Recently my weekly gaming group discussed switching games to a savage worlds fantasy. The GM wanted to create a bunch of new races for this world but explicitly wanted there to be no cultural difference between them, in the city we were part of. His reasoning was that he found people playing up racial traits tended to get in the way of developing interesting characters; playing the type instead of the person. There is certainly a logic to this but I found that it still left something lacking for me.
There are all sorts of arguments about whether such a world would or wouldn’t come to exists and what would be needed to make the world like like that and perhaps trying to figure out how to produce would be a fun world building exercise in and of itself. However it troubles me not so much for the lack of verisimilitude, I mean it’s an elf game with people zaping each other with lighting bolts and calling beings back from the dead. No I find the lack of purpose of the races to be an issue. There is no narrative purpose served. They are set dressings at best.
RPG’s are a shared imaginative story and most of the ideas are exchanged with words. Having a bunch of different looking peoples with no functional difference between them could be interesting in a visual medium, where we can see the depth and intricacy of them literally. Where they truly can add life and color sitting as backdrops. That’s not really possible in a conversation the way RPG’s should be run. Nor could you show them off as done in a novel, with a loving paragraph dedicated to the contours of the body, the differences in shading, how they carry themselves and the intricacies of the language. Taking that much time away from game play to narrate a background detail is exactly the type of things that spawned the “don’t run a game, write a novel” critique of GM’s. The collaborative element that demands shared spotlight and the lack of visual awareness make backdrop races a poor decision.
While I don’t completely believe in the Checov’s gun trope, I do think the vast majority of things put in an RPG should be there to add to the story. They should be there to be fired if the players want to fire them. The history and culture of a race is incredibly interesting territory to explore, IF THE PLAYERS WANT TO, and simply removing it flattens a game immensely. While this is true of tiny details in the best of games, with every NPC, landmark, item, ect potentially having a history and perhaps highlighting a theme, with something as major a Race it seems almost required to have narrative impact on the difference between picking them. And I don’t see how that’s possible if they all act the same and are treated the same. This is true of every major character choice in my mind. In class games, classes should be treated different and act different. Basically any mechanical choice you make at creation should how some major impact in how your character interacts with the world.