Racial Archetypes as Caricatures of Humans

It seems to me that fantasy races often take on caricaturistic qualities in many (or most) fantasy RPGs. A lot of this comes from the tropes and clichés that have hidden within RPGs for many, many years, but I do believe it runs a bit deeper than just, “that’s how things came to be.”

I was thinking about this on the way home from work yesterday, and it struck me as a discussion that could possibly be entertaining (as well as educational?) to the RPG community. Keep in mind that all of this is strictly conjecture, and I don’t have any kind of evidence to back it up… I’m basically just thinking out loud here.

Note that I’m using basic, general, stereotypical renditions of races for the purposes of this discussion, and I’m using general, stereotypical ideas about real-world people, too.

I’m playing with the idea that many of the features of “standard” fantasy races are exaggerated and magnified versions of specific human traits.

For example, dwarves are pretty much caricatures of masculinity. They’re tough, they can take a lot of pain, the hold their liquor pretty well– the “tough-guy” types. They’re obsessed with their beards. They’re excellent craftsmen of utilitarian things: the fantasy equivalents of modern auto-mechanics, construction workers, architects, and engineers. They’re usually depicted as martial if not aggressive– no invading army is going to catch them unprepared. They’re stoic and reserved, not showing a lot of sissy emotion. This theory also explains why female dwarves are so rarely encountered– if dwarves are a magnification of masculine caricatures, feminine versions of them are almost counterintuitive.

I think halflings, gnomes, and the other smaller races are derived in a similar way from children. Their size was the hint that tipped me off, but their behaviors are often similarly childlike. Two of gnomes’ most strongly represented characteristics are ill-advised, obnoxious, or inappropriate senses of humor, and a tendency to build stuff that doesn’t work. (O, when I think of all my magnificent, ill-fated childhood plans and inventions!) Halflings are the lovable little scamps that can’t keep out of trouble. Goblins are the playground bullies: violent and brutish, but small-time and easy enough to take less-than-seriously.

I was wondering what you all think about this sort of dissection. Any other races jump out at you with a similar analysis?

I think this is, in general, a pretty unuseful thought exercise, though it does seem to explain certain things about the status quo. For example, humans are almost always portrayed as “the adaptable ones” or “the versatile ones”, with no other overarching cultural detail. But that makes perfect sense if you consider that in-game humans are modeled closely after real-world humans and the full spectrum of their personalities and experiences, while every other race in our general collective vocabulary is allegedly modeled after one specific aspect, focused and magnified, of real-world humans’ personalities and experiences. Of course humans are “the versatile ones” if they’re the only ones whose nature has not been defined by a limitation!



8 thoughts on “Racial Archetypes as Caricatures of Humans

  1. I don’t think they’re caricatures (except when somebody like Terry Pratchett does them) as much as stereotypes. When you have a whole world to convey, stereotypes are a huge time-saver…which is why fantasy and science-fiction, which have so much more about the setting to get across to the audience than naturalistic fiction, are much more prone to use stereotypes to convey aliens, cultures (even worlds settled by humans will often have a single stereotypical culture), even entire worlds (“It was raining on planet Mongo”). It keeps the audience from being overwhelmed by detail and impossibly subtle distinctions. People just aren’t equipped to think of population distributions; if Dwarves are only 20% more likely than humans to enjoy beer or live underground that’s not really a significant enough difference to make them worth introducing in the setting.
    As a time saving device, you’d expect trading in broad stereotypes to be more true of movies than books (which I think is true), and I’d argue more true of RPGs than movies–at least at the beginning of a campaign. Over the course of many sessions an RPG may find time to delve deeper than the initial stereotype for things that are in the foreground of play (e.g. if most or all of the party are Dwarves or the adventures take place in Dwarven lands), but at the beginning I think it’s an unusual game-group that will let you devote more than a few minutes or a couple of pages to background material on the various races and cultures in the setting. A strong, memorable stereotype can put you way ahead in getting the players to picture the world.

  2. This aspect of RPG races was really clarified to me when I read Neil Stephensons Cryptonomicon, and the main character describes himself as a dwarf, sitting at a table full of elves. The mental picture of personalities and outlooks was so clear that I just sat there for a second. I guess that’s what makes Stephenson a great writer.

    I think that utilizing this kind of stereotype is a handy shorthand. It’s recognizable, provides an interesting framework to create a character within.

