Starting to play Skyrim this weekend I quickly ran across one of my pet hates in fantasy roleplaying games: the stereotypical racial template which declares that such-and-such species is always good at a given skill set.
My example is the Dark Elf in Skyrim: automatically good at magic and sneaking. Hmm. It makes for a cool shtick in a computer game but is lousy racial typing. Are you really telling me that ALL Dark Elves have the same talents?
Race, Culture or Profession?
In a fantasy setting some kind of old style classification can be helpful to the players. It helps to give a hero a basic role within the group, which in turn builds the roleplaying aspect for each player. There is, however, a need for this to make sense.
In the first days of fantasy roleplaying we had 'Classes' and 'Races'. The former were what the character excelled at (Fighting, Magic-Using, Thievery and so on), and the latter were racial types designed to augment certain classes. Thus, Halflings would be stealthy and Elves magical.
In modern fantasy roleplaying, however, I think a little more subtlety and thought can give an enhanced experience. This is where I suggest that a mix of Race, Culture and Profession makes the hero better.
Race (or species) is useful in settings (such as Mykovnia) where you seek to differentiate characters based upon broad sets of advantages. For example, Mykovnian Uruk are tough and strong, whilst Nyhi have high reflexes and tend towards quick-thought processes. Beyond any physical advantages or disadvantages, race should be limited to broad strokes. Not all Nyhi are magi and not all Uruk will be warriors.
Some Nyhi are forest-dwellers, others plains nomads, and some even city-dwellers. Each characters' upbringing and cultural background will give them different experiences and thus different skills, talents and emphases. Perhaps the city-dwellers are more streetwise whilst the plains nomads make better trackers and hunters. Yet, even with a cultural template to guide us, we must not fall into the trap of assuming that all nomads are hunters... some might make an excellent shaman or something equally specialised. This brings me on to...
People tend to specialise into a role within their culture. In a fantasy world, some will become warriors, soldiers and hunters; others might choose the path of spiritual enlightenment; others still may seek out the riches offered by roguery. Each to his or her own, I say. And so, the GM has a need to offer templates for the professions... and also to remain flexible even so. For not every warrior will wield the same weapon, wear armour, or even shun magic.
Taken together, in my fantasy vision, the guidance offered by Race, Culture and Profession gives the player a clear pathway within which to mix up their own idea of a hero. It reduces the vast choices of any setting without limiting them, providing the GM allows for variation and modification.
Using a game like GURPS these matters are easy to design and augment. As all things are bought using the ubiquitous Character Point it is easy to design a template, offer it to the players and still retain the ability to alter it upon need.
What's my point? It's simple: don't opt for over-simplistic stereotypes. Instead, design useful racial, cultural and professional archetypes... and let the players play with them. It'll make for a richer world and a set of far more original heroes to adventure with.