A few days ago, Wizards.com posted a gem from the 1e DMG regarding humans as a playable race. Quoting that article as my source for what’s in the book—something I’ve painstakingly explained to my mother she should never do in her master’s program papers—I present you with the following gem: “This is done principally because the player sees the desired monster character as superior to his or her peers and likely to provide a dominant role for him or her in the campaign,” the Dungeon Master’s Guide states. “A moment of reflection will bring them to the unalterable conclusion that the game is heavily weighted toward mankind.”
The article also quotes the following wall of text: “The game features humankind for a reason. It is the most logical basis in an illogical game. From a design aspect it provides the sound groundwork. From a standpoint of creating the campaign milieu it provides the most readily usable assumptions. From a participation approach it is the only method, for all players are, after all is said and done, human, and it allows them the role with which most are most desirous and capable of identifying with. From all views then it is enough fantasy to assume a swords & sorcery cosmos, with impossible professions and make-believe magic. To adventure amongst the weird is fantasy enough without becoming that too!”
Aaand, wow, I have apparently been playing wrong for years.
But it’s not just me, the entire game has been steadily shifting towards a nonhuman-inclusive format since the introduction of 3rd. I remember how exciting it was to see how the 3rd edition format doubled ability adjusts; for anyone reading this who joined later, since 3rd also put every ability onto the same general table this was the first time you were guaranteed to have your character’s race markedly alter your stats. Back in the day, maybe you wanted to play an elf even though your dex was sitting at 11. When you picked elf, your dexterity bumped up a single point…to zero effect, since that table started providing bonuses at 13. Other tables provided their bonuses later; I believe you needed a 16 to get a damage bonus out of Str (and 17 to get an attack bonus). But it’s cool, guys, because Str actually went up to 18/00 since you had a percentile roll if you scored an 18!
In addition to encouraging a 4d6 drop the lowest roll method, 3rd helped put all of the ability scores on the same progression. These two changes meant that playing an elf suddenly became a significant decision that boosted your decision to make an archer fighter. However, 3x still carried the racial ability score penalties, so there was a tradeoff for any race. It also maintained imbalanced ability score modifiers for some races, something that pissed me off then and bothers me now because it just felt unfair to those poor half-orcs.
The other tremendous change was removing level limits and class restrictions from races, which suddenly allowed that elven archer fighter to reach the same lofty heights as a human archer fighter. Humanity was swiftly losing its traditional advantages…which, remember, were basically “a lack of significant penalties” and nothing else. To compensate, the designers actually gave humans some boosts; specifically an increase in their potential for skill training and a free feat. While powerful options for bringing certain character concepts to life, these benefits weren’t so strong that I’d look at them, then at a gnome with his Int bump, and say “I’d be a fool not to play the human!” Granted, I didn’t know we were diving 3x classes into these “tiers,” or that wizards were overpowered as a class, until about 2 years ago. And I haven’t played 3x in closer to 4. The game I like to play and the game the optimization forums like to play is as different as (off-color euphamism for a particularly athletic coital act) is from (off-color euphemism for onanism).
Humans also gained greater flexibility in multiclassing, and that was something I would have paid greater attention to if I’d been playing tabletop during the era of 3rd. Other races were subtly forced into traditional channels by limitations placed on their ability to juggle multiple classes (such a big thing in 3rd) of wildly varied levels, unless one of those classes was their favored class.
Thing is, I did all of my play online during this time, and in six or so years of playing I probably gained a total of seven levels. PbPs, at least the ones I played in, tended to lack the necessary lifespan for continued advancement. This reduced the significance of an xp penalty for characters leveling in multiple classes, and most DMs just threw that penalty out altogether.
I still rolled a few humans during the 3.x era: a warblade, that crazy-ass psion, a real down-to-earth character in a very low-powered game, even my most iconic DnD character was a human. But I rolled almost as many duergar in the same period, definitely as many half-orcs. And this was 3.x; I rolled a flamebrother salamander Dustman cremationist at one point. I understood that the race, with its bonus feat and skill boost, was the premier choice for a lot of builds. I understood that being able to hump up to…what…Greater Cleave? at level 1 was a thing not to be ignored. But they rarely fit my interests, and so I only threw them together when the story seemed to suit it or when I was really hungry for that feat bump at level one.
