Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Running the Races: Some Picks for My Favorites

Today I finish up my discussion of fantasy races with some of those I particularly like. I’m not sure I have reason reasons for liking them, and a couple I haven’t really used in games. But they’re ideas I’m fond of- in physiology, culture, implications or the like. As I said in my last post, I think fantasy races serve many functions. From a GM perspective I enjoy these races & concepts I enjoy and can see building stories around. 
Well-handled, I think that the half-elf offers an interesting way to see into both cultures. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it as a “get out of jail free” card for interactions in the past with players switching their stated identity depending on what would gain them the most (or cost them the least). In a few systems, Rolemaster IIRC, the Half-Elf offered a balanced choice for power gamers. But the presence of half-elves raises several implications- not least of which that different humanoid races can successfully cross-breed. If so, what are the circumstances behind that? Doomed romance? Wartime rape? Or is such a step across boundaries a common thing in the setting.

I have two favorite takes on the half-elf. First, settings where the half-elf must at some point make a choice between their elven and human parentage. And that this choice is more than a social one- that the character chooses the limited life span of the human over the extended life of the elf. I think too often settings make this too easy a choice- it really needs to be a serious and substantive dilemma, with concrete gain and loss on either side of the equation. From the gamer standpoint (especially for campaign worlds where the player’s impact the history) the obvious choice is more years. How do you balance that?

My other favorite take- at least for rp possibilities- is the half-elf viewed and raised as an anathema. In one of our campaigns we had a long-running series of skirmishes and wars between elves and humans. One particularly religious community took in the various half-elves that came about over the years of the wars. Those half-elves grew up learning that their blood had been tainted by the mingling of the two races. That they lived as a kind of poison, who could only expurgate their sins through service and sacrifice. It was tough and awful- and I showcased a number of characters who had bought into that philosophy. In at least one case, a PC got tangled up trying to bring an NPC out of that sense of self-loathing. 

I have to admit that my experience with the Warforged and the details of their race is second-hand. I owned a copy of the Eberron book for 3e, but I think it skimmed it more than absorbed it. When I ran my Planescape Campaign, we had a warforged PC, the second in command of the company as I recall. But I don’t know all of the details. But I love the idea and implication of a race of creatures created and remaining around. I love that they versatile enough to take on any character class.

They must have senses, sensory input, but how different is it? How does that shape their experience? I wonder how their form of longevity and extended lifespan differs from that of the Elves. Does it make them more or less worldly? How do they deal with mortality- with the slow degradation of they systems over time. They don’t seem to have a centralized culture, but many of these factors could certainly impact how individuals react to the world.

I also have to admit that as much as anything else, I think they look cool.

I mentioned in my last post about the Createds, magical races usually taken from a particular animal type. Each has a small population pool, often combined with odd restrictions on behavior, such as loyalty or aggression. In the campaigns, they served to illustrate the dangers created by long-fallen Wizard Overlords who had created the Created as slaves and tools. Of these races my favorite remains the Aperkitas, small dog-like people, based in part on colonials from the Off-the-Wall Armies series of miniatures.

Loyal and friendly, the Aperkitas lack any magical talent. Additionally, they see things in a fairly straight-forward way- avoiding “fancy philosophizing and such…” They’re known for their goal of protecting pretty things, especially pretty ladies in distress. That’s the right thing to do. Each Aperkitas selects a “Great Work” for themselves when they come of age. Often a crafted object, but other times a book, a mission, or something of the sort. This choice shapes the latter years of an Aperkitas’s life. That’s important, because the Aperkitas don’t live very long, with elders being forty years of age when they reach a final rest. However their lifespan was significantly increased by one of the three wishes ever given out in twenty-five+ years of playing in this setting.

I like the Aperkitas because they have established a strong identity in the game world- earnest, reliable, but also not given to high-flown thinking. In some ways they represent a race which has manage to overcome the limitations of their own origin. 

I wonder what the first “rat-man” race was in fantasy, perhaps Reepicheep from Narnia? The Skaven remain my favorite of the WHFRP elements- they have awesome designs and a distinct image. The strange gas-mask and steampunk elements combined with their devotion to plague and disease made them the most evocative adversaries in that setting. Eventually, I ended up borrowing elements to have a neutral race of Skaven, abandoned by their gods as a fixture in my campaigns. Over the years and campaigns they have changed and evolved. They left for one of the moons, creating there an independent society with a more early modern and then eventually swashbuckling feel. They’re a far cry from the Skaven of old Warhammer. But as much as anything, I wanted a race of that type which could actually interact with the other cultures.

