Forms More Wonderous: Variations on Fantasy Bioforms



Hank talks about wonder being one of the hardest things to achieve at the table in ICRPG ME. Fantasy especially can feel like a series of tired tropes paraded out before players, familiar and mundane as an old pair of sneakers. As a way to combat this, to reinvigorate the fantasy world with a sense of magic and wonder, I’ve begun to reimagine the fantasy bioforms to make them more than just people with long lives and curly ears - but to make them fantastical, magic, and alien. My goal was to keep the themes of each of these creatures familiar, but to put those themes into a new, unfamiliar context. I hope some of these ideas serve to fuel your own imaginings.

Elves: Elves are being of artistry and artifice, constructed by their parents. They are not flesh and bone, but wood and silk, glass, marble, bronze and ivory. Silent as breathless statues, these sleepless beings carry the spark of life, carried by their forebearers from Elfland across the veil into the material world, but they know not of age and disease - only wear. The only thing that is known for certain is that iron cannot be used in their construction, the nations of elves tending toward particular materials and methods used in their construction. Their beauty is beyond compare, but it can feel distant, even cold, since they lack the physical urges and reactions of beings of flesh.

Dwarves: Each dwarf is an individual and a colony - a walking talking hive of termite-like creatures constructed of clay, slag, moss and root. They are simultaneously individuals and clans working in cooperation for every step, every hammer strike and axe chop, and for them there is no disconnect between the individual dwarf who speaks, works, and sings, and the clan of tiny beings working inside. They can eat things inedible to most creatures, including paper, wood, and poison fungus, and they tend to drink heavily - not just for fun, but also to keep the hive from drying out. This also makes dwarves resistant to heat and cold for short periodsIf the working hive is so damaged it becomes abandoned, the survivors may constitute a new dwarf/hive with a different personal identity, but the same clan.

Goblins: diminutive subterranean beings, strangers to the sun so long their eyes vanished long ago, their pale skins burn in bright light. They are very clever, making contraptions, mixing reagents, digging tunnels; their keen hearing beyond reproach, and footsteps light and quick as a robin’s heartbeat. Blind as they are, they cannot read, and find no use for the histories and stories of other intelligent creatures, save for a few which keep powerful lessons carved into stone with tools stolen from those not burned by the forge-fire.

Small Folk: these plump, little folk known for their voracious appetites have subtle antennae sprouting from their eyebrows. The creatures begin life springing out of the ground as even smaller versions of themselves, skinnier than their elder peers, bulking up over time. They end their lives entering a cocoon stage; however, if any is aware of what they become after leaving the cocoon, none appears willing to share the secret. All they say is that those leaving the cocoons are Small Folk no longer, and they as a people have no concern for who they are, nor what their business is.

Orcs: The Orcs are person-sized tarantula-gorillas whom tend to live in extended family bands of hunters and herders. They are equally comfortable in the open and underground, adapting both their clothing and equipment, and exhibiting minor physical adaptations similar to human beings native to different climates. Having no use for farming, and limited in their ability to produce finished goods, Orcs have developed a reputation as raiders, though this is probably exaggerated by their fearsome appearance.

I may add Torton later. Let me know if you have ideas of your own, or other bioforms you’d like to see me mess with.


This is interesting. Well done!

From my experience, what makes the fantastical in fantasy seem mundane is not that things are tropey, it’s that everything is fantastical, so that’s the baseline. Like, if everyone were 7 foot tall than you wouldn’t consider Shaq tall.
There is nothing unique about an elf or dwarf if before session one even starts, the player can be an elf or dwarf and there are elves and dwarves in the game.
Many of my players’ biggest “wow” moments as a GM were from games where the players could only play a human. Later, when they meet one singular elf, they are surprised because they didn’t even know elves existed in that world.
I had a table lose their minds when after months of playing in a human only world, they came across the abandoned halls of a dwarven mountain fortress. It had all the tropes of LotR dwarves but it felt fantastical because it felt novel.


I do love a good “only humans” game as a way to regain creative control over non-human beings in the game, and thereby keep them alien and fantastical; that’s a powerful tool, and I love using it. I also know that a lot of players really lean into their own familiarity with D&D source material and their knowledge of them to feel comfortable and grounded in the fictional world, and shaking that up too much can reduce their fun ( they want to play Gimli, and don’t want him to be a walking termite mound).

The ideas above are very much targeted at a “we’re not in Kansas anymore” game experience, and how much of that any one wants is going to vary. I probably wouldn’t incorporate all of these ideas into the same game - at least not without some groundwork being done first to get folks used to the idea, but one or two of these could really pay off in a few key “first encounter” type moments.