is my openness to player choice that has caused me such difficulties in creating a coherent setting. Part of this could be addressed I think by being able to create that coherent setting and allowing people to play someone 'from the Spanish place' or 'the french place'.

30 comments:

  1. I feel you, brother.

    It's one of the reasons I excised non-humans from the game I'm developing. It's not that I don't see the attraction of playing a lizardman or a catman or whatever, it's that when people do, they expect that the mere fact of their unusual race is enough to give them a passable character. It's not.

    Playing Beardfist McGruff is not interesting. Playing Dainty Del Elfo is not interesting. Why people would think playing Stock Standard Monster Race as a player character is interesting is absolutely beyond me.

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  2. Forgive me for making this comparison and some serious speculation...

    The Conan MMO failed quite spectacularly in no small part because all you had to play was humans from location A, B, C, or D. In playing the beta test for the Star Wars MMO, everybody is a "human" with different skin colors, but effectively everybody is the same size, shape and style - boring, especially in a visually stimulating game.

    Now look at World of Warcraft, the visuals are cartoony, the interface is 6+ years old, the combat style is elementary, despite losing 10's, 100's, 1000's of players daily, they are still the 800 lbs. (maybe 700) elephant - why? Different races that look radically different and give players a chance to step outside of themselves.

    In a tabletop game, the visuals are in your head and to take away that internal visual is to take away something that many people love. So why should the GM care whether I'm a "dwarf" or a 4 foot pudgy human with lots of hair and a drinking problem?

    Crap out of time, more to come.

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  3. People I’ve played with that balked at playing human have told me this: They want to play a character as different from themselves as possible. I could argue about whether that holds water or not, but even if it didn’t, it wouldn’t change the fact that they do have strong feelings about this even if they can’t explain why.

    For myself, I suppose I tend to play a non-human when I think it fits with the character I want to play. I’d still play the same character as a human if necessary, and most of my characters have been human. Sometimes, though, I do it for a nifty ability when there is one.

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  4. Nobody's RPG character is some subtle and masterfully written insight into the human condition. You start out by throwing a bunch of stats and maybe a few broad archetypes together, then you go adventuring, usually building up a distinct personality as you go. Character race is one more archetype you can riff off of while you're playing.

    You say nonhumans are necessarily less interesting, but you didn't explain why. Why is Blandy McNoface, human fighter, necessarily any more interesting than Blandy McNoface, dwarven fighter?

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  5. I'm not sure I'm buying the "non-humans are inherently less interesting" route.

    Falling back on genre works - Star Trek's Kira, Odo, Worf, Data, and Spock are all non-humans. They are some of the most compelling characters on their respective shows (c'mon, Spock was the star of TOS even though Shatner got top billing). A large part of their compelling nature was seeing how their unique backgrounds wound up interacting with the dominant "Federation" culture.

    Now, it's true that the bulk of these characters have a strong connection to humanity. Spock was half-human, Data wanted to become human, Worf was raised by humans, Odo wound up imitating humans...they all had some way of relating to human culture in a mixed way, partially as outsider and partially as a member.

    To me, the answer is less "PC race ought to be limited mechanically, in order to provoke more interesting characters*," and more "players should be strongly encouraged to seriously consider how a character's background and culture alter their world outlook." Yes, even for a 1st-level character who's likely going to get shanked by a kobold.

    *That was my takeaway from your post - if I'm mischaracterizing, apologies!

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  6. I prefer to play humans; however my guys prefer non humans. Either way it's still dudes sitting around the table pretending to be someone they are not. Being human doesn't make you automatically interesting either. Being interesting is what makes you interesting. I certainly don't think they are 'stupid' for having a preference that differs from mine.

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  7. I just don't buy that demi-humans are automatically uninteresting characters. I think how it is handled in the setting and as the player will make it interesting. Look at Dragon Age- those are interesting takes on demi-humans and their situations.

    In the end I don't think any race is inherently more or less interesting, but what the player does with their character.

    As far as a cohesive world/setting is concerned, at character creation the DM states what races are available or not. Right from the get go this rule is expressed and people can't argue with it.

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  8. Wish fulfillment. I think this post (and the comments) nail it.

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  9. yeah, I'll join the chorus of "defend that statement" - fantasy characters are inherently boring. Genre characters are boring. Pretending to be something you're not is boring. Furries, of course, are bored all the time.

