A Methodology for Race Design

Michael O. Varhola

During the most recent episode of our weekly "d-Infinity Live!" show, "A Day at the Races," my co-hosts and I discussed our various criteria, philosophies, and methodologies for designing character races for fantasy and science fiction role-playing games. During that show I discussed how, for a variety of reasons, I enjoy tapping into real-world mythology and folklore when creating races for my games. 

This might seem like an obvious approach to the subject but, upon consideration, it actually is not, and a consideration of the most familiar races in the most popular fantasy games will reveal this to be the case. Dwarves, Elves, Halflings, and Orcs, for example, are all based on secondary literary sources, Tolkein and his imitators to a great extent, and while there are all sorts of references to their origins in Anglo-Saxon and Germanic folkore, their is actually very little in their characteristics drawn from such primary sources. So, while I like these races and have been playing such characters for some 35 years now, I would never develop for my own games anything as derivative as a people simply pulled out of someone else's work of fiction. 

Actual mythology and folklore, however, can provide creatures that are not only much more compelling because of their roots in real-world belief systems, but which also feel more organic in campaign settings based on them than do the standard races associated with a particular game system. (See the old "Maztica" setting for 2nd Edition AD&D for one of the most egregious failures in this regard.) 

Myths and tales from the Indian subcontinent are especially appealing to me for these purposes and are fertile ground for development of new races as a result of the many deities and associated adventures that appear in them. One of my favorite story cycles involves the god Vishnu and the many incarnations association with him, including lion-man Narasimha, fish-man Matsya, and boar-man Varaha. An Indian milieu inhabited by peoples descended from these indigenous divine beings is much more believable and satisfying than one that simply coopts real-world and then lazily jams Dwarves and Elves sideways into it. I have posted to this site an example of one such species I created several years ago for the Skirmisher Publishing sourcebook Warriors, the Narasinhai, a race of being that sprung up when three claws from the lion-man incarnation of Vishnu broke off in a battle with a demon. 

Currently, I am in the process of developing several races based on the myths and legends of ancient Greece and the Aegean for Skirmisher's Swords of Kos Fantasy Campaign Setting. These include the Antaean, descended from a giant slain by the demigod Herakles; the Arachnean, descended from a woman cursed by the goddess Athena to become a half-spider (pictured above in a sketch by artist Amanda Kahl); the Bull Centaur, a race indigenous to the sprawling islands of Create and Cyprus; the Cynocephalian, a dog-headed being associated with many lands in the region that turns up even in medieval historical texts; and the Myrmidon, a race created from ants by the god Zeus. The absence of such races in games that have been around for 40 years, based on stories that have been around for thousands and which are ostensibly prime source material for fantasy RPGs, is actually kind of baffling. 

Hope you enjoy the samples of mythology-based races that I have posted to d-Infinity Online and have found my take on this subject to be useful and thought provoking! Keep your eye on this site for more material of this source and announcements about the publications into which they are being incorporated. 

Be sure to also check out my co-hosts special takes on this topic, including Brendan Cass' "Aliens Are Just Humans with Headridges, and Why That's OK," Will Thrasher's "Human Subtypes for Pathfinder," and Clint Staples' piece on "The Shard."