Customizing Common Race – Part I

From Mike Bourke

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0290

Customizing Common Race – Part I

The processes described in the following tips and those in next 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.


The style you choose dictates the type of content within the rewritten species. You have three basic style choices:

  1. Reflect
  2. Contrast
  3. Rebut

These should be considered before you set pen to paper.


Take the basic information provided in the official sources that you intend to extend or expand on it and ensure it doesn’t disagree with your plans, except perhaps in small details. Get a feel for the style and of the basic information.I used this approach in customizing elves for my campaign, adding infusions of Amerind mythos (amongst other things) without directly contradicting what was written – just expanding on it, justifying it, and explaining it.


Determine what is commonly “known” (i.e. published in official sourcebooks) and any relevant mechanics, then think of a contrasting slant and perspective on the whole thing. The official version can become common misinterpretations and prejudices. Ensure there is unmistakable contrast between reality and “civilized” perceptions. Choose a style that deliberately contrasts with the subject matter.

I decided to make my campaign’s orcs lighthearted, even farcical. I described the origin of the orcs in terms of a prank played on a nerdish god by a group of jocks, ala Revenge of the Nerds. While it sobers up from time to time, my rewrite recalls that initial tone.


This means you have decided what is written is wrong, in general or with a particular exception. Perhaps there are internal inconsistencies, or there is some conflict with the established fundamentals of your campaign. Whatever the reason, the “official” write-ups have to be rejected in their entirety. At best, these can serve as “common misconceptions” of the race in question.

With a “rebuttal”, the overall tone and style should derive from that inconsistency or incompatibility. Whatever the tone of the rejected element is, your customized version should be the exact opposite.I used this approach when customizing ogres. Since the point of incompatibility with my campaign plans was their primitive nature, I adopted an extremely formal and rational approach. Ogres, in my campaign, are as described due to an intelligence-inhibiting drug provided to ogre magi by drow.

Once off this drug, the ogre magi lost almost all of the traditional ogre behavior and became urbane, civilized, and even gentle, in addition to smaller, weaker, and (obviously) smarter. They became the best civil engineers in the Realm.


The second thing to decide before you write word one is the objective of the rewrite. What are you trying to achieve?

Every change you make to an existing game element should have a clear purpose in mind. It might be to make the species a viable choice for player characters, to illustrate some facet of philosophy within the campaign, to maintain consistency within your campaign, or to correct some perceived flaw or anomaly. My favorite reason is to keep the campaign fresh and interesting to players who have read all the official sourcebooks, so they can no longer make assumptions.

For example, changing a species damage resistance from Silver Weapons to Cold attacks requires considerable thought and justification. Once you know the intended objective, you can target the key elements that are affected, and then spread out to detail the ramifications. More importantly, you will know what you don’t want to change unless you have to, which means that most of the framework of your customized species is defined and ready to reference.

In the case of the orc rewrite, the objective was to make them available as player characters within an existing campaign. I didn’t want to change their nature all that much, just shade it a little to give them a unique culture that would integrate with the campaign, while giving the species an extra advantage or two to make them equal to the other PC race options.


The first thing to consider revising – or enunciating, if it’s not already spelled out – is where the race thinks they came from. Origin myths are a fundamental indicator of the personality and philosophy of a culture, and it’s generally easier to create an origin myth and allow for its impact on the species than it is to derive an origin myth consistent with everything else.

Deciding the origins first lets you modify anything that doesn’t fit in, giving you a lot more freedom. Note that the origin myths don’t have to be true, or even consistent with other race’s beliefs and theories. However, if they aren’t, the inconsistencies should be pointed out or blatantly obvious.

In terms of the origins of my orcs, it seemed natural to have the treatment of the creator god Gruumsh by the other gods “reflect” the treatment of orcs (in general) by humans (in general), since that relationship was one of the fundamentals I didn’t need to change.

Life Cycle

The next thing to contemplate is the life cycle of the species. There are a number of formulae that can be used to determine the correct birth rates, death rates, and so on, to give a population level, but this is generally more work than it’s worth. Crafting general trends is often good enough.

In general, a stable population implies balanced birth and death rates; a growing population implies births outnumber deaths through natural causes; and so on. The human model (medieval era) makes the perfect yardstick: generally, the average person died of disease or whatever after about a generation-and-a-half.

You might be able to raise two generations of young to adulthood if you got an early start. Infant mortality rates were high, so largish families were the norm. Now, add in the consequences of healing magic and the like, and you either have a population boom, or you introduce a new source of widespread infant mortality (perhaps it’s commonplace for pixies to steal newborn babies).