Now, in the world of 4e, we have a human that I think works pretty well. Still have that bonus feat, still get that skill boost, and the extra at-will is a delicious option; particularly if you’re eyeing any of the psionic options. As an aside, when I say “psionic” I’m never talking about Monks; they’re cool and all, but it seems strange to me that you lump them in with three extremely unified classes. It’s cool if you want to say that they’re psionic, but it hardly feels necessary.
Anypants, the bump I run into with character creation in 4e is that I usually need that extra stat boost, and humans aren’t providing that. I tend to need that extra boost because I have a proclivity for sub-optimal builds, odd multiclasses, and so forth. I’m usually lucky to squeak a 16 in my primary stat, and it’s often the case that I need a 16 in at least one other stat to make the build work. That gets plenty expensive when you’re running a human. I also can’t imagine taking the other human racial, though I guess if your build was so tight you couldn’t envision a situation where an additional at-will option comes into play, maybe you go with it.
That’s only looking at things from a character creation/roleplay perspective, though. I’ve already come out and stated that I have trouble accepting human ascendancy from a fantasy prospective. The argument usually comes down to “They breed fast and master things quickly,” which feels like a size-of-the-boat argument to me. Goblins breed quickly, and goblins are wicked smart and organized. Kobolds breed quickly, and they have the same qualities and are beloved of gamers besides. The argument that’s supposed to keep both of those races down is their supposedly inherent cowardice, which is usually tied (at least in part) to their small size. But given that they’re subterranean races, that small size is to their benefit…and when five or ten creatures come on you in a tunnel you’re stooped half-over to travel, cowardice really need not apply.
Humans aren’t as long-lived as the elves, which markedly cuts down on their ability to be recognized as masters of any endeavor an elf might take an interest in. Dwarves get a similar bump, particularly in the areas of craftsmanship and architecture. Humans are usually presented as being relatively morphic, genetically, giving rise to tieflings, half-elves, and half-orcs. But that, too, is sourced in some of the odd-ass genetics that you find in DnD when you look back far enough; like how elves couldn’t breed with certain other species. Also, there’s the assumption that dwarves and elves don’t get along—an assumption loyal to Tolkien, certainly, but not necessarily core to every fantasy world. Tinderbox has half-elves and half-orcs, but both races are generally the product of elf/dwarf, elf/orc, or orc/dwarf pairings.
And that is, of course, because Tinderbox has no humans. I took them out. I didn’t see a place where I could justify them existing as anything but primitive creatures. They don’t make slave races on par with a potpourri of orcs and goblinoids. They didn’t have any sort of timeline advantage that would give them a technological edge over the dwarven, elven, and draconic empires. They’re not capable of adapting to any environment the others can’t live in. And there’s no god or gods who took an inexplicable interest in the soft-skinned, natural defenseless, mewling race and elevated them above the others. So the humans made dark deals and became Beastmen.
I have given humans homes in some of my other campaigns. They were notable in the Jhyaran campaign world as being blessed by several of the gods, both Elemental and Seasonal. However, they still weren’t the dominant race there; that went to an equally Godblessed elven subspecies. Humans were more numerous, and thus given to stewardship of the aforementioned elves’ empire; but their positions were without much political power. Humans in my high school campaign existed, but primarily as fertile-crescent-dwelling fodder for the orcish hordes. Their territory was of necessity small, since that campaign was rife with extremely hostile environments which required special adaptation (and were each home to a particular subrace of dwarf or elf).
I generally see humans as being either a secondary race in thrall or allegiance with the card-holders of the campaign, or (as an excellent article in Dragon provided some support for) as a race whose environmental adaptations give them some small niches in which to dwell. If you have a hostile swamp, humans might devise a society that survives especially well there. Clad in croc skin and wielding serrated spears, the humans might cautiously emerge to trade with the fair fey inhabitants of nearby crystal cities. Humans might wander, wrapped in silks and wielding curved swords, through an inhospitable desert no one else much cares to dwell in; their trade in gems and enchantments keeps them neutral in the endless war between the dwarven mercantile concerns and the deathless legions of the tiefling dynasties.
