Build a species

The purpose of Build a species and its companion Build a culture is to kick-start the creative process when it comes to building interesting and original fantasy people.

Check out this cool ferret dude from Hyper Light Drifter. Don’t you want to play them in a tabletop RPG?

Since Tolkein, we’ve been inundated elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs, goblins, and their analogues. They’re boring, overplayed, and sometimes pretty harmful. Some fantasy worlds have managed to pull themselves out of this rut - I’m thinking China Miéville in Perdido Street Station, or the colourful sixteen-bit inhabitants of Hyper Light Drifter, or even the Star-Wars-esque panoply of characters inside of the comic Saga (which has inspired me in other venues).

This is inspired by an impending Dungeon World campaign that I’ll be running. Dungeon World is my go-to when it comes to a good old-fashioned Basic Roleplaying Game, but its focus on emulating old-school D&D means it imports these traditional fantasy races whole cloth. So this system will give my players a way of contributing to the world, while building their own unique species and cultures to play. It’s not designed to create the truly alien beings we might see in Science Fiction - you can still expect your creation to be anthropocentric and probably humanoid, but hopefully detached from our normal fantasy sterotypes.

The Build a species chart set won’t give you an effort-free path to an imaginative, deep, well-though-out fantasy species for your next game, but it will at least get you started down that path. In the same way that Society of Dreamers’ character generation pulls you out of your standard character ruts, the constraints of this system will hopefully kick you into trying something novel.

The Build a culture chart set is designed to complement the Build a species chart set, while also recognising that one species may represent dozens or hundreds of different peoples, nations, ethnicities, and cultures. Fantasy non-human species are traditionally monocultures, although we’re getting better. By splitting these chart sets out, I’m allowing you to build as many cultures for your species as you like.

A note on testing: I’ve built this system for use in my upcoming campaign, and as such I haven’t tested it at all, outside of rolling up some species and cultures and seeing if they’re any good. If you use this - and especially if you have any feedback - I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a line!

Species

A species represents a physically distinct set of beings. Species differ from one another physically due to their genetic makeup, and will generally1 not be able to interbreed.

This generation process will not hand you a species fully-formed. Instead, it’ll give you some prompts and restrictions to get you out of your normal ruts.

Form

First, roll or pick your species’ form:

2d6 Description
2, 3 Symbiote, colony, or hive-mind
4, 5 Hybrid or chimera
6 Based on an animal form
7 Human with one or two additional features
8 Based on some kind of non-animal organism
9, 10 A sentient collection of inorganic matter
11, 12 Made of intangible or metaphorical stuff

This assumes we’re living in a vaguely anthropocentric universe (that is, we expect to see kinda human species more often than not).

Size

How large is your species? Again, roll or pick.

2d6 Size (and example)
2, 3 Tiny (a fieldmouse, a stone)
4, 5 Small (a fox, a shrub)
6-8 Human-sized (a person, a sapling)
9, 10 Large (a horse, a boulder)
11, 12 Huge (an elephant, an old tree)

This continues to use humanity as its frame of reference, and assumes that your species cannot change its shape drastically.

Theme

Now we must determine the physical appearance of your species. Rather than supply a chart for each form above and dictate exactly what your appearance is, you’ll instead have to interpret your species’ apperance given its form and size (as determined above) through one or two themes, supplied below. Roll 2d6 as before, but rather than adding them, use them to pick from the grid below:

d6 + d6 1 2 3 4 5 6
1 Freedom Flight Fire Predator Swiftness Law
2 Solidity Swimming Air Prey Might Life
3 Study Digging Light Community Hardiness Magic
4 Aggression Sneaking Dark Heirarchy Perception Technology
5 Trickery Climbing Water Individuality Wisdom Chaos
6 Honesty Growing Earth Subserviance Empathy Death

You can interpret these as literally or as metaphorically as you like: the main thing here is to provide you with images, themese, or prompts which then spur you to create your own species. No one is going to ask how - well, they may, but you don’t have justify how Freedom + Wisdom led you to a swarm of mechanical spiders.

Synthesis

Right, now comes the hard part - pulling these three prompts together into a coherent whole. Taking what you have, work at it until you have something worthy of introducing into the world. At this stage, you want to focus on physical, biological, and genetic issues; stray away from cultural or behaviour, as we’ll discuss that in the Culture step.

You may will want to give your species a name at this point. Different cultures may have different names for the species, but the name you decide on will be the de facto name of the species, and will help everyone else out when referring to it further on in the process.

