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The Douchey DM » Alternate Views, General Gaming » Fantasy Race Stereotypes (yawn.)

Fantasy Race Stereotypes (yawn.)

For many players, fantasy races — specifically elves and dwarfs — are a staple of fantasy settings.

I’m of two minds when it comes to including fantasy races in a game.

On one hand, players are used to this sort of convention. Players often have a preference. If I don’t provide dwarfs, for instance, some players will just make humans who are shorter than average, bearded, good miners and roughly Scottish.

Part of me says, “just give the players what they want.”

On the other hand, isn’t there enough breadth and depth within the human race to cover just about any fantasy character concept? If you want to play a short, gruff, bearded miner, can’t you do so within the constraints of the human race? If you want to play a smug, elitist naturalist, do you really have to look beyond the human race to find an example?

And that, I think, is my problem with fantasy races: how often do you see the range of personality in the dwarfs and elves in your games that you see in the human characters? You probably don’t. Sure, you always have that one player who plays the oddball: the dwarf who likes hugs, the elf that loves monster truck rallies and mud wrestling.

But that guy aside, don’t most players play these two races using the same stereotypical assumptions? That’s been my experience.

I think many players approach playing other races from an incorrect assumption. Most say, “why is my character not doing what everyone else of my race does?” If I’m a dwarf, why did I decide to leave the mines? Was I banished? Was I humiliated? Am I looking for something? Or, do I just fucking hate rocks? It’s the same with the elves and their forests.

Their assumption is a broad stereotype about their race, and it’s old and boring.

Instead (and this would require GM buy-in) what if we look at other races with a sort of bell curve? After all, these races have whole civilizations, don’t they? Elves, if left to their own devices, would have an entire economy, wouldn’t they? And what did dwarfs do for food, clothing and creature comforts before they emerged from their endless mines?

We could assume that a plurality of dwarfs are miners, sure, but dwarfs have to eat, they need well-made mining tools, they need clothes, they enjoy a good tune down at the pub, where they’ll no doubt enjoy a fine malt ale. All of these things would be made by dwarfs, right?

Much of this groundwork would need to be at least started by the GM, but wouldn’t it be more interesting if each race came from a civilization rather than an unlikely and implausible stereotype?

Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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9 Responses to "Fantasy Race Stereotypes (yawn.)"

  1. FrylockNo Gravatar says:

    I disagree. Surprised? 🙂

    First, we’re dealing with a “medieval” time period, during which, even for humans, we were relatively homogeneous in our thinking. We didn’t, as a whole, travel very much, limiting our experiences with other frames of thought, and strict governments suppressed individuality. Thus, seeing a very homogeneous culture wasn’t too far from the truth.

    Second, whether we’re talking about mythology or (intentional) fiction, a very common plot device, both conscious and subconscious, is to characterize the greatest strengths of humanity as our resourcefulness, improvisation, flexibility, and creativity. In short, our independent thinking is what made us better. With fantasy or sci-fi, we weren’t making this statement at the expense of human groups (i.e., whites are better/worse at this than blacks), but rather make-believe species, so the insult given to the groups was acceptable. Almost paradoxically, this device actually supported and complimented our differences as humans.

    To add a bit of realism to it, we’ve recognized the existence, and even necessity, of alternate mindsets within a homogeneous race (e.g., Klingon scientists, non-evil Drow PCs), but kept them rare and marginalized in order to continue making that statement. This is neither bad nor boring. It’s a hook that makes things happen in RPGs. It includes race-based characteristics that have nothing to do with cultural identity or individual personality (e.g., second wind as a minor action in 4e D&D, stonecunning in 3.5D&D, super-human strength of the Gorn in FASA Star Trek RPG). It also makes the “good Drow,” etc. cultures as even more interesting of a plot device when they do show up. It also allows for interesting stories of redemption or social change. These are all ways in which we say, “Humans are going to make it as a species because we’re not like these guys, and that’s good because we deserve to make it.”

    Ergo, I’m unapologetic in my support of these paradigms. YMMV, so as always, make your fantasy world your own, but if you’re ever in my game, don’t expect a human-only world. Now *that* would be boring. 🙂

    1. StuNo Gravatar says:

      I definitely agree with regards to non-human races and literature.

