4) If D&D “Isn’t even human,” then what is it?
Alien, but still humanocentric.
I’ll start here with an admission which will be frighteningly easy to take out of context: I’m a bit of a racist when it comes to D&D. To clarify, perhaps I should instead call myself a humanist, which has a much better ring to it. What I mean is that I’ve always vastly preferred playing a human to any of the other fantasy races and honestly never really saw the appeal in playing any of the standard dwarves or elves or even them more esoteric races that came along later. I don’t mind them existing in my fantasy world, but I’ve always felt that humans are so wonderfully varied and so culturally diverse that there really isn’t much need for the demihumans and other player race options.
I realize now that my real problem with the races in D&D is not that they were unlike humans but rather that they were too much like humans. Truth be told, they always felt a bit like a racket to me, just a way to bump up an ability score or two and get some nifty special talent. If dwarves, elves, and the whole gamut of traditional fantasy races were going to be part of an authentic and interesting world, they should really be, for lack of a better term, alien. They should be distinct and fundamentally different from humans. Most importantly, we should be thinking in terms of culture.
Most depictions of elves make them out to be some kind of haughty, long-lived, tree-hugging arcanists, but not really distinct from half a dozen similar magic and forest-based human cultures. Are they just pre-Roman hegemony Celts with pointy ears who happen to live a long time? Dwarves seem even a worse case for this kind of regressive cultural association. I’m not at all sure where the stereotype came from, but for some reason now every other dwarf I encounter has a thick Scottish accent. (A brief aside – how did dwarves become Scottish in the first place? It seems to me that, based on the cultures with which their myths originated, they should be Norse or Germanic instead – but I digress.) Other than having a penchant for living underground and drinking a lot, there doesn’t seem to be much to distinguish them from half a dozen hearty Scandinavian stereotypes. Come to think of it, my Scandinavian friends could toss back an ale or two as well. Essentially, they are just Vikings with Scottish accents who happen to be short and peculiarly inclined to troglodytic living conditions. That’s not a race, that’s a bad joke.
It also seems curious that this is still the case in the new edition of D&D where, perhaps for the first time, we have an edition that is powerfully, wonderfully, culturally pluralistic. Just look at the representative art of the Player’s Handbook. The front cover features a female spellcaster who is not just clothed, but covered head to foot in what looks like pretty intense snow gear. Why she’s wearing that while fighting a fire giant is beside the point; it illustrates a significant cultural shift from previous editions that featured scantily clad females to appeal to their presumed target demographic. This point was noted very early on in the roll out of the new edition, and received much deserved praise, such as can be found in Reindeau’s opinion piece.
Even more interesting is the inside cover art depicting a striking hero of African descent. I love the racial inclusiveness, but I think it’s even more awesome that he looks culturally distinct. I have to be honest: I’m not entirely sure what the culture is (though the cool hat looks a bit like a traditional form of Zulu women’s headgear – hey, maybe he’s crossdressing as well!) but it’s clearly not western European. That’s awesome, and not just because I think that it’s a really good idea to make the game more inclusive, both from an ethical and a practical standpoint, though both certainly are true. It’s a lot easier to explain and defend your still slightly eccentric hobby when it’s being cool and inclusive, and if you care about the hobby and want it to grow, why limit your audience? It’s essentially awesome from a gaming perspective as well because culture is, or should be, the real core of a character’s role-playing experience.
If you want to make a world and the characters in it come alive, then culture is your key. So much of our behavior is, often times invisibly, prescribed by culture that it is almost transparent to us except when we look at a different one. The beliefs, ideology, rituals, and mores of a people define more about the individual character of those who belong to it than we are often willing to accept with our newfangled notions of individuality and personal identity. But in a role-playing game that simulates a fantastic world based at least in part on past historical eras, characters’ cultures will be even more definitive. How they dress, the languages they speak, their ethical stances, their food, their material culture and weaponry, their tactics and their religion will be determined in large part by the culture groups to which they belong. Even if they are outliers and mavericks, they will have to be aware of their cultures to know what they are reacting against.
So, not only should your game setting include diverse and distinct human cultures, the cultures of your nonhumans should also be equally robust and disparate. Your elves ought to be more than just dexterous mage/fighters with pointy ears and your dwarves ought to be more than short, stout fighters. This stereotype barrier may be harder to overcome in D&D than in other games. After all, remember that in the original “Basic” game, elves, dwarfs and halflings were not just races but also classes. There is a long history of demihuman racial stereotyping in D&D, and it’s time for it to end.
You can see why this is so important when you consider the fact that, even if the main PC race and dominant setting cultures are human, the nonhumans are still the majority of the population. Really. If you think about the standard, default D&D setting – if such a thing really exists – you will quickly note that humans are woefully outnumbered. Most settings still have humans as the dominant race, far outnumbering elves, dwarves, and the like, but those human-like and human-aligned races are just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. There are dozens of playable races in most of the established settings, but these pale in comparison to the legion of monstrous but decidedly intelligent denizens of those worlds. I think there is likely a good argument to be made that orcs and goblinoids alone would outnumber humans in most settings, and if they don’t, it is going to be hard to explain why they don’t quickly end up on the endangered species lists. Even those cannonfodder races are just a hint of the panoply of critters that populate the standard D&D multiverse. There are whole planes of other populations out there.
That wealth of races will have dominant cultures of their own and interesting subdivisions as well. All of that can seem a bit overwhelming, but the truth of the matter is, the differences are actually fairly minor for the most part. Nearly all races are bipedal, have similar basic needs for food shelter and clothing, and will fall into broad categories of behavior patterns. You might have a tribe of orcs whose culture is startlingly similar to that of a clan of dwarves with whom they share beliefs and environment. Cultures will change and blend over time as well, influencing each other and altering even as they are altered themselves. Many traits will be shared across racial boundaries. Food, language, and even religion can be shared by some fairly disparate cultures, so why not among races as well?
Another way to view the whole cultural situation is to recognize that it is entirely possible, likely even, that some members of different fantasy races, even whole groups, will acculturate into human society. Think of how many cultures have mixed and integrated over the course of human history. We know that humans can even intermarry and have children with some other races in the D&D world. Witness half-elves and half-orcs. If humans are the dominant race, at least for the civilized regions of the world, then it makes perfect sense that other races will have acculturated to the dominant human cultures near them, or at least have adopted some of their traits. So, you will have elves who act just like humans with pointy ears and dwarves who are just short and stout humans, but those will be EINOs and DINOs (elves in name only and dwarves in name only), not “real” elves and dwarfs with their own cultural heritage.
That’s fine, and it makes them fairly easy to integrate and play. It also allows for a dominant, even hegemonic human culture to be inclusive of other races and cultures. But that’s a bit boring. Cultural variety is the spice of life, and the heart of a good setting. It’s important to have a cultural touchstone that players can identify with and recognize easily. That’s probably why so many fantasy gaming settings feature a fairly standard western medieval European culture as their basic cultural templates. But, if you really want the setting to come alive and to be true to the promise of a world with essentially alien races, then you should also have some races and cultures that actually are alien and are significantly informed by the basic characteristics that define them.
As an experiment, in my follow up to this last of my four principles, I’m going to briefly describe two sample cultures for the dominant nonhuman player races, elves and dwarves, that attempt to stay completely within the standard mechanics of the race and only produce a “flavor hack” for each of them. I will attempt to create a compellingly distinct culture for each of these fantasy races that uses the basic rules as a guideline and then also discusses how the culture might affect game play choices, such as class and specializations. I’ll try not to contradict the rather bland flavor text that precedes the traits, but I won’t be beholden to it either.
But that will have to wait for next week!