EXAMPLE 1: For my randomly generated species, I roll a 5 (hybrid or chimera) for type, a 6 (human-sized) for size, and 5/5 (wisdom) and 1/5 (swiftness) for my themes. Wisdom and swiftness are somewhat opposed, which to me suggests some Chimeric being. At a very basic symbolic level, owls are symbols of wisdom, while snakes are symbolic of swiftness. I feel a human-sized snake with an owl’s head seems pretty alien and weird. To make them more “playable” (and because we’re already building a weird chimera), let’s give them human arms as well, so they can manipulate things.

EXAMPLE 2: For my second species, I roll an 8 (non-animal organism) for type, a 9 (large) for size, and ¾ (community) and 2/3 (air) for themes. “Community” is tricky, since we don’t want to get into the creatures’ social habits. I feel these picks get me some kind of large, lighter-than-air jellyfish type, with many manipulator tendrils - a vague flying spaghetti monster theme, perhaps.

Mechanics

Now we’ve got a good idea of what our species looks like, it’s time to translate this into mechanical terms. You can skip this step (or adapt it as you see fit) if you’re not planning on using this with Dungeon World.

Appearance

Playbooks in Powered by the Apocalypse games normally give you a set of appearance prompts. Dungeon World normally bases these on your class, but I’m going to hijack them for our species. Appearance is a great way to build a unified image of your species, while also giving people an idea of the variation it allows.

Most playbooks have four appearance categories, focusing on those parts of your body that give away your character. For humans and demi-humans these are often things like your body, eyes, hair, hands, etc. These are great things to use if your species is somewhat human-like in appearance. If, like the examples above, you’re not really human at all, you can still use these for inspiration, picking the nearest analogues.

To determine the appearance categories and options for your species:

  1. Pick four useful categories. These categories should reflect two things: how your species is different from other species, and how members of the species differ from one another. They should be things that are relatively obvious to the casual observer, and give your characters some personality when they walk onto the screen.
  2. Pick four options for each category. These could include variations in colour, condition, form, and size. For vestigial or cosmetic features, is “missing” an option? Again, the goal here is to provide that range of personalities and variation within the species, so try to provide a broad range.

EXAMPLE 1: my owl-snakes are pretty non-human, but they at least have some vaguely human features. For the four appearance categories, I pick “body”, “eyes”, “hands”, and “plumage”. By keeping to mainly human (or human-adjacent) categories, I’m hoping to convey a decent amount of personality (although a snake body and owl eyes make sure these people are going to seem somewhat alien even within these categories). I pick the following options for my appearance categories:

  • Body: muscular body, long body, kinked and scarred body, iridescent body
  • Eyes: watchful eyes, calm eyes, hard eyes, unblinking eyes
  • Hands: nervous hands, scarred hands, delicate hands, feathered hands
  • Plumage: well-kept plumage, stark white plumage, untidy plumage, dull plumage

EXAMPLE 2: my air-jellyfish are much more alien, and have very few human analogues. I’m going to pick the categories: “body”, “tendrils”, “eyes”, “aura”.

  • Body: well-armoured body, small body, brilliantly-coloured body, boyuant body
  • Tendrils: curious tendrils, decisive tendrils, nervous tendrils, intimidating tendrils
  • Eyes: observant eyes, darting eyes, alien eyes, warm eyes
  • Aura: barely perceptible aura, shimmering aura, reassuring aura, sonic aura

These appearance options will give you more of a feeling about these species - for example, I added this “aura” to the above air-jellyfish because I felt I needed some further way of characterising them.

Moves

Dungeon World’s supplement Number Appearing gives moves for each race. We’re going to split those moves between species and culture. At this point, think up two or three moves for your species. As with previously, these moves should relate to the biology, genetics, or capabilities of your species, rather than assuming things about their culture. To get an idea of the level of power these moves should have, check out the race moves from the base Dungeon World character sheets.

EXAMPLE 1: my owl-snakes are a hybrid of owl and snake, so I figure they’re probably good at watching, moving quietly, and striking swiftly. I provide the following moves:

Hunter’s vision: When you Discern Realities, the GM will always tell you who is most vulnerable to you right now.

Silent strike: Take +1 forward when you attack from ambush.

EXAMPLE 2: my air-jellyfish seem a bit magical - the addition of the aura in the appearance step might be cool to play with. Here are three moves for them:

Blinding aura: once per day, you can cause your aura to flare in multiple bright colours, briefly blinding all who look at it.

Lighter than air: you’re at home in the air, even more so than most of your species. When you defy danger by flitting out of the way, take +1 forward.

