Friday, October 19, 2012

The Problem with Demi-Humans

One of the thing's that has bothered me a great deal about the D&D game is the increasing emphasis on playable demi-human races.

Demihumans have been available as optional PC races from the very beginning, but for the first few editions of the game they were limited to much lower levels than humans.  These level limits served as a deterrent to keep demihumans from pushing humans out of the limelight.  

The problem with this approach was that most people felt that the level limits were too harsh, and ignored them, but they still kept all of the bonus racial powers, making human characters weak and inferior in comparison.  Even worse, multi-classing allowed demihuman characters to stack the class abilities of multiple glasses for a trivial experience penalty.

This led to many min-maxers taking the most powerful demihuman race and class combinations and leaving humans in the dust.  This led to a massive surge of popularity for elves that is still going strong today. But it also ushered in an era of demihuman proliferation that gotten out of control in the 3rd and 4th editions. 

Now some folks may wonder why I favor a human-oriented approach to the game.  It all goes back to one of my guiding principles: "When everything is special, nothing is special."

Making humans the dominant focus of the game world makes it more plausible and easy to relate to, but it also makes the demihumans that do appear more mysterious and noteworthy.  When everybody is running around with a fey-touched, warforged, dragonborn it just sort of overloads the senses.  When there are literally hundreds of races, it's hard to give a fuck about any one in particular. This, to me, is a large part why the WotC versions of D&D seem so phony and frivolous.  

A big part of the blame rests with WotC for making new races a marketable aspect of the game.  The plethora of splatbooks marketed toward the players (rather than the DM), made character creation a sort of masturbatory aspect of the game, where many players spent more time on character creation than playing the actual game.

Unfortunately, the seeds of demi-human wankery were hardwired into the DNA of the orignal game.  While the game was originally built on the foundation of the pulp fantasy literature of the period, there were so many request for Tolkinesque characters that Gygax added them to the game, despite the fact that he didn't particularly like Tolkien.  

And unfortunately, that Tolkienesque racial assortment has dominated the game ever since.  TSR had an opportunity early on to change things up with their campaign settings, but the Tolkiensque races have been a constant, even in settings where they don't really fit well, like Eberron, Dark Sun, and Ravenloft.

The Lankhmar setting is the only setting to have it's own distinctly unique races (because the stories it was based on pre-dated the game).  It is also probably truer to the vision of the game that Gygax intended, being part of the pulp-fantasy tradition that formed the game's early influences.  As a result, the Lankhmar setting feels much more mysterious and compelling than the more generic settings.

Unfortunately, there was never much in the way of development for Lankhmar and it went largely unnoticed by the gamers at the time.  Even worse, the most generic settings, Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms, proved to be the most popular and influential, which made it even harder to deviate from the established racial templates.

This Tolkienesque racial mix forces the game down a certain path, despite the fact that the game was originally intended to be flexible enough to do anything.  It's really pretty sad, how much potential was lost by trying to shoehorn elves, dwarves, and halflings into every possible setting.  

At this point in the game, it all just feels old and stale.  Sure, new races keep popping up, but I think that just exacerbates the problem rather than fixing it.  Sometimes less is more.

Now I'm not suggesting that I'm completely against demihumans, or that I'm against having them as playable characters.  But I do think that the official settings and novels have a tremendous impact on how people perceive the game, and they structure their own games.  So much so that even homebrewed campaigns tend to resemble the official product lines to an uncomfortable degree.

One of the things that I'm trying to do is to rebuild the D&D rules to be more flexible, to make it the game that I always wanted it to be.  A major part of that process is doing something that I feel TSR/WotC should have done years ago... make humans the default race and add additional races as needed (playable at the DM's discretion).

This gives the DM a clean slate to get really creative with.  By asking yourself  "Do I really need elves?  Or Dwarves?" it allows DM to look at the game in a fresh light.  By taking out those old standbys, you make room for something new and fresh.

In my own personal campaign, I've dropped elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, orcs, kobolds and most of the other commonplace races from the game completely.  Humans will be the only race available from the start although others may be available down the road as the players mingle with the inhabitants of the world.

Instead of doing humans in the normal manner, where they're pretty much the same anywhere you go, I've developed different countries and cultures that are reflect the real diversity of human civilizations.  This is something that is rarely done with most D&D games, which tend to use different demihuman races in lieu of developing separate human cultures.  