Or do you? The risks of childbirth are high for the mother; if large families are no longer required, social adjustments will take place. Marriage might take place later in life, couples will have smaller families, and so on. That means women would need something else to do with their time, and they will take up anything and everything that’s available.

Some will take an interest in society, some in politics, some in commerce, and so on. The increase in productivity will produce an increase in leisure time, which will impact on the scientific and cultural progress of the society, and so on.

It’s not going too far to suggest that the Black Death made the Renaissance inevitable, for example. People became accustomed to a certain death rate, and so society adjusted to accommodate it, and so when the disease inevitably began to die down, the resulting population boom did the rest.

All these things will, in turn, have ramifications for everything else in the society, so thinking about the life cycle early in the exercise helps define everything else. In particular, it’s important to make sure that the life cycle fits the origin myth and doesn’t conflict with anything that you specifically don’t want to change.


There are a whole bunch of issues to contemplate under the heading of geography.

  • What impact has the geography had on the culture?
  • What impact has the society had on the geography?
  • How well does the geography fit the origin myths?
  • How well does the geography fit the life cycle of the population?

If the geography is unsuitable, why is the race in question located where it is? The more easy travel is, the more important trade will be, and this in turn affects inbreeding, politics, science, the arts, and so on and on.

Local Politics

Once you’ve got a handle on the life cycle and geography (and their implications and ramifications), you can start to think about the organization of the smallest units of society -family structures, family relationships, and so on. That, in turn, will give you a handle on how several of these family units can fit together to form a population cluster – a tribe, a city, or whatever.

Competing factions, functions, and objectives within that population cluster will also begin to emerge, as will the structure of the leadership and how it changes, what its limits of authority are, and so on. There are always multiple factions seeking dominance and priority for their concerns!

When it came to considering the orcs, for example, the generic term “tribe” was used in the official works, but it soon became clear that a more appropriate term for the culture that was emerging from these “relevant questions” was clan. Instead of one (extended) family to a population cluster, there were multiple families, making each clan a small nation in its own right; a nation with its own leaders, leading citizens, claim to fame, and so on.

Again, it’s more important to be consistent with the aspects of the species that have already been considered than it is to match what’s written up as “official.”

Who Else Is Important?

Once you have a feeling for a race’s leadership and political structure, you can start to think about other important individuals within the social structure.


  • How prevalent and acceptable magic is
  • How the religious authority fits with the political authority
  • Which individuals can demand concessions based on their importance within the population cluster

Knowing who the important people are, the next question is, what stops them from taking over the leadership – in general, not in specific cases. This, in turn, raises the issue of succession, and how the current leadership came to their role, which fills out the picture of the local political structure, the players, personalities, and prerogatives.

Next, it’s time to again look for consequences:

  • How much practical authority does the leadership actually have?
  • Can decrees be enforced, and if so, how?
  • Is the leadership so hemmed in by politics that the ruler has no freedom of choice left?
    • If so, who is the real power within the society? Who really rules the streets?

Don’t be surprised if you end up with multiple leaders, each with their own “territories” (literal or figurative).

Key Attitudes

By now, most of the concepts behind your revised races should be more-or-less settled in your mind. You will know what has turned halflings into serial-killers, what has made ogres civilized, or whatever. Most of those concepts will have already made their way onto the page. Now it’s time to apply them to the “hot topics” of both what is likely to happen in the future as well as what has been socially important lately.

Start by jotting down any key concepts not already on the page, then use the resulting overall “picture” of the species to determine the consequences and reactions to recent history in the campaign. This roots the culture in the existing campaign.

However, your audience is a 21st-century one, so bringing in some topics that are contentious at the moment and determining a reaction or perspective to some medieval equivalent or forthcoming development will not only enable your species to connect with your players, but will also add additional depth to the race.

For example, the whole origin of the orcs was bound up in the concept of an “inevitable” human- propelled industrial revolution, bringing with it the problems of overpopulation, pollution, and so on – all the environmental hot topics of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. They were the ultimate expression of the perspective of a “Militant Greenie”; a save-the-world on the brink of doomsday radical.

Any alliances with humans – the purported architects of the calamity – will be unstable and fleeting. At the same time, this introduces a streak of nobility and pride into the race. From being generic “bad guys” and “cannon fodder” to throw at the adventurers, they have become creatures of substance and significance, and many of their perceived weaknesses and flaws are transformed into strengths that don’t have a stage to manifest on, yet.

Also to be addressed at this point in the process is the species’ position on the “hot topics” of their world. Slavery, magic, recent wars, and so on. Once you have a handle on the fundamental concepts of the race, the next step is to translate those concepts into their fundamental attitudes and relationships with the world around them.


