Some time ago I put up an essay entitled Small Changes – a discussion of how relatively minor game-characteristic changes in a species can lead to massive social changes. This time around, it’s a look at the opposing position; sometimes you can make massive changes in a species basic abilities without changing their social organization much at all.
For an example, lets consider a mild variation on the Elan – changing them into a natural species by simply throwing out the near-immortality and the inability to reproduce naturally. If we replaced the usual human racial modifiers with those for the Elan, what’s going to happen to human society?
-2 Charisma (-12) (this is half value, since penalties are less important than bonuses).
Immunity/Spells that affect humanoids only, such as charm person or dominate person (Uncommon/Major/Great, 12 CP).
Mana/+1d6 Power (2 CP)
Resistance +4 to all saves: Specialized: counts as a supernatural ability, requires the expenditure of one power point when used to activate through your next action, although this can be done as an immediate action. (18 CP).
Innate Enchantment (Psionic Variant): Vitality Diversion (L2, May divert damage to Power reserves, at 2 HP to 1 Power, 8400 GP for Personal Only, 9 CP as Innate Enchantment).
Bonus Psionic Spell, Non-Augmentable (2 CP): Repletion, L1, lets you go without food and drink for 24 hours.
Well, to start off with, they’re less charismatic. While a “-1” isn’t a big modifier on a d20 die roll, people interact with other people many times every day; every so often a social skill roll that a human would have made will fail, and so there will be a cumulative effect. These people are going to be just a bit less cooperative, to have a slightly “cruder” culture, and will tend to organize themselves in slightly smaller groups. Where they do form large groups, they’ll probably need a slightly more rigid social organization to help them manage. A certain stress on manners and social classes can be expected.
An immunity to a few specific spells is pretty well irrelevant for social purposes. They don’t have innate spellcasting abilities, so such spells are going to be relatively rare in their culture, just like they are in most d20 cultures.
The +4 on Saves is a notable bonus – but it does cost Power to activate, so the average man or woman in the street won’t be able to use it very often. Presumably it will still render them more resistant to toxins, irritants, diseases, and pollutants than normal humans are, since – in d20 – such things simply require periodic Fortitude saves. They’ll be able to drink contaminated swamp water, grow up breathing industrial smog, recover more quickly from disease, and otherwise survive for longer in hostile environments. They’ll be better at avoiding most accidents as well. Thanks to their boosted Reflex save they’ll be able to use rugged paths that would lead to an unacceptably high casualty rate of falls otherwise, work more safely with unshielded industrial equipment, and otherwise evade many accidents that would do serious harm to a normal human.
Next up, they can get along on considerably less food and water – although not if there are too many other demands on their (very limited) natural 1d6 power reserve. This would be a really major change if they could actually get along without food entirely, but it seems likely that there are limits to how often they can use that “Repletion” ability without renewing their reserves. Still, they can probably reduce their average need for food and water to a half, or even a third, or normal. That will free up a good many people who would otherwise have to be farmers: expect denser overall populations, a considerably higher percentage of craftsman and other professionals, and for countryside farming villages to be considerably closer together.
Similarly, the ability to transfer damage to their power reserve will make them a little more resistant to injury – but not that much so unless they develop a lot more Power. That does seem pretty likely given the number of their abilities that depend on it. Regardless, they should be able to hit their thumbs with hammers, withstand the occasional rebounding axe-blow when they slip up chopping wood, and survive kicks from horses and so on, without serious injury – but occupational injuries like that are far less serious in d20 universes than in reality and have never had a major impact on civilization anyway. They simply drag down overall productivity a bit.
They don’t get the usual “human” bonus Feat and extra skill points – so their population will include a few less specialists, and most of them won’t have as broad a range of skills as a normal human will. That will tend to drag productivity back down, although probably not enough to make up for the effects bringing it up – as we’d expect for a race that uses most of it’s character point allowance rather than a mere third of it. We can expect this society to be somewhat more prosperous on the average,
Still, humans have always fought each other at the drop of a hat, consumed marginally-edible and slightly-toxic stuff, drunk disease-laden water, and put up with the injuries suffered while working. Similarly, they’ve often had to get along on too little food, and have put what they want ahead of other people’s safety. This variant species is simply better at living with it, instead of dying young. Hopefully, living longer on the average will make up for them learning a little slower.
