Let’s talk about species in Dungeons & Dragons.
I wanted to add a couple of things to yesterday’s article about species in D&D that I left out. I know another outrage in the TTRPG community is that Wizards of the Coast is adding even more new species to the game. While I’m not opposed, there are a couple of points I’d like to make about it.
*Editor’s Note: Since this article is focused on D&D, I’m going to use Dungeon Master (DM) as my Game Master reference throughout. Other D&D nomenclature and references may occur throughout as well. I am referring to the game throughout. Any out-of-game references will be noted as such.
First, I think personal preferences as a DM should matter. Second, if everything is playable as a species, what’s a monster? Third, why ever play a regular human again? Last, I think we should look at the bigger D&D picture.
As a Dungeon Master, it’s MY table.
That sounds kinda brutal. At the end of the day, it’s true. DMs build the world, create the NPCs, run the monsters, and hand out the loot. The DM gets to set which species are allowed and which are maybe frowned upon.
That’s what Session Zero and conversations during character creation are all about. I literally handed the equivalent of a syllabus on my campaign world to my players once. It sounds heavy handed in retrospect. My expectations were clearm, though. There was still plenty of room for negotiation in character generation, though.
Now that I’m older, I do things differently. The game has evolved. My thought process and approach to the game have changed. That having been said, I still love my campaign world and I’m a little hesitant to cart blanche allow every species there could ever be as a Player Character option.
My caring, Universal love oriented advice to my fellow DMs is do what works best for your group and your campaign. I say that frequently because it’s true. You, your players and your campaign matters to you or you wouldn’t be a DM. That conversation about what you’re comfortable with is so crucial at the start of a campaign nowadays.
Personally, I try my best to keep it to the PHB species. I’m very used to the core Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Halfling, Half Elf, Half Orc, and rarely a Dragonborn or Tiefling. (*Now watch me have to go in and edit because I forgot one.) If someone comes wanting to play a Goliath Barbarian, I’ll probably allow it.
The only catch is, I then have to work Goliaths into my world somewhere. It’s not hard. There are countless unaccounted-for species. Many haven’t been encountered. Most of the other bipedal humanoid species won’t think much of it in terms of appearance. Sure, why not?
My second point: What’s a monster?
I hear this a lot from the Old Grognards online: If everything out there is now a playable species, then what constitutes a monster? I’ve asked myself this question in the past as well. Or another quote from an Old Grognard is, “I don’t want my campaign world looking like the creature cantina from Star Wars.”
I think “monster” is defined by intent and attitude. Size and strength might weigh in. Coldhearted malevolence defines monsters, to be sure. But it’s not always as obvious with bipedal humanoid species and it’s not a stereotype.
Sorry Old Dudes, gone are the days of –
Player: I smash the Orc in the face with my axe. What’s he got?
DM: 8 xp, 1sp, 2cp, a well used dagger, an old short sword, second rate banded mail. His buddies make a moral check and the fight continues…
Gone are the senseless monster beatings of old. “Look, an Orc. Kill it!”
Sure, dragons are still dragons. Unless somehow the “friendly” Black Adult Dragon decides to negotiate with the party and convince them she means no harm. Thankfully, the days of murder-based experience points are gone as well. One D&D is probably going to be milestone based leveling if I had to guess.
But where does that leave my campaign world? I’m not fond of my main homlet’s in looking like a long alphabetical list of species patrons, no offense toward anybody. Just as there are racists and negative reactions to beings humans don’t recognize in the real world, shouldn’t there be some separation and duality in my fantasy world. If we’re all going to sit around and hold hands, what’s the point of playing D&D?
That’s not to say everyone is hostile, xenophobic, or hateful toward other species, either. We aren’t forced to think along Tolkien-esque lines. Maybe the Orcs are friendly and outgoing. Maybe Goblins are extremely literate and well-mannered. Perhaps those nasty little Gnomes are the scourge of civilized lands.
Earthdawn, a classic FASA game, has all the usual suspects and friendly Orks, Trolls, T’skrang (Lizardfolk,) Obsidimen (similar to D&D Goliaths) and Windlings (Faeries.) In that world, most of the tensions are among political lines aside from the unknown Horrors still lurking about. I mention this because the races in my homebrew world borrow heavily from that pool.
But, suppose Aarakocra never evolved on my world. As a DM, I’m not keen on my PCs being able to fly at lower levels. If a player came to me with a good reason and a solid backstory, I’d probably let it fly. On the other hand, if I thought it was a player trying to min/max their way to victory and this was just one more tactic to get there? Sorry. Vetoed.
I have a soft “no” list of species in the back of my mind. I’m not sure I want to list them all out because I don’t want my players to get any ideas. My oldest is running a Tiefling in my 5E game. He was raised believing he was a Half Orc and has only recently discovered his demonic roots. Normally I probably wouldn’t have allowed it, but the whole thing works perfectly with his backstory.
Right now, there isn’t a hard “no” list. My world is populated on a rough percentage of common species. Elves, Humans, Dwarves, Gnomes, Halflings, then there are odds and ends such as Orcs, Windlings, etc. For the most part everyone divides along political lines more than species.
In light of recent One D&D changes, I’m going to remove any of the old stereotypes and prejudices. Killing an Orc outright would be as unthinkable as killing the Elf next to your character. Again, that’s not to say everyone gets along, but the old enmity is gone. Drowpocalypse cancelled.
My last point goes back to an old discussion around the D&D table. I never much cared for the race-as-class approach in older D&D editions and games such as Old School Essentials and Dungeon Crawl Classics. It’s still an option, but why?
Designers tried to make Human characters more appealing by capping other species. I’m glad those days are gone for D&D along with the sad, terrible level caps. “Whadya mean my Elf can’t go above Level 10 in Cavalier?”
It’s the old question of why bother playing a Human. Elves have far superior infravision. Dwarves are stout and do cool earthy stuff. Cat girls are pretty attractive in every anime ever. Humans are the species we know best because most/all of us play that role daily out in the real world. In terms of in-game statistical advantages? Humans can be pretty mopey.
Nowadays in the One D&D rules, Humans really kinda get the shaft. The rules indicate that Humans are prolific and resourceful as a species, but that having been said? Wouldn’t most people rather play an Ardling, Goliath, or Dragonborn? Humans can’t even innately breathe fire. (Sad, really.) I’m leaving the balance issue to the fine minds at WotC for now.
Personally, I’m scaling back the percentage of Humans on my world to make room for the Ardlings and other new species in the game. While there will still be plenty of Elves and Dwarves to go around, the more unique species will be more common than before. Mostly it just means Humans are kinda mopey and Orcs are no longer terminate on sight. I’m less inclined to want to discriminate against any species in-game. (*Certainly never hating on anyone in the real world, either.)
One final thought for everyone to consider: If we’re all freaking out about “species” vs “race,” what is WotC doing that they maybe didn’t want us to comment on or follow closely? Maybe it’s nothing sketchy, but maybe it’s something they want to put straight into the new book without unfavorable commentary.
Thank you for stopping by. I appreciate you! Keep up the good work.