In particular, I'd like to link to the Race in D&D blog, started by Chris Van Dyke last November after he gave a presentation on that topic for nerd nite in New York City. In addition, there are some excellent pointers and links in the IRIS network thread on race in games, "Where to next?"
The Meaning of Fantasy Races
As with social class, I think that portrayals of race in fantasy generally make statements about race. Scientifically speaking, fantasy races may be other species or sub-species depending on whether they can interbreed -- but in terms of themes they are metaphors for different kinds of people. In past debates on race in RPGs, there have been many people who have claimed that unless a work is about a specific real-world race, then that work has no racial themes. For example, unless dwarves are exactly intended to represent a specific real-world group such as Jews, then there is no significance to dwarven race themes.
I do not think that is true. By parallel, most people would agree that a science fiction or fantasy (SF/F) story can have an anti-war message even if it isn't narrowly about a specific war from real-world history. That is, you can write a story that closely maps to WWI in space, but a work can also comment on war in general without using that device. Similarly, I think that a fictional work (role-playing game or otherwise) can have comment on race and racial essentialism without using real-world races.
The different martian races of Edgar Rice Burrough's Barsoom are a good example (i.e. Red Martians, Green Martians, White Martians and Black Martians). They are clearly meant to illustrate lessons about race -- in much the same manner as fantasy races within his later works, such as the fictional races the Ho-don and the Waz-don in his Tarzan the Terrible (full text). There is disagreement over exactly how to read Burrough's themes, but one thing that is at least agreed on is that racial themes are central to many of his books.
I don't want to delve into exactly the meaning of any particular work. However, as with social class, I think there are implications of the choice. One of the telling bits from Van Dyke's "Race and D&D" presentation was his extended quote near the end from the white supremacy forum, Stormfront, entitled "Learn all you need to know about race from Dungeons and Dragons" -- where a white supremacist poster claimed that D&D gave him valuable insights into racial essentialism as a child.
Alternatives to Race
On a fantasy RPG character sheet, you will often see a lot of space to fill out things like age, height, weight along with details like hair color, eye color, home country, birthday, sibling rank. More often than not, these are cosmetic details that has no influence on character creation -- and on the rare cases they do, it is a minor adjustment. Even gender typically has little to no effect on character creation. However, race is enormously important. Even among games that try to distance themselves from Tolkienesque fantasy, the result is that you have a new set of races like cat-people or inventions like Gnorl -- but race is still the key trait of your character.
Given that this is fantasy with magic in the world, I think that there are many more possibilities for the important divisions among characters other than race and profession.
1) The birth date of a character could have an overt supernatural effect. There have been a few RPGs that have modifiers for this, such as the sun sign in HârnMaster or the moon phase in Werewolf. Take this more centrally, though, and the difference between a Taurus and a Pisces could be as great as the difference between an elf and a dwarf in Tolkienesque fantasy.
2) The place of birth of a character could have an overt supernatural effect, in a fantasy world where the lands themselves were alive and magical. Rather than a race of pixies, it could be that everyone born in the forested highlands can see in the dark and speak to birds.
3) The religion of a character could create an overt difference in everyone rather than being only a small modifier for priests. Worshiping the thunder god might make anyone stronger and grant protection from weather. Worshipping the earth god might increase constitution and improve other senses, but penalize sight.
4) Sibling rank could be central, exaggerating the stereotypes of such influence. For example, I played in a homebrew campaign campaign created by Robert Ellis based on fairy tales where sibling rank was vital. An eldest child was always a born leader, while the second was thoughtful and skilled, and so forth.
The point is that there are a host of possibilities for fantasy beyond race. For those designing fantasy games, don't just ask "what should the races be in my fantasy world?" Consider further possibilities beyond races, bloodlines, or tribes.
Racial Mechanics in RPGs
Even if we do assume that fantastical races are important, though, there are options in how they are handled. Following the lead of D&D, race in RPGs is often mechanically defined as a step in character creation where the player chooses one of a limited set of races, getting a package of modifiers. The choice may have a point cost (as in GURPS or Hero) or equivalently, effective character level cost -- but usually most races are equal. This assumes several things:
- Racial Unity
Races are strongly grouped as distinct and uniform. This is particularly interesting given that in D&D, half-elfs and half-orcs are defined as races.
- Racial Monoculturalism
There is usually a default culture for non-human races, but not for humans. This is sometimes mechanically explicit, such as in 3rd edition D&D. It is extremely common otherwise, however.
There are a number of RPGs that have a default of non-human characters -- such as most of White Wolf's World of Darkness series, or various anthromorphic animal games from Other Suns to Jadeclaw. However, among games where there is an option to pick between humans and other races, then human is the default and usually dominant species in the background.
Variable Race Features
Within RPGs, the point systems of the eighties (notably the Hero System and GURPS) threw aside the idea of sharply-defined classes. Instead, the players decides for themselves what skills and advantages are appropriate for, say, a character who grew up as a bandit but then repented as an adult and joined the church. However, even in these systems, race is usually sharply defined. A character is an elf, a half-elf, or a human -- and each of the three has a fixed list of traits and modifiers.
However, such sharp divisions are not true in much of the source material. For example, in Tolkien, there many subtle variations in bloodline. An individual could be distinct by the bit of elven or Númenorean blood in their line. Given interbreeding, which is explicitly possible given half-elves and half-orcs, the races should have various blends just like real-world races.
For an RPG, this just means tossing out strict packages, and instead letting the player choose their own racial features -- just like how point systems allowed players to choose class features. This allows the player to decide the racial mix of their character. It thus puts a responsibility on them to choose a plausible combination of traits, just as they are responsible for a plausible combination of skills.
RPG fantasy worlds often have a dozen or more cultures. However, typically the majority of those are distinctly human cultures, while the non-human races each have essentially a single culture. That is, if I play an dwarf, I have a clear idea about what dwarves are like -- i.e. tropes like mining, battleaxes, beards, and so forth. However, if I play a human, there isn't the same.
I think there is a major conceptual shift to giving races even just two distinct cultures. As an example from science fiction, Romulans and Vulcans are racially the same but culturally distinct. With a monoculture, there is a tendency to think of traits as inborn -- i.e. "Klingons are inherently warlike; it's in their blood." Having contrasting cultures makes it explicit that such social tendencies are not inborn.
Within a game-world, one can take stock of the various cultures that are in it, and mix up what the dominant race of the culture is. So perhaps there is a dwarvish viking-like culture, but another set of dwarves is inspired by the Middle East and secrets of Damascus steel.
It is relatively easy for an RPG to have a default of non-human characters, following the example of games like the Worlf of Darkness games or anthropomorphic animal games.
To be the default, then the central race should have no modifiers to their stats. Their abilities would be classified as "everyman abilities" -- similar to default abilities in other games, such as the abilities of vampires in the vampire games. In a game where elves were dominant, their abililities would be the standard, and humans might have the special weakness of "night blindness," along with a penalty to their Dexterity.
Some might argue that the stats will be more difficult to understand if they are not centered on human average. However, there are many games that do not have a uniform average for human stats. For example, in games derived from RuneQuest and Basic Roleplaying, the characteristics for Size, Intelligence, and Education have a different average than the others like Strength and Dexterity. A game can make clear what the human average is for each stat, thus giving a real-world picture, without making human the default.
I suppose a good question is why change things. i.e. Why have options other than race/species, or different ways of approaching race in the game?
However, I think that misplaces the burden. The question I ask is, "Why default to this standard handling of race?" Why not try something different, rather than just putting in new ideas for races into the same framework?