Homogenized Races?

Okay, folks... here's a good discussion topic for you;

Racial languages/religions/alignments.

I personally really dislike the "homogenous" races idea which seems to be present in a lot of TTRPGs, (D&D in particular). The idea that an entire race follows the same pantheon or speaks the same language, regardless of where in the world they're from just doesn't ring very true to me. This is why the idea of "racial" anything seems very incongruous to me. I have a hard time believing that the Elves of Silverymoon and the Elves of Cormyr speak the same language, let alone worship the same pantheon or have the same cultural structure.

Throughout history, we've seen dozens of instances of similar ethnotypes or even communities deeply (and sometimes violently) divided by language, religion, or cultural mores. So why not fantasy worlds? The Forgotten Realms in particular, the only race which seems to follow any sort of "realistic" ethnic divergence are humans. Everyone else seems to just get a new subrace thrown at them for each new region discovered.

As for Alignments, I don't use them anyway... I think they're WAY too "mechanical" to reflect true morality. I think the devs themselves even realised this; adding characters like Drizzt and gods like Eilistraee to pay lip-service to "moral complexity" within the cultures. But for people who use them, do you ever have issues with the idea of an entire race having the same moral compass? Or does it just not come up?

TL;DR, I'm looking for other people's opinions of the "WizardDidIt" way in which non-human FRPG societies seem to be racially homogenous across the world. Is this something you're okay with? Do you mix it up? Take different approaches? What are they?

(Oh, and don't even get me started on the fact that there's a language called "Common" :))
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
I’ve always thought of Common as either a trade pidgin or constructed language (like Esperanto), the most common primary/secondary language in the world (think Greek, Latin, French, and English, in turn), or a mechanical mesh mash of both.
 

5ekyu

Adventurer
In my experience- a lot of modern and alien scifi etc... the language and culture conceits just aide play. The times where anything like the diversity of language possible was put into play without some hand-wave such as universal translator or babble-fish mage rpg more fun on an ongoing basis is small compared to the frustrations of ongoing tries to play thru the "how do we communicate".

It's why so many fantasy and scifi fi novels, shows, movies etc find ways to work around it except for a few rare cases that stand out.

To me this is more a problem of theory vs one of play.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
TL;DR, I'm looking for other people's opinions of the "WizardDidIt" way in which non-human FRPG societies seem to be racially homogenous across the world. Is this something you're okay with? Do you mix it up? Take different approaches? What are they?
A Role Playing Game, to contain an accurate detail of all the subdivisions of which its rules might describe the complexities of the world, and of all the means by which those rules may be carried into execution, would partake of the prolixity of a legal code, and could scarcely be embraced by the human mind.

It would probably never be understood by the public.

The nature of a table top RPG, therefore, requires that only its great outlines should be marked, its important objects designated, and the minor ingredients which compose those objects be deduced from the nature of the objects themselves.
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
I have no problem believing that lexical purity is important to long-lived elder races in a fantasy world where words in ancient languages are one of the keys to eldritch power.

I have a lot more trouble with the idea that all orcs or all gnolls speak the same language. I would assume that most of those humanoid languages, much like Common, are pidgins with a lot of borrowed words from local languages.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I personally really dislike the "homogenous" races idea which seems to be present in a lot of TTRPGs, (D&D in particular). The idea that an entire race follows the same pantheon or speaks the same language, regardless of where in the world they're from just doesn't ring very true to me. This is why the idea of "racial" anything seems very incongruous to me. I have a hard time believing that the Elves of Silverymoon and the Elves of Cormyr speak the same language, let alone worship the same pantheon or have the same cultural structure.
Well, it isn't like the pantheon and cultural structure are cleanly separable. The gods support particular social structures.

And, in our fantasy worlds, the gods have a say in things - if a god gives spell power to elvish worshippers/clerics, and does not give power to non-elves, that's going to reinforce religion being a racial characteristic.

(Oh, and don't even get me started on the fact that there's a language called "Common" :))
Um... we have the phrase lingua franca for a reason....

From there, there's the simple matter that this is a game. We are at play. There are parts of the real world that are not really all that much fun as elements of play, so... they don't show up so much in our games. Accuracy is only useful to us insofar as it is *fun*.
 
