Misapplying Science: Fantasy Races

I’m a fan of science, particularly evolutionary biology which has given us profound insights into our own biological history and that of all life on Earth. It has also allowed us to make speculations about how life might turn out in the future. Of particular joy to me growing up were Dougal Dixon’s tremendous works, After Man and Man After Man.

I know fantasy worlds are magic, but I frequently find myself unsatisfied with ‘magic’ as a handwavey explanation for things. I find it particularly hard to swallow, without comment, the profusion of different races in most fantasy games. Odds are they’d actually be closely related on the evolutionary tree if they actually evolved rather than being created by the gods. The human genome is actually pretty ‘stretchy’ with a great deal of diversity within it. That said, different intelligent hominid species have coexisted, and possibly even interbred, in humanity’s past so it’s not completely beyond the bounds of possibility.

Still, I’ve had a ponder and I’ve thought a little about how the various fantasy races might turn out if they were evolved, rather than created or simply dreamed up.


Forest peoples tend to be short in stature. There are several reasons why this might be from inadequete diet to problems with vitamin D and calcium but it does appear to have a genetic component. As such, elves are likely to be small in stature as well as being somewhat slender. A combination that makes moving through the forest a lot easier. Five feet six inches might well be the Evlish equivalent of a giant.

A more vegetarian diet could, over time, lead to a flattening of the teeth, a longer gut (pot-bellied elves?) and a more placid, contemplative nature. Especially if they also live a longer time than your average human being. Trees are excellent protection from many predators and monsters, meaning flight or passivity may well be considered virtues for elves, far beyond their value to other races and species.

Of particular interest is the possibility of elven symbiosis with trees. Particular species may benefit from elven habitation and over a very long period of time the elves and the host trees may genetically influence one another. The tree growing to create hollows and strong branches for supporting the elves. The elves eating the fruit, spreading the seeds and protecting the trees from pests and predators.

In the shade of the trees elves are likely to be quite pale, but possibly also dappled like many jungle and forest creatures, skin like wild ponies in patches of light and dark and this is also likely to extend to their hair.

(Illustration from Dark Visions: Illustrated Guide to the Amtrak Wars)


Dwarves are potentially even more fascinating than elves. As underground dwellers their shape is likely to be even more heavily changed than any other broadly humanoid species, thanks to their environment.

A short, stocky, broad and squat form is good for power, endurance and for making their way through small spaces. Big hands and feet give them leverage and digging power that other humanoids may lack. Living permanently in the deep dark they’re likely to either have massive eyes to try and compensate and teo grab as much light as possible or, in the deeper dark, they may even be eyeless. No point having eyes if there’s nothing to see. In the daylight world their vision may be far too sensitive for the light, needing dark goggles to avoid being blinded.

To compensate for lack of sight they’re likely to have enhanced other senses such as touch and hearing – smell as well in case of gases underground. The famed dwarven beard, of both sexes, could in fact be whiskers. Useful for feeling the motions of the air and judging the size and shape of spaces without seeing them directly.

Small underground spaces are likely to require them to move on all fours almost as much as on two legs, which may give them a more ape-like, knuckling gait than other humanoids. Bare feet with gripping toes are also going to be useful for climbing rocks and surfaces and not losing their footing.


It’s hard to think what would make halflings and gnomes the way they are. Perhaps as a particular subset of elves they would be isolated and their small size become more prominent. That would give them the genetic proclivity to smallness and if they come from harsher, more northern climes that might explain their even smaller stature and their tendency to eat and burrow, storing fat for hibernation.

Halfling/Gnome culture and biology would be undergoing rapid change, following the sudden advent of agriculture and the death of their old hunter/gatherer lifestyle. Their biology has not caught up yet and so they still tend to eat their fill and to burrow, despite now being able to eat and stay awake all year around. Isolated and xenophobic for the most part the cultural rather than physical divide is what would split halflings from gnomes. Halflings being more traditionalistic and insular and gnomes being more forward thinking, experimental and exploratory.

Close-knit tribes and burrows could even form a near eusocial ‘hive’ bond and adventurers would be rare ‘sports’ able to part from the culture in order to adventure.


Orcs would have to be descended from some sort of predatory ape. Perhaps closer to baboons or the hunting chimps. Nocturnal and dangerous they would be pack predators. Dark grey/black/blue/indigo skin with a protective layer of fat and muscle.

Their mouths would be full of sharp teeth and capable of opening wide in threat displays and for biting down onto prey. As predators they would be fleet, violent but also playful and alert.

The pack mentality and competition would likely mean packs would be organised on alpha-male leadership with a group of females around him and several beta-males as hangers on. All hoping to make a move for alpha status. Orc ‘silverbacks’ might have a mane or larger tusks to denote their status.

