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Author Topic: The Role of Fantasy Races in FRPGs  (Read 14826 times)
Doctor Xero
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« on: February 26, 2004, 07:48:23 PM »

Quote from: Zak Arntson
Tying into the third category, you have races representing an exaggerated aspect of humanity. Does this ties into the suspension of disbelief? Can players can more readily accept a violent barbarian if he's a half-orc? Or an aloof mage if he's an elf? Does it help the social contract if the player constantly stealing from the party is a kender, and expected to do so, rather than a human thief?

I agree!

I suspect this socially contracted suspension of disbelief comes from our tendency towards tribalism.

First of all, note that for most of written history, other cultures are treated as other species rather than as human variants; for example, take a look at The Song of Roland and other epics and tales in the depiction of outsiders.  So, really, on one level a fantasy game with four different races and a fantasy game with four different cultures amounts to the same thing.

(I think that in games such as AD&D, in terms of functionality, race and class and alignment fulfill the same function.  Consider that AD&D once even had an alignment language unifying all members of a specific alignment!)

Also, psychologists have noticed that adolescents go through a stage known informally as the gang stage (I apologize that I can not recall the official term!).

In this stage, adolescents focus more on forming clique cultures with groupthink and normative pressures surprisingly similar to the groupthink and normative pressures of FRPG race cultures.  I might go so far as to suggest that most FRPG races function more like cliques than like cultures.  Perhaps a social psychologist would recognize the interactions of AD&D elves - dwarves - orcs far better than would an anthropologist?

Part of this tribalist/clique mentality includes a pressure towards narrow conformity not found in actual full scale cultures in the real world.  The range of normative behavior is narrower.  This fits in with the idea that, in both adolescent gang stage cliques and many FRPG races, membership identity is proven through following a specific attitude, default emotional state, etc. (for example, dour dwarves and arrogant but sad elves).

This groupthink norming mixed with the tribalist/clique mentality would make it easier for players to accept certain behaviors when those behaviors are justified through membership in the clique which is characterized by them.  Thus, a player with a thief character or a kender character will get away with thieving (without creating player resentment) than will a player with a paladin character or a high elf character.

For purely anecdotal evidence, notice how often AD&D players will justify their characters' behaviors not on the basis of individual characterization but on the basis of race and/or profession and perhaps alignment (these three being the axes within which an AD&D character was defined).

Doctor Xero

P.S. I think this is also true for many SFRPGs and even SF TV series, such as "Star Trek" in its many incarnations, "Babylon 5", etc.
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Jonathan Walton
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« Reply #1 on: February 26, 2004, 09:12:45 PM »

Fantasy races often also serve as masks for old sterotypes.  Many people remarked, in fact, that you can see some of this in the design work and direction of the recent Lord of the Rings movies, and I think fantasy roleplaying offers even more exaggerated examples.

-- the role of the "primitive" is pretty common.  Strong, not as culturally advance, in touch with nature, noble savage stuff, etc.

-- often times you have half-human species that don't fit into any culture, mirroring the situation of mixed-race people in previous times.

-- elves or other high races often take on a feel that is a mixture of celtic (faerie roots) and Asian.  I think the Asian part comes from viewing them as a "once powerful race who's time has passed," which is the classic Colonialist view of the East.

-- from Orcs to Klingons, I don't think there's any doubt why brutish & violent races are often depicted with dark skin.  Whether subconsciously or not, there is a not-so-subtle racism against people of African descent that influences the invention of fantasy humanoids.

-- in general, it's interesting that we have this obsession with other intelligent, humanoid species and that we choose to call them "races."  Definitely comes from earlier ideology that depicted other races as non-human or of a differenct species.

So, I guess I just want to point out that there's a lot of ugliness inbedded in many of these ideas, something that we can't really ignore.  Personally, I have a hard time with a lot of D&D-esque fantasy gaming for exactly this reason.
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #2 on: February 26, 2004, 10:28:54 PM »

Quote from: Jonathan Walton

-- from Orcs to Klingons, I don't think there's any doubt why brutish & violent races are often depicted with dark skin.  Whether subconsciously or not, there is a not-so-subtle racism against people of African descent that influences the invention of fantasy humanoids.


