IFAQ: Exotic Races

I’d be curious how you’d use the Tabaxi and the Rakasta in Eberron to make them distinct. Also, how would you use the Shadow Elves?

This basic question—how would you add (exotic species) to Eberron—is the single most frequent question I’m asked. But for me, there’s a second question that is more important, and that’s why do you want to add this species to Eberron? While this may sound snarky, I mean it quite seriously. Let’s look at the most common answers to that question.

I want to play a character with these racial features.

As often as not, this is what the question comes down to. Why play a tabaxi instead of a shifter? Because the tabaxi has that Feline Agility feature, which is perfect for this archer I want to play. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But the point is that you don’t need to add an entirely new CULTURE into the setting—having to find territory and consider its role in both history and the current political balance—in order for someone to play a ranger with Feline Agility. Here’s a few ways to handle it.

Reskin the character as another species. The player wants the features of a tabaxi, but they don’t mind being part of shifter culture. So call the character a shifter. For purposes of the story, they’re an unusual Swiftstride shifter, and they can even describe their character as shifting when they use their Feline Agility (even though this doesn’t convey any of the other advantages or disadvantages of shifting). The player gets the abilities they want, but they are part of a species that already has an established story in the world.

Make the character unique. If the player doesn’t care about the culture of their character, then their character could be unique. They could have been mutated by the Mourning, the result of an experiment by House Vadalis, or a creation of Mordain the Fleshweaver or one of the daelkyr. Their abilities could be the result of exposure to the energies of a manifest zone, or the curse of an archfey. With all of these examples, the player gets the abilities they want, but you don’t have to add a new culture to the setting. And you can also explore the character’s relationship with their creator. WHY did Mordain the Fleshweaver crate a tabaxi? Was the character once his feline familiar? Did the character escape from Mordain, or were they released into the wild for some unknown reason?

Small Batch. The thing about making a character unique is that they don’t have an opportunity to interact with other members of their species. If that’s important to a player, but they don’t actually want that culture to play a major role in the campaign, you can take the small batch approach. An entire village was caught in the Mourning and ALL of its inhabitants were turned into tabaxi. House Vadalis produced a unit of Goliath supersoldiers during the war: the player escaped, but most are still held in a secret Vadalis facility. There’s only a dozen Kenku: they were servants of the archfey known as the Forgotten Prince, and he stole their voices and exiled them to Eberron as punishment for a crime. What’s fun about a small batch species is that it automatically gives you a story hook to work into the game. If there’s only twelve kenku, then your kenku character knows them all. Are you working together to regain your voices, or are you rivals? Are you seeking revenge against the kenku who betrayed you and your allies to the Prince—or are you the traitor responsible for their exile? If you’re a goliath supersoldier, what do you do when another goliath asks you to help free your brothers from a Vadalis facility?

Being part of a small batch means that you don’t have a nation or a culture to fall back on. But it gives your character a certain significance. If tortles have a principality in Lhazaar, you’re just one of many tortles. But if you and your three brothers are actual turtles transformed into turtles by the Mourning, then you are the only four tortles in the world, which makes you all quite remarkable!

I’ve played this character in another setting and I want to play it in Eberron.

This is another common concept: the reason someone wants to play a tabaxi is because they ALWAYS play tabaxi and they just want to play that character again. Usually in this situation the player has a very concrete idea of what tabaxi are like, and they don’t actually WANT you to change their culture to better fit the setting: they want to play this character the same way they’ve always played it. They don’t want to play a Qaltiar drow, they want to play a drow ranger from the Forgotten Realms, because that’s the character they’ve always played.

Personally, when I encounter this, my answer is usually to say OK, your character has come to Eberron from another world. The far traveler background works well for this, as it essentially plays to the idea that no one has ever seen anything like you. This doesn’t mean that you have to make travel between settings commonplace within your world; this character could be a bizarre fluke, brought to Eberron by the Mourning, the Draconic Prophecy, a planar convergence that won’t happen again for thousands of years, or what have you. The point is that the player gets what they want—to play this character exactly the way they want to—and as DM, you don’t have to bend the setting into strange shapes trying to fit this character into.

