Friday, 1 August 2008

Messing With Cultures

Sometimes a strange mood comes over me - a kind of mental fugue state - in which I start to want to base the standard fantasy races on real world cultures. This is a morally, mechanically, and culturally dubious exercise. But heaven help me, when the craziness takes hold of me I just can't help it!

What's got me thinking about this again is this post - one of those strokes of genius that come along from time to time. It's an idea for making the sentient races in D&D 4e animal-based, so that dwarves are anthropomorphised badgers, goblins are rats, orcs are boars and kobolds are newts. (That sort of thing really appeals to me: I've already blogged before about animal fantasy. I hasten to add that I'm not even remotely a 'furry' - I just read a lot of Redwall books in my youth and lapped them up.) It's sparked off the urge to get creative with the races again. Here's what I came up with when I should have been working:

  • First up, what I really want is Zulu dwarves. The idea of an impi of spear-wielding dwarves marching in perfect unison and discipline to certain death is one that should by rights be an icon of the fantasy genre. Unfortunately, at the moment it only exists in my head.
  • Slavic Elves. For some reason Russian culture has a very hard and cold image in the Western imagination, but in my experience it's a reputation unjustly earned. In terms of artistic creativity there are very few nations that can match Russia, and the folklore of that culture shows a love of nature rare in the rest of Europe. It seems like a great match for Elves, and should serve to make them a bit more interesting than the old cliches, too.
  • Spanish hobgoblins. Spain was for centuries the most warlike and the most litigious country in Europe, perhaps the world. This seems like a perfect match for hobgoblins. There's also something I like about the aesthetic of hobgoblin conquistadors riding through the semi-desert of Extremadura on the way to fight a reconquista against Grenadan Ogre Magi...
  • English orcs. If there ever was an orcish race, it's the English - a violent, boozy, gluttonous and ignorant nation of hooligans. (I can say this because I grew up there.) The only difference is that the English are a nation of imperialists, whereas orcs can only destroy.
  • Portuguese halflings. I picture these as a small, nimble race of sailors for whom the vast oceans hold no terror - only possibilities. Like their real world inspiration, they have the vision and purpose to try to discover what exists beyond the horizon.
  • Persian Illithids. The idea of mind-flayer padishahs lounging in divans smoking hookahs while gith slaves fan them with palm fronds is one I have to incorporate into a game some time.
  • Centaur Scythians. A race of bloodthirsty nomads sweeping out of the vast East to trample civilisation beneath their hooves.
  • Assyrian Gnolls, making piles of the skulls of their enemies outside cities laid waste...

The main problem with this is that I don't like the idea of monocultural races. It's always been a pet hate of mine. Luckily there are far more human societies than fantasy races, necessitating a lot of doubling up. Orcs could be an Anglo-Saxon-Frisian alternative, with different breeds in England, Germany and the Low Countries. Hobgoblin nations could exist in a swathe across Spain, France, Italy and Romania. Different nations of Elves could populate the vast territories of Eastern Europe.

The only other question is: which cultures should be represented by humans? Part of me wants to say that Africa should be dominated by us - it is after all where we originated and where the vast sweep of our genetic variations can be found. On the other hand I like the idea of humans existing across South and East Asia, which is where the majority of the world's population currently lives. But I think in the end I'd like to plump for the Pacific Island peoples, whose story of exploration and colonisation of the vast ocean seems so uniquely human.


  1. My first reaction is that I should steal more from real-world cultures for my games. It's a resource I've never properly used, and even if I don't end up doing a one-to-one correspondence like this, pulling more from history would make my game better.

    My second is -- "Hobgoblins with bad French accents! Sweet!"

  2. Regarding animal races and D&D, Red Box Hack does almost exactly that, swapping the Red Box dwarves, elves and halflings for bears, snakes and foxes, respectively. And it's not Furry in the slightest, thank the gods.

    As for the English Orcs, I think Games Workshop had that idea years ago. ;) One of the old 40K books had an Orkish war chant in it, which was a thinly-veiled football terrace song.

    I like the idea of imperialist orcs with monocles and big moustaches though. Perhaps there's an upper class of orc and then the (literal) grunt who does all the killin'.

  3. Noisms, you give my people more credit than we're due on the wrong areas.

    Portuguese halflings would not be wide-eyed curious explorers braving the 7 Seas, but vicious little piratical bastards intent on plundering tribal civilisations for bling and slaves and converting the poor sods into their religion.

