Customizing Common Races – Part 2

From Mike Bourke

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0291

A Brief Word From Johnn

Editor Wanted

The current awesome e-zine editor, Scot Newbury, is moving onwards and upwards in his career and is unable to edit the e-zine any longer, though he’s letting me continue to ping him for advice and opinions. Congrats, Scot!

So, I’m on a quest for a new Editor. If you have a couple of hours each week, an eye for spelling, grammar, and detail, and you enjoy reading and editing roleplaying articles and tips, send me a note and I’ll e-mail you with more info.


[email protected]

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Please Abide By Copyright Laws

Last issue, I posted a Reader Tip about assigning PCs theme songs and crafting theme CDs for the group. In response, I received this e-mail:

I hate to put a bummer on what is otherwise a great tip, but I have to point out that copying commercial songs and distributing them for free is technically illegal in the US (and other countries) under the Millennium Copyright Act. I’m sure you don’t want to be in the position of advocating an illegal activity in the context of roleplaying….


So, yes, please do abide by copyright laws.

Get some gaming in this week.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Customizing Common Races – Part 2

Continuing on from last week, here are the final categories for you to consider fleshing out as you craft a racial profile that differs from official sources for your rules system.

The monster race customization processes described in the following tips and those in last week’s article rely on trains of thought colliding and connecting. Schedule plenty of time and try to get through the whole process in one sitting, at least to the point of rough notes. That’s not to say you can’t take breaks, but if you go off and spend a week on other things, you might find your trains of thought derailed.


A big area to look at when customizing races in your campaign is the whole question of “justice.”

  • What are the important laws?
  • What are considered acceptable punishments?
  • What is the species’ attitude toward laws in general?
  • What is the attitude towards “fair play”?
  • How is guilt determined?
  • Who decides punishments, or are the species into inflexible mandatory sentences?
  • What are the species’ attitudes toward the legal systems and practices of their neighbors?

It can be – and has been – argued that the general human attitude is “whatever we can get away with.” The whole question of justice thus becomes a contest between the authorities and the public, with rules for both.

Myths, Legends, And Tall Tales

Every race should have myths, legends, and “old wives’ tales” (often with a shred or more of truth to them) about the world around them. You’ve already done some of this in deciding the origin myth of the people; now add a few more anecdotes to highlight things that you think are significant.

Of particular value are anecdotes that don’t explain a particular attitude or philosophy that is fully justified by what you’ve got written down, but simply say “this is how it is for us,” especially where the outcome is unexpected.

“Remember when old man Gharak caught that young whelp of Krugg stealing apples from the humans’ orchard? Of course, he had no choice but to give them his last gold coin.”

Of even more value are anecdotes that highlight the differences between the culture you have created and the one that might be expected from the official source material. “I heard that the humans in Vini, way down south, once held a lottery to give ordinary people a chance to attend the opera. Can you believe it? How vulgar, restricting the audience to just a few like that. They just aren’t civilized down there.”


By now, you should have a fair idea of the race’s history. It’s time to put a few high points down on paper. Don’t expand too much on it, except when it comes to the last 20 years or so. The main thing is to make sure that the history – especially why species have done whatever they have done – is justified and consistent with their philosophies and attitudes.

Extended Politics

You should also have some idea of how local population clusters interconnect and relate to one another. That means you’re ready to do a quick paragraph or two on “national politics” or its cultural equivalent.

  • How are disagreements resolved?
  • What obligations are in place and how can they be called upon?
  • What are the current disputes and how long have they been ongoing?
  • What efforts are underway to resolve them and how do they affect third parties?

Race Relations

Another thing that should be fairly clear by now is how the species is going to react to the attitudes, beliefs, and philosophies of the other major and locally-significant races and cultures, and vice-versa.

  • Are there hidden alliances, or hidden conflicts?
  • Is one race using another for its own benefit?
  • Are there unexpected points of common belief that can come into play given unexpected developments?
  • Or unsuspected points of difference that can shatter long- standing alliances?

The Stuff Of Life – Food And Drink

Having filled out the big picture, it’s time to start looking at the lives of the ordinary people and how these are collectively expressed as common cultural elements. Every national group tends to have unique and characterizing food and drink differences. You don’t have to go so far as to create recipes, but try to give the species one or more unique trends in their palettes. Ultra-spicy wines, perhaps? Fermented Palm Fronds?

