Race (Historical Aside)

Race is a sticky wicket. Even in a fantasy game, it can be fraught with preconceptions, era bias, and misconceptions. It can—and does—leak into our current political and social conversations about race.

I remember the hubbub when Star Trek: Voyager came out about Tuvok. These were followed by the stupid conversations about whether you could have hobbits played by actors that were not white, and even if Idris Elba could possibly be the next James Bond (he totally could, I would love to see that movie). It’s these often silly misconceptions, and lack of imagination that are the symptoms of the disease hampered absorbing race design in fantasy roleplaying games. And underlying it is the idea that race defines the axioms of a person rather than the possibilities of a character.

Let’s take the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st Edition) model of race, which may be one of the worst. First, they were called demihumans. This may seem an appropriate term for half-elves and half-orcs, but when saddle onto elves, gnomes, and dwarves you can tell that the first campaigns were human-centric. After all only humans would call something different, “half.” Worse still, unlike humans who could excel to unlimited heights in any class, the other races were severely limited in their progression. Of course, RPGs are a world of possibilities and heroism. So, will come to no surprise that many games that I played in and nearly every game that I ran such limitations (as well as the ability score limitations for female members of every race) saw those not-so-fun rules house-ruled into oblivion. As the game went into further iterations of development, those general house-rules became part of the core rules set.

While these changes from a 70s-era prejudice to a more postmodern mindset have been good for the game, I wanted to travel a little further in Delve. I wanted a race to be something that added possibilities to your character through its progression, not just a choice made during character genesis. While my own, always evolving ideas of a kind of social equity were one catalyst for those design goals, they were not the only ones. It was also just good design.


Working on this book definitely affected my thoughts and conceptions of race design in RPGs.

Back in 2011, I was given a rather herculean task for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. We had announced and were working on the Advanced Race Guide, a weighty tome that would give new options to various 0-level races for the Pathfinder RPG. The very end of that book would feature a race builder for Pathfinder. I took on the task of designing it and almost immediately regretted it.

I knew from the start that I wasn’t making a player tool for race design. That would be folly. We had seen what such a builder did with summoner eidolons, and this would have many more options. Instead, it was a tool for GMs to enhance their world with other races. Like any good designer, I set my benchmarks for designing a race with the core races (elves, dwarves, gnomes halflings Half-elves, half-orcs, and humans). After all, those were the races that have been out there for a long while. Those were the references that folks were used to. The problem was that even the core races were divergent in “power level.” I pieced together a rough scheme that took the baseline of the races overall and unleashed it to the playtesters. They were quick to point out some of the errors of my assumptions.

But you have to start somewhere. Through iteration, generous playtest feedback, and the help of all the good folks at Paizo, I created the scheme that is now in that book. Far from perfect,  it’s a potent tool to allow GM creation of new races and grants a relatively fair idea of how those races sit compared to the core races and the other races that are playable in Pathfinder but that are far stronger than the core races (aasimar, I’m looking at you). During its development, I posited the idea that if I had it all to do over again, I would design a scheme similar to the one in the race builder as the original design guide for race building. As the development of the new game advances, the design guide could be iterated. Eventually, it could be released as a similar—though far better—tool for GMs to build a bunch of peoples to populate their campaign world. It could also help expand published worlds with new and interesting folks to play and contend with.

But, when the glimmers of Delve started to formulate in my mind, I came up with another, and what I think is a better way, to do it. One that also achieved my initial goal of making race something that counts all through character progression. More about that when I return from OwlCon.


4 thoughts on “Race (Historical Aside)

  1. What races are you currently working with? Will they stay the traditional, or are you venturing out with unique or new(er) options?

    1. Right now I have the four main traditional races designed (dwarf, elf, halfling, and human). My current plan is to make the game OGL, which gives me a great deal of flexibility in future race design including some races I designed for Pathfinder. I’m especially interested in designing versions of the jinnborn and wyrwoods for Delve.

      My goals for Delve is to facilitate play in a grand multiverse with plenty of room for the new, different, and even downright strange, but it’s good to flesh out the fundamentals first.

Leave a Reply to neogrognard Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s