The question of religion has considerable weight in a world where clerics can wield divine power, perhaps even more than in human history.

  • What sort of religion does the species have?
  • What are their religious practices?
  • What is their attitude toward other religions and religious structures? These can either be a sole point of “connection” between two otherwise implacable foes, or a sole point of irresolvable conflict between two otherwise like-minded groups, or any one of a dozen other possibilities.
  • Who is in charge of their religion and how are they selected?
  • How much authority do they have outside the religious arena and how is it applied?
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Thanks for the great tips Mike. Stay tuned next week for more tips on customizing races.

Forgotten Realms: Champions of Valor

Champions of Valor is a comprehensive guide to playing valiant heroes in the Forgotten Realms setting. The counterpart to Champions of Ruin, Champions of Valor covers what it means to be valorous in the Realms. The book describes several good-aligned guilds and organizations that characters can join, as well as the benefits for doing so. In addition, the book presents an array of new spells, feats, and prestige classes appropriate for heroes of valor, and opens up new opportunities for adventure, fame, and glory for truly heroic characters….

Forgotten Realms: Champions of Valor at RPG Shop

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Thanks for the great tips Mike. Stay tuned next week for more tips on customizing races.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Use Chess For Campaign & Adventure Inspiration

From Angus MacThunder

Today I thought of a great way to generate campaign ideas. I was playing chess with a friend of mine, and, from the beginning, a chronicle appeared before my eyes as my counterpart wisely used a pawn for defense during the entire game. It was the least developed one, but the whole defense of my opponent rested in the capable hands of the most humble servant of the kingdom.

I attacked aggressively many times, creating havoc amongst my friend’s lines, but his savior was the meddling pawn! Eventually, my attacks ceased, my friend started his own series of attacks, and the final blow was delivered by this little pawn, which step by step managed to get crowned a Queen and checkmated me!

This led me to think of a chronicle about a young peasant girl, who knew little or nothing about kingdom politics or war, but found herself in a defensive position valuable to her King, and through small but effective and timed actions, such as sabotage, espionage, misinformation, support to her friends, and little but crucial fights, she ended up as savior of the realm.

Currently, I’m playing another chess game with another buddy, and this time I’m winning, using a witty combination of my knight, queen, and rook. Imagine these as a party in the service of a kingdom. A noble warrior of pure blood, a charming and brave knight, and a strong and relentless creature that opens its way between enemy lines through a combination of skill, strength, and wits. I find chess very exciting in terms of roleplaying.

The tip is to find adventure ideas after finishing a game of chess. Try to personalize the set, as some games do (Star Wars, the Simpsons chess set, etc.) and narrate a story based upon what happened during the game. I find fascinating the symbolism (bishop, knight, queen, king, pawn, etc.) because it fits a medieval setting, but you can go further and add symbolism to situations in the board game as if it was telling a story.

For example: rooking. Rooking is the only moment of chess when to pieces move at the same time. Is it an escape from the palace from a conspiracy? A frame to save the king, simulating his death only to resurface later? Does the diagonal movement of bishops represent the subtle ways in which they exert influence over other people using religion or enchantments? Is the special movement of the knight a representation of solving things by guile or wit instead of brute force?

Also, you can add flavor to a game by translating the party’s exploits into a chess framework. This is often done in Vampire games where vampires are used by older beings to solve ancient struggles. Present the party with an NPC fond of chess who is playing with a set with the PCs’ characteristics carved upon the pieces. What would be the PCs’ reaction? Paranoia? Enlightenment?

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Use Folk Songs For Inspiration

From Grant Hunter

Regarding the inspiration from songs idea, there’s a whole world of inspiration in folk songs primarily from the British Isles, though American and Aussie folk songs are great too. If using songs from pre-1850, chances are nobody in your group will have heard them.

I use Folk Music of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and America to get all of my information, though there are others out there. Just grab one at random, and, in some cases, an entire series of adventures is written for you:

Taliesin’s Prophecy (Welsh Traditional folksong)

A voice from time departed,
Yet floats thy hills among;
Oh, Cambria! thus the prophet bard,
Thy Taliesin sung,
The path of unborn ages,
Is traced upon my soul,
The clouds which mantle things unseen
Away before me roll.
A light the depths revealing,
Hath o’er my spirit pass’d.
A rushing sound from days to be,
Swells fitful on the blast
And tell me that forever
Shall live the lofty tongue,
To which the harp of Mona’s words,
By Freedom’s hand was strung.

