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!