    Yeah, the Spanish beat us to destroy the Aztecs and their ilk and you guys and the Dutch kicked our collective arses out of most of Asia in time. But we where the first to endeavour down the African coasts in an odyssey of greed-fuelled, blood-soaked genocide.

    Credit where it is due, please. :)

    And from my POV the English are a remarkably civilised people. They just aren't shy about having fun. The Orcs should be Russians, they are Imperialistic AND tend to destroy everything they touch. I think Drow might be a much more appropriate fantasy race for Britons.

    And BTW check my blog, there’s a Motivational Poster there just for you. ;-)

  4. Correction: there's 2 of them now.

  5. I too have played around with cultures as races. And you're absolutely right--it's a horrible, very un-PC thing to do. But it's oh so much fun too!

    My approach was to look at language families and assign broad races based on that, then sub-races based on particular languages.

    I don't have my notes with me, but I remember I made Slavic equal goblinoids, Finno-Ugric equal Elves (so you had "winter elves" as Finns in the north and "wild elves" as horse nomad Hungarians in the south), Germanic was Dwarvish (Dwarves and Gnomes were German and Dutch, respectively) and so forth.

    I was never quite sure what to do with the Romance languages or English. I think I got caught up in the history of how the languages evolved and tried to read too much into that. I think I had halflings be English, but you make a powerful argument for Orcs. I was thinking along the same lines as edsan and made them Russian. I know that the miniatures game Flintloque went the same direction, although I don't know much about the setting beyond that.

  6. Odyssey: I quite like the idea of hobgoblins called Ludovic and Pierre.

    Kelvingreen: I think I'll have to check out Red Box Hack.

    Edsan: Eh, the Portuguese were the least bad colonial power. Perhaps after the French. Sure they were slavers. But so was everybody else in the 15th century.

    Sirlarkins: That's probably a more sensible way of doing it, rather than the ad hoc mix and match approach I was taking. Definitely hobgoblins would be the Romance language cultures in my world. Of course English is a West Germanic language, so I suppose by that logic they should be some relative of the dwarves and gnomes if the latter are Germans and Dutch.

  7. See, now you've got me thinking about the hobgoblins as the Romans. And it fits perfectly, doesn't it?

    I guess the way to go with "English" is break it down to its historical roots. So the Germanic side is Dwarf-related (could still be Halflings, I reckon...not much of a stretch to imagine them as distant cousins of Gnomes), the Celtic/Welsh side is some sort of sylvan race (natch), and the French side is the good ol' hob-gobbies. Quite a little stew mixed together there, hm?

  8. Halfling-hobgoblin-sylvan mix? I don't think it's ever been done before... ;)

    The question is what sylvan race. For some reason I want a race of Celtic satyrs.

  9. Cultural sensitivities be damned! It's not as if any of your choices is meant to be a deep and meaningful parallel to its real-world analog.

    I've never done this on such a scale but I like it very much. The closest I've come is drawing on real world culture for character background and flavor. In particular a Tuvan inspired half-orc bard -- throat singing seemed just the thing for that race and class combination.

  10. Are you familiar with Flintloque ( a game of fantasy Napoleonics, where the English are Orcs and the French elves. Welsh hobgoblins and Scottish ratmen round things out.

  11. Max: That is a cool combination.

    Jason: No, but I can see I'm going to have to check it out...

  12. Whoa! Next time I visit Extremadura, I'll be thinking of hobgoblins! Great post, there's some nice posibilities for the idea.

  13. Monoculture is a matter of scale.

    The families in a small town easily distinguish between themselves and the McCoys down the street. But everyone in these parts agrees that folks from Shelbyville are all noisy hooligans. And everyone knows what they say about the next county over, or the next state, or the next country, even when their populations are not linguistically or ethnically distinct.

    As long as you think of them as people with homes, thoughts, families, fears, hopes and prejudices of their own, a principle like "All Hobbits are Thai" is no more of a straightjacket than saying "All Humans are from Earth." People are distinct from the cultures they participate in (I'm loath to say "belong to"), no matter their racial abilities and attribute adjustments.

  14. Nick: You're right, of course, about monocultures, but the problems remain that a) most players seem to view "All halflings are Thai" as meaning "All halflings are the same" and that b) it doesn't seem realistic that halflings in Thailand and halflings in Chad should have the same language and culture.

  15. "Halfling-hobgoblin-sylvan mix? I don't think it's ever been done before... ;)"

    So... they're short, flighty, green, and related to hobgoblins.


    Where have I come across a race like that before?