Green Island of the mighty,
I see thine ancient race,
Driv’n from their fathers’ realm,
To make the rocks their dwelling place.
I see from Uthyr’s kingdom,
The sceptre pass away,
And many a line of bards and chiefs,
And princely men decay.
But long as Arvon’s mountains
Shall lift their sov’reign forms,
And wear the crowns to which is giv’n
Dominion o’er the storms,
So long their empire sharing,
Shall live the lofty tongue,
To which the harp of Mona’s words,
By Freedom’s hand was strung.

This could be an old prophecy that underscores a campaign. Alternatively, a party could accidentally steal the ‘maidenhood’ of a young lass, only to be confronted by none other than “One-Eyed Riley.” They could find themselves up against “The Wild Colonial Boy” (one of my Aussie favourites), having been hired by a scorned judge McEvoy. The list goes on.

The Contemplator songs of the sea section help in designing a maritime campaign, as they shed light on the workings of a ship, something I’ve noticed not many GMs are aware of, though ‘Master and Commander’ has helped to some degree in this respect. In any case, check out ‘Hardyknute’, ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’, ‘Married to a mermaid’ and, ‘We’ll rant and we’ll roar’ (all on Contemplator) for an idea of what can be gathered from this site.

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Use PC Soundtracks

From Laura H.

Using songs in RPGs has a long history in our house, sparking games that have run years. We use song lyrics to inspire campaigns, adventures, characters, even politics and pantheons. Some of the best ideas have come from imagery inspired by lyrics.

If you have players who are interested in creating detailed back stories for their PCs, go beyond the (great) idea of each PC having a theme song. Suggest they put together song lists, or better, music compilations on CD that reflect their PCs’ lives or experiences. Play them in the background during games.

The group I GM for did this three years ago when they first created their PCs. It enabled everyone in the group to quickly get a feel for the other players’ characters. Of course, it also lead to some interesting misinterpretations of the lyrics and PCs alike. I was grateful that all my players warmed to the idea when it was presented, but the real reward came when one PC went through some life altering experiences and that player gave me a new soundtrack!

Thanks to you all for the great ideas and inspiration.

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GURPS Lite Is A Full, Free RPG

From Tyran Ormond

Let me through my hat in the ring and suggest a move to GURPS. I’m currently running Caravan to Ein Arris [PDF (free), 255KB] written for GURPS 3e, which I have converted to GURPS 4e. The players are my wife and three of our children (11, 8, 6) and the whole process has been simple. GURPS encourages GMs to adapt the rules to their campaigns and players.

Take combat as an example. Don’t want to deal with a huge amount of detail? Use GURPS Lite’s Combat rules (see GURPS Lite below) which is covered in 4 pages of rules. The next step up is Combat Lite (B324) which covers combat in 5 pages. Not enough detail using lite rules? Campaigns (the basic “GM book for GURPS”) covers combat in 55 pages. Ignoring the optional rules and tables, combat still runs smoothly. Still not enough grit for you? Throw in the rules on bleeding and require use of the Hit Locations table for each swing/thrust/shot.

While that sounds like a possible arrow for the quiver of the “too detailed” camp, remember that I’m using Campaigns’ 55 pages of rules (sans the optionals) in the campaign with my 8 and 6 year old children.

Most characters start out at 100 points, which is roughly equivalent to most people you meet walking down the street. That usually translates into HP of between 10 and 14. Character points are awarded after each session or each major campaign event and usually focus more on the player’s role playing rather than how many critters were killed. Awards usually run 0 to 5, so character development is steady but paced.

Of course, if your campaign is dealing with superheroes, then a starting character of 500 points might be more the norm, with character point awards being larger as well. Character development happens at the pace the GM feels is appropriate to the campaign world and to the characters’ actual development rather than simply because Joram the Bug Beater has earned some arbitrary number of experience points.

Before I go on too long: the best thing about GURPS is that you can run a campaign using GURPS without paying a penny! GURPS Lite covers enough basics for a quick dungeon crawl or what have you and GURPS Lite is free and freely distributable. Give it a try, grab GURPS Lite, and run a quick campaign with it. I host a copy of it for direct download here [PDF, 1.6MB] .

You can also download the most current copy from SJGames:

Here are the most commonly used forms; the URLs are self explanatory:

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Online Egyptian Tomb Maps

From Steve Bollenbaugh

Second Story is one of my favorite web design companies, and in going through some of their site designs, I ran across the one they did for the Theban Mapping Project. One of the interesting sections of the site has layouts for many of the tombs in the Valley of Kings.

Theban Mapping Project