The females would be the hunters, the fighters. The males would be duellists, focussed more on fighting each other and leading the pack than the practical or every day.

As night hunters they would need predatory vision, like a wolf or cat, a good sense of smell. They might even have hardened, keratin ‘claws’ instead of fingernails. Ensuring that they’re never without a weapon.

G&D: What Would My D&D Look Like? (Part Four)

Feats, racial bonuses and powers, these are good ways to customise a character but they can also be a royal pain in the arse with their sheer variability.

I’ve already said balance wouldn’t be a primary concern for me. Characterisation is more important to me. So that means whatever bonuses that I would work into the game wouldn’t be constrained by that.

So, what would I do?

My thoughts are torn between two semi-recent influences. On the one hand I really do like Aspects from the FATE games and its a mechanic that has turned up in one form or another for some time. White Wolf ‘specialisations’ are essentially one word versions of the same thing. I also used something similar in Neverwhere.

My other inspiration lately is Skyrim’s perk system, which can be found in variations in a great many computer games. This also gives an excuse to retain levels, at least in spirit, probably in a similar way to their implementation in Victoriana (as ranks).

So… I think for simplicity’s sake what I would go for are ‘Customisations’. Each level would provide one point that could be slapped into a bonus. Said bonus might be described, for example, as:

  • Talented Sneak +1 (Bonus to stealth).
  • Deadly Strikes +1 (Bonus to maximum damage).
  • Fisherman +1 (Comes from a fishing culture, so can claim bonuses to related rolls).
  • Tough as nails +1 (Bonus hit point).

These bonuses could be increased as you continue to level, giving you higher bonuses in relatively tight areas or being spread out to describe your character’s quirks, background and experiences. Providing appropriate bonuses and being used to offset penalties.

Each character race would get some bonuses of their own to start them off:

  • Elves: Forest Hunter +1, one free choice.
  • Dwarves: Stonecunning +1, one free choice.
  • Humans: Two free choices.
  • Orcs: Tough +1 (Extra hit point)

Flexible, simple, abusable – yes – but you have to trust the Games Master to look after their own game and give players the chance to exercise their creativity.

A Positive Piracy Story

My piracy policy is, basically, a more long-winded version of the following:

Look, I know you’re going to pirate my stuff and I’ve made peace with that. Seriously though, I’m just a small self-publisher and don’t have a lot of money. So if you’ve blagged this off a torrent or something, please think about buying something else I’ve made to make up for it.

This seems to work out pretty well for me.

Just the other day I got a mail from someone who had downloaded one of my 100 Seeds books from a torrent site and, despite not having used the book yet he was so pleased with it that he bought ALL of 100 Seeds books on PDF from RPGNOW in a bundle.

This is pretty typical. People find my stuff on a filesharing or torrent site, check it out (if they’re a user rather than a collector) , then discover all my reasonably priced game books and material and end up paying me money.

They wouldn’t find my stuff, most likely, if it wasn’t for piracy and sharing. In many ways it’s the ultimate word of mouth.

Piracy is definitely a net positive for me and for my business. Not being an arsehole about things goes a long way.

Little Grey Book Review

Shane O’Connor did a nice review of The Little Grey Book over at RPGNOW. I’ve been loathe to go too into the game or what it is since I didn’t want to colour preconceptions about it. I wanted to let it speak for itself and have people put their own interpretation on it.

This is a good review though. If you want to honour my wishes SPOILER ALERT! If you want to get an idea what it’s about, read on:

It’s been said that “simple is best.” This is a fairly universal axiom that can apply to almost anything, including games. Of course, it can also be fairly ironic in that it’s also easy to take too far, in which case the simplicity is no longer what’s best. It’s in this vein that Postmortem Studios has released their game – I’m not sure if I should call it a role-playing game or not – The Little Grey Book.

The Little Grey Book is a two-page PDF file. Each page is divided into three columns, with the first column of the first page being the cover image, and the last column of the second page being a “character sheet,” as it were.

I keep equivocating about whether or not this is a role-playing game because, as a game, it lacks a lot of the traditional trappings of most RPGs. There is no randomizer, for instance (e.g. dice, drawing cards, etc.) nor is there any sort of referee or Game Master. The Little Grey Book is more of a storytelling game than anything else, and the quality of the stories are…well, read below for more on that.

The premise of The Little Grey Book is that it takes place in a utopian society. Everyone is equal in every way, and society is run by the Consensus. All permutations of sex and sexual identity are accepted, all ages are accepted, and even names have not only had surnames removed entirely, but the remaining personal names are all gender-neutral.

