So a discussion has been going around my circle of friends blogs (Harbinger, Wombat Warlord, Kainenchen,
Samhaine) about the pluses and minuses of game settings with and without humans with various and well thought opinions being given on both sides. Work has been keeping me pretty busy lately, so it's taken me awhile to get all my ideas down.
The main discussion seems to be about is it a good idea to include humans so people have a familiar race in the setting, or should they be skipped over in order to make a setting really interesting and different. Humans are often the most boring out of the races in a setting, and tend to be either the oppressive masses, the up and coming race to beat, or the race that wins through adaptability. The conversation has been very interesting thus far and while I had some conversations in person about it, I feel I've had more thoughts on the subject since then and should elaborate.
I initially was on the side of including humans in order to give the players something familiar to identify, but I've actually revised that after giving more thought to it. My end result is that the inclusion or exclusion of humans in a game is ultimately secondary compared to how the world is implemented. In my recent move I've looked through a lot for RPGs I haven't looked at in a good while and it gave me some food for thought and I thought I would use those games for examples as to my train of thought.
Song of Ice and Fire: This game has only humans, but is a very well realized world that honestly would probably be weaker for the inclusion of non-human options for characters. Pendragon is sort of the same thing. In these games it is vital that everyone be human since so much of the conflict in the game comes from struggling against alien "others" and, if you or one of your comrades was part of this other, it changes the whole tone of the game. A Song of Ice and Fire game that included one of the forest spirits as a PC is pretty much at that point some other game. These games to me are representative of human-centric games done right.
Mechanical Dream: This game has all non-human races in a setting that is completely different that anything in the real world. All races have to eat weird magic fruit that grows underground. Cities are built in massive five mile tall trees connected by roads on top of mile high walls. The game is completely crazy, and in my eyes almost unplayable because of it. There is nothing familiar anywhere in it, and I think it is weaker for it. I would say it is borderline unplayable since you have to read the entire book to get an idea of how the world is supposed to work.
Star Wars: You can easily run a Star Wars game without humans (most of mine have not had human characters), but this largely is because the non-human cultures aren't that different from the human cultures. Star Wars is sort of a sci-fi melting plot where humans are nothing special for the most part, except that they run the Empire. Star Trek is sort of similar to this, but with more distinct non-human cultures and less melting pot.
At the same time there are games where the "include human/not include human" question is not important. The game I wrote years ago about playing toys had no human player characters (instead humans were almost environmental conditions since you had to avoid their attention to be able to move) because it would make no sense. So I guess for me the presence of human as player characters is ultimately unimportant to me as long as the world is accessible. The fact that so many known properties that developed outside games are listed above I think is a demonstration of this; it can be a lot easier to get players to understand a game world if you can point them at a television show or movie as opposed to asking them to read several hundred pages of text (especially if you only have one or two copies of the game book for the entire group).
So my end result is I want a setting that is accessible to players with a minimum of time investment. That can include a wide variety of things depending on how well the game is put together, explains its setting, and how familiar its setting based on previously exposure. I'm not much of a fan of settings that require lots of investment of time to get going. This is why the games I tend to work on these days for my own projects tend to have very little setting info to communicate to the players beforehand.