Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Designing Fantasy Races

"I don't want my world to be another generic fantasy world with generic D&D races!" you shout.

"Okay!" I shout, "Why are we shouting?"

How can you create fantasy races that are unique? (That includes, of course, fantasies that are modern or science fiction or any other setting - not just medieval fantasies.)

Stuck in a mental trap, you see every race you brainstorm up seems just like some other race somebody already made famous.

Let's go over a good way to create fantasy races.

Steal from Tolkien.

No, no, wait, I'm being serious. Instead of thinking "elves dwarves orcs hobbits", think about what those races mean to the story.

Each race is a lense to view the theme. In the case of Tolkien, the theme of the world can be thought of as "war against dark forces".

The orcs are those that have become dark forces. The dwarves are those that clashed and lost. The humans are those that are fighting right now. The hobbits are those that are getting drawn in. The elves are those that are above, that remind you that there is something besides the dark.

Quick and dirty, sure, but fundamentally the races can be thought of in that manner. Each race highlights a different part of the struggle, from a different angle.

This can easily be adapted to suit your own fantasy world.

For example, if your fantasy world's theme is "steam powered mecha fighting it out", you can create races to highlight it. In Tolkien fashion, you have a race that has embraced the abuse of mecha, a race that was destroyed after a long fight with mecha, a race that is currently fighting with mecha, a race that is beginning to fight with mecha, and a race that is above mecha.

From that you can expand the race into as human or inhuman a race as you want them to be. Classically, races in role playing games are pretty close to human, but every near-human variant is already established in your audience's eyes as a particular stereotypical race.

For example, our species that fought with mecha for a long time before losing and being destroyed. We can say that they would be adapted to fight in/with mecha. So they would be small (smaller pilots are better) and they would be good with machinery (repairing mecha) and they would be hardy (to live through smoke and steam and the steel mills).

Well, that's obviously fantasy dwarves, isn't it? Or maybe you could argue for gnomes. Either way, hardly original!

Now, if you want you could theoretically make them more unique by making them less human. But you have to go pretty far afield before you get to anything unique, and even then your audience will automatically lump them together with whatever popular race is vaguely similar. So even if we make our dwarflike people unique by letting them directly plug into their mecha through personal mechanical interfaces, now they'll just get called "borgs" or "shadowrunners", depending on the graphics we use to represent it.

Personally, I don't feel you have to make a race look distinct. They should look distinct enough from their other in-world counterparts, but it's basically impossible to come up with a visual that won't be automatically matched up with an existing, popular visual.

Instead, you should focus on making the race feel like a part of your world. Even if your races have exactly the same standard names - elves, dwarves, orcs, and so on - if they play a particular role in your world, they become a new and interesting species. And the main way to define a role is in how the species highlights your world's theme.

An example of this is Shadowrun, which has all the standard fantasy races, but uses them as lenses into the theme of a class struggle. This means that elves and orcs feel very, very different from Tolkien versions, because they represent elitists and the underclass rather than representing victory over and betrayal to dark forces.

There is no limit to the number of races you can create in this manner. Simply assign given regions different subthemes and make the races of that region highlight that theme.

For example, "steam powered mecha battling it out" might be a subtheme on the overarching theme of "use and abuse of technology". We could have another region which has the subtheme "oppression via technology", and create races for that. We don't want to use the same approach, because that leads to very samey races, so we might create lenses that highlight different actions that oppress, rather than different states of oppression. For example, we might have a race that specializes in surveillance, a race that specializes in computation, tracking, and paperwork, a race that specializes in "nonlethal" police actions, and so on.

This "theme-powered" method of creating unique races will result in races that feel unique and, more importantly, support the theme of your world intrinsically, making your world more immersive and profound.


Keto said...

I find this concept of creating fantasy races works, but it is very hard to build upon it.

Generally, if creating a race of some sort, I create a story about their group or faction. I try to think about how that race or fraction developed and made sense of who they were.

In this way the explore the different implications of the world setting because they are what people might do to explore it.

Its very similar in principle to your approach, but I feel it helps me make more realistic factions.

Rather than 'what are the implications of a society where they have lost to the dark' it is 'what are the implications of a society that first discovered illusion magic' how would this shape their development? What does appearance mean in such a society?

Craig Perko said...

Sure, I'm not saying this is the only way of building a fantasy race.

I think the thematic way is preferable much of the time because it produces coherent, thematic worlds.

