I may not make an entirely cogent argument here, considering I'm still organizing my thoughts on the matter, so please forgive any logical oversights and bear with me. I'm writing this so soon after thinking about the subject in part because I felt I needed to put my thoughts into print, and I felt I needed to do that to help me make sense of what I was thinking.
Also, fair warning: Wall o' Text.
A few minutes ago I realized that something bothered me about how races have always been presented in every Players Handbook from every edition of D&D. I never gave it a whole lot of thought before, but now it occurs to me that racial fluff doesn't really belong in a PHB where the stated focus is to empower (or re-empower) the DM.
A new player sits down at your table and says, "I want to make a woodsman-type archer. I looked through the book, and it says elves are really good archers and love nature. I want to play an elf ranger."
As the DM, you reply, "Are you sure? You can do that if you want to, and I'll help you make the character, but are there any other races you really like? You don't have to be an elf to be a really cool archer."
The new player responds by saying, "The book says elves are supposed to be really good at archery. I want to be an elf."
What the player doesn't realize is that the DM has constructed a world where elves have nothing to do with the forest or archery. His version of elves has them as marsh-dwelling commandos who prefer knives to bows, on account of the moisture and frequent rain making bow-strings hard to maintain. Because he is a good DM, he helps the player make his elf archer and tries to come up with an explanation that suitably accounts for this anomaly in his setting.
However, by putting this fluff in the player's handbook, the new player is encouraged to make the assumption that elves cannot be anything but woodsy marksmen. In his mind, "archer" and "elf" will always be intrinsically linked, as it is in so many of our "imaginations." I won't say that it stymies creativity, but the flavor text is taken as gospel by so many players (in my experience), that it can be very difficult as a DM to present them with alternatives they don't reflexively chafe at.
It is said often by the forumites that "canon is a crutch." Isn't expecting any given elf to be an impressive archer, or any given dwarf to know his way around underground, just as much a crutch to roleplaying and world-building? If, as the DM, you want all of the classic archtypes represented, you can make the conscious choice to do so. If you don't, you can break new ground on your own terms. Give us physical descriptions and the racial mechanical crunch. Save the flavor for DMs to decide. Save it for official campaign settings. Save it for the sake of helping new players develop an imagination.
Save it for the children, man.
I definitely agree, but I don't think that the only solution to the problem is to have no fluff at all. Fluff is a large part of what makes the game interesting. Instead, I would rather they include some example fluff but figure out a way to make it totally clear that it's just example fluff and that it won't hold true for every campaign setting. A simple extra section at the end of the racial write-ups labeled "Alternative Stories" or something like that would go a long way towards fixing the problem, I think. That way, the Halfling can still be described as the Hobbit, but then we can also have alternative descriptions of the dinosaur-riding barbarians and the adventurious sailors and pirates.
Yes and no, I see where you are aiming at but in most part I disagree.
Yes, you don't want the descriptions in the PHB to be stifling and 'frontload" races too much. However, I didn't you should avoid a race just to be a mixture of game effects with a name. Your example "elves" are fey creatures, fey creatures that are "conventionally" associated with deep forests.
Bringing me to "conventions", in popular culture (LotR etc. elves are associated with archers and forests. Of course it is the right (and maybe e ven duty) of the DM to come up with his or her version of the world and play and turn around conventions. I do think that it is the DM's duty (and self-interest) too to provide the players (and especially new players) with an overview of that world, bringing special attention to those aspects that are different from "convential" popular fantasy fiction. Even if that new player hadn't read any D&D PHB it would be a stretch to assume that player already associates elves with forests and archery. (elf might have been a bad example here, your argument would have been stronger using "gnome" as an example as D&D gnomes from any edition differ extensively from popular non-D&D fiction). D
I think racial flavor has a place in the PHB, it provides a common starting point that makes it easier for people to have a shared worldview. Having said that I think encouragements to go against the given flavor in designing world and characters has to be in that same PHB too. Drizzt defining feaurure is that he is a good drow while drow are generally evil. Having a Dwarf wizard in a campaign were Dwarfs are generally non-magical, maybe even averse and resitant to magic is more interesting than having a Dwarf wizard in a campaign were wizard is just a suboptimal class choice for Dwarves. In my opinion, that is.
Well, ask any four year old what an elf is and they will probably tell you they are tiny toy-makers, but I will remember your point about gnomes (as well as your INSOLENCE!!!). In all seriousness, I do appreciate your courteous tone. Thank you for providing a civil counter-point.
The trouble with codifying an established norm, then encouraging players to deviate from that norm, is that the norm will rarely be given due deference. Let me use the drow as my example, since you brought up Drizzt. Drow are evil, treacherous schemers mired in intrigue, assassination, and underhanded politics. Then, all of a sudden, this R.A. Salvatore jerk comes along and says, "...but this drow is Good! He has thrown off the shackles of his dark, oppressive society! He is the exception to the rule!" Then what happens?
Every freaking drow PC is rebelling against their malicious, cruelly motivated kin. It's like bringing gum to school. You can't just give a piece to one kid. You have to bring enough for everybody, or else Headly Lamar shoots you in the foot.
