Building a fantasy world usually involves including fantasy races and even “monsters”. What races do you need, or want, in your world, and how do you pick them?
The Core Races
One of the defining choices for a fantasy world is to decide what races you want to include. It is also one of the decisions the game system does for you, so if you don’t pay attention, you may end up with a different world than you want.
What Do You Want?
The tone is vital to a fantasy world. Do you want a dark world for humans, elves, dwarves, and orcs? Do you want halflings and gnomes in your world? Crowdudes, mouselings, and gatorfolk? Will they add to the stories you want to create? Races will change how you experience the story. How would the Game of Thrones play out if the Lannisters were gnomes?
I first began working on my world using basic Dungeons and Dragons. I never considered changing the default races. Elves, dwarves, and halflings were merely a part of the game, and the sample adventure featured kobolds and goblins.
Everything in the rules books was part of my world by default. Later I have regretted this non-decision as fantasy racial stereotypes do not necessarily fit the stories I want to tell or the setting I want to create.
Tolkien’s hobbits are there to represent you in contrast Sauron. Home and hearth. So let’s say your group has no interest in playing homely halfling farmers, and there was no ring to carry to Mount Doom. So why include halflings in the world? Sure, it is easy to come up with reasons, but I did even not do that.
Again my non-decision got the better of me while creating my world. I did not consider what I wanted. Both the elves and the dwarves were pale shadows of Tolkien’s elves and dwarves, the halflings, and the gnomes had no purpose, and the orcs were pulled straight from the rules book.
Sure, fixing these problems is possible. I can add details and let my poor choices grow into something better. I could revise the setting, but reboots are always awkward, so getting it right the first time around is better.
What Do Your Players Want?
If you are building a world for a game, you must consider your players. Games are not novels or movies. Roleplaying games are not about your “artistic vision.” It is about collective stories created by everybody present. Not the GM. Not just you.
So, if you have that guy in the group who always wants to play dwarves (I’ve come to understand it’s relatively common), then you should include dwarves in your world. You should even make them vital to the setting, so the dwarf players have something worthwhile to do right from the start. Allowing someone to play something, and then ignore the choice is not cool.
Making the List
Figuring both what you and your players want gives you a list of core races to your world. The number of races should match your preference regarding scope and depth. If you want a sweeping grand tale, perhaps many races will help you create that story. If you want a deep and layered story, possibly limiting the number of races will give you the focus you desire.
Perhaps what you and the players want different things, and you end up with a compromise? That is ok, because you may be wrong, and again, gaming is not just about you.
The core races in my world are down to humans, elves, dwarves, and orcs. After 35 years the basic descriptions in the D&D basic set still fits, and yet there is plenty of depth to these races to explore. The key is to create your our variants, using environment and history.
Once you have established the core races you want to include in your world, you should consider regional ethnicities. History, geography, and environment shape the regions and the folk that inhabits them.
The elves of Middle-Earth live in the woodlands and are recluses. The orcs of Moria are distinct from the orcs serving Saruman in Middle-Earth. How would the Lord of the Rings read a desert region of Middle-Earth?
If you include regional variants to set up yourself for more work, but the outcome will hopefully be more rewarding. If your active region is small – which it should be at least in the beginning – you will be stuck with that one dominant ethnicity for a while, so make sure you design one that fits your story and tone of your world.
Outlining your world’s history, you will quickly assemble a list of wars, betrayals, and clashes of cultures. If you carefully craft names for splinter factions (who betrayed whom at the battle of what) you quickly have a list of regional variant races, and you know their origins.
For example, on Azeroth, the destruction of Silvermoon make the blood elves split from the high elves, while the dark elves to Toril were created when two tribes were cast out and driven underground after the Crown Wars.
Once you sort out a variant race name, localization and a few defining moments in history you should be able to add details as needed more quickly. Details give the race depth beyond the genre trope.
“An elf is slender and graceful, with delicate features and pointed ears.”
– Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set (1983)
The elves are beautiful, graceful, intelligent and live long lives. They are skilled warriors, usually archers, and has an affinity for magic. They live close to nature, often deep in the forests in tree-houses or beautiful cities.
In Middle-Earth, there appears to be regional variation among the elves. The northern elves of Mirkwood seem more secretive and warlike than their southern brethren in Lorien. Perhaps because of the Mirkwood itself and the proximity to Dol Guldur, while the Lorien seem to enjoy a safer environment as long as Moria is deserted of orcs.
On Thedas, the world of the Dragon Age franchise. Dalish and the city elves, not to mention the ancient elves, have distinct differences. The city elves are former slaves, living in squalor in the slums. The dalish live in the wilds trying to recreate their lost civilization. The ancient elves are hinted to be immortal and powerful, or at least until we learn more about them.
The elves of the Warcraft franchise offer new variants: the Night Elves, the High Elves, the Dark Elves, and Blood Elves – all descendants of the original Night Elves, each with their moment in history when they split from the others.
