In omnibus negotiis prius quam aggrediare, adhibenda est præparatio diligens.
Ok, now that I’ve demonstrated my ability to go to Wikiquote and find a cool quote in a dead language, I’ll go ahead and discuss some of the thoughts behind character creation.
No, I’m not going to talk about the mechanics of character creation or even why the four of you paying attention to these posts should play a particular race, class or even alignment. What I’m talking about is developing an understanding for why you make certain decisions about those things.
While there are plenty of gamers out there who pick a class before they select a race, I’m bringing up race first because A) your character’s race was determined long before that character ever decided to be a barbarian-monk-ninja-druid-soulknife and B) this is the way I feel like doing it. If you don’t like my order, create your own blog.
Race is a touchy thing on both sides of the DM screen, and there are a number of reasons why that’s the case. First, everyone I’ve ever gamed with is fairly open to racial and ethnic diversity. While they might have been raised around racists, the caliber of people who tend to participate in these games really wouldn’t care if you were an azer or a tiefling, as long as you didn’t set the furniture on fire or sacrifice the cat to your demonic ancestor. Second, there is a tendency to fall into a sense of complacency after a while. In the beginning, the DM might make a player pay (socially) for choosing an exotic race. However, the DM doesn’t see Athraxas, the mighty lurk/cerebremancer of the naga when he’s looking across the table at one of the players. He sees Ted, the insurance actuary who breaks out in hives at the smell of lemon-scented furniture polish. After a while, it’s a little tough to remember to ensure that the common folk are generally going to fear what they don’t know, especially if that particular race is something they’ve never seen before.
Third, most players portray their characters as a human in a <insert race here> suit. Even if you take two of the more common non-human races, elves and dwarves, most players I’ve met don’t really act as though there’s much of a difference between dwarves, elves and humans.
However, that’s not really the case, now is it? Elves, as a general rule, tend to live in harmony with nature, have a cultural appreciation for trees, flowers and other hippy crap. A player would naturally expect elven armor and weapons to have artful decorations which would reflect their cultural love of nature without impairing their function. Dwarves, on the other hand, are supposed to love nature insofar as nature provides mountains and veins of ore. These guys are supposed to be ultimately manly with ZZ Top-like beards, big weapons, and a pocket full of jerky. Humans, as a general rule, seek to dominate and subdue nature, rather than living in harmony with it, they don’t tend to get as fixated on craftsmanship (it happens, but it’s not a cultural thing with humanity), and they live extremely short lives by comparison. Why humans tend to dominate the landscape in a fantasy setting is that humans breed like rats, and like the rat, humans are incredibly adaptable.
Then we’ll talk about being non-human in a society of humans. Think about this for a moment. There are towns in the United States where there are only White people. For whatever reasons, when White folks showed up, the Native Americans left, Black people never settled there, Asians hadn’t yet found the place, and Latinos haven’t shown up. It’s the 21st century, and there are places in this country where the only non-White people local residents have seen is in movies, television and the Internet. Now try and imagine living in a cultural parallel of 12th century England. People from other villages were considered foreign and suspect. Now can you imagine someone with inhuman features walking into a village like that? The torches and pitchforks would appear into people’s hands like Mjollnir appearing in Thor’s.
Then if you start considering the fates of the other core races among humans, you might get an idea of what would happen to a non-human walking into a human village. The only people who might get away with being non human are half-elves and half-lings. Half-elves would probably just be considered incredibly attractive humans, and halflings would generally be mistaken for children (by way of reference, I submit the conversation between Pippin and one of the lads of Gondor in Return of the King).
“But what if we stick to cities?” you say. In that case, racism wouldn’t necessarily be as violent, but it would definitely be present when business owners have higher prices for people who are either not human or consort with non-humans, lack available rooms, and the various and sundry ways racism can rear its ugly head in cities. Besides that, you’re more likely to run into people who gravitate toward anything that isn’t human just because it’s different rather than being truly cosmopolitan in the sense that culture shouldn’t be ignored, but race is no basis for determining the quality of a person’s character. (Of course, that’s before you account for the races which lack enough free will to determine their own alignment) In the U.S., we see Anglophiles, Francophiles, Germanophiles, Japanophiles, and Sinophiles to mention a few.
Most of this is looking at things from the perspective that the DM should really incorporate some of these notions into his or her game, but it doesn’t account for the player. Where the player comes in is understanding why role-playing a non-human might be a little different. Just read the write up on your character’s race. Is your character culturally inclined to be friendly, reserved, hostile, aloof or deranged?
In short, I would encourage players to consider what their choice of race is going to do for a character beyond statistical bonuses and penalties. Don’t worry about an ECL or anything like that, but consider what kind of person your character is going to be, and try to think about how being a race other than human is going to color that character’s personality.
When next we meet: I’ll throw out some BS about alignments.