D&D races have always bothered me.
I’m sure they’ve bothered you, too. Of all the proud nails in the tabletop universe, they are among the tallest, individually and as a group. We gamers know the origins of the D&D races as the bastard children of Tolkien’s world, itself the bastard of a handful of European mythologies. And there’s nothing wrong with cribbing from those who came before (who themselves cribbed from their elders, ad infinitum). The problems start when one cribs from diverse sources without any attempt at holistic integration. As gamers we’re often just as guilty as Tolkien and Gygax. When we throw the core D&D races into one campaign pot (let alone some splatbook monstrosity), it tends to result in anything from a few tweaks – the ubiquitous “my elves are different” scenario – to a horrifying melange which demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of anthropology and genetics. I think we can do better.
The first question which arises when you throw elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes, and all the other D&D standards together is: are you taking part in the implied grand setting of D&D – the multiverse which 2E worked so hard to establish with its multiple settings spanned by products like Planescape and Spelljammer – or is your world, like your elves, different from the default understanding? In other words, where did all those Teutonic creatures come from? Why is the world the way it is? If your setting doesn’t hinge on a well-documented cosmology, then handwave as much as you like, but only in the beeriest and pretzeliest of games do you not owe it to your setting and your players to at least answer that much.
In our own homebrew setting, Rasherochernon’s Folly – the one you’ve seen me reference with discussions of what TV-style season we’re playing – we’ve explicitly answered that yes, we’re taking the 2E bait, right down to letting the Lady of Pain set the Sigil hook in our fishy jaws. The particular pocket dimension which houses our setting was engineered, not natural. There is no group which is native to the dimension. So to some extent we’re answering the implicit question – Where do our elves come from? – by passing the buck to Gygax and those who followed.
At the same time, there’s just too much headache to the races as written by Gygax and friends to let them stand. So we’ve written some additional fundamental assumptions into our setting for our own sanity.
- We don’t think of or refer to them as “races” because, seriously, what the crap. We finally settled on “clannad” to describe them. We wanted to be firm in the understanding of common ground and family between the various groups. (“Humanoid” is terribly ethnocentric, and it harks other shudder-worthy terms as which end in “-oid”.)
- We don’t treat them as separate species, but rather as phenotypally divergent cultural groups. Clannad are all genetically compatible. For example, someone might have elven, dwarven, goblin, and gnomish heritage. That means that you can run into a human who has darkvision as a result of a recessive gene – or maybe just funky-looking eyes. It helps to justify advantages in point-buy systems or allow for particular character concepts. 🙂
- Similarly, “subraces” may be defined by a shared phenotype (grey elves on the Folly are largely descended from elven and grey alien blood, for example), but the more important distinction is the culture of the individual group. No two hill dwarf clans are the same, and there’s a world of difference between sylvan orcs in thatch huts and sylvan orcs in a densely-populated tree city.
- We don’t stay with the usual “dwarves don’t like elves” or “orcs are the bad guys” tropes. At best it’s lazy, and really, we should all know better by now. As far as I’m concerned, that sort of rubbish goes in the same bin as Birth of a Nation. Now, a particular dwarven (human, etc.) group might be insular and xenophobic and bigoted as a cultural hallmark, but that’s a far cry from a “racial” trait. There are dwarven fishing villages and subterranean elven cities (not just dark elves) and other wacky combinations that go to hammer in the point that it’s culture, not some creepy idea of race, that drives how people in our campaign live and relate to others.
For us, that pretty well handles the fundamental disconnect of the races as written. Since Terra is an explicit member of the D&D universe, it’s implied for us that the various Terran myths involving different clannad groups probably arose out of contact with them long ago (an old chestnut, but useful nonetheless, and it may be revised as more information comes to light in-game). So in that context, we’ve found a way to account for Tolkien and Gygax et al. and their crazy mishmash of cultural appropriation by essentially saying “even a clock with a few screws loose is right twice a day”.
We’ve done some interesting things with clannad on the Folly that I hope to share soon. Maybe you can get some use out of it in your own games. And I hope you’ll consider sharing your own modifications to the D&D races in the comments. 🙂