(This is the first digital garden style post on my website. This means, in practical terms, that it's always going to be something of a work in progress. I may get to a point where I feel that it's a coherent article from start to finish, but I'll always be open to revising it as I come across (or have) new ideas.)
A note on terminology: D&D uses the word race where I would typically want to use something like species instead. When I talk about race here, I'm talking more about the real world idea of race (and racism) that gets transposed on, and perpetuated by the representation of, different species in D&D (and fantasy more broadly). I'll try to use species instead when I'm talking about elves, orcs, etc. I may slip up sometimes, or I may end up using race when referring to some game mechanics that use that term (racial abilities, etc.), but I'll try to stick to that convention.
I've been playing D&D and some similar games for about 15 years. The groups that I've played in have always skewed white, and I often haven't thought much about race beyond the game mechanics.
One thing I found early on was that I didn't like the idea that all members of a species act the same way. So, elves may have been haughty in general in the world I was playing in, but of course there were exceptions. When I play a character, I try to think about how their background shaped them, and what their stats might mean for them. I'll look at what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what opportunities they might have had, things like that, and then figure them out.
As a DM... well I can't say I've put the same effort into my NPCs, or my world building. I haven't DM'd a lot, and I've run mostly pre-made adventures, or one-shot modules that I've put together without little context. But I'm a writer, and I'm drawn to the idea of creating something bigger. I tried writing a Pathfinder campaign seven or eight years back, and that quickly fizzled out. For the last four or five years I've been throwing stray thoughts and random bits I've come across into a giant note, with the intent of putting a campaign together. I started writing that campaign maybe three years ago, and that fizzled out before the first session because I had a hard time scheduling it.
There's very little about race in those notes. Most of what's in my old Pathfinder campaign notes looks like it was pulled directly from the books. What I had tweaked, in an effort to make the world more interesting for my players, didn't really address any of the problematic elements. It didn't even occur to me at the time.
Now though, I'm seeing lots of calls to decolonize D&D/fantasy (among many other things), and I'm, I hope, taking those calls seriously. I want to build a world in which no species is inherently evil. There will be cultural differences between some groups, but I'll aim for that to be true within a species as much as between different species.
I tend to go with the attitude that whatever sort of human my players want to play, we'll work together to figure out where in the world they might be from, and then I'll leave it to them to fill me in on cultural details for their character. I think to the extent that this works, it's because the people I'm playing with are for the most part pretty respectful, and also good role players. If they tell me they want to play a character based on, say, the Kamakura period in Japanese history, I expect they're going to suggest ways to tweak things about their class etc to make it a better fit. And in working with them on these tweaks, I'll be putting thought into the place they're from, and thinking up NPCs that fit that setting.
Or, I would strive to do so, at least. I haven't gotten far enough into a campaign as a DM to really explore much of the world beyond wherever we start. Wherever we start has been, so far, always a sort of generic Medieval European town. Now, that is a period I've studied a bit and have been interested in for a long time, and that holds at least some of the appeal of D&D for me in the first place. But it's also the easy way. It's the safe default. I can do better.
I don't like the idea that all orcs are evil. I don't like the idea that all orcs are brutes. The last time I played a half-orc, I played a homeless wizard who helped take care of a library. He was smart, not very strong, a little insecure and defensive. His backstory was tragic, but not because one of his parents was an orc. He could've been angry and spent his time hitting people, but instead he loved books and fought literal demons.
When I think of orcs in my world, I often think of them as vikings. But, late in the Viking period, when they've done a lot of colonizing, but aren't just know for raiding. They're farmers and traders and explorers. Maybe their culture is a bit libertarian. They'd have plenty of good reasons to not only interact peacefully with members of other species, but to live among them, make friends, fall in love and have children, etc.
And that's just one orc cultural group. There are bound to be others.
I love me some elves that live in the forest and that are trying to live in harmony with nature. Living in treehouses? Rad. I'm a city boy, and wouldn't actually want to live in the forest, but it's fun to pretend. But what if, instead of wanting to live in harmony with nature, the elves that live in forests do so because they're isolationists? They just don't want to be found. They don't want to have to care about the wider world's politics. They've got their space, they're self-sufficient, and that's all they want. The groups of elves that don't have these same tendencies have founded cities and countries, have sometimes gone to live in other cities and countries, have explored, have fought wars and made alliances, etc. Some of them will have maintained ties with the forest elves, but will closely guard their knowledge of them.
Bear with me for a minute here. What if kobolds have a Victorian era vibe? They're controlled by a dragon and they often do terrible things, but they've got a rigid sense of propriety and social hierarchy. Picture a kobold army marching around in redcoats. Tell me you aren't tempted to steal this idea.
There are surface dwarves, and there are underground dwarves. I like the idea from Dragon Age where dwarves who have gone to the surface are exiled from their communities. That's going to exist for one group of underground dwarves who are living in a fascist state. There's 100% a resistance movement within that state that includes exiled dwarves and surface dwarf allies. The fascist underground dwarf state won't trade directly with surface dwellers of any species, but will trade for surface goods with other underground communities.
There would be refugees from the fascist state, and from the other dwarf states that they've conquered, in other communities. At least some of the surface dwarves are refugees who think moving to the surface is the only safe option for them.
Surface dwarves tend to maintain a connection with underground dwarves, and trade extensively with them. It's not uncommon for surface dwarves and underground dwarves to work and live in mines together. In some places there's really not a lot of distinct cultural differences between the surface and underground dwarves, just the preferences of individuals. In other communities the differences are more pronounced, but outside of the fascist dwarf state not typically hostile.
Literally descended from demons, but often so far in the past that it's not a big deal to other people.
There are very few gnomes left in the world. Those that are left tend to live in very small groups, or no more than 5 or 6. Many gnomes live or travel alone, and there are so few of them that it isn't unusual for a gnome to claim to be the last of their kind - there are so few gnomes that most people haven't met any, let alone more than one.
Some gnomes claim to be halflings, just so they don't have to explain their race. In fact, at least one family of gnomes successfully moved into a halfling village, and has lived among them unquestioned for over 50 years.
You know I tend to think that halflings and dragonborn as described in the PHB are fine as is.