Creating new races or writing for old ones can be a chore. Given that no matter how incredible our idea may be someone somewhere has probably already done it, we think there are a couple key design approaches one can follow to help build a better race.
Races come from the land. This may sound like a natural conclusion, but when you begin to think evolutionarily about how a race or species adapts or is ideally suited to its surroundings, the challenge of assigning environments, attributes, and traits to a race becomes a breeze. As a steampunk setting, our approach with Pure Steam™ has always been to make it as grounded and scientifically rendered as possible, while still allowing for all the fantasy elements gamers have come to expect. We took extra effort in describing our takes on orcs and half-orcs in the campaign setting—making them into distinct races with a shared if not not-so-distinct evolutionary past—so we wanted to do the same when it came time to build races for the new book: “Westward.”
Coming from the land means you have to take into account various environmental stimuli to determine from where one of your races might have sprung, and how their physical characteristics might have influenced their movements on the map, or how their characteristics might have changed after millennia of living away from their ancestral homes. For “manriks,” a race of lizardfolk native to wetter, warmer climes on the continent of Northern Ullera in Pure Steam, the story could aptly be titled, “The Taming of the Beast.” In detailing the middle portions of the continent, we knew we wanted to branch out and start showing more fantastical races and monsters. We also knew we had a wide swath of no-man’s land to cover. The lizardfolks’ scaly hide, predilection for swimming, and hold breath ability gave us a pretty good idea about where to start them, but to give them wider playable appeal to players and DMs alike we chose to grant them optional traits like a climb speed, and an ability to share pain (i.e. damage) between other manriks with the same racial trait—a trait bred into them over centuries of use as frontline shock troops. Finally, we tempered their generous ability modifiers with a slight drawback trait traced from their evolution as reptilians: “Cold-Blooded.” Now, to learn more about this race’s counterpart, and about that oblique Shakespeare reference. :p
With the “zaurto,” a race of kobolds who rule over their subordinate manrik cousins, these choices were more about form than function. In our campaign setting, dragons are all but extinct. The zaurto are their cultural successors, taking cue from their religious beliefs that state they are the dragons’ blood inheritors, evolving a smaller stature and more prodigious reproductive cycle where the dragons’ great size and low birth rate had failed them. Zaurto traits like “Dragon-Scaled” speak to this tradition, and help to paint kobolds in new skins respecting their chromatic ancestors, while affixing them to distinct climatic zones that would fit their evolved bodies. The nifty “Detachable Tail” trait makes the zaurto harder to kill, and pays homage to their reptilian nature. More where form is concerned, we ratcheted up the kobold use of tools and trickery alongside the racial propaganda they use (as descendants of dragons) to explain how they have achieved the dominant position over the bestial manriks, with whom they’ve long shared a common habitat.
Turning monsters into races. As you can see from the above, nothing new is invented where races are concerned; instead our approach dictated that we find the best land upon which to place our races and let the creative process take its turn. You may find that the barrel scrapes dry after exhausting the core races, so looking to suitable monster races to adapt as playable ones is a fine alternative. Even if there’s no simple table or block of text describing how to adapt a monster as a race, creating a new set of ability modifiers by examining the monster’s stat line and converting monster traits to player character ones is but a short bit of research away. There are plenty of books and online guides to help you in this endeavor, so go out and find one and get designing!
Now, let us hear from you below, and give us your thoughts on what makes a good race and why! After commenting below, visit us at the Pure Steam forums, and let us hear more. Until then, happy gaming!