Building Your Own Custom Race

I was talking to someone interested in the game about whether or not there would be unique races in the Corebook or the setting book, and I thought other people would be interested in the answer, so here it is (slightly rephrased).

Of course, I wrote an earlier blog entry about being able to reshape your character, including changing your race or just certain racial attributes. So if you wanted to play a race that was basically an elf, but instead of low-light vision you had a bite attack, you could build that. Or if you wanted to play a race that was essentially a dwarf, except instead of 3E’s stonecunning you had unusually hard skin that gave you natural armor, you could.

So the Corebook will present some fantasy “race” staples (humans, elves, dwarves)… but you’ll also have the flexibility to alter your race, or create your own race by swapping abilities.

Frex, if you want your character to be an “arachnith,” a race of spider-like people with claws and multiple eyes, you’d be able to build something like that by giving yourself claw attacks, a hard chitinous skin, a bonus to Sense checks to represent the benefits of having multiple eyes. And because cronks (combat feats), stunts (skill feats), and spells are available to all character classes, you could augment your race with a combo of abilities that you think is important or relevant to your character concept. Frex, you could learn something like the D&D web spell that lets you create webs… but for your character, it’s not a magical ability you have, it’s just something you can do because you race is “arachnith” and they can shoot webs. Or you could take a stunt about climbing to be good at climbing, or a spell that lets you stick to walls. If you learn a poisoning spell, maybe it’s not that you’re magically creating poison, it’s that you’ve developed a spider-like poisonous bite.


Let’s take that race-building concept a step further.

In so many games, your race is a choice you make at level 1, sets the abilities you start with, and thereafter isn’t a factor in what your character can or can’t do. Sure, there are some 3E feats that require you to be a dwarf and give you a unique dwarf ability, or require you to be an elf and give you a unique elf ability, but there generally isn’t a way to focus on your “dwarfness” or your “elfness” as you level up… leveling up gives you new class abilities.

But who’s to say that the new abilities you gain as you level up have to be class abilities? If getting Skill Focus from being a level 1 half-elf is mechanically the same as taking Skill Focus as a level 9 human rogue, why not broaden that concept even more and accept that any ability you learn as you level up can be justified as a racial ability you just developed?

Frex, if you want your character to be a “drashann” (a dragon-human hybrid), you’d build your race with a bite attack, claws, hard scaly skin, and maybe some kind of resistance to an energy type. Then you’d augment that with cronks, stunts, and spells to explain your racial drashann abilities. You could pick Diehard because drashann are naturally tough. You could pick Smoke Bomb as a stunt to represent your immature gas breath weapon, or pick Minor Fear as a spell to represent how drashann are naturally scare. And then, once you’ve gained a few levels, you learn Stinking Cloud as a spell, but it’s not a “spell” to you, it’s your new and improved gas breath weapon. Or you learn a better fear spell, because you’re not an immature drashann any more, and your racial fear ability has gotten more powerful.

Also also frex, if you wanted to have an “undead” PC, you’d just need to select racial abilities and cronks/stunts/spells that suit your vision of what “type” of undead you are. If your race is “vampire,” you’d increase your Str and Dex, add a bite attack, and a spell that heals you when you damage someone with a bite. Any more powerful abilities you’d want (like flight or turning into mist) would be things you’d have to level up before you could get. Or you could design a 1st-level version of the “mature” ability you want (like a variant of Burst of Billowing Fog that lets you spend a boost to turn into mist for 1 round). And later, as you became a more mature vampire, you could learn Gaseous Form (a racial ability for you, using the mechanics of the spell), or how to create spawn, or how to dominate an opponent’s will.

The point is, it doesn’t matter whether your character’s ability is a born-with-it racial ability or something they “learn” as they level up or train—that new ability could just be something recently discovered you could do, and the “training” was just you practicing it until you could do it reliably. If the game says that Invisibility is a 4th-level ability, that means Invisibility is something appropriate for a 4th-level character to have, and

  • If your 4th-level human wizard character learns the Invisibility spell, it might be because he’s been doing research on magic to turn invisible.
  • If your 4th-level elf rogue learns the Invisibility spell, it might be because he’s discovered a lost secret of the ninjas about hiding in plain sight.
  • If your 4th-level undead warrior character learns the Invisibility spell, it might be because he’s been studying how ghosts turn invisible.

