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A Short Rest: Wisdom from the Masters: Background Races

This article was first broadcast in Episode Thirty-Seven on 22nd August 2018.

[squeaky contraption going by]
OstronLennon, what are you doing… and what on earth are you wearing?!
LennonOh, yeah, I couldn’t get my indoor trainer down here so I rigged my road bike up to this thing I found in the Gnomish Workshop as a kinda static trainer so I could warm up. And I’m wearing lycras.
OstronDo I want to know why?
LennonSeriously? For aerodynamics — I’m not going to ride a road-bike in baggies… You said we were racing?
OstronOkay first of all, I said we were discussing races, not racing, and I meant the OTHER races. You know, half-orc, goblin, elves?
LennonOoooooh!
[dinosaur roar] 
RyuWooooooah there!
LennonWHAT IN THE NINE HELL — Ryu… Are you riding a dinosaur?!
RyuYep! I’ve been in Chult recently, and Ostron said we were off to the races, so I brought along Peaches here…
OstronDiscussing. Races. CHARACTER. Races.
RyuOoooooh!

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One of the hardest things some players face at character creation is choosing a race. Hours can and have been spent on either the virtues of racial bonuses as they synergize with a class or on what backstory makes sense for an Aarakocra that is constantly underground.

However, picking a race, or rather racES, is just as important for DMs. Usually the DM isn’t as concerned with the racial abilities and bonuses that a particular race might have, and they are completely spoiled for choices. Since they’re designing NPCs or antagonists that probably won’t be leveling up, the whole collection of monsters is available. And if you’ve only just considered this, we’re sorry for adding to the choice-paralysis.

Ryu:  As an aside, if you want to play a race that isn’t officially a playable race, be a DM; you get to play a dragon. More than one dragon if you want.

While the DM isn’t usually focused on the mechanics of a particular race, their backstory and their place in the world is a big factor that needs to be considered. In most D&D settings, It’s assumed that the common races won’t raise too many eyebrows: Humans in particular can be anywhere and in large numbers, and dwarfs, halflings, elves, and half-elves are sort of expected as well. Tieflings, dragonborn, half-orcs and gnomes don’t raise too many eyebrows as long as there aren’t a lot of them (though good luck putting them in an Eberron campaign), but seeing any of the other races would be “odd.” In fact, making an antagonist or significant NPC an uncommon race is one of the easiest ways to get them to stick in players minds.

That same effect that makes the NPC memorable can be used in other ways too. First of all, if one or more Players are playing an “uncommon race,” they should have a backstory that explains where they hail from and why they’re in an area where their kind is uncommon. That shouldn’t be used as a barrier to them playing the race, but more as a way to encourage creativity. It can be easier to find a way to stand out if your race is doing it for you, whereas finding a reason you’re a special human out of 300,000 can require storytelling some players might not be up for.

On the other side, the racial makeup of a crowd can be a big hint for players that they aren’t in Waterdeep anymore. If they walk into a town and 80% of it is tieflings, that’s probably going to clue them in that something’s different. Whether they’re simply a community of tieflings that banded together or if they’re a kind of refugee camp or if something more sinister is going on is up to you. Even if you aren’t planning to do anything deeper with the village, playing with the demographics is an easy way to make it more memorable.

Another way to do that is to turn stereotypes on their head. If the players trudge through the desert to a coastal trade port with nary a mountain in sight and find out it’s a dwarven community, that’s probably going to raise some eyebrows. Same story if they come to an elven town and find out the oldest person there is 80. It doesn’t even have to be a settlement: the characters could come on a small army of kobolds whose primary occupation is hunting dragons, or a jungle safari company made up entirely of drow. Fair warning; like the players, if you’re going to make a race start acting oddly you had better have a good story about why they’re doing it, and possibly even have some sort of side quest ready to go if the players latch onto it. On the flip side, if you need an easy story hook, showing the players a whole group of people acting against type is usually a good way to pique their curiosity.

If you’re the type of person that likes to do worldbuilding and want to go off the beaten path, the racial demographics of an area are an easy way to make your world unique. For example, you could create a plane or world where evolution favored reptiles over mammals, so everywhere you look are dragonborn, kobolds, yuan-ti, and lizardfolk, with the other races relegated to smaller communities or completely non-existent. Or you can go the alternate history route and say the Tiefling empire never collapsed, so Tieflings are everywhere and generally in-charge, with the other races taking a back seat. The idea of playing against type can also be leveraged here if you want to create a “mirror universe” vibe where, for example, elves are vicious warlike scavengers enslaving all the other races above ground and are allied with the dwarves, who are fighting an ongoing war against the benevolent and democratic drow and their duregar allies who provide shelter for oppressed peoples in the Underdark.

For the players, a unique world like that can give them new roleplaying experiences. The players who don’t want to spend a lot of time justifying their race might find it easier to play a non-standard race, and the more creative types can enjoy coming up with a unique story that wouldn’t otherwise fit with playing a human. However, it’s usually best to get the players’ input on things like that before going full on into it; if the players were looking forward to playing “typical” races or adventuring in a more familiar setting and now have to do a lot of RP heavy lifting that may not sit well.

However, even if you aren’t rewriting the racial landscape of an area, paying attention to demographics and how you’re using particular species in D&D can enhance both the gameplay and story of your games.

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LennonHey Ryu — last one around the harbour and the four hills gets to wear the hat for an hour?
RyuYou’re on! Peaches?
[Peaches roars, chomps, and destroys Lennon’s bike]
LennonOh come on! That’s cheating!
RyuMwuhahaha, good luck on foot!
[Ryu and Peaches stomp off into the distance]
OstronThat looked… expensive
LennonCouple new inner tubes… maybe some wheels… and also a new frame, stem, handlebars, groupset and saddle… yeah… I’m just going to leave this twisted pile of metal here.

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