Ordinary Life

Some questions to consider for fleshing out the day-to-day life of your average species member:

  • Is there anything that is characteristic and unique to the culture, like the Mexican Siesta?
  • Are there any unusual occupations, or occupations of unusual prevalence or popularity, like Gnomish Toymakers?
  • Is some medieval equivalent of Meccano or Lego a national icon?
  • What are the daily protocols for the distribution of food?
  • How does the economy work, from the ground up? And what are the consequences of these things?
  • Are there days of “rest”? Weekends?
  • Is payment in coin, trade, produce? Is it fixed or bartered? How often?
  • Are there “jobs for life” or a floating labor pool?
  • How do people decide upon a profession or career, and what do they have to do to establish themselves within it? Is it enough to simply hang out a shingle with a title on it, such as doctor, or are there standards and guilds?
  • How these factors play into the other things considered so far?

Rites Of Passage

Every culture has traditional rites of passage to signify that a child has become an adult. Some cultures might have several, such as baptisms, 21st birthdays, voting privileges, and so on.

These tend to linger even after the standards of adulthood change. You don’t have to explain them, but there should be some such rituals that are consistent with the rest of the culture, or, perhaps, that are deliberately inconsistent to suggest the race wasn’t always the way they are now. For example, the drow rite of passage is usually described in keeping with the current character of the species, but what if it hearkened back to the days when they were elves and lived above the surface?

Then there are the other significant events:

  • How are birthdays celebrated and acknowledged?
  • Is there a formal retirement age?
  • Is there a retirement ritual, the equivalent of the gold watch?
  • Are there anniversaries of significance, such as Veteran’s

Day in the US, or Anzac Day in Australia? It’s often customary to celebrate the reign of a particular ruler once a year, such as the Queen’s Birthday.

The defining moment in a nation’s self-identity is another popular choice for celebrations. There’s the 4th of July in the USA, Australia Day, Bastille Day, and so on. Then there are holidays and special dates for no particularly good reason, such as Valentine’s Day. There are also key religious festivals, such as Easter and Christmas.

All of these, in one way or another, can be considered a rite of passage, be it in the life of an individual, a monarch, or a nation. Knowing what the key dates and rituals are within a culture helps add a lot of flavor to characters and cultures.

Mating Patterns

Some of the work in this tip has already been done. In last week’s tips about Life Cycle and Local Politics, we thought about the significance of the life cycle and at the organization and relationships between family structures. Having thought some more about the consequences and ramifications of the mating patterns and culture in general, we can now look at family units in more detail.

  • Is marriage a custom? Monogamy, polygamy, harems, or something else?
  • Who has the power to approve or reject a mating proposal or marriage contract?
  • Are there rituals like a bride price? Engagement gifts?
  • How long are marriages intended to last? “Till death us do part” or less?
  • Is divorce allowed? Is it common?
  • Who raises children?
  • If a couple is separated, who is responsible for rearing them?
  • What social stigma is placed upon children born out of wedlock?


Consider recreation and what species members do when they don’t have to focus on survival or work?What games are popular?

  • What games are unique to the culture?
  • What about music? Are there original instruments, styles, or compositions? What songs are sung?
  • Is there art? Who creates it and in what forms? How are artists regarded by general society?
  • What different forms does storytelling take? Theatre, dinner skits, campfire tales?


Most cultures find a way to pass on the knowledge and experiences of previous generations. Sometimes, this is done formally, such as through state education. Sometimes, it’s learn as you go and students just try to survive, such as in a nomadic hunting society.

Who educates children?

  • How are they educated?
  • For how long?
  • In what subjects?
  • What level of competence is required for graduation?
  • Is there a graduation ceremony?

How about education in professional skills?

  • How does this tie in with the earlier thoughts about guilds and professional structures?

Class Divisions

Most societies structure themselves internally through a social hierarchy based on wealth, power, charisma, and so on.

  • Is there a stratified class structure?
  • What benefits and liabilities accrue to each social class?
  • What privileges are enjoyed, and what obligations are there?
  • What happens if these obligations are not met?
  • Are there any occupations that are considered especially demeaning?
  • Is the race especially suited or unsuited to a particular character class for social reasons? For racial reasons?
  • Is a particular PC or NPC class especially revered or hated?
  • Is a particular PC or NPC class specific to, or specifically suited to, an enemy?
  • Are there any other associations that might influence a class’s popularity?

Compilation & Narrative

Having assembled a mass of information, mostly in note form, the next step is to organize it into some sort of coherent structure. Then, convert it into a narrative form. Anything that’s unchanged from the official sources can be left out; anything that you’re unsure about can be left out; anything that defines the race and its culture should be left in.

