Breaking Conventions (or No Humans Allowed)

Sebastian Münster, Woodcut depiction of, from left to right, a sciapod, a cyclops, conjoined twins, a blemmye and a cynocephaly, 1544.

I have a strange affliction: I enjoy reading RPG manuals.  Like, for fun.

When a good RPG book comes along (I’m looking at you, Midgard Worldbook) it can kick the brain into high gear and get the creative role-playing juices flowing.  However, one of the constants I find most often in fantasy-themed RPG books is that among the “races” (and kudos here to Paizo for changing this to “ancestries” in the new Pathfinder Second Edition), humans are always presented as the most populous race, and, by extension, the most versatile mechanically.

Does anyone else find this odd?  I mean, we’re talking about fantasy worlds here. Ostensibly, these should be worlds that are as far from our own experiences as possible, right?

I've been thinking of this as I’ve been flirting with some ideas for world-building lately. One of the most persistent thoughts I keep having is “what if we played in a world without humans?”  What if the players could not default to a representation of their character that was most familiar physically?

Granted, this site’s own @Lazzamore made the point that many players find this comforting, having a recognizable point of entry for creating their characters, a shell upon which they can craft a fictional character to explore.  And he’s absolutely correct.  But if we think of fantasy as a genre of gaming where myths and metaphors can stand in for any number of real ideas that need exploring, then I think a fantasy realm without humans might offer some fascinating possibilities:

Player characters would be encouraged to find a race/ancestry that best expresses the ideas of their character in the fictional world being played in. Conversely, players might think beyond the “typical” facets of a race, ways their character might be an atypical elf or uncommon dwarf, for instance.

The world itself would not be burdened by the idea of humans as the “primary” race, and therefore more nuanced background and history might be developed.  What happened when the first dwarves explored beyond their mountains and encountered orcs for the first time?  What did minotaur travellers think when first entering the elvish region? And, by implication, both instances involve not thinking of humans.

Add to this another idea I have mixed with this, that the fantasy world is not organized geographically by race, but by ideology. Instead of the northern realm being dominated by elves and the mountains by dwarves, what if the northern realm were dominated by a population of all races who believed in socialism, and the mountains by capitalists, and the southern realm by egalitarianism?  These two approaches could easily work hand-in-hand.

What other “convention-breaking” ideas have you had for your fantasy and gaming worlds?  Let us know in the comments!