In Goethe’s probably most famous and classic play Faust, the honest and properly raised Gretchen falls in love with the dashing and intelligent Doctor Faust, but has some concerns about his pursues of alchemy and astrology and the highly suspicious companion he spends much of his time with. Despite all the trust she places in him, she eventually can no longer dismiss her worries and confronts him for the moment of truth: “How is’t with your religion?”
When it comes to fantasy these days, both literature and games, one of the big Gretchen-Questions appears to be “What do you think about nonhuman characters in fantasy?” No matter how you reply, there will always be lots of people all too happy to tell you why you should reconsider your stance. Some think it’s always a bad idea while others really don’t want to have anything to do with works that limit themselves entirely to humans. When it comes to Sword & Sorcery, a lot of people seem to be especially vehemently entrenched in their oppinion that it can’t really be even considered Sword & Sorcery when there are characters who are not humans in it.
One comment I see very often that appears to go for a middle ground is “I am not entirely against nonhuman characters, but they must be more than humans with pointy ears.” They have to be distinctly nonhuman in their nature and behavior or they could just have been humans in the first place. When you see a comment like that, you usually also see a great number of people who can totally get behind that and very much agree with it. But when you look at actual works of fantasy fiction, how often do you really see nonhuman characters that truely think and act completely different than humans do. Dark Sun had the Thri-kreen, a race of large and intelligent insects; Eberron the Warforged, a mass produced type of golem with human proportions build for warfare; and in sci-fi I could think of the Geth, a collective of trillions of programms that group together into artificial intelligences that control all kinds of robot bodies as fits their current needs. But these are a few exceptions out of hundreds and possibly even thousands of fictional types of people that have been made up in the last 100 years, who pretty much all very much fit the mold of “humans with pointy ears” (or horns, green skin, four eyes, or whatever).
I think having elves, dwarves, wookies, and klingons does have an actual point, though. Yes, they could all have been made as human characters, but it would not have been the same. Elves and dwarves are not only “races”, they are also archetypes. And all fantasy and sci-fi, no matter if it’s fiction or games, works with and tremendously benefits from archetypes. Take a look at the humans you are most likely to see in fantasy? There you get your fantasy-Viking, fantasy-Romans, fantasy-Samurai, fantasy-Aztecs, fantasy-Mongols and so on. These are all not ethnicities, but pre-defined packages that most people instantly recognize. The cultures from which these archetypes originally came were much more complex and varied. Not all Skandinavians were Vikings, not all Japanese samurai (and not all samurai warriors), not all citizens of the Roman empire legionaires or patricians. Yet we still use these archetypes all the time. And nonhuman fantasy races work the same way. If you have elves in your setting, you are usually not getting Viking-elves, Samurai-elves, or Roman elves. What you get is elvish elves! Elf is not just a body, it’s a whole culture, and one that most people are familiar with and recognize. And we do that because it works!
Both fiction and games are a type of storytelling. And the most important thing to understand about storytelling is, that it is not about recording things as they are and as they have happened. A story, and particularly an exciting story, works by making the descisions of what to mention and what not to mention based on what gets the best dramatic effect. Entertainment is not about realism. As much as people talk about being original, good stories rely heavily on building on what the audience already knows and is familiar with. Stories work with archetypes all the time. Just mention the archetype and there are lots of boring, but important details you don’t have to explain again every time. Of course they are always exagerated and a bit unrealistic, but as an audience we still respond to them positively. We like being able to go straight to the plot and not having to listen to lectures on background information. Archetypes can do that. And if you give some of your characters long beards and helms with horns, or instead pointy ears and bows doesn’t really make a difference.
If you have a really good idea for some kind of creature that kind of looks and acts like people, but thinks and talks completely different from humans, that’s great. But if not, it does not mean that those characters have to be humans. Being humans with a slight cosmetic difference can be enough to make the characters interesting and recognizable and most importantly add a touch of the fantastic and magical to the world.