No, this not a half-assed rant about how D&D is racist. You can find that here, and see it beaten into pulp here. This is another prospecting post about a campaign I may run someday; today’s topic is character races.
I’ve been having a lot of sympathy lately for the view that the only player character race should be Human. A ton of classic sword & sorcery literature and films support that, and especially in later versions of D&D (but also in other games) nonhumans just get too many benefits and too few drawbacks. (4e actually makes humans pretty good though.) AD&D’s level limits got it right, IMO, denying the very highest levels to nonhumans, but that is another post. (C&C does a good job too, giving nonhumans a big disadvantage in that they will have only two “prime” abilities with good saves & target numbers for checks, while humans get to pick three, although I’d rather see level limits.)
In any “realistic” setting, having scads of demi-human and humanoid races only makes sense if they all fill very different niches (underground vs. jungle vs. arctic vs. aquatic, say). Looking at human evolution on our planet, there were some times when more than one pre-human or near-human species existed at the same time as others, but as far as I can tell these were brief and had limited contact. Certainly the movie Quest for fire gives a plausible scenario of inter-species predation. I really can’t imagine halflings “evolving” parallel to humans without being wiped out or enslaved, for example, or that the dwarf-goblin wars of extermination would end without the genocide of one or the other. So you really need to have the various races come from different worlds, like the Norse conception of Midgard vs. Jotunheim vs. Alfheim etc., or something like Tolkien’s story of elves arriving from a different continent, and other races being created by evil demigods (well, something like that). So yeah, the various races can only be there because of the world’s fantastic elements, and should all have some connection with the supernatural, which I’m thinking means they are new arrivals (aliens, created fairly recently, etc.) or refugees from parallel worlds like Alfheim, Svartalfheim, Jotunheim, etc. I think my world will not lean too heavily on Tolkien. Not because I don’t like JRRT, of course, but because I’d like to go for a different feel. And yet I don’t want to wander off too far into Arduin country; I ‘d like to use my existing miniatures!
One thing that makes D&D’s sources in Tolkien unmistakable are the standard races. Humans, elves, dwarves, and hobbits halflings all are instantly recognizable from the Fellowship of the Ring. Even half-elves and half-orcs are from Tolkien, right? Only gnomes, and the various races introduced in 4e seem to look outside Tolkien for inspiration.
Well, yes and no. Tolkien, after all, is largely mining the existing European folklore. He certainly presents his own vision of elves and trolls and dwarves and goblins, and his hobbits and orcs are highly original. But, it would not be hard to construct a set of player races very similar (mechanically) to the existing D&D player races, and given my affection for Poul Anderson’s Broken sword, I’ll present one possible set of races (which may in fact be the ones I’d use if/when I pull the trigger and start DMing). At this point I imagine a mix of elements from Anderson, Norse myth, general folklore, and the Ultima computer games. What I’ve read about Jeff Rient’s Beyond Vinland campaign, and of course James M.’s Dwimmermount, are influences too.
Humans: well, obviously these can pretty much be left alone. Maybe provide a few cultures to choose from, like your Vikings and whatnot.
High Elves: Take D&D Elves, mostly unchanged, but make them unable to tolerate iron and steel. They’d be immortal and live apart from humans, but a few would choose to go adventuring, either out of boredom or because they’ve been exiled, or some other reason. Elves would obviously need to find other metals to use, so analogues to bronze and titanium would be likely.
Dark Elves: Rather than steal Gygax’s Drow (which I never thought should be a player race anyway), how about making them twisted little fairy folk, about the size and shape of folkloric goblins?
These in effect would be pretty much the stand-ins for the Halfling role (small, sneaky, agile). I’m not sure if I’d even bother changing them mechanically in the game — just rebrand Halflings as Dark Elves, and make them more inclined to chaos than law.
Dwarves: These hardly need to be touched either. I love what James M. and his group have done with them — Dwimmermount dwarves are sexless earth elementals who carve their young from stone, and their apparent greed is actually the need for gems and gold to either create their own young or repay their parent. I think I’d probably keep them more Norse though. Live underground, famous as smiths/crafters, highly magical (so they can also be magic-users). I’d probably keep most of their mechanics from D&D, just drop the magic resistance and magic item failure stuff.
Changelings: Basically following various folkloric ideas, these would replace half-orcs and half-elves. Changelings are the offspring of elves, trolls, goblins, etc. which are left in place of a stolen human child. These sometimes just die or turn out to be animated dolls, but some are members of their parent race. Being raised as humans, and looking somewhat human, these may be raised by their human “parents,” either because they don’t recognize the switch, or because they pity it, or in hopes their child will be returned some day, or whatever.
Most changelings disappear shortly after their nature becomes apparent; player changelings are that superior 10% who can “pass” for odd or ugly humans. I guess I’m thinking along the lines of “Pickman’s model” and The broken sword. Changelings descended from goblins, dwarves, trolls, giants or other humanoids would use half-orc mechanics; those descended from elves or fairies would use half-elf mechanics. Humans raised by fairies or trolls would similarly use half-elf or half-orc rules — some of the other race has rubbed off on them.
The big advantage chagelings of either sort would have, as opposed to “born” elves or trolls, would be an ability to tolerate steel and iron.
So they remain forest-dwelling, with some natural magic like the ability to speak to animals. And they’d be very small, like 1-2 feet tall. Being supernatural they’d still have considerable strength, but obviously not the strength of a human.
Well, that gives a fairly consistent picture of D&D-style races without leaning on Tolkien and (Dog forbid!) Dragonlance.
UPDATE (June 8th) : Some more ideas along these lines are here.
UPDATE (July 17th): These races are ported to a house-ruled version of D&D, taking the “primes”/SIEGE system of Castles & Crusades and the race-as-class idea from B/X D&D (and the simulacras Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy), here.