Fine manipulation: your tendrils count as fine tools when you perform any job requiring manual dexterity.

Culture

Inside of each species are many diverse cultures, each of which interacts with the other cultures around it. Cultures are not necessarily limited to a specific species: in fact, you may find it interesting to explore how culture overlaps species boundaries.

A culture is more than just a nation. Cultures may cross many nations, be isolated to a small sub-section of a given nation, or even spread across the land without regard for national boundaries.

Central bond

Why does this culture exist? What unites these people? As before, either roll or pick from the following table:

2d6 Bond
2-4 The people of this culture underwent (or are descended from those who underwent) a shared event.
5-7 The people of this culture trace their bloodline back to a great hero, house, or tribe.
8-9 The people of this culture share a common religion, belief, or philosophy which unites them.
10-12 The people of this culture all share (or are linked to) the same occupation.

Spread

Is this culture a major player in your species, a sizable minority, or a niche interest? Is this culture limited to one species? If not, is it still dominated by one species, or is it spread out about evenly among other species?

If a given continent is people entirely by insect-folks, the cultures that make up that continent are going to be entirely (or at least predominantly) insect-folks; a centuries-old world-spanning religion, however, has a good chance of spanning multiple species.

2d6 Dominance Spread
2-6 Minor Exclusively this species
7, 8 Minor Dominated by this species
9, 10 Major Pan-species
11, 12 Niche Dominated by another species

If your culture is dominated by another species: which species is dominant? Is it someone else’s species at the table, or another species which hasn’t come up in play yet? How do they treat the minorities in their culture?

Strengths

Your culture can measure its strength on three axes: culture, military, and wealth. We assign each of these a score between -1 and +2, indicating the culture’s relative prominance in each of these areas.

If you want to randomly assign values to these strengths, roll for each on the table below:

2d6 Score
2-5 -1
6-7 0
8-9 +1
10-12 +2

Alternatively, assign either (+2, 0, -1) or (+1, +1, 0) to these stats as you see fit. Note that previous choices may inform how powerful this culture is, and what a +2 means.

When people know of your culture, they know of these strengths. In each of the above axes, pick a number of things you’re known for: for +2 pick three, for +1 pick two, for 0 or -1 pick one.

On the strength of your culture, you may be known for:

On the strength of your military, you may be known for:

On the strength of your wealth, you may be known for:

Attributes

At this point, you should hopefully have a good idea of the culture’s position, and what other people know about it. Now we’re going to delve into the culture as viewed from the inside. If you feel that you don’t quite have a handle on this culture, now is the time to have a think about their identity and the niche they fill. Once you’ve got a half-decent outline, it’s time to flesh the culture our with attributes.

Your strengths tell you what others think of you. Your attributes will tell you who your culture really is. Create a number of statements about what it is your people do that defines their culture. Ideally, these should show us something about what your culture believes or values, by implication. Write them as if told to you by your culture: “We do x”, “We never do y”, etc. Write enough that you get a good impression of your culture not just as a two-dimensional image, but as a society. Five is a good number.

Some example attributes include:

For bonus points: refer to another culture in your attributes. This is particularly powerful if you’re building off of an existing species (see below), in which you can define your relationship to other cultures within the species.

EXAMPLE 1: Let’s build a culture for my owl-snake species. Rolling on the above tables, I find that my culture traces its bloodline from a great hero, house, or tribe, that it’s a minor culture, and that it is exclusive to this species. This doesn’t give me enough to go on, so I randomly determine my culture’s strengths, getting culture, military, and wealth scores of -1, -1, and +1 respectively.

So I have a minor culture, limited just to this species, which is relatively weak in both culture and military but has some wealth. I’m going to make this an ailing military company, once great, but now going to fat. The company itself is somewhat elitist and exclusive, only accepting members who are related to the company by blood, but the connections it forged from previous missions keep it alive. These days it deals more in diplomacy than warfare.

On this basis, the culture’s strengths are:

  • Culture: We are known for our well-kept library of histories and accounts.
  • Military: We are known for our skill in strategy and tactics.
  • Wealth: We are known for our far-reaching trade networks, and our skill at bargaining

This is a pretty good image of our people, so I can pick some attributes. My five are:

  • We require that every adult be a proficient rider and fighter
  • We venerate history and tradition
  • We treat our enemies with mercy and honour, and expect the same
  • We will always trust one of our own over an outsider
  • We respect skill at numbers and letters

EXAMPLE 2: Now, let’s build a culture for our air-jellyfish. Rolling on the above tables, I find that my culture stems from those who underwent a shared event, that it’s a major culture, and that it’s dominated by this species. This is an interesting starting point, but I’m going to roll for strengths just to give it some more direction. Doing so, I get the scores of culture-0, military+1, and wealth+1.

