RPG Design – Designing Subraces and the Mothu

   Next up, we have a new Eclipse race by Joshua Troeger – the Mothu – and a general discussion on designing races.

   The Mothu, like the Spirit-Touched, fall into the “Human Subrace” category in Eclipse – races created by taking humans and spending part of the rest of the 31 CP available to a +0 ECL race.

   Of course, you can design races like that in pretty much any game or setting; simply add a few upgrades to your base species and call the result a subrace.

   Such exotic subraces are generally secretive, mysterious, or persecuted groups in other people’s societies and lands. That’s instinctive – and an entirely sensible instinct at that. It’s natural for the population at large to resent individuals who are born with special hereditary advantages and no apparent compensating drawbacks. After all, if such individuals really do have an edge, and can pass it on to their offspring, they can be expected to out-compete everyone else and – over time – to push them into extinction.

   In other words, you can either eliminate them, subjugate and interbreed with them (thus claiming their genetic advantages for your own descendants), or accept that your descendants are going to go extinct.

   Thus there should usually be drawbacks. They don’t have to be something that would affect such a character in play all that strongly – playing up the social prejudice a bit can easily make up for a modest boost in personal abilities – but they should be enough to explain why the base species is still dominating an area.

   The most common low-character-impact drawbacks that will keep an individually-superior race (or species) from dominating an area are:

  • Low fertility. Whether this is due to many offspring being normal members of the base race rather than inheriting the subraces advantages or simply due to members of the subrace just not having very many kids. If there aren’t many of them in the first place, general attrition and sheer lack of numbers will keep them under control quite nicely.
  • Extended maturation time. This means that many more offspring will die in childhood, the population cannot expand rapidly during boom times or easily recover from lean times, and it means that – in games where characters can gain great personal power – the “lesser races” will have a far greater, and more readily replaced, supply of adventurous champions.
  • Instability. If a fair number of the members of an supposedly-superior subrace break down, go mad, destroy themselves with their own power, kill each other off, or otherwise take themselves out of the gene pool before getting to reproduce, then we have a pretty good reason for them not dominating the world.
  • Exotic requirements. If a subrace needs some exotic resource to mature or survive – access to magical nexi, a rare mineral, seaside beaches, or whatever – then they’re automatically restricted to places where that resource is available – and their numbers will be severely restricted wherever that resource is sparse. This can also be expected to throw them into frantic competition against each other, rather than against other races, providing a reason why even a high-powered race will not dominate.
  • Food requirements. If a subrace needs a LOT of food compared to other species – or is purely carnivorous and competing with species that can eat other foods – then the other races in the world will tend to outnumber them. Often by quite a lot. If a member of a superior race requires as much land to support as twenty members of a lesser race, he or she had better either be a match for thirty members of that race or not be competing with them, or they will eliminate the superior individual to make room for a bunch of their own offspring. There are balance points of course – especially if the superior individual can survive in an area where the base species cannot – but this accounts for a lot of population dynamics in the real world.
  • Competitive breeding. While this is often the classic male-competition routine, any biological system which keeps most of the adult population from even attempting to reproduce (as opposed to attempting to do so without much success due to Low Fertility) will tend to hold down the numbers of a subrace to the point where other races will – or at least can – dominate the area.
  • Newness. If the subrace or new species has just appeared, but isn’t restrained otherwise (and isn’t wiped out by something while still few in numbers), it’s going to start spreading – and may dominate in the long term – but in the short term the older species will still dominate. Don’t expect that to last for too long though.
  • Nongenetic. In magical worlds, certain qualities can be passed on to offspring – even very distant offspring – by methods other than genetics or placental transfer. If only ten people at a time can bond with the legendary Orthan Powerstone, but the bond always transfers to a newly-born descendant of one of the prior Orthanites when one of the current ten dies, then you know why the Orthanites don’t dominate; there are only a few of them and that population cannot grow.

   The Mothu illustrate those design points fairly nicely – which is a pleasant surprise, since most players who want to design their own races don’t manage to pull that off.

   So here we have the slightly-edited Mothu:

   The Mothu (+0 ECL/21 CP)

   The Mothu aren’t generally recognized as a race at all, even by each other. Individuals who display the characteristics listed below are usually considered to be merely unusually magically adept humans. While this is indeed the case in most situations, there are a few individuals that have a unique and unexplainable connection to the weave due to their Mothú heritage although even they, over the centuries, have generally lost all knowledge of this. There are only a handful of scholars and mages that recognize the pattern and speculate about it’s significance.

   The roots of the Mothu “race” lie in a symbiotic relationship between a human and a sentient life form, composed of pure energy, from another plane of existence. The creature, having been conjured into the human realm, attached itself to a youthful human in order to sustain itself.

