In tabletop role-playing games, the character race represents the people to which a player character (PC) or a non-player character (NPC) belongs. "People" is to be taken in the broader sense, ethnic group or species, and sometimes nationality or social group.
It can be a fictitious race from a fictional universe, or a real people, especially in case of a history-based universe (even if it has a given level of fantasy), e.g. Call of Cthulhu (1981), Boot Hill (1975) or Bushido (1979). The term “race” is even broader than the usual meaning, as it also includes extra-terrestrial beings; vegetal beings, e.g. the Aldryami in Glorantha (1978), or the Sylvanians in Fantasy Craft (2010); and robots, e.g. Artificials in Fantasy Craft or the Forgeborn/Dwarf-forged optional race in 13th Age (2013).
This notion is also present in most fantasy or science-fiction works: novels, comics, video games (especially role-playing video game), board games, LARP, etc. The transmediality is obvious in case of consistent universes, e.g. the Middle Earth or the Star Wars universe.
Not all works use the term "race": in Tunnels and Trolls 7th ed. (2005), Ken St. Andre uses the term "kinship (kin)"; the term is "Spezies" (species) in Das Schwarze Auge 5th ed. (2014), and "éthnie" (ethnicity) in EW-System 2.0 (2004).
In the heroic fantasy games, the races are usually humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, immaterial being (spirits, ghosts), etc. The main influence is the work of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Some fantasy or steampunk games also involve "artificial creatures" (alchemical homunculus, golems and mechanical creatures).
In some universes, it is possible to have mixed-race characters. For example, in Dungeons & Dragons, it is possible to play a half-elf (breed of a human and an elf) or a half-orc (breed of a human and an orc).
A fundamental notion from the beginning
The first role-playing game, “original” Dungeons & Dragons (1974), stems from the wargame Chainmail (1971). Chainmail was especially designed to include fantasy races. The race is therefore a core notion present at the very beginning of the role-playing games.
The races in Dungeons & Dragons are strongly inspired by the fantasy literature of the 1950's-1960's. It thus includes the tolkienian archetypes, but the game makes a difference between:
- the races that can be played as player characters, the so-called “playable races”: humans, elves, dwarves, halflings (initially called hobbits), half-elves and half-orcs;
- “monsters”, which can only be non-player characters, and which are by name opposed to the player characters: orcs, goblins, kobolds, trolls, ogres, gnolls, etc.
In 1975, Tunnels & Trolls allows for the first time to play “monsters”, i.e. a player character can be a zombie or vampire; in the 1979 solo adventure Goblin Lake, the player character is a goblin. The 1983 game Palladium Fantasy Role-Playing Game also allows "monsters" as PCs (race character classes, RCC, e.g. goblin or a kobold).
The first fantasy game that breaks with the D&D conventions is RuneQuest: the “elves” (Aldryami) are vegetal beings, it is possible to play a duck [sic], but the game also takes into account the cult (pantheon and system of beliefs such as animism) and the cultural background of the character's people: primitive, barbarian, nomadic or civilised. As opposed to Dungeons & Dragons, the character is not totally defined by race and class, but by a list of skills (what the character can do); the cultural background defines the basic value of the skills, and the cult the access to magic. The race is thus less important in a functional point of view (how the character can interact with the fictional world), but more important in a mimetic point of view (roleplay). The “basic bricks” of the character are more flexible (see § The race, a brick of the character below).
The “original” Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D), and the first Advanced Dungeons & Dragons manuals (AD&D), do not describe any particular universe. The universe is only described through the game rules (magic, gods, fantasy races), and it outlines a generic universe inspired by popular fantasy novels such as Conan the Barbarian (Robert E. Howard, 1932), the saga of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (Fritz Leiber, 1934), the Dying Earth series (Jack Vance, 1950) or The Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien, 1954). The race is essentially a list of capabilities—functional part—and a rather thin description that is often limited to the visual appearance, with an illustration, and some elements of moeurs—mimetic part (see § Function, mimesis and roleplay below). The way the race takes place in the fictional universe is described in optional books, the “campaign settings” or “world books”. The race is thus mainly a “functional tool”, a set of functions that the player can implement in the adventure: the elves can see in the dark, and in OD&D hobbits can only be fighting men. The Player's Handbook also provide a table of “Racial preferences” and racial restrictions to the alignment, i.e. some races are intended to behave in a given moral way.
