Why do we have various PC races? Why are some available and others are off-limits? Is it worthwhile to have a game with only Human PCs? Here’s my take on this:
Because players have to get inside the head of the PC, the PC must be sorta-human. Which means human, demihuman (elf, dwarf, gnome, halfling), or humanoid (orc, ogre, giant). It has to have humanlike biological and mental needs, which rules out undead and insectoid creatures. Mammal-hybrids are plausible because we can identify the PC as a “cat-man” or “dog-man” and assume the PC acts like both. Non-mammalian hybrids are tougher, like lizard-men, bird-men, and slug-men, but are possible. Something completely alien like a demon, angel, dragon, purple worm, rust monster, etc. are too inhuman to easily roleplay.
Secondly, the adventuring party is paramount. This means the PCs must be of races that are willing to work together. Is it plausible that a Halfling is willing to trust his life and monetary prospects to a Half-Demon Vampiress? Maybe the Halfling’s player just says “screw it, Jim wants to play his vampirella, I know he won’t screw me over because we’re friends, so whatever”. NPCs in town are a very different story! Try walking a Hill Giant PC up to the local baron’s keep and see how warm a reception he gets.
Physical form is very important. A Centaur is going to have Problems in many dungeons because of his ungainly shape and weight – same with the Hill Giant. How much treasure is that Pixie PC going to be able to carry? Is the Troll ever going to find a suit of magic armor that fits? Dryads can’t stray far from their trees, and vampires are blasted into dust in daylight.
I read on another blog, I forget which, the idea that Humans are easiest to play because they are the most like us and their sense of wonder at fantastical things is preserved. If you play a 500 year old Elf, why would an encounter with an Ent be at all interesting? By demystifying PCs, you mystify the whole world.
This all makes sense to me, as reason why we have very human-like PC races. Could players stomach a D&D type game where there are no non-human PC races? Let’s look at it from crunch and fluff perspectives.
A player interested in crunch could be appeased by offering different human types that have various special attributes. For example, in Leiber’s Lankhmar, you could draw mechanical differences between the Snow Barbarians and the people of Ilthmar, and the jungle Kleshites. A quick look at the wiki suggests a half dozen good choices while preserving very foreign lands for NPCs alone to retain their mystery.
A player interested in fluff may specifically want to play a badger-man or something. I think giving such a player a mechanically weak badger-man PC race is a fine solution. This avoids min-maxing disguised as genuine roleplaying, as the mechanically desirable choices are all more standard fare. The difference doesn’t need to be great, but should be noticable enough that the badger-man feels like a second-class citizen when it comes to adventurers. Simply put, badger-men are not the world’s primary adventurers and their shortcomings are the reason why.
But perhaps it’s possible to have a game where race doesn’t appear on the character sheet because everyone’s a regular old human. Assuming there’s some other customization in the form of ability scores / classes / skills / feats / whatever, PCs won’t all be the same.
I think this would be a good way to go in a game without character generation. I’ll post some things about that idea next.