Good point! This tendency to think of monsters a bit like a different species in terms of biology, or calling it race, and then ascribing a single culture to all of them is something that often has me squirm in my seat. I know this is how we learn about the game, but there is an uncomfortably close connection to racism and all that. It bothers me here in Europe as well, on a smaller scale: the attitudes we ascribe to all Germans, the attitudes we ascribe to the mountain cantons in Switzerland, and so on. It’s weird. I don’t want to deny that sometimes there can be some truth to it – that is, I don’t want to deny the cultural differences themselves, but I do object to the idea that these cultural values are all-encompassing. It’s probably true that most people do not fit the mould; perhaps there’s just a tiny minority that does. If a small group fits the same mould, however, they might still stand out. What I’m trying to say that individual actions, individual words, are still what counts.
So, we have two forces at work, here. On the one hand, these shortcuts make it easy for us to all be on the same page. I can’t deny how well it suits me to have “elves, dwarves, orcs Fantasy” (EDO Fantasy) as a short hand. We can all agree on those archetypes (or prejudices, I guess). The question is, what do we do with the mould we are given? Break it, of course! Thus, on the other hand, I need a quick way as a referee, to generate cultures that are “close, but different”.
In order to keep the benefit of EDO Fantasy, I have to keep some of the cultural traits and at the same time, I want to make sure that the individuals aren’t predictable, that is: not every elf is haughty, not every dwarf is greedy, not every orc is hateful.
Elves live a lot longer than everybody else, so surely the aspects of their culture that derive from their longevity can be universal. They are patient. They are sticklers for detail. They have seen it all before. They are perfectionists. But some elves are cruel and some are kind, some like to travel and some stay in their regions, some are great builders and some are great gardeners. I often try to find an explanation for the local culture by looking at the local terrain. In this sense, the elves are a bit of an embodiment of where they live. So sure, wood elves can be similar to other wood elves, but it’d be a shame if every wood is the same as every other wood. So as I add diversity to woodlands, I add cultural diversity to wood elves, and as I add elves to other lands, even more diversity is created.
In my multi-planar campaigns, I often have elves be “first comers” in Tolkien style. This means, you can find elves everywhere, and they always embody some of the planar terroir as well. Surely, the wood elves are different from the elves living along the Astral Sea, and those are again different from the elves that live in a fiery hell.
Dwarves simply have access to better technology. That is to say, anybody can master it, if they want to: building, mining, steam engines, it’s knowledge that anybody can attain. And there are plenty of dwarves leading simple lives as travelling salespeople, tinkerers, knife sharpeners. I still keep trade and clan as talking points for dwarves. The importance of these can be universal, but the particulars must vary. Some are rich, some are poor, some are greedy, some are generous, some are far away from home and some have lived here for many generations.
In my campaigns, I often have dwarven strongholds associated with powerful monsters, colouring their culture. Fire giants, frost giants, dragons, beholders, chain devils, these all influence how the individual dwarves act. Beholder-friends might be travelling the area, spying on people, reporting back what they see. Chain devil-friends might be closeted, paranoid, xenophobic. Fire giant-friends might be proud of their products, makers for fantastic weapons and armour, or maybe even divided with respect to the giants. And so on.
Orcs are tricky in that I don’t particularly like the brute or hateful stereotype, but I also don’t want to fall into the noble savage trope. I see two ways out: for one, the Tolkien orcs marching across the plains of Mordor like soldiers in the first World War. There’s soot and fire and the cannons of hell, and all the plants are gone, and here are two orcs, complaining about having to march all these miles, having to guard these tunnels all these hours, resentful, but cruel or kind, spiteful or merciful, it all depends. The other orcs I like are the Skyrim orcs. They are peaceful people living away from the big cities. I don’t know where I got the idea, maybe it was from ktrey parker who suggested them to me as I was working on the Hex Describe tables for my setting: orcs are great cooks, and they like strong cheese. So now my orcs are often herders, dairy farmers, cheese makers, as well as martial artists in fantasy sword fighting schools, a bit like the fifty schools or more of kung-fu, maybe warlike, maybe peaceful, maybe xenophobic, maybe serving the long distance trade networks.
Given the context of their military leaders, or the dairy animals they keep, the food they cook, and the preferred fighting style of their clan, often allows me to give orcs their individual touch.
For other creatures, it gets harder. One way around that is to deny biology as we know it. The reason that trolls and goblins are all the same is that they’re magic. Goblins grow in the mud; trolls grow from dead trees that are kept in the dark, and so on. I find that such a magical origin story, without procreation, without family, makes them poorer, of course, but also allows me to use a mono-culture of magic creatures without feeling too weird about it.
And generally speaking, if, in your mind, the campaign is localised, then mono-culturalism isn’t a problem if the next campaign takes place in the same location, or if the next campaign has different elves, dwarves, and orcs. So if you are in fact playing mono-cultural EDO fantasy, but your EDO ideas change over time, then maybe that’s not a problem after all.
I’m just suspicious of people that play all elves, dwarves and orcs the same way, all the time. Happily, I don’t see this happening a lot in my games, so all’s good.