Fantasy Without THE Fantasy Races

 Posted by on September 22, 2015  Filed as: World-Building  Add comments
Sep 222015

Elf“Let me tell you about my new fantasy roleplaying setting, it has a nation of artistic and noble Elves that live in hidden fortresses deep in old growth forests, to the north are the ancient Dwarven strongholds carved deep into the mountains, along the coast are the 20 human kingdoms, built upon the ruins of an empire that fell thousands of years before recorded history began…” blah, blah, blah…

If you’ve been roleplaying in fantasy games for a long time, there comes a point when the stereotypical fantasy structures overwhelm you with just how boring they are.  These standard themes are great, and have worked wonderfully for generations of people, but even the best story loses its luster in the re(re-re-re-re)telling.

Oh, but my Elves HATE trees and are dark Sorcerers bent on enslaving all other races, and my Dwarves have abandoned the mountains and ply the Five Frigid Oceans in their Obsidian Longboats!  Sorry, even adding “a twist of lemon” to the old standards doesn’t make them fresh and new after a while.  Sure, putting a twist to the usual is a worthwhile method and it will freshen up an overly familiar genre, but after a handful of such settings even these alternates become too predictable.

So what’s a jaded greybeard to do?  One response I will explore here, is to throw out all the usual fantasy roleplaying setting races, choose completely different races, and then explore what different cultures and adventure scenarios evolve from it.

Other fantasy racesFirst, we need to decide one important detail.  While it’s all very well and fine to toss out the Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, and such, what about Humans?  There are two main schools of thought on this.  One side asserts that all races are equal in importance, while the other holds that Humans are vital to a setting as a baseline perspective from which us real world Humans can interact.  This second belief helps explain why most fantasy or science fiction stories have the “small town boy” Human as the central figure of the narrative.  I am putting ALL races to the axe, so bye-bye Humans as a comprehension crutch.  This does mean some players will feel lost as they look for the familiar oasis of normalcy from which to venture out into the new setting.  Oh well, suck it up.  This exercise presupposes experienced players who are fed up with the safe or familiar.

One could create entirely unique races.  I’ve done this over the years and it is quite enjoyable – it is also very time-consuming to do well and does raise the bar considerably in asking most GMs to craft an entire settings-worth of all new races from scratch.  Let’s take a shortcut and browse through the Pathfinder SRD bestiary (for those of our studio audience playing along at home).  This page presents monsters in a variety of ways, including sorted by terrain, so lets pick suitable races for five different terrains.  I’ll go with Coastline, Desert, Forests, Jungle, and Mountains.  This doesn’t mean the setting only contains those five terrains, any setting worth playing in will include most terrain types.  Also, these PC races won’t be rigidly confined to their terrains of origin.  Just as Dwarves are allowed to leave their Mountains, so too will our new races exist outside their “homelands”.

In Coastline the most appealing to me is the Kijimuna which is a short-lived race (15 years!) of chaotic neutral tricksters with a magical ability to “call” non-magical fire to themselves, and a racial talent for fishing. Their average stats are all 10 or higher, so players have no cause to feel outclassed physically.  Their extremely short lifespan can actually create unique situations for the setting, adventure creation, and player behaviours.  How often does the average player get to play several generations of their starting PCs family?  With the Kijimuna, it may become a common trend.

Okay, the choices in Desert are limited to a giant bug or a four-armed giant.  Thankfully, the giant in question is pretty cool.  The grey-skinned, 12 foot tall, nomadic barbarian Shobhad are a proud race with very strong beliefs.  Their culture description is just stuffed with adventure hooks waiting to be explored.  Plus, who wouldn’t want to ride into battle atop a giant lizard mount waving two Longswords in two arms and shooting off two special Shobhad Longrifles in your other hands!

The Grippli is an excellent choice for Forests, there is even a 3rd party product which details them further.  These two-foot tall sentient tree frogs have a wide array of abilities and can easily be developed in interesting way.  Just being egg-laying, tree-dwellers should be enough to give you ideas for making their culture and perspective on life and the world amply interesting and different.