But running the campaign? I just can’t get there.
8 thoughts on “A-Z Action: M is for Mankind”
I remember back in the day Kiwi and me used to go to incredible lengths to argue over stuff like this (goblins vs kobolds, two handed weapons vs sword n’ board, fighters vs wizards, etc). One big argument I remember us having was this point especially: what makes humans so great (in 3x at least)?
He was of the opinion that any number of other races were bigger, or smarter, or tougher, and like you thought that humans should be at the bottom of the D&D food chain. My response was that that for the 99.9% of the world that is made up of NPCs, the bonus feat and bonus skill points are sooooooo much more of a big deal than players give them credit for.
Yes, they can let you do some pretty sweet low-level optimization that makes your average level 1 human PC a veritable combat monster compared to any other similarly statted non-human challenger. But put that aside for the moment. Think about the great unwashed masses that never lift a blade, the thousands upon thousands of NPCs that comprise the background tapestry that is what a setting is ultimately built upon. The merchants, the craftsmen, the politicians, the laborers. The dominance of a race within a setting shouldn’t be solely gauged by how many PCs spring forth from its loins to shake a sword, but rather be more closely tied to the political, cultural, and economic advantages that that race brings to the table.
And humans have them all. All the advantages. All of them.
Take dwarves. They’re great smiths, right? You’d expect them to be captains of industry, technologically superior, sitting on top of a pile of hard-earned riches earned from mining and tinkering and smithing all the live long day? But humans are better. Take your average dwarf and human smith and put them side by side. Make them both commoners or artisans or whatever the hell you want, give them 10’s in all their abilities (before racial stat bumps), whatever.
he dwarf has a +2 bonus to certain limited sorts of crafting (stone and metal), +2 to appraise, and can use his feat to put into skill focus in either crafting or profession.
The human has no racial bonus, but has two feats to burn, one each for crafting AND profession. Stop right there, and your average dedicated human smith is a little bit better (+1) at his craft than the average dwarf smith. But it doesn’t stop there… the human’s got more skill points right off the bat, and will continue to have more with every level he gains. While the dwarf is dutifully pumping all his points into crafting, maybe having enough to bump profession from time to time as well, the human is going to have extra points flowing into appraise or bluff or diplomacy or any number of other skills that make him better able to peddle his wares. And he’ll have a better charisma while he’s at it, so even with no extra skill investment he’d already be buying his materials for cheaper and selling them for more than his dwarven rival. And he speaks an extra language that can be used to make connections with foreign markets that the dwarf lacks the ability to parlay with. And there’s a ton more of him than there are dwarven smiths, as he grows and reproduces about 4x as quickly.
The point is, there isn’t a race and there isn’t a sphere of life that this same match up DOESN’T apply to. Humans always start off at level 1 better at EVERY sort of profession, and when you have an entire race of fast-reproducing ambitious individuals with a natural edge at everything and anything they set their minds to, it becomes hard to see how humans could possibly NOT be running the show. Even if they got their asses kicked in every fight they ever had (which again, really wouldn’t happen, as even a level 1 human commoner with average stats will out-fight any level 1 monster you throw at him by virtue of his feats), humans would STILL end up ruling the world by virtue of their superior cultural, diplomatic, and economic abilities. And they have sheer numbers, and interbreed with everyone, so it very unlikely that their population would ever dwindle even if completely dominated and oppressed by another race, as they’d just interbreed the invaders into submission.
Hyper-specialization only gets you so far in the world, and at the end of the day it is the most adaptable race that wins. 3x humans can choose to be good at whatever they need to be, rather than being destined for a single particular path, and are always better at what they choose to do than the other races that are supposedly specialized for that area.
Now… admittedly, its a little harder to make this argument in 4e, but that’s only really because the game has done away with any and all rules relating to non-combat existence. We don’t see the mechanisms and rules that determine how good someone is at forging swords or building houses or selling fruit… but its a fair guess that if those rules are written, humans will have an edge. They always do.
Man, I miss Kiwi. That boy be grown by now, no doubt.
