Race and Culture

There’s something that has always bothered me about fantasy literature and gaming: the narrowness of race and culture. At one time, we conceived of fantasy races ~ elves, dwarves, orcs, fairies, goblins, etc. ~ as idealized forms of human attributes. This makes sense: our only experience of this world is through the lens of humanity, so when we talk about dwarves as short, grumpy and hard-working, we’re doing so because of our human biases. Over time, though, I would think that we would get away from these limited and frankly prejudicial depictions.

I would also think that racism in our real world would no longer be a thing, but clearly I am wrong about that.

I know there are better depictions of race relations in our fantasy media than there was even forty or thirty years ago. I know that we are progressing, generally and consistently, toward a more educated and enlightened view of our world. But when I read things like this, I can’t help but wonder.

Here’s the thing: whether we assume that the races in our fantasy worlds evolved over eons into the beings they are today, or that they are the creation of one or more gods and that their physical and psychological attributes are determined by their deities’ whims (i.e. the DM’s perception of things), or some third option I haven’t encountered before, doesn’t really matter. In all cases, we can and should assume that ~ because the world is as big as it is and has been around for as long as it has ~ every city-state and nation in the world has its own distinct culture.

Which means that any elvish (or dwarven or orcish) nation should display some quality that’s unique when compared to just about any other nation.

Yet what we get in just about every game and world product out there is the exact opposite. All elves are nature-loving hippies. All dwarves are industrious beer drinkers. All orcs are savages, bloodthirsty and cruel.

And I get it. It’s easier to convey complex, complicated realities through simple memes. It’s one of the reasons that alignment has stuck around for as long as it has. It’s a sound-bite, easily consumed and reproduced, over and over again, ad nauseam, until we’ve completely forgotten where it came from or what it means.

But aren’t we doing a disservice to ourselves and our players?

Is this why we have so many blogs showcasing “new” classes, “new” feats, “new” monsters, all this new, new, new repackaged shite without a real thought between the two of them? Is this why we have “professional” game designers demonstrating their process on a live stream to fawning accolades from the masses of starry-eyed fan boys? Because real fantasy world design is hard?

I don’t know that I have anywhere to go with this rant, and for that I apologize. I have thoughts on how to work out something better ~ I have material for my world that I can share, which I think is worth attention ~ but the presentation needs work. In short, I don’t want to only bitch and moan; I want to demonstrate that it’s possible to do better, I know, because I’ve done it myself and this is how I’ve done it and I hope that you can learn from my work and apply it to your game and get better results too.

Let’s see if we can’t do better.

 

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2 thoughts on “Race and Culture

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  1. I’m not actually using non-human races in my campaign (not for players, at least), but if I was I think I’d want several distinct cultures for each one… or perhaps more non-human races each representing a culture maybe? I’m not particularly fond of just using the generic elf/dwarf/orc/whatever, because it seems a little too limited in scope.

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