Nov 16

November RPG Blog Carnival: Species in RPGs



My previous contribution to the RPGBA Blog Carnival was a post about RPG Bloggers for the September Carnival hosted by Mark Meredith at Dice Monkey.


I failed to contribute to the October Carnival as I was otherwise occupied with the recent Warlock’s Journal contest.



This month, the Carnival is hosted by Johnn Four at Roleplaying Tips. Johnn describes the theme for the latest Carnival as follows:


The topic of races has been on my mind a lot lately as I work on my new fantasy world. Gaming different types of characters is one of the joys of RPGs. Yet in recent years, with the campaigns I’ve GM’d, I’ve felt races have slowly become just buckets of modifiers. One race gives you more strength, another a climbing bonus. The flavour is missing.

It’s like being in the Star Trek universe where everyone is human with different makeup and some culture quirks. After awhile, this gets boring. And gaming gets uninspired.

I think the onus is on GMs to lead by example. There are a lot of things we can do to make races important to campaigns, encounters, and roleplaying.



A New Species

For this Blog Carnival I will share with you the origin story of a new species in my campaign. A recent trend within my Tales of the Hero Wars campaign is to collaborate with the Players to create setting details.


As my previous article shows, this is normally focused on locations.


However, the principle can also apply to other areas of the game. During the course of the previous cycle of tales, one Hero’s journey turned into the creation of a new mortal species for my setting.


Nautilus the Hero

The character of Nautilus began as a spined merrow, a subspecies of the merfolk in my setting. Over the course of many sessions, however, Nautilus started to change. He began to become something new. To appreciate how such a transformation occurred at the table, it is first necessary to understand a few of the features of HeroQuest.


The way I run HeroQuest 2 is to have keywords for each species in the game. A keyword is a set of linked abilities. A species keyword describes the primary physical features and natural abilities of the species.


Alongside the linked abilities in a keyword, a Hero also has standalone abilities. These abilities can be literally anything. This creative freedom is one of the features of HeroQuest that make the game so flexible. Thus, it is possible for a Hero to have additional physical abilities that might otherwise be found in a species keyword.


Evolution of a Hero

A portrait of Nautilus by Phil Reeves

A portrait of Nautilus by Phil Reeves

During the course of the game, Nautilus gradually acquired new, strange abilities. The merrow are created as fish-based bipeds. Nautilus, however, was slowly gaining abilities that did no match a piscine origin. He was moving further away from the theme behind his species keyword.


I consulted with the Player about the situation, and he explained how much he liked the current version of Nautilus. I could have simply vetoed the changes, as they were not matching the original vision of the Hero as a merrow. This would have been a very confrontational approach, and not in keeping with the more collaborative nature of our game.


Another option would have been to simply declare Nautilus an anomaly, a unique creature. There is some merit in this approach, as it gives the Hero an interesting story. The character is therefore special because of this uniqueness. Yet, this approach adds little to the world as there could not be another Nautilus.


Worldbuilding Principles

Instead, I returned to my thematic outline of the setting, and searched for a way to include the new version of Nautilus in the game. This process began by returning to first principles, and considering the overall campaign design.


My campaign is a hybrid of Glorantha and the Planescape settings. I combined the runes from Glorantha with the planes from the Great Wheel, to produce a Cosmos where each plane has a pair of associated runes. Each plane is also associated with a creature type, as a way to differentiate the planes and to spark my design of planar creatures.


As you would guess, the Plane of Water is based around the Water rune. This plane is full of creatures derived from fish, although many of them are still bipedal. However, this no longer suited Nautilus as a plane of origin.


I then looked to the other iconic creatures for my setting, and one of them was a perfect fit. Nautilus was clearly evolved from an cephalopod. Nautilus was thus tied to the Ice Rune, as this had been assigned the cephalopod as its thematic creature. The fact that the real world nautilus is part of this class of creatures made it an ideal match. Naturally, this new species was termed nautilus, in honour of their progenitor.


This did not mean Nautilus developed icy powers, but the coldness and cruelty of the plane was a reasonable fit with the way the Hero had developed. Likewise, the tentacles and jet of ink abilities already given to him matched many of the creatures within this classification.



I decided to combine the new, cephalopod abilities into a new species keyword. The previous spined merrow keyword abilities were retained as standalone abilities.


Overall, there was no change in what Nautilus could do. He had all the same abilities, only they had been rearranged on his character sheet. The new nautilus keyword featured the following abilities:

  • Jet of Ink
  • Sucker Feet
  • Piercing Beak
  • Armoured Shell



A nautilus is bipedal, with a heavy armoured shell over the torso and upper limbs. Lower limbs are often tentacles, with anything between one to four tentacles per limb. A nautilus typically has an equal number of tentacles on each pair of arms and legs. However the number of arm tentacles does not have to match the number of leg tentacles. An armoured head tops the body, with a beak which may retract.


To see more of Phli’s art, visit his page here.

Character Arc

Sadly, our Eastern Isles campaign imploded before we could explore too much about the real Nautilus, once his non-merrow heritage had been revealed.


However, it was a fascinating journey to reach this point, where a new species for the campaign emerged through play at the table.


We may yet return to Nautilus as part of an Interlude sequence, to learn more of his story.




I suspect part of the transformation of Nautilus emerged from the disconnect between how I imagined a spined merrow and the Player’s picture of one. This could explain some of the physical differences that appeared early in the game. Yet, so much of Nautilus seemed to grow out of events at the table. This was a brilliant experience during play, and a great addition to the setting.


Have you ever had something similar emerge during play? Share your stories in the comments below.


Find all the entries to the November Carnival at the Roleplaying Tips site.


Another Hero from my campaign was the source of this article about Invasive Species.


Happy Gaming


Follow this link to learn more about the RPG Blog Alliance.


Something for the Weekend next week: Trollbabe and Actions in RPGs

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