So: we’ll have fewer farmers, slightly smaller groups on the average (but more of them), slightly cruder behavior, and a greater tolerance for nasty living conditions and risky behavior. “Safety First” isn’t going to make much headway here, although “Productivity at any cost!” may. Overall, this is going to be a pretty recognizable culture; you could easily portray it as Victorian. When you come right down to it, most cultures have been rude, crude, violent, and with little respect for the comfort and safety of the lower classes. “Dystopian” is a pretty familiar setting, and they’ll fit into it nicely.
What kind of secondary effects are likely?
Well, most of them will be spending their level-one Feat on getting the 3d6 extra Power that will enhance their survivability so much. They’ll probably be more likely to colonize difficult areas, and will maintain larger populations than humans normally do in deserts, swamps, poison-laden tropical jungles, and arctic locations. Psionics will be studied far more commonly and intensively than usual – but the equivalent magical studies will probably be less common. Members of other races had better keep an eye on the food, since this species is likely to use a lot of “spices” that other races may find pretty indigestible. Long-range trade may be a bit less important for the same reason: with a wider range of local “spices”, and less need to eat perishable foodstuffs that are past their prime, spices will be less important and desirable. Technical progress may be slower, since people will be less social and thus less inclined to share ideas, but technical progress was never that fast in most cultures to begin with.
So: why should adding a single, cheap, ability – darksight – have such enormous cultural and social ramifications, while making massive changes has relatively little effect?
In this case it’s simple: the Elan template simply enlarges on a few existing strengths while slightly reducing others. It doesn’t really add anything new to the mix. Human cultures don’t respond much to changes like that. Would human cultures change much if we subtracted two feet and some strength? Evidently not: the pygmies culture is pretty easily recognizable.
There are limits of course – and the range of normal variation within a species is a pretty good guide to them – but within them tweaking racial characteristics isn’t going to have much effect. That’s why most authors and games stick with that kind of change. It’s a handy shortcut. The local “human” variant is blue, scaly, a bit thick, and stronger than normal humans? If they think and act like humans, so what? Readers and players will be able to relate to them easily. Are they short, light, quick on their feet, and extra-sneaky? Then they’ll make great thieves, and you can throw in a quick cultural oddity or two – such as living in underground homes and a love of meals and gardens – and call them a unique race.
If you throw in darksight, flight, the ability to breathe fire, short range teleportation, enough telepathy to bypass language difficulties, or any of a thousand other radically new abilities, things change drastically.
For example, one author wrote a science-fiction series wherein some weird mutation had affected humanity: one type was much stronger, much faster, relatively short-lived (about 40 years), and had to suck the life out of a member of the other subtype once a month to survive. Members of the other subtype apparently healed faster and got some other advantages, but not nearly enough to stand up to the first type in a fight. Two-thirds of the births took the parents type, one third took the opposing type, and births from mixed pairings were 50-50. Either way, the mutations did not come into effect until puberty.
Now, the general notion was interesting – but a minimal ratio of “vampires” to “humans” of one to two simply will not work. First month: the “vampires” kill one-half of the donors. Second month: they kill the rest of them. Third month: all the “vampires” die.
You could stretch things out by killing off all the children who went “vampire” in donor-dominated areas, by having a lot of the “vampires” die during the transition of natural causes, or by other drastic measures – but a stable, large-scale, primitive-technology (oxcart-style transportation) region dominated by the vampires just will not work: either you’ll have too few vampires to really dominate or they’ll kill off everyone else and then starve to death.
That constant nagging “this would never work” really undermined the series for a lot of people – and that kind of thing is death on serious roleplaying in a setting. How can a character make rational decisions in a setting that makes no sense? Why bother trying?
And that is why it’s always important to consider the implications of your changes. Sometimes they can be glossed over. Sometimes they can’t. Either way, with some advance thought, at least you’ll know what issues are likely to come up – which makes game mastering a LOT easier.