Something I first noticed a long time ago is the tendency for characters in fantasy campaigns to devolve into stereotypes. In almost every fantasy game I’ve participated in as either a player or game master it seems that every player character is always of a different race (they also have different roles such as fighter, spell-caster, etc… but that’s due more to necessity than anything else). What are the odds that every group of 5 adventurers will have a human, elf, dwarf, half-orc, and hobbit (or hobbit analog)? Not great. It could happen once or twice but more than that and it starts feeling contrived. This isn’t a problem — role-playing games are all about suspending disbelief — but what it is, is lazy.
What I mean by that is: it leads to lazy role-playing. Everybody knows that dwarves are gruff, elves are flighty (or aloof), half-orcs have anger issues, and hobbits are cheerful — and that’s all they are, or rather, that’s all most players allow them to be. Instead of dwarf-ness being one of many descriptors of a character, the dwarf character becomes the dwarf. The dwarf never has anything to distinguish it them from any other dwarf in the world — but they don’t have to. All they have to do is to distinguish themselves from the other player characters, which they did by declaring a different race. Character development done. Pow!
I’d think this was just an aspect of gaming as a whole, except that its something I very seldom see in games with a modern setting. When humans are the only player-character race available, players go to greater lengths to define their characters. (A notable exception are games where everyone plays a different variation of the same monster; there’s not enough vomit in the world for me to be able to express my feelings for Malkavian clowns. A madness-themed clan from Vampire: the Masquerade. Virtually everyone’s first Malkavian character concept was either “murderous clown” or “psychotic mime”.)
Now, I am not, and will probably never advocate eliminating fantasy races. Part of the fun of gaming is pretending to be not only someone else but something else. That said, you should try paring down the number of available choices to 2 or 3 — at most the number of players – 2. When you guarantee that at least 2 of your players will have the same race, you’d be surprised how much work they go to to differentiate themselves. Give it a shot.
No, this is not just a trick to force players who don’t like to role-play to role-play or to force them into writing elaborate backstories, although don’t be surprised if either is the (partial) result. With two dwarves in the party, you go from being the dwarf to being an adventurous dwarf from the mountains or a cautious dwarf from the hills or the impetuous steppe dwarf. Already you’ve expanded from a single characteristic (dwarf) to three! Moreover since dwarves are clannish (a “racial” trait that only comes into play around other dwarves) the two dwarf characters are likely to either love or hate each other, which adds yet another layer for storytelling. If their clans are allied (or they’re from the same clan) do they always vote the same when making party decisions? If not, do they always disagree just for the sake of disagreeing? Either way, it’s a different kind of inter-player interaction that you don’t see when everyone is the only racial ambassador for 20 miles.
I hate to go Disney but… I’m gonna go Disney here. Consider the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs movie. There were only two races: humans and dwarves and every one of those seven dwarfs had a distinct (if unsubtly defined) personality — and so did the humans. Snow was innocent. The Queen was envious. The huntsman, compassionate (or weak-willed depending on how you choose to look at it). Admittedly, Prince Charming was pretty bland but then again, he didn’t have any lines either (that I remember). If nothing else, Disney knows how to make interesting characters.
Limiting player options can be a hard sell, especially if one or more of your players have their hearts set on playing a “forbidden” race. I’ve found it’s best to get it out of the way before you even mention making characters. Say something like “Hey guys, I’m thinking of a campaign world where’s there’s 3 major empires and the only races are hobbits and elves. The hobbits used to be kept as pets by the elves but enough of them escaped that they started their own empire, Hobbitsylvania. The other 2 empires are run by elves and… etc.” Only after you’ve outlined the world and gotten folks interested, when they’re starting to buy into the idea — only then do you mention building characters. Your players will get on-board.