Posted By Tobiah on May 30, 2013
An interesting commentary from someone who seems as dismayed as I am over the overuse of the Tolkeinian races, albeit coming at the matter from a somewhat different angle:
This is also why when other worlds use these now standard races as plug-in inhabitants, the effect is so often flat. Instead of rooting these fantastical beings into cultures that make internal sense, instead of building these races of the same soil they inhabit, instead of giving them a language, D&D abstracts their tongues (Common, Elven, Dwarven, Gnomish), and gives short generic and somewhat contradictory descriptions of their culture, ready made to fit any world. This is why, at least to me, the elves of Shannara feel uncompelling, and the night elves of Kalimdor, though their architecture is consistent, are as hollow as the mesh and skin combination used to represent them on the screen.
Basically he seems to be saying that Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, and Orcs worked so well in Tolkein because they were baked into the history of the world in important and meaningful ways, rather than copy/pasted in. I agree, and I think it dovetails with what I said in my own book:
In a work of fiction, an author may take months or years perfecting the plot and prose. They have the time and level of story control to properly explore inhuman characters. At the game table, however, we lack that same luxury of time for introspection. So we go with our human instinct—tinted through the lens of what is, in essence, a racial stereotype. What should be an alien, other-worldly creature instead ends up becoming a guy in a funny hat.
The Tolkeinian races, for all that they worked in The Lord of the Rings, aren’t something that you can just plug-in to a game and play with the same level of emotional depth as presented in stories that were shaped over decades.