I thought I would start where the Player’s Handbook starts. I knew that for a homebrew setting, had to get the races right in particular, as that would be the first bit of color and system that the players would interact with, and would continue to be what the players interacted with the world through. I this case, I looked back at Oriental Adventures and L5R and the decisions that the designers made for those games, mostly because both are relatively familiar to me and OA was cheap as a PDF on DriveThru.
I also did some research on folkloric and mythological humanoids from east and south Asia. I looked at these various options through the lens of what would be fun to play and what would be easy to explain? Something more interesting than ‘dwarves, but taller’ and yet also a race or species that I could explain in a sentence or two at most. The final list of races, which I’ll expand upon turned out to be: garuda, half-oni, koropokuru, kumiho (kitsune), naga, nezumi, ren (humans), tengu, vanara, yaksha and yashini.
With regard to classes, in thinking about it, all of the classes could be worked to fit into an Asian setting. Really, it’s just a matter of color. You chant ancient sutras rather than arcane spells. Your spell components change a bit in form but not in function. A paladin’s oath looks like a samurai oath and so on. I did decide to keep the setup from the Dragonlance Chronicles – specifically, that the previously known gods were forgotten, and that their worship had ended generations ago. Fortunately, I also had a robust tradition, in Confucianism and Daoism, or philosophy and ethics that weren’t rooted in the decrees of specific deities. I left the door open for bards, druids, paladins and rangers, just not clerics. Yet.
Garuda is a name for a great bird-like creature in Hinduism. This creature, a deity in its own right, is also depicted as humanoid and winged, somewhat like an angel. A similar being is named the kinnari in Japanese lore or kinnaree in parts of southeast Asia. They are always fierce, warlike and beautiful. They are always depicted as committed to the gods, and there are many stories of their wars with the Naga. Sounds like a rich field to start with.
Rules-wise, I decided that garuda would get a +1 to Strength and a +2 to Charisma. They have advantage when performing music before an appreciative crowd, are medium-sized, have a speed of 30 and are warlike, giving them proficiency with one martial weapon of the player’s choice. (I’m not sure why, but most of the races I created do not have darkvision, but I could see the garuda having it. No players chose to play a garuda, so it dodn’t come up this time). They also have an optional racial Feat called Winged which would allow them to glide and have fully functional wings rather than the mostly-decorative ones the are depicted with in art. Garuda begin play speaking their own language, Garuda, as well as one regional language.
I needed a race that would be the orc-type – big, strong and scary. I decided on the half-oni because I already had ideas of oni playing a big part in the setting and the storyline for the campaign. I also liked them as a version of the Tiefling, their demonic origin making them hard to trust and accept.
As far as rules go, I decided half-oni would have +2 to Strength and +1 to Constitution. I wanted them to be big and brutal. Half oni are also cannibals – once per long rest, if they consume the flesh of a sentient being, they recover their level in hit points. (I might end up increasing this healing number, but I didn’t want to overly encourage players to eat people.) Oni are demonic, and have disadvantage on any social roll to apppear trustworthy or harmless. At the same time, they are automatically proficient with Charisma (Intimidation). Oni have an elemental trait, and are resistant to acid and poison, cold, lightening, fire, or force and thunder. (This ties into how I altered the relationships between the elements for this setting) Lastly, half-oni are fearsome, and once per long rest they can use the Fear spell on a single target. Upon reflection, they half-oni may have too many benefits. I usually try to avoid RP penalties in exchange for concrete bonuses, since they are ripe for abuse, but that’s sort of what I hope happens here. We have two out of four players who are playing half-oni, so we’ll see how it balances out. Half-Oni begin play with one regional language. If raised by oni, they might be able to speak abyssal or infernal.
I also needed at least one race that was the small, tricky type, and I chose the koropokuru. They’re a little bit obscure, but actually show up in Zelda games (they’re the ones who, according to the game’s lore, hide things in baskets and jars that Link goes around smashing) as well as some anime. They are little folkloric humanoids from Japan’s northern island, adapted from an Ainu word for people who live under the butterbur plant’s leaves.
Koropokuru gain a +2 bonus to their Dexterity and a +1 bonus to their Wisdom, and they are long-lived compared to ren (humans). They are skilled in camoflage, and have advantage on any Dexterity (Stealth) rolls when they have time to prepare in a natural environment. As gift-givers, koropokuru (koro for short) have advantage on any Charisma (Persuade) check with a creature who has accepted a gift from them in the past. They have a speed of 20 and are small in stature. (As an aside, it entertains me that given the abilities I gave them, they would be amazing smugglers.) Koropokuru begin play knowing their own Koro language and one regional language.
More commonly known as kitsune, at least to Americans like me, kumiho is the Korean term for a similar shapechanging fox. Generally, the kumiho is seen as more sinister and threatening than the kitsune. Mostly I wanted to integrate at least one Korean creature, and this one made sense.
