Races are racist
In the real world, advances in genetics have led to the discovery that humans are in fact *not* divided into different races. There are now various DNA ancestry tests available, and nearly everybody outside of Iceland is of "mixed race", if you wanted to apply the outdated racial classifications of the last century. In the real world, no other humanoid races like elves, dwarves, halflings, or orcs exist.
Humanoid races do exist in fantasy literature, and from there these races have been integrated right from the start into the first versions of fantasy role-playing games, Dungeons & Dragons. And in the context of such games, it makes total sense that the fantasy race of your character has some sort of consequences. If you have a system that describes characters with numerical stats like strength, constitution, dexterity, and intelligence, and you have fantasy races that already visually appear very different, it is only logical to combine that. A dwarf *looks* as if he would have more constitution and less dexterity than an elf. An orc *looks* stronger and less intelligent than a gnome. So for over 40 years, Dungeons & Dragons had a character creation system in which your choice of race affected your stats, and that sort of system propagated to many other RPGs both tabletop and computer.
In the real world, discrimination and stereotypes based on origin certainly exist. As a German living in Belgium, people just assume certain things about me, based on their stereotypical thinking about "how Germans are". Stereotypes are frequently completely wrong, and when they contain a kernel of truth it is only of statistical relevance, and doesn't give you any information about any given individual. While many stereotypes are relatively harmless (e.g. "Germans are organized and punctual"), others are certainly not (e.g. "Mexicans are rapists"). People of different origins have been persecuted because of their origin at different places during different times, from simple internment to full-blown genocide. And stereotypes have usually played a role in that discrimination, as a means of justification of the persecution.
But fantasy worlds are not the real world. There is room for moral ambiguity in fantasy worlds (e.g. was Tyrion Lannister justified to kill his father with a crossbow on the toilet?). But there is a sub-genre of high fantasy which is all about the combat of good vs. evil. It necessitates the creation of an evil population that makes up the army of the big bad buy. And because this population has been *created* to play the role of the evil minions, them being considered evil is not a stereotype or a discrimination; it is their raison d'etre, the purpose of their creation. If you consider Sauron to be just misunderstood and the orcs he created for his army to be really nice guys, the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy doesn't make any sense anymore.
Nevertheless the thought police of the real world has been attacking Dungeons & Dragons for having fantasy races that are either evil, or have negative stat modifiers. Somehow an orc being described as evil and stupid is considered some sort of dog whistle or hidden reference to some real population which has been stereotyped as evil and/or stupid. While Tolkien certainly meant no offense (except possibly to Germans), and the actual populations in question certainly don't feel any offense when watching a Lord of the Rings movie, it is enough that some overly sensitive academic with nothing better to do with his life is triggered by a hypothetically possible offense.
It is a sign of the times in which artists live in constant fear of being attacked for slights they never intended that Wizards of the Coast in the first playtest material for One D&D removes stat modifiers from races. In the new version of Dungeons & Dragons, choosing your race is mostly cosmetic. Orcs aren't strong anymore, instead they "count as one Size larger when determining your carrying capacity and the weight you can push, drag, or lift.". And to avoid comparative negative stat discrimination, positive stat bonuses are gone as well. The "2-3 feet tall" halflings are now just as strong as the "6-7 feet tall" orcs, in order to avoid racial discrimination. We will have gnomish barbarians and orc wizards.
I am not sure what purpose races serve in a fantasy role-playing game if there isn't actually any difference between them. If they are all the same and lack profile, races have been effectively removed in order to appease the thought police. But races remain nominally in the game, because a much bigger part of the D&D customer base would be deeply offended if you'd just remove all fantasy races. It is a bad compromise that will make nobody happy. The thought police will still be triggered by the mere existence of the word "race" in the rulebook. And the players will have lost interesting options in character creation. Can't we just admit that the real world is complicated, and be allowed some refuge in much simpler fantasy worlds?
No orcs were hurt or offended in the making of this blog post.
Labels: Dungeons & Dragons