The world of Arora, currently being funded through the Arora: Age of Desolation Kickstarter, is something that has been swirling around in my brain for over 10 years.
If I’m honest, it’s probably been kicking around the dark spaces of my gray matter since I began GMing back in the wild days of 1st Edition AD&D. Those misty mental swirls slowly solidified over the years, as I went from an avid player to a part-time freelancer to a full-time game designer.
An important part of that creative process came as I gained a better understanding of how the worlds and settings of RPGs—and how the stories that could be created within those worlds and settings—were inextricable intertwined with the rules.
Rules mesh with the world to help create the crucible in which stories are brewed, and those narratives that are the artifact of RPG play—for better or worse—are guided and shaped by the constraints and channels provided by the rules and setting.
And that’s how we come to talk about the concept of races in an RPG setting.
Races in games like 5e serve many functions. They are a worldbuilding tool to show what sorts of creatures populate the world in which the adventures take place, and how those creatures’ interactions help define the world. They offer a shorthand version of narrative structures and ready-made plot threads for creating stories. Mechanically, races offer a concise and limited set of abilities and traits that make character creation more streamlined but also more limited.
Let’s tackle each of these concepts separately.
Race As Worldbuilding
Elves versus dwarves. Dwarves versus orcs. Gnomes versus kobolds. Everyone versus kender. Throughout the history of fantasy media and fantasy RPGs, we see race used as a method of defining the entire world. We don’t have to look any further than The Lord of the Rings or any of the countless retellings of that story through the years to see that the human tendency to create easily understandable groupings is strong.
We can easily explain a world and a setting concept by saying things like, “The dwarves rule the underground kingdoms, mine for valuable metals, make weapons and armor, drink a lot of ale, and hate large bodies of water. The elves, on the other hand, live in the forests of the world, are graceful and distant, attune themselves very well to magic, and prefer sweet wines to ale.” We understand by creating larger truths that are easy to comprehend and digest.
National borders in fantasy settings are often placed around the areas where one race or another lives. The happenings within the border are colored by the race that lives there. How many times have we seen the orc-inhabited lands being portrayed as chaotic places where the strongest warlord rules until bested by a more powerful usurper? Elven lands ruled by a wise council from different elven communities? Dwarven lands ruled by a monarchical hierarchy?
The conventions here, or the subtle or unsubtle variations of them, can be reassuring and grounding in their omnipresent nature. We don’t need to think too deeply to understand the power structures within the geographic and geopolitical world of our game. But we can also lose the chance for more diverse and interesting stories by constantly falling back onto the tropes of familiar fantasy worlds.
Race As Narrative Tool
Players sometimes look to their character’s race to define who their characters are and how they act.
Generalized attitudes of a race can be used to define who a character is and what they think, and in turn those personality traits affect how the characters tackle the conflicts and challenges they face. Narratively, races can help a character decide who they are, but in the process, we can observe stories becoming limited as everyone acts uniformly. I’ll use my experiences to illustrate this point.
I was tasked at the launch of the Eberron campaign setting to write an adventure that would be played at conventions to showcase the new setting and rules. After writing the adventure, I traveled to the first convention where this adventure was running, ensuring the launch went smoothly. I ran the adventure seven times over the course of the convention.
As you are probably aware, warforged are a big part of what makes Eberron a distinct setting. These living constructs made of wood and metal, and given sentience through powerful magic, have captured the imagination of players since the setting’s inception. I knew this when every single one of those seven groups that I ran the game for had at least one warforged character. This is not surprising at all, since new mechanics tend to draw the attention of passionate players upon release.
At five of those seven tables, however, the players of the warforged characters used the robot character of Bender from the animated show Futurama as the personality for their characters: voice, mannerisms, hatred of organic life forms, etc. We got all the inside jokes. We got all the oblique references. Needless to say, while it was slightly amusing the first time, by the end of the convention I was very happy to never hear another Bender reference again at the gaming table.
More importantly and alarmingly, the players of these Bender-esque warforged characters made their in-game decisions through the lens of that character. Any decision that benefited constructs and messed with the organic characters in the game was the decision these characters made. That meant, simply because of the race of the character, the story was turning out the same as well. While this example might be extreme, it shows the narrative problems inherent in a game mechanic such as race.