BL>  See, I agree with your general point, but I don't think that Orcs are actually Africans.  Let's examine some facts:

Orcs form raiding parties with which to rape and pillage.  The only African invasion of Europe was well-planned and executed by a military force.  Orcs are not military, outside of Tolkein, where they are Nazis.

Orcs are bigger and stronger than "normal humans."  North Africans, who Europeans have historically had contact with, are not larger nor stronger than Europeans.

Orcs favor axes.  Africans use scimitars in the north, and spears in the south (generally.)

Orcs have an honor-bound, clan-based culture with a warrior-based story tradition.  Africans, by and large, do not.

Orcs worship a grim, doomed one-eyed god.  Africans, as far as I know, do not.

Conclusion:  Orcs are not Africans.  Rather, Orcs are Northern Europeans, or some echo of the cultural memory of northern European raiding parties.  Vikings, in other words.

Of course, my (as in, from my fantasy world) Orcs live in the north, and have longboats ;-)

yrs--
--Ben

P.S.  I think that Africans are done the even graver insult of *being ignored entirely* in standard fantasy tropes.
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pete_darby
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« Reply #3 on: February 27, 2004, 01:51:35 AM »

AFAICR, Tolkienian orcs are rather more akin to the industrialised British proletariat of the early 20th century... also note how in conventional fantasy, orcish speech is usually rendered in working class british dialect, with the only visible variation being whether it's Northen English (Yorkshire)or Southern English (cockney).

But in conventional fantasy, since "orc" stands in for "bad race", they inveitably bring comparison with how literature has treated any number of ethnic or racial groups as the "bad race", be they Africans, Hispanics, Jews, Gypsies, or whatever.

Ulitmately, in role play this boils down to the intention and communicaiton of the writer of the game world and the intentions of the players.

Ben... you seem to be talking about Orcs in one particular setting, but I can't for the life of me think what it is... I'm sure I've seen orcs based on african tribalism in the past, as well as orcs based on the sicillian mafia, wolf packs and the British army, so any "Orcs are..." statement seems doomed without the qualifier "In this game world."

Frex, my great undeveloped game world is a conventional fantasy version of the American Civil War (of freedom, between the states, etc etc), with african-orc slaves, native american elves, etc. etc. as a tool to talk about the implied racism of fantasy. And also to play an ACW game without getting overwhelmed by grognards...

And is it me, or did D&D gnomes become very Jewish some time in the late 70's? They're small, big nosed, work with jewellery a lot, famed for their sense of humour in the face of adversity...

But lets hold our horses and look at this from the other end of the telescope: many of these works, fantasy & SF, are written as morality plays, or at least with "in-your-face" premise. To write a premise large, one tool is to use characters that embody values, or virtues or flaws. The blesing and curse of fantasy & SF is we can do this wholesale with entire sentient species, without getting the ACLU, NAACP and every decent human being in the world taking us off their kwanzaa lists. So we get the honourable warrior race, the dour miner race, the noble ancient race, the foul barbarian race, the scheming politician race, the wily merchant race. And, to the writer, they are all us, or part of us, or what we want to be, or what we fear we may be. Never mind that, as presented, their societies would collapse. In literature, film & TV, they're rhetorical devices, not studies in realistic sociology.
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Pete Darby
contracycle
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« Reply #4 on: February 27, 2004, 02:46:19 AM »

Quote from: Ben Lehman

Conclusion:  Orcs are not Africans.  Rather, Orcs are Northern Europeans, or some echo of the cultural memory of northern European raiding parties.  Vikings, in other words.


I sorta buy the idea of Orcs as Vikings, but then the unity of tone is hard to explain.  And I disagree with some of you other points.

Firstly, I think you're looking too deeply into history for contacts with Africa.  The 'Darkest Africa' trope is a Victorian construct, but in that regard, the cultural contacts are 19th Century, in Africa and not in Europe.  Or, the cultural contacts that do occur in Europe and the Americas are with slaves.

