Really good discussion about the problems of tying race and culture together in DnD:
The basic “problem” is this: When you pick a race in D&D, you’re also getting a pre-packaged culture with that choice. This happens because all races in D&D that are not human have a single monoculture that is assumed to be true and consistent across both space and time. You can see the effect of this assumption in “racial” mechanics. All elves, everywhere, know something about nature. All dwarves, ever, will know how to wield a warhammer or an axe. Those are not really things that are affected by being born a elf or a dwarf; they are the results of the elf and dwarf monocultures. Now, if you want to play a dwarf with a hammer, that’s fine. You are rewarded with those benefits for playing to the stereotype.
If, however, you want to play a dwarf who likes swords, or an elf who has never even set foot in a forest, you are either penalized by not playing to the strengths of the “race”, or have to rely on houserules and bend the system to make it work. Never mind that it doesn’t even make logical sense to assume that every elf is handed a bow as soon as they’re old enough to learn how to use it. The monoculture system also smacks a bit of ethnocentrism. Humans are varied and have many different cultures. Every member of every other race fits into a singular mold.
And I have to highlight one of the comments, from Popesixtus, because (a) it’s a good point and (b) I play Eberron:
The Eberron setting, for example, did a great job illustrating this when it first came out – elves from the country of Breland felt more kinship with dwarves from Breland than with elves from their far away homeland of Aerenal. The new Neverwinter Campaign setting inches in this direction by allowing for different racial bonuses depending on if you were a High or a Sun elf. So there has been some movement in this area.
Yes there’s been movement in this direction. It’s good. Moar. And this forward-movement should also be reflected in the art, which it totally is not. (Yet.)
(But woe that the person goes on to say DnD isn’t “ready” for a postmodern critique. How do you define “ready”? I think everything which has Fail in it should have its Fail pointed out.)
" have to rely on houserules ". There is no 'rely'. This kind of house rule should be heart of DND. Talk to your DM, come up with a cool culture or background. The vanilla races are just examples, starting points. Anyone who feels constrained by "official" race rules should be playing a tactical combat game, not a proper RPG.
OK, so yes a lot of us are bored by the vanilla monolcultures presented and the tendancy of DMs and players to simply stick with them. Which is why alternate settings like Dark sun prove so popular.