Building a different world: Sapient races of Tela

Since Brett’s essays on how he created the world of Flat Black have been well received, I thought it possible some of you might like to read about how I developed Tela, the setting of my current historical fantasy campaign. Here is how I went about creating seven humanoid sapient races.

To start with, I had each fantasy race be native to one or two of the climate zones in GURPS, to help explain why so many different races coexisted:

Elves inhabited woodlands and jungles
Ghouls were native to deserts but had spread out widely as scavengers
Men inhabited plains
Nixies lived in rivers and swamplands
Selkies inhabited island/beach environments
Trolls inhabited arctic and mountain environments
Dwarves lived underground, in natural caves or in mines

From this, I defined body sizes. Trolls were comparatively large, SM +1, giving them an advantage in heat retention. Elves, men, and selkies were SM 0. Ghouls and nixies were SM -1, the former as an adaptation for recurring food scarcity, the latter to fit more conveniently into burrows or lodges. Finally, dwarves were the smallest race, at SM -2, letting them tunnel with comparatively less effort.

Going from this, I got base ST scores of 15 for trolls, 10 for elves, men, and selkies, 7 for ghouls and nixies, and 5 for dwarves. That gave me base weights of 445 lbs., 125 lbs., 43 lbs., and 16 lbs.

A specific tweak at this point was that I decided that dwarves, as miners, needed to be unusually strong, and in particular to have strong arms, like moles having massive forelimbs. I gave them, as a race, Arm ST +1, and boosted their body weight by 20%, to 19 lbs.

Next I looked at sexual dimorphism. I based this on the idea that male/female mass differences predicted mating patterns:

Males much larger than females went with polygyny and with strong male competition for dominance. I applied this to men and selkies, but with a difference of application: Men stayed comparatively close to home, forming long-term marriages or, if successful, harems; male selkies went out to sea for fishing, whaling, piracy, or trading, and brought back gifts to use in courting one or many female selkies. In both cases, I gave +1 ST to males (ST 11, weight 167 lbs.) and -1 ST to females (ST 9, weight 91 lbs.).

Males modestly larger than females went with a humanlike pattern of nonstrict monogamy, with successful males looking for a little extra. I applied this to nixies, whom I envisioned as in many ways the “human beings” of the world (the first farmers and city building), kind of the way hobbits are the “human beings” of Middle-Earth, with men as exaggeratedly heroic nomads and warriors. I didn’t treat this as leading to an ST difference between the sexes. Base nixie weight is about 1/3 base man/selkie weight, and if I divided the corresponding male and female weights by three I would get 56 lbs. and 30 lbs.; for lesser dimorphism I split the difference, with male nixies at 50 lbs. and female at 37 lbs.

Equal size and weight I envisioned as going with strict monogamy. I applied this to elves, whom I thought of as kind of like gibbons (musical, good at climbing, high DX).

I made female ghouls modestly larger than male, and gave them a hyenalike pattern where females were dominant and comparatively ferocious (and had enlarged clitorides used for threat display). I swapped the weight ratios for nixies, making female ghouls 50 lbs. and male ghouls 37 lbs.

Finally, for trolls, I had females much larger than males, with a social pattern where trollwives raised children on their own and needed to be large and ferocious to do so; male trolls wandered around in small groups (like the three trolls in The Hobbit) and from time to time showing up with presents. A 10% ST differential would have given trolls ST 13-14 and trollwives ST 16-17; I went with the narrower margin, making trollwives ST 16 and 512 lbs., and trolls ST 14 and 343 lbs.

Dwarves were again the weird race! I had decided to pattern their sociality after that of naked mole rats or the fortress eusociality of certain shrimp species. So a dwarf social group was one fertile female, a small number of fertile males who defended her mine and traded with outsiders, and a larger number of sterile offspring who mined and did supportive tasks. Both fertile sexes were the same size, but sterile offspring were SM -3 and ST 3 and weighed around 7 lbs.

