In my previous post, I talked about the tightness and value of B/X from a purely gamist point of view, and how its rules setup makes some elements of setting design a bit difficult when considered from the perspective of realism (or at least, verisimilitude). The biggest element of this is race-as-class, which has some odd implications in terms of the "monster" lists; there are no 0-level dwarves, elves, or halflings (as there are "Normal Men"), so should the DM and/or players assume that every elf they meet - from the mighty Lord-Wizard (or Lady-Maga) to the humble giant-mushroom gardener - can use any weapon, wear any armor, and cast a 1st-level arcane spell?
JB of B/X Blackrazor has talked about how this idea tends to restrict play to focus on characters as archetypes rather than special snowflakes. This can certainly be a good thing, depending on the kind of campaign one is running, but I've been trying to nudge my players out of their usual goofy, jokey idea of the game into one where they can become emotionally invested - where things like wonder can genuinely happen, even in a world where humans can shoot magic homing arrows out of their fingertips.
I was reading through the recent posts on Playing D&D With Porn Stars (NSFW in places, obviously) when I came across this article, submitted by a different author for a contest. The first mini-article talks about how all fantasy elves since Tolkien (and even more so since D&D) are essentially the same; when one imagines an elf, one usually imagines Legolas; older viewers might (gods help you) think of Crow from Hawk the Slayer. But is that what one is aiming for?
I've spent the past few weeks working, as school permits, on some more detailed ethnic breakdowns for my campaign world. Before the Kingdom took over a third of the Continent, there were at least five very different cultures of humans; some of them still survive in rural areas, but for the most part they have been absorbed into one cosmopolitan whole (much like the way that there's not much difference between Southerners, New Englanders, Midwesterners, and Pacific Northwesterners when you look at the larger cities). Polar humans are still functionally human, and have the same set of capabilities as Steppe or Occidental humans, but there are subtle cultural distinctions that separate them in relatively minor ways.
I've also been doing this for the other sentient races. Orcs are no longer monolithic; I have a tribe of extreme Lawful orcs (somewhat based on the samurai), a tribe of basically Neutral ones (who mostly want to be left alone, or at least to be rewarded for their time and labor), and a tribe of extremely Chaotic ones (who are inherently evil, but it's not genetic - they've developed neurological disorders from their habit of cannibalism). Slowly, I've been doing the same thing for dwarves, elves, gnomes, goblins, halflings, hobgoblins, etc.
The challenge now is to convey this information to my players without forcing them to slog through the 25 AES Census and History of the Kingdom. My next set of adventures should help, if I have a chance to run them.