NPCs are whomever we make them. The possibilities for the range of intelligence, humor, psychological issues, and so on are endless. Yet again and again we see characters that are stereotypes.
Swillbinge the Dwarf just downed his tenth tankard of ale. Five more and he’ll start to feel it, but he’ll be too busy mumbling in his heavy Scottish accent to care.
Thugg, the Half-Orc in the party, is right there with him though. Those nine mugs of ale were needed to wash down the entire turkey he just consumed (bones and all). Without the party’s help though he wouldn’t have the intelligence, or good graces, to pay his tab.
Klepto McBardy, the Halfling, is finding it all great sport. His songs and tales are filling the room with laughter…while his nimble fingers fill his pockets with “things he’s keeping safe”.
Only A’loof’n Pr’tenshus remains unamused. The Elven wizard barely glances up from her heavy tome as the party finds itself in a tavern fight with the highlord’s minions. With a reluctant sigh, she closes the volume and rolls initiative.
Even if I hadn’t identified the characters above by race, could you have guessed correctly based on their description? I bet you could. So why do these generic NPCs (or, worse, PCs) keep appearing?
We could start pointing fingers, at Tolkein and others, for making things this way. But, unless you’re playing in Middle Earth, who dictates the standard? It’s the DM’s world and it’s up to each of us to decide what works.
Try taking a step back and examining the mechanics of the race. Dwarves have darkvision so it makes sense that they evolved (or were created) in an area with no light. That fits the tradition of a race that lives in caves and mines. Such an environment also fits their stocky build; their low center of gravity helping them on shifting slopes.
But how are they making all this ale they are supposedly so fond of drinking? Not many barley fields a mile underground. And the Scottish accent? Well, there’s no “Scotland” at all but it sounds like it. While the DM might have to use an Earth accent just to keep things consistent for himself, why couldn’t the accent sound African or Spanish or pretty much anything but bad Gaelic?
Halflings? One of my worlds keeps the idea that halflings are socially clever and great with growing things. But, while some are farmers of the traditional sort, many others are farmers of a flower used to make narcotics. Using their agricultural skill, and a societal bent toward Evil for a change, the halflings rule a drug cartel that few want to cross. The halflings can be as clever with ways to deliver pain to their enemies; a swerve on the stereotypical Halfling creativity.
Of course, the whole point is to avoid stereotypes altogether. Not all Halflings should be good-natured Rogues or, for that matter, sadistic drug lords. In our own world we seek to eliminate racism and racial stereotypes. The same enlightened approach should be employed in the game world. But, just as there is a basis as to why certain characteristics are associated with humans on Earth, so too can we craft some basis for it on your game world.
The suggestion is to step back and look at the big picture of the world you want to create. Then focus in, designing your races’ nature in a way that fits that view without simply repeating the same old tropes.
You know who can often be the most helpful in this design process? Non-gamers.
Those who don’t play RPGs, and are not even lovers of fantasy movies and books, can have a very unbiased perspective on the whole thing. When you mention “elf”, they don’t think of Galadriel and Legolas. They think of Ernie, making cookies in a tree. Their thoughts, even if they don’t know how to apply them to a gaming situation, might just spark some creative ideas of your own.
Any way you go about it, you will benefit from a game world that feels a little bit fresh, even to longtime diehard gamers. It’s also a bit of a challenge for you as a DM, and that’s a good thing too. The end result is a more vibrant world that still adheres to any game mechanics you use but provides a setting your players are intrigued enough to explore.
“Who ordered the roast basilisk with honey served on a pine plank?”
(shrugs) That’s for you to decide. Maybe that’s a cultural delicacy for the humans in this town? The half-orc isn’t sure. He’s too busy calculating probabilities of success on the party’s next dungeon crawl. Orcs are renowned for their math skills, didn’t you know?
(co-written by R. Currence and Michael N., aka Navarre)