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Jer

Adventurer
TL;DR, I'm looking for other people's opinions of the "WizardDidIt" way in which non-human FRPG societies seem to be racially homogenous across the world. Is this something you're okay with? Do you mix it up? Take different approaches? What are they?
I mix it up depending on how far up the magic scale the beings we're talking about are - the more magical a group of beings are, the less naturalistic I play their cultures and languages. For example, elves in my worlds tend to be pretty magical and tied to the rest of the fey, so the idea that they all speak a magical language that hasn't change since the dawn of creation is generally fine to me - likewise things like Draconic, Celestial and Infernal and other planar languages. Although if there's a reason to play the elves more naturalistically then I do that - for example when I run games in Mystara elves have different languages because elves aren't as tied to the fey and there are different groups of elves who have been separate for millennia and have allowed their cultures to evolve down different paths.

Dwarves are a bit of a different story for me, since we generally play them a bit more "down to earth" than the elves (HA!), but since in most of the worlds I've run there is exactly one place in the world where dwarves hail from, it's usually not an issue. They all speak the same language because they're all from Dwarfheim or Rockhome or whatever and so it doesn't matter.

For creatures like goblins, ogres, giants, etc. - generally I figure the creatures of the same type speak the same language, and adventurers identify that language as "goblin" or whatever. Basically just like there's a "common" for humans in a particular geographic area, there's also a "common" for humanoid types in a geographic area that may or may not be related to the human "common" (sometimes humanoid languages are a "pidgin" or a dialect of "common" or Elvish, sometimes it's their own thing - it depends on how I want to play it or if my players have ideas that would lead us down one path or another).

(Oh, and don't even get me started on the fact that there's a language called "Common" :))
I've always taken "common" to be a family of languages and dialects - like Latin in Europe. The game doesn't really handle tracking individual languages at a granular level, and stopping play while characters try to mime what they want to shopkeepers and blacksmiths is fun maybe once in a while. As long as you're within a particular geographic area, all of the languages are related back to some common language so everyone can kind of figure out each other well enough to be able to trade. If you travel too far away from your home, you're going to find unfamiliar languages (but games don't usually go that far away, so it doesn't matter, and if it does then you use spells or magic items to deal with it).
 

steeldragons

Steeliest of the dragons
As others have said, part of the issues you raise are due to simple mechanical need. You need, barring interesting special scenarios/circumstances, for the characters to be able to communicate with most of the things they encounter...and "civilized" peoples/nations (presumably with hundreds of years of history) need to interact. So, "Common" trade tongue is an easy way to do that supplemented with PCs knowing multiple languages so, presumably, at least one or two characters in a group could understand/translate for others when you need to eavesdrop on the goblin guards or overhear demonic cult leader laying out schemes/directions, in Abyssal, to his demonic minions.

It just...moves the play along without turning into Translator the RPG [tm].

As for the homogany of races, that has something to do with a couple of different issues.
#1: the simplest and most obvious being that the players are humans. They can only play/experience the game, different species, different cultures, different religions through their own experience/understanding. So, for most players, elves are going to "feel"/play/sound like humans are going to "feel"/play/sound like dwarves or halflings are going to "feel"play/sound...individual "character/personality" idiosyncratic stuff and fantasy world homebrewed creative/exotic culture stuff aside, because they are all being played by..human players.

#2: It goes to the origins of the game and its source material...predominantly Tlkien's work, when we're talking about Human/Elf/Dwarf/Halfling being the racial spread for heroic player characters. There is literary sourcing, as well as mythological and folkloric materials, as to the origins and "nature" of these various beings.

Simply put, Humans (harkening back to religion) were the ones "unique" in that they possessed "Free Will." They possess a "noble spirit/soul/what have you" that is special. Dwarves, essentially, are carved stone with a specific "spirit"/life breathe into them. [Not to mention the generally immutable nature of stone/rock.] Elves were, similarly, created by some special magical means that dictates -again for the most part- their nature- their love of twilight and stars and the cool woods and soft breezes -magic, love, beauty, and all that other "perfect world/goodly deity space before "Evil" and "Man" came around" stuff. That is "what" they are, as much as "how" they act. All elves are "elfy." All dwarves are "dwarfy." They cant help it.