I also looked at races being gracile or robust. I dealt with this not by making them heavier or lighter, but by making them taller or shorter for the same weight. Here men and ghouls were typical; elves were gracile; nixies and selkies (the aquatic races) were modestly robust, and dwarves and trolls were strongly robust. However, I also gave selkies plentiful body fat as insulation, making them Overweight: males 220 lbs., females 120 lbs.

Finally, I played with brain size. Brain size in mammals tends to be proportionate to body surface area; but human beings are about 8x the typical mammalian brain size, other apes about 4x, and monkeys (and songbirds) about 2x. Since GURPS says that humans have IQ 10 and monkeys have IQ 5, I figured that IQ varied as the square root of relative brain size. (That would give nonhuman apes IQ 7, which is reasonably close to the GURPS figure of IQ 6.) I gave elves +1 to IQ (about 20% more relative brain size) and ghouls and trolls -1 (about 20% less). But then I added another tweak: I decided that as trolls retreated into harsh environments, trollwives decreased in relative physical size, but not in relative brain size. So they ended up with ST +4 and IQ +1: As strong as trolls, but no stronger, but much smarter, fitting legends in which trollwives are powerful sorceresses.


While increasing size does indeed increase the ratio of volume to surface area, I can’t help noticing that human groups living in cold climates tend to be shorter than ones living in hot climates. Poor nutrition?

Possibly. Though aren’t they also stockier, and thus not as much lighter as you would expect given decreased height?

That may be a manifestation of how body size alteration works within a single species, though, as opposed to how it works between species. I think mammoths were bigger than the surviving elephant species, and I seem to recall reading something comparable about bears. In Tela we’re comparing different hominid species that have adapted to different habitats, and I think that nonhuman animals tend to show increased size under those conditions, at least often enough to justify my invoking it in a fantasy setting. (All of the analogies of “this race is like seals/hyenas/naked mole rats” are narrativistic rather than closely biologically analyzed, after all.)

Pygmies, New Guineans, and Native Americans in the Amazon region aren’t so tall. Neither are Indonesians and Malays.

I recall reading that human stature was tallest in populations that originated near the winter frost line, but I no longer remember the source.

I think that there are three things to be said about this:

The basic idea is called Bergmann’s rule, and you can search on that if you want to see more about it, including criticisms of it.

It appears that body size scaling within a species doesn’t follow the same rules as scaling for members of different species. You have a basic human design that’s optimized for being something around 1.5 or 1.75 m; if you shrink it down to 1 m or boost it to 2.5, you have problems. A hominid species that had evolved a build suited for small or greater height would not have those problems, and would have problems if it were at the unnatural height of 1.5 m.

The real issue with cold climates appears to be less linear dimensions than robustness. A tall skinny person would do badly in Greenland; a short round one might do badly in Congo or Papua New Guinea.

Anyway, my imaginary trolls can be large and heavily built as their adaptation to mountain and arctic terrains, even if that’s not a universal natural law; I think it’s enough that there are species that do work that way. And my elves do kind of fit what you’re saying about tropical peoples; the most important elven societies are equatorial, and the elves are definitely gracile and not extraordinarily tall (one of Tolkien’s bits I didn’t pick up).

There is also Allen’s Rule, which is that creatures in cold climates have smaller limbs and appendages, to minimise heat loss. Such as the small ears of mammoths and snowshoe hares versus the large ears of African elephants and desert jackrabbits. Or the stumpy legged Svalbard reindeer (there are no predators who hunt reindeer on Svalbard Island, so they don’t need long legs for speed).

And since having short legs makes you shorter overall, even if nothing else is changed, then cold climate people will be shorter than hot climate people.

Also never underestimate the power of genetic drift (accidental shift to one form or another) or only breeding within your own cultural group. The Baka (formerly called Pygmies) live alongside much taller cultural groups (Bantu) in the tropics.

I love your idea of Dwarves as naked-mole rats!