In the run up to the famouus Zulu wars, Sir Bartle Frere (IIRC) penned articles to the effect that the Zulu king was keeping his warriors in a state of sexual frustrattion, was fostering a warrior cult, and was about to fall upon the innocent collonists in an orgy of rapine and slaughter.  Its also worth noting that the British army at this time was simply not prepared for the psychological impact of melee combat, and found the whole experience highly traumatising.  19th Century travellers were highly impressed with the physicality of the savannah tribes.

And thus most of the tropes you identify DO have a precedent in the colonisation of Africa.  Zulu and others certainly did form war parties, were very often bigger and stronger than the British soldiers who grew up in polluted cities on adulterated food, and were certainly an honour-bound and clan-based warrior tradition (after all, until recently and possibly still, a Masai warrior has to kill lion to become a man).

I'm not sure the one eyed orc god exists out outside of D&D related to orcs, but may be wrong.  I'm also not aware of any primary association of orcs with axes.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: February 27, 2004, 06:10:45 AM »

Hello,

Some previous Forge discussions about this issue include:

Races and "races" in fantasy literature and RPGs (this one didn't take off)
[Arrowflight] Pixes, poisons, and duty
Shadow World keywords - races?
Mike's standard rant #2: species/race/culture
Race in heroic fantasy
The class issue (I think this is kind of important for the current thread)

Best,
Ron
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Doctor Xero
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« Reply #6 on: February 27, 2004, 09:40:16 PM »

I've enjoyed all the speculations apropos orcs.

Orcs have been used so often in fantasy (they're not really known in folklore by that name, and Tolkien's orcs are more a cross between goblins and the dark elves/dwarves of Norse mythology) that there is really no definitive definition of them.  So I find the speculation fascinating.

However, I started this thread in part because I'm interested in why we use races in FRPGs (and maybe SFRGPs) the way we do.

I think it's far more than simply a legacy of racism.  (Let's not forget that historically most European racism was not pigmentation coded so much as simply hatred of anyone different -- an essentialized xenophobia.)

I think Zak was correct in that it also helps people deal with suspension of disbelief.

I think there's a part of us which enjoys essentializing.  (This is all supposition on my part, not something I've learned in getting my grad degrees.)  I suspect we enjoy saying, "Oh, how German of you!" or "You are ~so~ Lutheran!"

I've known a number of players who enjoy designing their own races so that they can have cultural/racial explanations for the personalities they intend for their player-characters!

I wonder why we do that -- and whether understanding this tendency can help us design better games.

For example, I've noticed that it makes little difference whether I write
Quote
"In Generica, the race of Elves all love art and magic, the race of Dwarves all think only of gold, and the race of Orcs all hate learning and desire only conquest, but no one understands the race of Faeries, and the Faeries understand none of the other races."

or whether I write instead
Quote
"In Generica, the human tribe the Elvites all love art and magic, the human tribe the Dwarfese all think only of gold, and the human tribe the Orcurians all hate learning and desire only conquest, but no one understands the magical race of Faeries, and they understand none of the human tribes."

Race and culture both essentialize in the same way in terms of how players treat them, really.

Doctor Xero
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Lance D. Allen
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« Reply #7 on: February 27, 2004, 09:58:16 PM »

That seems to be one good way to look at fantasy races, Doc. Only thing you've missed is that fantasy races wear their natures on the outsides of their skin. Elves are ethereal and magical looking, dwarves are small, earthy and hairy, orcs are ugly and violent looking, and faeries are incomprensible.
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Doctor Xero
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« Reply #8 on: February 27, 2004, 11:19:03 PM »

Quote from: Wolfen
That seems to be one good way to look at fantasy races, Doc. Only thing you've missed is that fantasy races wear their natures on the outsides of their skin. Elves are ethereal and magical looking, dwarves are small, earthy and hairy, orcs are ugly and violent looking, and faeries are incomprensible.

You're right!

Could this interest in fantasy races also come, then, from the part of us that wants to be able to judge a book by its cover?

