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So You Want to Play an RPG?: Races and Cultural Depth

March 25, 2014

A friend of mine is getting ready to run a Space Opera game in the Hero System, and has been thinking about races and the mechanics of building races in the system. Since the two games I’m currently running are Human-only (one is an urban fantasy game set in Baltimore, the other is a grand fantasy game set in an Asian-influenced setting), the thought of space opera has gotten my mind thinking about race (or species to be more accurate) and culture in games. I also dug up some of my old racial packages for my Fantasy Pirate game and a space opera game that never took off, which got me thinking about some more specific examples.

As I’ve made clear in other posts, I always have found the broad strokes that certain races in D&D get to be boring at best and based on old racist anthropological language at worst. Furthermore, many DM’s don’t actually run their games using such broad strokes, but I’m not writing this to retread old material. However, since it’s the most accessible I’ll largely be using Fantasy examples to discuss race/culture in role playing games with occasional forays into other well known settings.

The first thing to tackle is what I mean by ‘broad stroke depictions.’ This is when you have situations like all Orcs live in “primitive warring tribes” and are “almost always evil.” Or to contrast with a more player-friendly race that often gets the same pigeon holing, when all Dwarves speak with the same accent, are obsessed with ancestors, beer, and honor. If you and your players don’t mind these monotype cultures, this post isn’t for you. As always, what you find fun is paramount to what you do in your games, and sometimes it is nice to play games where you always know a Goblin is going to turn on you or that the Gods won’t frown on you for killing an Orc because all Orcs are Evil.

This is also not supposed to be a guide to help you build a setting where your Elves are Different. Waggling your eyebrows and smiling because all of your Elves are tech-obsessed imperialists rather than back-to-nature arcanists doesn’t change the fact that all of your Elves are still one way and one way only. What I want to talk about is how to build inherent depth into our fake cultures.

Luckily, thanks to Tolkien/D&D/etc, in a Fantasy setting you might actually have your major work done for you. If you’re creating your own races/cultures (whether fantasy, scifi, or something else), the first big steps can be both difficult or very easy. This is because the first big step is to create those broad strokes and create the core values that most members of that culture share.

Essentially this is the capital C kind of Culture that exists for those peoples. Think of it as the equivalent of the Western Canon, the sum total of ideals expressed in our high brow art; what people look up to, the stories of cultural heroes, what binds us together, and so on.
You round out this Culture with stereotypes about the average man on the street. What does the average Elf or Dwarf think and believe? What does their day-to-day life look like? Once more, look to the real world to get a sense of what you’re shooting for. Look how advertisers, writers, and so on, depict ‘average’ characters. You know what a stereotype is, and in Fantasy settings you probably have a preset stereotype of dwarves or elves.

Which is also why you know while their might be truth to them, there’s also a lot of them that are just plain wrong. This is where you can start to stretch your creativity. There’s the big Culture and there’s how people actually live their day-to-day lives. Everyday, across countless societies, we all make little exceptions and do mental back flips to negotiate between our ideals and our reality and so should the NPCs of your game.

Furthermore, every society has tons of roles to fill. In a fantasy setting, all societies have a need for farmers, warriors, leaders, wizards, priests, scholars, hunters, and no society has been without crime (organized or otherwise). Their cultural values and natural abilities might change how they approach war, politics, religion, and crime but they’re all going to have them.

Even so-called “primitive” societies are far from the rubber stamps that we often envision them as. Rarely will all hunters be warriors and all warriors be hunters or a tribal culture be lead by the best warrior or a mystical medicine man type. They will have different orders/lodges/secret societies that train specific kinds of warriors and hunters. Mystics live outside the regular realm of society, eking out marginalized existences with their charms and magic being both feared and revered. Leadership is often a matter of being able to bind people together through social connections, as well as provide in some more logistical manner (hunting/war/farming/etc). At the very least, if you’re not going to provide depth to your evil goblins, you can look to real cultures to provide a variety of character classes for them.

The takeaway in all of this is that when we often depict humans in fantasy or science fiction we give them the ability to basically do anything but for some reasons Dwarves always end up being warriors or smiths and Vulcans are always scientists. It will feel more real, and provide you with more interesting NPCs, to be able to depict more vibrant cultures where all the roles get filled in a sensible way.