    Also, something important to remember is that a lot of fantasy races were derived from mythology or folklore. There were elves and dwarves and orcs (fae and dvergr and… orcs) long before DnD or even Tolkien came along. And mythology and folklore is about humans, after all.

  3. I think you’re right in that games often pigeon hold races to certain generalizations. I’d say this is often done because they’re borrowing too much from Tolkien, or because if they didn’t give specific traits to races like this then it would only be aesthetic differences between playing different races.

    I can see advantages and disadvantages to make dwarves a certain way – it gives them a heritage, something firm to base a character concept around, but in reality not all people who are x necessarily do or like y. For PCs if you like some elements of a race like dwarves and dislike others you can always play the “outsider” of your race – the dwarf who likes blacksmithing as a hobby but would rather be a dentist instead of fighting orcs.

  4. It’s not unique to nonhumans by any means.

    Look at any pulp adventure, for instance. If there’s an Irish character, he will be brave and lucky, but also a braggart and a drunk. A Chinese character will be clever and hardworking, but also deceptive and devious. Germans and Russians are always violent in nature. Blacks are usually lazy and ignorant (but perhaps oddly, rarely villainous, aside from the occasional voodoo priest).

    All of this reflects the cultural stereotyping of the times. Writers used those stereotypes to some extent because it was an easy way to establish a character (and pulp characters were quite shallow). But mostly, they used them because they belonged to the society of the time, and those were the established stereotypes.

    Fantasy writers (and GMs) today have certain influences, too. Tolkien, Howard, Vance, many others. Sometimes they don’t even know it — not every player of 1-3e D&D ever read Vance, but his ideas still affected their games. That’s the “society” of fantasy, and that’s where a lot of the ideas we work with come from.

    And in a game, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Few players really would want to read an in-depth anthropological and sociological study of the dwarves before playing one. Stereotypes give the players a solid picture of the society without being deluged with information. When you’re talking two pages for a racial writeup in the Player’s Handbook, stereotypes are the tools you use to make it fit.

  5. @Joshua – You bring up a good point that is work talking about. Long campaigns have much more opportunity (and thus, are much more probable) to explore different, diverse cultures than shorter adventures. It falls to the same, obvious reasons as to why, nowadays, many directors are trying to launch their own long-series TV shows, instead of just make one or two movies about a subject – because it gives you more time to lay out the story in the way you want to lay it out. Robert Jordan can get all into the history and cultures of his people in The Wheel of Time because he has twelve books of 1000 pages each to get into it. Average players probably don’t have the kind of attention spam (or even interest) to know the difference between the Dwarf Culture A, Dwarf Culture B, Dwarf Culture C, and Dwarf Culture D. However, as a world-builder, I tend to not let that stop me from creating as realistic depictions of culture as possible, anyway! :) :)

    @Wickedmurph – I’ve never read the books you talk about, but I definitely know what you mean when talking about humans’ familiarity in mythology.

    @Jack – Your first statement is pretty much the point I was getting at, that often GMs are willing to sacrifice the integrity of the game to allow for stereotypes that may or may not be what’s best for the setting overall.

    @Scott – You bring up some good points on cultural stereotypes that I plan(ed) on writing about eventually. I agree, these stereotypes are not necessarily a bad thing, but they can be limiting.

    Thanks for reading!!

  6. Ishmayl: Awesome article, and I can hear it begging follow-up right the way through the screen. Where do you plan on going with it from here?

    Jack: Is there something wrong with only having aesthetic differences?

    Besides, the mechanical differences we’re given don’t necessarily have to always mean the same culture; there’s a lot that can be done with “sturdy, steady and good at holding their booze”. Dwarven pirates, anyone?

    Scott: They don’t need an in-depth anthropological survey to get the point across. Just a page or two of explanation, and maybe a page of stuff set within the culture to get the feel across. (The writer’s first rule: Come up with all the nifty background, and then file it.)

  7. @Ravyn – I’m actually writing a follow-up on it that focuses a bit on what Scott touched on with cultural stereotypes, but I’m having a bit of writer’s block on the subject.

  8. @Ravyn: Part of my point is, anything that can be gotten across in a page or two is bound to be a stereotype. I mean, can you define, say, “New Yorker” in two pages, let alone “American” or “human”? Then how can you define “dwarf” in two pages?

    I’ll have a post on this myself in a couple of days, I think… there’s some stuff I’d like to touch on that’s really outside the scope of a comment.

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