I recall Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's description of Sherlock Holmes' first encounter with Moriarty, in which he stated very specifically that Holmes could tell how brilliant and how coldly--ruthlessly--logical Moriarty was by the shape of his skull and preponderance of forehead (male receding hairline as a physical manifestation of high intelligence?).

Similarly, regardless of whether a barbarian tribe is white-skinned, black-skinned, copper-skinned, or green-skinned, and regardless of whether a barbarian tribe has epicanthic folds or aquiline noses or some other ethnicity-based descriptor, barbarians are almost always described as hairy specifically to link them to animals and thereby to animalistic personalities.

Perhaps by conflating race and culture in FRPGs and SFRPGs one is able to link appearance to cultural norms and thus to personality traits and abilities?

Doctor Xero
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Scourge108
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« Reply #9 on: February 27, 2004, 11:36:02 PM »

I always saw the orcs as being analagous to the way other societies viewed the Mongols and Huns.  Hordes of bloodthirsty barbarians with no respect for anything at all.  I also think there's some Native American infuence on a lot of the modern fantasy elves, particularly the wood elf variety.  Once again, a great empire now in decline fits the way Native Americans are viewed in the mass media.  Usually it seems that the fantasy races that are similar culturally to Africans (or African stereotypes, anyway) are the more "primitive" ones, like lizard men or the sexy cat-people all fantasy heartbreakers have to have.  

Speaking of fantasy heartbreakers, I found one in the discount section of a game store today that had several different human races, all similar to real-world cultures (although with different names for all their kingdoms).  The African-type people had higher strength bonuses (as well as the Viking-type people), the Asians had higher intelligence, etc.  I thought that was interesting in a disturbing way.  I wonder if the racism in it was intentional.
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Greg Jensen
John Kirk
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« Reply #10 on: February 29, 2004, 11:19:49 AM »

Quote from: Doctor Xero
Orcs have been used so often in fantasy (they're not really known in folklore by that name, and Tolkien's orcs are more a cross between goblins and the dark elves/dwarves of Norse mythology) that there is really no definitive definition of them. So I find the speculation fascinating.


Since there is so much discussion concerning orcs in this thread, I thought I'd pop in and provide whatever input I could concerning them.  In my experience, orcs are probably one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted fantasy races from the perspective of authentic folklore.  

One of the aspects of the Roman death god was Orcus who took the form of a man with a pig’s head.  Later legends used the term orc to describe horrendous sea monsters with enormous maws and boar-like tusks, obviously taking some of the swine-like aspects from the ancient Roman deity.  (Incidentally, these tales are also the origin of the term Orca applied to killer whales.)  In northern Italy folklore slowly devolved the tales of Orcus into the Orchi and Orchulli.  The Orchi were slow giants with a penchant for the taste of children, while the Orchulli were smaller, smarter, and smellier.  Both retained certain "pig-like" characteristics, most notably the tusks.

Now, this is about as far as I have been able to take the literal term "orc" in my research of folklore and mythology.  But, there are other faery creatures in Celtic lore with remarkable physical similarities to these faeries, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if they were somehow derivaties of these others.  There is the Fenoderee (also known as Glystn) that comes from Manx and the Isle of Man in the British Isles.  This is a very large helpful hob-like faery with the ears of a pig.  Jimmy Squarefoot, also from the British Isles, is a large muscular faery with the head of a pig that could run over land and sea.  He was so strong that giants used him as a steed.

I think that the trend in modern fantasy games always depicting orcs as evil and "in need of being killed" is a shame.  It is so ingrained that most first-time players of my game Legendary Quest who encounter an orc on the road will naturally just attack him without thinking twice about it.

