Race and class for RPGs

Rethinking races and classes in tabletop gaming

In my last few articles, I talked about different approaches to building your RPG character. In these next articles, I’ll dig into some of the core fantasy races and D&D classes. Specifically, I want to talk about how these characters are typically portrayed and what can you do to freshen up that approach with your character.

One of my favorite examples are the two races: elves and dwarves. Both originate in their modern form in the J.R.R. Tolkien’s books set in the Middle Earth. Over time, the names have changed slightly based on the game world and they acquired some additional tropes, such as the Scottish brogue mandatory for dwarf voice acting gig. Unfortunately, a lot of gameplay at the table still sticks to the more common tropes, despite some awesome alternative depictions in fantasy.

Today, I’ll dig into some rethinking of the elf and how you can re-imagine your character or the race as a hole within your game world. For a couple of my favorite alternative elf depictions, check out the following.

That said, they still stick to the tried and true elvish concepts. If they don’t have the following traits, it’s because they are trying to get back to those traits.

  • I mean, so much better looking than humans.
  • They love trees. They probably live inside a tree.
  • Magic, because they live a long time and are smarter than humans.
  • Arrows everywhere. Shield riding is a plus.
  • Bad elves are dark-skinned. That’s how you know their evil.

For your next elf, I recommend distilling the race down to its essential differences from the other races and then playing with those traits to create a different kind of elf. Believe me, your game master and fellow players will appreciate the freshness!

Breaking down the elf

So, let’s take the elf down to some essential elements.

  • Long lived. This varies from thousands of years to nigh immortal depending upon the world.
  • Inherently magical. There’s just something about them that is drawn to magic, even if it’s just flavor rather than a special ability.

That’s it. Start with just those two points. Get rid of the trees. They could live in a desert or in a city, so the nature obsession is an unnecessary component. Same with the obsession over bows. Also, rethink the attractiveness component. Why should alien races be naturally attractive to each other? Perhaps they are beautiful in some foreign way to other races, but not for sexual desirability.

So, your character is going to live for a very long time barring violent death or disease. They know this, even when a sprightly 120 or so. How would such a long life impact your relationships and view on things, and how can you bring that into your character?

For one, this give your character a lot of time to develop eclectic interests and close bonds to other long-lived creatures. Humans are fire flies, fun for that taste of long ago youth, but you’ll do anything for those that you’ve bonded with over the centuries. That does not have to be an elf! Consider an ancestral background where you grew up playing with a baby dragon or giant. They’re bigger now, but also getting a bit old compared to you.

But, just because your long lived does not mean you have little interest in the world. Elves could make the ultimate political schemers. The happen to know centuries of dirt on all the political players in the world, including their ancestors and their offspring. A shadowy cable of elf manipulators would make a powerful faction, the ultimate Illuminati.

Also, think big! Your character has thousands of years to execute their master plan. Killing a monster is a task rather than the grand accomplishment of a short-lived warrior. A human might dream of getting rich and settling down, but there are no limits to your dreams.

You are magical, or at least have an ancestral gift for the art. And yet, every year some enterprising gnome, dwarf or human invents something a bit different. This is a great opportunity to consider how you can mesh your magical aptitude with technology. I like to think that behind every gnome tinkerer and dwarf smith there is an elf supplying the magical expertise and energy to bring their contraptions to life. You’ve lived with magic for a very long time, so your probably addicted to it to include using those cantrips for every possible activity.

Rethink the trees. Yes, they live a long time, so they make natural companions. But stone lives even longer. Perhaps your elf clan has built an ancient citadel. Each year you are expected to help maintain this ancient palace, to include expanding the runes and carvings that cover every inch of its walls. It IS the living history of your people.

Consider what would happen if your elves were a coastal kingdom that wielded power through their ships. Each vessel is a work of art and magic, a ship hundreds of years old. Each one is a symbol to their clan’s power and history… which brings us to another point.

Own your majesty. You’ve had a long time to perfect your manner of speech, your wardrobe, etc. You can play this up in role-playing by emphasizing the precise manner that you go through life.  Nobody will blame you for being bored with common activities, you’ve done it all before. In fact, an elf probably hires plenty of retainers to take care of the daily minutia of life.

You might even be a coward. The main threat to your life is adventure and warfare, so when you do these things you prefer to use maximum force to avoid any chance of death. You probably have contingencies in place as well!

Recap on making an elf

That’s a lot of rambling on the subject, but what I hope you do is get away from the trees and bows, and focus on a couple inherent racial traits that define elvishness. Don’t be afraid of going in the opposite direction of Tolkien. There’s no reason why the greatest scientist and inventor is not the long-lived elf. Why, that entire human settlement is nothing but a petri dish you set up a few hundred years ago to test some theory.

They fit into many themes, whether their arrogant imperials ruling over the lands or an ancient race dwindling away in seclusion. But they have as many opportunities for variety as human, from skin color to weapons to preferred homes. Personally, I think they make great villains when played as the rulers of vast, imperial empires. There’s nothing like a thousand-year empire still ruled by the original founders. Their favorite pastime, theatrical presentations on the short-sighted, buffoonery of their human serfs.

Next week, let’s talk about dwarves (dwarfs) and what happens when you shave their beards.

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