Are your polygynous Men and Selkies based on human polygamy (men can have several wives) or biological polygyny seen in animals? The latter is very different to anything humans have ever invented. For instance, 80% of the males will die as virgins, and 5% of the males will father 95% of the offspring. Plus females get to have sex all their lives, but adolescent males never have sex (they can’t win against males in their prime), middle aged males never have sex (they are past their prime so will lose their territory or harem to a younger guy) and old men never have sex (ditto).

I think the exception is bower birds, where the female is choosing on the basis of artistic merit. The males still fight to defend their bowers from rivals, so the ‘inexperienced and past-it don’t get laid’ still applies, but possibly is a bit less important?

EDIT: unsuccessful males don’t get to have sex with females in biological polygyny. If you throw human sexuality into the mix, they can be having sex with each other until the cows come home.

Selkies and (my version of) men aren’t so polygynous as all that. If you want to envision the men of my world, think of the polygyny of pastoral cultures such as Bedouin or (so far as I know) ancient Israelites—but as the modal behavior of the species, rather than as one cultural option that’s a bit of an outlier. The social dynamics is a bit more complex, in that an older man can have a reputation as a leader that makes many young men think their odds of gaining Status are improved by being his followers rather than striking out of their own; so vigorous middle-aged men have more access to wives than if things were based purely on physical strength. But it’s certainly true that a significant number of young men have no sexual access to women, and that gives rise to a cult of heroic achievement that gets a number of them killed before they DO gain such access. I haven’t decided if any specific culture has Greek-style pederasty—my players didn’t choose to play men—but I don’t see anything impossible about it. On the other hand, men are so far a somewhat marginal species with fewer cultures; elves are the most widespread species, and elves are modally monogamous.

Edit: You might envision men as having, not the polygyny of stallions or stags, but the polygyny of lions, at least if I’ve got the numbers right.

As for dwarves, there’s a further nuance in the most technologically advanced dwarven culture: Fertile female dwarves are in charge of “the hearth,” but this includes the kiln and the forge. If you want bronze, glass, or porcelain, you normally have itt made by a dwarf woman—but you’ll bargain for it with a dwarf man. None of the PCs in Tapestry is a dwarf, though, so they don’t yet know this and might never learn it.

An anthropologist ex of mine once told me about a traditional Australian Aboriginal culture where women could get married about 15, but men were not allowed to get married until they were 40. All the 40+ guys had lots of wives. It was ok to sleep with an older man’s wife if you had his permission. Permission was usually granted on the basis of supporting him politically. So if two 16 year olds fall in love, they can be a couple, so long as the boy allies himself with the older man’s faction.

What do trolls live on? How does the Queen of the Night expect her people to subsist when she achieves a state in which it is “always winter and never Christmas”?

For that matter, I gather that selkies live on fish, shellfish, whale, and I guess some plant food of the littoral and maybe salt marshes. What are the diets of your other races?

Well, actually, a big influence on my thinking was a list you came up with after we had kicked the question around at SJ Games for a while:

We have what now?
o Humans eat game such as antelope, zebra, gnu, and bison, mutton and chevre, beef, blood, milk, cheese, and yoghurt. Some have picked up wheat, barley, millet, sorghum, pork and maybe geese or ducks from the halflings.
o Halflings eat wheat, barley, rice, millet, taro, tapioca, sago, maize(?), waterlilly-root, water-chestnut, bamboo shoots, fish, crayfish, freshwater shellfish, pork, waterfowl, eggs, and maybe beef or buffalo, besides strange things called “vegetables”.
o Ogretrolls eat seal, whale, reindeer, elk, aurochs, mammoth, pork, beef, yak, chevre, milk, ham, cheese, smoked beef, chicken, and under strenuous protest oats.
o Elves eat venison and pork, acorns, beechnuts, macadamias, hazels, walnuts, filberts, chestnuts, brazils, small and medium game including squirrels, fowl, and monkeys, besides probably tree fruit such as apples/pears and peaches/plums, oranges, loquats, mangoes, mangosteens, durian etc. etc. Tropical elvish diets are rich in soft fruit and small game, temperate elvish diets rich in nuts and medium game.
o Dwarves eat potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, mutton and chevre, probably pork, and anything that they can get in trade.
o Selkies eat fish, shellfish, and crustaceans, eggs, sea-birds, the larger types of whales?
o Ghuls eat carrion, lizards, the seeds and fruit of desert plants when they can get them, dates(?)