    Some of my own most memorable characters have been non-human, although mostly in sf games - personally dwarves, elves and such don't interest me much. But I've had fun playing robots and meerkats and a sentient fluid and a giant octopus alien that needed a spacesuit full of water to get around. I've got a laugh out of the gang by playing a Mon Calamari and, when someone handed me binoculars, holding them up to my ear. Is that less interesting than chainmail and a longsword?

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  10. oh wait, you did ask a question in there: why play a non-human? My answer is essentially "exploration:" to see what they can do, how the world looks different through those eyes, what options are available. Sometimes, if the world has something like an ecology, to see where that puzzle piece fits.

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  11. There has been a definite power creep in the game over the years from the original humanocentric version to today's D&D/Superheroes mash-up.

    Originally the game tried to bring balance and prevent the extinction of humans as a character class by using level and class restrictions for demi-humans, but along with the "evolution" of the game the benefits of being demi-human have become so lopsided that they massively outweigh any negatives.

    I think any DM wishing to reverse the trend while still giving his players the galaxy of non-human choices, should consider introducing much more severe penalties for non being nonhuman - tip the scales the other way. And of course this doesn't just have to be game mechanics. Culturally, in a human world non-humans are at the very least going to be discriminated against (minimum wage jobs, refused service, etc.) and at worst hunted down as a monstrosity. Instead of being humans with pointy ears, make demi-humans the unnatural freaks they really are in a human world. :-)

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  12. If it wasn't explicit, since there's some question; the non-human races are less interesting because instead of actually trying to take on a role they let the 'bizarro race' do the heavy lifting for them.

    They don't bother to actually make their character different.

    They just figure since they look like a weird whatever here that's all they need to do.

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  13. @Wrath of Zombie - Dragon age is the exact opposite of the situation I present!

    There are 4 cohesive fantasy races to choose from and each has very specific, strong, cultural styles. They all fit within the world, and someone deciding to play an elf is also choosing all the cultural baggage and detritus that goes along with that.

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  14. That is to say, perhaps my problem is the lack of a cohesive setting as much as it is players wanting to play ant men.

    What the issue really really is about is the pull between a cohesive setting and the authoritative stance necessary for that(Only these races!) versus letting players bring what they want to the table.

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  15. Cohesive setting / world.
    Fixed identity / character.

    These concepts are illusions in this post-modern world [along with closed & totalizing systems for that matter, which may explain part of our constant negotiations with the rules of the game]. Sustainable & satisfying games will end up reflecting the manner our own world is comprised rather than the way we desire the world to be... just sayin'.
    I have found the most interesting non-human characters to be those that were role played against the general conventions of the D&D fantasy genre: alcoholic assassin gnomes, bloodthirsty racist elves, surfer wizard dwarves etc. I think it is exactly because these races carry some extra & specific cultural baggage in Vanilla Fantasy - which is a cohesive setting if I ever saw one - that they lend themselves more easily to interesting characterization when they are played against type.
    If the game setting is a sandbox which emerges during play then we might as well allow the players to play with character as a sandbox as well.
    Also, player characters are adventurers; they have left the farm at home & struck out on their own. In this way, they would be rather different from the more conservative NPCs of any attempted cohesive setting.
    Whenever I have developed anything resembling a cohesive setting, my players have spent all their game time hacking away at it & transforming it their image anyhow.

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  16. @David Macauley

    My experience has been that AD&D is the only D&D where I end up being the only human in the party. That generally hasn’t been the case in WotC’s 3e. And the majority of PCs have been human in the B/X and LL games I’ve run. (I haven’t played enough of WotC’s 4e to comment on it, though.)

    @-C

    Yeah. I’m constantly struggling with wanting to impose restrictions to give a certain feel to the setting versus allowing the players to have full co-creation reign.

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  17. I'm a firm believer in restricting races players can play. Discovering the "ecology" of a race and how it fits in is best done through adventuring and exploring, rather than dishing out background information to a player.

    Making non-humans playable is a LOT more work for a DM.

    http://shatterworldbts.blogspot.com/2011/11/what-races-are-in-your-campaign-and.html

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  18. -C said:

    They all fit within the world, and someone deciding to play an elf is also choosing all the cultural baggage and detritus that goes along with that.