I would be very interested in hearing from those of you that have different folklorish sources concerning orcs and their kindred.  For those of you that are interested in folklore, you can check my source material.  (I wouldn't be a bit surprised if the esteemed Doctor Xero had a few of these):

Orc (Orculli, Orco, Orcus, Orchi)
   A Field Guide to the Little People by Nancy Arrowsmith and George Moorse, pgs. 92-97
   Bulfinch’s Mythology, The Age of Chivalry and Legends of Charlemagne by Thomas Bulfinch, pgs. 462-469
   Dictionary of Symbolic & Mythological Animals by J. C. Cooper, pg. 177
   The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara G. Walker, pg. 742

Orca (Grampus)
   Dictionary of Symbolic & Mythological Animals by J. C. Cooper, pg. 115

Fenoderee
   An Encyclopedia of Fairies  by Katharine Biggs, pg. 170-172

Jimmy Squarefoot
   An Encyclopedia of Fairies  by Katharine Biggs, pg. 242
   A Dictionary of Ghost Lore by Peter Haining, pg. 102-105
   The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits  by Rosemary Ellen Guiley, pg. 182
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John Kirk

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Scourge108
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« Reply #11 on: February 29, 2004, 11:44:39 AM »

I do know of a medieval sea monster called an orc, but it doesn't really bear much resemblance to the Tolkein/D&D orcs.  This is where the term Orca to describe killer whales comes from.

I think the reason for orcs, as well as klingons or other "evil" races is to have some irredeemably bad bad guys that the PCs can feel free to slaughter without mercy with no moral consequences of any kind.  They are evil, by killing them you save the innocent lives they would have taken, the only good orc is a dead orc.  I think there has been a big shift in this kind of approach to the influx of zombie games (Dead Meat, All Flesh Must be Eaten, etc.).  I remember always pissing off my gamist players by introducing these kinds of moral questions in the middle of an orc slaughter.  After they loot the orc camp, they find the children they were protecting, or they find these orcs were peaceful farmers or refugees.  Different creative agenda.  They wanted an assurance that orcs were there only to be harvested for gold and experience.
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Greg Jensen
Itse
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« Reply #12 on: February 29, 2004, 11:51:17 PM »

John Kirk wrote:
Quote

I think that the trend in modern fantasy games always depicting orcs as evil and "in need of being killed" is a shame. It is so ingrained that most first-time players of my game Legendary Quest who encounter an orc on the road will naturally just attack him without thinking twice about it.


To me, the idea of treating orcs as more than the enemy or potential cannon fodder is somewhat anachronistic. "Ethnic cleansing" is a much older idea than the basic asumption that all creatures have a right to live. The ideas that "the enemy are people too" and "a mother with a baby should make you sad, even if they are the enemy" were hardly universal in the morals of those who lived some thousands of years ago. Actually, they are not universally accepted now. Yes, these kinds of things are what civilization is about, but I don't really see the point in playing in kinda-ancient settings and trying to apply modern moral values to them. Worst of all, that kind of thinking mostly doesn't work in the context. The idea that "you should save the women and kids" is idiotic if you consider the whole race to be enemies as such. You should make special effort to kill the women and children if you want to get rid of the orc threat once and for all. (Also, to me the idea that "it's okay to kill the men but not the women" is morally quite dubious.)

The other point is escapism. Medieval fantasy is very appealing among other things because it has "simpler" morals. You can have a character who sees black and white instead of grey without him being considered an idiot or a fanatic. "Yes, the enemy are people too. They are still the enemy. Kill the enemy. Then let's discuss complex ethical questions." It's very refreshing.

Admitted, when I personally created orcs for my gaming world, I made them a living (nomad) culture, complete with thinking and feeling individuals. They are still the enemy. (Or they would be if the characters actually met them.) You can talk with them and you can trade with them. Actually some dwarven merchants (those few who know the language) trade with them all the time. They just don't like to make a fuss about it, since orcs are considered the enemy and the goods would loose value if they were identified to be coming from the orcs. To me, that's much more interesting than any "oh but you shouldn't kill dee wittle baby orcsies" -whining, and letting the players (but not the characters) know the situation is a very good way of getting them to think about racism and violence (if you want to make that kinds of statements). "Orc" is a word which means "those who the characters can kill without moral issues". If you don't like the idea, don't call them orcs. "Equal rights for fictional races" is a pointless idea.

In my opinion, confusing character morals and player morals is a way of making sure the players learn nothing from what they are playing and a way of making gameplay less enjoyable. I also consider my players to be sensible people, who already know that racism and violence are not nice. I am not morally superior and I don't need to teach morals to my players.

