Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about the core races in your campaign setting and why you might want to change them.
This article should be about the process of choosing which core races are in your campaign setting. Do you adjust what races are in your campaign based on your player’s wishes, or do you keep a rigid list?
Elf. Dwarf. Gnome. Half-Elf. Half-Orc. Halfling. Human.
For most of us, these words all have one very important attribute in common: they describe what most of us would call the “default” player races, the most common creatures in virtually all settings that we see published nowadays. Virtually all of these races have their roots in Tolkien’s works and all of them appeared in some shape or form in the original edition of Dungeons and Dragons. To say that these races are endearing would be 100% correct.
So why am I absolutely sick of them?
Where They’re Coming From
Let’s take a quick look at the fantasy roots of each of the core races before I move on.
This race is 110% lifted from Tolkien. Famously based on Norse mythology, Tolkien made a very small number of modifications to the race in order to make them the protagonists of his first story, the Hobbit. One of the long-standing traditions with dwarves is that they are hyper-traditionalists, and as a result tradition has it that all presentations of the dwarf race in our hobby don’t change in the slightest in the past three decades. In fact, I think Pathfinder’s introduction of a caste of dwarves who specifically reject dwarven tradition is the most progressive thing that’s EVER been done with them as a race. Ever.
Dwarves have had several different flavors throughout Dungeons and Dragons’ history, but they are all virtually the same with the exception of the deurgar, which are essentially the “dark dwarves.” Again, not very original here.
Famously, being an elf was once a class, not a race, early on in Dungeons and Dragons’ history. The elf class was something like a modern magus; it blended together spellcasting and martial fighting somewhat. (Although not particularly effectively.) Elves as we know them in Dungeons and Dragons are pulled directly from Tolkien’s literary works; the tall, blond, elitist elf is 100% a construct of Tolkienism. Elves changed very little between Dungeons and Dragons’ edition. Instead of changing the race, most editions have famously created an elf of every flavor: aquatic elves, dark elves (drow), jungle elves, arctic elves, super magical elves, nature elves, and so on. With the exception of drow, these elven cultures tend to be nearly identical in presentation with minor changes. Elves have always been associated with powerful, ancient magics and eldritch secrets and they tend to have magical abilities in every iteration of the game.
It is difficult to say how many different kinds of elves there are, because most of the crazy subsets that were introduced by Forgotten Realms boil down to cultural differences that have been shackled to racial statistics. Pathfinder’s model of having one elven race and the drow race with plenty of racial traits to modify your elf to suit their environment seems more on-theme to me, personally.
Gnomes have been in Dungeons and Dragons since its original boxed edition and have been included in every edition since. Since Dungeons and Dragons was full of short people at the time, gnomes were given the role of “magic-user” to offset the warrior dwarves and the thieving halflings. Illusions have been a staple of gnomish casting since the game’s early history, but in 3.5 they became more closely associated with bards after the illusionist (now a subset of the wizard class) became closely tied to elves. Pathfinder introduced fey heritage to the gnomes (originally they were just shorter cousins of the dwarves) and gave them many different identifiers, including crazy colorations and a magical blight that only they could catch, the bleaching.
Four major archetypes of gnomes have appeared over the years: the common gnome, which follows all of the rules listed above, the darklands-dwelling gnomes (we call them the svirfneblin), the tinker gnome (from Dragonlance, which became the basis for World of Warcraft’s gnomes), and the fey gnome (Pathfinder’s gnome).
They’re elves, but only half-way. Honestly, how anyone has the gall to call half-elves a race is beyond me. At this point, I expect that tradition alone keeps half-elves in the game instead of breaking them down into a serious of human alternate racial traits. Regardless, they’re very emo about the fact that they grow up faster than their elven friends and slower than their human friends. Of course, we know that nearly 99% of half-elves are raised by their human parent or on the street, so they’re mostly stuck being the runt of the litter all the time.
Surprisingly, despite the extreme variation of elves throughout Dungeons and Dragons’ history, no one ever really DID any variations on the half-elf until Pathfinder, with its half-drow options in the Advanced Race Guide.
See half-elves, but with orcs. This is probably the most stoic player option in the game, as orcs have changed even less than dwarves have over the years. There are very few variations of their theme, and again, most of them were introduced in Pathfinder. Because no RPG author wants to write a new orc race, then go back and write a half-orc version of that new orc race.
Humans are always a safe bet in a fantasy setting because we know EXACTLY how humans think and act in a given situation. (Most of the time, anyway.) There is over 10,000 years of source material for us to base our fantasy, human cultures on as a matter of fact. Of course, of that 10,000 years of history Dungeons and Dragons has traditionally focused on the white, Christian, European version of that history but I guess we all can’t be perfect.
Again, this is another place where Pathfinder shines. Lots of interesting human cultures to play with and explore. That said, the game is so totally ensnared by alignment, which is based somewhat strongly off of Judo-Christian values that it is difficult to paint other cultures with more fantastic systems of belief as anything but Chaotic Neutral at best. (For instance, trying to justify the Aztec system of ritualistic sacrifice to ward off Evil while claiming the society isn’t Chaotic Evil is somewhat challenging.)
A Human of Any Other Shade
So looking at Dungeons and Dragons’ core races side by side, here’s my personal opinion: they’re boring. All of them, with the possible exception of the gnome because of how extensively it has been revamped flavor-wise from older versions of the game. Humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings haven’t changed an ounce for almost three decades, and I get the strong impression that Golarion’s developers are only interesting in consistently presenting humans in a fresh light. Each of these races have small aspects that are new and interesting.