    I'd like to add to that. I think non-humans can make some of the best player characters, but only if the player makes the effort to embrace the foreign culture component of it. Non-humans in RPGs are like social commentary in Sci-Fi/Fantasy; they are opportunities to tease out real life cultural/social arrangements from a different perspective. I think non-humans are the hardest to role play because to do it well, you really have to immerse yourself in another culture, and if you don't your PCs simply turn into "Elf Guy." I think if a player and GM sit down and really collaborate initially on the culture surrounding the PC, and the PC comes away inspired, it can make for a very compelling character.

    But I agree, most of the time, the non-human choice leads to Elf Guy...

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  19. My approach to balance some players' desires to play non-humans and my desire to present a world that looks less like a freak show is this: We started the campaign with the default limitations, but as players discover and befriend more cultures, future player characters can opt to be of that race. Thus, at the moment it is possible to play a goblin and a kobold (from the specific communities they befriended).

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  20. @C Are we talking about "bizarro races" or all non-human races?

    Pretty much everyone who plays D&D knows the archetypal fantasy dwarf. As I said, during play as their character develops naturally they can play off that archetype, matching it in some ways and deviating from it in others. If they were playing a human they wouldn't be building their character in a vacuum, they'd more than likely just use a different set of inspirations to fill that particular gap; possibly less well-known ones, but not necessarily more interesting.

    The reason weird races like "dragonborn" or whatever are boring is because they don't present any clear/strong racial archetype to work from, so if a player tries to use their character's race as the base to build their personality from it falls a bit flat. A strong cultural identity fixes that, as long as the player is hooked into it.

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  21. @John:

    The last time I ran a game back in September, I had a Drow (who was nixed from playing a half-dragon) A Grippli, A Kobold, A Pixie Farie, two Gnomes, and a Dwarf. The Kobold was originally planned to be a chitne. (Those are spider people). There was one human at the start of the game but he dropped out.

    This is pretty close to the breakdown of any party I've ever played with. One human. Tops. The only humans I can recall seeing in the last 3 years were a monk, a cavalier, and double specialists - all of which require human as a race and every single one of those people asked to be a different race before finding out that it was human only.

    @Alex - that's a pretty brilliant solution.

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  22. Hahaha, what the hell? Okay, that's not what I was picturing at all. I've never had that problem. I have no idea what's going on there.

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  23. @-C and John,

    Wow! John's right, that's pretty ridiculous. I didn't realize your PCs are constantly going non-human bananas. That's overkill.

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  24. How does a party of monsters get anything done? They can't go into town, they'd get run off. Do they camp out in the wilderness and send the gnomes in to buy supplies? How would that work long-term in anything but a megadungeon campaign? Even then it seems like a huge pain in the arse, they must fight a lot of wandering monsters at night. Do the monster players get bored sitting on their thumbs while the demihumans handle absolutely any human social interaction? I'm having trouble seeing how a party like that could be anything but a huge obstacle to the players. It would be fun to try once, but afterwards I would have expected them to go back to mostly human characters.

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  25. I believe it is assumed that the town is cosmopolotian.

    The point being, that they want to play whatever they want to play because they are not concerned at all with internal consistancy - that, and the various literary pretensions associated with limiting player choice being eliminated by DIY empowerment. It should be clear that all avaiable (30 or so) races were decided before the game by vote.

    The vote was "Are these monsters or are these civilizations with culture". The intent was to have various cultures around - the result is anyone played anything they could justify.

    I am pro-player choice and fun and letting them do what they want, it's just the extremeness of the above situation has made me want to address it in a blog post seeking reasons that no one has given me yet.

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  26. You'd have to ask your players for those reasons, the next time they ask to play a weird non-human race. Their answers are the ones that matter most, after all.

    To be honest, to me, which player races are available comes under the heading of "setting design", which is not an area where total player freedom is beneficial. The DM is necessarily working from a human baseline. If the players deviate significantly from that baseline, it makes the DM's job harder, which makes the game less fun for everyone.

    I would restrict the player races to just those in the PH, or a similar core group, of which humans ideally should be the most attractive choice mechanically. That way, when a player picks a non-human race, it'll be out of genuine interest and not just for game bonuses. If a player wanted to play a different race, I'd treat it the same way as a player wanting to create a new class: I'd talk to them about it, find out what it was they wanted that they felt they couldn't get from one of the existing races, and try to work something out that would satisfy everyone involved. Or I'd use Alex's suggestion, which is excellent.

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  27. Here’s something I’d forgotten to mention. In one of my old groups we were playing GURPS. We had a lot of arguments about how some stuff in Fantasy Folk could be abused. I’d naively created a race that was “too good”, and another player had taken full advantage. In a later game, I limited how Fantasy Folk could be used, and that same player complained that he simply could not create the character he wanted to play under those restrictions. (Yeah, there may have been a maturity issue there, but I was young then too.)