(About realism: I especially enjoyed having a cultural anthropologist play a hot tempered northern mercenary, since he was able to bring to the game the actual feel of "here we are chopping up living people and considering ourselves normal"; he had a large pool of ideas to draw from. "Wont talk? I'll just cut your ear off." "Hmm, we have an extra prisoner, let's cut his head off and put it on a spike to discourage possible trackers." There's few things like heads on a stick that will make players understand that the gameworld is fun place to visit only if you don't really have to be there. Also btw, I've heard of about a dozen unpublished fantasy worlds where the orcs are treated as people by the game, so unless this is a local phenomenon, I would say the idea is not exactly original.)
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- Risto Ravela
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contracycle
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« Reply #13 on: March 01, 2004, 02:31:48 AM »

I agree with Itse in almost all particulars bar one, but from a slightly different angle I guess.

Yes I agree, pathos for Orcs is misplaced if the purpose of Orcs is to be signpost badguys.  But I disagree that such a "ritual enemy" has been used in a an interesting way, as far as I know.  Because all too often the same works that have totemically evil orcs to be slaughtered without moral consequence also have bizarre modern capitalist economies, high levels of integration among the totemically good (and almost all pale skinned) races, and a surprising proportion of proto-democracies and women in positions of power (Yes Forgotten Realms, I'm looking at you).

If the purpose is to explore, highlight, the kinds and forms of society in which the death of the alien Other does not constitute homicide per se but a public service, then these games fail by being too twee and kitch elsewhere, and I cannot think of any to my mind which succeed (arguably the best I know would be the fascinating Kafer from 2300AD).  If the game is going to explore these things, then they need to be engaged with as a central subject, not relegated to walk-on parts for extras as so many orcs are.  I can see a game written that seeks to explore the practice of Celtic head-hunting and the place of such public homicide displays, but then this would have to be The issues the game explores, not just a bit of backdrop.  There would need to be mechanics addressing it directly; frex, in Medieval Total War, your generals can have a Dread rating that influences the loyalty of provinces they govern.  If you kill 1000+ prisoners on the field, the general can acquire the 'Butcher' vice that substantially increases Dread).

So yes, realism and distasteful subjects in the name of exploration, by all means.  But stock villains identified by birth and who appear as non-human for no reason other than they can be killed without moral consequence, no.

The one thing that I disagree with is that it is "refreshing" to encounter such balck and white morality in fiction... becuase it is so common.  Who's Good and who's Evil in the following pairups?  Spiderman and Dr Octopus?  The Fantastic Four and the Krull?  Battlestar Galactica and the Cylons?  The Rebellion and Empire?  The Federation and the Klingons?  Simplisitic ethnically based or allegiance based morality is so endemic in our media that it broes me to tears, and I find it refresshing to get away from it for a change and do something more interesting.
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coxcomb
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« Reply #14 on: March 01, 2004, 09:57:20 AM »

I think that the "purpose" of having fatasy races in fantasy is that they enable the designer to focus on specific themes more readily. That is, by creating races that embody certain themes and ideas, it is easier to make points about those themes.
To take LoTR (the books not the movie) as an example:
Orcs embody the notion that progress for the sake of progress is bad.
Elves bring life to old and noble traditions which inevitably fade away.
Dwarves live the tension between honor and greed.
Ents embody the power of nature and of living things beyond our ken.
Hobbits show the virtues of simple life, courage, and frienship.

I simplify, of course, for the sake of expediency.

The point is that in Middle Earth, all of the races that Tolkien included served a purpose thematically. Each existed as an expression of some theme or premise.

The problem with a lot of modern fantasy (in RPGs and in fiction--they have become muddled) is that the writer adds races because he thinks that doing so is a requirement. An artifical race is just that: it adds nothing to the setting, confuses premise, and generally adds ambiguity to the game.

That doesn't mean that I don't like non-human races. But I do think that they should serve some thematic purpose in the game. Just as with magic, coolness isn't a good enough reason to include non-humans in your campaign world. There needs to be someting more. IMHO anyway.
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