In this player tips article we are looking at the benefits and downsides of playing an average member of a particular species/race as opposed to playing an atypical member of the species.
Please note: These tips are not intending to be exhaustive or provide a “one true way of roleplaying” (since TBH I don’t believe such things exist), they instead offer suggestions that have work for me and that you might like to try in your own games.
When you create a character in a lot of RPGs one of the first things you will have to decide about them is what race or species you want them to be, whether your choices are the standard fantasy races (elves, dwarves, orcs, etc) that most RPers are familiar with or the more bizarre choices of a science-fiction setting, the species you play is an important character choice.
The title of this article refers to two strains of the same race, the standard Orc that we’re all familiar with an a rarer sub-species of the race the Orog who are nowhere near as numerous and not generally available as a playable race.
Playing Against Type
One of the most bizarre things I’ve observed as a GM is a player who gets all excited about playing a member of a particular race and then immediately creates a PC who goes against the normal proclivities of the race in question.
GM: “Okay so the orcs in my setting are a brutal, might makes right culture who roam the steppes on their boar steeds.”
Player: “Great, I’m looking to create a highly intelligent and studious orc mage.”
* sound of the GM banging their forehead into the table repeatedy *
There are all sorts of derogatory and winter-themed names for people who always attempt to play a character who is different from everyone else or goes against type, but there are a few good reasons that someone might look to play a character who isn’t like the rest of their race:
1. They’re looking to add conflict to the game. The player might want to add some conflict and friction into the game, bringing the standard members of the race into the game as antagonists, perhaps the PC is an outcast and their family are pursuing them.
Player: “I’d really love to have some fights against orcs in this game so I’d like to play the outcast son of an orc tribal leader, a rival for power had him abandoned to die when he was young but he was taken in and adopted by an academic who decided to school the orc as part of a nature vs. nurture experiment.
Fast forward to modern day and the old chief of the orc clan is dying, his agents have discovered that the character still lives and will attempt to recover him, unfortunately my character has no interest in returning to the brutally short life of an average orc.”
2. They want to bring in a race who wouldn’t normally be featured as a player character. One of the more obvious reasons for wanting to play a character who isn’t typical is that you want to bring in a race that, due to their beliefs/ethos wouldn’t normally be suitable as a player character.
Player: “I know that normally I wouldn’t be able to play a gnoll because they’re bloodthirsty demonic hyena-men but I think they look really cool and would like to play one, would it be alright if I played a human who died and through reincarnation magic was bought back in a gnoll body and is now struggling to marry his human psyche with his gnoll instincts?”
3. They’ve played a lot of this species/race before and fancy trying something a little different. A lot people have a favourite race that they normally play in games (my wife for instance loves playing halflings in games), but perhaps they’ve played a lot of typical members of the race and just want to try something a little different, this can be fine if it suits and adds to the game.
Benefits & Downsides of Playing Against Type
1. If there are too many of this sort of character about it starts to strain credibility. The common perceptions of races exist for a reason, if there are a million outcast/good Drow rangers in your setting then people will start to wonder where all the Lloth worshipping evil Drow are at?
2. If you’re just doing it to stand out because you can’t think of any other way to make your character individual. If this is the case then you might want to research or read into the background of your particular race, there is generally enough variety that you can play different sorts of characters without having to play something against type.
Looking more into the background of your race might actually give you some ideas that throw up more intriguing character concepts, if you’re stuck for knowledge about the race, ask your GM for some assistance, most will gladly help if you get a character that you’re happy with that works with the campaign world.
GM: “So instead of playing your orc as a scholarly wizard how about you portray him as a more shamanic type of spellcaster who has learnt his knowledge in the wild by listening to sound of the wind and the noise of the animals? That would fit in better with the orcs in this campaign world and you’ll still get to play a learned spellcaster.”
3. If a player is unprepared for their character to be facing prejudice from NPCs and perhaps even other PCs. This can cause problems, if you’re playing someone who looks like a gnoll then you can expect NPCs to treat you as a bloodthirsty hyena-man when they first encounter you, after all they don’t know you’re a reincarnated human (or whatever); this is absolutely fine if the player is prepared for it and can create some great drama as the character struggles for acceptance, however some players can get very annoyed or upset when their character is discriminated against.
Player: “What do you mean I can’t come in the tavern?”
GM: “The inn-keeper, flanked by two thugs in armour frowns, points at a crudely drawn picture of a scowling green face with a red X across it and grunts ‘No orcs.”
1. If used sparringly it can make your character stand out. If you’re the only Orc raised by humans or Drow ranger seeking redemption then it will make your character stand-out, especially once you start establishing a reputation for yourself or if you have any identifying marks.
GM: “As you enter the village one of the townsfolk points at your tattoo and whispers, ‘That’s Grishank the Wise’ who helped stop the plague of zombies in 1097.'”
However you shouldn’t look to play against type simply to make your character stand out, it can be a useful side-effect though.
2. It creates conflict, both internal and external. We’ve touched on potential external conflicts earlier in the article, whether it be more traditional members of the race making life miserable for the PC or members of other races discriminating against them; there is another source of conflict, the internal conflict for a PC whose upbringing or beliefs contrast with their instincts or drives as a member of their race. In our example of the reincarnated human/gnoll perhaps he finds it difficult to rein in his anger or certain bestial mannerisms due to the natural instincts of his gnollish body, this can create a very interesting dynamic and enhance RP as long as it isn’t allowed to overshadow other elements of a campaign.
GM: “As you enter the barn one of the horses flicks it’s tail in your direction, you are unable to stifle a low growl escaping your muzzle, the rest of the animals buck and whiney, startled by your behaviour.”
3. It lets the GM know that you are interested in featuring a particular race in the campaign. A good GM is always on the lookout for subtle clues regarding what his players want to actually see in the game, but they’re only human sometimes this clues get missed; if you want to see something in a game then it’s in your best interest to make the clue as obvious as possible. Playing a member of a race tells the GM that you have an interest in this race and that you want to see more of them.