In a recent reddit post /u/momerathe postulated that humans may seem default and boring to us, but from the perspective of other races, humans may be anything but. This post highlighted an interesting bias that players have in DnD and it’s a topic worth exploring.
From our own human perspective, humans are extremely unexceptional. But when you’re running a DnD session it’s important that you think about the perspectives of the other races in your world. By considering a non-human approach to your world you might end up seeing new opportunities to tell an even better story.
The Terrors of Humanity
In a lot of fantasy writing humans are known for being greedy, but that’s just the start of their truly terrifying nature. Often their most horrifying trait gets written up as a positive instead: persistence.
Other Creatures Ran While Humans Walked
A look at the natural history of human evolution shows that we learned to stand upright and walk for one reason: endurance. Early human hunters didn’t chase down their prey with extreme bursts of speed or fierce claws. Instead, humans walked. A creature we wanted to eat might get tired, but we’d persist. We’d walk, relatively slowly, following them for miles and miles. When they give up from exhaustion we’d strike. This is a true natural horror.
Ugly, Yes, but Efficient
Coupled with their insane persistence, human efficiency is another terrifying trait. We learned to cook food which gave us more energy. We learned to use tools to make our work easier to do. We learned to domesticate plants and animals so we didn’t have to hunt or gather. Often our survival was not in question, but humans push further to do more than survive.
Most of the things humans started making were all about function. Sure, humans are prone to great works of artistry and fine craftsmanship on occasion. But most of the things we make and use are made for convenience and utility. Who cares if something we make is ugly or temporary? We generally value present benefit over long term value or sentimentality.
Storytellers, Book Writers, Hoarders of Knowledge
While humans aren’t the most intelligent race in DnD, they are likely the most ingenious. This trait comes down to how humans are prone to think about things. Nothing is good enough. We love incrementality, experimentation, and will take crazy risks for no reason at all.
Best of all, we take everything we learn and then never shut up about it. Humans are natural storytellers; they talk about their exploits, their hobbies, what they did last week, last month, last year. We’re rubbish at preserving legends and carefully crafted lore, but gossip or useful information gets gobbled up and spread around. And worst of all, we do this so fast! Compared to most other races in DnD we live a short life, but boy do we use it to its fullest!
Why Other Races Could Fear Humans
Humans are surely horrifying, but if we put ourselves in another race’s shoes we can see them in an even more terrifying light. Elves will spend hundreds of years living in a forest, peacefully perfecting a craft or a skill. One day humans appear, and they clear land and set up a town in a comparative blink of an eye.
Typically, elves live with nature and humans don’t; we clear cut forests and dam up rivers. This is some scary stuff on its own, but couple that with the speed in which we do it and it could chill the bones of any elven individual.
Dwarves may be our closest comparative race in the perceived traits department. But to dwarves, humans must seem a reckless lot, unable to focus or obtain an honorable life. The average human, short lived by comparison, rarely seeks to hone a craft, has little care for their own kind, and rapidly burns through any wealth they may obtain in life. Humans may dream of more, but they often do nothing to actualize these dreams.
While to dwarves human lives might seem frivolous, to halflings humans are overly serious. Everything humans fret about is “dire situation this” and “terrible situation that.” Comparatively, we can’t seem to relax and enjoy ourselves, and nothing makes someone more nervous than seeing someone who is always on edge.
Humans are Scary During Peacetime, but War…
While we’ve talked about the terror of humanity from a peaceful perspective so far, we’ve not yet begun to touch on them during war. Humans are expansionist in nature. If they are fighting you, they will take your land, they will take your stuff; it will become their land and their stuff.
Humans are like the glitter of the fantasy world: once they’re there, you can never get rid of them. They breed quickly, have a ridiculous amount of children, and they come of age so fast! A human army is often massive compared to that of other races simply because there are so many more humans in such a short amount of time. The generational period in humans is so much shorter that they’ll overwhelm a region in a relatively short period of time.
When other races go to war they’re skirmishers or conquerors. Orcs raid, dwarves claim treasures, and elves end conflicts. But afterwards, they leave. Humans? No dice. When they show up they put down roots. They’ll finish a fight and put down farms, or worse… bureaucracy. Humans will gladly envelop your whole society by force or by integration. They don’t care, they have no concept of the arc of history and care little for the world view of races outside their own. They’re not even trying to be malicious, it’s just human nature to be self-centered.
Humanity, the World Shapers
Lastly, and most terrifying, humans refuse to adapt to their surroundings. Humans bend not only nature to their will, but also cultures. Even in peaceful times when humans show up in an area, that land will never be the same.
An elf may see humans show up to a location and by the end of that elf’s life it might live in a practically different world. Human set down trade routes, establish currency, extract resources, and more, just to get by. Each generation wants a little more than the last, so they continue to push themselves forward, advancing ever faster. Other races may even see humans discover magic and master it so fast that they fear what new paradigm humanity will bring about next. If humans are around, nothing is static. Nothing stays the same.
Humans Get a Bad Rap
Humans get a bad rap, but for the wrong reasons. Usually in DnD they’re thought of as dull and uninspired, but that’s because as humans we fail to see what makes us special. We’re horrifying, and our “average” abilities are more than made up for by our everlasting tenacity. Next time you’re playing DnD take a moment and think about all the things that humans do and how that looks to the other races. Consider the possibility that being wary of humans isn’t out of pity, but instead perhaps about fear of survival.
A big thanks goes out to the r/dndnext community who always have fun discussions and unique insights.