As a side note, a few months ago I was invited to join a Rise of Tiamat campaign that was set in Faerun and already quite far along. *I* wanted to play a warforged Forge cleric. And this is the path I took: I was a priest of the Becoming God who had been sent from Eberron to seek out pieces of the Becoming God across the multiverse. I used the far traveler background, and I talked a lot about Eberron things that made no sense to anyone in the setting, and everyone had fun with it—and it was much simpler than the DM coming up with an explanation for warforged in the setting and me picking an FR god instead of getting to build the Becoming God. I got to have the story I wanted, and I didn’t need to fundamentally change the setting to get it.

I want this species to have a meaningful place in the world.

Sometimes it’s not just about a specific player wanting to play a single character of the race. Sometimes it’s the DM who loves a species and WANTS it to be a meaningful part of the setting. Or perhaps the player wants their character to have a homeland, to be an envoy or exile from their people. So what are some ways to handle this without having to rewrite the entire setting?

Replace something you aren’t using. Have you ever used the Znir Gnolls of Droaam? Do you plan to? If not, you could say that the rakasta are the founders of the Znir Pact. Or if you don’t like goblins, you could say that the Empire of Dhakaan was a GITH empire, and that the Heirs of Dhakaan are Gith clans. This allows you to make use of existing lore and relationships, just changing the focus of it. The world doesn’t become a cluttered kitchen sink, because you’ve taken something out before adding something in.

They’ve always been there… You’ve just never noticed. This is the approach we took when adding the dragonborn in Fourth Edition. The setting had already established the presence of reptilian humanoids in Q’barra and the tension between them and the colonists. We just said we only mentioned the lizardfolk, but there’s dragonborn in Q’barra as well; the humans just didn’t understand the difference between them. We added further history—the dragonborn had an empire that once covered the Talenta Plains and fought the Dhakaani, but had to retreat to their strongholds in Q’barra to fight the Poison Dusk. This allows players to play dragonborn (and I did, in a 4E Eberron campaign) and to have a homeland to return to and a place in the world—but we didn’t have to redraw the maps or change recent history. The Dragonborn have always been here, but they are an isolated culture with little contact with the Five Nations.

There’s lots of isolated places on the map that work for this. It’s entirely possible that there are tribes of tabaxi living alongside shifters in the depths of the Towering Woods, just as lizardfolk and dragonborn coexist in Q’barra; it’s up to the DM to decide if they have a unique culture that humanity simply hasn’t encountered, or if they are integrated into the Druidic sects. The Lhazaar Principalities can work for this as well. If no one’s ever met Cloudreavers in your campaign, you can declare the Cloudreavers are goliaths, and they’ve always been goliaths.They’re rare enough that people don’t know them in the Five Nations, and they didn’t have a huge impact on the Last War; but they have an island, they have ships, and they’re known across the Principalities. And obviously Xen’drik is a vast blank slate that was intentionally designed for this purpose; you could easily add a loxodon nation in Eberron that no one’s encountered. Speaking of loxodons, I’ve seen people place them in the Tashana Tundra or the Frostfell as mammoth-folk, which I think is a great way to use them and adds flavor to regions that are currently largely unknown.

We’re new in town. This is the approach we took in adding the eladrin in fourth edition. We established that the eladrin lived in feyspires that moved back and forth between Eberron and Thelanis, but that these generally only remained in Eberron for a short period of time—but that following the Mourning, the spires were trapped in Eberron and stripped of their defensive magics. The point was to say the reason eladrin haven’t played a more significant role in history is because they haven’t BEEN here until now. The general idea here is that this species has been secluded and hidden from the rest of the world but is now being thrust into contact. For example…

  • Loxodons have dwelt peacefully in the Frostfell for millennia, but they have been driven from their homes by the rising power of Dral Khatuur. Now tribes of loxodon refugees are landing across the northern coast of Khorvaire.
  • Vedalken are from a demiplane within Khyber—an inner earth filled with wonders and crystal towers. Perhaps their home has been invaded by the minions of the daelkyr Belashyrra; or perhaps the Mourning caused a chunk of their realm to materialize in the Mournland.

This allows the species to have a deep culture and potentially to have magic or techniques that SHOULD make an impact on Khorvaire, but to explain why they haven’t affected history to this point. The idea is that while people may not have encountered this species before, it’s a significant part of the story NOW.

