|Never challenge the Tide Hearts... they'll sweep you under, and drown you.|
Most importantly, do these dwarves surf?
Humans Aren't The Only Diverse Species in Fantasy
Too often we fall into what I refer to as "The Tolkien Trap" when it comes to fantasy RPGs. We acknowledge that humans come in a wide range of shapes, styles, colors, and cultures, but no matter where we go the orcs, elves, dwarves, halflings, and gnomes are always the same. The elves are always aloof and dismissive, the dwarves have thick Scottish accents and drink all the time, the halflings are stomachs with feet, and gnomes are random jokesters who don't understand why everyone is always so upset with them.
Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with having archetypes. But we see that human civilizations in different parts of our fictional world have different cultures, attitudes, and traditions... so why wouldn't the non-human races follow suit?
|At what point do elves trade in their lutes for heavy metal ballads?|
The easiest way to run the thought experiment is to do what I did above; take the non-human race out of its traditional element, and plop it down in a different location. How does this race change and adapt to fit this new environment, while still remaining true to the core of what it is (those mechanical bonuses you get for playing a member of this race)?
For example, we usually associate elves with trees. But how would their culture change if we took them out of the forests, and put them in the desert? Would they maintain their grace and stealth, blending in with shifting sand dunes, suddenly appearing and disappearing when it seems there was nowhere for them to go to or come from? Would they still wield bows, and if so, would they be the longbows we're used to, or would they wield shorter bows made from horn and heartwood? Would desert elves allow outsiders to see their faces, or would that act be something reserved only for close friends and family?
Another approach you could take is to shift an important aspect of the race's stereotypical culture, and then look at what ripples that would create. For example, what would be the result of a clan of orcs choosing to follow a god like Erastil, instead of depending on Gorum? While the Lord in Iron represents strength, power, and conquest, how would the values of community, family, and living in balance with nature alter a group, generation after generation? Would these settlements focus more on woodcraft, child-bearing, and living as good neighbors with those around them, using their in-born abilities and strengths to reach out hands of friendship, instead of the swords and spears of war?
Don't Be Afraid To Be Different
While the title of this section seems pretty straightforward, I'd like to include an asterisk. A big, fat asterisk. One which I will give its own name: The Dritzzt Exception.
|You should have seen this one coming.|
As someone who loves the versatility of fantasy as a genre, and who supports players in making characters which buck stereotypes, I do feel a need to point out that the burden is on players when they're trying to go against established canon regarding specific places and trends which already exist in their specific game world.
Let's look at Golarion, for example. If you want to play an orc or haf-orc from Belkzen, you have a pretty bad history to overcome. That nation has been at constant war, it's a savage wasteland, and the most common gods worshiped there are Rovagug, Lamashtu, and Zon Kuthon. The country is, on the whole, chaotic evil. Not only that, but it is the orc hordes of Belkzen who supported the lich lord known as the Whispering Tyrant in his bid to destroy life as we know it. That history does not force a character from Belkzen to be evil. However, players need to look at the context in which their character was raised, and then ask what lessons he took away from that rearing. And in a place where might makes right really is the law of the land, it's important for the player to be able to explain how a character with a lawful good alignment came out of that mess.
On the other hand, Golarion is a wide and varied world. An orc from the deserts of Osirion, the frozen peaks of the Land of The Linnorm Kings, or the depths of the Mwangi Expanse has none of the cultural baggage of the savage hordes of Belkzen. In fact, as has been expressly stated in books like Bastards of Golarion, orcs and half-orcs who fall outside the regions that have warred with Belkzen don't even experience the kind of racism orcs are assumed to be treated with in most fantasy RPGs. Because if there's no history of conflict between a nation and groups of orcs, then why would they be treated with suspicion?
Just some food for thought.
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