Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, July 01, 2020
D&D needs evil races

In real life, I do not own a sword. As it happens, for the complex problems of the modern world a sword is not really a useful solution. I did however swing a large multitude of different swords in fantasy worlds, whether that was in stories told around a table in Dungeons & Dragons, or virtually on the screen in some video game. The reason why a sword is more useful in a virtual world than in the real one is that virtual worlds by design are simpler. There is less moral ambiguity, and a sword is a perfectly viable solution if your problem is an evil, fire-breathing dragon. The simplicity is a desired feature, simple solutions for simple problems are a feature, not a shortcoming. Our real lives are complex and confusing, and sometimes retreating into a simpler fantasy world is good for stress relief.

Since Dungeons & Dragons has moved more and more into the mainstream, it has increasingly become a target for the raging culture wars. And the latest move is that WotC has been pressured into reworking races in D&D; somehow "Black Lives Matter" is deemed to be relevant to how Dungeons & Dragons treats races like Drow or Orcs.

Now, racism *is* a real world evil, especially in the extreme form where it leads to people getting killed. Scientifically speaking, humanity doesn't even have races; "racism" is usually used to mean discrimination based on differences in looks and origin. The term "race" is more correct with regards to fantasy worlds with elves and orcs, as these are clearly more different than real world humans are between them. But somehow the use of the word "race" in Dungeons & Dragons ended up making the game a target: "This is a racist game, because it has races in it, and some of those races are described negatively!". I think that argument is nonsense.

First of all, we need to remember that the world of Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy world, and not real. No orcs were harmed in describing orcs as evil, brutish, and stupid, because orcs don't really exist. There is no hidden analogy between some race in D&D and some real world group of people. Some people might use a Scottish accent when role-playing their dwarf character, but that doesn't mean that the characteristics used to describe dwarves in D&D is supposed to be discriminatory to real world Scots.

Second, as I said in my introduction, evil is a desirable and necessary part of Dungeons & Dragons. There is nothing that would keep you from designing a role-playing game in which each player plays a social worker fighting for social justice, but D&D is not that game. D&D players wouldn't be very interested in a game where they have to delve deep into a dungeon to resocialize orcs. D&D players are looking to solve simpler problems with virtual swords and sorcery, and that requires easily identifiable "evil" targets. Evil dragons, evil necromancers, and sometimes evil orcs.

In its current form, D&D successfully manages to push some people out of their comfort zone by offering them "racial bonuses" for playing a race other than human. That, again, is a feature: It encourages players to think how their character would feel or behave differently because of their origin. This feature is actually rather "woke", because it makes players think about different origins and their impact. Somebody who has managed to play a halfling different than he would play a human might be more open to understand differences between people in the real world. Now this feature is under attack, because it is somehow seen as "racial stereotyping". But if half-orcs aren't strong, dwarves not tough, and elves not dexterous, then even more people will play humans (already the most popular race in D&D, and not because it has the best stats.). It is a shame that WotC would make their game worse, just to appease some radicals.


The way I see it is that the descriptions are based on the human players perspective to act as a guidance and reference for other players.
The alignment system is based on what a human player would consider good or evil, lawful or chaotic.
Were we players Drow or Orcs, that reference would shift to their perspective. They would consider their normal behaviour as 'good' even if it's not from a human perspective.
The same for racial bonuses: an Elf or Orc does not see himself as more dexterous or stonger among Elves or Orcs - other races are clumsy or weaker.
Goblins are next, I suspect.

But the anti-racist warriors don't seem to have decided yet what human race seem like kobolds to them. Invest in kobold figurines!

It's only going to get worse. But your post is at best cryptic in detailing how you would handle being the DM and having a player insist on role playing a "Black Dwarf who just so happens to like Rap/Hip Hop" and demands to use it as "mood music" for dungeons or whatever. Or the player who wants to role-play a gay character in an intensive and provocative manner.

