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World Building 101: Races

posted Wednesday, December 30th 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

When writing a campaign setting, certain considerations must be given to the options you are giving to your players when they are creating and growing their character concepts. Your vision of the campaign world may be wide open and permissive, including anything and everything the players bring to the table. It could also be very restrictive, with only a select few options being deemed appropriate for the campaign you want to run.

Most DMs will find their personal style falls somewhere between the two—there are relatively few completely permissive or restrictive DMs out there. When building your campaign world, you need to ask yourself what does and doesn’t fit for anything that could affect a player’s options, and whenever possible, a good reason needs to be provided. Nothing is so frustrating to a player as having a character concept rejected out of hand “because I said so,” after all.

Many players begin their character concepts by deciding on the race of their alter ego. It can be one of the strongest defining characteristics of a player character’s identity and personality, whether by playing to the stereotypes of a given race or by avoiding them. The perky Halfling or the booze-swilling Dwarf, for example, are immediately recognizable character concepts to build on. Many players also have favorite races—one of my players will roll an elf as often as not, and another tends towards dwarves more frequently than any other race.

Before you decide on races that you wish to include, you should consider whether you will be potentially denying your players access to their favorite if you restrict access to a given option. If you are including your own homebrew races, you should ensure that players are familiar enough with them to come up with a good concept, as well as making certain that they are neither clearly superior nor underpowered compared to existing choices.

There’s no reason to feel constrained to the standard descriptions for any given race. For an example, one need look no farther than the elves of Eberron–far from being the traditional tree-hugging variety of elf, Eberron’s elves strive towards undeath as a worthy goal and venerate their undead ancestors. Your own elves may be a desert-dwelling race of nomadic dervishes, or something else entirely, depending on the needs of your campaign. When you choose to alter a race or design your own, though, there are some important considerations to bear in mind:

Attitude: What is the prevailing attitude among members of the race? This applies to more than simply the spectrum of good versus evil, though that is a major component of whether or not a race is available in many campaigns. It also includes whether they are typically haughty or humble, adventurous or timid, cunning or forthright. While it may seem like stereotyping, remember that these are simply common guidelines for how the race can be expected to behave–player characters or NPCs of any race are as always free to defy these expectations.

Physical Description: What are the common physical characteristics of the race? Are they tall or short, wiry or heavyset, tough or frail? Do they tend to have pale skin and light hair, or are they swarthy and hairless? This is especially important for homebrew races, but even if you are reskinning a core race, it is important to make this clear to assist players in visualizing their characters.

Mechanics: Homebrew races will require that you spend a fair amount of time creating the mechanics behind them. Compare the power level of race features and bonuses to existing races carefully to ensure that you have not made them clearly superior or inferior to existing races. Be sure to provide feat support to your new race as well. New, setting-specific feats or features for existing races are a great way to make them feel unique; you might also restrict access to some of the core feats or racial features in favor of your setting-specific ones. You might make an optional racial power to substitute for the existing power, for example–if your campaign includes a tribe of tieflings who take more after succubi or other more charming demons, you could consider the following racial power as a substitute for the Infernal Wrath racial feature:

Infernal CharmTiefling Racial Feature
You call upon your supernatural charms to deter your opponent from striking you.
Encounter
Minor     Personal
Effect: The target cannot make any attack that would include you until the end of your next turn.

The method of substitution is up to you–you could either by replace Infernal Wrath outright, let characters choose which type of demonic ancestor they take after at character creation, or create a feat that substitutes one for the other. Be sure to let your players know as well that with any homebrew power or feature, if it performs well above or well below the expected power level, you may tweak it later on to make it more appropriate–if only to avoid hurt feelings should it become necessary.

Culture: Even for races you’re not changing mechanically, you may want to spend some time detailing their culture in your setting. Consider the common religious beliefs, modes of dress, allies and enemies, beliefs about their origins (and if it differs, the truth thereof) and so on. This is likely going to be the longest section, possibly barring mechanics, and should be what gives the players the best idea of how the race fits into your campaign world.

Next time we’ll take a look at defining the religion and belief systems prevalent in your campaign world.

Comments

  1. Sean Holland

    December 30th, 2009

    It is an interesting balance incorporating classic fantasy races and making them both recognizable to the player yet unique for your setting. A fun challenge.

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  3. Miguel Valdespino

    January 4th, 2010

    Balance is quite important. I like the idea of the sample power you presented, but I don’t think it’s balanced. Infernal Wrath is lower power than most racial powers because tieflings have a good power in terms of racial fire resistance. Infernal Charm as written is very powerful. To compare, it’s much more powerful than a halfling’s Second Chance power.
    Second Chance has a slight edge on utility because it’s an interrupt instead of an action.
    But Infernal Charm is automatically successful. It also protects agains multiple attacks. If the user is provoking AoO’s, then it can easily protect against three attacks. It can also protect nearby friends because the tiefling can’t be included in any close or area attacks. Here’s my suggestion:

    Infernal Charm • Tiefling Racial Feature
    You call upon your supernatural charms to deter your opponent from striking you.
    Encounter
    Minor     Close Burst 5
    Effect: One target within the burst cannot target you with opportunity actions until the end of your next turn

    I see this as more balanced, and it brings up the charm aspect more in that it affects reflexive actions.

  4. Brandan Landgraff

    January 5th, 2010

    Excellent point, Miguel. I have to admit that I didn’t spend nearly as long on determining the appropriateness of that power as I probably should have, but my reasoning was that it was more to illustrate the ability to create new options for an existing race, rather than to provide an actually usable alternative; in retrospect I should have given more consideration to that as well.

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  6. Scott Lykins

    January 27th, 2010

    best thing to do with races as i have found is leave it up to the player and as a GM work out the bonuses on the spot..dont go by some book or by exp. just go by your ideas..after all it is your game.
    Vencorbin@live.com

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