How important are the Tolkien races?

If I offer Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Hobbit as PC race options, it sounds like I’m basically running Lord of the Rings. If we switch it to *wink nudge* Halfling instead of Hobbit we’re suddenly in D&D territory. This is where a lot of players seem comfortable and if you have weird races it feels more like someone’s Star Wars fanfic and people get less interested. But DMs are supposed to develop their own campaign settings, right? Different character options should be part of that.

You could remove the standard Tolkien races and replace them with other options, or just add new options without removing the old. Some players may find one or the other more palatable, but completely changing up the setting by removing the old ones feels more effective in setting design.

I’ve come across some problems though. If you give new races abilities that break old challenges, you need to make up new challenges otherwise the game becomes Easy Mode D&D. For example, in Morrowind, you can play an Argonian (lizardman) who can breathe water. That removes the challenge of swimming through underwater caves and diving shipwrecks. You could similarly create a winged race but that eliminates the challenge of scaling walls, crossing pits, and navigating overland. Morrowind is a single-player game, so in multi-player D&D everyone can pick a different race and the group as a whole can evade multiple challenges.

In general that’s a good thing. The PCs are a team of specialists, so if the Dwarf is good at finding traps and secret doors and the Elf is stealthy, they’re more effective working together than apart.

Besides the game design issue, you need to get past the Star Wars Cantina style that appears when you have 100 races to choose from and everyone’s a Half-Halfling Doublehobbit Dung Elf Dragonkin Mummywrapped Salvaged Clone Skunkghost. Because of their template system 3E and 4E D&D are particularly bad about this, but Cantina play appears using 2E’s Humanoids Handbook, Planescape, or Spelljammer. It actually exists with any of the “Complete” handbooks but you can’t really tell if someone is a Mountain Dwarf or a Sundered Dwarf so who cares? The player just says “I’m a Dwarf” and records the bonuses on his character sheet.

Tekumel manages to give some interesting options in a narrow range. I don’t know about bug-men though. If the creature isn’t a mammal its thought processes are going to be a bit weird for people to understand. And if it’s a bug that thinks like a mammal, it’s just a palette-swapped Elf or whatever.

I don’t know if my players could get past the non-Tolkien flavor for their PCs. They can deal with weird NPCs, sure. Maybe travel to another place where the NPCs are different but the standard PC choices apply because they brew out of a colony / embassy / Chinatown sorta thing.

9 Responses to “How important are the Tolkien races?”

  1. Brendan Says:

    I think the travel to a new place to encounter the new races is key. That way players can also learn about what those races are like based on actual interactions.

    Make it a diegetic thing, not an options book thing. At least, that’s what I prefer. I know some players are really big on cantina play from the get-go though.

  2. Peter K. Says:

    Personally I’m fine with cantina effect as a player, as long as:
    a) There’s some convenient setting explanation for why all these races are around and how they fit into local society . . . without a chapter-length history/geography lesson.
    b) The differences are easily and briefly summed up both culturally and with stats. Pallet swapping is fine, if the differences are distinct enough or matter to anyone outside the creature’s subgroup.

    Sun themed elves vs. Moon themed elves who cares, even if their stats are a few +1s different.
    But elves as children of nature sprung fully formed from living wood vs. elves as sentient, benign glitch artifacts from when the gods coded the first humans: that I could get into, even if they had the same stats.

    One great thing about “mutant” games: abnormal is the normal so no shock how any character looks or acts. Same for Changeling: the Lost or any other game where everyone’s a species of one.

  3. 1d30 Says:

    Good points. I think I’ve talked before about introducing new things to players by having them travel there; that is, exploration not exposition. And good point on mutant games (especially with random mutations).

  4. Aaron Says:

    While being able to breath underwater or fly might avoid challenges in a single player game, it wouldn’t have nearly the same effect in a normal RPG unless all the PCs possessed that power. An all underwater or all flying party would not just avoid some normal challenges, but instead open up a wide variety of new challenges and possible adventure types. Things often restricted only to the seldom reached high levels.

    I say this since one of my first PCs (I DM 90% of the time) was a pixie in that old and lost game Thieves Guild. That game had a huge variety of possible character type including a centaur.

    It’s also odd that seeing in the dark is a pretty common racial power yet it not only avoid challenges but opens all sorts of problems that are seldom discussed. Can a thief hide in “shadows” if all monsters can see in the dark?

    • 1d30 Says:

      The movement power of flight or water breathing does two things I can think of at the moment: avoid an obstacle, avoid a trap. Flight also lets you travel long distances faster and with fewer random encounters.

      It matters whether everyone needs the special ability, or just one.