Mass Effect did this relatively well, at least for the three big races. Salarians in particular always caught my attention. They’re a short lived matriarchal society that seem to have a natural inclination toward science. However, they still have a military and a strong one at that but they approach problems like fast-thinking, short-lived, technologically advanced people do. Their military is small, highly mobile, and operates in a similar manner to special forces units in present day militaries. We also end up seeing Salarian politicians, criminals, and so on, throughout the games.

Take this into a fantasy setting and you can get some interesting characters. Imagine for a second what a Dwarven criminal might look like. Rather than spurning honor, maybe he still values it and tries to do the right thing in his own way. His thugs and enforcers go out of their way to not harm innocents, and he explicitly tries to clamp down on dangerous criminals. He craves the respect of the people around him, and maybe even aspires to move in the circles of the elite. Now you have a criminal Dwarf who goes about crime in a Dwarven manner, and to influence him and his thugs you can take cues from real life criminal organizations that operate this way (or operate this way in theory).

To get even deeper into the cultural rabbit hole, we have to look at the counter-cultures. There’s a few different ways people actively fight their culture.

They might directly opt out. This can be in a very straightforward ‘vote with your feet’ manner, where you just pick up and leave. Leaving has been why all sorts of societies have broken apart over the years and sometimes it’s violent while other times it’s not. You still see this in smaller ways today; that kid from high school who left your hometown and never looked back, shut-ins, and communes of varying stripes.

You can also opt out of society while openly critiquing it. The Cynics of Ancient Greece are the prime examples of this. They didn’t obey customs regarding hygiene, expectations of how to act in public, and what was right to say. Imagine for a moment, a group of Dwarves that rather than being honor-bound hardasses go around being festive, whimsical, and just generally trolling. Maybe they start fights and then run away like cowards because honor is silly. These Dwarven Cynics might not have any bearing on the plot, but they’re a fun background element.

Then we have the people who actively engage in subverting society or critiquing it. These are your hippies, and beatniks, and stuff like that. They can also be people who don’t believe in the standard set of cultural values, but still maintain an active role in their society. Maybe the players meet an Elven prince who believes in engaging in short-term risks or believes in finding a way to merge technological advancements with the natural world (he’s the first green tech thinker). There’s nothing radical about him, but he’s distinctly set apart from Elven norms and he is actively engaged in trying to change them.

Finally, every society has marginalized groups within it who might have beliefs and customs that are actually radically different from society at large. The classic example here is Jewish people in Europe. They followed a different religion with its own customs and dietary restrictions, and they had their own culture and language that was often impossible for non-members to learn let alone understand. Of course, there’s tons of examples throughout history whether you’re taking about groups operating on the fringes of large empires (Bedouins, Visigoths, the various tribes that fought with the Spanish against the Aztecs), oppressed racial/religious groups (Blacks in the Americas, Christians in North African countries, Crimean Tartars in Stalinist Russia and Crimea Right Now) or simply people who are outside the norm (LGBT people). Some of them are their own distinct groups (like the Bedouins and Visigoths), others might share religious and cultural beliefs (the tribes Powhatan conquered in Colonial Virginia shared similar language and customs), and still others might form their own cultural enclaves that incorporate the top-down Culture as well as their own (Black Slaves in the Southern USA). These are the hardest to build because they’re often cultures within themselves but they also are filled with rich opportunities for stories and characters (both player and non-).

Ultimately, when creating a setting know what you need. There’s no reason to exhaust yourself with every kernel of how Dwarven society works or how Quatloos from Epsilon IV differ from Quatloos that grow up on the moons of Epsilon IX. Giving thought to more than just the rubber stamp of a race or culture though can provide both you and your players with tons of resources for creating characters and stories. Knowing the broad strokes helps the guy who just wants to play a standard Dwarven Cleric, but having an idea for how the society gets reflected in non-stereotypical roles or what it’s internal critics say might help you when that one player really wants to roll an Elven Barbarian or Orcish Diplomat.

On a final note, having cultures with depth will allow you to build storylines and NPCs that make sense and have stronger motivations. Also, as I briefly mentioned above, it can also help with constructing these characters mechanically which will streamline your own session prep in ways that are very satisfying.

Good luck, and I hope you use this as a springboard to dive deeper into your own campaign settings.

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