Off to the Races… (Culture and Race in Worldbuilding)

Most players expect to able to dive into the Core Rulebook and roll-out any standard fantasy race with some pretty basic assumptions about the cultural place and stereotypes about the race.  When we homebrew a world that isn’t always the case.  Maybe your world had elves once but they have succumbed to the Great Call and as such are nearly totally absent in the setting now.  Not a likely PC race there?  Your setting has halflings that are almost 100% psionic ascetics?  Great.  Your player who has her heart set on a ring-stealing burglar probably needs a head up.

Developing Your Cultures and Races

When working on your setting there are a few basic considerations to keep in mind:

Consider the Core – Does your setting support the Core Rulebook races?  As a GM I am (currently) really guilty of favoring human-centric worlds and have to actively fight the decision to make it just one race option.  This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker for most people but make certain your setting really needs a race removed before you do it. Fantasy games draw a lot of strength from their archetypal imagery and recognition.  Don’t sacrifice it casually. Consider your play-group and make certain that people are still going to be interested in your selections.

Evaluate the Additions – With Core options accounted for, make certain to account for races NOT traditionally part of the Core. What additional offerings are there?  If you have eliminated a Core choice, it might be a good idea to offer a similar option.  No dwarves ever made it to your world?  Ok.  What about oreads or other elemental beings with ties to earth?  Are dwarf only archetypes, feats and traits now available to these people? Is there anything else your story needs? Is there a race that a player has really wanted to play?  Work it in and make it deep in the setting. A PC race is usually going to represent about 20% of your party, it should get some exploration.

Establish the Commonality – Is your world human-dominant? Most published fantasy RPG settings are but some fascinating effects can be achieved by altering this assumption.  Maybe the elves are great empires and humans are just shaking off the dregs of barbarism.  Maybe your world is full of halflings who are shocked to see a “tall-man” come down from the arctic frost.  This is an area to exercise extreme caution with but well done your setting’s uniqueness can be quite rapidly enhanced.

Alter the Norms – If Core races are present, are they the same as usual?  Human groups and others might have variant nationalities and ethnicities. Work them all out if you can.  At the vary least each race needs its variants that are near your campaigns “Starting Zone”. Also account for the racial choices a PC plans to make that are not in that area. Establish mechanical changes and support your new decisions. Are your dwarves aeronauts of the Sky Castles?  Awesome. Stonecunning might not be the default racial trait any more. Elves are all blind since their goddess was slain? Make the work around for playing one really clear or remove them.   Seafaring gnomes, magicless dark-elves, and a thousand other options might be what you are looking for in your worldbuilding.

Communicate the Decisions, then Communicate them Again

Establishing your racial mix is key to building the flavor of your world or campaign setting, but since we are talking about a game, make sure you inform your players too. Nothing is so terrible as finding out you’re the only halfling burglar in a tribe of cannibal barbarians. Make your choices and communicate them in a timely fashion so that your players have plenty of time to bring you characters that make sense with your setting and are more likely to reinforce the overall story you create together.

Next… Cultures of Endamon

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