by Darren Madigan
One thing I've noticed over my last ten years of GMing, as well as life in general, is that we all have a strong tendency to stereotype and pigeonhole according to race, religion or social background. While this is usually regrettable in real life, it's an unconscious trait that can be used to great effect in improving the depth and atmosphere of your RPG.
For example: say you're playing in a campaign with both humans and fairly common nonhumans. What do the humans look like? Got a good mental image in your mind's eye? I'd be willing to bet that, nine times out of ten, your mental image of generic humanity conforms racially, sexually, in gross physical appearance and in general age, to your own race, sex, appearance, and age. This is not in and of itself evil; virtually everyone sees "mankind" in terms of greatest familiarity – ourselves.
And, in most roleplaying games with both humans and common nonhumans, there is only one human race. All the players picture it as basically the above. Most GMs never even consider creating sub-races within humanity . . . the unconscious assumption seems to be that any world with orcs, goblins, hobbits, and dwarves (or Martians, snerls, and three-toed wingdings, or whatever) doesn't need Hispanics, Negroes, Orientals, Inuits, Caucasians, or Indians. And because of this, their human races tend to be pretty amorphous.
Instituting human sub-races, at least for my campaign, added a whole new dimension of background detail and atmosphere. Now, if I describe an NPC by his race as well as by his clothing, demeanor, and equipment, my players get an instant visual and emotional picture of him. This worked so well for humans that I didn't stop with them; all my mundane nonhumans (the common ones) got subdivided racially as well. (Some books, and a few gaming systems, do this with nonhumans. Tolkien's Orcs truly had different races, although most GMs just treat them as different tribes. Goblins and hobgoblins are obviously sub-races, of some goblinoid over-race.) My Jeopards and Aven (cat-like and birdlike humanoids, respectively) each became eight different sub-races, based on different breeds of cats and birds.
Since the vast majority of GMs already have their non-human races well established, I'll confine my suggestions to human sub-races. (Of course, it may seem strange that suddenly a half-dozen visually distinct breeds of man come into being where only Common Humanity has been before, but I think you'll find the benefits to be worth a brief period of mental confusion.) The sub-races I'm currently using in my campaign are all very visually distinct, and each race gives certain Attribute modifications and Advantages and Disadvantages for a package cost. Thus, your players could look at the list of available races and decide to be a Durshi, with the Durshi's different Attribute averages and built-in racial Advantages and Disadvantages. Or they could decide to just build an ordinary old Common Human. GMs may make certain races more common or uncommon, and add modifiers to the racial cost for rarity.
A brief word of explanation: the local area of play in my world is called the River Republics. It consists of a scattering of walled city-states spread up and down the Tharkis River, a huge river valley somewhat like the Mississippi or the Amazon, but bigger. The river's name has come to be associated with mankind; the local tongue is Tharkish, Common Humans are called Tharks, and "thark" is a generic term for humanity, as used by nonhumans. No, I did not deliberately steal this from Barsoom, but I'm sure my subconscious was heavily influenced. Bearing that in mind:
This race is native to the tropics. They have deeply black skin; their hair is wavy, with a lot of body, and may be red, black or light brown. They have deep-set eye-sockets and protruding ears. The majority have brown eyes, with about one in a hundred having green. They receive +1 to Strength and IQ (making their free average attributes 11 instead of 10, so building a Northark with a ST of 13 costs what a normal Human would pay for a 12) and -1 to Health (making their free average a 9, with the same proportional results). All Northarks have the advantage Double-Jointed, and the disadvantage Skinny.
This race is native to the semi-tropics. They have dusky brown skin and brownish black hair. Their hair is generally straight but, about once in a hundred, can be very curly. They have brown or, one in ten, yellow eyes. They appear to be very bow-legged. They receive +1 to Dexterity and Health, and -1 to Strength. They have the racial advantage Eidetic Memory at first level, and the disadvantage Lame at level 1, from being very bowlegged.