By establishing a standard, and telling people how to play against type, you would be both invalidating that standard and suggesting that anyone who follows it is being lazy. How is that better than no fluff at all?
Argh! You're right, I should have set you up for that! There I go, not thinking ahead again.
I think this is bumping up against the topic of archetypes. The PHB, by necessity, makes generalizations based on archetypes - the "typical" Fantasy Brand Elf(tm) is like this; the "typical" Fantasy Brand Dwarf(tm) is like that. It provides a shared foundation upon which to build both the mechanics AND the fluff. After all, aren't the racial mechanics generally based on the fluff? "Elves are quick and nimble and athletic, so mechanically they get a DEX bonus". Thats a generalization, an archetype, that forms the foundation of the common game world.
The basic fact is, fantasy tropes are extremely popular as-is. 25 years ago, D&D and other fantasy-related hobbies had a social stigma of being attached to minority stereotype. Today, fantasy hobbies are an accepted norm; just look at the popularity and sheer number of fantasy MMOs, the explosion of attendees at Cons, etc. 10 million people wouldn't be playing WoW with its archetypal elves, dwarves, gnomes, orcs, goblins, etc, if there wasn't something fun and satisfying about that.
If you sit a new player down at a D&D table and say "what's the first thing you think of when I say 'fantasy archer'," they will immediately respond "Legolas." Because everyone has read the books or saw the movie and knows that Legolas was a totally bad-ass elven archer. He's an archetype (arguably, THE archetype for that trope). Some people new to the game need a starting point, until they get their "imagination feet" under them. Not everyone, but a good majority.
All that to say, I guess I don't see anything wrong with presenting a stereotypical archetype for a race in the PHB, and following that up with a DM caveat. No PHB that I've ever seen has said "there is only one way to play an elf." What they all say is "This is what a typical elf looks like, these are some mechanically good race/class combinations that they tend to fit into, and depending on your campaign, your milage may vary."
I have to be honest, I don't think I've ever seen the OPs example actually happen. Well, the last part at least; the first part certainly. "I want to be an awesome archer, and the elf race seems to fit" - fine. The correct response is "That's cool, lets look at that. In the world our game is set in, elves are actually more like xyz. So you've got some options: here are some other races that also make good archers, OR we can use elf mechanics and re-fluff to say you look like a human but your backstory is abc to give you these abilities, OR you can play an elf archer and have some fun RP as an outcast of your race and we'll build a cool story around that."
Archetypes are a starting point. The PHB is a starting point. Putting archetypes in the PHB makes sense. From there, you are only limited by your imagination.
Personally, I like the idea of presenting 3 different "cores" for Races; Dragonlance, Ebberon and Dark Sun.
In Dragonlance, Dragonborn (Draconians) are an evil race created from good dragon eggs, and Gnomes are rabid technological tinkerers. But in Ebberon, you have druidic Orcs and aztec Drow, and in Dark Sun, you have canibalistic halflings and shriveled elves.
Without flavor the races description would look like that:
Not very helpful, but I guess pretty much everyone here has already said that
The Elf Ranger thing was just an example. He does that with EVERY character.
It's possible to include the standard flavor and still clearly express that it's optional, that players and DMs are encouraged to expand on or diverge from the stock flavor as they like. For instance, on the first page of the chapter on races, wherein character race is explained and defined, have a sidebar that says, in big bold letters on the official sidebar-colored background, "the cultural and narrative elements offered in this chapter are guidelines, and are up subject to the interpretation and approval of player and DM alike." Then, with each race, one or two standard cultural descriptions can be given, again as sidebars bound in boxes of the same color as the original disclaimer, for interested parties to use for inspiration or discard for stuffy overused preconceptions.
That presents players and DMs with a standard, a common starting point that can either inspire them to elaborate or compel them to rewrite. If you want elves in your game to be swamp-dwelling stone agers who file their teeth to points and ride velociraptors, nothing's stopping you, but if you're a new DM trying to figure out what in the Nine Hells a hengeyokeypokeylala is supposed to be, there's a little something to get you started. It's packaged outside of the mechanics of the game, visually separated from the mechanics and visually connected to the original disclaimer.
On a tangent, if a player really wanted to make a woodsy elf who's good with a bow and you wrote swamp elves into your campaign world, why not make room in your game world for the character she wants to play? Making the world too small for your players to put roots down in it seems like a bad idea to me. I'd rather my more creative players helped me build the game world, backfitting it with home countries for their characters to come from. Give them a stake in the world, and they're more likely to want to protect it. Tell her OK, I had written the elves of this world to be different from the standard elves, but if you want one that's closer to the baseline, I'd like you to come up with some information about her home country, because she's going to be an exotic foreigner in the campaign we're about to start.
I think standard flavor should be ho-hum iconic stuff. Elves are good archers, that's just how it is. Telling readers that this is just one example is important, but I think various setting's interpretations should be left to their campaign setting's books.
I would like to see Humans presented in the same ho-hum manner. They live in small farming villages and the occasional walled castle.
Keeping it easy makes it accessible, and once you've played a ranger elf and wizard elf you might be done with elves or you might want to play a paladin elf.
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