World Building 4: From Races to Cultures

I know that I touched on Race and Racism in my last World Building post, but as I’ve thought about the issue more, I think that we, as gamers, can go beyond these basic descriptions in our manuals to create living, breathing, realistic worlds in which to tell our stories. We can create worlds that eschew the plethora of inherited fantasy tropes (and their subconscious biases). We can create worlds and narratives that are inclusive of a wider experience of people and players. It takes a little effort, but I do believe that the end product will be better stories and more engaging role-play in our role-playing games. To do so, I’m going to continue working with the Elves of my homebrew world of Ivirune.

Problems: While many see no problem with the presentation of race in various fantasy role-playing games, the tropes inherited from the inspirational novels and from earlier games and editions present a few situations that, when critically examined, can be problematic in that they perpetuate certain negative stereotypes and attitudes.  In all honesty, my beloved Elven races are an excellent example of many of these.  I want to touch on two problems that these inherited tropes evoke: racism and sexism.

Racism. If we look at the traditional depiction of the Elven races, we have the fair-skinned Elves who are canonically “good” and the dark-skinned Elves, the Drow, who are canonically “evil”. Yes, I know this goes back to ancient mythic sources. Yes, I know that the world “Elf” descends from the Proto-Indo-European rool *alp, which means “white”.  That said, this traditional presentation of “fair/white = good” and “dark/grey = bad” is a trope that carries a lot of baggage where those of lighter skin discriminate against and oppress those of darker skin.

Caveat. I want to give Wizards of the Coat a shout out for subtly dismantling part of this narrative in the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook. In this text, we learn that some of the High Elves have “bronze skin” and that the Wood Elves tend to have “copper skin”. Elves with a tan is a step in the right direction, but the obsidian-skinned drow have, “were it not for one renowned exception” followed “down the path of evil and corruption” (p. 24). Even with this small step, however, the lighter-skinned Elves are seen as “good” while the black-skinned Drow are presented as evil and “depraved” by nature.  This is progress, but more needs to be done.

Sexism. It’s a rather intriguing fact that the only “race” canonically ruled by matriarchal leadership is an evil race. Isn’t it? This is not to say that a society ruled by a woman would be perfect, but if we consider how people respond to the idea of female leaders of corporations or countries today – being seen as ‘too hormonal’ to govern effectively as opposed to the “logical, rational rule” of men – we then see how aligning an “evil race” with matriarchal rule reinforces various subtle, often subconscious, misogynistic beliefs about women in power.

Again, these are inherited tropes that most accept without consideration for the attitudes that they convey and perpetuate. And I recognize that a text such as the PHB must be general, so that players who wish to play in the campaign settings created by the parent company, as well as those they homebrew themselves, can all do so. That said, with a little rethinking about what we focus on in these texts, we can move away from these tropes and tell heroic narratives that feel more realistic. Let’s start working through this example with the Elves of my homebrew world – Ivirune.

From ‘Race’ to ‘Culture’: The first thing that we need to do is disentangle what is “racial” about the Elves from what is “cultural” for their societies. To simplify, the concept of “race” that I use for this example is a combination of genetic traits and evolutionary adaptations to one’s environment. Culture, by contrast, is the institutions and expressions of who a group of people are and what they believe as a unit in a particular place at a particular time.

So, what aspects of the “Elven race” qualify as racial? Let’s start at the first “trait” – the ability score increases. These “stat changes” reflect aspects of Elven biology, their grace and wit, so yes, these are “racial”. The same can be said for Size and Speed. Given that “Darkvision, Keen Senses, Fey Ancestry, Sunlight Sensitivity (Drow only) and Trance” are innate and related to their biology, these too are racial aspects of the Elves.  I would argue that such features as “Cantrip, Mask of the Wild, and Drow Magic” – while a bit harder to locate – are described as “innate features,” thus I allow them to be seen as racial.  Thus, in Ivirune, all Elves share these traits.

That leaves us with very few Elven features remaining, specifically Alignment (unique to each individual), “Elven Weapon Training” and “Languages”. These are clearly cultural facets. While an individual decision, cultural norms and attitudes influence one’s alignment and how one sees the world. An individual can follow the dictates of an “evil society” – say one that promotes slavery or genocide – and thus have an evil alignment. Said individual could oppose those cultural norms, be deemed “evil” by his/her society but “good” by others. The same exists in reverse. The point is to give the player character agency to make decisions. Also, such conflicts set up nice plot lines for stories.

“Elven Weapon Training” and “Languages” can be discussed together. These cultural factors clearly assume that the Elf grew up in a culture where Elves were the dominant racial group.  As I said in my previous column on race:

Think about it this way: my mother’s family is from Germany and my father’s family is from Alcase-Lorraine (a border region that, depending on who had more power, was either French or German territory). By the logic of RPG racial descriptions, I should be born with both French and German cultural knowledge including both languages.

I wasn’t. One does not know a language by virtue of being born with that blood. Thus, facets such as “Weapon Training” or “Languages” would only be available to members of a “race” who grew up in a culture where their people were dominant. Thus, in Ivirune, I remove those features from a character’s “racial traits”.

Solution: I’ve taken some things away from the characters. What do I give them in return? I give them cultural options. “Innate” languages are replaced by the languages they would know as someone who grew up in a specific society. So, for the nation of Kalibor, as an example, all those who grew up in Kalibor know Common and Elven. They are also given the choice (should they have a third language option) of Sylvan as “native” languages. If their background offers “exotic” or any other language, that’s something the player can decide for themselves. Additionally, given that Elves are the dominant race of Kalibor, all citizens receive “Elven Weapon Training” – regardless of race. As part of this society, these are the weapons all citizens are trained to use.