There’s something about floating jellyfish creatures that screams “magic” to me, so I’m going to say that this culture is an arcane religion that is dominated by air-jellyfish, but which lets outsiders in. Given it’s a major culture, it probably dominates whatever religions the air-jellyfish have, but there’s still plenty of room for competition. The religion started when a group of air-jellyfish experienced divine revelation as a group, and started spreading the word. That was many centuries ago, and the religion has ossified and become somewhat more dogmatic, becoming its own diplomatic entity with a bureaucracy and standing army. I’m thinking shades of the Catholic church.

On this basis, the culture’s strengths are:

  • Culture: We are known for our elaborate rites
  • Military: We are known for our highly-trained mercenaries, and our many war-enchantments
  • Wealth: We are known for our wealthy cities and our great religious artefacts

This is a good starting point, but perhaps a bit two-dimensional. Can we make it more detailed with attributes? Trying to branch off from the Catholicism angle, I’m picking the following:

  • We welcome newcomers into our church and religion
  • We value personal discipline, especially in the magic arts
  • We hold the core tenets of our religion tightly, and everything else about it loosely
  • We venerate heroes by building monuments and statues
  • We treat foreigners as people, but foreign powers as assets to be drained

Moves

Finally, make a few moves for your culture. By this stage, your culture is probably pretty fleshed out, and this step will simply be taking skills and experiences of your culture and making them mechanical.

Note that while species moves focussed on physical abilities or genetic traits, culture moves should focus on the social or habitual. You could refer to your strengths in these moves, or bounce off your culture’s attributes.

EXAMPLE 1: To finish off my warrior company owl-snake culture, I must create two or three moves which reflect its strengths and attributes. Again, this is a chance to focus on experiences and culture:

Born in the saddle: When mounted, you gain +1-ongoing to hack and slash or volley.

Well-read: When someone mentions an event, person, or thing of military significance, you may ask the GM “what have I read of this?”, and the GM will tell you one interesting thing.

EXAMPLE 2: What about this established religion for our air-jellyfish? Again, using the traditions and experiences of the culture:

Always a home for a disciple: When you enter a new town or city, roll +2 if it’s an air-jellyfish town or city, +0 if not. On a hit, there is a shrine or temple of your religion here; on a 10+, it’s large and allows you access to its stores.

Magical discipline: Choose one spell from a spell list that you would not normally have access to. If you are able to cast spells, you are able to cast this spell as if it were a spell of your class.

Building on existing species

If you want to build on an existing species, half your work is done for you! You can go straight from the completed species block and build your culture from there. Note that the species’ other cultures may inform or restrict your own choices: if your group has already defined two major cultures for a given species, yours may need to be minor or niche.

When building on an existing species, using existing cultures as context. How does your culture fit in alongside them? Do they get along, or not? Do they interact regularly, or are they isolated by geographical or cultural boundaries? What similarities do they have, and how do they differ? Does your culture define itself in relation to them? These can all be useful inputs for your attributes and strengths.

Using species and culture in play

These tools offer a great starting-off point for some pretty serious worldbuilding, but the reason they exist is to give the players a background for their characters. To this end, they would be somewhat useless if they couldn’t then be used in character creation.

To use these species and cultures in play:

  1. Pick one of the given species for your character. Define your character’s appearance based on the provided options.
  2. Pick a culture for your character. You may pick any culture associated with this species, or any other pan-species culture at the table. You may want to consider how your character embodies the culture’s strengths to outsiders, or which of the culture’s attributes they agree with or practice.
  3. Pick a class for your character. This may be informed by your species’ strengths and attributes.
  4. Pick one or two moves. You may pick moves from your species and your culture. You may want to pick one from each. What do your choices say about your relationship with your species and culture?

Obviously there’s a heap more that you can hinge off here: how do you interact with other members of your species and culture? Do you belong to any other cultures in the world (even if you don’t count them as your “main” culture)?

If you want to give your players hand-outs, well, I’ve specced up something for you:

Extending the species/culture kit

Want some extra credit? Consider one of the following:

References and further reading

I scavenged a lot of ideas from other games, blog posts, and the like. Some of these I’ve just grabbed mechanics from straight, some are a more indirect influence:

And, of course, every book, movie, TV series, and game that had properly good aliens, including (but not limited to):


  1. Although there are always exceptions