I just posted information on another race for my World of Samoth campaign, the Dwarves. Now you're probably reading that and immediately the image of the classic D&D (or, let's call it Tolkiensian) Dwarf jumped into your mind, and you might be wondering what else I needed to say about these beard-growing, axe-wielding, plate armor-wearing short-and-stubby warriors.
Well, in a word, I hope "plenty."
Long ago when I started working on my revision of the races for my World of Samoth campaign, I decided I wanted to change things up a bit. In my first version, I didn't call any of the classic races by their familiar names, but created new names from the races' own languages. My plan was to only refer to them by these names during play. As time when on, however, I found that those classic fantasy names are helpful. Even though "my" dwarves are different, by calling them dwarves, I can at least get people started thinking about them in a certain way, and then start tearing down the traditional fantasy tropes and rebuild them according to how I wanted things in my world. It's much easier than saying, "You can play a Human or a Shagir" and not having anybody have any idea what a Shagir is.
So, I decided that since my campaign world is dominated by humans (like most fantasy campaign worlds), I wanted to play that angle up. So, the humans in Samoth, generally, act in a a superior position to all of the other intelligent races. This has gone on for a long time, dating back to the humans basically "re-named" the other races upon first encountering them, millennia ago, and naming them after the creatures from their fairy tales and stories. So, dwarves in Samoth are called dwarves simply because the humans thought that they looked like the dwarves from their stories.
This immediately sets a tone and lets you know as a player where the races stand in relation to one another. Humans are the dominant race, and they know it. It doesn't look like that's going to change any time soon.
This decision had a series of escalating consequences attached to it. One of the main ones was that, with humans being the dominant intelligent race who treated themselves as superior to the other races, that would mean that, over time, the humans, as they looked to expand their influence, had most likely taken over the traditional lands of these other races. That would mean that there are very few, if any, "dwarf lands" or "elf kingdoms" left in Samoth.
And of course, this means that those races would slowly, over time, lose their culture and identity and start to incorporate human values and customs into their daily lives, whether immediately by force, or just slowly over time by virtue of living among and with humans for so long.
As I started to think about this, I really liked where this idea was heading. I was opening up my races to be much more varied than the way that they are traditional viewed in fantasy literature and RPGs. I could have elves who chose to assimilate themselves with human culture, and dwarves who chose to fight what was considered a losing battle to retain their independence and traditional ways. Traditional D&D foes, like orcs and goblins, might be assimilated as well and could be played as player character races, or they might be choosing to hold onto what was left of their own culture against the overwhelming tide of humanity, and in this case, they might have more in common with the other races who chose to do the same. So, I could say good-bye to the stereotypical "all dwarves hate orcs, and vice-versa."
I also liked the idea of having all kinds of different elves, dwarves, orcs, and goblins, based on how well they integrated within human society, and also where they integrated with them. Traditionally in fantasy RPGs, a dwarf is a dwarf, no matter where he lives. They are all gruff and stoic and stubborn and hate evil humanoids. Now I had the opportunity to let the players dictate how their dwarf character acted based on whether or not he lived among humans or railed against them, and also where in the campaign world he lived. There would be no Dwarf Empire, so every dwarf the players encounter had the potential to be very different from the others. They could, and would, be as varied as humanity.
There were many other decisions that arose from my first thought about having the humans "name" the other intelligent races, such as the prevalence of half-races in my campaign world, given how the races all live and work amongst each other.
It's fun to look back at how one little idea can have "world-shaping" implications.
How have you handled the races in your own campaign worlds? Do you use them "as is" from the rulebooks, or do you modify them, or even create your own?