Monday, March 5, 2012

Vegetable Elves & Sinister Hobbits: Playable Variations on Classic Races

Creating fantasy races remains one of the real joys of rpg world creation. Often that involves making a few tweaks and creating new cultures- for example most of the Elves from Forgotten Realms or Mystara are still recognizably "elven." In reviewing the Gazetteer series, it's been interesting how just a few minor tweaks can make a presentation feel interesting or fresh. But even in more 'out there' fantasy rpgs like Earthdawn, the Elves feel like Elves. The worlds different, but the classic elements remain recognizable and pretty close to other presentations. Sometimes, though, you get new interpretations- offering completely different personalities, drives, magics, or even physical composition. I've compiled a list of a few of these variations on the classics- though it is incomplete.

Criteria for this list:

  1. Should be from a fantasy rpg.
  2. Should have published rules for playing that race and character creation.
  3. Should be based on one of the classic races: humans, elves, dwarves, halflings, orcs, goblins, gnomes or half-XXX. 
  4. Should be culturally and/or physically different enough from the classic races that they couldn't be mistaken for one another.
For unique races- not based on one of the original classics- I've created a companion list elsewhere since it is pretty long: You Want to Play a What? Non-Standard Playable Races from Fantasy RPGs

Elfs: Guide to the Aldryami

As typical with Glorantha, nothing is simple, even the elves. 
Aldryami are Gloranthan plantmen, nature and sun worshipping-mainly worshipping Aldrya, deity of plants. Unlike Tolkienesque elves, they are alien, physically plant-like and often hostile to normal humans (meat men). Like many other fictional elf races, they are excellent archers.

GAZ3: The Principalities of Glantri
Short, passionate, swashbuckling elves with a Spanish accent. 
Belcadiz is a lightly forested area that serves as the home of the famous winemaking elves. not only is their wine in high demand throughout Glantri, but so is their metalwork, something unheard of for elves anywhere else on Mystara. The Belcadiz elves seem unique among elves - few have ties to other elves in the land, nor elsewhere. Belcadizians are hot-tempered, easy to offend, and enjoy nothing better than a sword duel or two to try and prove their superiority. Non-Belcadiz elves call the clan so "humanized" that members are all half-elves (they are not).


The Blood Wood
One of the more striking ideas in an FRPG- both in terms of origin and visual design, these are Elves with strange & point protrusions.
A subrace of Earthdawn elves are called the Blood Elves. The blood elves rejected the Theran protective magic, and attempted their own warding spells. These wards failed, and a last-ditch ritual caused thorns to thrust through the skin of the blood elves. These ever-bleeding wounds caused constant pain, but the self-inflicted suffering was enough to protect the blood elves from the worst of the Horrors.


Ravenloft Player's Handbook

An Orc variant from the lands of Ravenloft. 
Orcs are unknown in Ravenloft, even as creatures of legend. For this reason, no half-orcs are native to the Land of Mists. However, creatures do exist that fill the half-orc's role: calibans. Thankfully rare, calibans are twisted humans exposed to curses or foul magic while still in the womb. The birth of a caliban in a community is often seen as a sure sign of the presence of witchcraft. Calibans are physically powerful but misshapen humanoids. No two calibans look alike, but common deformities include twisted backs or limbs, asymmetrical features, bristly skin, or tusk-like teeth. They are widely considered brutish, savage creatures. In truth, many calibans *are* simple-minded, petty brutes, but this is often the product of their upbringing. Rejected as monsters, most calibans spend their lives hidden in dank cellars or flee civilization to roam the wilds. In truth, a caliban's heart can be as pure and noble as that of any human.

D3: Vault of the Drow
The classic variant race of Elves, eventually given as a playable option. They've become the 'cool' go to race for players who want to bring the sinister at the table. Also done in other variations as Dark Elves, Night Elves, Shadow Elves, etc. For a frighteningly long article on the Drow, see here


Iron Kingdoms Character Guide: Full Metal Fantasy, Volume One

A delightful goblin variant which runs with the idea of goblins as tinkerers.  
...gobbers have begun to integrate with humanity, establishing well built towns in close proximity to human neighbors, and many enjoying a nomadic lifestyle traveling the roads of the realm, looking for work and selling their wares. Gobbers are quite intelligent, and have a particular knack for alchemy and mechanical work, both of which has made them useful as skilled workers and assistants to those who can put aside their prejudices.

It is now understood there are two distinct species of gobbers, which includes the "common gobber" found in most cities and the "bogrin" or "bogger" which is a larger, tougher, and wilder gobber more inclined to attack people and violently defend their territory. Civilized examples of both species have found acceptance in the Iron Kingdoms, although the bogrin are often considered dangerous until proven otherwise. Their exact numbers are not known, but it is believed there are equally as many common gobbers as bogrin, each making up half of the overall gobber population. The favorite terrain of the bogrin seems to be mountains and dense forests, away from cities and towns. Those few rare gobbers seen in the sands of the Bloodstone Marches are also believed to be bogrin.