In Conclusion…

For me, the most important thing is for the elements of the world to feel significant. While there’s a PLACE for everything in Eberron, I don’t want to force something in if it doesn’t actually add something compelling to the story I’m telling. As such, I’ve never actually used tabaxi, rakasta, or many other types of humanoids in my personal campaign. In deciding how to add them into your campaign, my advice is to first think about WHY you want them in the campaign—whether the character could be a unique mutation or an extraplanar visitor, or if you want their culture to have a significant place in the world. So looking back to that original question, I personally wouldn’t use rakasta or tabaxi in my campaign because I’d rather use shifters. If it was a design dash challenge and I had to add tabaxi in, I’d take the small batch approach: there’s a city in the Mournland where all of the inhabitants were transformed into tabaxi, and they now dwell in the ruins and are mysteriously compelled to sing and dance…

… OK, maybe not. Happy Halloween!

40 thoughts on “IFAQ: Exotic Races

  1. One idea I had had, Was that my character would have been a Cyran human noble, who didn’t have any magical talent. So I made a pact with a fiend for magical prowess. Aaaaaaaand now I’m a weird cat-thing with backwards hands.

  2. How about wanting to play as a creature that doesn’t have any stats as a PC option in the game? Do you also tend to choose a substitute Race’s stats to use? Any general guidelines you’d follow for something like that?

    For example, let’s say I want to play a mind flayer like Xorchylic….

    • Anything like that is going to be a case by case basis. My first question would be WHY you want to play this character, so again I understand what we’re trying to replicate. What does being a mind flayer MEAN to you? Do you actually expect to be able to kill someone by extracting their brain? Do you want to be able to blast someone with psionic force? Are these goals reasonable given the starting level of our game? Assuming that they are, one of the next questions is whether I can get some of the abilities you’re looking by reflavoring class abilities as racial powers. As someone has already suggested, if your character is a Great Old One warlock we get telepathy; I can change the damage type on your eldritch blast to psychic damage and say that’s your basic mind blast. Tasha’s Cauldron has suggestions on building a quick species from scratch, and those would let you produce a basic foundation. You wouldn’t have all the powers of a mind flayer, but it would be a start.

  3. Why did you use Triton for the stats of Merfolk in ExE? The culture and lore of the Merfolk was so fleshed out and you could easily have homebrewed stats for the Merfolk but… sure there boh blue skinned fishfolk but mechanically and lore wise the triton are DEEP SEA fish people while your merfolk are so overtly upper level sea creatures. I’m not saying you needed to find a place for triton just.. surely making a new race was easier, right?

    • Why did you use Triton for the stats of Merfolk in ExE? Surely making a new race was easier, right?
      Not at all. Tritons are an OFFICIAL race, which means that they can be used in, for example, Adventure League games. If I made an entirely different merfolk race, that would be unofficial and thus inaccessible. I personally have no interest in adding tritons as a distinct race and culture in the world—so this was a way to give people a way to use the MECHANICS of the triton and to play a Karakala merfolk character using official rules.

      With that said, the way I used tritons doesn’t prevent you from adding a full triton culture into your campaign. The Karakala AREN’T tritons; it’s simply that their champions can assume a form that uses the same mechanics as a triton.

      • See I understand that but mechanically… the Triton getncold resistance, darkvision and the ability to survive at deep see pressures. None of those really make sense for the way you presented your merfolk

        • I mean, do they need to? They are presented as champions in ExE, and honestly, these do make sense for them. They have abilities that allow them to go into the most extreme of places nearby and deal with issues there that the rest of the merfolk would have trouble with: on land and in the deepest depths.

          • Exactly! These aren’t typical merfolk, they’re champions mystically altered to be able to survive both above and below.

        • I think the point is that Triton are able to be played by a PCs because they can walk on land and are well balanced, you can just say that the cold damage resistants and the innate spell casting are results of being touched by Lamannia. You can play a triton with the merfolk culture but you can’t really play a merfolk flopping around Sharn.