You make a thorough point about man’s professionalism, though I don’t think it carries over to combat as you claim. While any human fighter at level 1 [i]might[/i] kill a given orc at the same level (there be variables, like night raids and such), the whole point of an agricultural society (as most humans are posited to possess) is that you get a division of labor going. So proportionally, you’re going to have lots of human peasants with a pitchfork clutched in a shaky grasp falling before an orc who, frankly, has nothing better to do than whip that axe.
However, as I said I’m willing to acknowledge your point about the humans and their craft. I don’t think that having a boost at the start of one’s craft is that good of a substitute for living to 300 (especially in a medieval setting where a human life expectancy is really around mid-sixties at best), or being naturally talented at mastering magical crafts and living to 1000.
But more importantly, you haven’t addressed what I consider to be the real issue. DnD is already predicated on the idea that goblins aren’t running shit, and kobolds aren’t running shit; both races live in sewers and warrens and sub-tunnels and so forth. The conceit is supposed to be, I guess, that despite both races being smarter than humans they just can’t get over on those soft-skinned motherfuckers. And maybe, in a world that’s already human-dominated—with happy chirpy elf and comically grumpy dwarf pals helping out, of course—I could buy that.
But (and here’s, as I said, the real issue) I simply don’t see any reason why humans would be in charge to begin with. As I said in the post, outside of a campaign with some gods who back humans to begin with, what gives them the advantage in a world where things start out equal? Most campaigns get around that by filling their pantheon with pro-human gods…which is largely just an evolution of a Western, Judeo-Christian approach to linear time and privilege. Gods love man, because…they’re written that way.
Your Orc, he’s got one god (maybe). Goblins too. Kobolds, same thing. Maybe you get a progressive campaign like Eberron, where the pantheon is race-agnostic. But…when you have that sort of campaign, the human-dominated splotch of the map gets a lot smaller. And shrunk still further when the hobs decided to straight up take a kingdom…because they were serving as a major component of the armies of all the human nations…because the human House built to be good at fighting ended up relying on them to fill out the roster…because hobs are just such good damn soldiers.
In any campaign where humans don’t have a disproportionate backing of anglicized helpful gods watching out for them while a comparatively tiny group of “bad” gods (most of whom are, themselves, tied to non-human races) ineffectually strive to screw them over…I don’t see humans getting a chance to get advanced. I don’t even see them developing tools unless someone else (divine or longer-lived) hands it to them.
I don’t object to considering humans a statistical baseline as a race. But to envisage them as the cultural norm…I can’t get there man. Fruit stands or no.
I’ll preface this by clarifying that I actually like that Tinderbox lacks humans, and have been playing for a while with a setting that tries to do a similar thing. Still, if we’re talking about general sentiment in response to generic D&D worlds, I have to disagree and say that the human race NEEDS to be dominant.
It sounds like you’re saying that whether or not humans should MECHANICALLY be top dogs because of their stats, you don’t agree with whatever it is about humanness as a CONCEPT that makes it assumed to be so prevalent in D&D settings. Right? If we’re taking D&D’s mechanical write up of the races out of the discussion, and just talking about imagining a world with humans and orcs and dwarves etc etc growing up side by side… I still think humans would be the shit. And it still has a lot to do with their versatility and freedom to grow up to be whatever they want to be.
You said it yourself: the orc’s got nothing better to do than “whip that axe.” The dwarf’s got nothing better to do than drink himself stupid in a hole in the ground. The elf’s got nothing better to do than hug a tree. Every non-human race has consistently been presented as a two-dimensional stereotype. Sure, sometimes that stereotype differs from setting to setting (in some settings halflings are lovable gypsies, while in others they’re hard-assed dino riders), but at the end of the day every breed of demihuman has been presented again and again as being about one thing, having strong racial predilications and needs, doing what they’ve always done in lockstep with tradition. Bucking those stereotypes too hard is sort of cheating for the purpose of this conversation: if you reduce orc-ness to tusks and green skin and ignore that they’re generally brutal thick-headed tribal savages, you’re really not talking about orcs any more, but rather deformed humans. Demihumans pretty much all have something they generally LIKE to do, and something they HATE to do.
