World building 101: How To Design A Race For Your RPG World

 

One of the things I like about Role Playing games are all the different racial options that you have. You can play Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, Beastmen, Gnomes, the list goes on and on. I love it because, when I want to push away the stress and worries of the everyday world, it helps that I can, figuratively, slip on a new skin and become someone else. (Or in my case, as the GM, several new skins)

10-races

For those of you who have never played a Tabletop RPG, it should be explained that the term “race” is loosely used to describe a sentient or sapient life form with a similar degree of intelligence and awareness as that of a human.

But sometimes as I search through the pages of whichever system my group happens to be playing that week. I can’t find a race that does my NPC justice. Or perhaps on of my players has an itch to play a something that no one has ever thought of before. (or, more likely, simply haven’t published in print or on the internet. Since I find very few original ideas anymore)

Well then its time to create a new one. But before you go putting just anything out there. You might want to consider a few details.

Creating a race from the ground up can be an intimidating task for a GM. Having a good step by step process to begin creating the numerous new traits the race is important for making sure you have balance and nothing gets left out.. Even if the race is not completely unique to your world, you can add your own little tweaks to give them a flavor that Players wont find elsewhere.

A good process will also help with consistency throughout your campaign and provide you with a good reference role playing them in your game. Now, I will admit that most RPGs come with light rules on how to go about designing these races. But they change from system to system and can get a bit confusing. For this reason I came up with a universal process that I use for design. I then go back and translate the race into whatever system I will be using them in that week. 

Yes, before you even mention it, most systems do have a section in the GM rules that describes how to do this. But honestly, it always felt like a half hearted effort. I wanted real detail in my new creations.

elf

So without further ado, I give you my personal process for Homebrewing a new Race:

  1. Give them a Name
    First and foremost, what are you going to call your race? A lot of people may be wondering why this matters. Fair question. I used to not think it mattered either. Till the first time I rolled out one of my more beautiful creations. The Players were into it too… Until one of them asked me what they were called. Caught off guard I answered, ” Uhhh… they are…. Giddledums.” The entire table burst out in laughter and, after that particular session, no one ever brought up the Giddledums again. Except in jest. (In my defense, I was 15 at the time and have gotten a LOT better at naming things in the intervening *cough cough* years) While we are on the subject of names however, remember that you may need more than one name for your race, depending on many factors. And no, I don’t mean slurs (Though, yeah. You might wanna know what names other, more bigoted people call your race). I simply mean that they could be named different things depending on where they are from and who they are interacting with.
  2. Classification
    Is it an Outsider? Is it a Celestial? a Fairy? A Dragon? You get the picture. When you boil it down to its basics, what sort of creature are we dealing with? One of the reasons this is so important, is to help determine what racial abilities or bonuses might come with it. For instance, if your designing a new type of Troll, it will probably have some sort of regeneration. But will it be weak against fire? Like more of its kin? Or is this one immune to fire and its weakness is Cold energy? And if its not related to something else, if it is truly unique. Then what sets it apart? And what new abilities does it have?images
  3. Personality Traits
    There are exceptions to every rule, but there are usually certain traits that run through most fantasy and sci-fi races. Vulcans are logical and keep their emotions at bay. Elves have a close tie to nature. Dwarves are surly and like to drink (Not to mention having Scottish accents for some inexplicable reason). What are the Personality Traits that run through your new race? Do they all have a deep seated fear of of the light, like the Drow? Do they all seem to have sticky fingers, like the Kender of Dragonlance? What are those things that people can almost automatically expect when dealing with this new race?
  4. Physical Description
    Here is where we start getting into the cool stuff. What does your new race look like. I suggest that you have at least one unique feature if your going to make a new race (or for that matter, in my opinion, if your going to even make a sub-race). If they look just like everyone else, then they’re really just a variation in society. Not in race. See below for more on that
  5. Clans / Tribes/ Kingdoms/ Planets/ ETC.
    The difference in most of these things are location and size. Keep in mind that each location will have varying environmental and societal factors that could trigger interracial differences: physical, emotional and intelligent.
  6. Relations With Others
    Consider how they relate and communicate with one another? Have there been any customs that may have been adopted by other societies of the same race through marriage, trade or invasion? Are they able to breed with other species? What are the cultural or physical differences between each clan or tribe? What relationship does your race have with other races that may exist on your fantasy world? How has this effected your race’s society? images-1
  7. History
    The history of your race may begin prior to your known history of your world, if the race has migrated from another world and/or plane, or it may have begun many billions of years after your world came into existence. When you first begin fleshing out this information, jotting ideas down in bullet points is good start. You can flesh these out and develop them later. Building races is a lot like building the world itself. you want to start small and build from there.
  8. Racial Lands
    Does this race have a “Homeland”? Or do they seem to have a settlement everywhere. Even if that settlement is no more than a few dozen. If your race has migrated across your fantasy world, consider showing the origins of your race on your world map
  9. Religion
    What are the core beliefs and values of your race? Are there divisions in your race based on religion? Is there a split between the religious and those who follow the ways of science? Or like the Drow, is the racial unified in its belief on origin and spirituality? Does your race worship a single Deity? (Yes , I know not all Drow worship Lolth, but  the percentage is high enough that, in my opinion, this applies.) Religion can have a large effect on different aspects of a race.
  10. Languages
    In most fantasy/sci-fi settings and especially in roleplay games a common language shared by multiple races who co-exist together is the norm. Each race may still has its own language and characters are often able to speak more than one language depending on their experience.
  11. Common Names
    If you are one of those GMs that loves to take the Tolkien approach to world building, then you might have also created a language for your new race. If you did, you can pull common names from that. Especially pay attention to words that the race might use for plants or animals. Your race’s religion(s) can also be a great source for first names as can the history of your world. This kind of goes hand in hand with what I was saying, regarding the name of the race. If you’re going to start populating your world with these creatures, take the time to figure out the sort of names that they would have. Both as individuals, families, houses, or whatever ties this race chooses to have.body
  12. Speed / Physical Strengths
    Yep. Time for some number crunching. This is the point at which you assign all those numbers that we, as GMs, have grown to both love and despise. Everything from Armor to Number of Attacks.  Yeah, those might not apply to the game you’re running. The real stats are going to change from system to system. Just roll with it. Also, I don’t know about you. But something happens when I start to Homebrew. The little kid who read all those comic books through the years comes out. I want to build these new beings to be the coolest to ever walk the face of a planet. They sling magic from their eyes, deflect attacks with their bare skin, they are 14 feet tall, built like Lou Ferrigno in his prime, and can stop an Ancient Red Wyrm with a glare….THE GIDDLEDUMS ARE ALMIGHTY!!! Then I take a breath. Realize that what I have built is WAY out of proportion and go back to assigning realistic numbers so that this new race can blend seamlessly with the world around them and the Characters encountering them. What I’m saying is: Yes, you can make this new race bad-ass. Yes you can give them special abilities and powers. But keep in mind game balance. If you want to use them for more than the occasional, high level, Boss fight, you’re going to have to keep their numbers in line with the rest of your world.
  13. Favored Classes/Occupations
    When members of this race break into adventuring (or in defense of the home, clan, etc) what form does that take? Are they primarily Barbarians and Druids, like the Half Orcs are traditionally portrayed? Or perhaps they are Wizards? Sorcerers? A society based on a moral code and therefore turn out a prodigious amount of Paladin? This can be important not only to the GM who is creating NPCs, but should you choose to open this race up for use to Players, they should know why that paladin society might look down on the strange and skinny lass who chose to become a Warlock, rather than pledge herself to the God of Justice.wizard_by_stefana_tserk
  14. Magic Ability and Powers
    Not all races are required to have magical abilities or powers. There, I said it. I know in today’s world of everyone must have access to every option, that can seem like heresy. But, lets be honest. That isn’t even vaguely realistic. And even if you choose that all of them do have access to magic. Some may have limitations in their ability. In the early days of the “Way Way Back” when people still played first edition, Dwarves had a natural disability when it came to Arcane Magic. Not only that, but they hated horses and couldn’t swim worth a damn. (The swimming thing kind of made sense as my first real DM explained it. Their muscles and bone were so dense they just sunk like a stone. The ability to wield magic may have a positive or negative effect on a race. It can build a race up to become powerful both politically and physically or it can cause a race to become outcast. Determine the magical and special abilities of your race. Does everyone in the race inherit the same special abilities or are only a selection of powers inherited through genes? Do the number or strength of special abilities increase or decrease with experience and age? These are all things you might want to keep in mind.

When all this is done, and you have your entry of stats and fluff shined to a brilliant polish. Don’t forget to playtest. Playtest a few times. Then go post it on Reddit for those folks to tear to shreds. Don’t take it personally, they’re doing to to help you hone the race into a beautiful thing.

Well, I hope this helps. If it does, you have any questions, want to suggest the subject of a future article, Please comment below. If you want to talk RPG, or just say hi, Hit me up on Twitter @DMLeviathan.

Have a great one…. DML

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