TSR Hobbies assumed anyone buying D&D knew what Hobbits are, there was no real description and the only reason they seemed to have been included was to reinforce the game's connection with Tolkien's stories.—Ronald Mark Pehr, A Change of Hobbit
[this intertextuality] is a concision tool—it allows to quickly get into the middle of the action—and an opening towards variations—you can then play with the stereotypes.
French: [Cette intertextualité] est un outil de concision — ça permet d'aller au cœur de l'action très vite —, et une ouverture vers la variation — après on peut jouer avec les stéréotypes.
In 1989, Jean-Luc Bizien creates Hurlements (French for “howls”) in which players characters are “errants”, “wanderers”, i.e. were-animals that form a caravan. The race of were-animals, and their relationship with the humans, become the main subject of the adventures, and not only a functional element or a flavour to the universe. Other games are then published, where the race of the player characters is itself the main topic of the adventures, especially Vampire: The Masquerade (1991) and Nephilim (1992)
Depiction of real peoples
As aforementioned, some campaign settings are based on real world events, and thus depict real peoples. The way the people are described can be problematic and may sometimes be considered as offending. For example, French articles ·  criticised the way the Soviets were depicted in The Price of Freedom (1986).
The race, a brick of the character
According to Coralie David, in role-playing games (as well as in youth literature), the characters are defined by “bricks”; they are in fact “syntagms of fictional paradigms” (French: syntagmes de paradigmes fictionnels). This makes the immersion of the player (or reader) easier, as anyone can build his own character in a way that is consistent with the fictional universe.
[As they describe various archetypes,] the authors of Dungeons & Dragons draw paradigms, the gears and bricks that compose them. It is possible to play Hobbits, Elves, Humans [… The players] will use bricks to build their own characters. The characters will be in fact structured like a set of gears that are both fictional and ludic.
French: [En décrivant différents archétypes,] les auteurs de Donjons & Dragons dégagent des paradigmes, les rouages et les briques qui les composent. Il est possible d'y incarner des hobbits, des elfes, des humains [… Les joueurs] vont utiliser des briques pour construire leurs propres personnages, qui vont être en fait structurés comme un ensemble de pièces d'engrenage qui sont à la fois fictionnelles et ludiques—Coralie David, Role-playing game and fictional writing (Jeux de rôle et écriture fictionnelle)
Thus, the race is one of these bricks, as it provides a set of predefined parameters (diegetic paradigms) and of characteristics—in the broad sense: physical characteristics, cultural background, moral values and social relationships. The fictional world is built as a consistent system made of “exposed” bricks that can be easily identified, and this promotes creativity and sharing; it also promotes the imaginary creation by the player (or reader).
Function, mimesis and roleplay
As aforementioned, a character is mainly defined by two things:
- what he can do in the fictional world, his “functionalities”;
- who he is as a fictional person: his social status, his look, his habits, his past, etc. which is called here his “mimetic part”
The functionalities are often a set capabilities and impairments which the game designer try to keep balanced. In some games, the choice of a given race has a cost in generation points, to reflect the advantages a race can give.
4: The cats have powerful powers, but always in a feline point of view.
5: Cats can hardly understand the way humans understand things.
6: The domestic felines do not have an opposable thumb!
7: What is easy for a human is complicated for a cat.
French: 4 : Les pouvoirs des chats sont puissants, mais toujours rapportés à une optique féline.
5 : Les chats ont du mal à comprendre l’esprit humain.
6 : Pas de pouce préhenseur chez les félins domestiques !
7 : Ce qui est facile pour un humain est compliqué pour un chat.
