An idea: a campaign where each human-like race is linked to a fear inherent in the human condition.
This is probably best for a humans-only setting, and the thoughts below are drawn mostly from my old World Between setting. I'm reposting this because someone was looking for it the other day and I was surprised to discover it isn't in any of the Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque books.
Races & Associated Fears:
Dragonborn – Dragonborn play on the fear of masculinity. Dragonborn act as unbridled representations of masculine force without emotional counterbalance. They embody competition, pure physicality, and proving oneself through strife, and possess limited faculties for empathy, group endeavors, or concern for moral and ethical considerations. A dragonborn simply takes action, driven by his own sense of infallibility, and damns the consequences as belonging to the world of weak-willed and weak-bodied untermensch. Dragonborn frequently subscribe to Dragon Cults that support their feelings of innate superiority.
Drow – Drow play on the fear of decadence. The drow have their own corrupt empire beneath the surface of the World Between in the Neverwhere, from which they rule the Unseelie Court of the fey. Whereas the ideals of a grand empire should run towards progress, egalitarianism, and the personal growth of its constituents, the empire of the drow is regressively barbarous, brutally hierarchical, and morbidly fixated on exploring the boundary between pain and pleasure. Their empire is a deeply magical one; they have mastered arcane spell-casting, alchemy, and the art of brewing enchanted poisons. However, drow magic is never used to the betterment of their society—rather, it is deployed to bring about the ruin of others. Drow also bolster their power by seeking divine favor; Narlathia is their patron goddess, but many drow also revere Matakhan, The Lamenting Mother, and the Demon Queen Slithian Vor. One final note on the drow of the World Between: they are not color-coded for your convenience; they range from the palest skinned to the darkest skinned, and are thus impossible to separate from regular elves or eladrin at first glance.
Kobolds – Kobolds play on the fear of misrule. Kobolds are animal-headed fey (most are dog-headed) who were horrible warped by the cataclysm that caused the Ruinous Scar; in fact, they may be the only beings who remember what transpired to create the Scar due to their nigh-immortality. Kobolds are generally immune to aging and death by decrepitude—so long as they consume human flesh at least once a month. The terrible price required by their immortality has transformed the kobolds from a race of merry fey pranksters into a species who use foul traps and trickery to catch potential human meals. Indeed, the lure, snares, and mechanical traps of the kobolds are infamous and have inspired many a cautionary fairy tale throughout the World Between.
Dwarves – Dwarves play on the fear of avarice. Dwarves are capable of fantastical acts of creation; their rune-inscribed weapons are the most powerful to be found in the World Between and they can harness the intersection of magic and technology to craft wonders that no other race is capable of. However, a dwarf feels an unreasonable need to be paid magnificently for his or her labor. Dwarves are unpredictable in what they will accept as tender; each is driven by a specific greed: some lust after gold, some favor gems, yet others crave stranger things like the hair of blonde maidens. A dwarf who feels he has been cheated will go to great lengths to exact revenge and gain their reward; cheating a dwarf is the mark of a suicidal mind.
Eladrin – Eladrin play on the fear of alien-ness. Though the eladrin are the de facto leaders of the Seelie Court, their motives and desires are utterly inexplicable from a human perspective. Eladrin exist at a remove from the World Between, and are content to pursue their own ends within their mystical traveling towers. However, when humans come into contact with the eladrin they are left with an impression of emptiness, coldness, and dispassion towards the vagaries of the human condition. While eladrin may sometimes aid mankind, their reasons for doing so are their own and seldom possess a correlation to an understandable human explanation.
Elves – Elves play on the fear of chaos. Though elves are friendlier to mankind than much of the fey, they are creatures of terrifying impulses. Elves are beings of constantly shifting moods who follow their whims and caprices with no regard to the harm that this causes to mortal men. One day an elf may offer to help a cobbler create wondrous shoes so that he might better feed his family, the next day that same elf may shoot down the cobbler’s children with arrows for mere sport. Unpredictable and motivated entirely by their passions, elves exist in what seems to be a constant state of madness; they are capable of moments of manic revelry, crushing sorrows, and fierce violence. As creatures who represent the chaos of the natural world, they give worship to a myriad of gods and goddesses associated with the wilds, such as the Crooked Moon, the Forest Who Walks, and the Lamenting Mother. Other types of fey (such as sprites, pixies, brownies, etc.) act in much the same way as elves.
Giants – Giants play on the fear of inebriation. The sad truth is that all giants—whether the rarefied philosopher kings of the cloud giants or their malformed cousins the fomorians—are slaves to their addictions. While some are more functional than others, all are dangerous when under the influence of alcohol or other more exotic substances. While in their cups they rage and destroy, turn against friend and ally, and are capable of the basest deeds. The day after their rampages will be one colored by crushing remorse, but they are doomed to forever repeat their tragic cycle.