Native to the temperate zone, this race is comical in appearance but mentally formidable. They are all below average human height, completely hairless, buttery yellow, and overweight. They receive -1 to Strength, Health, and Dexterity, but receive a +3 to IQ (making their free average IQ a 13)! They also receive the racial advantages: 4 levels of Strong Will, Intuition, and either Luck or Magical Aptitude, depending on whether or not magic exists in your campaign. They also get racial disadvantages: Dwarfism, Overweight, and Low Pain Threshold.
One in a hundred male Sottles is a zuma. A warrior atavist race, nobody is sure (or at least, isn't telling) if the zuma state is natural, or somehow induced. Zuma are much like Sottles in appearance, except that they're huge, strong, quick, and virtually unstoppable. They're also sterile, and in fact, their sexual equipment is rather underdeveloped. Zumas born in Sottli Ban are conditioned from birth to obey any order given them by a Sottle. Zumas receive a +2 to Strength, Dexterity and Health, and a -2 to IQ. They have the racial advantages High Pain Threshold and Toughness at DR 2, and the disadvantages Sense of Duty Towards Sottles (Total) and Gigantism.
A bestial, savage race native to the wild forest regions outside civilization. Ulvane are lean and swarthy. They have brownish-black, spiky hair, overly hirsute bodies, and look like they're constructed of rawhide and whipcord – very sinewy, bony physiques. They have sharp features, slanted eyes, and noticeably sharp teeth. They receive +1 to Strength, Health and Dexterity, and -1 to IQ. They have the racial advantages of 5 levels of Acute Hearing, 5 levels of Acute Vision, Alertness, and Night Vision. They receive the disadvantages Color Blindness, Bad Temper, and Intolerance Towards All Non-Ulvane, and Ugly Appearance.
Native to the frozen, snowy regions, this race is larger than average, strong, handsome, and a little slow. They have albino skin and no body or facial hair. Their head hair is straight, generally worn long, and is either white, gold or red in metallic shades. Their eyes are blue; one in 20 has gold eyes. They receive +2 to Strength and Health, -1 to Dexterity, and -2 to IQ. They have the racial advantages of Handsome or Beautiful Appearance and Voice. They receive the racial disadvantages of limited Albinism (their eye and hair color are as above), Gigantism, and Overconfidence.
Combinations of the different races are possible. Crossbreeds might be allowed to pick and choose between some of the Advantages and Disadvantages – letting a Sottle-Sothark hybrid skip the Albinism so he can combine the golden Sottle skin with the long metallic hair and muscular build of a Sothark might give an interesting appearance, and is certainly plausible for a crossbreed.
In another campaign area in my world, the Empire of Man, all the same sub-races exist, but they have different names. Northarks are called Torics, Durshi are Urmine, Sottles are Nazish, zumas are unknown for some reason, Ulvane are called Harkesh, and Sotharks are known as the Arnish. Some of these names I like better myself, although I think "Sottle" is a perfect name for the little butterballs.
Each race has its own cultural background, too. Sottles are the greasy merchants and moneylenders of my world (they get the disadvantages Greedy and Miserly in my campaign, but other GMs may not want to have them that way). Ulvane are an extremely tribal and xenophobic race of primitive, warlike savages; when they appear in "civilization," they generally do so as mercenaries. Sotharks are also usually either fighters or pleasure-slaves; there is a thriving slave trade in Sothark children. Durshi tend to be agrarian villagers, while Northarks are hunters and foragers in the tropical jungles. Tharks (Common Humans) are typically city-dwellers – the walled, armed city-states are the population centers where the separate races tend to mingle the most, giving rise to large "common" human populations. What's fun and enlightening, and what usually calls for good roleplaying, is when the PCs or NPCs go against the stereotype – an Ulvane mage, for example, or a fierce Sottle mercenary. Big, strong Sothark scholars with little round spectacles are also interesting.
So the human tendency to stereotype can be useful to a GM. And if you make some of your non-player characters go deliberately against stereotype, you may not only surprise, intrigue, and entertain your players . . . you might enlighten them a little, as well.
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