The game-play here involves each player (of which there need to be at least three) creating a character based on choosing a name, age, and gender/sex. Each player then describes one typical day in their character’s life, from waking up until going to bed. The remaining players collectively play the role of the Consensus; each Consensus member can describe a troubled situation that happens during the day (e.g. someone flirts with you), and the player needs to describe how they resolve it before continuing on with their day.

The rub here is that the (non-Consensus) player gets a black mark from the other members of the Consensus each time he does anything that violates the equality of someone else. This is incredibly easy to do. Frowning at someone is passing judgment on them, for instance. Using a gender-specific pronoun is making an assumption on their sexual identity. Offering a tip to a waiter is a comparative insult to other waiters. In other words, differences (both real and perceived) still exist between people, but every time you fail to pretend that such differences don’t exist, you get a black mark. Hence, virtually every time a Consensus member introduces a troubled situation into your day, you’re going to screw up somehow; it’s a given.

Each player takes a turn as the person describing their day, and all of the other players operate as members of the Consensus, until everyone has had a turn. Consensus members tell the player why they got the black marks they did, but there’s no arguing these judgments. The explanations are final. The game ends when the person with the most black marks is taken away for “adjustment” (which isn’t defined, though you can probably guess) and the person with the least black marks gets off with a warning…making them the de facto winner.

That’s literally the entire game.

It’s clear that The Little Grey Book is presenting us with a minimalist critique of political correctness. However, how much of fun you’ll get out of playing this game is debatable – like all instances of minimal presentation, what’s here is so little that it invites you to fill it in with your own interpretations; you can’t help but imbue this game with your own thoughts and prejudices on the exaggerated premise that it lays down. Likewise, the real fun also comes from just how bastard-ly your friends feel like being when they come up with troubles for you, and how try to wriggle out of the situations they invent.

I do think that there could have been some greater emphasis on some of the unique aspects of the setting, such as noting how the Consensus seems to be a borg-like collective governance, or that the troubles that arise during your day are caused deliberately by the Consensus as a test of a random citizen’s perception of social equality (though how they caused such issues to happen would be a bit tricky to answer).

Ultimately, there’s little to do here, which is sort of the point. Nobody will get through a day without a black mark, but the real fun is in trying. The game here is a very basic framework, and the play style is similarly basic. It’s a simple game, but as they say, sometimes simple is best.

[4 of 5 Stars!]

Traveller OGL: Alienist RELEASED!

A full career path for the Traveller OGL
Many people are fascinated by alien cultures but for some it becomes an obsession and for a few, exceptional people they become a part of the culture that fascinates them. Accepted in a way that most never could be.

Caught between their own people and their obsession, the Alienist is a bridge between disparate cultures separated by light years, psychology and even biology.

Xenophiles are those who are truly in love with the alien and wish to become a part of it. They might be scouts or soldiers who have ‘gone native’ while stationed in alien dominated space or they may simply have become enchanted with the aliens through the image that they have in the media, seeing them as the embodiment of a concept or as something in their own species that has been lost or diminished. In extreme cases a Xenophile may be suffering from a mental illness, believing that they truly are a member of this alien culture that has become trapped in a human body. They seek to soothe their craving for belonging by finding a new home in an alien culture.

Xenoethnologists are scientists who specifically study the cultures of alien species. Rather than the dry, biological facts or a broad study of intelligent beings as a whole, they zero in on an alien culture and study it intensively, living amongst it and learning to translate meaning between that species and their own. The build bridges between different species and cultures that sometimes don’t even share base biology or senses, let alone concepts.

Tourists Tourists are fascinated by alien cultures in a more general sense. They want to experience as many of these cultures and viewpoints as they can, to travel far and wide seeking novel experiences and seeing strange wonders. They wander from port to port, trying to get off the beaten track, away from the well travelled and to lose themselves on alien worlds. Tourists often find themselves in trouble but this adds a frisson of excitement to their travels and and gives those who return to civilisation interesting stories to tell.

Buy download HERE

G&D: What Would My D&D Look Like? (Part Three)

On to the next problem.

I like skills.

I like skills because they allow you to tell a story about where your character has been, where they’re going, what they want to do. It gives you great customisation and depth in a way more abstract system choices often don’t.

I also want to break down some of the things that were found elsewhere in other versions of the game (such as saving throws and attack scores) and sling them into skills to unify the mechanic.

How could we split this up then?

  • Willpower
  • Dodge
  • Toughness

And for combat skills?

  • One-Handed Weapons
  • Two-Handed Weapons
  • Ranged Weapons
  • Block

Then what else do we need? What are the staples?