Basically, initially in the game at least, the most "alien" thing about non-human characters is - There is only so far they can stretch/comprehend outside the "mold" of their creation. Whereas humans, curiously to other races, either by design or accident of their creation, dont seem to have a "mold." Humans can do whatever they want, adapt, effect change... where elves and dwarves (to an extent halflings, and all the other fantasy RPG races that have come since) are somewhat baffled or incapable once you get too far outside the mold of the nature in which they were generated. By extension, everything that is spawned by that creation -language, culture, [religion if there is one], etc... is similarly..."stunted"/limited to the bounds of that creation.

So, all that long wind to say, Yeah! The races get homogenized. Some consciously. Some not.

You can certainly work, consciously, to not play that way. Not to have a singular "surface elf" culture/language/religion or a single "dwarf" culture diaspora that managed to spread around any corner of the setting.

I do it in my setting.

There are [a known minimum of] 4 distinct language branches of "Elfin" spoken by no fewer than 6 distinct cultures of elves. The setting's "Wood [analogue]" elves follow a shamanic ancestral and nature spirit worship kind of religion and eschews arcane magical teaching/practice. The "High" elf culture is not particularly religious at all but the cerebral or spiritual among them "revere" some of the old deities of things elves have affinity (the moon, knowledge/magic, the forests/hunt, etc...) but there's not what we would call "organized religion." So called "Dark Elves [Drow]" were banished from the surface ages ago and have passed [for all but the eldest of "grey analogue" elves who will not speak of them] into the world of myth and legend, if they are heard of at all.

There are 6 distinct human ethnicities, spread across some 8 [established] "nations" with at least 10 various languages spoken among them...and theres a "Common" [which all PC's of every race know] in addition to at least one of their human "Homeland Tongue."

Halflings are, generally, similar...sequestered in secluded small enclaves, though there are two [known/for PC] sub-races. The majority traditionally, are a matriarchal polygamous culture. Linguistically, the western halflings have a distinct dialect and are prone to worship more elfin and human inspired divinities -melding and grafting like characters to their own traditional deities. While the eastern halflings worship "their" [halfling] gods by "their" [halfling] names and steadfastly unequivocably assert they are separate -halfling- gods (the first great halfling clan of heroes who defeated the demon-goblin deities who stalked the earth at the beginning of time and rose to celestial power).

All or most of these (or dwarven or gnomish or lizardman or goblin or) deities simply being the appropriate race's "aspects"/manifestations of the singular pantheon of divinities that supervises the known world (he third, give or take, such "generation" of entities to do so)...though even the gods' aspects themselves sometimes forget that. There are exceptions: elder ranks of gods, lost/dead gods, demons, devils, elemental lords, demigods/ascended mortals, etc...who have added to the mix and may have mortal followings from a single local region to multiple nations. But for the most part, the primary pantheon of [human] gods are just various faces/facets of the same divine entities worshiped by different names in different cultures.

And so on, and so on...established dwarf kingdoms of feuding alignments, 5 classifications of gnomes each with distinct cultures and languages, shamanic centaur tribes being driven to extinction and/or cultural annihilation, immortal elves that speak [to humans] so slowly it'll make you tear your hair out. You can make language and culture [and Alignment plays in, a lot, to what a culture shapes into] as diverse and fantasized up as you want.

But in the end, you are a group of humans sitting around a table playing make believe. Humans, if nothing else, are creatures of habit. For the most part, people play what they "know"...and that's just...human.
 
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I tend to use regional languages, so both elves and orcs from Austland will speak Austlandic, while those from Lutresh will speak Lutreshan.

In order to facilitate ease of communication in play, I usually give all creatures at least a couple or regional languages for free.

This allows players to choose unusual dialects for privacy / subterfuge purposes while also being able to pretty much speak with anyone they need to speak to.
 

uzirath

Explorer
When it comes to the purported "races" of fantasy worlds, I heartily agree. I have, at least since the mid-1980s, used heterogeneous races in my fantasy worlds (whether D&D or not). In GURPS terms, I build racial templates that cover basic physical differences and possibly a few other elements that are "baked in" to the race (with grounding in their creation myths). So all elves might have Magery to reflect an inherent magical nature or something like that. After that, each species can apply cultural templates just like humans. These would cover standard traits of a distinct culture.

An elf raised by greedy bankers might be as moneygrubbing as Thorin Oakenshield. There might even be an elvish culture of materialistic financiers. When I start a campaign, I typically figure out what the reference society is (usually the largest cultural group in the setting) and then define other groups in relation to it.

I haven't used alignment in many years, but we also stopped applying it to "races" in the early days of AD&D.

With that said, some regions of the world might think that all elves are a certain way or all dwarves or whatever. Just like the real world has stereotypes about different cultures (Americans are loud, etc.), the game world isn't immune. So if there's only one major dwarf kingdom nearby, then the humans might think that all dwarves are like that. Imagine their surprise when they land on an uncharted island and discover that it's populated by cannibal dwarf wizards who don't have any forges and are uninterested in gold.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Okay, folks... here's a good discussion topic for you;

Racial languages/religions/alignments.

I personally really dislike the "homogenous" races idea which seems to be present in a lot of TTRPGs, (D&D in particular).
First, forget touching on elves or dwarves for now. Everything you say about racial homogeneity in fantasy worlds tends to apply to humans first, and humans are a much easier standard.

I once thought many of the same things you think here. Before you grumble too much, I suggest you play without nigh universal languages for a few years and the come back and report your experiences.

Widespread linga franca do exist but often not as mother tongues in the real world. Nonetheless, a very limited number of languages has a nigh invaluable benefit to an RPG because its just not fun having a cool RPG that you can't RP with because of a lack of a common language, nor is it fun to have hints and clues in languages the players have no chance of reading. Simplified language choices help games from D&D to Call of Cthulhu.

So whether you have a hard time believing everyone grew up speaking Latin or a handful of other tongues, it really is helpful for your RPG to work that way.

As for cultural diversity, it's very difficult to create sufficient unique cultural artifacts to invent cultures whole cloth, and D&D has typically not focused strongly on cultural norms or when it has, it's taken the easy way out and applied a stereotypical trope culture like 'Ancient Egyptian' to a nation and made a nation on the map a pastiche Egypt, Viking, Chinese, Russian, English, or whatever. So since none of the human cultures on the map tend to have a lot of cultural depth, there is little reason to imagine anyone is going to be particularly adept and inventing cultural depth for demihumans in the setting as well. Generally you have to be satisfied or even impressed when anything in a setting shows some real cultural or social imagination. Asking for two cultures in the same setting to have a lot of depth is perhaps asking too much.

Beyond that, most people are incapable of imagining cultural norms much different than their own unless they've also grown up in multiple places with different cultural norms. So one problem with emphasizing really imaginative cultural norms is you quickly create a setting where none of the players can successfully roleplay a character from that setting because there is this huge overhead of cultural IQ that they have to acquire first, probably through play, and for many of them it will be a bridge too far.

I don't really have a problem with an entire race having the same moral compass, particularly from the perspective of a human looking in and not necessarily seeing all the shades of difference that are there. I suspect in fact that humans as a race tend to have a pretty similar moral compass, even if they are notoriously bad at following the one that they generally agree that they ought to have. It doesn't strike me as surprising that a different species of being would on aggregate or average show a different system of mores than people do, or that cultures (whether human or not) could on aggregate or on average have different sets of values. So for example imagining that dwarves cooperate and hold group values with greater weight than all but the most lawful minded human civilizations doesn't strike me as anything but likely, whether we are talking about 'evolved from a different animal species' or 'created by a different creator', my expectation is a lack of distinction would be surprising rather than the reverse.

Religion is much the same way. I rarely encounter anything like a well thought out religion anyway, and rarely do RPG authors really want to investigate religion in any sort of deep manner. If a setting has even one interesting religious take, that's a positive. Asking for several might be asking more than is reasonable.

As for alignment, I don't really know what you mean. They've never been particularly mechanical. They are I think a bit overly simplistic but they might just be complex enough for the purposes and anything more complicated is likely to be vague to the point of being meaningless, or else actually "mechanical". And I confess I have a bias. Everyone whom I've ever played with who told me that Alignment was too simplistic to capture real human morality has played their PC in Pawn Stance, and their actual problem with Alignment seemed to be that it's existence nagged them away from their preferred Pawn Stance play.

I'm going to apologize for being a bit tightlipped with actual examples of cultures from my homebrew world, as I'm protective of my ideas. My world is unapologetically homo-centric, because I think it's so difficult to relate to a non-human perspective that if I made a non-human perspective default I'd be making it too hard for players to thrive in a social setting (in setting). But I do try to have cultural differences. Sometimes those cultural differences you have to paint with a pretty broad brush just to get them across, because you rarely have the time to invest in anything other than broad stereotypes - a few sentences to convey to a player recognizable features. But that's more the nature of the medium than it is any commentary on the fictional cultures, and it's certainly intended that if you investigated you'd find a lot of diversity within the individuals from that culture.
 

Celebrim

Legend
An elf raised by greedy bankers might be as moneygrubbing as Thorin Oakenshield. There might even be an elvish culture of materialistic financiers
The danger of this approach is that you might define away the race, so that the ultimate result is that all races are just humans with different bumps on their foreheads. You'll end up with more homogeneity and not less, and you'll risk banishing the alien from your setting and making everything familiar.

At the very least, some thought ought to be given to how a race with lives ten times that of humans might shift their view on material possessions a simple practical matter. For example, no possession you have is going to last longer than you are, and any possession which could last longer than you becomes proportionately more valuable. So I would think that this would tend to encourage behavior which to humans would seem extreme and irrational, such as placing relatively little value on most material possessions, but placing great cultural values on those few artifacts of living that tied generations and groups together. Certainly at the least elven bankers could afford to take a much longer view of finances than their human counterparts.

I'm not suggesting those are the only interpretations, but I generally am impressed when at least some thought has been given to how very different being different might make one. I can't imagine my elves doing banking at all. Coins in particular owing to their free tradability provoke a very different reaction on the average elf than they do the average human. An elf in my setting is prone to looking at coin, which could have passed through any number of unknown hands, with the same squimishness you might look at a soiled food container or other inherently tainted object. (I could make the obvious not Eric's grandma friendly analogy, but I'll limit myself to letting you imagine it.)

Just like the real world has stereotypes about different cultures (Americans are loud, etc.)...
American here. Americans actually are loud on average. This is because Americans culturally stand further apart when talking to each other than Europeans do. The result is that Americans naturally project to be heard, while Europeans by cultural inclination tend to want to get very close when talking - so close that it suggests an uncomfortable physical intimacy inappropriate to the setting or relationship. The reverse stereotype which as some basis in fact, is the European friend or relative that is inappropriately affectionate with a lot of hugs and even kisses inappropriate to cultural norms in America. Are such stereotypes a universal representation of the individuals from the two cultures? No, but they do seem to have some basis, and it is not - as each group sometimes imagines of the other, that they are just rude. The false stereotype of both Europeans and Americans is that they are rude. Loud is actually pretty reasonable though. (Rude is however IME a true stereotype of tourists regardless of cultural background.)
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
I can't imagine my elves doing banking at all. Coins in particular owing to their free tradability provoke a very different reaction on the average elf than they do the average human. An elf in my setting is prone to looking at coin, which could have passed through any number of unknown hands, with the same squimishness you might look at a soiled food container or other inherently tainted object.
[video=youtube;f9aM_dT5VMI]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9aM_dT5VMI[/video]

American here. Americans actually are loud on average. This is because Americans culturally stand further apart when talking to each other than Europeans do. The result is that Americans naturally project to be heard, while Europeans by cultural inclination tend to want to get very close when talking - so close that it suggests an uncomfortable physical intimacy inappropriate to the setting or relationship. The reverse stereotype which as some basis in fact, is the European friend or relative that is inappropriately affectionate with a lot of hugs and even kisses inappropriate to cultural norms in America. Are such stereotypes a universal representation of the individuals from the two cultures? No, but they do seem to have some basis, and it is not - as each group sometimes imagines of the other, that they are just rude. The false stereotype of both Europeans and Americans is that they are rude. Loud is actually pretty reasonable though. (Rude is however IME a true stereotype of tourists regardless of cultural background.)
We also smell different from Europeans, IME. Americans- of both genders- tend to favor detergents, soaps and perfumes with floral or powdery smells...and sometimes, in unfortunately large amounts. In that context, we almost smell like babies. After living in Europe for just a few months, I was often able to tell when another American had wandered nearby. After a few years, I could occasionally ID other regional variants.

Back in the USA, where our products dominate the market, people don't stand out because of their hygiene products as much...but food is a different story. There’s a few people I can pick out at my church based on curry or cumin.

Personally, I’ve been known to emit/sweat “garlic” scents, even without having had any in a 36 hour period.
 

Celebrim

Legend
We also smell different from Europeans, IME. Americans- of both genders- tend to favor detergents, soaps and perfumes with floral or powdery smells...and sometimes, in unfortunately large amounts. In that context, we almost smell like babies. After living in Europe for just a few months, I was often able to tell when another American had wandered nearby. After a few years, I could occasionally ID other regional variants.
I'm not even going to go there like I could because I can imagine this would be a touchy subject, but I had a friend from Pakistan that tried to take his American born wife back to the old country - and it was a cultural bridge too far. You are however quite right to point at hygiene as one of those areas were cultural norms have a huge role, and it makes me think that I've never even given much thought to it in terms of cultural diversity in my fantasy setting, beyond some broad nods that hygienic needs exist (such as having garderobes and toilets in dungeons and public baths in cities). I really ought to give some thought to soap, oils, perfumes, and the like and how different cultures approach the problem, because it is a really strong cultural marker and you don't notice it until it changes on you.
 

Aebir-Toril

std::cout << "Hi" << '\n';
In my worlds, I enjoy heterogenous races, but this brings up an interesting idea.

What is an Elf, exactly? Is the essence of an Elf the fact that it's a long-lived Human with different Ears, or is it Elven culture. When are fantasy races just the obligatory "more Humans", and when are they interesting by virtue of the idea of what an Elf is?

I tend to stray into the territory of considering Dwarves Dwarfish on a biological, rather than purely cultural level, but this seems like an interesting thing to discuss.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
I'm not even going to go there like I could because I can imagine this would be a touchy subject, but I had a friend from Pakistan that tried to take his American born wife back to the old country - and it was a cultural bridge too far. You are however quite right to point at hygiene as one of those areas were cultural norms have a huge role, and it makes me think that I've never even given much thought to it in terms of cultural diversity in my fantasy setting, beyond some broad nods that hygienic needs exist (such as having garderobes and toilets in dungeons and public baths in cities). I really ought to give some thought to soap, oils, perfumes, and the like and how different cultures approach the problem, because it is a really strong cultural marker and you don't notice it until it changes on you.
When I was a teen, I went back to Europe. The last half of the trip was behind the Iron Curtain- it was still a thing, then- and I ran out of my antiperspirant halfway through the trip. “No biggie.” I thought. I would just go buy some at the hotel store.

Problem #1: there were no American brands at all, nor any European brands I knew. All were Eastern European. No roll-ons, either. So I picked out a can of Rexona aerosol.

Problem #2: never having used an aerosol, it was difficult to gauge how much to use. (Regardless of amount, I didn’t find it particularly effective.)

Problem #3: no matter how little or how much I used, its strong musky scent was so overwhelming, I was relegated to using the bathroom last for the rest of the trip.
 

uzirath

Explorer
The danger of this approach is that you might define away the race, so that the ultimate result is that all races are just humans with different bumps on their foreheads.
Agreed. Really, in most RPG groups that I've seen, that's all the other races are anyway. You could just as easily replace the dwarf with a gruff human of limited height. Some players and GMs push harder, but ultimately we're all humans, so it's pretty hard to really inhabit an alien character. I tend toward worlds with lots of heterogeneity on as many axes as I can manage. There are lots of sentient species with lots of cultural variation within and between them—more like Star Wars, I suppose, than Lord of the Rings. It doesn't always make sense, but its fun.

At the very least, some thought ought to be given to how a race with lives ten times that of humans might shift their view on material possessions a simple practical matter.
I was tossing out a random example, but yes, again. (I'm failing at internet forum... I'm supposed to disagree on principle with everyone!) If there are going to be some baked-in differences (nature rather than nurture)—and I think there should be—then it behooves the GM to consider the cultural implications of those differences.

One caveat here, though, is that its easy to get paralyzed as a GM when you "have" to do all this work. I used to have a very high bar for myself and, as a result, I spent WAY too much time prepping for games. I've discovered that most players don't get upset if things are half-baked, especially if the world building is collaborative. I play very fast and loose now. In general, anything that has happened in the game, is a "fact" and we often connect these facts to generate new cultural ideas, history, and mythology as we play.

American here. Americans actually are loud on average. This is because Americans culturally stand further apart when talking to each other than Europeans do.
Again, no quibble here. I simply tossed it out there as an example of a modern stereotype that is not based in biology. In a fantasy world, dwarves might have a reputation for being loud (maybe because of their loud smithies) in one region. The people there think "all dwarves are loud." Of course, there will be individual dwarves there who buck the stereotype, but most of them probably fit. If, however, this trait wasn't rooted in biology, you might well discover a tribe of whispering dwarves somewhere else. I enjoy that sort of thing. (Especially when we discover that the dwarven jungle is inhabited by monsters from A Quiet Place...)
 

Celebrim

Legend
In my worlds, I enjoy heterogenous races, but this brings up an interesting idea.

What is an Elf, exactly? Is the essence of an Elf the fact that it's a long-lived Human with different Ears, or is it Elven culture. When are fantasy races just the obligatory "more Humans", and when are they interesting by virtue of the idea of what an Elf is?

I tend to stray into the territory of considering Dwarves Dwarfish on a biological, rather than purely cultural level, but this seems like an interesting thing to discuss.
Dwarves are biologically pretty close to humanity, or at least the ways that they are different are usually poorly explored.

Despite the apparent ability to crossbreed, elves are further from humanity biologically speaking than dwarves, though again the exact impact of those biological differences is usually poorly explored.

One thing for example that struck me when I brainstormed on this is that Dwarves seem to have a preference for communal living and also have a hardy constitution that would make them disease resistant. Elves on the other hand have a preference for a great deal of individualism and low density low environmental impact communities, and also have a frail constitution that would make them prone to communicable disease. I don't think these two things are unrelated. I mean, even the relative reluctance elves seem to have to keep livestock could have something to do with the fact that livestock at least in human communities tends to be a powerful vector for new virulent diseases.

What I've basically decided is that elves and dwarves are biologically adapted to very different lifestyles and correspondingly have a psychological preference for the very sort of environments that are linked to their biological needs. For each race, my first take on it is to ask, "What about this race makes them biologically different than humans, and how would it change their culture?" So Elves as a relatively unsocial xenophobic race of arboreal vegetarians defines them, in the same way that dwarves as a highly social race of subterranean warrior-smiths defines them.

Consider, you are an elf. You are going to live for centuries unless you die from something like a disease or violence. So what are you likely to do? Avoid disease and violence. Live in diffuse groups away from unsanitary urban conditions, avoid conflict with your friends, and avoid strangers as much as possible - and if you must interact with them it's likely to be at bowshot distance. And it's likely that all of that is baked deep into your subconscious and a matter of intuition for you. Your culture is created from your biology, and if we stripped down the cultural trappings from the different elven communities and focused on primal elven behavior, it would look pretty darn similar in the same way that stone age human communities look pretty different except for the 'hats'.
 

uzirath

Explorer
Widespread linga franca do exist but often not as mother tongues in the real world. Nonetheless, a very limited number of languages has a nigh invaluable benefit to an RPG because its just not fun having a cool RPG that you can't RP with because of a lack of a common language, nor is it fun to have hints and clues in languages the players have no chance of reading. Simplified language choices help games from D&D to Call of Cthulhu.
Yes. For most TFRPG genres, realistic handling of languages is a drag. I've played in a few exploration games where languages were handled realistically, but the pacing of those games was much different. (It was common for PCs to have lots of time to develop skills, including languages, between adventures.) Even then, we often depended on translators, which means more fragile NPCs and whatnot. If the GM takes it seriously, it can work, but only if she's not expecting to run standard D&D-style adventures.

For my standard fantasy games these days, I'm considering just stating as a world-premise that all sentient creatures speak the same language. They can create other languages, for sure, but the lingua franca is literally divinely imprinted as part of achieving sentience. (It might even be built into the structure of matter itself, which might explain why animated golems, plants, etc., can understand their creator.) This doesn't feel any more ridiculous than the usual way I've seen the common tongue implemented (where everyone of every social class somehow managed to learn it).
 

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