In a recent column, Noisms stated how standing human universals on their heads can help “Alien-ify” (my new made up word of the week) a demi-human culture in fantasy RPGs. This helps put a fresh perspective on, say, dwarves (Noisms example is to imagine a world where dwarves have no concept of “hope”; a goal can either be completed, or it can’t) beyond the typical stereotypes. Needless to say, it’s an obvious, yet very neglected idea when putting together a fantasy world. Taking a human universal and turning it around is really a brilliant idea if you want to make a non-human race truly “alien” race beyond giving them, say, eyestalks instead of eyes. I highly recommend the Monsters and Manual blog! http://monstersandmanuals.blogspot.com/2009/05/towards-theory-of-demihumans.html
I’ve done my own tiny spin on this when I created my homebrew campaign world many years ago. My ideas aren’t as intriguing as Noisms, because they aren’t universals, but I think I did a pretty good job in some cases of going beyond the stereotypes to put a new perspective on certain demi-humans. Instead of a universal, I tried to either take a stereotype of the race and intensify it, or play against type and player expectations. At the time I came up with these, I was especially tired of the seemingly writ in stone way of playing certain demi-humans...everyone was playing their halfling like a Dragonlance Kender, or the 1000th incarnation of the gruff, axe wielding salt of the earth dwarven warrior. Today, I would probably hew closer to Noism's type of philosophy if I was give a do over, but these outlines served my purpose. Here are my demi-human “quirks”:
In my world, Halflings are basically “real world” gypsies, and perceived as such by all other races. They have no permanent homes (no “hobbitowns” in my world), tend to travel in large groups and settle on the outskirts of a community, then make themselves unwanted by stealing and grifting from the populace and then packing up one night and disappearing, leaving an unholy mess where their camp was...despoiling nature and civilized society both. They are distrusted by all other races (no one, for example, will swear an oath with or trust a promise from a halfling) and have adapted by becoming a race of glorious vagabonds (they are roughly based on Irish Travellers, look it up if you aren’t familiar with the group). Halflings are often sailors, because this allows them to travel and escape unfortunate situations quickly, and some of the most feared pirate captains in Azura are halfling rogues (with a large complement of bloodthirsty family members making up most of the crew).
The Elven race has been involved in a centuries long battle with the northern barbarians, and their race is dying out as the barbarians have been slowly winning this war by attrition (humans breed far faster than the elves). As a result, elves are resigned to extinction, and have a very depressing outlook on life (both theirs and others)…their observations and comments are fatalistic in the extreme. They are also extremely warlike, and very few elves live beyond middle age as it is considered their birthright to die in battle against barbarian hordes, taking as many of the hated humans as possible with them. All their great achievements are not in art, poetry, or music….but the art of war, and their blades, bows and especially warships are considered the best in the world. Their one advantage in the war, magic, has even taken this branch as they have developed many new combat spells for use in the battles. Art, music and poetry are looked at as frivolous and useless….unless it can be used in the war, all other abilities are considered superfluous. Every elf at sometime in his life is expected to serve in the elven military for at least one “season”; failure to answer the call of his “house” will cause a elf to become outcast…not only to be shunned by his people, but killed on sight if his status is known!
Unlike the elves, the Dwarven race of Azura is a flourishing one, as their future is full of hope. With only the race of Duergar and Derro to fight with for underground space and resources, in the last millennia their numbers have grown exponentially and their culture has entered a renaissance age of discovery and creation. Dwarven artisans are well known for the incredible statues and busts they create, and in the community being an artist is considered just as important as any other profession. While they dislike most other races except for gnomes (who they live with and share gods with), they are not gruff, rude or unruly towards either elves or man (they actually feel a bit sorry for elves, although they would never admit it, and have conceded the world above to humans as the best of several bad choices). They have other cultural quirks: there are no female dwarven leaders, adventurers or clerics (it is unheard of in their society for a dwarven female to leave the Clanhood; few dwarven females have ever been seen outside of a dwarven city). Dwarven females are housewives and mothers only, and rarely must deal with issues outside of home and hearth. Dwarves who leave the Clanhood to “adventure” are considered insane by “normal” dwarves and completely shunned, to the extent that they are not even allowed to worship Moradin and are “excommunicated” from the faith (since Moradin tells his children that above all they must serve clan, family and community). These outcasts have their own deity, the dwarven god of wanderers, and have been known to mock or ridicule any dwarves openly worshipping Moradin (leading to ugly scenes on many occasions in the surface world between exiles and representatives of one clanhold or another).
Gnomes are the ultimate adaptors; they co-exist with dwarves, and act as the scholars and teachers in dwarven communities. They also serve this purpose in large human communities on the surface, often serving as sages, historians, or librarians. Gnomes have an insatiable curiosity concerning the past, and will often join expeditions for the hope of learning a bit of historical knowledge (giving them great status in the gnomish community; the leaders are always the most intelligent and well-read, and they have no concept of a dynastic rulership by lineage). Gnomes are ever adaptable, worshipping dwarven, gnomish and human gods in equal measure, with no animosity between those of different religious beliefs. Gnomes seldom take gold or gems as payment for service: books, scrolls, and any sort of written history are considered payment far more valuable. Some of the most powerful mages in Azura are gnomes, and they excel in any field of magic equally. Gnomes are the only race to get along with both elves (the elves respect their knowledge of history, especially relating to warfare) and halflings (the little folk amuse the gnomes, who are usually serious in all other aspects).
Nothing earthshattering here, and certainly not as intriguing as taking a otherwise accepted universal and standing it on it’s head. But I find it does give an “experienced” roleplayer a welcome change from playing a grumpy dwarf, frivolous halfling or haughty elf. I also like it as it casts aside player expectations about how a race is "supposed" to act; woe onto the clueless PC who insults the "flighty" elf at the bar, or trusts the cute halfling lass serving drinks. The elf is probably a war veteran liable to beat the tar out of the PC with his bare hands for any insults to himself or his house; the halfling will take the PC for a ride when he realizes the "rescue mission" he was duped into taking to save the halfling's sister is instead a set up that lands him in a mansion with a (planted) bloody knife in his back pocket and a dead thieves' guild member on the floor in front of him, throat cut.