Race and Cultural Background in RPGs: Different Icing, Same Cake?

There’s an interesting discussion going on over at the wonderfully named Gnome Stew on non-human races in RPGs, which led me to the above metaphor. When we play non-human (or demi-human to use the accepted phrase of a certain wide-spread game) in RPGs, do we play them as the same cake simply with a different icing rather than as the different cakes?

What do I mean by that? I mean that regardless of the system non-humans (elves, dwarves and the like) are generally (a) statted, and (b) played like a human with a different skin rather than as something foreign and alien. Elves are humans but with slightly better agility. Dwarves are humans but with slightly better constitutions. Neither are really different to a standard human – they all overlap in an amorphous mass. Sticking for the moment to the statistics, the attributes and skills of the races, I can’t help thinking that the different races should look and feel more different on the character sheet. If we go back to the primordial source, by which I mean of course the Lord of the Rings, the (grand)father of all subsequent fantasy literature, we can see more significant differences. Tolkien’s elves were graceful, agile, wise, accomplished. The dwarves were brooding powerhouses that would stand up to anything. Neither was merely slightly different from humans, they were significantly different, an order of magnitude different. In my (humble) opinion, elves should start out with a d8 agility, be fleet footed as well as agile and have a ton of knowledge based skills to reflect their advanced years. Dwarves should have arcane resistance as well as something to reflect their resistance to poisons.

But it all becomes washed out by and fall victim to game balance. Story takes second place (if that) because no-one in their right mind would play a frail, clumsy human. Shame.

Which led me to another thought.

In Dave Morris’ Legend setting the PCs’ race is rarely an issue, the game is thoroughly humanocentric and I believe that the option to play elves and dwarves may even have been something that the publishers insisted on back in the day, much as the inclusion or orcs was thrust upon him as an RPG cultural norm. But even here, there’s little to no cultural difference between the characters. The investment is too high – players often don’t want to think about where the character has come from. And the cost is too high – players don’t want to have their characters tied down to cultural loyalties. They want their them to be divorced from their backgrounds, free from any constraints so that in any given situation they can do what is most expedient.

Time for me to get out from behind the GMs screen and play again.

Merry Christmas to one and all and a Happy 2012 for you and yours!

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About Mike Page

I’m a Christian, a father, a husband, a biochemist (PhD), a photographer, a gardener, a lover of good rock music, food wine and beer, an ex-pat, a lousy pianist and a patent examiner.
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One Response to Race and Cultural Background in RPGs: Different Icing, Same Cake?

  1. Well, it is fair to say that actually we probably couldn’t really play a true alien, since it’d be alien, but we could do with adopting a more varied and non-mainstream approach to different races or cultures. I mean the difference is gloss, a Victorian would talk of ‘races’ and mean human cultures, and I suspect that that is what most fantasy races are, variants of humanity, and not very varied. Play a game with a more divergent culture set, or read some history/anthropology books and see how different real world Earth cultures have been or are even now.

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