Silly Elf Costumes

It’s all an illusion, man. Shipwright.

I’ll tell you straight-up, folks: this was a doozy to write. And not because of the stupid play on words at the beginning. I actually wrote this article, changed my mind about the subject, and reordered the whole thing. This is why writing is good. You have to order what you believe with purpose and precision.

And now back to the show.

Other races bother me.

Put your pitchforks down.

Maybe the better term is “species.” Some other fantasy RPGs have opted for “ancestry.” But it’s all the same thanks to good old Dungeons and Dragons. The “race” and “class” combo has been around for decades and now when people say “what kind of character are you playing?” they’re usually asking for that shorthand: “I’m an elf ranger.” “I’m a dwarf cleric.” “I’m a human wizard.”

It’s that last example that bugs me. In a majority of fantasy and science fiction, humans are the majority. We can’t help it. We’re just too relatable. Now look at most D&D adventuring parties. Any humans out of the four or six players? One? Maybe two? When did human beings stop being the default?

In many ways, the magic of magical races like elves, dwarves, dragonborn, thri-kreen, and whatever else lose their magic when every party member is one of those races. It becomes a game of “and what makes you so super?” And as we all know: if everyone’s super, no one is.

Non-human characters are best when they’re a rarity. And rarity requires limitation.

Many of the great works of fiction knew (and should continue to practice) limitation. There was only one good wizard featured in the Lord of the Rings. There were only three Jedi in the entire original Star Wars trilogy. There was only one last Airbender in… that’s right, Avatar: The Last Airbender. From these limitations, these unique elements could be brought forward and made them more interesting. Jedi lose their appeal when there are thousands of them (ahem).

So maybe this point is not about race/species/ancestry, but restraint. Maybe you’re like me and you want dragonborns in your game. After all, they’re cool. But they’re best in moderation.

So where’s the line?

While you think about that let me pose this to you: What do the Disney animated movies Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Pinocchio all have in common? They all have humans! And not just one or two, I mean, ALL of the characters on the screen are human. Sure, they feature people-turned-beasts and people-turned-candlesticks, and talking fish and talking birds and talking crickets and talking puppets, but the point is this: look beyond that.

Every character ever is human.

Any character with emotion, wants, needs? Human. A rookie race car that wants to make it big? Human. A toy cowboy that loves his owner? Totally human. A snowman in a snow globe that yearns to be with a human girl? Human. Pixar gets it: humans tell stories about humans regardless of the form they take. We give things like robots, dogs, and inanimate household items human qualities like passions and desires all the time… we can’t stop ourselves.

Even elves are just humans in silly elf costumes.

Now there are obvious benefits of playing a different race. Dwarves have poison resistance, dragonborns have lizard skin, claws, and fire-breath, and elves live longer (not to mention those lovely pointy ears). I think this perfectly speaks to why there are so few humans: there’s few, if any, mechanical advantages for it and there are NEVER any diegetic advantages. But nevertheless, emotionally-speaking, they’re still human.

So what’s the big deal then? Why does is matter if humans role-play humans dressed up as lizards, mermaids, or short folks?

I ask again: where’s the line?

Sorry for the cop-out, but it’s up to you. You get to decide. My point is to remember that it’s there. If you’re like me and think that there are too many tieflings around for your taste, just remind yourself that all characters are actually human in the end, be they blue orcs, yellow dwarves, or purple humans, no matter how the player or GM spins it. 

On the other side, if the magic of elves is lost on you and everything looks too much like the same Tolkien-esqe world that you’ve seen regurgitated over and over by lesser writers? Try some limitations. Bar players from picking certain races or classes. Say no for a change. Try a game that only has one druid in the whole galaxy. Or has only twelve dragonborns that hand down their dragon powers to the next generation of stout-hearted warriors. Or has THE (not “a”) minotaur. As you’ve no doubt experienced as a designer and seen play out at your table, constraints produce creative results.

Find the line that suits you and your group.

But please, for goodness’ sake, stop playing gnomes. You know who you are and you know exactly what you’re doing, you little monster.

3 thoughts on “Silly Elf Costumes

  1. I’ve had a bit of fun adding “Weirdness” to my character generation rather than outright giving characters races or ancestries or species. Like, you might get “Elven Attitude” (take 1 damage if you apologise or interact with ugliness) but does that make you an Elf? Half-Elf? Someone who was raised by elves? A elf weeaboo??

    It’s up to them if they want to be a different species or just a human with tusks. You put it really well, they are all just… humans.

  2. I’m with you on every remark you make. My home rules disallow any non-humans. That is, all characters are human. Non-humans are very special, weird, and often scary. But my son’s 5e game has zero human player characters in the group. Dragonborn, elves, halflings… The feeling is completely different, as you point out.

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