By restricting the amount of non-human races, you also make it possible to create unique backgrounds for the demihumans that you do use, instead of relying on the same old generic fluff in the rulebooks that wasn't great to begin with.

I've altered the different races that I did keep to fit into the background and setting of my game world in a manner that makes some kind of sense.  In addition, I've changed most of the races and monsters so that they're not the same old creatures you've been encountering for the last 40 years.

The goblins in my campaign, for example, are not the standard evil mooks that they're usually portrayed as. In fact, they're not even goblins at all in the D&D sense.  In my world, goblins and humans are both descendants of a common ancestor species, much in the same way that humans are related to other primates.

They are covered with fur, and have lanky but powerful bodies.  They live exclusively in the forests, and they are master bowmen and trackers. They fight primarily with stone and bone weapons, but often trade with humans for metal hatchets, knives, spear and arrowheads.

Culturally, they are more like wild elves or native Americans, using stone age tools, but with highly developed cultures.  While they generally avoid human contact due to past conflicts, they will sometimes befriend woodsman and establish trade relationships with them.  Alignment-wise they lean toward neutrality, though any alignment is possible.

Instead of being a traditional bad-guy race, these goblins are potential friends and allies.  Sure, a lot of the characters in the game world fear and misunderstand them, but as long as the players don't get on their bad side, they shouldn't have any problems with them.

This gives the goblins a complicated background that can be used in lots of different ways down the road, but it also shakes up the players preconceptions about the gameworld, and it makes them pay close attention to what's really going on.

                                                    Scarwood Goblins- by Ron Spencer

(I got the idea of wood-goblins from an old Magic The Gathering card for Scarwood Goblins.  The artwork by Ron Spencer presents a really nasty, gnarly looking goblin, and I always though these guys would make a great D&D creature.  My version is very similar to this goblin but with fur rather than bare skin.)

Simple changes like this can give a homebrewed campaign world a radically different vibe than what you'd get in the standard game.  By shaking things up a little I've created something that makes something old and tired and turned it into something that's fresh and new.  

There are familiar elements, but these are put together in a new and interesting way that takes the players out of the safe and familiar zone, and places them into unknown territory.  Most players are pretty much bored by the same old monsters they've seen time and time again. By changing the rules, you force them to deal with the game on it's own terms rather than relying on memorized monster manual stats.  

Even better, you've made the game more exciting by taking away the player's rule book crutch.  This has the added benefit of neutralizing rules-lawyering because they can't argue about what's in the rulebook if you're not using it.

This adds to the verisimilitude of the setting, and increases the immersiveness of the game.  And both of those things are, to me, a big part of what makes the traditional pencil & paper RPG so much fun... not just for the players, but for the DM as well.


  1. Nice post, and I agree with the sentiment wholly. I'd lay a considerable amount of blame on TSR as well as WotC. They had plenty of opportunities to nip the whole demi-human phenomenon in the bud...and they never did it. Late era TSR actually tried to re-emphasize humanity with the Birthright setting, but it never took off (I loved it personally). I guess by the mid-90s...the ideas behind D&D were pretty much set in stone.

    Less is definitely more. It gives players and the DM much more flexibility, which inevitably leads to creativity.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. It's nice to hear from somebody who feels the same way.

      Some people are absolutely scandalized that I would deviate from the established order, but I've always believed that the rules were more of a loose guideline rather than a strict mandate.

      I also agree with you that TSR bears much of the blame for the current situation. The current glut of races was actually kick-started in 2E with the Complete Book of Humanoids (though it didn't really go completely nuts until 3E).

      The impression that I get from the post-Gygax TSR is that quality products got out in spite of management, not because of it.

  2. Demihumans can be a decent tool for a GM to add Flavor to a specific Region within their world. different sections would logically have different demihumans. the key is to pick and choose which ones work best for the region and to pick and choose which ones you wish to exclude. each environment even has multiple options. you needn't be entirely bound to the standard list of demihumans. the issue with most demihumans, is when a player picks them primarily for the bonuses to attributes their class is intended to excel at; such as picking elven rogues for the dexterity bonus or Houri bards for the intelligence and charisma bonuses.