Most fantasy worlds are populated by a mix of humanoid races. Dwarves, Elves and Orcs are sort of a staple of the fantasy genre. After you read one or two books, or played a few games that include these races you sort of know what to expect of them. You know Dwarfs are stubborn honorable and somewhat boisterous. You know that Elves are distinguished, proud, stuck up and fickle. All hobbits are warm and friendly kleptomaniacs and all Orks are chaotic evil killing machines who have virtually no interests beyond raiding, raping and pillaging. There are slight variations from one setting to the other, but for the most part you will have to agree that the statements above ring true.
You know what these things are, right? They are racial stereotypes! Yes they are! We made them up so that we can relate to members of these races better. RPG games have long blurbs that explain how each race thinks and behaves just so that players can “get in character” and roleplay a dwarf or an elf in a believable way. Where these stereotypes came from?
Well, they pretty much all came from Tolkien who sort of “invented” the fantasy genre. Most of the settings that came after Lord of the Ring base the personality template for their races on the notable characters from the trilogy. All elves are modeled after Legolas. All Dwarves are modeled after Gimli. Which is fine, but not essentially realistic. The thing is that Tolkien never explicitly described how each particular race behaves as a whole. He was telling an epic story about heroic deeds and so he described exceptional individuals, kings, leaders and nobility who are hardly representative of their races.
What is the one thing that all stereotypes have in common? They are all mostly false. It is just not realistic to expect large groups of people to conform to a single personality template – no matter how accurate that template may seem. Even in very insular, homogeneous and uniform groups there will be huge differences in personalities, interests, talents, tastes and behavioral patterns. So while helpful tool for role players, these stereotypes should not be used as absolute truths. And yet, these things persist in most fantasy settings.
If you see a dwarf living amongst humans, he either owns an inn/brewery, is a blacksmith, a head of some mining operation or a mercenary. Any elf you meet is probably a high born noble of some sort, a wizard or a ranger. Hobbits are always rogues, thieves or comic relief characters. Finally, if you see an Orc you automatically know he is a bad guy! In fact you should imediately go and whack him with your sword or something before he starts raping and pillaging.
You know what you almost never see? A foul mouthed, coarse, sweaty elven blacksmith! A distinguished high born female dwarf wizard with a taste for fine wine and silky fabrics. A respected Orc scholar or poet searching for a muse. And none of that Vogon poetry shit either. I want him to be a real poet, whose verses would make the finest elven bards turn green with envy! Breaking stereotypes is fun!
I want to see a fearsome hobbit paladin and a world weary, battle scarred, no-nonsense short tempered Gnome mercenary captain. Sure, laugh but tell me why not? Give me a rule book, and I will probably be able to build you a quite ferocious little NPC that will totally pwn ass in that system. Or given enough time, and experience points I could totally level up a gnome or hobbit PC to be quite a formidable warrior. Of course an Orc specked to be an ultimate warrior will definitely have an edge on my fully specked hobbit but that doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that there really should be orc poets, hobbit mercenaries and elven blacksmiths. Someone has to do these jobs in their societies. Some game designers get this!
Bethsheda games that take place in world of Tamriel are a good example here. They allow any combination of race, class and social role to be accessible both to players and NPC’s. While races get specific bonuses in their areas of expertise (ie. Orcs are big and strong and fierce in combat, high elves are better at magic and etc), there are still NPC’s out there that forgo these advantages and choose to pursue non-standard careers. So you in a typical Morrowind/Oblivion town you may encounter an Orc scholar, High Elf farm hand and a Wood Elf stable boy.
World of Warcraft does this too to some degree. I always got a kick when visiting Horde side Goblin towns – they had these little dudes with spiky maces walking around acting as guards. I found that incredibly awesome and realistic. These folks didn’t look tough at all, but it made total sense. Goblins may be one of the smaller and weaker races in Azeroth, but they still had to defend themselves somehow. It made perfect sense for them to take up combat based professions even though they would probably never be able to overpower the bigger races in a one on one combat. Oh, and I believe that on Alliance side you could actually play a Gnome paladin.
Just think about it. Every race will naturally contain individuals who choose all kinds of different paths of life. Some exceptions are fine. For example, in some settings lack of Dwarf wizards is explained by their natural high resistance to magic which makes casting spells difficult for them. That’s fine. But it is silly to assume there are no thugs, muggers, mercenaries and bullies among hobbits, or no warriors among gnomes. It’s equally silly to think there are no stable boys, farmers and swine herders in high elf society. I mean, who cleans the shit off their courtyards, takes care of their farm animals and empties High King’s bed pan? Someone has to do it, no?
So paradigm breaking, stereotype violating character archetypes are not only fun. They are also realistic. Your players may laugh when they get ambushed by half ling bandits or local mob enforcers but they will quickly learn to respect the “lesser” races once they realize these dudes are better armed, better well trained and much more organized and disciplined than the hordes of goblins they are used to fighting.
Or better yet, pull a switcharoo on them. Have them meet some very important NPC noble at his estate. The first person they meet there is a strikingly handsome elf, dressed in plain clothes that seem of elven origin. See if your players automatically assume he is the VIP and formally address him with the issue. If they do, have him quickly and politely explain that he is actually a lowly servant who takes care of the gardens and have him lead them to the actual nobleman. What? An elf can’t be a manual laborer?
Not all elves are distinguished and noble. Not all dwarfs are honorable. Not all hobbits are weaklings. That should be your new mantra.
Have you ever used non-standard characters like that? Have you played a wacky character like that? Have you seen them used in other computer games? Let me know in the comments?