    So, a third player—who almost never GM’d—decided to run a game. And since he was tired of our arguments about these things he said everyone could built there own race and use anything in Fantasy Folk to do so.

    And it was one of the most fun games I’ve ever played.

    I don’t really remember how much each of us may have played our characters as alien or as human-in-a-funny-costume. I know mine was primarily about putting together a flexible and synergistic set of abilities. (And really, why would you be playing GURPS if you’re not going to be playing that way?)

    Despite that, I still have a hard time saying “anything goes”.

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  28. I've been toying with the idea of my next game not allowing human PCs. Why? I'm thinking of setting the game in the time before humans were the common race, when Dwarves and Elves were at war with each other and the savage races. Humans are little more than barbarians and shamans who the other races view as hairless apes.

    Then, as the story progresses, have the PCs be forced to deal with the developing humans as a legitimate force and culture - thus forcing the issue of Dwarves actually being Dwarves and Elves actually being Elves, not just the previously stating short, hairy humans or humans with pointy ears.

    I think the key is getting a solid background for the players to work from instead of letting them fill in the blanks.

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  29. As someone who likes to play non-humans, I can tell you my own interests started out in the "what cool powers can I get" department, and gradually shifted toward "how can I play jazz on this standard concept".

    For me, and for a lot of folks it sounds like, non-humans can be a stereotype to explore the nuances of, or to play against, or use as the basis for another concept. Instead of being just that quirky character who does things a certain way, your PC comes from an entire culture where this is the norm, so there's more justification.

    Now, it's certainly possible that "the guy who always plays an elf" may not really be delving into character/cultural development to your liking, may just be playing a human with infra-vision and pointy ears. And there could be a couple reasons for this:

    * Maybe he does want just a couple specific cool powers provided by elfy-ness (heck, just having pointy ears might strike someone as cool), and choosing to actually be an elf is the way he can easily justify it via rules as written.

    You may be open to customizing characters through non-RAW means. But in a player's mind requiring any discussion with the DM to justify an unusual ability during character creation can be just another opportunity to be told "No" or "That's pretty implausible given the setting", which is a let-down when you have your eyes on that cool power.

    Yes the DM can always overrule RAW. But in a player's mind (say a player planning for a hypothetical game with a group they haven't met yet) compatibility with RAW provides at least a moderate expectation that a concept they're imagining might be acceptable.

    * Kind of along these same lines: maybe elf-guy plays elves because there's something he feels they should be able to do, or some neat thing he thinks he should be able to line up with his elfy abilities, and his ideas in this regard have been thwarted in the past so he keeps playing hoping for the chance. Or there's a specific neat use made of a similar character previously that he's hoping to relive. Or a certain character type is a comfortable niche to come home to.

    * Alternately maybe elf-guy really wants to play up the exotic (or "badass" or "iconic" as the case may be) aspect of elf outlook and culture, but is just not really great at imagining much beyond his own human limitations. Shades of the "high charisma score" discussions I'm sure (i.e. should you be allowed to play a character with social or mental stats you don't possess IRL, what about a worldview you have a tough time replicating).

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  30. I'm not sure which actions are most prudent to take, but a few ideas come to mind:

    + If players want to try a new race make them come up with some social or behavioral implications as to what this would entail. After discussion occasionally remind them if they start to ignore these implications.

    + If a player seems stuck in a rut, always playing the same type of race/class ask why. Try and get them to really dig into their own motivations. If they want to enact a certain moment with that race/class, try to set them up to do so. If they want to explore some behavioral or cultural quirk, then set up opportunities and coach them into the role they've chosen. Maybe they'll move on after getting what they want.

    + Or if they just seem stuck in a non-human rut because it's all they know, then you could just force their hand if you think it would ultimately give you all more enjoyment.

    + If they just want the cool powers (or just pointy ears) and don't care about the unique social aspects of playing a non-human, then you have to decide if twinkishness is enough justification for the character choice, or if you're going to make them earn those powers the hard way (e.g. spell research or cosmetic surgery).

    + As an extreme alternative you could just have some grand justification for why weird races are walking around with cool powers, some with their own unique cultures, some without. White Wolf did this to varying degrees with their various fae-themed games, most notably Dark Ages: Fae, though also the two modern Changeling incarnations.

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