This influences the decisions of the player, i.e. the roleplay. In some games, the race has an influence on the choices made by the player. The influence can be prescribed by descriptions of the cultural background: the “Racial preferences” in AD&D impels the character to behave in a given way with other characters, and each cult and culture in RuneQuest Glorantha describe the way the character sees the world. In some other games, the influence on choices is impelled, and sometimes enforced, by the rules.
Some game designers consider that creating a rule to induce a role-playing choice is suitable:
In role-playing games, there is a balance between functionalism and mimesis, that is to say that at the beginning, a character is functional: he knows 1. How to fight or 2. How to chat up people […] What can I do at that game table? How can I interact with the world that surrounds me? All this is transcribed by a list of characteristics or attributes […] Furthermore, [we impose the role-playing character to have a] given mimetic wrapper: who I am, what my name is […] what my past life is […] There is a balance; the balance is found, in my opinion, when the mimetic part echoes to the functional part. For example in Vampire, you have main traits of personality, called “Nature”, and when you play according to your Nature, you earn points of Willpower that allows you to make better dice rolls.
French: Dans le jeu de rôle, on a un équilibre entre fonctionnalisme et mimétique, à savoir qu'un personnage de jeu de rôle, à l'origine, est fonctionnel : il sait 1. Se battre ou 2. Baratiner des gens […] Qu'est-ce que je vais faire autour de la table ? Comment est-ce que je vais agir sur le monde autour de moi ? Tout cela est retransmis par des listes de caractéristiques ou d'attributs […] Par ailleurs, [on impose aussi au personnage de jeu de rôle] une certaine enveloppe mimétique : qui je suis, comment je m'appelle […] quel est mon passé […] On est dans un équilibre, l'équilibre étant à mon avis trouvé lorsque le mimétisme renvoie à du fonctionnalisme. Par exemple dans Vampire, vous avez des traits de caractère principaux, qu'on appelle la « Nature », et quand vous jouez votre Nature, vous regagnez des points de Volonté qui vous permettent de faire de meilleurs jets.
Some other consider that such rules limit the freedom of choice of the player and impedes the immersion:
Typically, if you want to create game situations where the players don't know whether their characters are losing their minds, or whether this NPC is actually going to betray them, you shall make sure not to tell them. This means to make sure that what you envision for your game to be played is not that obvious, or that there is no explicit statistic that will let them know for sure what is going to happen next. […] Indeed, some issues are much more well adressed through play if they are are not explicit or if they emerge during the play without being felt as mandatory.
French: Typiquement, dans un jeu où on veut créer une dynamique où les joueur se demandent si leurs personnages sont fous ou si tel ou tel PNJ vont les trahir ou pas, il serait bien malvenu de ne laisser aucun doute à ces sujets, que ce soit par une vision trop explicite ou une statistique trop évidente. […] De fait, certaines thématiques parlent d’autant plus fort en jeu qu’elles sont tues ou ne sont pas obligatoires.— Jérôme Larré, De la vision au jeu : 10 pièges
- honour is represented by a statistic that varies according to the acts of the character:
- the first dedicated role-playing game, Bushido (1979) uses a statistic called On;
- in the first edition of AD&D Oriental Adventures (which takes place in Kara-Tur, 1985), the character has “Honor” points that influences some game parameters (e.g. the reaction rolls that tell if a NPC have a positive or negative reaction towards the PCs);
- similarly, in the Fighting Fantasy gamebook Sword of the Samurai (1986), the character also has “Honour” points; the character commits seppuku if the Honour points drop to zero, and a given amount of Honour points is required to activate some magical effects;
- in Land of Ninja (1986), some characters have a Honor characteristic (HON); a positive HON accounts as a bonus to social skills as the PC has a favourable reputation, and negative HON also acts as a bonus, by intimidation;
- the Pathfinder Ultimate Campaign system (2013) proposes the use of a Honor Points that can be spent to have a favor or a gift from an ally NPC, or to have a bonus in social skill rolls;
- a player can choose to follow a code of honour that forces him to act in a given way in some situations, to get advantages in reward:
- in GURPS Japan, the character may choose a disadvantage to have additional character points; in the 1st ed. (1988), a disadvantage called “Sense of Duty” obliges the PC towards a given NPC or organisation; the 2dn ed. (1999) provides an additional disadvantage, “Code of Honor”, that constrains the PC to act according to a moral code;
- in the 3rd edition of D&D Oriental Adventures (in Rokugan, 2001), there is no longer honour gauge, honour is handled in the same way as an alignment with possibly bonus to honourable characters (at dungeon master's discretion); it is even proposed to replace the alignment system by a honour system, with the same consequences (e.g. honour oriented magic spells and magical objects);
- in Usagi Yojimbo 2nd ed. (2005), “Honor” is a “Gift”: if the character follows the code of honour, he gets some special features such as negating the feature of an opponent or get a bonus die;
- on the contrary, other games do not implement a game mechanism to handle the honour, such as Rolemaster Oriental Companion (1992), Tenga (2011) or Les Errants d'Ukyo (2012).