   In return, it protected her. The two became inescapably bound to each other, and as the human married and produced children, the entity’s essence was passed on as well – although it’s finite power ensured that only a limited number of those descendants would inherit the power of the Mothu at any given time. As the generations passed by, the entity’s ability to communicate dwindled until it’s touch was experienced subconsciously, if at all. It faded into the background of human culture, but its influence, while silent, remained present and inexplicable to those who experienced it.

   Characteristics: A Mothu appears to be, by all physical aspects, human. In fact, they normally truly believe that they are human. They tend to be at the top end of the human size category, due to their heartier nature, and their lifespan is just slightly longer than that of the human race – although their connection the emotional tapestry of the world often draws them into situations that shorten their lifespan (i.e. politics, advisors, cleric at the front lines of wars). They have a great fondness for life and the pleasures that it brings. Because they are very affected by the emotions of those around them, they have a tendency to prefer to surround themselves with peaceful and happy individuals; however, many members of this race feel an inescapable pull towards soothing the pains of those that they come in contact with.

   Because of their inability to accurately share this emotional connection that they have with those close to them, many members of this race, at some point in time, feel disconnected from reality – or have a hard time finding mates. The results of this distancing effect, however, vary. Traumatic life experiences have a tendency to stir up their supernatural traits, generating high amounts of emotional energy, and creating potentially volatile situations.

   Racial Modifiers:

  • Occult Sense/Emotional Sight. Specialized/the game master may request that the character make a will save to resist sincere emotional appeals, such as calls for help (3 CP).

   The Mothu have a natural affinity to the emotional state of creatures around them. They are able to recognize the presence of heightened emotional energies through sight. This works much like the functioning of a “detect magic” spell, requiring extended concentration time for the individual to learn specific effects from his/her targets. The Process goes as follows:

    • Round 1: The presence of heightened emotional states and their general nature.
    • Round 2: The general locations of the subjects suffering from these states (within vision), and the severity of the emotional states.
    • Round 3: For each additional round spent entirely focused on a specific individual, the character can make a Spellcraft or Sense Motive check (whichever is better) to determine if the subject is under the effect of an emotion-influencing effects such as Charm or Fear (as the magical energies would be In conflict with the natural force of the subject) and what emotions he or she is currently experiencing. The DC for this check is 15+ spell level, or 15 + half caster level for a non-spell effect.
  • Fast Leaner, Specialized in Skills (+1 SP/Level, 3 CP): Due to the Mothú’s direct connection to the human race, they retain the basic human qualities – including the human ability to quickly adapt to new situations.
  • Bonus Feat (6 CP): Like normal humans, Mothú can adapt to whichever profession they are placed into, showing an immediate ability to develop skills that help in the task at hand.
  • Skill Bonuses (6 CP): +2 to Diplomacy, Sense Motive, and Gather Information. Because of their ability to sense the emotional status of those around them, the Mothú have a modest innate advantage in social situations.
  • Spell Resistance: 5 + Character Level, Specialized/Only versus Enchantment effects, such as Charm (3 CP). The energies that fuel emotion are directly connected to this race, creating a subconscious defense mechanism. As a result, any magical attempts at enchanting a member of this race could potentially be deflected before reaching them. Since this is subconscious, it affects both friendly and hostile casters.

   The Mothu should be eminently acceptable in most games. They do have 12 CP – the equivalent of two Feats – worth of extra abilities, but those are both relatively specialized talents and have a definite downside; that annoying vulnerability to emotional appeals (I wouldn’t allow them to buy that weakness off though, since it seems pretty fundamental to their nature). As far as keeping them from taking over goes, they have minor problems in early life and – far more importantly – are inherently limited in numbers, since their abilities are derived from a link with a single, finite, entity. I could throw in an Accursed disadvantage (for -3 CP) to represent a vulnerability to having that link tampered with, or the entity banished, but there’s no need to save points here and it seems unlikely to come up anyway. Ergo, I’ll just assume that the link is on such a deep level that it’s pretty much impossible to meddle with.

3 Responses

  1. You mention that “playing up the social prejudice a bit can easily make up for a modest boost in personal abilities,” which seems to be another way of saying that a role-playing penalty can balance a mechanical (that is, rules-based) advantage.

    Now, I’ve read opinions and statements by various game designers touting the opposite view – that a role-playing penalty doesn’t (adequately) offset a mechanical bonus – so often that it seems to have become part of the current zeitgeist of RPG design. Clearly, however, you (and Eclipse) disagree.

    Can you expand on your view regarding this? Does having something like “relates poorly to other people” as a penalty really make up for having, say, a +1 bonus to hit in RPGs in general, and the (combat-focused) d20 System in particular?

  2. […] Designing Subraces and the Mothu – sample human empaths. […]

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