Too often fantasy writers are guilty of the same things that sci-fi writers are: You are exploring the vastness of space and you run into an entirely alien race, and they are exactly human, except they have blue skin, or they have antennae, or they have pointy ears, etc. You know the drill - identical to humans in every way, except for one really minor one. Oh, and the chicks are really hot!
Are orcs just green skinned humans? Are elves just pointy eared humans? Are halflings just short humans? Well, on that last one, I say yes, but the others shouldn’t be true. What about when you get into people like centaurs, or dragons, or even wizards? The cultures, the fundamental morals and beliefs of the culture, have to be different.
But how do you do that? Well, it’s tough, because all we really know about is what we experience or to a far lesser extent what we might learn. But making guesses about these things are what makes game mastering and world building fun!
One place I like to start is tier-ing the social structures. What? I mean lower classes, middle classes, upper classes. I mean are there nobles? slaves? Is there a middle class? Next comes religion. I think if you can develop these two concepts together, you can create different cultures. But the truth is, I see Earth’s cultures as quite different (let’s say different enough) and have utilized them in my world, but obviously with my twists on them. I think this is fair, because my elves, dwarves and humans all did develop on the same planet and they have the same basic biological forms. I do try to make the non-mammalian cultures quite different.
Examples - how did I try this: OK, well the dwarves rebelled against their nobles and formed a style of socialism. But like happens most commonly in Earth socialist societies, the people really don’t buy into it. Maybe for a few years, even a few generations, the people tried to be all for one and one for all, but now they balance the black market against the unfair quota system rewards that they receive.
The elves reserved magic only to the nobles; no commoners were allowed to learn magic. They took this to the point of telling the peasants that they would be unable to learn magic. But then they lost a war and had many of their noble spell casters killed. Hoping to rebuild as quickly as possible, they started training commoner officers in the use of magic. Both the loss and the confused narrative around commoners now learning magic caused the peasants to lose faith in the whole system. The ramifications of this are still being felt (determined), but corruption within the elven forests has grown at an enormous rate.
The ogres remain tribal, and with their higher need for food, they continue to hunt, rustle, raid and pillage. They may be tougher, but there is only so much of that any neighbor can put up with, so organized forces oppose them and have dramatically reduced their numbers. Could the ogres actually be raiding themselves into extinction?
Dragons have even bigger appetites than ogres do, and there’s no way they are shifting to vegetables. (Dragons eating tofu anyone?) So what do they do? Well the more animalistic breeds of dragons are fishermen and hunt the vast Dragon Lakes, as well as the mountains in the area that have ample wild horses and goats. But the more intelligent dragons have livestock. The “black dragons” of the south pole breed and maintain herds of elephants. The dragons closer to human (plus) populations are slavers.
These are just a couple of ideas, and way to short at that. I did not touch on orcs here, because that would take far too long - just the breeding customs of the orcish tribes could fill a book. I’m not trying to get you to rethink the digestive system of elves vs. humans (though I have actually done work on that), but I do want you to make a legitimate difference between elves, dwarves and dragons. Dragons don’t live in towns with a mayor and a sheriff, but halflings do. The differences should be noticeable to even the most hardened gold farmer playing in your game world.
I added a second post to give some more details here. Click here to read that one.