Filling a Fantasy World

How do you decide which races - actually species, but we'll use the RPG terminology for consistency's sake - will exist in your fantasy world? And once you have, how do you decide which will be playable races and which, if any, will be off limits?

Some game systems will take this burden off of you, only presenting a certain subset of races that are designed to be played, and giving you some default assumptions about them and their culture (usually a monolithic culture, one to a non-human race) so that you don't have to invest your attention into things at that low a level. Others will have multiple settings available to you where each of the standard races is slightly different from the assumptions in the core rules, while still following the pattern of all of the standard races being available to you.

But if you're working on your own world, from the ground up, perhaps using a generic, universal role playing system*, you're potentially on your own, and forced to make these sorts of decisions for yourself. There are some obvious choices with not-necessarily obvious repercussions.

  • Emulate your predecessors: Go with the standard races from your favorite fantasy game. You can try to create a racial template that accurately copies everything, mechanically, from the source game, or just go for a general flavor adaptation. This is often easier, at the risk of being a bit boring or repetitive. Your players may welcome the familiarity of the old standards, or they may be looking to break out of the box. And they may well debate your choices in adapting a race that they are fond of in a way that they never would have.
  • Go for the realistic approach: Who says every game has to be Tolkien redone? Maybe what you're after is a world where there are exactly zero non-human sapients races. It's definitely doable, and plenty of really excellent fantasy follows this pattern as well. But expect to be called upon to present a multitude of different cultures that your humans can all come from, lest your game be too monochrome and one-dimensional. 
  • Invert that last trope: Less common is to have a world with nothing but the non-human races from Tolkien and his fellows. Elves, dwarves and hobbits abound, battling it out with orcs and goblins, but nary a human to be found. While this is of course an entirely reasonable choice, make sure your players are going to be on board with it. Some people are uncomfortable trying on the skin of a different race, while others just don't like any of the standard races, and always choose to portray humans - they're going to be disappointed. Also, be careful to to just let one of your non-human races take over as "pointy-eared humans" or the like. You've removed the baseline from which all other races are calculated from the game, so it makes little sense to put them back in, in disguise.
  • Go gonzo: This one is very difficult to pull off. You start making up your own races, with their own names, culture, appearance and the like, and your players may either be completely baffled and unable to connect with them (due to the lack of institutional knowledge that they already have with the usual races) or who find them to be uninspiring and dull, or to simply map members of the older races overtop of them, in an attempt to understand ("They're the elves in this world" is a terrible thing to hear about a race you thought insightful and unique).
There's no right answer, and there are answers that I've not covered here (I'm sure!), but one thing for sure is that regardless of your choice, not a one of them is truly that easy.


  1. Another: "Emulate your predecessors", but try to give each race multiple distinct cultures. This way lies GM burnout, or a truly excellent game.

    1. I should have included this one, yes. It's the direction I typically start off in, and that explains all the burnout.

  2. I've always wanted to play a space game where the Galactic civilization is made up of uncountable alien races... but the players mostly go with humans. This post makes me want to dig up the Talislanta PDF's again:

    1. Googling tells me that there was a GURPS: Talislanta, but I honestly have had no exposure to the system whatsoever. Some of the references I've seen make me think that it had an influence on Perdido Street Station.

    2. I don't believe there was ever a published GURPS Talislanta, but there were certainly some fan conversions.

      Many games of about that era seemed to me to suffer from the basic problem that a good setting designer isn't necessarily a good game-mechanics designer, so my tendency has always been to marry a set of mechanics I liked to the setting in which I wanted to play.


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