- e.g. in Savage Worlds ' Pirates of the Spanish Main or Weird War II
- in Rolemaster Oriental Companion, “Common man” and “Noble” are two distinct human races, although Nobles are said to have some divine or elfic ancestors
- Petersen, Sandy (1981). Call of Cthulhu. Chaosium.
- Blume, Brian; Gygax, Gary (1975). Boothill. TSR, Inc.
- Charrette, Bob; Hume, Paul R. (1979). Bushido. Tyr Games.
- Stafford, Greg (1978). RuneQuest. Chaosium.
- Andersen, Jon; Flagg, Alexander; Gearin, Scott; Kapera, Patrick; Newman, Mark (2010). Fantasy Craft. Crafty Games. ISBN 978-0-9826843-0-6.
- Heinsoo, Rob; Tweet, Jonathan (2013). 13th Age. Pelgrane Press. ISBN 978-1-909834-04-0.
- St. Andre, Ken (2005). Tunnels & Trolls (7th ed.). Fiery Dragon Productions. ISBN 1-894693-67-1.
- Junge, Tobias Rafael; Spohr, Alex; Ullrich, Jens; Demirtel, Eevie; Mönkemeyer, Marie; Richter, Daniel Simon (2014). Beta Regelwerk für das Schwarze Auge, 5. Edition. Das Schwarze Auge (in German). Ulisses Spiele. ISBN 978-3-95752-071-5.
- Davoust, Lionel; Grussi, Christian; Merkling, Sidney; Cuidet, Arnaud (2004). EW-System Core Rules 2.0 (PDF) (in French). Extraordinary Worlds Studio.
- Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, TSR, Inc., 1974
- Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren, Guidon Game, 1971
- James M. Ward, TSR, Inc., 1976
- St. Andre, Ken (1975). Tunnels & Trolls. Flying Buffalo.
- St. Andre, Ken (1979). Goblin Lake. Pocket Adventures. Flying Buffalo.
- Siembieda, Kevin; Wujcik, Erick (1983). Palladium Fantasy Role-Playing Game. Palladium Books. ISBN 0-916211-04-5.
- Pehr, Ronald Mark (February 1981). "Better Role-Playing: A Change of Hobbit". Different Worlds (11) (Albany, CA: Chaosium). pp. 6–8.
- Gygax, Gary (1978). Player's Handbook. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. TSR, Inc. ISBN 0-935696-01-6.
- "Périer Isabelle (docteure en littérature comparée)". LPCM (in French).
- Périer, Isabelle (2014-09-24). "Le jeu de rôle : une autre forme de littérature de jeunesse ?". La littérature de jeunesse dans le jeu des cultures matérielles et médiatiques : circulations, adaptations, mutations (in French). Paris 13 University. pp. section III–3 Intertextualité et stéréotypie (25:22–32:10).
