Friday, June 17, 2016

Do Dwarves Surf? Tips For Diversifying Non-Human Fantasy Races

We all know dwarves. They're short, hirsute, and they're known far and wide for their love of ale, their craftsmanship, and their brusque demeanor. But what if, instead of living in a mist-shrouded mountain with a snowswept peak, you had a city of dwarves who'd made their home in a volcano on a tropical island? How would that location change dwarven culture, and the ways in which they demonstrate their inherent racial traits?

Never challenge the Tide Hearts... they'll sweep you under, and drown you.
As a quick for instance, would the dwarven love of wealth, mixed with their inherent toughness and difficulty to move, mean that pearl diving is a specialty among these islanders? Would tattoos be more common than heavy necklaces and bracers because of the heat, allowing dwarves to create fine artistry, and list their achievements proudly on their bodies for all to see? Do these dwarves still fight with heavy steel axes and hammers, or do they prefer to use lighter, more refined weapons like obsidian blades whose edges are equal to any steel weapon? Do they have a martial art that focuses on wrestling in the water, as well as on land? Do they use the banked heat of their volcanic home to forge items found nowhere else in the world?

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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  1. In most generic fantasy worlds it is kindred like Orcs that display the greatest environmental and sometimes even cultural adaptability. I suspect this is because most fantasy authors are a little lazy and the only criteria to be 'Orcish' is to be 'bad', or at least suffer from the ill-effects of lead poisoning or some other chemical imbalance.

    As for the Elven variety, my inner Gloranthan strongly associates Elves as a type of tree; a wood spirit if you will. Thus in a desert their population density would be very low. You know what really gets Elves annoyed? Not so much deserts, but monocultures. Elves hate farms.

    But do Dwarves surf? Well no. They have increased body density. They hate water because they're more prone to sinking. It would take some very fat Dwarves to get into a water environment.

    1. On the other hand, wouldn't the extreme stability of dwarves make them even BETTER at surfing than most taller and lighter folk?

    2. If they're prone to sinking, it would certainly weed out the poor surfers

  2. There was a series of books by Weis and Hickman wherein their orcs (called Orks) were reknowned sailors, and master engineers.

  3. I never liked the stereotypical image of dwarves, but I like the idea of Vikings and Norse mythology. When I was considering making a coastal druid in 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, I opted to make the character a member of clan of dwarves who built their homes along, across, and buried under fjords and turned their craftsmanship to making longboats and sailing to plunder other settlements. My character was washed overboard in a storm, survived on a desert island, and developed his ability to communicate with and befriend animals enough to convince a narwhal to carry him to the mainland (playing off some of Jack Sparrow's legends as well). He is a fun character.