Humans, on the other hand, do it ALL without betraying their cultural expectations. It doesn’t take any stretch of creative character building to plop a frothing human barbarian down next to a refined human bard; they both make sense. You write up a scholarly orcish wizard, though,or a muscle-bound halfling door-smasher, and an eyebrow or two raises appreciatively at seeing expectations challenged and the grain gone against. Its expected that humans have a wide variety of specialists in every conceivable role without needing to rely on angsty rebels bucking their society’s expectations.
I can build a balanced 5 man party with nothing but humans without anyone batting an eye, and aside from it being easy to do MECHANICALLY, its easy to do THEMATICALLY as well. Try to do the same thing with 5 elves, or orcs, or goblins, what have you… and it starts to seem gimicky and implausible (why aren’t ALL the goblins sneaking? pshhh!). Expand the concept of the party to that of a tribe or a nation, and you start to see why humans can hold their own: without needing to ally with other races, they have a flexible enough world view that humanity can supply all its own soldiers and scholars, thieves and politicians, heroes and villains, without the need to outsource to other races to fill gaps in their population. Everyone else can bring a pretty damn good force of one or two types of specialists to the field, but they’re going to be missing some chunk of a well-balanced society that holds them back.
Orcs can’t rule the world because they aren’t civic minded enough. Elves can’t do it because they lack the willingness to rape the earth for the necessary resources to support a sprawling empire. Halflings aren’t brutal enough, dwarves hate leaving home, goblins are disorganized, etc etc etc.But humans can go anywhere they need to, do anything they need to, and believe in anything they need to to get the job done.
I’m again going to say that I think that what goes into being a cultural powerhouse in a dangerous and shifting world is ADAPTABILITY. Humans can be found in swamps, forests, mountains, plains, and deserts. They can be found as hippies, slavers, fanatics, nomads, merchants, and conquerors. They make sense in huge empires, small towns, and as hermits. There’s no archetype you can imagine, no niche that can be found, that a human doesn’t fit into perfectly. There’s nothing you can imagine any particular demihuman doing that a human can’t be found plucking away at too. And that sort of ubiquitous presence, the state of finding humans everywhere doing everything, is exactly what lays out the foundation for D&D expecting humans to be the cultural baseline.
I’ma actually touch a little on some of what might fundamentally distinguish our viewpoints in this in my review of Fast Five.
But the short version: everything you’ve presented above is based in the idea that each race is A) a certain way universally and B) the way that’s presented in “core” fantasy.
Which is fine if that’s your bag, but it’s never been mine. Shit, son, I’m mulatto! Half black, half white, never saw a black person I wasn’t related to in my home state until…I’d say maybe middle of high school? I’m from Wyoming, and the way that shit layers out I’m Wyoming first, a member of my family second, and my mixed race thereafter. But when it comes to my own race, a lot of my experiences as a black man have been reactive; I’ve been shaped not by black influences, but rather by the prejudices of people who’ve only been informed by a history of media interpretations and prejudicial traditions regarding how black people need to be treated. I was once told that I couldn’t possibly know the plot of Caddyshack because I’m black, for fuckssake.
Point being, this certainly informs my approach to races and cultures. What people constantly hold up is the reason humans get to win the world is that they’re so adaptive; but that only really makes sense if you assume no other race is also adaptive. I don’t hold to that, nor do I see any reason why doing so is intrinsic to the game. There is the tendency in the fantasy to give each race a specific god, which I mentioned earlier, and I could see you deciding to use that to justify a particular race/culture being limited. But, again, that’s pretty limiting and somewhat recursive; it only works if you give a particular race a god and make that god hold up all the sad-ass stereotypes already associated with that race.
In the campaign I ran in college, the god of the Orcs was the forbidden secret lovechild of the Laughing Locust God of Fire and the Wild Obsessive Goddess of Summer. She was poised, beautiful, disciplined, organized, deadly…the beautiful part provisional since she never removed her obsidian mask. She was, in fact, the Obsidian Lady, and her orcs were a feudal society along samurai lines, albeit with an Aztec religious flavor. I kept the general theme that orcs are closely tied to their god, that they’re warlike, that they’re numerous, and that they hold life cheaply; I changed pretty much everything else.