Realizing that the player brings the culture with them, do you tighten up your own "social circle" to prevent players such as these from showing up in the first place, or do you allow them at your table with open arms?
@NoGuff: I would have no problems with any of those players, as long as those players wouldn't have a problem with how a medieval fantasy world would most likely react to their characters.
This is the problem when uninformed people try to pass off their sensibilities onto everything.

The typical fantasy races all have pretty defined origins in mythology and I dont believe any of them have anything to do with race.

Tolkien popularized Orcs, was famously anti-racist had whole lands of different colored humans and yet people still somehow tried to say his depiction of Orcs was rooted in racism.

Goblins are maybe the only case where their image was truly associated with racism but that is far from the common use and didnt happen until fairly recently.
There are multiple huge threads on Enworld on that. And what can you see there, is that its mostly Europeans who share your opinion (more or less), while Americans are moderating them into oblivion and lumping together with alt-right.
I will be polite and will say its probably differences in sensitivity.
I was born in communist state with POC population right around 0%. So, naturally, I am more sensitive to personal freedoms (and approving all work by 'sensitivity consultants' sounds rotten to me) and less sensitive to racial issues (because I never encountered systemic racism, and even everyday racism I sometimes see around is usually just everpresent xenophobia).
Its different for Americans. It's ok. I dislike being lumped with alt-right and slurred, but in the end, its not my problem what US are facing right now. WotC tries hard to expand their target audience, and is doing ok with that. I am not going to complain that my beloved hobby is getting mainstream, because the only effect it has on me, is that I can wear my D&D shirts on vacation and don't feel like a dork. I am a little concerned, that after "depiction of orcs are racist" someday, after another mass shooting we'll get to "D&D fosters violence" and D&D will become more and more neutered (and I honestly believe, that most people like it raw and wiggly, and little naughty.) But its so distant perspective, that it doesn't bother me enough.
I had to think about this for a while to figure out what exactly I disagree with here. I think it comes down to this question: do you want more people to play with?

It's not about keeping the game the same; it's been changing for 50+ years. And I do reject your initial premise that these fantasy worlds "need" evil. I'm sure you've heard of plenty of people who pay lip service to alignments and do just fine. People have always argued about what's "evil", and have always made exceptions, probably since before Drizzt. I even enjoy a good abstract argument now and then about these things. It's like any other geeky pastime. So I'm going to ignore that.

The reason why I think WotC is making this decision, and why I agree with it personally, comes down to my initial question: do you want more people to play with?

If you look around you, and everyone you see looks like you, then you probably don't care either way. That was me for the first 18 years of my life. Then I left home and eventually moved to the other side of the US, and now some of the people around me don't look like me at all. So I've probably just had years to get used to the idea. But I love having people at the gaming table who don't look like me, and most importantly don't think like me. It makes for more unexpected and interesting developments.

Many people (including myself) created their first character in their own image (but better!). But if you can't find your own likeness in the game (except for bad guys), you might be inclined to think the game isn't for you. And any time someone says "D&D just isn't for me" is a missed opportunity.

At the end of the day, this decision by WotC is a marketing decision, but I think it's a smart decision, because if they manage to get more people playing the game, there will be more blogs, more experimentation, more materials, more discussions, more adventures, and more players to play with. We'll all be richer for it. If you don't like a change they make, just homebrew it back, the way people have been doing for decades anyway. This is no different.

Matt Colville says it better than I can. I lifted some of the ideas straight from his video:
D&D has had strong female characters and good guys of different races for many years. One of the most prominent characters in D&D lore is a good guy who is “black”, Drizzt. I don’t think that the propsed changes will lead to a sudden influx of more people to play with, who were only held back back a lack of representation in the game.

Different activities simply appeal to different people. There are socio-economic factors as well as cultural factors. A Tiger Woods can only do so much to make golf more appealing to minorities, they simply see it as a waste of time. D&D has a strong history of being for “nerds”, which does a lot more to keep girls away than any sexism of rules or players.
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