Because Five Moons RPG doesn’t differentiate whether an ability is “extraordinary” or “supernatural” in the 3E sense of things, then in terms of what happens in the game when you activate the ability, these three Invisibility powers are identical; the flavor of how your character learned to become invisible is what makes your character unique.

The idea is to banish the phrase “I have a cool character concept, but the rules won’t let me create it.”

(I played a lot of TSR’s old Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game when I was growing up, and one of the character creation philosophies of that game is “determine what your superpowers are, then decide how you can do that and how those powers all fit together.” So you might be a mutant who can fly/manipulate magnetism/create forcefields, or you might be a robot who can do all of those things with technology, or you might be an alien with the genetic ability to do those things, or a very specialized wizard with spells to do those things. Obviously that philosophy had a strong influence on me, and I’m applying it to the design of Five Moons RPG.)

(BTW, thank you to everyone who’s downloaded the pre-alpha playtest PDF and have offered comments and/or played through it. I’ve been busy with a much-extended Paizo deadline [finished yesterday, yay!] and haven’t had time to read all the replies all in detail, but I will, and I greatly appreciate everyone who’s taken time to look at it.)

17 thoughts on “Building Your Own Custom Race

  1. {The idea is to banish the phrase “I have a cool character concept, but the rules won’t let me create it.” }

    I’m a grand supporter of that, I’ve had characters ideas in years past I’d want to make on the spot, only to feel bored when the rules hindered me. As well that in relation to this article, don’t want races rules getting in the way of someone playing a character that isn’t playing to the stereotype, or have you.

    Reflavoring powers to be racial abilities sounds fine, it explains your new powers on level up for some people. Reflavoring is actually extremely useful to make things more interesting from the change in perspective, but doesn’t really feel all that meaningful to the race.

    {“. Or you could design a 1st-level version of the “mature” ability you want”}

    This is something I’d much more suggest to leave to the game, as fiat has the effect of creating unpredictable results. That is, can result in easily making boost or ability option more powerful for its level than it should be. So I’d want the various race options to give me appropriate abilities for the given race(s) it is supporting.

    I’ve also the query wondering how you would support more exotic races, some that wouldn’t be as iconic without their day one abilities. Such as like Giants, Werewolves, Medusa (I can see minimum level needed for some of these concepts, which makes sense power level wise).

    {“you’d just need to select racial abilities and cronks/stunts/spells that suit your vision of what “type” of undead you are.”}

    On a personal note, how about a Sentient skeleton? They’d have the likely ability of not needing to breathe (feed yes, due to 5M’s Zombi-metaphysics), and likely immunity to Poison, Environmental effects.


  2. So it sounds like the game may have something like the race builder from Advanced Race Guide, which I really enjoyed even if the race point system had its obvious flaws. On top of it, the game encourages you to fluff your feats as part of your race if you desire? Sounds good to me.

    While it’s cool that you can assemble your race, I do kind of wish there was something to tie it all together. I’m struggling to think of a good way to explain what I mean. It’s like if Pathfinder sorcerer was redesigned so that instead of choosing a bloodline, you simply choose abilities from a talent pool like an arcanist to build your own bloodline. Additionally, you don’t get a bloodline arcana to help tie it all together. Sure, it gives the player more freedom to create their own sorcery bloodline, but something feels lost as a result. In the pre-alpha packet, specializations seem designed to help mitigate this for classes. I concede it’s a minor point and simply a trade off for greater freedom.

    Maybe the race builder could offer a few pre-made packages of abilities for theming and convenience? For example, there may be a “bestial” package that includes the scent, claws and/or bite traits. Perhaps an “undead” package that includes the “doesn’t eat and breathe” and “negative energy affinity” traits. This way, players and GMs have more of a gradient for races. They can either pick a pre-made race, create their own by combining packages, or build one from scratch by cherry picking from the racial trait list. It would also allow you to define “creature types” without hard coding the specifics directly into the game like 3rd Edition does.