There’s a lot to be said for generating two or three different versions: one for members of the race, one for outsiders, and one containing the truth. This not only lets you utilize all the discarded ideas that you came up with along the way, it lets you conceal and bias information even from the players. You can then build revelations into future scenarios concerning where a race came from, why it’s the way it is, lost abilities, old enemies, long-forgotten betrayals and alliances, and so on. This helps make the players feel a part of the ongoing campaign’s development. The more that you – and your players – invest of themselves in the campaign, the more unique and vibrant that campaign will become.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!


From steinkel

Here is a great mapping tool we use for online gaming: MapTool 1.7.0

It’s also an open source project, so help is welcome. Thanks for your work on Roleplaying Tips.

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Military Ranks For Game Balance & Reward

From Key Advocate

Here’s my personal way of rewarding certain players without directly using things like experience, treasure, or extra skill points.

When I DM a game, I always try to keep everyone at the same level and even with the same experience points. This promotes equality amongst the team (power-wise) and makes it so that encounters shouldn’t ever be a walk through the park for some PCs and a hellish slaughter for others.

Therefore, I use the military hierarchy system to reward good tactics and leadership skills from players while using the same system to punish those who act rashly and without thought.

In one campaign, I had a player be a high-born noble who was being sent to another country as a “civil guest” (hostage) and the other PCs be her entourage. However, it was all hush-hush, so the receiving country put her and her crew in the army instead of in protective custody. Sha-bang! Now they’re soldiers.

I explain to them the system and describe the different ranks. I give them proper incentive to reach higher ranks: prestige, contacts, resources, etc.

More importantly though was the treasure system. Generally, monsters in this world didn’t lug around +2 vorpal short swords, so all the magical equipment they wanted, they had to requisition from the quartermaster. And, of course, the higher rank you are, the better stuff you can requisition.

It was a simple and very effective system. Like in the real military, everything they did would be a mark on their record, and in my world, everything they did was noticed by their senior officers.

The players were encouraged to actually think their actions through and try to do things like ambush the enemy instead of charge them in broad daylight from a mile away.

As a final part of the system, I downgraded magic items quite a bit. Things like alchemist fire and potions of cure were magically unstable. After a period of time, they would degrade into uselessness. Therefore, the PCs couldn’t just covet items and hold onto them forever. They had to use it or lose it. Add to this the amusing (to me anyway, frustrating to them) fact that all requisitioned items took time to create forced everyone to think ahead. Fighting the ghoulish raiders in the Crypt of No Return in two weeks’ time? Better requisition a bunch of holy water right now even though you have two missions between now and then.

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Tarot For TableSmith

From Jan Phillip Mueller

re: 7 Tips On Crafting Dynamic Relationships For NPCs – RPT#286

I programmed two tables for TableSmith*, and I wanted to point everyone interested to where Bruce (the webmaster) hosts the two tables inside a zip archive together with his runetable.

My two tables are:

A Divination Tool

a) The Cross. A different cross than the one Lea explained, but similar. It answers a question by explaining the four aspects, “What is”, “What shall not be,” “What shall be,” and “What would be.” A small text list is provided for each card, so it’s easy to use the table even when you don’t know the Tarot.

b) The Decision Game. Two branches that might follow doing or not doing a thing are explained. Cards are explained as with the cross.

A Character Tool

The cards are used to describe aspects of a person. Nice for quick NPCs if you have the bones (stats) and need the flesh, or even if you need an estimate of their skills but don’t want to have all the hassle with character creation.

Maybe this will help some people. I uploaded screenshots of the cross and the character tool to provide a rough idea of what the tables do:

Have fun!

To use these tables, you will need TableSmith. It’s great tool, freeware, and constantly improved by user tables!

[Johnn: Readers, Bruce of TableSmith fame is also kindly hosting the Roleplaying Tips e-zine’s download files. (Thanks Bruce!) TableSmith is shareware, and I encourage you to try the software out and consider registering it. There’s also a Yahoo! support group where you have the ear of the developer and community.]
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Free Blogs Available At

From Pedro

There’s been lots of talk about different blogging engines in recent newsletters, and I wanted to add Spaces on MSN.COM [] to the list. I’ve been using it, and Spaces has a lot of useful features for RPG bloggers: image posting for maps (30 MB storage space) and character pictures, music playlists, book listings, and e-mail publishing (sending e-mail to a certain alias creates a post from the e-mail body).

Not to mention typical blogging features: RSS support, comments, permissions for who can view or comment on your blog, trackbacks, post categories, lists, etc.

In case you’re interested in what this might look like, here’s a link to the Spaces blog I created: