Not Always Chaotic Evil

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?

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10 Responses to Not Always Chaotic Evil

  1. Morghan Phoenix UNITED STATES Epiphany Linux says:

    Does it count if you pattern your elf after a Melnibonean?

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  2. IceBrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Debian GNU/Linux Terminalist says:

    Actually, I think Tolkien made a general characterization of the races, not in Lord of the Rings but in Silmarillion, which describes the creation and early times of the Middle Earth.
    But there are different personalities for each race, but only the Hobbits and Humans are well described.

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  3. actually, there is a lot more fantasy then just tolkien out there.. but yeah, he set the standard and most people follow where he lead.
    But still.. i could name you some Books that break with this schema, i even got a series on the shelve, telling nearly exclusively about a single guild of halfling warriors and theier war against some big evil. In this story they are famous for long-range sight and because of this famous archers.

    In Morrowind i played an Dunmer Warrior most of the Time, sometimes more of a Battlemage, so that is not that much against these stereotypes

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Morghan Phoenix: I had to look that term up. What are the core differences between a Melnibonean and a standard Elf?

    @IceBrain: Yeah, probably. I never got through the whole Silmarilion so it’s possible there is some interesting stuff there. But then again Silmarilion is also an epic story – or a collection of epic stories about kings and heroes.

    He does however describe hobbit customs and psyche at length in Hobbit. Only to subvert what he just wrote by introducing Bilbo Baggins who happens to be a non-standard hobbit.

    @Dr. Azrael Tod: Heh, interesting. Still, it seems like the book did try to fit them into a niche of their own. That’s kind of what I’m complaining about.

    When you visit Rohan, you see the world famous Riders first and foremost, but you also see their peasants, servants, workers and etc. You visit elven settlement and every single elf has a bow, and a sword on him. There are like no “normal” elves who are neither awesome, not good at shooting or fighting. I mean who rakes the leaves in their gardens? Who bakes lembas?

    In Morrowind I usually played a Wood Elf thief/assassin. At some point most characters get decent at magic, so my elf can run on water, levitate, open locks from across the room and etc.

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  5. Etienne DENMARK Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    You seem like you play/have played some D&D, I can’t help but wonder then, how come you have not checked out the setting piece of Eberron. Most standard fantasy stereotypes are broken (at least to a degree). Halflings are dinosaur riding barbarians, dwarves are savvy buisness men and some elves are horseriding, ancestor worshipping marauders just looking for a worthy fight. You ought to at least look it over since it seems most of your grief with fantasy has been adressed to some point in that setting.

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  6. Morghan Phoenix UNITED STATES Opera Linux says:

    Well, aside from the pacts with demons and the general idea that the “young races” are lab rats at best, not altogether that much. They love torture, have a tendancy to offer the souls of their enemies to their demonic patrons, and take the snobby elf stereotype so much further than even the worst of your tolkien elves.

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  7. Morghan Phoenix UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    [quote comment="11541"]When you visit Rohan, you see the world famous Riders first and foremost, but you also see their peasants, servants, workers and etc. You visit elven settlement and every single elf has a bow, and a sword on him. There are like no “normal” elves who are neither awesome, not good at shooting or fighting. I mean who rakes the leaves in their gardens? Who bakes lembas?

    [/quote]

    you should keep in mind the age of the elves, I mean Elrond was in The Silmarillion, he’s at least six thousand years old. It would be pretty impossible to not be amazingly skilled after having lived for that long. I would also assume that their culture is one that would attempt to keep the mundane masked from outsiders, or possibly they’ve come to a point where they manage everything for themselves. nobody needs to be tasked with keeping up the grounds because everyone from a youngling to a lord does his/her part when it needs to be done.

    Let’s see if that works now, unable to edit the post for what I forgot to include and I get a WP-SpamFree page when I try to post again on the same computer. So, trying it from the wife’s to see if it will go through.

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Etienne: Ah, interesting. I haven’t played Eberron but it does sound interesting.

    Still, we are just taking one set of racial stereotypes and replace it with another. What I’m trying to get at is that we can embrace the standard Elf template and then populate the world with non-standard individuals. After all, isn’t this how human societies work.

    Think about the stereotypes attached to your race, nationality and region. It is more likely or not that you and most people with similar background you know are in some way exceptions from that stereotypical “norm”. In other words, aberration seems to be the norm in most societies.

    @Morghan Phoenix: Wow, I didn’t think about the age hing. Very good point. You are absolutely right, if you live for thousands of years, then at some point in your life you will probably pick up some rudimentary combat skills and learn to shoot a bow one way or another. You are right! Elves might be exempted from this on behalf of their longevity.

    Ok, let me switch the argument around. Who cleans the outhouse in an Orc camp? How come we never see the women and children or orcs, goblins, kobolds and other evil races. Why can’t we ever observe their family lives?

    Even the most war-like cultures do have non-combat related customs and rituals. I mean these races do seem to have some rudimentary societies, they manufacture weapons so they do have to have think about other things than just raping and pillaging, no?

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  9. Daosus UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox SuSE Linux says:

    The reason that fantasy races are so stereotyped is because they really are closer to individual cultures, not entire races of people. And, more to the point, they represent what would essentially be called a “tribe” in human history — an extended network of perhaps 200,000 people, fully self sufficient, with their own language and customs. However, it’s a very small group, so drawing stereotypes about the group is actually fairly accurate. Of course, in fantasy worlds, these stereotypes are applied to 20 million people, which is flat wrong.

    The orcs are the classic “people from the hills” culture. These actually existed throughout human history, and their real life counterpart answer many of your questions. For example: who cleans the lavatory trough at an orc camp? The lowest guy on the totem pole. Why are there never any women and children? Because you never see the orc villages. You only see orc warbands and makeshift war camps. Their villages are further back from civilization. Incidentally, this also explains why there never seems to be a shortage of orcs. Women are necessary to maintain population. Men, beyond a small percentage necessary to *ahem* get the next generation started, aren’t. Orc men fight, orc women make babies and get the next generation ready.

    Also, many of the most war-like cultures on earth do NOT have the facilities or the technologies to make good weapons. They tend to be the marginalized people living in undesirable areas. Their poverty, combined with the wealth of nearby civilization is the impetus for their warmaking. Take a look at the Mongols — they couldn’t make cloth, silk or metal. They COULD make things from animal products, like bows, arrows, tents, horse saddles,etc. If you’ll look at the steppe people around China, you’ll see that as the various tribes became more sinicized, they got better technology.

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  10. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Daosus: Very good points all around. I really can’t disagree with any of this.

    I’m just saying that it would sometimes be nice to meet that Orc who is the lowest man on the totem pole. Or the guy who is an incredibly skilled weapon smith. I don’t know, I’d sort of want to see Orcs being shown as a race of people with their own customs, traditions, goals, aspirations, their own society and hierarchy of values. More often than not they end up being the generic faceless foe.

    Oh, and I still have not given up on that idea of an Orc leaving his tribe behind to pursue study of science. :P

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