  3. This is pretty awesome. I am really exited to see this in action. I am really hoping for some type of race builder engine mechanic. Something like Pathfinder’s point system in their advanced guide. This would greatly limit confusion, help with balance issues, and all of that kind of stuff.

    Also, is Five Moons going to have unique races that are well, unique to the setting?


  4. Pingback: Crosspost: Building Your Own Custom Race (in Five Moons RPG) | Sean K Reynolds

  5. Will there really be a race any more?

    In the past, the fantasy races gave you a package that most members of a race abided by. You could be reasonably sure that a dwarf fighter wouldn’t sprout wings and fly, or a elven archer wouldn’t suddenly grow a tail and hang from branches with it while firing down on you. The elf is usually more dexterous and the dwarf more sturdy. There would be exceptions, but you could still make assumptions based on race.

    This does serve a purpose in that it sets expectations.

    With what you are describing above, I’m not sure that race will still provide a useful guideline. It sounds more like everyone is a custom genetically modified human with some of them staying closer to a few of the standard packages. If everyone is custom, you probably want to set that expectation when you first introduce the concept of races in the rules. It can be sold as an advantage, provided you clearly set that as the expectation.


    • It is important to have a baseline of some premade races like dwarf, elf, and so on, because some GMs wont want to have so much racial mutability. I’m just introducing the mutability in the Corebook instead of waiting months or years to provide a system for it.
      So writeups of the baseline races will be there, with some options for altering racial abilities (to make a wood elf, hill dwarf, and so on). And there will be some short examples of pre-packaged variant races, like the arachnith, drachann, an undead race, and so on, but not in a long format like the dwarf or elf are.


      • {. I’m just introducing the mutability in the Corebook instead of waiting months or years to provide a system for it.}
        Would it seriously take that long to provide a system for creating our own races?? Seems like a system that would be useful to have Day one. That way can have the rest of your audience create their own races to fit, as well possibly getting it more testing to refine it in the future.

        {And there will be some short examples of pre-packaged variant races,}
        I was really hoping there would be a system for creating races, showing us the format, and suggested abilities therein. Sure it can possibly be reverse engineered (4e’s is easy enough), but it’d be easier to have it up front.


      • That *is* a really cool thing to have in the core rulebook. One of the most positive experiences I had as a GM came as a result of the race builder in Advanced Race Guide. I have a friend who makes a hobby out of writing settings and short stories. Many of the stories involved an aquatic race of his invention that he regularly commissions artwork for. When he reluctantly joined my campaign as his first Pathfinder experience, I surprised him by suggesting he play a member of his race. I sat down with him and used the race builder to homebrew the race’s game stats, which turned out great despite me not being that system savvy then. He’s now one of the most enthusiastic players in my group, especially when I took steps to better integrate the race into the campaign setting.


  6. This almost makes me want to take and add this idea onto a pathfinder game I have been I have been thinking about for a long time. Have the pathfinder levels as normal and then have the fivemoon levels specifically for the “mutations” that they have.


  7. Just a thought, are you going to do you own take on some of the common fantasy races? Either in history or flavor or mechanics? I have felt like Dark Elves (Drow) have so much potential but classic DnD kind of pigeon holed them into something that is not really a PC option and a race that could not survive the horrors of the underdark and the constant slaughtering of their own people by their own hands. In my games – I tend to run dark elves like a neutral evil Ramulan Empire…for example….

    Drow are extremely loyal and civilized to other Drow. They believe that they are the master race destined to rule over all others, and this instills them with an innate sense of cold-hearted camaraderie. Their true evil nature comes out in their treatment of lesser races (i.e, everyone who is not a Drow, including other elves). That is not to say that there is not political infighting amongst Drow families/noble houses. There is a great deal of that. However, it is mainly through alliance building and gaining and losing influence through successful (or unsuccessful) hegemonic ventures. Drow rarely murder one another, or order assassinations of their rivals. It is so much more satisfying and delicious to watch a rival be humiliated amongst her peers in the political arena through failure than it is to murder her. After all, if you kill her, the fun ends.

