Culture is important. No matter how much of an individual we think we are, each and every one of us is shaped by our culture in profound ways which we aren’t even aware of. For example, those of us who pride ourselves on individualism? We probably come from cultures, like the U.S., which emphasize individualism as a positive trait. Given all the fundamental ways in which our culture shapes us, it should be obvious that understanding a person’s culture is an essential element in understanding their outlook. Where am I going with this?
The cultures of the most basic, most iconic monstrous races in fantasy adventure games are all shit. And it ought to change, because I’m tired of ostensibly different creatures being functionally identical. Take, for example, four of the paragon monstrous races which have been harassing adventurers since first edition D&D: Orcs, Goblins, Kobolds, and Gnolls. Below, I’ve reduced the small amounts of cultural information for each of those races, taken from the Pathfinder Bestiary, to bullet points. If you’d like to check my work, these monsters can be found on pages 155, 156, 183, and 222.
Are violent and aggressive.
Are led by whoever is strongest.
Take what they want by force.
Don’t have regard for the lives of others.
Are not good at farming or herding.
Prefer to take things from others rather than earn those things for themselves.
Their largest group is a “band.”
Are filled with hatred.
Live in dark places and caves.
Scavenge items from the more civilized races rather than producing anything for themselves.
Are universally illiterate.
Their larges group is a “tribe.”
Live in caves and other dark places.
Are overly proud of their distant relationship to dragons.
Prefer to attack in large groups.
Their largest group is a “tribe.”
Prefer to scavange or steal kills, rather than hunt themselves.
View non-Gnolls as either meat, or slaves.
Enjoy fighting, but only if they have an overwhelming advantage.
See no value in courage or valor.
Their largest group is a “tribe.”
Based on those elements, how different are those four really? Is a goblin’s rage significantly different from the violence and aggressiveness of orcs? Why do Orcs, Goblins, and Gnolls all universally prefer to take rather than to make? The similarities become even more obvious if you expand the cultural definitions beyond what is found in the scant few lines offered in the bestiary. Ask any gamer to give you the primary characteristic of goblins, and I’ll bet you a shiny new platinum piece that they’ll say “cowardice” nine times out of ten. That makes three out of four monstrous races which, despite supposedly being threatening, are culturally defined by their cowardice.
Most people who play tabletop games are familiar with the phrase “humans in funny hats.” A human in a funny hat is a non-human character who is played without regard for race defining characteristics. Such as a dwarf who doesn’t care for gold, or ale, or stonework, and prefers to live above ground. Such characters are, essentially, being played as humans. They’re merely wearing the skin, or the ‘hat,’ of another race.
Here I think we’re dealing with a similar problem. Out of four monsters, most of their cultural traits overlap with each other. The problem only becomes more pronounced if you begin to add more creatures, such as lizardfolk or bugbears. In the end there really seems to be only one or two different types of monster cultures in play, reiterated through lizard people, dog people, dragon people, green people, small green people, and so on. A GM who wants his players to face a large force of angry, marauding creatures without regard for human life could sub in any one of these races without needing to alter how his or her campaign is constructed at all.
I’d like to try to develop legitimately distinct cultures for each of the monstrous races in my campaigns, starting with these four.
I’m rather fond of the “noble savage” version of orcs put forth in the Warcraft games. I’m not sure where this depiction of orcs originates, but I think it has merit. A race which is warlike and brutal, but which also holds honor above all other concerns. Of course, different Orcish subcultures define honor on their own terms. For some it might mean victory in fair combat, for others it might simply mean the number of notches on a warrior’s axe.
Given their warlike nature, I would think that Orcs are carnivorous rather than omnivorous. They are master hunters, and the hunt is a central theme in their culture. Orcs often attack other orcs, or other races, on sight. Orcs who have not spent a great deal of time amongst other races will not understand that non-orcs do not view fighting and death to be desirable.
Given their constant warring, both with themselves and with other races, most Orcish tribes lag far behind other species technologically.
Of all the monstrous races, I think goblins are most fit to keep most of the traditional monster culture. They are a weak and cowardly tribal people, who feel anger and rage more strongly than any of their other emotions. Since they rely on each other for self preservation, they turn their anger outward, towards other races. Though plenty of goblin squabbles still turn deadly.
They are a sadistic lot, and enjoy taking out their anger and their hate on those who can’t properly defend themselves; be it small animals, commoners, or adventurers unprepared for the sheer number of goblins they faced.
Goblins are also stupid and superstitious, often attributing magical or divine properties to the mundane. And lastly, goblins are scavengers. They live in caves or in abandoned structures, and like to collect items stolen from other races.
I went over some of my thoughts on Kobolds in my recent Magical Marvels post. I view them as a humble people, who look to dragons as their great rulers or heroes. They recognize that they are weak, and do not seek to prove themselves in combat against other groups or races. Their unassuming nature has made them the doormats of the world, which has prevented them from becoming as technologically advanced as the other races. And since most kobolds prefer to spend their entire lives living with their tribe, few kobolds go out into the world to bring knowledge back to their people.
Their lack of advancement is a shame, because despite their humble nature, kobolds are remarkably clever. The very few who do manage to summon the courage to leave their people, and then are lucky enough to encounter kindly and learned fellows, have proven to be quick learners. More than one great general throughout history has kept a kobold adviser. Many great researchers and wizards have also had kobold assistants. In candid moments, those generals, researchers, and wizards might even admit that some of their great accomplishments were really the work of their kobold associate.
Gnolls are, essentially, 9ft tall intelligent Hyenas. So we just need to scroll down to the behavior section of the wikipedia page and…well some of the basic traits I outlined above actually work pretty well. Gnolls are scavengers and kill stealers. However, they are anything but cowardly as fighters. They fight ferociously, and without mercy. Their greater size compared to other humanoids instills them with great confidence in combat–but they are not above flight if they feel they are outmatched. As noted above, Gnolls do not hold valor as a virtue.
Gnolls are relatively smart, but simple and lazy. They do what they need to do to fill their needs: eating, sleeping, and reproducing. Once they’ve got those things taken care of, they don’t care much for anything else.
NOTE: It occurs to me, having written this, that Paizo has released both a “Goblins of Golarion,” and an “Orcs of Golarion” supplement. It is possible that these concerns are partially addressed in those booklettes. I think the larger issue remains valid, though.