The default model in most RPGs is that the characters are all either humans or near-humans, familiar and comfortable in comparison to most of us. In many games, trying to play something different is difficult at best and impossible at worst – but there are good reasons to play something other than human analogues. Today, I intend to look at some of the reasons to do so.
It isn’t a surprise that humans are the default model in most games; humans are the most familiar thing we could play, and most of the usual alternatives are extrapolations from that baseline. Given that most of the time we play to let our heroic fantasies play out, this desire to use the familiar isn’t a bad thing.
However, playing something different can be a fun challenge, open up new horizons of experience, and provide exciting and unusual challenges. Even if the same humanoid body plan is used, it can be altered to provide opportunities for something new; playing undead, synthetic lifeforms, or distinctly alien creatures are all options in many systems. More exotic characters are possible in some systems, either specifically designed or simply as something that can be built out of parts.
Good systems for this kind of thing are ones such as Fate Core, which allows you to custom-build your entire character and has tools developed to let you build ‘species’ templates to apply to the character; Mutants and Masterminds, which is a point-buy system for building your character from the ground up; and to an extent the Cypher System, where you can design a species as a descriptor in place of other adjectives. Eclipse Phase, which has several non-humanoid morphs and playable uplifted animals, is also good for exploring this kind of thing.
To a lesser extent, games like Pathfinder can go down this route with templates and some of the stranger and more exotic racial options out there; Starfinder has been promised to have a non-humanoid race, but it isn’t out until August 2017. The Dresden Files RPG, derived from Fate, has some prebuilt options for playing inhuman characters as well.
The things to consider with this is how the character you create differs from humans; all too often we can create superficially alien characters who are still essentially just Joe the Mechanic from down the street inside. Characters that are inhuman aren’t going to behave or think like a human; an alien from a race of avians is going to think in three dimensions at the very least, looking to go over or under problems to get around them; an uplifted raven might have a completely different value system no matter how hard the uplifters tried to instill their values; and an artificial intelligence evolved from a complex triage system will likely have a nightmarishly pragmatic view of things, categorizing situations ruthlessly to ensure the best chance of success.
At the same time, consider points of common interest with other characters in the group; you may be a flesh-eating ghoul, but you’re still intelligent and you can still appreciate the value of treasure when it can buy you cadavers to eat and equipment to protect yourself from those who see you as an unholy blight on the world. An uplifted octopus can appreciate clever puzzles as much as a clever human, and make friends over solving complicated problems.
Playing something inhuman is, above all else, an opportunity to explore ideas of self that you’d normally never think about, taking a look at the world through a borrowed set of eyes. It’s well worth the trouble, and really only an extension of what we do already.