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Tabletop Tuesday – Adding Variety to Fantasy Races

Crass, Scottish dwarves. Elegant, Celtic elves. Jovial, English halflings. Monstrous, barbarian orcs.

We’ve seen these clichés repeatedly, most of them stemming from popular Euro-fantasy tropes of the 20th century. Whether it was Tolkien or Gygax, the portrayal of fantasy races as homogeneous cultures has become a staple of the genre.

Even when there are attempts to add some variety, from High Elves to Wood Elves to the Drow, each “sub-race” often remains boringly the same. All members speak the same language, have the same skin tones and hair colors, follow the same culture, etc.; any difference is solidly in the hands of the player.

We could blame this on these races being allegories for real-world cultures or peoples, but to be fair even historical Europe wasn’t that homogeneous. Even in the Middle Ages, many major cities were hubs with travelers from across Europe (and beyond), not to mention descendants who lived there.

So why is it that we must go on with these same old tropes? Why not add a little variety to your dwarves or orcs?

This Tabletop Tuesday I’d like to offer some ideas on how to spice up the fantasy races in your typical Euro-fantasy games.

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The most natural concept is to have the fantasy races as diverse as humanity, from physical appearance to geographic location. As mentioned, it’s not like Europe consisted of one people, racially or ethnically, so why should the mythological creatures?

Shake up your fantasy races by expanding their ranges of height, weight, skin tone, hair color, eye color, etc.

Maybe you have halflings from the colder, northern climates that tend to be taller, with blond hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. Elves from the warmer, southeastern regions, in the meantime, might be shorter, with black hair, brown eyes, and olive skin.

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When you design your world, you can mirror physical characteristics based on everywhere from Norway to Spain or Ireland to Greece. Little reason exists why elves, dwarves, halflings, etc. wouldn’t have the same diversity as humans.

Let’s also not forget that there are plenty of visitors and residents who originated from beyond the continent’s borders. Trade, migration, or invasion could bring characters into contact with a wide variety of peoples.

London, Rome, and Constantinople weren’t exactly homogeneous; a major fantasy city might have dwarves who are brown-skinned or gnomes with Asian features. Even the “monstrous” races might have a huge variety, like gnolls who look like black dogs to kobolds with the patterns of skinks.

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Of course, variation in appearance is just the easiest to change, as you can also include differences in culture. We can break from the clichés and reflect the diverse cultures of the world.

Elves from the eastern mountains might reflect Slavic cultures and environment, while dwarves from the southern seas might have traditions drawn from Latin and Hispanic countries. Can you imagine seafaring halflings who invade the western isles and follow Norse-like mythologies?

Once more, the “monstrous” races might receive some of the best treatment here, as they’re no longer homogeneous races of evil. Some orcs might follow closer to Gothic or Pictish lifestyles, while various goblins might be nomadic “travelers” who face conflict and prejudice wherever they settle.

What happens when the players, used to defending towns against marauding “evil” races run into different ones that are traders or craftspeople instead? Do they fall victim to their presumptions or do they find a world where not everything is what it seems?

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The biggest change would be to alter the game mechanics of the fantasy races to reflect this variety. Some games already do this by presenting “sub-races,” but often you’re limited to one or two that often still fall victim to classic tropes.

On top of the many cultures, we can also look toward the original mythologies for unique ideas.

For example, Elves have been through many iterations, and the word is found in Nordic, Germanic, and English mythologies. The idea of Celtic elves was primarily thanks to Tolkein’s blending of Irish legends with Nordic fantasy creatures, as well as 20th century romanticizing of all things Gaelic.

Why not have elves from northern regions that emulate more Icelandic, Norwegian, or Swedish origins? They’re probably still beautiful, with significant appearance or charisma, but they might contain bonuses to craft (like gnomes or dwarves) or even celestial abilities (like D&D’s aasimar).

Nordic dwarves might have an attunement to death magic, Anglo-Saxon halflings might have illusion or shape-shifting powers, and Grecian gnomes could manifest earth elemental powers. With just a little research and imagination, the fantasy races can become far more than clichés.

Of course, there’s little difference between making up your own sub-races and those already in written works (or homebrew compendiums). You’re still creating a homogeneous “sub-race” little different than writers did with gray dwarves or sea elves.

Instead of creating singular sub-races to choose from, you might take a variety of abilities and bonuses from which the players can choose. After all, a varied population would eventually have cross-marriages and cultural blending.

Maybe a halfling from the underworld might choose from a list of innate magical spells OR a bonus to specific skills (or a combination from each!), reflecting the uniqueness of everyone. After all, just like humans, each dwarf, elf, or orc is a product of both nature and nurture.

Just be careful you don’t present players with “choice overload” in your attempt to provide a little variety. Look at the sub-races already written, maybe add some new ones, and then allow them to pick traits from those lists.

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Of course, all of what’s been said also presumes a primarily Euro-fantasy setting, with the usual fantasy races found there. Expanding your world to include new continents brings with it new opportunities, including whole new species.

Going into the possible creatures and fantasy peoples of Asian, African, American, etc. cultures and continents would require a whole other discussion. Suffice to say, even with the above advice you can make your games feel less like Middle Earth and more like Hyboria.

Whatever you choose, remember to make your games memorable and break from the mold. New gamers might be happy to play in a homogeneous Azeroth, but after a while, these tropes can become old hat.

Adding some variety to the classic fantasy races, from regional appearances to changes in traits or motivations, can go a long way to keeping your games and setting exciting. At the very least, you’ll have something different than what’s already been done!

For more on this topic, check out the op-ed we posted yesterday.

About Brook H. (204 Articles)
Generalist, polymath, jack-of-all-trades... Brook has degrees in Human Behavior and Psychology and has majored in everything from computers to business. He's worked a variety of jobs, including theater, security, emergency communications, and human services. He currently resides outside Baltimore where he tries to balance children, local politics, hobbies, and work. Brook is HoH and a major Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing advocate, a lifelong gamer (from table-top to computer), loves everything paranormal, and is a Horror-movie buff.

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