(saved to my hard drive 4 May 2013)

Trolls also eat mammoth, and in some regions might conceivably herd them or even milk them. And trollwives snare smaller animals and birds, catch fish, and gather cold climate berries, fungus, and possibly pine nuts, if there are cold weather pine nuts. And a troll gang that wants to impress a trollwife might bring her a bear. . . .

Tropical elves may eat groundnuts or breadfruit, and quite possibly yams or similar crops.

Dwarves in some areas have figured out the trick of raising fungus on harvested plant matter. You cut down trees to make charcoal, and you bring in the leaves and small branches to turn into food. And don’t some bees nest in rock crevices?

As for ghouls, they can also go after snakes, desert rodents, eggs of any birds that live in deserts. And once they take up hanging around cities they eat like coyotes: rubbish heap forage, small livestock that wanders off, the odd incautious dog or cat or rat.

The Winter Queen isn’t actually going to be bringing incessant darkness on the land; she’s far south enough to face long nights and short days, sure, but I don’t think she’s seen the Midnight Sun. Part of the cold of Montes Nubili comes from their height. The land will support muskoxen and mammoth and the like.

“As a friend to the children commend me the yak.
You will find it exactly the thing.
It will carry and fetch; you can ride on its back,
Or lead it about on a string.”

The Llama is a wooly sort of fleecy hairy goat,
With an indolent expression and an undulating throat
Like an unsuccessful literary man.

And I know the place he lives in (or at least- I think I do)
It is Ecuador, Brazil or Chile- possibly Peru;
You must find it in the Atlas if you can.

The Llama of the Pampasses you never should confound
(In spite of a deceptive similarity of sound)
With the Llama who is Lord of Turkestan.

For the former is a beautiful and valuable beast,
But the latter is not lovable nor useful in the least;
And the Ruminant is preferable surely to the Priest
Who battens on the woful superstitions of the East,
The Mongol of the Monastery of Shan.

Since I suggested that list I read 1491, by C.C. Mann, where I discovered that there is a growing belief among young prehistorians specialising in the Americas that the pre-Columbian Amazon was an environment heavily modified by human activity, and that at least a half of it, perhaps two-thirds, was not wilderness at all but a sort of mixed-species orchard-cum-plantation where most of the plants not useful to the inhabitants had been removed, and many of the trees &c. had been planted deliberately to bear food and other valuable products. Even the soil was modified over perhaps several percent of the area. Immediately on reading the passage on the productiveness and population of the Amazon before the Columbian pandemic I recalled our discussion of your elves, because I had argued on the SJGames site that impressive population densities of them could support themselves with little labour in nut-bearing temperate broadleaf forest, but I had not realised at that time how plausibly millions of them could live in tropical “forest”.

I think I might have written to you to say something about all this, but the point might also interest others.

While we are on the topic of tropical forests, are you aware of the impressive population densities that supported themselves by hunting and stone-age horticulture in the highland of New Guinea?

I’m not sure if I knew about that or not, though I’ve long been aware that PNG had one of the world’s highest densities of languages—something like 20% of human linguistic diversity, if I recall correctly. Nor had I heard of 1491, though I knew about the Columbian pandemic from Dobyns’s Their Number Become Thinned, which I believe may have been the pioneering work advancing the thesis of high population before European contact. I’ll have to check if UC Riverside’s library has 1491 on its shelves.

One of the cultures Jared Diamond discusses in Collapse was a model for my version of elves; it described, I think, a Pacific Island society that also had reshaped the local habitat to consist almost entirely of useful species.