      Example: There’s a cliff with a tower at the top, 500′ up. Sheer cliff, crumbly, Climb Walls won’t work well unless you’re near 100%. Birdman flies up and attached a rope, dangling it down so everyone can climb. Thus the treacherous journey up the narrow path is avoided.

      Example: There is a wrecked ship below and the PCs want to dive down to it to loot. The water-breathing PC can go alone, but it’s dangerous since he would be fighting alone. If everyone goes, he’s at an advantage because he won’t drown, but everyone else still has the normal problems.

      Two different types of obstacle. In the first type the special ability allows the whole group to bypass the obstacle. In the second, the rest of the group still needs to deal with the obstacle.

      Your centaur brings up an interesting side point that I experienced with a Centaur in the group in Undermountain years ago. The centaur was too big and gangly to do the stuff we normally could as humans. At one point we had to lower him by rope and harness because he couldn’t just climb down the rope. It was a stretch that the DM let him walk up and down steep slimy stairs. So it’s possible that the weird race has special abilities and also special hindrances. This came up with a Birdman type race I developed.

      • Von Says:

        “Example: There’s a cliff with a tower at the top, 500′ up. Sheer cliff, crumbly, Climb Walls won’t work well unless you’re near 100%. Birdman flies up and attached a rope, dangling it down so everyone can climb. Thus the treacherous journey up the narrow path is avoided.”

        Instead, you have a treacherous climb up a rope. It frays. There are things living in the walls that like the taste of hemp. There are harpies at the top of the tower that want you to climb up so you can’t fight back as effectively when they swoop in to feast on the meats of your food-body.

        The trick isn’t to think “bypassing interesting stuff”, it’s to think “whatever the players decide to do, something interesting needs to happen”. The “bypassing interesting stuff” leads to all those terrible modules where commonplace spells ‘don’t work’ because the module’s author wants you to see everything but (obviously) couldn’t plan for all the cunningness of players. It seems to me that if you’re planning adventures for a setting where some PCs can fly, breathe water, read minds &c. &c. you’d give some thought to putting in interesting aerial, underwater and telepathic content, rather than building a boring mundane environment and dragging the PCs down into boring mundanity by fiat.

        (That’s a plural and generic ‘you’ rather than a specific and personal ‘you’, by the way. How much Internet Drama is provoked by this issue of pronouns? Probably too much, but I digress.)

        Or you’d refocus onto intrigues and characters, stuff that’s interesting whether you can read minds or fly or breathe water or not do any of those things… which is what I’d probably do. It doesn’t ultimately matter if you’re using elves and dwarves or birdmen and goblins, as long as the things are interesting in some way other than ‘because they’re there’. Elves that are just like everybody else’s elves and are there because the world’s got to have them aren’t interesting. Elves that are, I don’t know, the last barbarian remnants of an empire that once spanned half the world, elves that live in ruins and have shamans and preserve a barely-remembered eldritch technology and go on weird-ass vision quests and have ghettoes in major cities and co-exist with goblins and interbreed with humans as a survival strategy, that’s more interesting… but that’d be interesting to me whether they’re elves or something else, which is sort of the point. Nothing’s interesting if it’s just there.

        That’s why I don’t have dwarves in my games (yet) – I don’t know what I’d do with them other than just have them there, and I don’t want them there until someone (me or a player) comes up with something for them to do.

      • 1d30 Says:

        This is a pretty good point: prepare your adventure / module / sandbox for the various eventualities of flight, water breathing, etc. That way you have the harpies or hemp-loving cliff voles in place already, and their presence might do other interesting things that you hadn’t predicted.

        I still think the players will come up with interesting ways to get around difficult obstacles, which is part of the game and should be encouraged. My DMing style is to say “great, there’s nothing else I put there, so they kinda skipped that one” rather than “oops, they’re getting through too easily, I need to add something now to make life difficult”. Just two different DMing styles that CAN be equally fun to play, but I prefer the former. And I think many people will prefer one or the other rather than being equally content, which means it’s a question players should ask when starting a game so they don’t have the wrong set of expectations.

  5. Brendan Says:


    Yes, a power like flight for one character does not obviate the challenge for an entier party, but it does encourage one player side excursions which tends to only engage one player for a while. Thief scouting has the same structural problem, of course, though to a lesser degree.

    • Von Says:

      Surely other players are rolling for monsters, or trap damage, or spot-playing NPCs, if they need something to do or they’ll disengage from the game? I’m lucky in that (most) of my players are content to watch the armchair theatre and heckle for anything up to half an hour when someone goes off on a side-quest, but it seems like parts of the GM role can be delegated to those that lose interest if they’re not actively doing something all the time.

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