I have recently been pondering the use of races in the Cypher System. One of the standard staples of a fantasy setting, is having half a dozen races to choose from and the fantasy genre section of the cypher system core rules gives a couple of example race descriptors that could be used. The examples in the book are not bad – mechanically, they definitely evoke the feel of the typical D&D dwarf and elf – but I personally think that racial descriptors is a poor way to implement races in the system. This is for a couple of reasons…
1) In many systems, choosing a race is a very minor part of character creation; in the Cypher System, the descriptor has a large effect on a starting character, so it’s a shame to heavily restrict that choice by race.
2) If two people want to play an elf, they both have to take the same descriptor; this makes it harder to then separate their individual niches in the party, as they have a large overlap in skills.
3) The implication, though this could be worked around, is that elves have the elf descriptor, dwarves have the dwarf descriptor and humans get to choose from all the standard descriptors in the book. This just cements all non-human races as being generic stereotypes.
I have been pondering a slightly different approach, which I present below. This is certainly not the only way to work this… just the way that I am currently favouring.
Firstly, divide all the races in a setting into two groups. For this post, I have called them common and uncommon races – some settings might allow for more interesting descriptions (mortal/immortal races, humanoid/non-humanoid races, etc…).
Common races have the following characteristics:
1) They are common – Specifically, it would be perfectly normal for two or more players to be playing the same race.
2) Their racial characteristics are averages, rather than something every member of the race shares – The average dwarf may be tough and favour an axe, but not every single dwarf is like that.
3) Compared to a human baseline, individual variance is more important than racial attributes – Elves may be generally more graceful than humans, but a specific elf might not be… and even if they are, a more prominent characteristic might be that character’s intelligence.
Uncommon races have the following characteristics:
1) They are uncommon – You would not generally expect more than one of each of these races in the party.
2) Their important racial characteristics are shared by every member of the race – For example, every single member of the Avis race can fly, barring unfortunate accidents… it is important that this is therefore reflected in an Avis character.
3) Compared to a human baseline, the racial attributes are more important than individual variance – Mechanically, it doesn’t matter too much is a troll is charming or smart… the most important thing, compared to other races, is that they are eight foot tall, indestructible living crystals.
Having divided the races up, the following character creation rules are used:
Common races – The choice of race is essentially “cosmetic”; it will affect how the character is roleplayed and how the world reacts to them, but they can choose any descriptor they wish.
Uncommon races – Any PC of these races must choose the appropriate racial descriptor, so that the mechanical implications are covered.
Therefore, a writeup of the races, presented to players to help with character creation, might look a bit like this:
Elf – Tall and graceful, elves make their home in the woods and are good trackers. (Suggested descriptors: Graceful, rugged)
Dwarf – Short and tough, dwarves live underground and drink beer. (Suggested descriptors: Strong-willed, tough)
Human – Humans culture is heavily based on trade and humans tend to be great negotiators. (Suggested descriptors: Charming, wealthy)
Troll – Eight foot tall beings of living crystal, trolls are incredibly tough. (Required descriptor: Troll)
Avis – Avis are winged humanoids, who live up in the mountains. (Required descriptor: Avis)
[Note: Using Numenera as another example, humans are the only common race, while all visitants, mutants, etc.. are uncommon races. This works fine… the numbers don’t have to be divided evenly.]
With this approach, you have covered most of your bases. If a player wants to create a “typical” elf, they can just choose one of the suggested descriptors and build from there (choosing an appropriate focus, etc..); however, if a player wants to create a bookish dwarf then they can also do so, ignoring the suggested descriptors and picking something more appropriate to their concept. Obviously, those players choosing the uncommon races are locked into their choice of descriptor, but generally someone wanting to play one of the uncommon races is probably drawn by the primary mechanics of that race anyway, so the racial descriptors are what they want.
On a final note, I’ve seen some suggestions bandied around the internet, regarding letting players choose two descriptors; a racial one and a regular one. This is definitely another possibility, but I would make two suggestions.
1) Be ready for the power increase in starting characters, particularly if your players are the sort to game the system.
2) Create a decent racial descriptor for humans and don’t just default to letting humans take any two descriptors or we’re right back where we started.
As always, thoughts and comments are very welcome.