In the campaign I ran in high school, elves were the most numerous race. That gameworld was utterly wrecked, though, because the elemental components of the now-dead god of nature had run rampant. Since I consider elves to be, at their core, a race that lives in harmony with nature (as opposed to dwarves, which work in dominance of it), the elves in each region were vastly different; they actually changed physiologically in response to their environment. The elves of the forest were the closest to your standard, though they bled green and took greater damage from wooden weapons and fire. The elves of the north were shorter and heavier, resistant to cold, and capable of freezing targets (at will chillfire; this was 2e).
In that same campaign, dwarves were divided into three varieties, each tied to a different core substance they worked: stone, metal, or gems. The dwarves were actually comprised of their respective substance, and grew more thoroughly infused with that substance as they leveled. I kept their love of craft, their fearlessness, their tendency towards isolation; but they were freakish and frightful looking, and resembled humanity next to not at all.
So this gets at the core difference between your view of the game at its macro level and mine: I don’t give humans a hard handle on versatility or adaptability. I consider that a necessary element of any race that wants to be successful and lacks some other advantage to give them an edge (even if that “edge” might be subjugation to a more powerful and organized race). What I do give humans, when I deign to include them, is what most people saddle goblins and kobolds with: desperation. Humans get an extra feat because they’re relatively short lived, relatively scarce on the ground, and relatively weak when compared to races specialized in those areas. They have to learn skills swiftly, and master them, because their lives are a flickering candle and their entire civilization is just a desperate rage against that light’s dying.
And if I don’t get to it in the next few posts, remind me to do up something about Themes and Fantasy, as it might help preserve me from the charges of misanthropy that artful-ass sentence I just wrote could earn.
You pretty much have me pegged with A), but I did try to make clear that I wasn’t assuming B), giving halflings as an example. They can be gypsies or dino riders or cannibals depending on whether you’re in the forgotten realm, eberron, or dark sun (or something else entirely, if you’re homebrewing)… but I will concede that the way I operate (and the way I feel MOST player and DMs operate) is to assume that once you figure out what a race is “about,” pretty much all its members will be about that. And that’s kind of a problem, but I yam what I yam.
Let me tell you a little bit about the last setting I homebrewed… Similar to your samurai orcs, I shunned the “‘core’ fantasy” cultural stereotypes in favor of slapping real-world cultures onto fantasy races. My dwarves were Nepalese, various goblins were different sorts of East Asian (I believe hobgoblins were Chinese, bugbears Mongolian, and goblins Thai), orcs were Slavic, gnomes were Indian, elves East African, halflings Arab, and humans Western European. The whole thing was supposed to have a very cosmopolitan silk-road type of feel, centering around the plight of the poor peaceful dwarves.
At the time, I thought I was knocking down the D&D human bias and redrawing the lines, giving all the races rich real-world cultures to draw from in the hope of attracting players to craft unique characters that didn’t bumble around spouting tired fantasy tropes about beards and ale and pointy ears. But do you see what I did there? Do you notice how humans ended up being European, being ‘white’? That even when I tried to give all races equal claims to fully developed cultures, I still for some reason snuck humans the cultural edge to be the normal base line to which everyone else would be compared by my players? Even after my orcs became cossacks, they were still “other.” It didn’t matter if I restatted them or gave them human sounding names and culture… I wasn’t fooling myself or anyone else: they were still orcs, and orcs weren’t normal.
So what I’m trying to say is… I think my reluctance to let go of human dominance has to do with me being a incorrigible orientalist. The admiration I have for non-western cultures never manages to amount to much more than voyeur titillation, and I’ve never been able to really flesh out a robust fictional world without a stable western-european foundation to build it on top of.
But I think that that’s a shortcoming I probably share with the vast majority of creative minds that have been behind this and every other edition of D&D we’ve ever played. The romanticization and compartmentalization of “others” in D&D and fantasy in general has a long and distinguished history, and as much as you are far far better at bucking its influence than I, in some way I have to think it will always be part of the game. Deep down, I stubbornly believe that no matter how much you strip away, when a player hears you call your samurai orcs “orcs,” the process that happens in their brain to lend meaning to the word involves beginning at a (western-european) human starting point, and then modifying from there (“more muscles, bigger teeth, meaner, greener…”). Even without a single human in the setting, they’re going to be the elephant in the room that everyone is thinking about on some level as they make sense of the world around them and its peoples.
