This article was originally inspired by the Down with D&D Episode 148, “Monstrous Races Part 1,” which was examining the then current Unearthed Arcana article that presented centaurs and minotaurs as playable PC characters in D&D. These rules have since been incorporated into the Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica. In the episode, they ask the question, “why play monstrous races?”
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Like most things, I don’t think you can answer that question easily without some context.
The assumption here is that “monstrous” means something that isn’t even close to human. Something that is alien in thought and at least significantly different in form. Races that must deal with worrying about hot and cold, eating and drinking, having emotions, and all of that, are more relatable.
Monstrous also carries the connotation that the creature’s perspective may not only be alien to humans, but may be inimical to human society. Maybe they naturally despoil the natural resources of a region, or maybe humans are potential menu items for the creature. Maybe the creature doesn’t intend any malfeasance, but they just injure beings that get too close to them. “Monstrous” implies one step beyond “alien.”
So for our purposes, we’re going to look more at “non-traditional” than full-on “monstrous.” While there are ways to make a game work when you are playing dragons or aberrant creatures that shouldn’t exist, it pulls D&D further from it’s established baseline for most groups.
The Trouble with Taurs
A lot of monsters have a deep, specialized history in D&D. D&D elves aren’t Tolkien elves (no, really, they aren’t), they aren’t Melinboneans, they aren’t Poul Anderson elves, and they aren’t the elves from Celtic or Norse stories either. That said, they have a little bit of all those things, to varying degrees, with the dials turned up or down depending on the setting, while still retaining a few commonalities.
D&D is a melting pot of a lot of different folklore and pop culture, and the more important something is to the overall story of D&D, the more it starts to take on a unique D&D flavor.
However, creatures that have only ever been used “on the periphery,” as random encounters or as opponents, don’t always develop those quirks. Even halflings and gnomes, who don’t have the same level of story applied to them as dwarves or elves, still have pantheons with multiple gods, which flesh out aspects of their society.
Halflings may want to be homebodies (Yondalla), but they are fiercely protective of what they love (Arvoreen), and they still value their rogues (Brandobaris), and they don’t see death as an evil thing (Urogalan). Gnomes appreciate practical jokes (Garl Glittergold), love innovation and invention (Nebelun), and are still afraid of the darkest recesses of the places they live (Urdlen).
On the other hand, for minotaurs and centaurs, we get generally implied minotaur and centaur things that you might guess from Greek mythology. Centaurs like nature, and the only D&D deity we have for them (Skerrit) also likes nature. Minotaurs worship Baphomet, the demon lord of being a big evil monster with horns.
Centaurs and minotaurs have been in D&D going back almost to the beginning, but they haven’t really had any D&D-specific hooks, nor have they had many pop-cultural “add-ons” given to them. The most significant recent pop culture reference I can think of for centaurs and minotaurs have been in the Narnia movies, where they . . . hung out in the background and looked cool.
Setting and Context
I love minotaurs. Part of the problem is that I love minotaurs because of the Dragonlance setting. Minotaurs there are noble descendants of ogres that are less brutish than their forebears. They love the sea. They broke away from being enslaved by the dwarves, which means even as an “evil” race, they have a sympathetic history. Because they worship Sargas, even when they are evil, they are honorable.
Not only has the setting had a whole empire ruled by minotaurs in Taladas, but there have been multiple novels detailing the minotaur culture of Ansalon, written by Richard A. Knaack, and if I’m not off base, Knaack was one of the most popular authors beyond Hickman and Weis.
Second edition AD&D tells us that minotaurs come from humans that have been cursed for doing vile things that offend the gods, but they can have children, so not all minotaurs are directly cursed in this manner. But that doesn’t give us much of a culture. Any given minotaur with that backstory could be a newly cursed person, who just recently committed their crime, or a third of fourth generation creature. There isn’t really any context for how existing societies of minotaurs function, or what they do, other than that they tend to worship a demon lord of brutality.
While centaurs have appeared as a PC race in the past, I have a hard time thinking of much D&D specific context given to them. I know Wendle Centaurs in Dragonlance were smaller than other centaurs, but other than having the broad stroke origin of “they got mutated when the Greygem floated by” like a lot of other creatures, I don’t know that centaurs in Krynn have much more grounding in the setting than they do on Oerth or Toril.
Whither Comes Context?
The large tauric creature in the room may be the Midgard Campaign setting. Both Minotaurs and Centaurs have recently been detailed for D&D 5th edition use in the Midgard Heroes Handbook, and have had stats in previous game products for other games supported by Kobold Press.
Centaurs are raiders from the Rothenian Plains, who are often bandits, but sometimes fall into mercenary work. They are survivors, but maybe not any more “in love” with nature than any band of nomadic raiders. Minotaurs have their island nation, and can also be found in the Seven Cities region. They are warriors, military strategists, and sailors. This interpretation files off some of the religious aspects of Krynn minotaurs, dials down the “extreme honor” a little, but keeps the sailing and military strategy.