      But what makes good literature doesn’t always make a good RPG. Specifically, in an RPG, your protagonists are not exclusively human — assuming your protagonists *are* your PCs, as they should be.

      Don’t these protagonists benefit from the same sort of depth as humans would have? Or at least a “shifted mean,” rather than a stereotype with few exceptions?

      1. FrylockNo Gravatar says:

        Yes, but they do. In my experience, players are more than willing to go outside the stereotypes. So, looking back at what you wrote, I guess where I disagree is in that this is a problem at all. I don’t think I’ve ever met a player that played a dwarf who likes hugs, but I’ve definitely seen dwarves that don’t use traditional dwarven weapons, aren’t lawful and aren’t good, and don’t have a rough exterior with respect to personality. In fact, with 4e D&D, that’s the norm. The class has as much an impact on a player’s choice for character personality as does race, and races are now favored for classes that naturally break the stereotypes. This is a rather narrow response, dealing only with D&D (and my personal experiences), but that’s what I’ve got for you. 🙂

        To broaden it a bit, I can add that Dragon Age RPG creates two different types of elves, and two different types of mages, creating a systemic break in stereotyping as well. In public play and in private home play, I see PCs played without great regard for stereotypes. Again, this is my personal experience, and thus anecdotal, but then again, so are yours. 🙂

        My initial response above was directed towards NPCs, which is probably outside the scope of the problem you were identifying, but it’s the only respect in which I see a problem even in theory. Interesting discussion, though.

  2. @RA_WhippleNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Stu.
    This is what I started with my group in Poland.

    The new players loved it. As a GM, I try to play the races in stereotype, which will give my players something to play off from. I do not used someone else’s “professional” world.

    However, given my group of gamers, I haven’t had the inspiration to flesh it out more. It is a project that actually hurts me to look at for all the unappreciated work that went into it. But I think we’re pretty well on the same page on this subject, again.

  3. Kevin RNo Gravatar says:

    This is exactly the kind of thing I would have expected you to write.

  4. shortymonsterNo Gravatar says:

    Some excellent point in the blog and comments. But I always thought of dwarves as Welsh. Might just be me though.

  5. MarkNo Gravatar says:

    It is for the opposite of these reasons (though I agree completely) that I stripped non-humans from the game I designed. In my experience, human players think like humans, and their characters inevitably act like humans, regardless of what race or species that character is. It would be hard enough for a typical player to get inside the skin of a 17th Century samurai, or a Masai tribesman, much less a 200-year-old mythological creature. There *is* enough variety in humanity to fit most players’ needs, and/but nine times out of ten any Other character is going to played stereotypically, or as a cooler version of the player.

  6. Philo PharynxNo Gravatar says:

    I like the idea of the bell curve. The stereotypes are the center of the curve – John Q Elf, so to speak. Not everyone you meet will be the same. In the race features, some are phsyical aspects of the race and others are cultural. I always let players play with the cultural parts if they have a good story.

    But stereotypes are important. Most players have a good idea of the traditional fanatasy races. They don’t neccesarily want to read twelve books in order to get a handle on your new custom races.

    @shortymonster, The hill dwarves are Welsh, the mountain dwarves are Scottish. And the dwarves who moved to the surface and let the sun bake their brains are the Irish. 🙂

  7. tentagilNo Gravatar says:

    The only problem with the “Medieval” argument is that you didn’t have a homogenous cultural landscape even across Europe, let alone across the breadth of the entire world. Setting aside the dramatic differences between Asia, the Arab world, and of course burgeoning cultures in the Americas. Just looking at Europe you had vast differences between nations, and even within nations one region was often dramatically different from another, sometimes even to include language. And as often as land changed hands during that era it was quite possible for a village to be French one day, Spanish the next, and Italian by the end of the week.

    An NPC, or a PC, having an expectation about someone based on a stereotype is one thing, but having that person actual be a stereotype is boring as hell. A stereotype makes for a two dimensional character, a good character, PC or NPC, has to have that third dimension to make him worth anything.

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