A World of Difference
by John Josten
Copyright October 1996, November 2010
Too often, game masters design their worlds around “the basics”. Elves inhabit the woods; dwarves live in the mountains. While this may have worked well for Tolkien, it has simply been done to death. Oh, it can be nice at first, because everyone can easily figure their background, but eventually it gets dull. Why not start out with a new beginning? Try something that no one has ever tried before. These are some options that may serve to help start a brand new world or enhance your current one.
Centaurs – Everyone knows that centaurs can eat, but too often they are nomads or bandits. An agrarian society, with advanced knowledge of farming would suit them best. Why travel in search of food when you have the skills and the means to grow incredible quantities on the best farmland in the world? But if they must be nomadic, why not set them up as rebels against the established empire that stole their land from them.
Dragons – Everyone knows that dragons hoard wealth, but who says that they will see only gold and gems as wealth. Wealth comes in many forms, and these dragons see people as possessions. Slavers capable of scooping their prizes up in mid-flight, the dragons establish lairs filled with servants. Blasting one or two poor slaves with fiery breath should be enough to keep the rest in line, and who would dare flee from a master that would scour the skies for a run away. Still hoarders of wealth, the dragons are now slavers of the darkest kind.
Dwarves – Dwarves and their troll and cyclopes cousins are some of the most compact and deadly warriors known to the worlds. No longer must they hide in their mines, searching for lost or buried treasures. Dwarven mercenary clans with troll shock troops can walk anywhere they choose and take what they wish from others. Their smiths will still be experts in weapon crafting; after all, the best armies need the best weapons. Use that incredible endurance and stamina in battle, not in swinging a pickaxe.
Elves – Why forests? Sure if they are just a bunch of tree-huggers, it works out fine, but there is nothing in their genetic make up that demands it. How about elven sailors? Living in scattered communities on scattered islands, these people sail the oceans, chasing the whales and trading in distant ports. Nature magic still fits them, as they use magic to control the winds and the waves, and sometimes the beasts of the seas. As swashbucklers and pirates, they rule the surf; their thin agile bodies perfectly suited to the riggings and eternal motion of the decks.
Giants – Often ignored as stupid and dull, giants return to their roots, the mountains. Deep within mountain valley retreats, these lovers of the earth begin to shape it. Sculptors of passion and skill, the giants carve their dreams into the rock. With each passing generation, these carvings become larger and more detailed. Even if the race has all but died off, their mark will remain on the world. Difficult to find, but easy to understand, these artists live their art.
Goblins and Kobolds – With predators abounding, someone has to be the prey. Goblins and kobolds live in small villages in scattered regions with little or no organization. Easy pickings for the large number of dwarven mercenaries, dragon slavers and human salesmen, these “little” races seem forever looking for champions. Of course, they cannot afford to pay these champions, but some may take pity on these downtrodden and bullied farmers, coal miners, and hunters.
Halflings – Friendly halflings have seen the most growth of any race in fantasy fiction. Why not place them where their small size and incredible agility will be of greatest use, the mountains. Jumping from rock to rock like mountain goats, the halflings can squeeze through crags and cracks while ambushing their enemies from close range with slings and bows. Traps and guard posts would keep those really determined attackers away, and who would dare attack a mountain top halfling village when the risk of intentional avalanche was so great.
Humans – Humans always seem to be the adaptable race. Living and surviving just about anywhere, they seem difficult to pigeonhole. In a world where races are rather stereotypical, humans may arise as the middlemen. Living at the crossroads of all cultures, it would be the humans that become the traders and merchants. Willing to deal with any race, these used car salesmen will be necessary, but despised, by the other races. Wealthy due to markups, humans will reap the best benefits without the highest risks.
Lizardmen – Too often lizardmen or their like are banished to the swamps. While this is a good strategy for amphibian lizardmen, why not have a race of desert lizardmen? Cold blooded warriors and raiders keeping to the broiling deserts that spawned their race. Able to withstand the incredible heat and probably survive with little water for long periods of time, these people could be scouts, traders or raiders. They would be practically impossible to stop, because no one would be able to survive in their homeland.
Lycanthropes – With their natural affinity for the beasts of nature and their control over several of them, the lycanthropes have banded together to protect the wild habitats. Using the magic of the beast masters, the were-folk have aggressively pursued poachers, fur trappers, and lumberjacks. With armies of predatory animals at their command, no one dares to enter their savage domain. These lycanthropes see themselves as the saviours of the world. All other races are evil since they only take from the world instead of protecting it as the were- do.
Mermen – Everyone knows that mermen build beautiful cities with tall towers beneath the waves. Any number of natural disasters (earthquakes, volcanoes, pollution, large schools of sharks…) can cause the destruction of the merman cities and reduce them to vagabonds adrift beneath the waves. With an attitude straight out of a post-apocalyptic movie, these desperate creatures swim a thin line between wanderers and feral scavengers. Noble mermaids basking in the moonlight are replaced by pathetic merchildren begging for fish scraps.
Orcs – Typically imprisoned in the mountains or badlands, the new orcs are living in the swamps. The embodiment of every bad stereotype about swamp folk, these orcs know the soft ground and where to put bodies that will never be found. Their primitive industry and culture seems perfectly suited to being swamp rats, but do not let this lack of culture curse them. In a region where quicksand is more dangerous than arrows, these orcs could be kings.
Tezinium (Mind Flayers or any other mentalist race) – Why do the creatures that can take over your mind have to be bad? All this world domination stuff seems unlike them. Why not have them become a race of celestial, meditative monks, dedicated to advancing their art. With their focus on leaving the physical world behind to become one with the universal mind, they no longer have time for conquering worlds and subjugating people. Now is the time for the brain eaters to become the embodiment of the mind.
Unicorns and Pegasi – Oh sure, they have these fantastic reputations for being gentle creatures, but what if the two species were forced to compete for grazing land? Then you would see their true colors come out. More vicious than the battles between lions and jackals, the unicorns and pegasi murder each other in ambushes and skirmishes. Attacking the others’ newborns in an effort to thin herds, these hostile equines will stoop to any crime to protect their territory.
Vampires – Always having the worst reputation, these creatures of the night are about to take an about-face. Where there are goblins and kobolds willing to give anything for a chance at peace, there are vampire assassins and “gun slingers” willing to take on feed cattle. The vampires flash in during the night, destroy the offending aggressors, and whisk their new stock back to their fortresses. No need to drain the stock dry; they are of far more use as guards and servants. With enough servants, and their children, the vampire lords can drink slowly and allow their subject time to heal. The awe and loyalty these creatures show their lords is without peer. Vampires, the dark heroes.
These are just a few ideas on how to make a world your own. With this style of originality and alteration, your campaign and campaign world will be memorable and fun. Who could possibly forget the vampire that helped them or the dwarven mercenary army that pursued them across the continent, until they booked passage with the elven privateer. This is the stuff of fantasy role-play; bring back the life!
John Josten is the lead game designer for Board Enterprises. He has created the Legend Quest game system and written numerous role-playing aides. He can be reached at email@example.com and his blog can be read at http://boardent.blogspot.com/.