Saturday, December 31, 2016

On Beast Races

Lizard-people. Bird-people. Rat-people.

Y'know, "beast races."

Obviously they are well-attested in many modern fantasy games (and other media, too), but they have a LONG history. We have wolf-people ("werewolf" is just Old English for "wolfman") from medieval Europe, horse-people (centaurs) from ancient Greece, and scorpion-people from janking Akkad (like, y'know, around the time and place of THE DAWN OF CIVILIZATION ITSELF). And I'm not even GETTING into Celtic or Norse or Egyptian or Indian or Native American or Mesoamerican or Central Asian or Sinic mythologies (mostly because I don't know as much as I'd like, haha). Suffice it to say that beast races have been an important presence in storytelling in most times and places.

Perhaps this points to something really compelling about the concept. Are there echoes of humankind grappling with its origins, or with its worst ("bestial") tendencies, or instead showing a sort of appreciation for nature (and oneness with it)? I dunno, ask a mythologist. There sure are some gameable concepts here, though, whether they are true in our reality or not. In your campaign:
1) Are humans (or humanoids at large) in danger of partially reverting to animalistic ways (and, indeed, animalistic bodies!)
2) Are certain groups of human(oid)s somehow enriched or elevated by gaining some semblance of animal shape?
3) Are the "beast races" reminders of the uncomfortable past of the human(oid)s?

Given these thoughts, it may surprise the reader that I've NEVER used a member of a beast race in one of my campaigns. No werewolves, satyrs, gnolls, centaurs, lizard-men, kenku, yuan-ti. Worse, I couldn't give you a solid reason WHY. Maybe I just don't want to embark on a path to which I see no end - ferret people, antelope people, centipede people, penguin people? The dizzying array of possibilities - many of them ridiculous, some of them great - is simply too deep to plumb. Maybe a drive toward a "naturalistic" aesthetic keeps me from exploring ridiculous hybrids - but what place does "naturalism" have in fantasy settings fraught with magic and the supernatural?

I guess the takeaway from this is that if you're going to make beast races a part of your game world, play it to the hilt. Think of how the physical (and perhaps psychological) differences of these peoples would affect their society and culture. Explore existing mythologies and the beast races present in them. Use beast races as indirect commentary about our own origins, or our deeper tendencies. (And, I'd be tickled pink to see penguin people or antelope people crop up in a reader's campaign. I dare you to do use one! Tell me how it goes. Also, Reader, tell me your favorite gaming encounter with beast races, if you've had one!)
Antelope people?

ADDENDUM: as best as I can foresee, I won't ever make beast races an integral part of my own campaigns. BUT, I could foresee them used in a specific adventure or two - perhaps as the consequence of animistic shamanism in some especially magical wilderland, or of ever-popular mad wizard experimentation. I will let you know if I ever try this.


  1. I realize this post is a bit old, but it I've just found your blog and this is something I've been thinking about.

    I share your "where will it end?!" concerns regarding beastfolk. My solution is to consider what a type of beastfolk represent, idea-wise, and have them able to manifest any animal appropriate to that origin.

    For example, were-beast legends are about what animals will hunt and prey on humans. So one type of beastfolk are the insatiable rakshasa, representing crocodiles, lions, tigers, wolves, hyenas, etc. (Naturally, they are immune to werebeast diseases)

    Another type of beastfolk represents the fear of invaders going unnoticed: the wily kobolds, taking the shape of urban animals like cats, rats, lizards, and pigeons.

    This way, you have the opportunity to knock out whole swathes of animals at once, and create a proper culture without feeling arbitrary about what animals are represented by your beastfolk.

    1. Ah. Look not at an animal itself for meaning, but look at the relations animals have to humans for inspiration. I think there is some wisdom to this.