I’m also fond of the Nezumi, aka the Ratlings from Legend of the Five Rings. I like the idea of old non-human races who have risen and fallen, and had a history stretching back before the coming of humanity. Their role in the setting and CCG has likewise seen ups and downs. The nezumi have a number of interesting details, their tribalism and their magic and society based around the idea of names. I think they’re a great detail to contrast the seriousness of the setting. They also offer an easy “Other” to put samurai PCs into conflict with- not combat conflicts, but social or moral ones. The treatment of the nezumi by standard samurai often brings out the inner character of PCs (or their players). Despite that I really don’t like the idea of nezumi as PCs. I think L5R works best with a party of fully human characters. The presence of a nezumi adds complications that might be fun for one player, but create problems for the rest of the group.

I mentioned before some of the strange races from Glorantha, with their alternate takes on Elves (Aldryami) and Dwarves (Mostali). But one of the weirdest and most awesome races from the setting are the Durulz, aka the Ducks. They have, over various editions, ranged from essentially being fantasy versions of Donald Duck to more recent takes that attempt to make them a little more realistic, as feathered humanoids. I prefer the older take because it is just so crazy and something of a deliberate smack in the face. They really represent how strange a mythic setting ought to be. They combine being the butt of jokes (in game and out) with a fierce dedication to battling against the forces of Undeath.

Ducks are often cited as the dumbest race created for a setting. I like that they occupy comic relief, but at the same time can be quickly turned to more serious issues. The recent Ducks: Guide to the Durulz from Mongoose took this idea and ran with it. Essentially the cosmos itself laughs at the joke which are the Durulz, but the Ducks keep their pride and honor. From that contradiction and curse they gain power. There’s a suggestion that since the universe doesn’t take them seriously, the laws of physics and the like don’t apply to them. That’s a cool idea and would be fun to explore at the table.

There’s a lot of crazy and interesting stuff in TSR’s Red Steel setting, covering an exotic section of Mystara. This came out after TSR migrated Mystara from straight D&D to AD&D 2e. The Savage Coast area covered by this borrows from early modern Spain and settle portions of the new World. More importantly it adds magical firearms and random elemental mutations to the game. It’s one of the oddest and yet most interesting supplements I’ve read, even though it doesn’t really feel like the rest of Mystara. Importantly the setting adds a number of new races including Lupin (Dog folk) and Rakasta (Cat folk). I like both of those, but I’m more fascinated by the Tortles, the turtle people there. And they are exactly what you expect- large and slightly slower than normal (with a -2 DX penalty). Though the book describes them as not particularly ponderous thinkers in other regards. Amusingly, the default martial arts style presented in the sourcebook is based on a Tortle style. TMNT?

When I borrowed the Tortles for my game, I made a small change that actually really helped distinguish them for me. In the original setting, Tortles live 50 years and mate once. In my setting, Tortles live around fifty years, give or take a decade. If they survive that long, they go into a transformative state. The tortle retreats into its shell and into a magical hibernation. When it awakens, it emerges again with a slightly different physical appearance (though the shell remains the same). The newborn tortle retains basic life skills, but otherwise has the mind and memory of a late adolescent, their past life gone. However, when desired, the Tortle may go into a trance to recall the life and memories of one of its past lives- essentially recalling the personality to the surface. The tortle may experience memory flashes from the past, usually in the form of a kind of kindly and paternalistic vision.

I have a few others that I really like from other systems. For example, I’m overly fond of the concept of the Vargr (which I always spell Vagyr) from classic Traveller. I like the idea of a pack mentality and the difficulty of having to overcome that to operate as an “adventurer.” I also really like the T’Skrang from the Earthdawn setting. Most of the races appear barbaric, or at least more primitive than most classic fantasy settings. Part of that comes from the pseudo post-apocalyptic fantasy elements of the setting. In contrast to that you have these lizardmen, well-dressed and personable with an air of nobility. They’re swashbucklers and aerogators, dressed in silks and capes. You have to love that.