Kumiho receive a +2 bonus to Dexterity and a +1 bonus to Charisma. They are fox-faced, and have advantage on Charisma (Persuade) rolls on characters they have already worked on seducing. They are also shape-changers, and can use a move to shift into a supernatural fox form, given away to careful observers because of their multiple tails (approximately one for every two levels or so). They can carry up to about 10 pounds of gear with them when they change, and the rest just drops to the ground. (I originally had them unable to carry any gear, but thought after the first few times naked kumiho running around would lose its humor). Fox-form kumiho have advantage on Strength (Athletics) rolls to jump and Wisdom (Perception) rolls involving hearing or scent. They are small in fox form and medium in humanoid form. Their speed is 30 on two legs and 40 on four legs. Lastly, as tricksters, they are automatically proficient in Charisma (Deception). Kumiho being play with one regional language.
As mentioned above, the naga and garuda in Hindu mythology (both are singular beings as well as kinds of beings) hate each other, and I kept that for this setting. Long ago the naga ran everything. Maybe this was even prehistory. The garuda are the ones who fought the war to liberate other conscious beings. As it stands in the ‘present’ of the setting, the naga are an ancient and mysterious race who are powerful and also mistrusted.
Naga gain a +2 to Intelligence and a +1 to Charisma. They keep their age and life-cycle secret from other creatures, but are thought to be incredibly long-lived. Naga respect, above all else, power, and this often means they lean toward evil in terms of alignment (later I’ll talk about how I adapted the alignment system for this setting). Naga are shapechangers, and can change shape once per long rest. They have a ren (humanoid) form, an amphibian humanoid form with a serpent’s lower half, or a huge sea-serpent with no limbs, fully aquatic. Naga in any form can unhinge their jaws and deliver a powerful bite, dealing 1d3 base damage and then 3d6 poison damage on the following turn. A Con save DC 8 + the naga’s Constitution modifier + proficiency bonus. Naga begin play with Naga as their language, and must learn a regional language at character creation or in-game.
One of our player-characters is a nezumi, and it’s already more fun than I anticipated. The nezumi are my answer to one of the comic-relief races in Dragonlance that so bother me – the Gully Dwarves. I wanted a spot for a tough, durable, small race that lived in the shadow of more ‘civilized’ societies, but without being obnoxiously stupid. I also liked the idea of an ‘unclean’ humanoid race in societies where cleanliness is so important. They’d be the ones to handle dead bodies, the equivalent of untouchables.
Nezumi receive a +1 Dexterity bonus and a +2 to Constitution. Compared to ren they are short-lived, living about half as long, or about 40 years at most. Nezumi are gritty realists who know they don’t fit into polite society so well, and so they tend toward the chaotic end of the spectrum. Unarmed, nezumi have a bite attack that deals 1d3 damage and they are small creatures. Their speed is 30 and they are vermin, meaning they have advantage on Wisdom (Survival) rolls to find food and water as well as advantage on saves against disease and poison. Nezumi begin play with one regional language.
For humans, I just took the Chinese word that means “person” as well as something very similar to the Confucian word for “humanity.” They are exactly as written in the PHB. I also wanted to avoid the trope of having “humans” and then “humanoids” or “metahumans.” It seems sort of species-ist. Ren begin play with one regional language.
The garuda are Hindu bird-people, and I decided to also use the tengu, Japanese bird-people (ignoring that they are sometimes dog-people and sometimes just big-nosed demons). Where the garuda are blunt and warlike, the tengu are warlike tricksters, and I liked the parallel between the Silvanesti and Qualinesti elves in Krynn. The garuda and tengu were of course once a single people, called the kinaree, but an ancient wrong split them into two, and the tengu left their ancestral homeland.
Tengu receive a +2 to their Wisdom score, and live about twice as long as ren. Tengu can be harsh, disciplined masters or somewhat sinister tricksters, and so they tend toward neutrality. They are more avian than the garuda, and retain the ability to communicate with all birds, enabling them to use Charisma checks with them. Their speed is 30, and they are sword-masters, and are automatically proficient with all swords. Tengu start play with a regional language (equivalent of Common), the Primordial dialect of Avian, and Tengu.
Already a race of beings in the Mahabharata, the vanara were an easy pick. Additionally, they’re kung-fu monkeys, and who doesn’t love that? Mythologically, vanara are described as courageous, playful and basically generous beings. Their homeland is in the vast forest at the base of the mountain where the garuda and tengu once lived together as kinaree. I like imagining their society as something bonobos would come up with after another million years or so of evolution.
Vanara receive a +2 to Strength and +1 to Wisdom, and they are medium-sized creatures even though they stand only around 4-5 feet tall and are significantly lighter than the average ren. Like apes, they have much more strength than their frames would indicate, and a different musculature and skeletal structure than ren. Alignment-wise they tend toward the good, and do not tend to be lawful. Their speed is 25 because of their proportionately short legs and feet unsuited to walking long distance, and they have a prehensile tail that is not a fine manipulator but can hold or carry around 5lbs.
Yaksha and Yashini
Yakasha and Yashini are the only species I have that has real sexual dimorphism. That was always something that bothered me about old-school D&D, that different genders had different ability score modifiers, minimums, maximums and so on. I do have a precedent in Hindu lore, however, of the yaksha, hulking people who steadily fatten as they age and are thought of as fierce and frightening, and the yashini, beautiful and volumptuous females who are more wise and alluring.
As of right now I haven’t decided on specific abilities yaksha and yashini. For yaksha I am using stats from goblinoids based on their size, and for yashini I am using slightly modified stats for female drow.