- Halflings are often enslaved and the idea of a “race in the shadows of man” is a cool one.
- The Ouat dwarves are another exception, but they are often presented as a footnote in Osirion culture.
- Elves got the whole, “they’re aliens from another planet” reveal added to them, but we don’t get to see elves on that alien world to experience this new take on them. It does little good to tell us something cool but never show us, after all.
- Human cultures have been heavily expanded to be more inclusive, but in my experience it is the European cultures (Cheliax, Andoran, Varisia, and Taldor) that are focused on the most. Again, there are exceptions (Mummy’s Mask took place in Osirion, after all), but these cultures don’t often present us with anything that we’ve never seen before; we get many fantasy versions of existing cultures.
In light of all of this, I’d say that the reason that I’ve quickly become so jaded with the core races is that they often boil down to the following formula: [Human + modifiers]. For example:
- Dwarf = Human – Height + Gruff + Blacksmithing + Hatred + Greed
- Elf = Human + Magic + Warrior + Better At Everything – Realistic Life Cycle
- Half Elf = Human + 1/2(Elf)
Now, I’m sure some of you are thinking, “But Alex! We’re only human! It is nearly impossible for us to create a race/culture that isn’t somehow tied to an existing, real world idea! Witt’s all been done before, Alex!” And to that, you’d be right. But the problem here isn’t the presence of real world connections, it’s the lack of content, the lack of interesting information that takes these races and says, “Okay, here’s how they’re different from what you already know.” This might simply be from a lack of Golarion material that has tackled any of these races in-depth. Elves of Golarion and Dwarves of Golarion are VERY old products, and while I have the digital versions of those products I don’t have Gnomes of Golarion yet. I do have Halflings of Golarion, however, but in that product Halflings are portrayed almost exclusively through comparisons to how they take on human cultures and modify things ever so slightly. And while it may make sense for the race given its history of submissiveness to humanity, it doesn’t make for a particularly interesting race.
A Case Done Right — The Dragon Empires Primer
As you all know, I love Paizo and whenever I spend any amount of time critiquing them for things that they do that I don’t agree with, I try to include a mention of something that they’ve done in the same vein that I think is fantastic, and thankfully I have an EXCELLENT example on the topic of core races: the Dragon Empires Primer.
If you’ve never picked up the Dragon Empires Primer, do so. While it has its own set of problems (one being that many nations in the Dragon Empires Primer have crystal-clear analogues to the Inner Sea in terms of theme), one aspect that the Dragon Empires Primer caught perfectly was its selection of core races. If you don’t know, here is the Dragon Empires Primer’s list of core races:
So ignoring that my all-time favorite race is on this roster, what makes this group better than the standard core races? Well, let’s give them a quick look-over.
For the standard Inner Sea races, all of the player options have the same basic body structure. Human with minor alterations: short human, shorter human, shortest human. Pointy ears. Pointier ears. Tusks. Green skin. Lithe. So on and onward forevermore.
The Dragon Empires races don’t fall into this trap nearly as often. Kitsune, Nagaji, Tengu, and Wayang has vastly different body shapes and sizes associated with them, to the bestial features of the kitsune and tengu to the alien, gangly proportions of the wayang, to the scaled body type of the nagaji. The samsarans are very human-like in appearance, but even more alien than their bluish skin tone is their blood. Samsarans have blood that is as clear as water. THAT’S cool and different!
When you get right down to it, a roleplaying game is primarily a mental experience, so having a character that looks very different from the others helps to internalize a mental picture of that person. “Human with pointy ears” isn’t as memorable as “giant bird person” when everyone at the table is playing “Human + X.” Also, having clear blood is actually somewhat creepy, as its common to say, “We’re all the same on the inside.” Except, you know, samsarans AREN’T.
Society and Culture
Although there is precious little about the Dragon Empires races thus far, what we do know paints an entirely different image of their world compared to the Core races. The races without homelands that we encounter have very logical, individual-centered reasons why they don’t have a land to call their own. For instance, the kitsune are opportunistic and prefer living among humans to trying to run and rule their own kingdom. Let someone else do the hard work so they can profit.
The Eastern Influences admittedly help this crop of races feel new and fresh as well. Even though the nagaji have a lot of Chinese influence in their political state (and therefore might not feel as new or innovative to a Chinese gamer), having a race that essentially lives in peaceful, non-Evil Communism is such a stark departure from Western-style roleplaying games that its almost a shock to behold.
Many of the Dragon Empires races have special racial abilities that are VERY different from the bonus feats and numeric benefits of the core races. For example, a race of creatures that can SHAPECHANGE at will is awesome, or a race of creatures that can manipulate their spell list or pick more class skills. Wayang’s ability to alter how they’re affected by positive and negative energy once per day is another example of something cool and different that the race can do. Does this have much to do with setting flavor like the other points do? No, but its totally worth bringing up because racial mechanics are what REALLY differentiates between races in the game.
The core races that you pick say a lot about your setting, and when it comes right down to it, there isn’t much left to say about dwarves, elves, gnomes, or halflings. While ditching them entirely isn’t exactly a feasible option (nor is it one that I would want to see happen to the game), I do think that shuffling around what races are available and what races get focus and attention is important. Golarion is a humanocentric world, which is why most of Pathfinder’s races are human variants. But in order for humanocentrism to be successful, it needs to be contrasted by the very inhuman. Things that are alien and different are exciting, and going into 2015 its what I hope to see most out of Paizo, especially its upcoming Inner Sea Races.
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex’s favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune shapeshifter, which is sort of redundant.