        • You may be misunderstanding the idea of the Kalamer triton. The triton statistics ARE NOT supposed to be used for all Kalamer merfolk. They are specifically champions who have been enchanted and imbued with the power to operate in environments that the merfolk normally CAN’T operate. This includes the deep waters as well as the surface; Kalamer tritons venture down into the Eternal Dominion as well as onto the surface. So it actually makes sense for the Kalamer triton to have those adaptions, because it’s these tritons that will deal directly with sahuagin in the depths or fight the servants of the Lurker in Darkness in the deep trenches.

  4. Common discussion, but this is useful to thing about.

    Recently I’ve been musing on how to use darfellan (I’m aware there’s a 3.5e book that puts them around the islands north of Khorvaire), but have been wondering whether I should maybe present them as an odd shifter subset with orca features, I’m just not sure if that falls too far outside shifter aesthetic.

    • I could certainly see darfellan being presented as a distinct offshoot of shifters—sharing some distant ancestral roots and having cultural ties to the shifters of the Tashana tundra, but still having their distinct physiology and abilities.

    • Funny, I put darfellan as a culture of goliaths adapted to sea diving rather than living in high-altitude mountains since there’s some overlap in their concept.

      • I considered that too, but that adds another layer of sorting out goliaths in the setting. But if you already are using goliaths in a fashion that allows for it, sea goliaths work as a decent angle.

        • I’ve had thoughts of Goliaths as a culture which at some point lived and survived in Lamannia before finding their way back to the material plane and having some who were generationally infused with the power to live in the sea fits this idea.

          • Honestly, if you switch out the cold resistance for fire resistance (half-giant) or poison resistance (eneko) you’re pretty much spot on for the races from 3.5 (small concessions to simplicity for 5e aside)

            That’s partially because I love the Syrk and want to make use of them . . . but mostly I just like goliath stats more than the fluff

  5. You mention gith as a replacement for Dhakaan, and in the Wayfarer’s Guide to Eberron, you mention goliaths.

    For those DMs who are interested in Dhakaani culture but find the goblinoid race aesthetic to be a tad trite and/or uninteresting, what are some good alternatives to the hobgoblin/bugbear/goblin trio, other than gith and goliaths? They do not necessarily have to be races that exists in 5e.

    • You mention gith as a replacement for Dhakaan, and in the Wayfarer’s Guide to Eberron, you mention goliaths.

      Both of these are very offhanded suggestions, not something I’ve carefully thought through. Having said that, what I like about Gith as a Dhakaani replacement is that the basic story of the Gith is grand civilization destroyed by war with mind flayers which is an easy map to the Xoriat incursion destroying Dhakaan. Another possibility would to make the Dhakaani dwarves, merging it with the story of the Realm Below and perhaps introducing the duergar in place of the Heirs of Dhakaan; however, I feel that it would dramatically alter how I’d approach the relationship between dwarves and the Five Nations, if they see humanity as having stolen their ancient lands.

      One question is how much Dhakaani lore you want to keep intact. Would you still be using the Dirge Singers, the Shaarat’Khesh, and so on? If so, you want a species that fits a generally martial tone, which is the case for goliaths; the idea of a disciplined legion of goliaths is an intimidating image. Or you could use the dragonborn, and suggest that the Dhakaani Empire was actually founded by agents of Argonnessen (perhaps forced to withdraw when Tiamat rose, leaving the dragonborn to face the daelkyr alone).

      • A dragonborn version of Dhakaan seems like a compelling concept. How would it tie in to, for example, the dragonborn over in Q’barra?

          • Well the dragonborn over in Q’Barra at present conflicted with the Dhakaani and the elves who occupied the Blade Desert at the time (and the halflings but who remembers them?) so you’d just either extend the “dragonborn empire” or play up their feuding clans nature that exists now and have different groups in conflict already then.

        • The logical approach would be that the dragonborn in Q’barra are the equivalent of a Dhakaani kech, and that they’ve just been dwelling on the surface instead of below it.

  6. The only race I’ve developed further in my Eberron lacks a culture of its own (though that is preserving its original flavor text). The Verdan in my Eberron are the first goblinoids infected with the kapaa-vola (they were originally goblins but Drynn warped them to break the empire down psychologically), and as such were driven madder than the rest under its effects, and now that it is waning, what people had always assumed were just mad goblins, are starting to notice weird capabilities no other goblin can do, and a slightly amorphous form. It has been fun, and has allowed one player to play an even more distant offshoot of goblinoids which leads to interesting interaction with the other player characters (it is a dhakaani game). Though it certainly helps that PC that they have been forcefully connected to the Uul Dhakaan in a believed to be unrepeatable way, allowing them to be tolerated by the various Kechs.

