This week I am putting on my rant hat (just so you know)
There is something that has been bugging the crap out of me lately in fantasy games. It is the issue of race. The poster child for my problem is the typical D&D elven racial bonus with long bows. Why do they have it? What part of elven genetics says, ‘hey I am good with a bow?’
I mean, come on, let’s try to rationalize it. They have great eye sight? Or perhaps they are really dexterous? Both may be true, but why just longbows? Why is it that the eagle eyed elf picks up a short bow and is no better at using it than a human?
When you think about it, the logical explanation is cultural. Elves get the bonus not because of some gift of genetics, but instead because it is such a common weapon that most children grow up doing at least a little shooting.
Now as things go that is all well and good for explaining why, but it leads to another problem, or perhaps to an opportunity. It gives us a place to create unexpected kinds of elves in simple ways. The easiest way to make this sort of tweak is to just swap out the bonus. For example, think of elves who have lived in a dense jungle for years. Rather than every one of them learning how to fire a bow, they get a bonus to short sword from learning how to hack their way through the jungle with a machete.
There are a lot of places this can go, but let’s take a step back from making alternate elves and think about what other sorts of impact culture could have on races in a fantasy game. It could affect attitudes towards other races. It can and should affect skills other than just knowing a weapon or two. For instance, a gnome who grew up in a theocracy with a large dwarven population will come away from that knowing something about religion, speaking at least a bit of dwarven and probably have some strong feelings about both dwarves and religion.
Creating a few cultural tweaks to our fantasy races can bring our worlds to life with only a bit of work.