Goblins – Goblins play on the fear of science run amok. Goblins are the great magical experimenters of the fey; they use sorcerous rites to invent bizarre hybrid creatures (owlbears, manticores, and hook horrors are said to be their handiwork), magical automatons (the secrets of golem-craft and the warforged are rumored to have originated with them), and cursed magic items. Above all else, goblins love to use their experimental magic on living creatures; they
have been known to raid human lands for subjects on which to test their demonstone-fueled mutational processes. The existence of closely-related kindred species (such as nilbogs, bugbears, and hobgoblins) are likely the results of demonstone experiments that the goblins have inflicted on their own kind. Though they primarily worship their own ability to create, goblins have a healthy respect for the goddess Narlathia, whom they see as the original creator of their race and as the “dark spark” that initiated the known universe.
Gnolls – Gnolls play on the fear of animality. While man prides himself on his ability to tame and domesticate the animals of the World Between, gnolls stand as a reminder that not all of the World’s creatures can be taught to accept man’s yoke. Gnolls exemplify the state of nature; they revel in the bestial violence that makes their lives nasty, brutish, and short. The gnoll social unit—the pack—stands in opposition to the more complicated bonds of reciprocity that have allowed mankind to flourish across the World Between. Gnoll shamans most often serve Hakhan and Sluurge.
Gnomes – Gnomes play on the fear of the unheimlich. Gnomes typically appear as perfectly-proportioned humans, save for the fact that their mouths are filled with rows of shark-like teeth. Gnomes are known throughout the World Between as the Fell Bargainers, for while they can offer powerful enchanted items their deals always come at a horrific price. Gnomes often appear to adventurers bearing exactly what they need, when they need it, but a gnomish bargain almost always brings a terrible doom. Gnomes are notorious masters of illusion (and are sometimes to be found performing on the cabaret stages of Caligari) and have an unnatural ability to converse with and control animals. One strange ability that no-one has ever been able to satisfactorily explain is the gnomes’ power to enter and exit a building through its closets instead of the more traditional portals of egress.
Halflings – Halflings play on the fear of place. Whether dumpy and diminutive or lithe and agile, halflings curiously take on the worst qualities of where they live. For example, the bayou halflings of the Ghael Isles are backward, ignorant, illiterate, and slyly cruel, while the halflings who have made their homes in Caligari City are urbanely corrupt, convincing dissemblers, and prone to engage in urban criminality. Smiling scamps that they are, halfings tend to revere
Killane of the Road as their patron god. Much like their god, halflings are tricksters, shysters, con-men, and charlatans; and yet, there is something supernaturally charming about them that often disarms the folk they regularly cheat.
Ogres – Ogres play on the fear of cannibalism. Ogres appear as brutish humans inflated to a ungainly size that seems like a mockery of mankind’s form. They rarely possess more than the rudiments of what might be called culture or society; rather, they live in family-based tribes that often appear to be a cruel satire on the social arrangements of the lowliest lower-class humans. Ogres are justly feared because of their never-satiated hunger. Their desire to consume can drive them to commit unparalleled acts of gruesome consumption; it is said that an ogre who has given over to their hunger will devour any living creature that comes within their grasp. Ogres tend to worship the primal spirits associated with fire, for like fire an ogre must live with the burning desire to consume until nothing is left.
Orcs – Orcs play on the fear of savagery. Orcs are not a natural species in the World Between; they are sorcerous creations birthed in the laboratories of wizards and from the cauldrons of witches. They are created solely for the purpose of bloodshed and are used by their creators as brute henchmen, assassins, bodyguards, and as the basis of evil warbands. Orcs care for little more than slaughter; the only thing that gives them joy is to snuff out the candle of life through direct, violent means. If an orc survives their creator, they usually migrate to the wild-lands of the World where they congregate with others of their kinds into barbaric hordes who assault the settlements of the World Between solely for the pleasure they find in destruction. Such orcs have been known to come under the influence of the Demon Lord Hakhan.
Tieflings – Tieflings play on the fear of racial degeneration. Tieflings are the results of consorting with demons and devils; as such, they represent both the allure and danger of mixing one’s bloodline with that of infernal beings. Tieflings are secretive, shadowy, and manipulative by nature. They are openly accepted in Caligari, Harrowfaust, and the Ghael Islands, but in other lands they may be hunted down as unclean abominations. All tieflings are looked upon as potential servants of the Demon Lord and Demon Queens; it is rumored that many of the tieflings of Caligari are members of the cult of Slithian Vor.
Trolls – Trolls play on the fear of the abject. Impossibly gangly and horrifically countenanced, there is just something wrong about trolls. Men feel the presence of trolls long before they spot them; a man or woman knows that a troll approaches when they feel the hair on their arms prickle and their skin involuntary shiver. When confronted by a troll, a person’s mind is attacked by brief flashes of unclean things such as viscera, human waste, and diseased flesh. The smell of a troll is an unmistakable blend of rubbish, spoiled meat, and swamp vegetation. As creatures of filth and squalor, trolls are the servants of the Demon Lord Sluurge.