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Prior to a recent game, our group had a great discussion on culture/race and it's relation to RPG races. While it is fairly established that Tolkien based some of the iconic aspects of his fantasy races on stereotypes of various cultures from his era, has there been any indication (interview, designer notes, etc) that a similar style of thinking has been purposefully interjected into fantasy RPG races (ala D&D, Earthdawn, etc)? And as a follow-up, is there any discussion (within the related rules) on how to handle this overlap respectfully and without coming across as "corny"?

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This is a bit too vague, don't you think? There are approximately 10,000 fantasy races of various types (including human cultures) in various games, many if not most of which are obviously derived from real world cultures. Your follow-up is the more legitimate question, I think. – mxyzplk Sep 11 '10 at 20:16
I disagree-the question is: has there has been a fantasy RPG race that has been based on a real world culture as indicated by the designers? For example, I've heard it proposed that D&D dwarves are based, intentionally, on Scottish culture. While I see the possibility, I'm not aware of this ever being cited as intentional. Hence the curiosity around if there has been a documented instance of a fantasy race based around a real world race/culture. I'm not asking for a catalog of the origin of all 10K+, but rather has there been an instance where the designers created an intentional analogue. – rjstreet Sep 11 '10 at 20:46
I'm voting to close as I'm concerned this can just result in argument over stereotypes about real cultures and fanatic interpretation of non-real culture. – LeguRi Sep 12 '10 at 13:20
I think the name of this question is misleading - it sounds to me (based on your comment) that what you're really asking is for examples of fantasy races which were explicitly based on a single specific real-world culture, whereas I read the title as asking if fantasy races, broadly speaking, necessarily draw from real-world culture(s). – Burrito Al Pastor Oct 21 '10 at 21:58
up vote 8 down vote accepted

There are a few where it's been explicit that certain aliens or demihumans have been modeled after particular cultures.

The MekPurr, from Space Opera, are Scots in Felinoid bodies, for example.

Certain Human-aliens in Traveller are specifically based upon certain cultures (Sword Worlders and vikings, Jonkerer on desert nomads), and some of the Alien aliens originate in clear stereotypes (Aslan as Samurai Cats).

The Orks of Orkworld are clearly Bretons (A pre-roman Celtic culture in what is now England). The humans are Romans... but Gurtha isn't Earth by the maps.

The Warhammer world is explicitly a parallel earth... the Empire is essentially the Holy Roman Empire; Tilea is italy; Bretonia, France and England; Kislev is Kyiv. The Orcs are east of Germany and Kislev, where the Rus and Slavs lived on earth. The Slann, in older editions, were the Aztec and Inca. The Undead Hordes are in lands that were under Islam on earth... And in early editions, the North were chaos hordes... but aside from Bretonia, the Empire, Kislev, and Tilea, which are all human, the non-humans are not identified with the earth cultures of their spots. Those human cultures are parodies as much as anything.

None of these, however, talk about the sources as anything other than sources. Once you establish your race, it's different, if only because of player ignorance.

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Aslan: Samurai cats. K'kree: Islamist cattle. Solomani: Nazi humans. Zhodani: "Communist" Russian humans. Vargr: Sioux dogs. Droyne: Hindu birds. – JUST MY correct OPINION Oct 24 '10 at 14:15
The K'Kree are not islamists... When they were initially presented, they were based upon extrapolation of cattle to sentience, not extant cultures (read the designer's notes). The Zhodani have only vague resemblances to Communists; their utopianism is strongly capitalist, BTW, disproving your theroy. The Vargr are based on Wolves because they are wolves with hands and speech; No Sioux needed. Droyne are not hindu based, either; the only similarity is a caste system, but their caste system is linked to gender, not social place, and there is little other resemblance. MGT doesn't match prior eds. – aramis Oct 25 '10 at 6:01
You are the master of all things RPG. This answer is great, and cuts through PC in the quest for accuracy. – Matt Joiner May 20 '11 at 11:47

I've never seen it called out explicitly in a game text, but you can see signs of it in globetrotting or cosmopolitan settings like Eberron and Al-Qadim, or anthropomorph settings like Ironclaw. My homebrew setting (for who doesn't have one?) does it quite a bit; my advice is to make sure that the research is done, and make sure that the fantasy folk are compelling and interesting even if someone comes in unaware of the historical/cultural shorthand of being "like the Ancient Egyptians" or "like Borgia's Venice."

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I started to write a response and it was exactly like yours, so have a +1 instead :) – Peter Seckler Sep 13 '10 at 13:30

IMO the proper approach is for fantasy cultures to be influenced by, but not analogous to, real ones. No caricatures, no implied values structures, but not completely alien to our world.

So "These Halflings are known to worship the Sun, to which they bow five times daily." entirely good, we can got a tidbit of learning about these Halflings. "These elves are cave-dwellers, and are suspicious of outsiders" makes me more curious about them.

But "These Halflings speak in gruff accents, drink mead, and wear horned helmets" is already groan-worthy, because there's nothing mysterious about it, and I'm already assuming, right or not, that they are coastal raiders who arm wrestle each other every night.

So if you need to describe their accent or buildings or art or weaponry, think it through well, make it mysterious and not label-able as "They are like the people who live in (real place)"

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Most of the classic D&D races (elves, dwarves, halflings, orcs) are derived from a mix of sources, not necessarily directly with real world races or cultures. I dont think Tolkien drew his races that much from real world races or cultures either. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo Saxon literature. All of these races have qualities that can come across as "recognizable", possibly to stereotyped personalities or appearances that you may know - that makes a lot of sense because they embody tropes within a northern European / Western cultural framework in European/ Western literature.

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In the games that have these overlap, it typically explains the perception of the game world of these real-world inspired cultures. Like when a setting has an exotic asian locale, or the like.

Perhaps I'm not following the question entirely, but, in general, I don't believe that most games put race->real-race/culture relations in the game rules. Any such nonsense is usually a holdover or a player trying to bring discussions that don't belong at the game table to the forefront.

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I can't for the life of me parse the phrase "race->real-race/culture relations". Could you maybe try and clarify, if only for my sake? – Burrito Al Pastor Oct 21 '10 at 21:54

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