Because both races are a known “thing” in the setting, beyond a monster that shows up on a random encounter chart, or the boss at the end of a dungeon, it’s easier to conceive of what a PC version of that species might be doing in the campaign. Especially since both have some reason for being mercenaries.
But Think of the Playtest
If the centaur and minotaur races come out as PCs, I trust that WOTC will end up putting in some setting context for them and making them more interesting. The fact that they have done a deep dive into motivations and drives even for monsters that aren’t intended for PC use reassures me of that. The problem is getting people excited for these races for a playtest of mechanics before they have a reason to latch on to them because of the roleplaying hooks involved.
I’m sure there are a few people that will have some mechanical tricks they want to try out just based on stats and traits, but I think the buy in would be stronger with more lore invested in the races–which is a double-edged sword, because why spend time adding more roleplaying hooks when people may not care about them?
The Lure of Monsters–Broadly
We touched on why people might have a hard time playing monsters, but if that’s the end of the story, why does nearly every version of D&D end up with playable “monster” races, to some degree or another?
Some people just like doing something different. Even if the mechanics are different, there are gamers that have played humans, elves, half-orcs, half-elves, elves, gnomes, and halflings so many times that they just want something different.
I think there is some draw to this beyond novelty, however.
I know I have been increasingly drawn to a least a little more complexity in my D&D setting. I’m not going to rehash it, but if you get the time, definitely watch Lindsey Ellis’ video discussing the movie Bright, especially when she gets into Tolkien and allegory.
Sure, undead, fiends, and constructs are all things that can be 100% bad, because they are either unthinking machines of death, or literally supernaturally evil things. But it becomes increasingly hard to think of anything outside of that type of creature as being “born evil” without introducing some uncomfortable ramifications, especially considering some of the ugliest aspects of modern society.
We really should be examining our assumptions, even in a game that is “just” for fun.
Are those orc tribes that much worse than the human barbarians that have been preying on anyone near their territory? If they aren’t worse, isn’t it possible that they are more easily dealt with, and maybe the only reason nobody has is that they just assume that orcs are “savages” that are beyond reason? The orcs may have blood on their hands, but maybe they are trapped in a cycle of violence because the humans, elves, and dwarves around them would never think to trade with them, buy their goods, or treat them as a sovereign people? Isn’t that a more interesting angle to take with an orc that might show up in an adventure?
I think some people resist this idea, because they assume that the entire paradigm of the game would shift. I would posit that if a gang of human berserkers attacks the PCs, everybody rolls initiative, and nobody worries about defending themselves–if the purpose of a monster is to attack the party, they still do that. But isn’t it more interesting if that wasn’t the only purpose orcs, goblins, and other humanoids have?
I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed that the Kingdom of Many Arrows got destroyed in the Drizzt novels, since that was one of the developments in the 4th edition Realms I kind of liked.
If we can get away from assumptions of automatically being good and evil, doesn’t that let us start stepping away from uncomfortable parallels to attitudes in the real world?
A Long History of Being Weird
I don’t know how typical I am. In the very first long-term D&D campaign I ran, I introduced a dark elf fighter/mage who was more of a chaotic neutral “Loki” type character that the PCs had to decide if they could trust. He ended up helping them stop a plague that would have wiped out most of the population of the world so that only the elite that set off the contagion would rule over his select few (I would like to get my credit for using a no-evil drow before The Crystal Shard came out, before anyone points out that I totally stole a Ra’s al Ghul villain plot for the campaign).
The party also adopted a lizardfolk warrior into the group after an adventure, and when he sold his soul to save the group, they raided the Nine Hells to get him back.
So, since about 1986, I’ve been using “monsters” and “bad guys” as potential party members and allies.
While I’ll admit Savage Species went to the extremes with playable races, when I introduced my step-children to Dungeons and Dragons, they played a half-ogre monk and a Lythari (elf werewolf) sorcerer.
I think one of the reasons that Eberron had some of the following that it did was that you couldn’t assume that any humanoid was “born evil,” and the setting introduced some interesting new races with things like Changelings, Warforged, and Shifters. On the other hand, I’ve always been hesitant to introduce those specific races to other settings because they feel like they are part of what makes that setting unique.
A Long Way to Go To Circle Around
I think it’s a lot harder to introduce elements to a setting that is established that haven’t already had a niche created for them. The Realms already had some notable goblins and orcs show up over the years, so playable members of those races weren’t particularly strange. WOTC did a lot of work to introduce Dragonborn, and their nation was one of the 4th edition elements that wasn’t reversed.
On the other hand, I can’t recall Timoth Eyesbright ever mentioning anything of note about centaur culture, even though he was a fixture of the AD&D DC Comic.
Time will tell if connections can be made to D&D lore, but until those connections are made, I think it’s harder to get excited about the concept of a “background character” getting a chance to take center stage.