Race As Game Mechanics
Race as a character-building and rule-bearing tool in games like 5e have been around since the beginning. While we’ve been able to shed some of the most limiting rules from early editions—like dwarves not being allowed to be druids or only humans could be monks, for example—race as a rule mechanism still limits characters in a variety of ways.
This limitation of choice based on race is neither good nor bad on its face. If you’re teaching new players how to build characters and play the game, having easily digestible packages can be extremely helpful. Adding some numbers to the ability scores, gaining some proficiencies, and getting some additional traits—all without having to make any major decisions—greases the often sticky wheels of character creation.
However, since there are game-mechanical rules tied directly to race choices in character creation, there is by definition optimal choices. And if there are optimal choices, there are also suboptimal choices. The degrees to which this divide between optimal or suboptimal choices manifests in gameplay vary: sometimes the divide is barely noticeable between characters, and sometimes it is so glaring that it causes imbalances at the table. To follow the most optimal paths at character creation limits the diversity among race, background, and class choices.
Steps have been made in 5e to eliminate the worst of this by divorcing ability bonuses (and penalties, in some cases) from racial choices. While this helps, having certain traits only available to races still leads to a focus on pairing certain races with classes for maximum optimization.
Eschew Conventional Wisdom
So what does all of this talk about racial features and tendencies mean for a game?
In short, race in RPGs is steeped in the realm of conventional wisdom, and one of the best lessons I learned as a creative writing student was “Eschew conventional wisdom.” If every narrative plot followed the most logical path, every story would be the same. If every character in every narrative did exactly what everyone else would or should do, we would get only trite, repetitive stories.
And this is what we sometimes see in narratives and game play as artifacts of RPGs. The conventional wisdom of setting, narrative, and mechanics creates stories that are essentially the same. Is this a problem? Not necessarily. If you don’t play frequently, or if you are happy with the types of conventional stories that are a product of conventional structure, then it’s not a problem. But if you are looking for something different, if you long for stories unfettered by convention, something must change.
So What Of Arora?
One of the game elements that can change to create new and different narratives is the removal of race as a variable in the game. What happens when we remove race as a consideration in a setting designed for 5e? Can we provide both a new way for players to envision and create their characters, while at the same time providing players and GMs with an alternative to viewing the world and the stories told in that world through the lens of race?
That is exactly what we’re doing with Arora: Age of Desolation. We’re doing this mechanically, narratively, and setting-wise.
In the history of Arora, the races of the world died out when the goddess of the dragons, Jha-dhol, absorbed the life energy of all the creatures of the world and performed the Great Abjuration that eliminated the Shardscale threat from Arora. As the world was repopulated via the five dragons that Jha-dhol saved, the creatures that were born had the traits of all the races that had lived on Arora before the Abjuration. Any of these traits were as likely to be seen in a creature as any other, regardless of parentage.
Story wise, Arora is a blank slate in terms of player-character races. While the true dragons and the dracokin installed themselves as the overseers of the world, the rest of the creatures use their experiences and their talents to navigate life, especially now that the Dragonrage has untethered the draconic influence from normal society. Characters cannot fall back on old racial archetypes and cultural structures for guidance. They have to make their own connections and forge their own destinies.
Mechanically, this means players can build their characters to have any of 80+ traits, rather than being given specific racial traits at character creation. The traits are divided into three categories: combat, exploration/environmental, and roleplaying. The base rules suggest that a character takes 3 combat traits, 2 exploration/environmental traits, and 2 roleplaying traits. DMs and players who want to adjust the difficulty or theme of a campaign can adjust this number as desired. As long as all of the players in the campaign are working from the same rules, the general power level of the characters should be roughly equivalent to each other.
This allows players to imagine a character, then build that character to match their imagination. Want an aggressive, leonid character with some eagle in their ancestry? You can take traits like Natural Weapon for a bite attack, Charging Attack to show the ferocity, Flyer for your eagle wings, Surge of Speed to denote mobility, Firm Influence to affect others through your intimidating features, etc.
And most importantly, if you want to fall back on the tropes of previously existing races, the rules tell you exactly which traits to take to best model the races that existed on Arora before the Great Abjuration. We hope, through this new character creation system and the other new rules systems presented in Arora: Age of Desolation, that you are encouraged to create new and different stories. We also hope that the rules enhance, rather than limit, what your imagination brings to life in your campaigns.