And I have done this for every culture/nation in Ivirune to create a different feel for social interaction. Thus, for example, an Elf who grew up in the nation of Gilead, a country of plains and grasslands where many of the people hunt or herd animals for a living, would now receive the following languages and perks to replace those in the PHB.  “Languages Known: All characters from Gilead know Common, Gileadean, and one no-exotic language of their choice. Other Proficiencies: Characters from Gilead have proficiency with all bows and may choose to have proficiency with either Survival or Animal Handling.”

Society, “Race”, Culture”, etc. So what does this mean for the cultures in our worlds? Well, it means that we have to think about what those cultures impart to their citizens. As DMs and as Players, we must recognize that no character emerges from their homeland a completely blank slate. Each culture imparts its own values, knowledge, and skills that will, in many ways, color how the players and the NPCs interact with the world around them. This is why a Session Zero is so important so that the DM and players can discuss these things before play begins.

Does this mean that we can’t have “evil” societies? No, those are perfectly fine to have. They exist. However, “evil” should not be a term linked to a particular people. Again, Drow are not “evil” because they are dark-skinned or matriarchal. They are evil because they practice slavery, because the noble houses exterminate the entire family of rivals, etc. Play up the actions that make them evil. Allow for individuals to disagree with the tenets of their culture. One thing I have done is to remove the “Drow society” and have the Drow live in independent city-states scattered throughout the Underdark. Some are evil for the reasons specified. Some attempt to live a more “virtuous” life. Will every surface dweller know about the “good” societies? No, and thus, conflict can emerge there as well.

The same could be said for other types of societies, such as that of the Orcs. Think about the words used to describe them – “tribal”, “savage”. These words evoke negative emotions due to the history of their usage in our world. How do we replace “tribal”? We call them “clans”.  Instead of being “savages,” I have altered the lore on the Orcs so that their strength, stamina, and tusks are a gift from a Primordial Earth Elemental who blessed the nomadic clans of Orcs for an action of a legendary ancestor. The goal should be to move away from descriptions that paint entire races as “evil” or “uncivilized”.

“But then what conflicts can we have?” I hear some voices scream. Yes, I’m arguing that we eschew the easy conflicts of Civilized=Good vs. “Savage”=Evil and Fair-Skin=Good vs. Dark-Skin=Evil. What does that leave us? A lot, actually. Let’s just use the “Humans v. Orcs” as an example. What can be done if the Orcs aren’t “evil by nature”? Simple, there could be conflict over natural resources from two cultures living in proximity. There could be Orcish raids due to any of the following: resources drying up in the Orcish home terrain, famine/disease causing the Orcs to move to new territory, fear that Human encroachment will lead to violence against the Orcs, religious conflict started by either side, a belief by the humans that Orcs are “stealing babies” (may or may not be true), or a corrupt cultural leader (on either side) stirring up ancient animosities and fears.

Keep in mind, a single campaign narrative may weave together more than one of these story threads. When a DM places a conflict before a player, the DM needs to know the five W’s of the conflict:  Who is involved, What is the Conflict, Where is it happening, When did it begin, and Why is it happening. The changes to our understanding that I am suggesting relate specifically to the Why of the conflict. The answer should never be as simple as “Because X people are evil by their very nature.” Evil for evil’s sake is a simplistic, boring motivation. Evil individuals, evil societies, and evil actions all occur based upon one or more motivations that those performing said actions have rationalized as “good”. This still allows for the same stories to be told, but the conflicts become far more complex where initial beliefs about the driving forces can be challenged and corrected. Simple conflicts are easier to write, but complex conflicts are those that players remember.

Caveat. While these guidelines focus on conflicts between and among the sentient peoples of a world, they could be applied to monstrous enemies such as dragons or devils or demons, giving such foes motivations for involving themselves in the affairs of mortals.

Concluding Thoughts: World-Building is a mythic task if you think about it. An entire world is brought into existence through words and enlivened by collective storytelling. It’s okay to start simple and use the tropes. I did. Most of us do. However, as we become older, as we see more of the world, as we learn more about intercultural interactions, it becomes necessary to recognize that continuing to rely on old tropes carry with them implicit assumptions about race, skin color, sex, gender, etc. and that these assumptions may be antithetical to the way we see the world.

The task I am calling for – and the task that I have set for myself  – is not an easy task. Nor is it one that is ever complete. Just as making society better, making justice truly blind, making fairness and inclusivity goals toward which we strive are continual tasks that require introspection of our own attitudes, interrogation of the discourses in which we participate, and willingness both to listen to members of other groups and to change our attitudes when presented with evidence of mistakes. Again, this is not easy in life, and it’s not easy in creating worlds. In both, this is a continual task of becoming.

So, for those who want simple directions for a complex situation, here we go. 1. Race and culture are distinct. Race imparts biology and evolutionary traits. Culture imparts knowledge, skills, and attitudes/beliefs. Player characters and NPCs can either agree with those things, be conflicted about them, or oppose them. 2. Factors that individuals cannot control such as skin tone, race, and biology do not determine moral compasses – even though some may act as if they do. Do not enforce alignment restrictions upon individuals based solely upon their race/skin color/sex/etc. 3. Add complexity to conflicts based upon the individual differences of the major players, the ideals of the societies involved, and the environment in which the conflict arises. Basically, do your best to avoid a conflict that relies solely on the tropes of fantasy fiction. Allow the appearance of those tropes to signal deeper, more complex conflicts that require investigation.

And finally, this is a passion project of mine – to decolonize my fantasy homebrew world so that it becomes more realistic and believable. It’s not easy. It will never be finished. But ultimately, I think I can be happy with a world that more accurately reflects the complexity of a “real” world.