To Play Or Not To Play: Non-Human Characters
Should you allow a player to play a non-human character or not? In this article I attempt to list some of the pitfalls associated with playing these characters and how to avoid them in your sessions.
Before allowing your players the opportunity to play non-human characters there are some things that you, as the Game Master, need to consider. First of all, do the problems associated with playing non-human characters outweigh the benefits? For example, I have found when people choose to play an elf, a dwarf, or a vampire, it's more because of the power associated with them than in the interest of the actual character. This unbalances the game and causes problems with other players (and their characters). In most games, and D&D of any edition is the worst at this, playing a non-human character gives the character more bonuses and more awards than playing a human would. Who would want to play a human, even an extraordinary one, when you could play a minotaur big enough and strong enough to pick up a war horse and throw it accurately as a weapon? Or a vampire who could walk through a hail of bullets and flip over a police car because it's too far to walk around the car instead.
I have a friend named Charles who, years ago when we played D&D 2ndED, would play a minotaur every time. Why? Because Charles was ALWAYS able to roll ability scores that were at the top of the chart. In D&D an 18 is about as good as it gets; but a minotaur gets a +2 bonus to its Strength and its Constitution (health). This meant Charles could (and did) get a strength and constitution score of 20-22 every time. His minotaur was stronger than a horse. His character would then carry a two-handed sword in each hand (a minotaur is seven feet tall on average) and could kill a dragon in single combat by the time he was 3rd level. This is a perfect example not only of playing a non-human race for the power, but of munchkin (min-max) players in general.
Another problem I have with players having non-human characters is the lack of acting involved. These are ROLE-playing games. An elf, dwarf or vampire just doesn't think like a human. A thirty year old man doesn't think like a thirteen year old girl, or if they do, then they have a lot of problems associated with that fact. Playing an elf means more than playing a sexy human with pointy ears. Most people don't even try to play non-humans characters differently than their human characters.
Outside of the age and maturity differences associated with playing a two hundred year old vampire, a three hundred year old dwarf, or a four hundred year old elf, there are the racial differences. Different races, at least in roleplaying games, having different psychological makeups.
An orc raised by a village of humans is still going to be an orc. An orc raised in this kind of environment may be able to speak the human language a lot better a lot better than a normal orc would, and it may have more manners, but it'll still be an orc.
An elf will live several hundred years in its life, no matter what roleplaying game or world you play in. Elves in general are described as being the oldest and most cultured race in their world. They are magical creatures with ties to the mystical elements. Play them as such. Don't play them because you get a +2 Dexterity bonus, or because your character is immune to charm and illusion spells, doesn't scar, and never gets sick. Play them for the inherent nobility in their character. Play them because of the fun the character would have interacting with the other characters, or because it's fun to play the fish out of water like an elf would be in a human city.
Over the years I have found a solution that works. Others reading this may have their own ideas and that's fine, but here's mine. Whenever I start a group I make everyone play a human. After several adventures, usually a dozen sessions or more, I have a good idea of who is capable of playing a non-human as a non-human, not for the advantages, but for the character itself. These are the players I allow to play non-human characters. Other players, those who want to play a non-human character, know what they have to do to play these kind of characters. That is, they have to play a character and have it be a believable character. I'm not saying they should take acting lessons or dress up as their character or anything out of the ordinary. . . They just have to try to think as their character would and act accordingly. What kind of religion, custom, manners and mannerisms do these characters have? What do they do for a living and how does this affect their thinking, speech, and clothing?
Several years ago I introduced Dan, a friend of mine, to roleplaying. Our group played a fantasy campaign intensively for three months (usually from 1600 – 2300 Hours, five days a week) before we finished. Dan played a lecherous mercenary/thief. . . pretty much a fantasy carbon copy of Dan. The second fantasy campaign and character Dan wanted to play was a magic-using martial artist monk, loosely based off of a Shaolin Priest. Because of the characterization he had put into his first character, even though the last character's personality was essentially Dan's own, I allowed him to try. Dan played the new character perfectly: extremely polite, well mannered, law abiding, naive, and a gentle soul. . . completely opposite of Dan himself. Dan is one of the players who, without any hesitation on my part, could play any race and any character in any game I run.
The next time someone asks you if they could play (fill in the blank with a non-human character) ask them and yourself the following questions:
- Why do they want to play that race/character?
- What effect would that character have on the other characters in the group?
- What kind of special abilities does the character's race have and how will it affect the campaign?
- Does the player care enough to play the character as something other than a disguised human?
- How has the player played in the past?
If you as the Game Master can answer all of these questions to your satisfaction, then by all means let them play the character; you'll have a great time. If you or the player can't answer the questions to your satisfaction, tell the player why and inform them you may change your mind depending on how well they play their next human character.