So to sum up my last few posts… why are humans so hot (for a guy like me)? Because they’ve got the stats for it. And if they don’t have the stats for it, they still have the culture and drive for it. And if they don’t have that culture (or even don’t exist), they still remain our subconscious crutch that’s oh-so-hard to be rid of.
Yeah, I did catch your halfling statement in the previous post…but as you aptly acknowledged in this post, it was something of a throwaway adjacent to your main thrust.
You ever read Guns, Germs, and Steel? I think one of the things that helps me to craft up cultures and worlds that owe less to modern conceptualizations and Europeanism is reading that book back in the day. Specifically, if you think from an evolutionary standpoint and work on determining the “suite” of resources a given race had back in prehistory, it’s easier to run in a different direction. Gods are part of that suite, of course, but gods die sometimes, and change others, and fade if their worshippers head in a different direction.
Another thing that helps (and something 4e DnD does, but I think backwards) is Cyclopean proto-cultures and prehistory. If you (even arbitrarily) decide “These dudes DID run shit,” building that fantastical made-up culture, and who was up and who was down, and what brought it low, all help to thoroughly mix the cultural preconceptions. Then you decide how things develop from there, and what races are likely to have an advantage.
But yeah, I think your analysis of how your brain treats non-human races is insightful and valuable. It’s not dissimilar to how people think about (non rpg) racial issues, or sexual mores, or so on. I imagine that a somewhat similar principle was behind all the applications for Tinderbox being elven…since it’s about as close to human as my setting lets you get. And it’s interesting that whatever impulse this is, I absolutely don’t have it. I think I’ve rolled…maybe 2 humans in 4e, counting Ralash. I think of a character and my mind much more easily goes to alternate races…or even reskinning one alternate race as another.
It’s interesting, every reason you outline for the logical progression/presence of non-humans in a fantasy world is precisely why I’m favoring fantasy settings that are exclusively human-centered. So in a way we reached the same conclusion, but went in opposite directions. 🙂
I much prefer these days to have my dwarves and elves isolationist, small in number, and extremely peripheral. Having a human-only perspective increases the fantastic elements of the setting–I actually completely agree with Gygax that establishing a baseline of relate-ability is paramount, and to me much more interesting than the “Star Trek effect” of having a bunch of human analogues running around in funny make-up and costumes that you get with vanilla D&D settings.
I can’t say that I’m surprised we go in different directions on this, David! We seem to have predilections that are similar until they’re completely different on a lot of things, and that’s what makes the damn hobby so great.
This wholly unexpected line of conversation, between you and Alamo, has definitely brought into sharp relief just how much my experience as a quirky Wyoming mulatto shaped my approach to gaming. For me, what’s relate-able is a culture—a world—that captures the thrill of seeing something Fantasy for the first time. And nothing brings me out of that experience faster than a world where humans are on top and…when I read it…it feels like they’re there because they’re humans and that’s what you do. Or because the other races are less powerful, less competent, or less intelligent because to present them as otherwise would break the campaign.
I think it gets my multiculturalism dander up, frankly. I look to what you did when you cracked the Gray Box and immediately decided that you were going to look at other cultures during the era they suggest the game is set in, and I think it’s like that. And, I admit, I’m somewhat intellectually pugnacious: You tell me that humans are best, I’m going to say “Oh really? Well I’m not sure I agree with that. What about…BOOM!?” And I can’t resist playing with something in any supposition.
For instance, in one of my campaigns (the one with the samurai orcs) I actually did have a small group of isolationist elves, who lived in a fancy city inside a secluded forest, and were ethereal and beautiful and unknowable. But they were a fanatic offshoot of the larger elven race who had actually had a god dropped on them, and their first act as a new, pod people-esque race, was to kill all of the other elven gods so that their cousins had no one left to worship.
I think I probably challenge preconceptions so aggressively, at least in part, because I know that plenty of people won’t. Or they’ll challenge things I won’t think to challenge. Or they’ll innovate in some mechanical or literary way I can’t match. And since I can leave that important work to them, I can focus on doing the stuff that I enjoy, and the hobby is stronger for all of it!