Friday, December 9, 2016

Ethnicity and "Half-Breeds" in Fantasy RPGs

Anyone who's ever played a fantasy RPG is familiar with the idea of half-breed races. Half-orcs, for example, tend to lack the sheer ferocity of their full orc parents, but they tend to be smarter, and more cunning. Half-elves are not as long-lived as full elves, but they temper wisdom and enthusiasm in a way that alloys their human and elven heritages. There are also tieflings and aasimar, who reflect infernal and celestial heritages, as well as more unusual examples like dhampir and half-ogres.

The first question most people ask is why are there so few "half-breed" races to pick from? Are there no partial gnomes? Is there a half-halfing option? Has a dwarf never managed to have a child with an orc?

Don't let the charisma negative fool you, I'd hit that... with my ax!
The simple answer, which you find in books like Bastards of Golarion, is that certain races simply don't produce offspring. And, in other cases, the children may inherit features of both parents, but will only have the benefits and racial abilities of one template. So, for example, it's perfectly possible to have a child whose parents are an orc and an elf... but you can't get the benefits of both races. You need to pick which one is more dominant.

And maybe take the feat Racial Heritage to give you access to abilities usually reserved for the other side of your lineage.

The question I'd like to ask is why all our half-orcs, half-elves, and other characters with unusual heritage all tend to look the same?

There's More To The World Than Fantasy England

I harped on this in Do Dwarves Surf? Tips For Diversifying Non-Human Fantasy Races, as well as in the post Ethnic Homogeneity in RPGs (Or, Why So Many Burly, White Adventurers?), but there's a tendency for us, as players and DMs alike, to default to the same half-dozen acres of English countryside that's carved out of J.R.R. Tolkien's back garden. Even if the setting we're playing in is diverse in terms of races, ethnicity, cultures, and traditions, it's like Lord of The Rings is a comfort zone we just can't step out of for too long.

Thanks, Tolkien!
So, the question I think we should all ask ourselves the next time we put together a PC with only a partially human heritage is to ask who their human parent was. Where did they come from? What features did they inherit from their human mother or father? Most importantly, Who Raised Your Character, and How Did That Shape Them?

There's a whole layer of character development here that we often ignore. Take the map of Golarion, the base world for Pathfinder (it's the one I know best, so it's the one I tend to default to for examples). Say you want to play an aasimar, and you decide that his lineage comes from both the Mwangi Expanse, as well as from the celestial realm. So you end up with a tall, handsome black man, with eyes of silver, a halo of light, and wings inherited from the supernal planes.

There are all kinds of examples you could pursue with this idea. What would a half-elf born to the Shoan-Ti, and raised in their burning deserts and arid wastes, look like? How would a half-orc born from a union where one parent had Tian heritage appear? What would a dhampir reared in the Land of The Linnorm Kings look like? Or a tiefling from the top of the world, born to the Mammoth Lords?

It also bears repeating that, just because a character shows a certain ethnicity, that's no reason to declare they must be from a certain place. Between traveling merchants, wandering adventurers, wars, and the slave trade (all common elements in most fantasy RPGs), it's usually possible to find all kinds of heritages in places that aren't their "homelands". Which is just one more element you have to consider. If you're the child of immigrants, even if your parents, and their parents, were born in your home country, how were you treated? And what are the attitudes toward your non-human heritage in that part of the world?

Just some food for thought!

Thanks for checking out this week's Fluff topic. Hopefully it got your wheels turning, and made at least a few folks want to step away from playing regular humans for a while. If you'd like to help keep Improved Initiative going, stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little bread in my jar. As little as $1 a month keeps the wolves from the door, and gets you some sweet swag, too! In fact, if you become a patron before the end of the year, I'll double the amount of stuff I usually hand out. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, what's the hold-up?


  1. GREAT ideas there Neal Litherland. I may not comment very often but I've found that along with Johnn Four, you're a GREAT source for gaming ideas & wisdom. Rock on amigo!