  • Alertness
  • Survival
  • Stealth
  • Charm
  • Intimidate
  • Athletics
  • Craft (various – lockpicking, trapmaking and similar would come under this as well as weapon-making).
  • Knowledge (various)
  • Empathy
  • Lore (general magical knowledge).

I also intend to fold some aspects of magic into skills and to compensate for the power and scope of magic it’s an idea to thrust it into the skill system as well so magicians need to spread their spells a bit thinner.

  • Abjuration
  • Conjuration
  • Divination
  • Enchantment
  • Evocation
  • Illusion
  • Necromancy
  • Transmutation

A character would start with 10+(Intelligence+Wisdom) skill points to spend. Maximum starting skill level would be +5.

A skill (or indeed any other) roll would be d20+Stat Bonus + Skill Bonus Vs Target Number.

6-Pack Adventures: THULU! (Pathfinder) RELEASED!

A 6-Pack Adventure: pick-up-and-play adventures designed to fill 2-4 hours of play and containing everything you need.

  • Battle Map
  • Tokens
  • Pre-generated characters

For longevity you can use the tokens and the map for anything else you care to do and the adventures should be fairly easily adaptable to fit into your existing campaign if you want.

THULU! Has a ragged band of grizzled warriors trying to hold off the orc horde long enough for relief to arrive.

Pathfinder and associated marks and logos are trademarks of Paizo Publishing, LLC, and are used under license. See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

Buy download HERE

In print HERE

Current To-Do List

These are all the projects ground was broken on last year that need completion before I’m free to do whatever the hell I want in a more relaxed manner (basically, I’m boned).

  1. Gosh, Spies!.
  2. Urban Faerie.
  3. 6-Pack (Pathfinder adventure – Needs layout).
  4. Traveller: Alienist (career path – Needs layout).
  5. Lady Bexington’s Home for Wayward Zombies (board game – needs layout).
  6. Steampunk Mecha Duel (board game – waiting on art).
  7. Cthentacle: Spankham Asylum (Waiting on art).
  8. ImagiNation (Using the descriptive system from Neverwhere – Needs edit and layout).
  9. IRRESPRESSIBLE! (Waiting on art, needs editing and layout).
  10. Gilder (Open d6 ‘DungeonPunk’ game – Writing needs completion).
  11. Project (Open d6 SF, mission-oriented game – Writing & art needed).
  12. Camelot Cosmos (FATE, Arthurian SF game – Waiting on art).

G&D: What Would My D&D Look Like? (Part Two)

So we’ve gone over stats (though nobody guessed that Comeliness is also useful as dump stat for your grizzled and scarred warriors and so on. That helps blunt the ‘problem’ with rolled stats in the same way assigning rolls does.

What I’m looking at next is races and having gone with eliminating the stats and sticking with bonuses that’s considerably easier because if you alter attributes you no longer need to go back and recalculate, you can just take away or add on as needed.

I’m not convinced by the profusion of races in fantasy games. World specific ones, yes, or a massive profusion where it makes internal sense or is key to the gameworld (Majipoor perhaps or Talislanta). Otherwise my inner evolutionary biologist starts protesting and no amount of ‘It’s MAGIC!’ excuses will get him to shut up.

It shuts up my inner biologist somewhat if I think of fantasy races in more of a Ringworld way, divergent evolution from the same basic type. That means we need to think about where these other races come in and what has made them what they are.

So, I reckon I’m going to slim down the races in terms of general availability to:

Elves: Long-lived, detached and somewhat autistic.

Dwarves: Gruff, hard-work, hard-play.

Humans: Community builders.

Orcs: They’re a fantasy staple and make more sense to me as a core race than, say, gnomes.

Half-breeds? Why bother complicating matters really? Want to play a ‘mule’? Pick the dominant race and pop your stats in where you think they fit with the concept better.

Balance? Nah, balance can get screwed.

OK, so, what’ve we go then:


Elf: +1 Dexterity, +1 Comeliness, -1 Charisma, -2 Constitution.

Dwarf: +1 Strength, +1 Constitution, -1 Comeliness.

Human: +1 Charisma

Orc: +1 Strength, +1 Constitution, -2 Comeliness, -1 Intelligence, +1 Wisdom.

Races will also have their own particular ‘bonuses’ , but that’ll come later on.

Urban Faerie: Pocket Edition RELEASED!

Tidied up, tinkered with, added to (a little) and wrapped up in a somewhat shinier package. This is the Urban Faerie Pocket Edition. If you liked Invaderz, odds are you’ll like this…

Faeries living like rats in the walls cause havoc for the filthy humans. A beer-and-crisps game you can pick up and play in short order, even while drunk.

Download HERE

Hardcopy HERE