Designer Diary #5: RPG Races

Designer-DiaryToday I’m going to talk a bit about races in roleplaying games. Now, I have to admit I’m really into races, and I do get excited when a game has a neat offering of races, but I’m not just making Cosmothea for myself. I’m making it for a mainstream audience, so it’s not about just what I want. I do have a detailed, specific vision for the Cosmoverse Campaign Setting, however, so that guides my decisions as well.

I was surprised to learn a few years back that some gamers don’t consider the quality or quantity of races as being a very good selling point for a game. In fact, sometimes they get annoyed hearing about it. “Every game has races. Big deal!” So I have to remind myself that not everyone gets excited like I do when hearing about new races in an RPG. So, I don’t talk about them a lot—I have plenty other selling points, after all, but I do love the races we’re using and they are important to me. My guess is some will fall in love with some of the original races in any RPG that has ’em, and that fact will be one more factor in keeping them playing, so they are important, IMO. Regardless, it’s important for a game designer to carefully consider what races to include, providing a good mix of themes that work well together, and go off the beaten path a little and offer something that is both creative and makes sense.

If there is a setting, the races should feel like they belong, both conceptually and historically. The more you tie them to the setting, the stronger their theme will be, but also the less portable they’ll be to other game systems and settings.

Books have been written on how to make a good race so I won’t go into all the meat here. This is a general overview and like most of my other posts, going behind the scenes a bit into my decisions and what I ultimately chose for QT Games.

As I’ve said many times, I believe in offering something that is familiar, but not too familiar, obscure, but not too obscure. Anyone can come up with a new race no one or almost no one’s ever heard of, but the fact is, many of us have fallen in love with certain classic races. At the same time, we enjoy seeing and playing new ones too.

Because Cosmothea is a mainstream game, I try to put in a nice blend of classic races and races unique to the Cosmoverse Campaign Setting. I love elves, despite the fact that most fantasy games have them, and can’t imagine playing in a setting without dwarves. The omission of either would not prevent me from playing someone’s rpg, but I do enjoy them.

Back in late 70’s and early 80’s I made a number of unique races that I’m still very excited about and have gotten positive feedback on them over the decades. I’ve also written numerous stories featuring them (writing stories helps force you to think about a race’s culture, religions, politics, abilities . . . i.e. it helps you flesh them out and make them more believable, while playtesting helps you spot mechanical and balance issues). The very best of those races I’ve made have been carried into future incarnations of the game and setting.

If you use classic races, it’s a good idea to put a little spin on them so that they remain fresh, but are still the races many gamers have grown to love over the years. One thing you want to be careful about when creating creatures in general . . . if the creature is just a renamed orc, call it an orc. If it operates identical to and looks similar to a dragon, calling it a dragon helps with identification.

You can always have secondary names for them, but don’t dance around the name as if it’s a whole new race just because you call it something different. A name alone doesn’t do anything other than make you look like you are trying to deceive someone. It’s not a huge deal, but why not just call most things what they really are and then make up new, cool stuff?! ‘Nuff said.

You will most likely have a race in your game that someone doesn’t care for (I’ve yet to find a game or setting that doesn’t have some issue people don’t care for). There’s no pleasing everyone, but I think we have a nice balance with our races, covering the sneaky, the resilient, fliers, lil guys, etc. Cosmothea 5.0 includes 12 races in the core rulebook. Further, because the Cosmoverse is a huge setting, I’ve set it up so that you can alter the races considerably as well. Some other games have done that also, so I’m not trying to act like it’s innovative to offer lots of options for races. That’s not even what this blog post is about. I’m just trying to dip into my decision making process, shed a bit of light on what we’re doing and why.

Since there are tons of worlds in the Cosmoverse, Cosmothea includes a guide to quickly making racial variants and new races for other galaxies as well (our giant star map covers the Pantara Galaxy and shows partial maps for both the Omidar and Ruun galaxies). That’s not all there is to the Cosmoverse—not by a longshot, but I’ll never live long enough to explore every corner of what I’m already revealing, so that’s more than enough to worry about.

One of the decisions I made back in Cosmothea 4.0 was to allow players to run most races found in our monster books as well. That means including a large number of monster talents in each book. I think it’s worth it and it should go over rather well for those into that sort of thing. I think it’s best if GM’s monitor the use of monster/alien races and try to stick with races that are mostly humanoid, as it’s easier for players to wrap their brains around creatures that are at least vaguely humanoid. It also makes it easier for them to interact with societies. That said, if they want to do wilder ones, that’s fine too.