- Davis, Graeme; Dowd, Thomas A.; Rein•Hagen, Mark; Stevens, Lisa; Wieck, Stewart (1991). Vampire: The Masquerade. White Wolf. ISBN 0-9627790-6-7.
- Lamidey, Fabrice; Weil, Frédéric (1992). Néphilim (1st ed.). Multisim. ISBN 2-909934-00-4.
- Rosenthal, Pierre; Vitale, Duccio (April 1987). "Price of Freedom". Casus Belli (in French) (Excelsior). p. 28.
- "Vitrine : Price of Freedom". Chroniques d'outre-monde (in French) (7) (Les Tentacules associées). May 1987. pp. 7–8. ISSN 0764-8197.
- Costikyan, Greg (1986). The Price of Freedom. WEG. ISBN 0-87431-053-9.
- PhD in comparative literature and civilizations at Paris 13 University, see the "notice". These.fr (Agence bibliographique de l'enseignement supérieur) (in French).
- David, Coralie (2014-09-24). "Jeux de rôle et écriture fictionnelle". La littérature de jeunesse dans le jeu des cultures matérielles et médiatiques : circulations, adaptations, mutations (in French). Paris 13 University. pp. section I Univers systématisé (5:04–5:29, 7:21–7:44) and section II Structuration paradigmatique des univers fictionnels dans les œuvres de jeunesse (7:44–8:53, 10:45–13:11).
- the process is called the “systematization of the fictional world” (French: systématisation du monde fictionnel) by Coralie David, op. cit.
- Wujcik, Erick (2001). After the Bomb. Palladium Books. ISBN 978-0-916211-15-8.
- Mathieu, Vincent (2010). Cats ! (La Mascarade) (in French). Éditions Icare. ISBN 978-2-917475-17-1.
- "L’univers et les scénarios comme sous-systèmes → Commentaires". Tartofrez (in French). March 11, 2015.
- Périer, Isabelle (2014-09-24). "Le jeu de rôle : une autre forme de littérature de jeunesse ?". La littérature de jeunesse dans le jeu des cultures matérielles et médiatiques : circulations, adaptations, mutations (in French). Paris 13 University. pp. section III–2 Le personnage (20:42–22:10).
- Jérôme Larré (February 17, 2014). "De la vision au jeu : 10 pièges". Tartofrez (in French)., Piège #07 – Confondre parler d’une façon de jouer et jouer de cette façon (trop en dire)
- Gygax, Gary; Marcela-Froideval, François (1985). Oriental Adventures. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st ed.). TSR, Inc. ISBN 0-88038-099-3.
- Smith, Mark; Thomson, Jamie (1986). Sword of the Samurai. Fighting Fantasy. Puffin Books. ISBN 0-14-032087-3.
- Charrette, Bob; Farnsworth, Dave; Petersen, Sandy; Swenson, Anders (1986). Land of Ninja. RuneQuest. Avalon Hill. ISBN 0-911605-33-9.
- Benner, Jesse; Bruck, Benjamin (2013). Ultimate Campaign. Pathfinder. Paizo. ISBN 978-1-60125-498-6.
- "Honor". Pathfinder Reference Document.
- Gold, Lee (1988). GURPS Japan. GURPS (1st ed.). SJGames. p. 29. ISBN 1-55634-109-1.
- Gold, Lee; Johnson, Hunter (1999). GURPS Japan. GURPS (2nd ed.). SJGames. p. 67. ISBN 1-55634-388-4.
- Wyatt, James Wilson (2001). Oriental Adventures. D&D3e. Wizards of the Coast. ISBN 0-7869-2015-7.
- Sanguine Productions, 2005, pp. 71-72
- Bund, Alex (1992). Oriental Companion. Rolemaster. ICE. ISBN 1-55806-175-4.
- Larré, Jérôme (2011). Tenga (in French). John Doe.
- Feasson, Vivien (2012). Les Errants d'Ukiyo (in French). Éditions Icare. ISBN 978-2-917475-79-9.