Making Races Interesting
Not all Races Should Be Humans With Bumpy Heads
Most of this is due to the fact that they were originally created with more of a Star Trek mindset in place. Which is to say they were all just different looking humans with recognizable cultures and attitudes, generally used to examine some Human element without being racists or slamming a specific culture. Like the way Klingons were used in classic Star Trek to examine the cold war with Russia, or the black and white painted face people were used to examine racism. Stick a different bumpy thing on their head (like giant ears) and give them a single prominent trait (like greed) and you have a Star Trek race (like the Ferengi).
The sad thing is that a lot of fantasy games seem to follow this theme, even though they have an opportunity to truly create some unique and different races for their worlds. I can forgive the standards of Elves and Dwarves, as well some others, but they have many more than just these in most games. Even the more animalistic or monstrous looking races still generally act like Humans with a certain prominent trait, like large wolf-men that act like the ancient Roman military or rat creatures that steal and collect valuables.
This method can be a good starting point for creating interesting races, but it shouldn't end there. Just look how varied and deep Humans are, even within the same culture. The races of the fantasy world should also be varied as well, at least deeper than a single common trait. I am trying to do this with mine and I would love to see others do better with it too.
Creating a deeper race can be a lot of work, but in the end it can really be worth it. It will give depth to your world and make players, characters, and pretty much everyone involved think more about what they are going to do and why. It makes the stories deeper and allows there to be many more layers worked into the plots and morals of the situations. The less predictability in the game the more you can usually get out of it.
When you have single-stroke races they don't have to think much about how they are going to react when they meet one. The old D&D standard of Orcs are evil and should be killed doesn't lead to much of a moral quandary or interesting plot line when the group comes across some Orcs walking the path. Usually a fight breaks out, the Orcs are killed, and experience points and treasure are had by all. Not much going on there.
Give the races more depth, varied cultures, multiple common or even just optional traits, sub-groups within the race that don't see eye to eye, and other aspects that make them less black and white. Make them think and act in ways that are truly not Human or at least common in our world. Create possible points of misunderstanding and friction that aren't just based on the simplistic "good vs. evil" framework.
Now have the group run across some of these beings walking the path. Anything can happen, based on past experiences with them, rumors, moral standpoints, racial biases, and more. Are they going to be trouble for the party? Are they going to attack? Are they peaceful travelers? Are they on the run from their own government? Who knows? They are not a black and white species and can actually be any of these things. The group actually has to think about it before they act.
This also doesn't mean that all races should be completely open to being anything possible, just as Human cultures are not. They should have certain common things about them and their culture, but they should be widened from just a single point of fact to a more interesting and varied collection of things. Perhaps even several groupings of things that don't perfectly mesh with one another. Factions within a race or culture should be a fairly common thing.
There will always be exceptions too, so don't feel locked into any of this as a hard and fast rule or anything. There could be some kind of "hive" or "pack" mentality races out there, or even something so completely alien to us that they do seem to act in very single minded and predictable ways. They should still be deeper than just that one thing, even if that is what they do.
There are several ways to easily give some depth to races you are creating (or reworking, as in my case). One or several of these can be used for the same race or culture, or even find other unrelated things I never thought of and add them too. Some of these can even help inspire your creativity when working on a new race for your world.
Religion is the easiest of these areas to play with, especially in a fantasy world. How ingrained in the society is religion? Is their society run by the religion or are the separated? How many religions are common among them and do they compete or disagree with each other? How do they look at the beliefs of others, outsiders, or even the non-believers within their own culture? And these are just the simple surface questions to ask about it. Once you get deeper into the religion it can become even more diverse.
How inclusive or private the culture is can be another thing to look at. Are they very closed in and secretive, not letting outsiders know much about them? Are they very free and open with others, trading freely and happy to share? Do they mix with others? Do they allow others to be equal to them or are they always seen as a class above others? Are the higher-ups in the culture honest and free with their subjects or are they secretive and tell them nothing?
There is also the aggressiveness of the culture that comes into play. Are they a peaceful lot that stays in one general area for the most part or are they very aggressive and constantly trying to expand to at least invade their neighbors? Do they treat their own people with general respect or are they driven by power and strength, constantly competing for the upper hand with their own people. Is the aggressiveness actually physical or are they more about mentally breaking down and controlling others? Politically? Socially?
When it comes to races with very different forms and natural abilities, you should also take these into account when figuring out how they act. Don't forget that these things can easily affect the way their race and culture has evolved and formed. If they fly or have "iron guts" or acid spit or can teleport or whatever, it will affect how they see the world and the issues in it. Take them into account when trying to figure out how they act and their culture is broken down.
The main key thing to remember when creating a cool new race for your game is to give it some time, do more work, and put some thought into it. Don't just take a racial look from column A, a power from Column B, and a common trait from column C and call it done. We don't need more "Lizard Men" with "Nightvision" who "Raid Mountain Villages" to show up in the world. Give them some depth, multiple options and traits, a diverse culture, and a more realized existence in the world. Then you will have more interesting stories and adventures in your games.
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