It's not hard to create "technical" races as you describe - the obvious example being forest elf, desert elf, dark elf, moon elf, etc, etc. However, they don't tend to hold the world together, even if they make internal sense.

Keto said...

The thematic way only produces thematically coherent worlds.

Lets take an example: You have a world setting governed by a fundamental principle - lets say it's some steampunk thing like you had mentioned earlier.

The question 'what wort of race comes about from people who build their lives around machines' creates a different set of principles that (in my opinion) are more consistent from a world-perspective.

You have the principle of how this steam-punk tech works, so now you ask yourself 'what sort of race would be ingrained into this'. Well, there is alot of steam, and they presumably developed this tech, so clearly them being related to fire makes sense.

Being forebearers of this technology, they had some sort of access to heat easily, so they live in a volcanic area. Seeing as they are not the only ones with steam-tech, it is probably their primary export and they are treated as something of artisans.

Well, volcanic regions aren't that common, so clearly they must not be that common aswell. They can make up for this with their technology though.

Gradually by answering these questions you get to understand their place in the world, and as you make more races that explore different questions the world becomes fully fleshed out.

If you are going by theme, you are already pigeon-holing their end result and building up from there.

It limits your races into pre-made stereotypes rather than ideas of how to explore how the world works.

That said, it is much easier to construct a narrative with those sorts of pre-made themes.

Craig Perko said...

The "technician's approach" you advocate is one I was going to talk about until I realized the post was already two pages long.

Long story short, people who rely on it tend to create races which seem cool but nobody ever wants to play or read about.

Without any emotional/thematic/human pull to them, the technician's races are just piles of details that nobody but the inventor cares about.

That's why you need to tie the race into your theme, to give them an emotional impact, or something interesting to say about the nature of your world.

"They live near volcanos and export steam tech!" isn't something which makes the player sit up and notice. Instead, it's the ties to the themes and the emotions of the world that they begin to become interesting.

For example, a player is making a character. Has never played the game before. Which race is he going to be interested by? "These guys have mechs, live near volcanos, and have some fire-based magic" or "these guys were lords of mecha two hundred years ago, but now their civilization has been destroyed and the survivors have been scattered, scavenging up pieces to keep their mechs in repair."

If you decide the emotional and human content - the feelings and impressions and storylines you want to leave in your audience - then you can build races which help you do that.

And, yes, part of that is making them coherent. And one way to do that is a technician's approach.

But it's not the first step, it's the last one.

Keto said...

I certainly agree with the last bit you said.

I just think that the Technical perspective will also develop these races when taken to the logical extreme, but it is very easy to get lazy with the approach.

From early on you have something that looks like a race but is awful. You can get to the same points, but there is more work involved and there is less incentive (you already have the moment-to-moment details worked out)

The thematic approach has the opposite problem, adding on is very easy, but it is easy because it's such a clear theme progression. There are alot of logical disconnects in that approach which reveal the race as subtly broken.

Again, it takes more work to get a usable product with the technical approach, but I feel its adds color and allows you to make truly original content more easily.

Craig Perko said...

Obviously, I strongly disagree. To the point where I'm actually a little irritated that you say "There are alot of logical disconnects in that approach which reveal the race as subtly broken." That means you've never tried it.

There's no problems of that sort any more than in a technical-centered approach, speaking from lots of experience.

I took a technical approach for... around 20 years. I'm trying very hard not to be insulting, but the fact is that I went from a pure technical approach to a mixed theme and technical approach because it works better.

It makes the players/audience pay more attention, feel more deeply, and want to participate. It produces more memorable races.

Keto said...

Part of the problem might be that I use races and countries somewhat interchangeably. It is rare for em to make a fantasy race that isn't tied to a specific country, and I am also including countries in my experience here.

The thematic principles might be stronger with a smaller number of subjects, rather than the 12+ factions I normally make.

Another part of the issue is that I have found it very difficult to construct themes don't come across as tacky. I start off hating the race when it is still objectively fine from an outside perspective.

Craig Perko said...

Well, 12+ is way too many for a single theme, but you could split it up into 2-4 subthemes...

But here's the real secret about themes: they're all tacky. There are no non-tacky themes.

The best films and books have themes like "war against dark forces" and "love conquers all" and other painfully generic ideas. It's the execution that matters, the way you pull the players into the theme. That's why it's possible to even make super-lame themes like "steam powered mecha fight it out" into a fun and interesting game.

Of course, the only time you state the theme is in your design phase. Your end product doesn't mention the theme anywhere, because making the theme explicit makes it dumb.