  7. I admit, I was annoyed at first when one of my players wanted to play a tabaxi artificer but, fine, I try to work with him. We ended up sticking a tribe of them on Xen’drik, and his PC ended up as a stowaway on a ship full of dragonshards being returned to Sharn and House Cannith. She’s a curiosity at first, and they stick her on the assembly line just to see what happens. When–shock! horror!–she actually shows an aptitude for the work, they allow her to be educated as an artificer as an experiment to see whether This Savage Can Be Civilized. And now she’s a proud house agent with an alcoholic Cannith heir as her handler. It’ll be fine, I’m sure…

    (I still don’t like tabaxi, but I’m glad we were able to work something out.)

  8. With Xoriat being time relative think a exotic race can be a time traveler from the past or future as a race that is now extinct or will emerge?

    Otherwise for goliath (or the slaves of giants like elves) could it be that they lived on the parts of xen’drik that got submerged during the moon-be-gone event. And used a magic shield to block the sea water and lived there until the mourning. Or would such a barrier be above the giants ability? (I love me some atlantis)

    • With Xoriat being time relative think a exotic race can be a time traveler from the past or future as a race that is now extinct or will emerge?

      Why not? In some ways that’s the story of the Gith in Exploring Eberron—alternate past, but still past.

  9. Since you’ve mentioned it’s (one of) your favorite module(s) and its a source of some thoroughly exotic beings: Where would place the Barrier Peaks/crashed ship if you were to include it in an Eberron campaign?

    • That depends on the goal of adding it to the world. If the idea is that it crashed long ago and players are just stumbling across it, the logical option is Xen’drik, because it explains why people haven’t discovered it before now. On the other hand, if you want to make the crash a RECENT event — meaning that once it’s discovered, it might have a dramatic impact on the world — I’d at least consider having it have crashed in Cyre, and being a possible contender for having caused the Mourning (though if I took that approach I might change a few of the specifics of the Mourning). Especially if you altered the ship’s drive to use something like the Infinite Improbability Drive and said it was never intended to be used within atmosphere…

  10. Hey, Keith!

    The part about change some race of a part of the story makes me think…what you think would be good alternative for the DMs that prefer that all dragonmarks are from only one race?

    I saw a lot of DM changes over time, as Medani become a mark for changelings, Vadalis a mark of shifters and Tharashk become only half orc (or just orc).

    Do you have thoughts about good races, exotic or not, that could replace some of the dragonmark races? In cases as human and half elf that have more than one mark.

    • In my opinion dragonmarks aren’t thematically tied to race. Usually the bloodlines that received the marks had a talent for the theme of the mark, but not the race as a whole. Overall, elves aren’t tied to death, but the LINE OF VOL were skilled necromancers before they received the Mark of Death. Half-orcs aren’t innately skilled hunters, but the Mark of Finding manifested in clans known for their hunting. So my point is that it doesn’t MATTER. It’s not about saying “Shifters are inherently animalistic so they should get the Mark of Handling”, because HUMANS aren’t inherently animalistic, but THEY got the Mark of Handling. So if you want to change it up, you could pick ANY species to get any dragonmark; it’s simply the case that the bloodline that gets the mark likely had a talent for the theme of the mark.

      But if you’re using 5E rules, transporting a mark to a new race isn’t a trivial balancing act — especially when dealing with races that don’t already have subraces, like, say, goliaths or tabaxi.

  11. What races make good alternatives for orcs and half-orcs, in terms of overall thematics? I am a fan of the lore behind the Gatekeepers, the Shadow Marches, and House Tharashk, but I am trying to veer away from orcs as a species altogether.

    • You could always just make a race, or use orc stats but fluff them as something else entirely if it is specifically orcs you want to step away from.

      If you want something similar, you might want to consider different races that can be half-human, since part of half-orc lore in Eberron is their celebrated status as bridging two peoples.

    • It would be simple to exchange them for shifters or bugbears without having too much of a tone shift. Or goliaths or firbolgs if you don’t want to reuse an existing species.

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