Middle-earth Role Playing (1st Edition)

Both Rolemaster and MERP had several different divisions of standard humans. The High Men were distinct from the Common Men. In MERP the former draw their blood and line from that of old Numenor, making them stronger and more powerful. RM dropped the literal connection to Middle Earth, but kept the ide aof a race of men with stronger blood. Eventually in later versions the distinctions between the various races of men was treated as a cultural concept.


Dragonlance Campaign Setting

A halfling (or hobbit) variant race from the Dragonlance setting. 
...originally described as "thinner, more wiry, and more cunning and streetwise" than halflings.

The original concept of the kender held that they were "savage, warrior children, ever curious, ever alert." This concept was altered dramatically when Janet Pack became involved in dramatic readings of the works, as Pack's personal characteristics had a strong impact on how those involved in the process viewed the kender. According to Jeff Grubb, she, "and as a result all kender since her, was cute. Extremely cute. Sweetly, lovably, frustratingly cute.... And it's hard, after seeing Janet play Tas, to imagine them any other way."[3] Two of the other key characteristics of kender—their curiosity and kleptomania—were introduced by Tracy Hickman. Hickman was uncomfortable with the notion of a "race of thieves" in his games, but still wanted the skills typically associated with thieves, so he added their "innocent tendency to 'borrow' things for indeterminate periods of time."
Interestingly, the actual DL later fiction associates them with the gnomes.


Book of Vile Darkness

Evil halflings! OMG eXtreme! Defined as a fairly distinct sub-race- halflings who apparently turned to evil ways to defend themselves and learned they liked it. Apparently this book is held in low regard generally. I was originally going to put the cannibal halflings from Dark Sun on the list, but it seems that there exists some controversy about them. So claim that depiction comes from later fiction, and isn't part of the core presentation.

Oriental Adventures 
Humanoids from the Oriental Adventures D&D sourcebook, Dwarf variants. One might imagine them to be unique, but the book relates them to the greater Dwarven race, they even speak a variant of the Dwarven language. They're less about the underground, and more about the outdoors- driven by a desire to wander in addition to their clan instincts. There's a lot of really interesting material in this sourcebook, though I'm not fond of the mechanics involved. 

Dwarfs: Guide to the Mostali

Dwarfs, but not Dwarves- a strikingly inhuman take on a race that makes them much like machines or cogs in a system. There's a great essay where Greg Stafford makes these guys sound like a parody of rules lawyers. 
The dwarfs are a humanoid race claiming descent from Mostal the Maker, a most ancient deity who is said to have created the world. The dwarfs have a long and ancient history, most of which is unknown to us. They are pragmatic and stoic, happy with practical matters and unafraid of hard work, and are conservative and secretive in the extreme. Their hard religion gives them personal immortality. The official dwarf religion is a sorcery of limited, but practical, variety.

The iron discipline and unyielding attitude of dwarf culture is inhuman in its rigidity. Most humans cannot understand their machine-like state of mind. Apparently many dwarfs cannot either, for there is a significant rate of desertion from the ranks.

Dwarfs are organized into nine separate castes or job-types, each named after a different mineral. These occupations mimic the different races of Mostali which were known in the Godtime. Of the Ancient Mostali, most are now gone, and Iron Mostali are the most numerous of the survivors.


Van Richten's Guide to the Vistani

A human variant race from Ravenloft, originally purely NPC. They're presented as a kind of version of the Romani people, gypsies but with unique powers. 
Vistani have some control of the Mists of Ravenloft, which divide realms. Players generally need help from the Vistani to move travel realiably from one open realm to another.

Vistani possess a powerful wanderlust, and cannot stay within a mile of a given point for more than a week before suffering a condition called "Static Burn," where the Vistani is afflicted with an illness resembling the flu or a fever. When this occurs, the Vistani has between 2 and 7 days to cross the necessary ground or permanently lose all of their mystical powers, becoming an outcast known as a mortu, which translates roughly as "Living Dead."

Vistani possess powerful, innate magical abilities that recall Romani as imagined in popular culture.


  1. I really like the Glorantha take.

    I do a couple of variants in various settings of mine: The Hobogoblins and Halfling/Dwarf stand-ins for the Dutch in the City, and Dwarves as Neanderthals uplifted by an alien AI among others in my previous setting.

  2. Those are awesome- I like the Hobo-goblins (more interesting than the full-out goofiness of GURPS Goblins). The Dwarf take is especially cool.

  3. Great list. I like the idea of goblin tinkerers more than gnomes, who usually fill that role.

  4. I'll be curious to see what the new iron Kingdom rp looks like. I didn't care for the d20 implementation, but there's a bunch of cool material in the setting as a whole.

  5. I am a big fan of Belcadiz elves. How much fun is playing one of them? Picture Rodrigues from the novel, Shogun; or Captain Ferreira. Too cool.

    I'm also a fan of Gloranthan Mostali and Aldryami. Just because they're so different from what we've come to expect. That same kind of Gloranthan wackiness that brought us ducks and animal nomads. All of that bizarro detail that made me love Runequest back in the day seems to be de-emphasized by the creator of Glorantha these days. Pity, IMO.

  6. It does seem like Glorantha (at least the HQ2 version) focuses on the more conventional elements, ones which echo real world material rather than the crazier stuff. But I suspect that's what sells. Mongoose's Glorantha the 2nd age actually had a lot of craziness in it.