After reviewing the Mountain themed creatures, I was drawn to a pair of races.  The Syrinx and the Strix just scream with potential for both adventure and setting development.  The Syrinx are an evil race of owl-men who outwardly portray themselves as contemplative scholars dedicated to art and philosophy, while in reality they have a deep abiding hatred for all non-winged races, with a long-term goal of enslaving them all.  The Strix are a race of tall black-skinned humanoids with a vaguely bat or feline like face and enormous black feathered wings.  They are distrustful of all wingless races, but are not innately evil.  While they do live in independent groups, they are most commonly seen as warriors and slave masters for the Syrinx who long ago magically created them.  Imagining the interactions between these two races and the others thus far suggests many potential and actual conflicts rife in campaign excitement.

Lastly, from the Jungles we have the Lashunta.  These humanoids look mostly like a Human, except they have antennae rising up from their foreheads and the males and females have very different physiques.  A fierce warrior people, yet they excel at scholarly pursuits.  Similar to the Shobhad, the Lashunta ride dinosaur mounts.  Oh, and they are natural telepaths with some magical and telekinetic abilities, too.


Technically, I could have chosen any group of races and gotten this far.  Gnolls, Medusa, Grimlock, Elan, and Githyanki would have done just as well.  The real magic is what you do next.  Just as with making anything, merely gathering together the raw ingredients isn’t enough.  Now you must combine and prepare them into a cohesive whole.  Adjust the racial stats to suit your campaign ideas, tweak and expand their cultures to give them more depth beyond their bestiary one-dimensionality.  When doing this, consider the innate natures or tendencies of each race.  How will they respond to the other races?  How will they be different from each other?  How do some of their defining physical traits affect their behaviour?  Gripplis are egg-layers, Kijimunas have very short lives, Shobhad have four arms, etc.  What the races are will influence them as much as who they are, use as many aspects as you can for inspiration.

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Spiralbound began imagining worlds at a very early age. Once he discovered roleplaying, his fate was sealed. Now he had a pseudo-legitimate justification for all his worldbuilding and compulsive research into every topic imaginable! When not toiling away at his real world profession, he can usually be found toiling away at his obsession of imagined worlds! During particularly wild and indulgent delusions of grandeur, Spiralbound hopes to one day be published with RPG and novel credits to his name. Profile Page / Article Portfolio

  5 Responses to “Fantasy Without THE Fantasy Races”

  1. This is certainly interesting, but I think it might be difficult for one to immerse themselves in such an alien setting. Can anyone suggest some games that have successfully designed such a setting/world? I’d certainly give it a shot.

    • You’re correct, it may be a challenge, however what makes such a compliment “alien” is that fantasy roleplaying has been (mostly) locked into the tolkienesque paradigm of Human, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling, with occasional add-ons such as Gnome, (half)Orc, etc. Unless we experiment, any other mix of races will ALWAYS feel alien and make us fear that the setting will be unplayable.

      There are several RPGs which do not use the standard races, although few within the fantasy genre. Games such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Star Frontiers, (and other sci-fi games which DON’T have the word “Star” in their title!), have used interesting alternate racial mixes. Off the top of my head, only The Skyrealms of Jorune comes to mind as a fantasy rpg with some decidedly nonstandard races.

      If anyone does design a setting using the example races from my article, I’d certainly enjoy reading it!

  2. Sounds like that setup would make interesting campaign and game world. But, personally, I want to know about the desert bugs . . .

    Still, good advice and food for thought. I stuck with the traditional species (mostly, no orcs,r goblins or other “evil” types) for ease of play and familiarity for players. But I have had games that had very restrictive and variant player options, though I have never banned humans.

  3. First, look up Talislanta. An OSR game that very famously used the tag line of ‘No Elves’. It is currently available for free downloads. See here:

    Second, one variation I saw that was interesting was a world of all humans, with none of the races. But there were humans who lived in the mountains and mined, using Dwarf stat lines, and tall humans who lived in the forests, using Elf stat lines, etc. You get my drift.

    Personally I like to throw a little twist: desert Elves, gypsy gnomes, etc. Not a huge difference from the norm, but just enough. Because those tropes exist for a reason, because we all know them.

  4. At Bedtime, I’ve been reading Percy Jackson to my son and he’s really into it. Because of that I’ve been playing around with a Sword and Sandles style setting to play with him in a 5e game. The current race list includes Cyclops, Talos, Fae, Satyr, Maenad, Typhon, Human, and Goblin. Most of them are just modifications off of the standard 5e races. Satyrs for instance use the Wood Elf as the base.

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