World Building 101: Another Day at the Races

Several months ago I discussed player character races, largely in terms of choosing which races exist in your setting and how they might differ from the bog-standard versions described in the core books. Today’s article will revisit that topic from a slightly different angle—I’d like to take a closer look at creating your own races specifically for the campaign world your game is set in.

The first step is to visualize your race. Who are they? Do you picture a people based on the classical satyrs, or perhaps sentient humanoid fungus-folk? Perhaps an insectoid race akin to beetles tickles your imagination, or a mystical fox-people who practice ancient magics, potent martial arts, and earthy wisdom? Or are they physically similar to another race, enough to be able to disguise themselves and walk among them undetected? You should have a clear idea of what they look like, since you will probably need to convey this information to your players in order for them to visualize this race, especially if you intend for it to be playable.

The next step is to decide where they call home. Often the answer to this is suggested by the physical features of the race—hawk-men might roost in the high places of the world, insect-people might dwell in underground holes, and satyrs might intermingle freely in the elven lands. If possible, make their homes as distinctive as possible, especially if they are near other similar races. A halfling and a beetle-man may each live in homes dug out from the hillside, but where a halfling’s hole is finished and furnished with the finest of frippery, a beetle-man may be more comfortable with rough dirt walls and simple furniture. This can help in describing the character of the typical member of the race, as well.

Making an interesting culture is key when you are trying to design a player character race. If your players have no interest in using the race, much of your work is lost—though not all, especially if they play a key role in your campaign world. Still, it can be disheartening to work on designing an option for your players to use only to have it ignored or declined. If you are really eager to have someone play a member of a custom race, it can be a good idea to collaborate with the prospective player on the culture of the people, both to expand it in ways you might not have imagined on your own and to ensure that it’s something they’re interested in using.

One barrier that may exist that could prevent your players from choosing a custom race is that they see them as being similar but inferior to an existing player character option. If you create a race inspired by classical satyrs in appearance, who dwell in the woodlands and excel at archery, then your players may well wonder what distinguishes them from elves, and rightly so. Worse, unless you have put a fair amount of effort into making them both mechanically distinct from elves and comparable in the amount of feat support you offer, then chances are your players will choose the option that gives them a wider variety of choices for feats. If you’re not particularly mechanically inclined, you might even consider running your campaign setting without traditional elves entirely, to further the example—simply let your players know that in your campaign world you are “reskinning” elves to represent the custom race. This may not be appropriate for all campaigns or races, but it may be the appropriate solution for some.

One reason that it may not work is if your campaign specifically calls for there to be interaction between your custom race and the existing races—perhaps rather than mingling freely with the elves, the satyr people have a long term rivalry with them, be it over space, resources, ideologies, or whatever other reasons. How your new race interacts and fits in with the other races that exist in your setting is another very important element to consider, both for players interested in using the race and for you as the DM to use in creating story hooks and ensuring that they are fully integrated into your campaign world. If you neglect to consider how and where the new race fits into the world and its other peoples, they may feel tacked-on.

As mentioned above, mechanical support is important for any player character race. The type and level of support you give to your custom races is entirely up to you, though it can also depend on the needs of your players. If a concept for a race is interesting or unique enough, there are some players who will happily choose it without regards to mechanical optimization, since there may be a sufficient number of feats available to support the concept they have in mind without needing racial options to work. Other players may be willing to collaborate on feat support—perhaps suggesting possible feats that they would like for their character, which you as DM might accept or alter as needed to maintain balance. You might decide to create a number of feats yourself, or you might cherry-pick racial feats from other races you may not be using in your game that fit the theme of the race you are creating.

Ultimately the most important thing about creating your own race is that it should be interesting and fun and add something to your campaign world. Everything else is of secondary concern—if your players don’t care about the fact that there are no feats, then don’t sweat the lack thereof. If your players don’t want to play a new race, you don’t have to abandon the idea; they may still be valuable for establishing a unique element of your setting or as an important part of the story in your campaign. A new or unusual race can go a long way to making your campaign world feel unique, and can be a great tool for involving players in developing aspects of the setting. Remember, though, that to completely abandon the familiar races might create a barrier for some players, who may have particular expectations about their options—replacing all of the races in your game with new ones you’ve designed may make it difficult for them to choose in some cases. In others, it could be an exciting way to present a truly fantastic setting. As always you should communicate with your players and decide what is most fun for the group as a whole.