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 what makes PC races attractive to players.
I’ve spent the past few articles talking a lot about 0-Hit Dice PC races. We’ve talked about how to build them properly and I shared my opinions on the Core Races. One thing I talked about extensively in my Core Race articles is how overused I felt dwarves, elves, half breeds, halflings, gnomes, and humans were. Yet as much as I’d like to forget it some days, one thing that I absolutely can’t deny is that these races have real staying power in the game. Why? What makes the classic races stronger, timeless choices than, say, the vanara?
A cursory glance might say its tradition. After all, the core races have been in the game for a LONG time, so people know them and most are fairly well acquainted with them. But personally, I think that there’s more to it then time. There’s another important factor there that needs to be talked about: exposure.
What is Exposure?
For the purposes of this article, “exposure” is going to mean, “How often to we get to see members of a race doing what they do best?” This can occur through a number of possible channels, including books and other literature, movies and television, and in print products for the game itself.
Now, I don’t think I need to talk about how much exposure the core races have gotten in their long, long history as RPG racial options. Almost every edition of Dungeons and Dragons (with the exception of AD&D, due to bad publicity with generated by ignorant, religious zealots) has included these same default races, with specific settings altering what is “core” for individual settings, but not for the whole product itself. For example, Forgotten Realms introduced a huge number of special subraces for most of the core races and those subtypes were default options to play as in Forgotten Realms, but in terms of the larger D&D universe, most of those races didn’t necessarily exist in other worlds until D&D Next decided to streamline their different IPs into a single cosmos.
Furthermore, Dungeons and Dragons has inspired countless worlds and settings outside of the Tabletop scene. From World of Warcraft’s homages to the tinker gnomes and “classic” flavor of kobolds, to roughly half of the Elder Scroll’s core races, we as gamers are constantly bombarded with an image of these core races that is, for the most part, consistent with one another, with maybe a tweak here or there just to change things up a bit. But for the most part, consistency across millions of consumer hours creates an image of something that isn’t an ideal to beat, but rather an expectation.
Exposing Your Races
With out a doubt, it’s how entrenched the core races are in our player’s minds that make them such attractive choices for 95% of RPG players. (The other 5% is comprised of people like myself, who are fans of a specific esoteric race, as well as people who are simply tired of a set of core races that has been the public default for well over three decades.) Since its flat-out impossible to give any race, even a First Party one, the amount of exposure that the core races have had, how do we pimp our creations to the point where our players actually consider them as reasonable, logical choices? Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to present you with the pandaren effect.
Named for World of Warcraft’s race of panda people (which is literally what pandaren translates into in a specific oriental language whose name eludes me at the moment), the Pandaren Effect is a process by which you introduce a new culture to your players incrementally to pip their interest, then drown them in it until they willingly want to participate in the culture.
Let’s take this strategy and look at one example of its application: in World of Warcraft itself. Although some newer players might have found the pandaren to be a touch “random” when they were given their own expansion pack back in 2013, Blizzard had been sprinkling hints of their existence in their world for a decade prior to their eventual release. A lone pandaren brewmaster existed in the game that World of Warcraft was heavily based on, Warcraft III, and quest items eluding to the world were sprinkled about the game. When World of Warcraft decided to develop a d20 RPG setting (which included Paizo’s Creative Director, James Jacobs, as one of its major contributors), they added a little bit more about the pandaren to the book as well as a few easter eggs pertaining to their homeland, but nothing in the RPG book was considered canon in the game world itself until it was ported over. (Some things were, others weren’t.)
Still, a small faction of WoW players had been asking for Pandaren content virtually every expansion, so weren’t they surprised when Blizzard introduced an entire expansion centered around them! If the sprinkling of details was the incremental interest stage, then launching an expansion pack that thrust everyone into that world would be the “drowning” stage. New and vibrant settings unlike anything that had been in the game before were introduced, and alongside questing and adventuring with the pandaren, players received the option to play pandaren themselves. And many, many players took Blizzard up on the offer. The world was beautiful, the culture simple and pure, and after being so thoroughly soaked in it, many players decided that they liked the pandaren and kept to those characters long after the expansion ended. I would even go as far as to say that the pandaren were the most successful new race that Blizzard ever added to the game with the exception of the blood elves, because blood elves are based on Tolkien high elves, and they have decades more exposure than the pandaren do. (And they’re sheik and beautiful, but that’s neither here nor there.)