    That is not to say that Drow do not kill one another. But those Drow who have been found to have committed crimes within Drow society (such as killing a fellow Drow, betraying the location of Drow fortifications in the Darklands, etc.) are punished with brutal finality. They are either transformed into Driders, to forever mark them as the shameful beasts that they are, or they are tortured and killed. But generally, the Drow view the lives of other Drow as being far too valuable to just throw away.

    Thus, 85% of Drow fall into the Neutral Evil category and are culture of cruel and ruthless pragmatists. They see the value of order, stability and discipline, but they frown upon rigidity and the idea of “honor” makes absolutely no sense to them. They appreciate flexibility of thought and action, but despise disorder and capriciousness, because that can lead to strategic losses that the Drow cannot afford. Giving in to one’s passions is just as weak and stupid to a Drow as standing by one’s word of honor when there is no reason to. As a result of their pragmatic views, Drow happily worship Lolth and all manner of Evil Gods, Devils, Demons and Daemons. Whatever being can help advance the cause of the Drow by making the correct propitiations, that is the being the Drow will worship. They are many Drow that forge their own paths but never enough to help fix their dark reputation.


    • Earlier articles explain there’s no alignments* in Five Moons and that most core races are either humans or descended from humans evolved through shapeshifting magic to adapt to their environment. Many of them have animalistic features. For example, elves look kind of like cats and orcs look like pigs. So pretty much every race is either a mutated human or a creature from another world.

      This does raise an interesting question of how drow might be represented in this world. If they live in caves, maybe they look like majestic bat people. Maybe they look like black panthers and look more wild and feral than normal elves. Maybe drow are a race of expert shapers on a mission to achieve bodily perfection. So many fun possibilities!
      (I don’t know how to add links to text in these replies)


      • If so, then that violates the law that drow must always be sleek and sexy! At least I’m sure there’s a law that says that.

        Actually, that is an interesting thought. Perhaps drow are black hairless cats with an underground Egyptian-like society with some kind of religious agenda related to the dragons or gods that brought them there. They enslave “inferior” races to build and plan their grand cities, but to reinforce the lack of alignment in the game, they do so in a non-traditional way. After conquering a tribe of another race, the drow issue a challenge, usually a duel, a battle of wits, or some other non-lethal competition. If the tribe’s champion defeats the drow army’s champion, they’re released with no causalities. If the tribe’s champion loses, the drow enslaves the tribe. However, the drow see enslavement as sort of a “boot camp” for perfection, hoping that the other race will evolve by working for and witnessing a successful civilization.

        Loyal slaves are rewarded with shaping magical services to make them stronger, faster, and perhaps more physically attractive. This shaping has a slight mental effect to help “enlighten” the slave and make them see the good their enslavement. Eventually, drow release their loyal slaves. Though many end up wanting to stay or become drow themselves, some slaves venture off to form new civilizations using what they learned from their years of service, honoring the drow. Indeed, many of the drow’s most powerful allies came as a result of this process. By enslaving other races and helping them develop, the drow believe they are doing the work of the gods, who similarly took mankind from their world so that they may evolve.

        Brainstorming ideas for this setting is fun!


    • {Just a thought, are you going to do you own take on some of the common fantasy races? Either in history or flavor or mechanics?}

      Yes, but not initially–I don’t want to devote a large chunk of the Corebook on converting various fantasy races. But there will be room for those sort of ideas. 🙂

      (Also, the less I try to duplicate other games’ versions of various races, the less I’m tangled up in copyrights and licensing, including the OGL.)


      • {–I don’t want to devote a large chunk of the Corebook on converting various fantasy races. But there will be room for those sort of ideas.}

        That’s fair, I think we mostly just need direction to represent the more “difficult” races. From there, the racial creation system ye have devised should be able to cover the rest people will want to do.

        For “Difficult”, I imagine you have your: Giant-esque, Birdmen, Robots, Undead race, Aquatic? (dual land/sea or not), super small or Pixie, Mini-Dragon or half-dragon (you covered this in part), and I’d say Lycanthrope but 5M seems to have all races animal like, so may settle for that.


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