I once ran a two-year long mega adventure that was all monster races and it was uber popular, so I want to keep that option open. We’ve also done a bit of time travel a few times and even had adventures in which the players could take the roles of existing, minor gods (which was even more popular). Tons of caution should be taken and there’s lots of other things I could say about that, but we’re gettin’ off track, so I’ll stop there. As for running monsters, I have some elements in place in the setting’s back story which works well for that sort of thing, and will include it in the published game and setting as I know many will enjoy that option.

As we also have superheroes in the setting, there are many races players can pick from (and make new ones) to ensure they can build whatever sort of superhero they want. Other games like GURPS and HERO also allow you to make up your own races and provide rules for it. I like my rules medium crunch, not heavy crunch, but we’ll offer plenty of options. I decided early on to spend the extra time, book space and money to offer plenty of talents for each race (or species if you prefer), but that’s not a decision to be taken lightly. You’ll need a pro editor and every extra page just boosts the cost of putting your game out, so beware. That said, it’s a turn off to me to play a game with only a few core races, so that’s something to consider too. Find your sweet spot!

Ultimately, I removed half a dozen races from our core rulebook in Cosmothea 5.0, due to exactly what I mentioned: space, time and money concerns. We’re still including 12 races and since I decided to include the option and talents to play the aliens and monsters to boot, I think that’s plenty. Actually, it will likely cost me more in the long run, but it shortens up the core rulebook, which was helpful, and I think was a good move. It is going to cost a pretty penny to put out the core rulebook as it is.

Of course as Cosmothea 5.0 is still under heavy construction, anything I post in this blog pre-release is subject to change, but I’m pretty happy with the races at this point (just need to finish ’em up—still lots of work left to do, but so far, so good!)

The current lineup of races in the core rulebook include: axcii (furry lion-like race), dwarves, elves, exotics (includes a huge variety of options under this entry including artificial intelligence, androids, etc.), gnomes, humans, klatuans (a magical, brain-modded race), nehi (very small fey), orynii (boneless lil guys who live in a mech of sorts), sygman (part flesh, part machine), taager (hyper focused, tech-obsessed, brain-modded aliens) and xeelotian (stony, gentle giants). I won’t go into detail on the individual races at this point, but you’ll hear more about them down the road, at our forums, and in actual products, of course, the first being our upcoming anthology: Arcane Synthesis due out this Summer!

Rules are included to build pretty much any race you can imagine. Chances are the race could find a home somewhere in the Cosmoverse, though it isn’t a generic setting. Caution should be taken, as with any game offering heavy customization. It can be a tricky thing to balance the fun/cool factor with what makes sense. A wild or ridiculous race might work in a game as long as you put in place a proper backstory and internal logic and if the game provides a decent set of rules to slow down imbalances. While balance is important, to me, ensuring the race feels like it belongs is even more important. And if it’s a mainstream game, make sure the race’s aren’t too obscure. I’ve got a couple oddballs like the orynii (one of my personal favorites), but I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback and think all the ones I’ve designed or chosen will go over very well with most gamers. And we’ll do tons of playtesting before we release the game.

I wanted players to dig as deep into a race as they want to, so in Cosmothea, you start with a few racial talents and can purchase many more during the life of the character (which represents focusing on developing talents, magical abilities and even rituals unique to a particular race to manifest the race’s historic and even legendary rare or lost abilities.

Well, that’s all for this week! I’m going to post an update on our anthology next week, then take a couple weeks off while our internet is down (long story as to why that is), and then dive back in for more designer diaries. Feedback is welcome! Take care and hope to see you around the blog or our forums!

About Bob Whitely/QT Games

Welcome to QT Games! Mission Never publish junk or waste people's time. Publish only high-quality fiction and games. 'Nuff said. Company Overview QT Games LLC was created to publish blended-genre (fantasy blended with sci-fi, etc.) fiction, board, card and roleplaying games for a discerning gaming community. Unlike most small press, we have very strict standards: Only pro writing, pro editing and pro art. That means that if we can't get it right, we find someone who can. We pay well for what we don't do in-house. We don't cut corners on quality. This means we stand to make less money than other small publishers, but that's okay with us. We value your time and money, so we're willing to take the bullet. We've designed a large number of games and written a pile of stories. Now we're polishing some of them and getting them out the door. 'Bout time, we know. Good stuff ahead!
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