With that wonder story out of the way, I think I’ll end this article with an example of how I managed to use a similar tactic on my players to make them a little more comfortably associated with a race in my player world.
In my Race Building GM guide, I gave an example of two races and noted that one of them was from my home games. In this case, the race was the mephians, and anyone who knows a little Latin (or who paid attention to the wording of the musk ability) probably figured out that the mephians were essentially skunk-people. I got the idea for the race while watching how adverse towards skunks some of my friends were; they would freak out whenever they thought a skunk was nearby because of its musk. Now, unlike most people the smell of skunk doesn’t really bother me much; on my mother’s side of the family, skunk musk is a grandmother’s remedy for clogged sinuses and although we don’t use that particular remedy in our household, the smell of skunks doesn’t really bother my siblings, my mother, or her extended family. Needless to say, I found the whole ordeal of, “Oh my god! It smells like SKUNK! I can’t go outside!” to be rather amusing, and the thought of how a sentient race of creatures with such a powerful natural weapon would be received in a world was too much for me to resist, so I wrote the race into a campaign that I was running at the time.
So in the first campaign they appeared in, the group that I had run them for was very, very standoffish with the race. The mephians had built one of the largest settlements in the region, and seeing as the party wanted to overthrow the national government in that campaign they needed all of the support that they could get. I remember going VERY light with that group, perhaps too light. Here my party was in the middle of a very strange race and I didn’t give them the golden treatment of their kind! Furthermore, the mephian I did choose had too much flair; sort of like introducing a new player to dwarves through an over-the-top stereotype of a dwarf. My players didn’t like that, so when that group eventually fell apart from broken schedules and whatnot, it was a lesson that I banked for when I tried to use them again.
And use them I did! I believe I mentioned in one of my previous articles about how I got my players to care about a particular city (and its residents) by grinding it into the dust during a tremendous earthquake (see the Tragedy at Westmark anecdote in my Anecdotes About Being Flexible article). To reiterate, I started with the city being completely closed off to my players. They were travelling with a gypsy who was searching for a Harrow Deck of Many Things that was reportedly in the area. In order to get inside the city, the PCs had to rescue the mephian leader’s only son, who ran away to be with a human girl and was subsequently captured by goblins. The PCs rescued them both and in doing so, gained entrance into the city. Since being turned away from the city and subsequently rescuing the son was my “give them an incremental exposure” stage, I needed my players to drown in the race in order to get them to accept them. So I threw them into the middle of the hustle and bustle of the race, showed their government and their racial psychology. Even had them participate in a local trial. Equally important to my cause was that I presented both allies AND villains of this new race; the PCs made fast friends with the kid they saved and his family, but then they also had to content with a multiracial gang that was lead by a mephian criminal (the trial that I mentioned was the PCs trying to get said criminal convicted). My plan had worked; the players were interested in the city and its people. The only thing left was to drill the race into their hearts but-good.
You can read a lot more about what I did to that poor, poor city. I blew it up but good. It was hit by a massive earthquake that killed 90% of the city’s population of 10 million, and the mephians got hit the hardest. Where they had a population of about 5 million before the tragedy, they were left with only 50,000. It was the largest loss of life that I had ever run in any game that I have ever ran for any group of PCs, and my players rose to the occasion. They founded a new kingdom around the idea of relocating and saving the survivors of the earthquake and most of what they did afterwards was trying to make sure that no one else died in the wake of a lack of supplies and shelter. But man, oh man, it was the most successful use of any personal race that I have ever implemented to date.
And that, as they say, is that. Now that I’ve shared some stories, now its your time. How do you get your players to care about the races that are native to your games, or about races that don’t have much exposure in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game? Leave me your answers and comments below, and I look forward to reading your responses soon!
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 S.P.E.D..