The D&D elves have a special place in that game as their gods did not create them. The elves of the Forgotten Realms are direct descendants of Corellon Larethian, the chief of their pantheon, as explained in a D&D Beyond interview of lead designer Mike Mearls.
“A dwarf is short and stocky, standing about 4’ tall and weighing about 150 pounds.”
– Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set (1983)
The dwarves are perhaps the most typecast of the fantasy races. They are stocky, gruff, exceptionally skilled craftsmen and warriors. Throw in a Scottish accent and an axe, and you are set to go.
The dwarves organize society in clans, according to the Dungeons and Dragon Expert Set (1983), and Warcraft refer to dwarf factions as clans.
The Warcraft dwarves have a similar history as the elves, as they trace their origin to one clan who later split into several clans for various reasons.
The Dragon Age dwarves, on the other hand, is organized in traditionalists, the casteless and the surface dwarves. The traditionalists live in strict castes, and dwarven tradition and honor hamper the dwarves’ ability to deal with an emerging crisis like the Blight, and when you throw hypocrisy and ruthlessness into the mix, the dwarven city of Orzammar appear like a broken society. A perfect place for intrigue and adventure.
“An orc is an ugly human-like creature, and looks like a combination of animal and man.”
– Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set (1983)
The orcs are the rank-and-file monsters in many fantasy stories often serving a dark lord.
Tolkien’s orcs are black- or grey skinned broken things, actually corrupted and broken elves, and firmly under the heel of a dark lord. Tolkien’s orcs are impossible without the elves and Melkor, and both are uniquely tied to Middle-Earth.
The basic D&D orc follows the Tolkien tradition, while later editions of the game and its settings bring nuance to this picture. The corner story of the D&D orcs today is the troubled relationship between the deities CC and Gruumsh, recently described in the Volo’s Guide to Monsters (2016). The D&D orcs of today do not serve a Sauron-style dark lord but are instead religious zealots driven on a path of destruction by a twisted sense of honor and religious fervor.
The Warcraft orcs are green-skinned savage warriors with conflicting loyalties and complex codes of honor. They are at first glance the soldiers of evil, at least in the first couple of games, but they quickly diverge from Tolkien’s mold and become more nuanced. Tolkien’s orcs and Blizzard’s orcs are hardly the same race at all.
Dragon Age does not feature orcs, but the darkspawn certainly come close. The darkspawn are the armies of darkness serving a dark lord in the first game. Without getting into spoiler territory, they indeed appear to be mindless brutes with some similarities to zombie hordes, with abilities derived from their racial heritage.
The Reading List
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So what about the word “race”? Here is some food for thought: Paul Sturevant’s Race: the Original Sin of the Fantasy Genre and Black Nerd Problems’ Why I Didn’t Play Dungeons and Dragons, And Why I Started.
An amusing new addition to the lore of fantasy races is a series of books released by Osprey Adventures. Elf Warfare (2017), by veteran games designer and Green Ronin publisher Chris Pramas, present us with the elven races, armies, troops, tactics and famous battles. The beautifully illustrated book is short and sweet, gives a quick and insightful look at what an elven army might look like. There are currently two other books in the series – dwarves and orcs – which appear to have the same format.
The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher (starting 2000) has an interesting assortment of creatures as the series progress. Harry Dresden himself is kind of a modern Philip Marlowe with wizard skills and a healthy appetite for current day geek culture. Harry Dresden was my first encounter with urban fantasy books, so I did not quite know what to expect, other than katanas-and-trenchcoats and perhaps a few vampires. Butcher delivers on both expectations, but also adds a more colorful menagerie of races than I anticipated. Butcher has a set of rules for his world, he sticks to them, and he only tells us what we need to know.
The Tolkien Companion (David Day 1993) has been my reference for all things Middle-Earth, including races, over the years. It’s fairly decent if you can find it.
A Dictionary of Tolkien, and its companion books, by David Day appears to be more recent editions of the older book.
Roleplaying Game Books
Races of Faerun (2003) by Eric L. Boyd, Matt Forbeck, and James Jacobs is the go-to book for the races in the Forgotten Realms. The book establish the human ethnicities of the Realms and added depth to the elves, dwarves, and halflings, in addition to numerous minor races. Its influence is felt in more recent sources like Sword Coast Adventures (2015) or Volo’s Guide to Monsters (2016). The former is a fine update of parts of the setting, but the definitive work is the older book. Races of Faerun is a setting-specific book, but can easily be mined for ideas for other worlds.
Paizo Publishing has no single book for all the races, although the Inner Sea book may be close. Paizo has opted for smaller books to develop their world Golarion, for instance, Humans of Golarion (2011). The Pathfinder Advanced Race Guide and the Monster Codex are other books that can be mined for ideas, primarily of the Pathfinder RPG.