There’s a couple of posts on here right now discussing Race in D&D. On the one hand we have a discussion of Race As Class, and more recently I tried to address the issue of races that are Always Chaotic Evil. Both of these issues are hold-overs from the origins of D&D, probably inherited from Chainmail and now warped to some extent or another due to lack of context and the evolution of the game. So right off, I’d have to concede that both are probably a matter of taste to some extent, and your mileage may vary. That being said, I think both issues stem from a common source, and I intend to demonstrate why it’s not a patently absurd notion.
In that latter post a commenter suggested that my argument is only a partial answer to the question of racial stereotypes in D&D, and that there are plenty of things to consider — like, what about an industrious tribe of Goblins? What about a group of Orcs who built a sprawling metropolis and discuss philosophy in amphitheaters? For that matter, what about hyper-industrialist elves carving a swath of devastation across the land in their all-consuming drive to produce and consume?
When it comes down to it, I think this is all a question of whether all fantasy races are just humans in funny hats or not. That is, are we all just the same at a fundamental level, or are there actual differences that are simply inherent in the races. Why are goblins erratic and lazy? Because that’s part of what being a goblin is. You might as well ask why fire burns. Maybe they fatigue easily, maybe they have some other biological quirk that makes focus and productivity difficult or impossible. Maybe their neural chemistry produces a different kind of perception, in the end it doesn’t matter how deep you go or what kind of explanation you give, the final question you have to ask is: are goblins (or orcs or elves) just the same as humans, or not? If the answer is “no, they’re just the same as humans” that might be a valid setting to play in, but I feel like you lose a lot of the potential that Fantasy brings us as a genre. And if the answer is “no, they’re different from humans somehow” then at some level that’s your answer — goblins are like goblins because they’re different from humans. You can go on to discuss the hows and whys behind that answer, and I could see a whole campaign built around an adventuresome researcher trying to understand the various Races, but in the end the question is already answered.
So, my goblins are lazy, my orcs are brutal, my elves are arrogant. Some goblins may be clever, some orcs may be honorable, and some elves may be benevolent — there may be whole tribes of each of these — but there is something fundamental that makes them goblins, orcs, and elves and asking why they don’t behave like humans is partly missing the point.